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Character Study

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John Wayne and Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

So there I sat, unable to endure one more second of yet another Republican hack lying into the teevee camera about their health care plan. So I channel-surfed my way over to the classic movie channel, and playing there, like a gift from the Flying Spaghetti Monster herself, was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Goddess what a great movie! This is an adult film, a western for grown-ups. I saw it when it was first released in 1962 and I was a kid in college. I knew even then that I was watching greatness but I couldn’t say exactly why. Now, watching it again, I understand a little more.

When I was preparing to write this post, I read a few reviews  of the film (Roger Ebert’s review has a plot summary and some astute remarks about John Ford’s work as its director at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-man-who-shot-liberty-valance-1962). Aside from Ebert’s, most reviews I found were full of movie-critic cant, opining either that Liberty Valance represents Ford’s sad farewell to the Old West, or, alternatively, his welcoming of a less violent, more socialized New West. Well, yeah, okay.

For my money the very coolest aspect of the film is the performances that Ford got from his cast. John Wayne is actually good here–he’s not phoning it in as he sometimes did. Ford shows us in shot after shot just how big Wayne was;  he dwarfs Jimmy Stewart, the ostensible hero, and he quite literally spills over every chair he sits in or table he leans on. His goddam hat fills up the kitchen of the restaurant where most of the opening scenes appear. This attention to Wayne’s out-sized person subtly undermines the title of the film when we learn at its end that his character is, indeed, its hero–although nobody knows that.

The critics give most of their attention to Wayne’s and Stewart’s performances, but to do so is to miss some of the best character work I’ve seen in American cinema. There’s a wonderful scene where Liberty Valance and his goons invade the restaurant, generally raising hell and messing with all the straight folks in the place. The camera centers on Lee Marvin (as Valance) so that you don’t realize until they move out of his shadow that his goons are played by (no less than) Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin!

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Martin delivers one of his patented insane-drooling-bad guy performances here, jumping up and down, grinning and giggling while Valance beats the shit out of someone. Van Cleef plays his usual lowering self (this movie was made well before he became an anti-hero); nonetheless he proves to be the most sane member of the gang. That’s because the real menace of this bunch is punched onto the screen by Lee Marvin. (You can get some inkling of his power even from the still photo). As played by Marvin, Liberty Valance has no redeeming features whatever. Even the mention of his name scares the shit out of the townspeople, and when Marvin actually shows up, dirty, disheveled, and brandishing a horsewhip, we see why.

Woody Strode also delivers a memorable performance.  He plays the faithful

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sidekick, of course, but he makes the most of this tired schtick by endowing Pompey, his character, with dignity and strength. Ford sets up a poignant scene in the town schoolroom where Strode, flanked by a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, is asked by Stewart to read the passage from the Declaration of Independence that assures us that all men are created equal. Strode’s delivery of the lines beautifully underscores the irony of his situation as Wayne’s minion, possibly still a slave.

The movie features a few other, smaller, performances that are also worth watching:  Miles as the illiterate, hard-working woman who jilts Wayne’s character for Stewart’s;  Edmund O’Brien as the drunken newspaper owner who delivers speeches worthy of Shakespeare, Andy Devine as the cowardly marshal who is frightened by his own shadow, and Jeanette Nolan as the Swedish owner of the restaurant.

This film felt as fresh to me yesterday as it did when I was eighteen. I wonder if a contemporary director could get so many fine actors to share the screen with one another as Ford did here.

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Well, we’ve cast the Black Knight. But who will play the role of King Arthur? Vlad? The Rethugs?

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Early this morning I watched “The Golden Globes,” which I taped last night so as to skip the interminable commercials. I usually skip through acceptance speeches as well, thus shortening a three-hour experience to about an hour’s worth of pictures of handsome people and some hints about which new movies and TV shows are worth watching.

But I didn’t skip past the talk given by Meryl Streep, who won the Cecil B. DeMille award, and who was brilliant in “Florence Foster Jenkins” this year. I’m glad I didn’t.  In her subtle way, Streep tore Trump a new one. Here is part of what she said:

“But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good.  It was — there was nothing good about it — but it was effective and it did its job,” she said.

“It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie,” added Streep of Trump’s impersonation. “It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/01/08/meryl-streep-called-out-donald-trump-at-the-golden-globes-read-her-speech-here/?utm_term=.2efb6034b280).

That is a spot-on analysis of a serious danger Trump poses to our country. He exemplifies–enacts–the abuse of power, whether that power can be exerted by men over women, adults over children, whites over people of color, able people over the disabled, natives over foreigners. All such abuse is life-threatening, not always in the sense of actual loss of life, but in the sense that such incidents and expressions of negative attitudes take the joy and possibility out of living.

As if to illustrate Streep’s very point, Trump tweeted this morning that she is “an over-rated actress,” along with others of his typical attempts to demean his critics and/or change the subject.

Over-rated? Anyone who has seen Streep’s best performances (“Sophie’s Choice” or “Doubt”) knows that she earned those 30 Globes and 19 Oscar nominations with hard work and talent. Both are features of human being with which Trump seems totally unfamiliar.

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You know, back in the old days when we liked a TV show, we had to show up on time each and every week when it aired. If “Wagon Train” aired on Sunday night at seven, butts had to be in chairs on Sunday night at seven, popcorn already popped and readily to hand. We had to stay with each episode until the end–no pausing for bathroom breaks or fast forwarding through commercials. And if we missed an episode, we had to wait until summer reruns to see it. Once. There was no such thing as recording a TV episode until some 25 years after Ward Bond had shuffled off this mortal coil.

 

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Robert Horton and Ward Bond in costume for “Wagon Train”

Today, though, if I want to see Robert Horton in his tightey buckskins, I can flip over to the Westerns channel, and there he is–every day. And if that isn’t enough, he and Ward Bond are no doubt available on disc or somewhere in the ether–streamed or downloadable, whatever.

But those improvements are definitely NOT the best part of contemporary video technology. No, the best part is the possibility of binge-watching. Today I can watch ALL of “Wagon Train” in as many sittings as my schedule (and my butt) will allow, start to finish. For those of us who are readers, this new possibility is to be relished. Now developments in plot and characterization can be installed in a series by its writers and savored over time by its fans, just as they can in a novel.

If you’ve ever binge-watched an old series like “Wagon Train” (1957-1965) you can readily see how the scripting differs from that of a contemporary series; those old episodes were written to be enjoyed in an hour’s time. Hence the relationship between, say, Bond’s and Horton’s characters did not change much over the  course of a season or the series, so much so that when Bond died in 1960, the series replaced him with John McIntire without offering so much as a narrative explanation.

“The Fugitive” (1963-1967) was the first TV series to attempt a running story, but that story was limited to Richard Kimball’s recurring attempts to find the murderer of his wife and prove his innocence. But that’s not much on which to hang a storyline–if you binge-watch that series today, what you get is a series of riffs on a basic narrative pattern:  the fugitive moves to a new town, gets work, is discovered and must flee. In each episode new  actors fill tried and true roles–the woman who becomes interested in the handsome stranger in town, the suspicious sheriff, the child who befriends the fugitive, and so on.

Not so with contemporary TV narrative, which has adapted to technological developments. The first show I binge-watched was “The X-files” (1993-2002), but I did so season by season because it was then available only on disc. But I loved those discs as they were issued each year because they made it possible to appreciate the skill with which the show’s writers picked up themes and reworked them over time. The X-files is, in fact, a combination of new and old narrative TV structures–there are stand-alone episodes, usually “monsters of the week” as well as an overarching storyline called “the mythology.” And there was also the deepening relationship between the lead players, which became more compelling when episodes could be watched back-to-back.

Today, of course, one can binge-watch just about any show that was, or remains, popular. The dictionary defines “binge” as “indulgence in an activity to excess.” Fittingly, I just finished a two-week binge watching the six seasons of Downton Abbey–which is itself a tribute to Edwardian excess.

 

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Here is the Downton Abbey of the series, which is an actual castle called Highclere. As you can see, the building is itself a paeon to excess. Its interiors are no less glamorous, as are the series’ cast:

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The premise of the show is, ostensibly, that both upper and working classes had difficulty adapting to modern times. Nevertheless its author, Julian Fellowes, is clearly more enamored of upper-class Edwardian manners and possessions (and they are undeniably gorgeous) than he is with treating the downstairs “family” members with equal sympathy. (This photo, for example, shows only four members of the downstairs staff, symbolically standing at the margins)

OTOH, Fellowes is a good-enough narrative artist to keep me hooked over a two-week period (when I should have been reading Akhil Amar’s book on the Constitution, for reasons that are made apparent on the nightly news, or writing a review of an essay on memory, which failure has an ironic overtone all by itself).

Mention of these tasks has reminded me that while I did not set out to write a review of Downton, I am dangerously close to doing so. So here I take my leave, my narrative left inartfully dangling.

 

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No Excuses Now!

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Good news for ‘philes!  The X-files has now been transferred to Blu-ray.

Eat the Corn.com tells me that the transfer process was difficult given that the original broadcast used VHS. So the folks who put the Blu-ray together had to go back to the original film and transfer all nine seasons, plus two movies, onto Blu-ray.

By Corn‘s account, the results are spectacular. You can buy each season from Amazon for $14.99, and the whole package (including the movies) can be had for a measly $265!  I imagine that only videophiles are willing to pay those prices. I’m happy enough with the versions that appear on my fire-stick, which are somewhat better than those produced by DVDs, even on a Blu-ray player.

I’ve been watching the X-files intermittently for the last two weeks. I’m trying to finish a project I started way back in the early ‘nineties–preparing a list of episode synopses for Trep in the hope I might entice her into watching some of them.

The dolls in the picture were manufactured by Mattel back when Mulder and Scully were hot properties. I think I still have a copy of these dolls packed away in a storage closet (unless I gave them away). If I still have them I should get them out and display them in order to celebrate the new series, which debuts on January 24.

Or maybe I should sell them. I bet they’d pay for cat food for a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Force-full Holiday

 

forceawakens4-xlargeThe Deserts and I celebrated Christmas by seeing the new Star Wars film and sharing a great dinner afterward. This movie was not our first choice, but those we actually wanted to see–Trumbo, Spotlight–were not available at multiplexes near our corner of the universe.

So off we went to the Galactic Empire. We were not disappointed; the film is as good as most critics say it is. The scenery is awesome;  the music is orchestral; the characters–old and new–are as well developed as the plot demands.

The theater was packed, mostly with olds and children (we went to an early afternoon showing). Apparently the franchise still has fans, like me, who saw the original in 1977, old folks who could be drawn out of our comfortable living rooms on a chilly Christmas day by a much-ballyhooed sequel.

I hope I’m not spoiling when I notice that the plot of Force Awakens is in many respects similar to that of the first (now fourth) entry in the series, The New Hope. There’s a crowded bar featuring members of exotic species; cute robots; fast aircraft shot in a style reminiscent of ‘fifties war movies; and a galactic-level clash between good guys and bad guys. Among the former are Han and Chewy, whose appearance on screen was greeted with applause.

The similarities in plot were no doubt intentional in order to gratify long-time fans. Or they may have had something to do with the mythical nature of the main narrative–a hero (finally–a woman!) on a journey finds out who her father is, etc. My having recently watched the original films was helpful in bringing me up to speed–I was reminded, for example, that Luke and Leia are siblings, and that Darth Vader is their father.

After the movie was over and everyone visited the restroom, we made our way over to my house, where we indulged in some delicious lasagna from Omaha Steaks and a home-made waldorf salad.  All in all, a great way to spend a Christmas holiday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scyfy‘s Sunday lineup is richly speciated, if nothing else. Today’s movies are:  “Dinoshark,” “Sharktopus,” “Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda,” “Sharktopus v. Whalewolf,” and “Piranhaconda.”

No doubt this trend represents the postmodern taste for pastiche.

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