Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Pictures... "Play it Again, Clint"

Nathaniel: Once again we apologize for the long delays between episodes. This Best Picture From the Outside In series… it’s a helluva thing.


We continue to pull one movie from either end of Oscar’s chronology, working towards the center of their eighty-plus year history. This match up brings us two of Oscar’s most respected prize-winners: Casablanca (1943) and Unforgiven (1992). Both films essentially begin with a sudden eruption of violence (a shooting and a slashing, respectively) followed by the intervention of local law enforcement (embodied by Claude Rains and Gene Hackman, respectively). World War II era Morocco and Wild West era Wyoming are dangerous and morally ambiguous places. They're also fine places to escape from one's past and start anew. At least that's how Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and William Munny (Clint Eastwood) see it.

Casablanca and Unforgiven toss out key plot points and introduce multiple supporting players before they get to Bogie and Clint, their twin heavyweight champions of American masculinity. It’s almost as if the stories have to spin madly from the start to create enough centripetal force to yank these two self-contained icons away from their isolation and pull them into the action.

I appreciate Clint's deconstruction of his own mythology through William Munny in Unforgiven but in the end I think he can't get enough distance from it. He is that He is as it were. Casablanca, on the other hand, benefits enormously from the distance that its director Michael Curtiz has while he gazes at his star. Rick's reluctance to star in his own movie, Casablanca, remains wonderfully fascinating. What's more I love the incongruous artistic friction between Rick's job as host of the party (Everybody Goes to Rick's was the original title of the movie) and his actual personality as displayed throughout the movie (bitter, unknowable and more than a little self-pitying) which never seem to jibe. Casablanca remains unbeatably gripping, especially once Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) has entered the film. The western is trickier to ride with as it run in circles and occassionally veers toward great scenes. I love Unforgiven's thematic gravitas but I always feel like it's a sell out in the end, backing away from its disturbingly sober guilt to engage in old fashioned consequence-free blood spilling.

But I'm jumping too far ahead. Back to the beginning... when did you know that you loved these movies? Or if you didn't love them (gasp), where did they lose you?

Mike: Unforgiven had me with its opening crawl, about a mother's dismay that her only daughter would marry "a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition," rolling over a lonely shot, mostly silhouettes, of a man burying his wife. There's that distance you mentioned, and it crops up again and again throughout the film in super-wide establishing shots and full-body long shots. It's also there in the self-consciously artificial eloquence of the crawl and of much of the dialog; later, Little Bill will ridicule the writing of Saul Rubinek's scribe (a mirror, perhaps, of piano-playing Sam in Casablanca?), but he doesn't notice that he tends to talk like he's in a penny dreadful.

Casablanca also had me from its opening, with the staccato narration about how people come to Casablanca "to wait... and wait... and wait," followed by that amazing shot of one of the usual suspects shot to death against a huge poster of Marshal Petain, and then the amusing interlude with the pickpocket advising some unsuspecting victims to beware of people exactly like him. It's that combination of dead-serious drama, somewhat overwrought melodrama, and diverting comedy that makes the film for me: it has all the elements of a typical Hollywood production, but it all comes together in a magical, perfect film.

Nick: At no point have I known that I loved Unforgiven, though I admire parts of it very much and think it's an exceedingly handsome film much of the time. And "thematic gravitas" pretty much hits the nail on its big cardinal virtue, give or take the way in which the framings and shot sequences often do look beneath the brooding 90s cinematography as though the movie were made four decades earlier, like Sam Fuller or somebody making a nasty double-biller for The Searchers. (You can certainly imagine Fuller opening a movie with this ghastly, misogynist violence, though his approach would have been even less timid.)

But I'm going to disproportionately focus on my misgivings, because the film's reputation always strikes me as excessive to its strengths. I agree with Nathaniel that Clint never manages enough distance from his own iconicity, partly because his acting feels so inadequate to the task. I rarely feel, despite the curdled force of the filmmaking in William Munny's two encounters with Gene Hackman's Bill Daggett, that this character has really transcended a past life of odious heartlessness, or that he's been pulled fully back in, or that it was all that difficult for him to get pulled back in, if that's what's happened. For sure the film's essay about corrosive violence works, but I just don't buy the arc it's supposed to have. At times, Eastwood's line readings border on the disastrous, but even when he's solid, he's often a mouthpiece for the film's assertions about William Munny while actually embodying someone too much like Clint Eastwood, and blurrily so: waffling between the aloofness of his most famous characterizations and the grotty naturalism that the script seems to require.

On that point, I've gotta add that, Hackman's Oscar notwithstanding, the unevenness of the film's other performances - a chronic problem in better and worse Eastwood pictures - limits the power of this one. And as marvelously as the film resuscitates a late 40s / mid 50s shooting and editing style, I often feel (as I do not in Million Dollar Baby) that the film sticks itself with unnecessary shots and some repetitive scenes, especially as Eastwood, Freeman, and Woolvert make their way to Big Whiskey. A lot of people lionize the "classical" filmmaking as though it's automatically tremendously succinct and disciplined, or vindicated in every respect by relations to past masters, and I just don't think it always is.

Mike: Just nudging back in: I think the film's uncertainty about whether Munny's transcended his past life of odious heartlessness is the point, and Munny shares that uncertainty; his constant "I've changed! I've changed! I'm not like that!" is a bit of a Munny doth protest too much. He's trying to convince himself and everyone around him, but I never really buy it: he's always full of fear of himself; he knows what kind of person he is, even if he doesn't want to be that person. He knows that all it will take is a little too much to drink or an encounter with someone who doesn't believe his protestations to let everything loose again. He's like a guy who joined a monastery disguised as a pig farm to hide from his addiction to chaos, and his incessant talk about dear departed Claudia is like a repetitive recitation of the rosary. I think that's why the super-Munny who emerges during the shootout at the end didn't throw me very much, because I saw that underneath the surface the whole time.

Humble Pig Farmer or No Good Killer?

Nick: Whereas I believe Eastwood's projection of what Munny "really is" only marginally more than his borderline-amateurish performance as Munny the pig farmer (which is too clumsy to me to work as a reflection of Munny's own ill-suitedness to that task). Beyond a few choice shots and moments, I don't feel the odious heartlessness, the addiction to chaos, the super-Munny, or the desperate self-convincing. I absolutely agree with you that the script works exactly as you say, but what all the moody sepia underlighting in the world and all the stark silhouettes against a tub-colored sky can't do (for me), and what Eastwood's acting wholly fails to do, is to put real conviction and emotional plausibility into the admirably ambitious, tragic pitch of these character beats. I actually buy Frankie's soul sickness and sour temper in Million Dollar Baby much more than what's going on with Munny... and speaking of protesting too much, I worry that in stacking so many chips in the square of Munny As Tragic Figure and Story As Morality Parable, the film almost totally misses the more immediate premise, swatted right in the character's name, that he's doing all this because he flat needs the cash.

Break the tie, Nathaniel!

Nathaniel: Unnhhh....I realize you're pushing your reservations to the forefront rather than focusing on what you do love about it, just for conversation's sake. But if I'm breaking a tie it doesn't come down in the movie's favor. BUT I mostly like the movie I should quickly add, for fear that it's über fans come at me with guns a blazin.

I love Mike's assertion that the monster is always still lurking and the man doth protest too much but I hadn't realized until reading your objections Nick, that what was missing for me was that kind of spine-tingling amorality/savagery that suddenly makes you uncomfortable with your pre-existing love for the iconic star you've come to see: I'm thinking of a couple of Daniel Day-Lewis moments in There Will be Blood or that beating scene in Bugsy where the otherwise charming and suave Warren Beatty suddenly seems considerably less human while shouting at a victim with blood streaming down his face. (Remember that?)

I also think the bookend scrawls spoil it. That is so hedging your bets. Especially with the sunset. It's as if Unforgiven knows that deep down it is a super impressively disturbing movie but it doesn't want to offend anyone who might need more in the way of catharsis and redemption or don't want to worry so much about how much they enjoy watching Clint Eastwood kill people. I guess I wanted more in the performance and in the movie that was tough to stomach. No pun intended but I'm thinking of the scene where the guy gets shot in his. You just have to deal with his howling and his bleeding and his terror about dying while everyone else in the scene is reduced to the uncomfortable act of seeing and hearing him expire. Great stuff.

Nick: The toughest thing for me to stomach in the movie is the scene where Eastwood, still a stranger in Big Whiskey, is so pitifully hunched under his hat in the bar, and Hackman is goading him for his firearms and fixing to show him some Daggett-style justice. There's something bracing about the scene's stress on Daggett's absolutism and about the way the shots, the edits, and Eastwood's body evoke how coiled up, angry, ambivalent, and outmatched Munny is in this moment. I wish the opening assault on Delilah resonated quite this much, or Ned's apprehension and murder, but the sloppy casting and directing of the women keeps slaking the force of the outraged-women plotline. Frankly, I worry that the film can't think or feel its way all the way these crimes; it uses them too much as plot devices that get a little overwhelmed by the thick, heavy atmosphere, and it verges on a cynical use of victimized women and a somewhat timidly coded lynching as another one of those crutches on which rests the re-emergence of Eastwood the Avenger that worries Nathaniel at the end.

I'm totally leaving it up to you to trust that I like this film much more than I'm admitting, but I find its flaws almost as galling as its almost instant canonization. I'll happily concede that the
acerbic challenges to Western mythology in the Hackman/Rubinek scenes almost works better for me than some of the foreground Will Munny stuff, and it's a much more engrossing second-tier storyline than I had remembered.

Whereas the 'second-tier' stuff in Casablanca is not only perfectly matched to the headlining relationship between Rick and Ilsa, but I can barely find a single thing in the movie that isn't enriched by its connections to everything else in the movie.

Nathaniel: Absolutely. I suffer forgetfulness when it comes to Casablanca, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise; every time I've seen the movie it's like my first screening of it. The thing that struck me most this time was, in fact, the secondary elements and how they reflect back on and complicate the main triangle of Rick, Ilsa and Victor. Like the young couple I had completely forgotten about, the impoverished Bulgarians.

Should the Mrs. sleep with Renault (Claude Rains) to get exit visas and hide it from the Mr. forever? Posing this indelicate question to Rick, he is brusque and judgmental 'Go back to Bulgaria'.

Nick: He is incredibly peremptory, occasionally even cruel, for a protagonist we are obviously meant to admire. And it’s not as though Bogie is downplaying Rick’s unpleasant qualities, which is impressive in and of itself. But you were saying…

Nathaniel: ...that just as soon as he's bolted from all that projected sexual guilt and marital protectiveness, he's confronted with Ilsa and Rick, reentering his club. He rudely reminds Ilsa of her own hidden indiscretions with a reference to Paris and then he's bolting out of there too and back to the Bulgarians to do what amounts to a good dead. And then he's off again, (this movie is as restless as Rick himself) this time colliding with Renault, the villain in this particular scenario. But, that's so murky, because the movie is continually asking us to equate Rick with Renault (in spirit if not in temperament) each of them reigning over their own amoral fiefdoms.

Now, the situations and the characters are not at all perfect mirrors of one another (which is how clumsier movies often aim for this same effect) but we're still talking about a man of questionable motives confronted with a sexual triangle that casts a possibly harsh light on his own feelings in the other sexual triangle in which a woman has been unfaithful to a husband that she shields as much as she can.

Nick: Totally. And I especially agree that the recurrent doubling of Rick and Renault—which might be a “beautiful friendship,” but it’s also a pretty unnerving conflation from the audience’s point of view—is the linchpin to all of the other complex and often queasy analogies that the film suggests along the way among its characters, and their endless, tough predicaments. Even with the Lorre and Greenstreet characters, you can see little glimmers of them in Rick. If anything, he comes across as sharing Greenstreet’s curdled pragmatism at least as much as Laszlo’s idealism, and even Laszlo is weirdly icy. It’s hard to match the Henreid performance with the superlatives we keep hearing about him, even though this isn’t the kind of film that goes for the blunt irony of the notorious hero who’s actually just a cold fish, or an asshole. He’s something idiosyncratic, remote, believably hard to label. Which only gets back to how amazing it is that Casablanca trusts its audience not just to parse out all of this plot but to accept the gradations of character and compromise at almost every turn.

a beautiful friendship? or something more troubling...

Nathaniel: It's interesting to me that the movie is so widely considered one of our most romantic because in some ways it's very dry eyed about the impracticality and selfishness of passionate love. This despite all those wet eyed closeups.

Nick: Nathaniel, if you keep saying all this smart stuff, I’m not going to have anything to add except, “I know! I agree!” and Mike is going to keep being stultified into not saying anything. Stop being so quick and savvy!

I do actually think that the weird mismatch between Casablanca’s immortal commemoration as this fabulous love story and the actual experience of the movie, which involves so much ethical trade-off and compromise and emotions that are completely dictated or at least regulated by immediate circumstances… this is getting to be an overly long sentence, but don’t you think that’s part of why the movie is so hard to remember, from viewing to viewing? There’s too much cultural weight accrued to the movie people probably want Casablanca to be (the paean to a love that conquers all, and agrees to sacrifice itself for the Greater Good), that I find it hard, too, to remember all the complexity and ambivalence in the Rick-Ilsa relationship, and how peripheral it often is to so much else in the movie. It’s like, the movie is just as “on” when all the denizens of the café are duking it out with their different national anthems. And when Greenstreet or Lorre or Conrad Veidt or exceptional, marvelous, droll, and flawless Claude Rains is on the screen, there is no indication that the movie is treating them as anything less than a lead character, or principal antagonist. There’s just so much going on! Even Sam is more of a character, with a real and rounded point of view, than the backgrounded songsmith that we inevitably expect in a Hollywood film of this epoch.

Which leaves me wondering, is Casablanca so phenomenally great, and such a universally loved classic, because a) it’s able to balance a love story with so many other elements of other narratives and genres, or because b) people implicitly realize that however much we want stories about love’s simplicity and perfection, we actually need stories about the difficulties and quandaries of love, and its failure to rise up above everything else in our lives, much less to conquer it, or because c) given all the cynicism and political nervousness in Casablanca, it’s a major miracle that the love story does resonate so powerfully, and that Bogie and Bergman have such phenomenal chemistry that even though their only scenes of full, sublime connection are far, far away in a flashback, the movie is able to make that feeling available to us, in no more than a few minutes of a jam-packed film?

You can play it again... and again

Mike: I've been pondering this for a month. Honestly! How do I follow that exchange? By changing the subject.

I share Nathaniel's forgetfulness, as this feels like a new movie every time I see it. Which ties into my lame attempt to wrap this up: this time around I was paying attention to memories and their power over Rick, and that applies to Will Munny as well. "You must remember this" but neither wants to remember. Rick ran to Casablanca and his bar to escape his broken heart and his reputation as a freedom fighter, but the events of the film reveal that Rick's still as much of a bleeding heart as he ever was. Will Munny ran to a pig farm and the arms of an honest woman to escape his reputation as a cold-blooded killer, but (at least I argued) he can't escape the fact that his reputation is basically accurate. Just like you can't change the fact that the "Best Pictures from the Outside In" series is going to be plagued by long delays between installments, neither man can change his essential nature. It's an interesting pairing, especially coming after Schindler's List which presents its own mirror images, one guy who can't change what he is and another who manages to. Life and fate, predestination—I hope that's a big enough note to exit on.

Casablanca was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 3 (Picture, Director and Screenplay) but not for the acting which we raved so much about. Unforgiven was nominated for 9 and won 4 (Picture, Director, Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman and Editing) but not for the screenplay that we raved so much about.

all 16 episodes of "Best Pictures..."
A joint creation/production from Goatdog's Movies, Nick's Flick Picks and The Film Experience



Andrew K. said...

Great episode. So much to think about. I do share Nathaniel's forgetfulness about Casablanca. I know I love it between viewings, but it's not until I see it I realise it really is worth all the hype. A rarity for some classics. To Nick's question: I think we like Casablanca because of B)we need stories about love's difficulties. Still, I never see this is a love story, same way I never see Gone With the Wind as a love story...more as a story about life turning out horribly. But I digress.

It's so weird you guys talk about the distance in Unforgiven. I do appreciate it more than Eastwood's other Best pic winner, but I don't get why people are "uber-fanatics" because it just seems too calculated to me, moreso than MDB.

Whew. I have to go read this again and mull over.

Michael C. said...

Boo to your Unforgiven bashing. Boo and hiss.

I have varying degrees of reservations with all Eastwood's post-Unforgiven work but I love that film whole-heartedly.

One charge laid against the film I really must address. The claim of Eastwood's so called amateurish acting. Eastwood made the correct acting choices in the film. Mike hit the nail on the head when he said Munny was attempting to play the part of the reformed man with the unconvincing mantra of his "dear departed wife". The bad line readings were Munny's not Eastwood's.


andrew -- dark read on Casablanca. but i think you're correct that it and GWTW are far more than "love stories" though it's interesting how much that love story aspect takes over in discussions and cultural memory/ideas about the films

Michael C -- hmmmm. you think Eastwood is playing the unconvincing front rather than playing a man who is something he's pretending not to be.

i wish I agreed (i'm not as down on the performance as Nick) but i'm not sure i see that many layers to it. Maybe it's Clint's voice that, while certainly iconic and potent, doesn't seem to have that much flexibility in it interpretatively.

argh. i can't speak today.

anyway... i like the performance better than Nick does but I agree he's much better at selling the MDB role.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I guess I'm not convinced he sounds entirely different when his lines have nothing to do with his desperate conversion to his new life, and nor do all of his line-readings click when the "real" Will Munny surges back up. It's hard for me to see a great performance here, though I do think it has its strong points. Just my POV.

Michael C. said...

I see what you guys are saying.

I think our differences in opinion can be accounted for in a few things.

A) Any stiffness or limitations in Eastwood's range never bothered me in the slightest because it so perfectly fits the character. He's such an old pro in acting for the camera he lets his immense screen presence do a lot of the work, and I think it does it quite well. Any attempt from Eastwood to attempt some actorly business a la Daniel Plainview would have been disastrous.

B) I think the stilted quality of his performance early in the film is entirely intentional and is very effective in the film. Here I'm thinking about a scene like the one where he awkward leaves instructions for his kids as he departs. He is to my mind clearly going through the motions of responsibility and fatherhood as best he can. It doesn't come naturally. Him threatening to come back and kill theh whole town - that comes naturally.

C)I'm entirely convinced by his transformation into the mad dog killer, largely for reasons that bothered the two of you: It seemed like no transformation at all. Eastwood simply levels his gaze, drops his voice to a snarl, the words come much smoother and plainer (also a tribute to the excellent script). It's only the barest perceptible change in performance but the gleam in the eye is new and menacing.

There are hints of it in his campfire conversation with Freeman about the guy he killed for reasons he can't remember, and in his fever hysteria. Finally it's totally present in his the pitiless gaze in when he levels the gun on Hackman. If you're not on board by the time he lays into his chilling "everything that walks or crawls" monologue then we are simply going to disagree on this and that's all there is to it.

Still, fun hammering this out with you guys. Great write-up. I guess I'll just have to let you leave the hospitality of Big Whiskey behind you.

(Also, Richard Harris kicks in this too.)

Seeking Amy said...

What an insightful look at the two, and it totally is exactly right on about how i feel about the film particularly the romance aspect and it's pop culture perspective on it which is kinda misunderstood. The "dry eyed" fits it to a T.

And i'm so happy to see another installment from this series! I was hoping for a special edition of Birthday Suits since it's Jude Law's birthday today (and mine, I love that we share a birthday!) but this is totally a great gift to us readers - and maybe i'll pretend it was for Jude and I's birthdays too ;). Well done! I hope to see more soon!

cal roth said...

I didn't wait this long for the new episode of my favorite TFE series to read this. Are you serious? Am I supposed to take this Unforgiven bashing seriously? COME ON!

You don't have any idea what are you talking about. You don't even know (or pay attention to) Clint's own filmography to realize this isn't bad acting, and the way his characters intend, pretend or try to be are the essence of his persona and of the maisn parts of his movies.

This movie is not supposed to deconstruct any mythology: John Ford and Anthony Mann had already did that in the 50's, and Clint knows that. He was not Eastwood the Avenger since The Outlaw Josey Wales, when his character gives up his revenge and the movie ends.

There's not a single note of superheroism in the ending: William Munny does nothing supernatural. He just kills everybody how he's supposed to be like a very good gunfighter. He just had a day like his past everydays. That gunfight is not violence for pleasure, there's no "backing away" or something like that.

That's what's so disturbing about the movie and in all Eastwood's movies. If you get into violence, even when it's necessary, it'll go back to your life over and over again.

He didn't save the day, and that was no happy ending after the "hero" killed the bad guys. It's one more day, and there are no promises of peace - because there is never peace for guys like William Munny, no matter how hard they try.


well i wouldn't claim that the film has a "happy" ending. But it takes us right back to the sunset and it is, to some extent, very traditional revenge catharsis at the end.

I dunno. Maybe i'm wrong but i bet a lot of people really enjoy Clint Eastwood destroying "the bad guys"

I just think there's a lot of attention paid to him being kind to the women and him regretting death (in a couple of scenes) which paint him out to be a good guy or at least the protagonist that you're rooting for that kind of counteract anything that the screenplay might be saying about him being a violent person.


Janice said...

I recall seeing Unforgiven at the time (in theaters) and being completely unconvinced by the "violence is bad" mantra that is constantly being beaten and the over-the-top shootout at the end. Munny walks into a room filled with several other men and kills them ALL, taking not one bullet in the process? Too much standard Hollywood superhero stuff - methinks he doth protest too much. It's hard to stomach a "dark" film with a violence is bad message when you end with a glorification of beautifully choreographed violence in which only the bad guys get hurt. And then that last tag at the end about how he never picked up a gun again, as if that was supposed to make the finale ok? I'm sorry but it didn't wash then and it doesn't now, at least for me.

Tim said...

Man, I love you guys so much, but Unforgiven is like one of my kids. And I get the distinct impression that some of the things I love are exactly the same things that you guys are spotting as flaws. I like the emotionally chilly formalism, especially in regard to the opening & closing title cards. I like the ever-so-slightly stilted Eastwood performance, which I read just exactly as Mike and Michael C. do. And I have always been proud to be one of those who lionises classical filmmaking just for the sake of it: at any rate it has an elegance and simplicity much too rare in the last 30 years or so in American filmmaking.

But it's been so long since you guys have done one of these, that I really feel horrible about not loving every word of it. So let me cut myself with a hearty "hoorah! welcome back!"

Also, I am dumbfounded by this "Casablanca amnesia": that's one of the films that I have literally memorised (it's my stock answer for the dreaded "what's your favorite film" question). It's just so scarily perfect; especially considering the chaos of the film's production, I can't imagine a tighter, more disciplined screenplay. There's not a single wasted shot or line of dialogue that I can think of, and I've spent plenty of time looking.

Michael C. said...

Me again.

Since you asked:

First I don't think you can blame Eastwood for what "a lot of people" do. I remember PT Anderson saying how he cringed when a lot of people cheered when William H Macy shot his wife in Boogie Nights. Not the director's fault when the audience willfully ignores the complexities they present.

As for those complexities, if you feel Eastwood and Peoples leaned too far into making Munny sympathetic you must also acknowledge that they put the same wrinkles into Little Bill. He's certainly no simple villian in a black hat. Bill is very likable, certainly more so than William Munny, especially in his dealing with the writer. Little Bill has a sense of justice, however warped, and his transgressions are in the service of keeping the peace whereas Munny and Ned are hired assassins.

The biggest knock against Little Bill is the sickening violence he uses to his purposes, particularly in his beating of Ned. But aside from being paid killers, Peoples and Eastwood make a point of emphasizing that Munny was no mere
hardened gunfighter but in fact a merciless murderer of women in children with Ned as his willing accomplice. No bones about it, Munny is the most evil man on screen. Hell, he almost shoots the writer out of pure orneriness. So who exactly is the good guy here?

And who for that matter can cheer when Munny blows away poor, inept Fatty? Eastwood and Peoples supply a whole scene where Little Bill's deputy frets about how much it will hurt to get shot and there he is at the end taking one in the chest before he can even aim his gun. Hardly a glorious catharsis.

For that matter Munny comes out and tells Little Bill that justice has nothing to do with anything. Ned had it coming. Bill's got it coming. They all got it coming.

I don't see how you can fit Eastwood for the label of action pandering, which seems to be what you're edging towards.

I think you're really selling this one short, Nat. As a faithful reader may I suggest that Eastwood's style, be it good or bad, just isn't your cup of tea?

Andrew K. said...

Imagine Clint as a stage actor. He would be horrible. I veto my feeling of his film acting [sure, I do :)], but his voice really is too non-expressive. He reminds me of John Wayne in that way, though he's better.

Good call on that chilling Bugsy scene. I don't why, but I'm willing to forgive that film so much that sometimes I wish it was named best picture of the rare. Sorry, Silence of the Lambs lovers. Only sometimes

Anyhow, back to Unforgiven. "I think that's why the super-Munny who emerges during the shootout at the end didn't throw me very much, because I saw that underneath the surface the whole time."
Mike is right. Obviously.


Michael regarding Eastwood not being my cup of tea? Definitely. I prefer coffee. However, that doesn't remove my qualification to chat about the flavor ;) FWIW i did try to give some credit to the movie. It's absolutely a GOOD movie. and some of it is great as I said. I just don't accept it as an unimproveable classic is all. And like Nick (we agree a lot less than people think we do actually) I prefer Million Dollar Baby.

i don't think it's "pandering" so much as not as disturbing as it wants to be when it comes to the theme of violence, because of this avenging super human massacre as deborah reminds. But... i do think it's very weird that the screenplay (which is the best part of it) is the thing that didn't win the Oscar.

and Tim glad to hear that the Casablanca amnesia is not fully shared by all. In truth maybe I just need to watch it more. I watched it twice for this dialogue and loved it enormously both times (and I hadn't seen it in years so that brings on the forgetfulness)

Edward L. said...

A fascinating article on two wonderful and endlessly fascinating films. On Unforgiven, I feel similarly to Mike and Michael C. I think Clint's terrific in it. In fact, his is, for me, one of the best performances of the 1990s. I do have sympathy for the view that the film reverts to a more standard shootout ending: I can go with Michael C.'s interpretation, but a tiny part of me regrets that the film took the route it took. But I do think it conveys the tragedy of Clint's gunslinger act, and, for me, the formalism of the crawls bookending the film is really moving and sobering.

The only real problem I have with Unforgiven is (and I hate to say this) Gene Hackman. I usually love Hackman, but I have never been fully convinced by his Little Bill. His feels like the one performance that isn't in period, and I don't buy his sudden explosions into violence (such as when he beats Richard Harris in the street). Sorry Mr. Hackman and everyone! (I like him far more in The Quick and the Dead.)

And Casablanca - yes, excellent, and I think you're all absolutely right that the film gets more romantic the more it shows how selfish and destructive and full of compromise love can be. And, while the entire cast is superb, Claude Rains is priceless.


happy birthday seekingamy! glad you agree with the dry-eyed assessment. Though Ingrid Bergman's liquid closeups are just too beautiful for words, are they not?

Mike said...

Wow! Some controversy visits the BPFTOI! I'm glad to find myself on the right side of this one.

Cal, even as a defender of Unforgiven, I can't buy the ending as something as simple as you've proposed--that "He just had a day like his past everydays." Eastwood spent much of the film showing that he's not the killer he used to be. (Meaning that his skills have become rusty. I obviously agree that he's still the same guy inside, even if he doesn't want to be.) He can't hit targets in the beginning, and he's not so great with the rifle in the middle. Something changes in that last scene. I described it as supernatural, like he's turned back into the angel of death/chaos he used to be, but supernatural is probably going too far. But he's a different man than he was in earlier scenes.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Well, it's lovely to be back and be told that we don't have any idea what we're talking about. Thanks, Cal!

Again, I'm very aware of having emphasized my misgivings about the movie because so many of its virtues have been so canonized, but I agree that the photography is often very handsome, the overall approach to the filmmaking has a welcome and often very evocative stripped-down quality (although it's hardly free of hand-tipping rhetoric, and "classical" is not a bandage to cover all sins), Hackman and Harris are quite good and Rubinek is more effective and more crucial than I'd remembered him, there's some admirable anger and, yes, some pointed counter-mythology in the film (which is hardly the sort of thing one drops entirely as a project or a theme just because Anthony Mann &c. made skeptical Westerns in the 50s)... I don't even think the counter-harmonics of romanticism are totally disallowed in a movie that's as dark in tone and subject as Unforgiven often is, so if there's a little bit of gratuitous Beauty of the West and some palpable affection for Eastwood's own persona at moments in the film, so be it. I notice that I even described a whole scene whose toughness and detail I admire, when Hackman and Eastwood first meet in the bar, and Clint's performance seems especially strong, so it's hard to hear accusations of "Unforgiven bashing" and not think that anything short of an outright subscription to this movie's exceptionalism would have passed muster.

The movie's good, but I don't think it's great. I think Eastwood's filmmaking style has worked much better, much worse, and about the same in other projects, so without speaking for others, I don't have some kind of position about his style as a whole that's dictating my reaction to this one. But I do still feel:

* That the film's aphoristic notion that a violent past cannot ever fully be disavowed, or prevented from re-consuming the life of the onetime killer, is not in itself so profound or unusual as to automatically recuperate some of the weaker scenes or shakier gestures by which the film speaks to that point;

* That Janice makes a perfect point about the unconvincing, incongruously one-sided, and Eastwood-flattering logistics of the climactic shootout, which is what I took Nathaniel to be getting at with his point about "catharsis," and Mike with his point about the "super-Munny";...

(to be continued, because my reply is already too long...)

NicksFlickPicks said...

* That this film's evocation of period feels awfully thin, though that's not necessarily a pivotal point;

* That Eastwood the Actor goes through a whole lot of scenes without his body expressing anything of the character, not even his flares of temper or his alleged past as this pitiless monster, and that you can't compose a whole performance, particularly of such a complex character, while relying nearly exclusively on voice and gaze and holding impressively still (especially when Eastwood's voice has never been a flawless instrument);

* That the musical "Claudia" theme is as grossly sentimentalizing as music cues in Eastwood pictures often are, but is leaned on quite heavily, not least in the almost irrecuperable four minutes spent between Eastwood and the "cut" prostitute;

* That the scenes of Morgan Freeman's sudden inability to fire his gun and his eventual death are treated much more as plot points than as rounded beats in the story that the film really enters, largely because Eastwood holds himself so far away from creating any subjective POV or individuality for Ned in the early scenes, and because he weirdly avoids a more direct confrontation of his death;

* If there's anything, anything at all to be said for Jaimz Woolvert, please let me know...

* Maybe most importantly, I feel as though claims for Unforgiven based on style often hedge back to classical and revisionist Westerns of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and that claims based on what Eastwood imports via his persona and filmography lean necessarily and primarily on very different films of the 60s and 70s, which had a totally different ethos and style and set of philosophical ground-rules... and it's exciting that Unforgiven wants to synthesize those two legacies, but surely there's some burden of proof on critics to account for the nuanced ways in which those highly disparate legacies are meant to overlap? Especially with the third element of Unforgiven's relative naturalism of lighting and design thrown into the mix? This is not a movie with a uniform style, "classical" or otherwise, and while the frictions among its influences are sometimes quite transfixing, at other times, they feel cacophonous. At least, I experience them that way. Why is this impossible as a reaction to the film?

I'm not at all claiming to be "right" about the movie, but I do feel that some of the most emphatic claims on its behalf feel suspiciously more straightforward than this hugely ambitious and multiply pressured movie allows. And that it's somehow taken shape as the kind of film that is automatically a masterpiece until proven otherwise, so I want to hear a fuller case for why exactly Nathaniel and I don't just have a difference of opinion from the main critical line on this film (because we like it but don't revere it), but that we're actually completely, unaccountably, don't-know-what-we're-talking-about wrong.

kent said...

no word on ingrid bergman's performance here? i'm still pretty angry that she wasn't nominated for this. so many layers she gave to ilsa lund.

Anonymous said...

That inexplicable screenplay lost can be summed up in three words: Crying Game twist.


anon 12:51 oh that! i didn't look up what won and I thought 'must'a been Howard's End (my pick of the Oscar nominees that year. so brilliant)

kent -- yeah we focused on the lead men this time. Ingrid is fab in that movie. but she wasn't nominated because she was instead nominated for "For Whom The Bell Tolls" so perhaps casablanca (released in January) boosted her nominatibility for 'Bell' (released in the summer)

NicksFlickPicks said...

I completely agree that Bergman was nominated for the wrong movie, and not just because she seems so at a loss for how to play a Spanish revolutionary of the mountains in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But it's not just a dig at the other film: her Ilsa is pretty phenomenal. "Layers" is definitely the word.

cal roth said...

1) This catharsis feeling and accusations of coreographed violence really read like unfamiliarity with western as a genre. A final duel is a given, something banal even when the protagonist kills everybody and doesn't get shot. It's just a convention: you root for Munny, but it's more of a over and over again ritual than a "kick ass" ending. The ending really feels like a routine ("old fashioned consequence-free blood spilling"), but that's what's so disturbing!

The supernaturalness of it all is not the impossibility of our "hero" to get shot, but what you feel about the whole scene, and this is not supernatural like a really ending with catharsis, like Once Upon a Time in The West. If you know western, it's really timid and low-key, and reads much more like the "happy endings" of Anthony Mann's movies with James Stewart - a new breath just after our hero meets violence again.

2) Voice and gaze are really ok for such a complex character when you think this is a genre piece and not some Elia Kazan drama adapted from Tennessee Williams with method acting. As a convention, as pure cinema, Eastwood's performance here works the same way the great John Wayne performances: he doesn't have to reveal the character. He just is the character. You can find the same kind of performance with basically the same impact in, for example, Alain Delon's movies with Jean Pierre Melville. It's another kind of performance, this one. The less the actor tries to act, the better.

cal roth said...

3) Eastwood dedicates this movie to his masters Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, directores he worked with, but, in fact, Eastwood as always a John Ford guy. He tried only once go the operistic way of Leone in HIgh Plains Drifter, but that is really something outré if you look into his whole filmography. His sense of morality is absolute Ford, and his style is more like a delicate and realistic 70's, only without grandiose moments of "coreographed violence". I don't see anything bad about it. Ford, if directed movies till the late 70's, would do it the same way.

cal roth said...

One word on Casablanca: Claude Rains gives the most effective supporting performance ever.

Steve said...

It is seriously, seriously worrying that you found the awful MILLION DOLLAR BABY better than UNFORGIVEN, especially coming from you Nat who was one of the rare sane people who didn't rave it on release.

sinema izle said...


Michael C. said...

Nat -

Re: Tea and Coffee

Certainly didn't mean to imply that some kind of Anti-Eastwood bias excludes you from the debate. On the contrary, I was suggesting that while you, Nick, and I all make valid arguments I think a lot of comes down to what reaches you on a gut level. And rather than go through all the arguments point by point it seems to me that to my recollection Eastwood has never been a guy to provoke that reaction in you.

I have a similar reaction to Baz Luhrmann. And I could come up with a lengthy essay on what I consider Moulin Rouge's flaws, but I doubt I could put a dent in your love for that movie. It reminds me of what an English professor once told me about Death of a Salesman, "Greatness and perfection seldom go hand in hand."

I wouldn't argue for Unforgiven's perfection but for me it crosses the threshold into greatness. For you guys it doesn't. Simple really. You could argue its flaws until your keyboards fall apart and I don't think you could diminish my love for it.

PS - Comment du Jour. My Mom's gonna be so proud.

NicksFlickPicks said...

@Cal: Fine, then, different strokes, but your defense really reads to me as if Eastwood's conception of Unforgiven as a primarily Ford-influenced movie and classically rendered genre piece automatically dignifies every single aspect of his execution of the film, since you're steering pretty clear of engaging scene-level details. You also keep refuting a point about "happy endings," a phrase nobody used and that Nathaniel specifically disputed as a characterization of his point about how the film hustles to a coda.

I recognize you'll still think that we just don't "get" Westerns, just like I still think you can't just map a "delicate and realistic 70s" style onto a Ford morality and genre-template (with elements of Mann, Hawks, etc.) without accounting for some of the implications of that kind of cross-pollinating of influences; and that you think we don't understand genre acting, even though I think John Wayne in The Searchers roundly out-acts Eastwood here, and this does arrive in the same post and comment-thread where we praise the studio-era, convention-bound acting of a 40s film.

cal roth said...

But conception defines how we can look the execution in detail: some of your reservations are like calling A Streetcar Named Desire over the top, ou Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon irrealistic.

I'm not escaping from scene level talk: I was focusing on this last scenes because Nathaniel first said one of the main reason he didn't love the film was the way the movie returns to a, I'll repeat that, "old fashioned consequence-free blood spilling". My point is not how this scene qualifies as a happy ending or not, but how it's not "old fashioned consequence-free blood spilling", and how this misreading (IMO, of course) shouldn't determine how great this movie is.

If you're saying this movie is not great because of its "backing away" and going into supposed "old fashioned consequence-free blood spilling", I have to say I consider this a unsatisfying argument.

And it's not I think you understand genre acting, but I've read here comparisions with Daniel Day-Lewis acting in There Will be Blood and sentences about how Clint doesn't reveal the character and how he can't only project his own persona. Yes, he can, with voice and gaze. Maybe you don't think his persona is as great as John Wayne's, but the concept of his acting here is not wrong.

Note that I don't think it is a great performance like the one we saw in The Bridges of Madison County or Million Dollar Baby, but I think it's a very very good one.

NicksFlickPicks said...

...which for me goes back to an earlier claim in the conversation. I get that this is a "classical" Western in conception, and that it's under that aegis that Unforgiven wants its details to be evaluated, and that for lots of viewers either the claim takes care of itself and overrides some uneven delivery on that stylistic, generic, and enacted promise or they really do see everything in the film as resonating perfectly with Eastwood's aims. I don't agree, specifically insofar as no manner or amount of conception can make up for moments when the film seems to fall short of its manifest ambitions toward the "classical," and/or to pull in confusing elements of 70s skepticism or invocations of naturalism that it doesn't always own up to, in structure, theme, or performance.

As for performance: I didn't bring in the DDL/Beatty point, so I'm not going to speak to that, but if Eastwood's projection of character were as simple but as palpably clenched and monstrous as what the notoriously anti-Method Wayne found in The Searchers, even though the William Munny I keep hearing about is, if anything, an even nastier piece of work than Ethan Edwards, most of my particular concerns about Eastwood's performance would go away. I think you hear "acting with your body" as though I necessarily mean a whorl of Method tics and febrilities, but I'm talking just as much about basic, pre-Method postures and physical attitudes. It's clearly one thing to "be" rather than "reveal" the character, though I admit that I think Munny has been written as someone who could stand a little "revealing," and the fact that other actors in the piece (Hackman, Harris...) seem to be on a post-Strasberg wavelength makes it stranger to me that Eastwood either won't or can't go anywhere near there. In any event, it's quite another thing for the script to keep speaking about this legendary beast of a person and let that rhetoric fill in the holes of a performance that sometimes gets in touch with that sense of outsized violence and resurgent pasts (the first scene in the bar, the learning about Ned's death, the speech over the rifle) but in other scenes isn't anywhere near it.

To quote a character whose movie we really did bash in BPFTOI, that's all I have to say about that.


Steve --i'm not saying i think M$B is great. I'm just saying i prefer it. But it's kind of a silly argument for me to make because I feel the same about both of them: good with great moments but not great classics.

but as to a clear preference I do think Eastwood's performance in M$B is much stronger than his performance in Unforgiven.

Cal --- Nick --- I am the person who raised the DDL/Beatty performance for a comparison point but I was not referring to any specific method or school of acting and did not mean to imply that any one "type" of acting is better than the other. I brought them up to refer to the way I felt watching certain moments of the film which is this: I am scared of this person right now. this person is monstrous.

I kept hearing that Will Munny was a monster. I never felt it. And what else could I blame other than acting choices (since the script is pretty clear on the before/after which is still before point)

NicksFlickPicks said...

(For the record, I had that same feeling; I just didn't want to presume to speak on your behalf.)

Glenn Dunks said...

Superb as always. I've still never seen Unforgiven which is... wait for it... unforgivable! Boom!


Glenn is here all week.


(at any rate it's worth watching. like we said a few times in the discussion... we were foregrounding our issues with it but we all would give it the thumbs up)