Clint Eastwood’s much-honored “Unforgiven”

In his multi-Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” (1992). Clint Eastwood’s still blows everyone away in the end—or is it the whiskey shooting? No one can say that Eastwood tried to mask aging on screen here.

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Eastwood played William Munny, a once-vicious outlaw and killer who had retired to farming in Kansas and raising two children (his wife/their mother is dead), who comes out of retirement for that movie cliché “one last job,” to earn a $1,000 reward offered to whomever can kill “Quick Mike” and “Davey-Boy” Bunting, two cowboys who disfigured a woman named Delilah Fitzgerald

In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, gunslinger “English Bob” (Harris) and his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) turn up. English Bob is disarmed my the sheriff, “Little Bill” Daggett (Hackman), a gunslinger who has gone straight, but is still a tough and sometimes vicious enforcer of the law (which he defines as he sees fit). “Little Bill” savagely beats “English Bob” before ejecting him from town.

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Though there is a lot of violence, including yet another instance of Eastwood absorbing a lot of punishment before the final shootout, I think the movie is more a critique of violence than a celebration of it. As in the work of Eastwood’s de facto mentors as a director (the film has a dedication to Serge [Leone] and Don [Siegel], who largely forged his steely, laconic persona), critique/celebration is uncertain.

In addition to the impressive acting, the film featured Oscar-winning editing by Joel Cox (who had already edited nine movies directed by Eastwood and a couple of more starring him) and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Jack N. Green (who had already shot half a dozen movies directed by Eastwood).

“Unforgiven” is very well crafted, but is it a great film? Not in comparison to “The Wild Bunch.” In some ways “The Wild Bunch” was more romantic and had more gratuitous violence than “Unforgiven,” but it has an epic/tragic sweep that “Unforgiven” does not—and the wild bunch didn’t shoot their way out against impossible odds in the end. In the final gunfight Eastwood should at least be wounded by Hackman (who earlier kicked the sh_t out of him).

“The Unforgiven” is the best western to win a best-picture Oscar (“Cimarron” and “Dances with Wolves” are the others), but I don’t think is even in contention as “best western” (competition for “The Wild Bunch” includes “The Searchers,” “Fort Apache,” the latter two both directed by John Ford, George Stevens’s Shane,” and Howard Hawks’s “Red River” and “Rio Bravo”).

©1994, Stephen O. Murray

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Desperate for success in San Francisco

Slater Brown, the protagonist of Rodes Fishburne’s 2009 debut novel, Going to See the Elephant, probably would have brought Tom Wolfe to my mind even if there wasn’t a blurb from Wolfe on the book’s front cover. Brown is desperate for success. He has included that the authors regarded as great had published something important by the age of 29.

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Brown had published one poem — in a special issue of the Bartelby Review devoted to dyslexic writers. He arrives in San Francisco with enough money to devote days to writing the Great American Novel. He jots down reflections on how to start a novel, but doesn’t start one. Like many, he aspires to be a writer (indeed a great writer) without actually writing.

He finds lodging with Mrs. Cagliostra, a empowering maternal landlady who believes in her tenant and who seems cut from the same cloth as Armistead Maupin’s Mrs. Madrigal. And Slater Brown is hired as a reporter on what has become a weekly newspaper. The Daily Trumpet has survived from the 19th century primarily because it owns a building. With typical sloppiness, the address of the office building would place is inside the venerable Palace Hotel (now the Sheraton Palace).

Brown finds that in riding electric busses around the city, his transistor radio picks up phone conversations. This is a sort of interesting idea, though it seems to me that as with government surveillance, the signal-to-noise ratio would be impossibly low. That is, any scandalous revelations would be difficult to pick out of the cacophony of banalities of hundreds of thousands of phone conversations.

Also, there is something very old-fashioned about (1) the conversations going through overhead phone lines rather than cellphones, (2) getting the news scoops out in a newspaper, and (3) the bloated mayor-for-life. Mayor Tucker Oswell seems positively 19th-century a figure of fun, though in “Sunny Jim” Rolph, San Francisco had a mayor for nineteen years (Rolph resigned to take office as governor).

The Daily Trumpet has too little revenue before Brown’s scoops boost circulation to have a website. That and a move toward solar-powered busses suggest that the novel is supposed to be set in the present day. This makes it very odd that there are no cell phones. And even decades ago, Maupin put Mary Ann on tv (even as his tales were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, as 19th-century novels often were…)

This is particularly remarkable when Slater is locked out on a roof by the father of his inamorata, a chess whiz named Calliope (Callio for short–not Cali?).

Yes, there is a romance along with the sudden success story that allows Slater Brown to dress like Tom Wolfe and be invited into Social Register parties as Truman Capote once was on the other coast. And there is Milo, a possibly mad inventor who wants to become literally a weather maker.

The romance is formulaic, the superinventor a caricature of a caricature. The plots interlock. Alas, none of them is plausible to me. And the “local color” is so often off that I wonder if Fishburne is familiar with San Francisco.

I picked out the book in part because it is set in my hometown, but the implausibility of Fishburne’s San Francisco details was far from my only disappointment. There were some bits that amused me (more promoting snickers than belly laughs), but the ending is particularly flat, especially for an attempt at screwball comedy mixed with political satire à la Preston Sturges’s “The Great McGinty.”

BTW, the title is an expression originally applied to the Gold Rush of 1849. The elephant was fame and fortune there for the picking for those going west.

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

 

Depoliticizing The English Patient

The film of The English Patient changes largely obliterated the politics from the Booker Prize-winning novel: removing any mention of Hiroshima and the struggle for independence in India, and providing the count a romantic motive for co-operating with the Germans beyond bitterness at his incarceration when Katherine might have been saved. In the book, the count realizes that if he had given her name to the British instead of his, they might have done something to reach her. The Caravaggio of the book is older, calmer, a friend of Hana’s father (in Toronto, not Montréal) than Willem Dafoe’s character in the movie. And the relations of Kip (a turbaned Naveen Andrews in the movie) to British mentors and subordinates has been cut. The adulterous passion within the Libyan mapping expedition is the centerpiece of the film, while Kip’s training with Lord Suffolk is the centerpiece of the book (more woman’s picture, man’s book would be another way to put it). Both are masterpieces, with different focuses and different strengths (the desert cinematography and fullness of milieux along with brilliant acting in contrast to better understanding of motivation and brilliant writing).

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Having reread the book today after seeing the film last night, I don’t understand how the book can be “so beautifully written as to be unreadable.” I found it compulsively readable with plenty of suspense (neither is lacking in plots!) and not at all overwritten. Rather, written with great spareness and great force.

Aside from John Seale’s gorgeous cinematography of the Sahara (Tunisian and Libyan) and the spectacular views of frescoes by torch (flashlight) when Kip hoists Hana (Juliet Binoche) on ropes in the church in Siena, the film shows Kip’s (Naveen Andrews’s) flowing hair (when freed from his turban) and his hairy chest with enormous dark nipples. I also like to see the English group leader (Wilcox, played by Julian Wadham) in khaki shorts and black leather jacket. Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Juliette Binoche are not hard on the eyes, either (though Thomas seems bony in her nude scene). Not to mention that they can act and bring these characters to life on the screen..

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There was really a Hungarian Laszlo E. de Almásy, who wrote a (spare) 97-page monograph entitled Recentes explorations dans le Desert Libyque (1932-1936).

The film reports that Wilcox committed suicide when he learned that Almásy was a spy (i.e., for patriotic reasons), whereas the book character commits suicide in despair at British jingoism. In fact, Almásy (Ondaatje’s character anyway) was not a spy. Colfax was. That is, it was British Intelligence who infiltrated the expedition (and watched Almásy having an affair with the wife of one of their agents). Almásy and Wilcox were in the desert through the time that Hitler came to power.

I guess that the Germans shooting down the plane is a bow to denationalizing Almásy, but the film totally occludes the anti-European, anti-European nationalisms slant of the book.

 

©1996, Stephen O. Murray

 

Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part II”

Reading Henry IV, Part 2 (yet again), in my head I can still hear John Gielgud anguished about how he came to the throne and what will follow his imminent death in Welles’s “Falstaff,” I can see his breath—and also see the other characters, not least Welles himself. Is Prince Hal a parricide, speeding both his fathers to their graves (his biological father reassured, his drinking companion hearbroken) with some degree of intention? There are plenty of foreshadowings of reformation (and the concomitant deposition of Falstaff) in both Henry IV plays.

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The subterfuge by which John of Lancaster gets the Archbishop of York and his confederates to disperse the rebel troops, then seizes and executes them is less than honorable, recalling the blood of Richard II on his father’s hands and his brother’s the slaughtering of the prisoners at Agincourt to come in Henry V.

Warwick in IV.4 understands that the prince is exploring disorder better to govern it later, yet seems to have forgotten his insight in V.2. There is a lack of relationship between the good younger brothers and the sort of prodigal returned (although he could not take his inheritance of the crown in advance and does not leave the kingdom he will inherit).

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Henry III (John Gielfud) and Prince Hal (Keith Baxter” in Orson Welles’s “Falstaff”

I am convinced that Falstaff is impotent (“cannot go” I.2173. Poins: “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?” II.v.267-8).

I don’t interpret Falstaff calling the crowned king “Jove” as casting himself as Saturn (but as the ruler), and attend more to “my heart” (V.5.48 in the exclamation that brings down the withering rejection of “the tutor and feeder of my riots”).

My attention was also grabbed by “the juvenal, the Prince, your master, whose chin is not yet fledge” (Falstaff at I.2.20-21) the conventional marker of a still-desirable youth. Hal does not otherwise seem like a Ganymede.

I don’t know what to make of “I am the fellow with the great belly, and he [Prince Hal] my dog” (Falstaff to the Chief Justice in discussing who misleads whom, I.2.150-1).

 

© 1996, Stephen O. Murray

Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale”

I do not see how anyone could read Shakespeare’s late play ‘The Winter’s Tale” (first published in 1623) as “placid.” Antigonus being slain by a bear is not a usual transition for a courtier to the pastoral! The first three acts constitute a tragedy of jealousy (Leontes has no Iago—Camillo is Iago’s antithesis— his paranoia bout being cuckolded is spontaneous) followed by the next generation’s romance, which the audience knows reconciles the estranged former friends. Romeo and Juliet starts as a comedy and ends as a tragedy (as, more murkily, does Troilus and Cressida); The Winter’s Tale starts as a tragedy and ends as a comedy. I am disappointed that the climactic reconciliation scene is told rather than showed, even if another happy ending is still to come.

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(Hermione reviving from having been a statue)

 

I am not convinced that Leontes is a character and not a type. What I find most striking is the contrast between the view of adolescence of the old shepherd who finds and rears Perdita and Polixenes, (her future father-in-law talking to her mother Hermione before Perdita’s birth). The shepherd wishes that “there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty” or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting” (3.3.58-62), while Polixenes recalls a male-male paradise before the temptations of (owning?) women intruded:”Temptations have since been born to ‘s (1.2.78). In contrast,

We were as twinned lambs, that did frisk i’ th’ sun,

and bleat the one at th’ oher; what we [ex]changed

Was innocence for innocence; we knew not

The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed

That any did… (1.2.66-71).

It is Leontes who has since then tripped and jealousy unhinges him—to the extent of defying the judgment of Apollo and living long after to regret his badness (madness?) before undeservedly having friend, daughter, and wife restored.

(The more deserving Paulina is also to wed the wise Camillo who went with Polixenes when Leontes was going to murder Polixenes.)

©1996, Stephen O. Murray

Donald Keene in San Francisco, 1996

I went to a lecture by Donald Keene (born in Brooklyn in 1922) at the Miyako. He speaks entertainingly and modestly. He is even shorter than I imagined and has some New York accent. I think he’s probably a queen, but am not entirely certain.

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(Keene in 2002, photographed by Aurelio Asiain)

He said that the two people he’s known whom he considers geniuses are Arthur Waley and Mishima Yukio, because he can’t imagine how anyone can do what they did. Specifically, in Waley’s case, translate Genji monogatori, in Mishima’s, write non-stop in final form without correcting anything. He recalled a wartime student of Waley’s saying something about the ambiguities of Heian Japanese, and his being startled, exclaiming “I never found it so!” He also told someone that he thought it should be possible to learn Japanese in about a month. Even if he meant to learn to read Japanese for someone who could read Chinese, this is an astonishing estimate.

He finds Lafcadio Hearn repellent (racist) though an acute observer. In that his reminisces were about Americans discovering Japanese literature, I asked about The Chrysanthemum and the Sword as an explanation of Japanese culture to America. He didn’t answer my question about its role, but responded to my preamble, by saying that he has high regard for the book. When it was translated in Japanese, many Japanese were unhappy with it and tried to assail it, but have not shaken its foundations, which despite the great difficulties of working from America with Issei who mostly had left long ago, he considers generally sound, beautifully written, and an impressive accomplishment of understanding another culture.

He credits Kurosawa’s film of Rashomon with a major impetus to the “Japan boom” in America of the 1950s, along with Edward Seidenstecker’s translation of Some Prefer Nettles, and then the Zen fad. And he reiterated that the Nobel Prize was headed for Mishima and was sidetracked by a Northern European “expert” (who had spent two weeks in Japan and assumed from Mishima’s age that he must be a leftist!).

The contemporary female Japanese writer of whom he thinks highly (and considers likely to “last”) is Dazai’s daughter. Keene said that he mostly reads classical Japanese literature, and established writers. He regrets that he does not know the work of more younger writers (younger than Ôe Kenzaburo), but doesn’t think he can do more, only having two eyes…

© 26 February 1996, Stephen O. Murray

A mildly entertaining gangster exiled to Rhodes movie

A fish-out-of-water story from 1960 is “Surprise Package.” The fish is American gang-leader Nico March (Yul Brynner, between “The King and I” and “The Magnificent Seven”), who is deported to a Greek island. (though not named in the movie, it was filmed on Rhodes) He conspires to steal the bejeweled crown of the King of Anatolia(!) played by Nöel Coward, who was much better than he would later be as the Witch of Endor. The surprise to me is that the stripper bimbo moll as played by Mitzie Gaynor is charming and also the wisest character in the movie. I was underwhelmed by her in “South Pacific” and “Les Girls,” but she was funny trying to bring sense to her boyfriend. Brynner was dressed as if he wandered over from a production of “Guys and Dolls.” Apparently, some viewers couldn’t understand his fast talk, though it presented no problem to me.

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George Coulouris provided the menace as an agent from the People’s Republic of Anatolia, determined to recover the ancient régime’s crown jewels. And the most comic character is the Hungarian spy (Guy Deghy) who responds to Brynner unmasking him: “”Of course, I am spying on you. That’s my profession. I’m a spy!”

A silly heist comedy and a silly rom-com, yet, but pleasant mindless entertainment from Art Buchwald and Staneley Donen. (Singin’ in the Rain, Charade) Coward and Gaynor perform the title song together btw. Donen made a far more interesting road picture in “Two for the Road” with Audredy Hepburn and Albert Finney in 1967.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray