1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Political, Thriller

Zabriskie Point (1970)

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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenwriters: Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe, Sam Shepard

By Roderick Heath

History often moves in cycles of irony, and sometimes this rewards movies. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point was dealt harsh dismissal by both critics and audiences at the time of its release, and spent intervening decades regarded largely as an oddity and by-product occasionally revisited by omnivorous wannabe filmmakers, aging hippies, and scattered auteurists, only to slowly gather a fresh reputation amongst some as one of Antonioni’s major achievements. These past few years have made Zabriskie Point feel immediate again, for its evocative description of disconsolate anger and disgust with aspects of modern life, with institutional power and the fragmenting of shared reality. Antonioni had been vaulted to international filmmaking stardom thanks to his string of cool, allusive tales documenting people squirming within their environment and sometimes committing perplexing acts of destruction on self or others, or simply vanishing from their own lives, in a style commonly dubbed ‘alienation cinema.’ Antonioni initially charted this terrain in relatively modest works like I Vinti (1952) and Il Grido (1957). L’Avventura (1960) met an initially divisive response but quickly became the definition of art movie chic along with its follow-ups in a loose trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962). Red Desert (1964) saw Antonioni reaching the heights of his artistry but also dividing viewers once again in achieving a register of expression near-subliminal in suggesting cognitive stress and injury through systematised exterior signs.

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The surprise box office success of Antonioni’s first English-language film, Blowup (1966), opened up great new vistas for him as Hollywood came knocking, although some critics would accuse him of exporting his cinematic style more as a brand than an artist, looking for venues to make the same works over and over. That wasn’t true: Red Desert had broken new ground and Blowup was a very different film in story and method to Antonioni’s previous four films, even whilst maintaining a distinct aesthetic. But Antonioni faced a genuine problem with his art, one that would soon see his once-titanic cinematic will freeze up. After Zabriskie Point he would only direct another three films in the next fifteen years, before a stroke he suffered in 1985 left him severely crippled, although he did manage one final work, Beyond the Clouds, in 1995 in collaboration with Wim Wenders. Part of the reason behind Antonioni’s wane might simply have been the problem of money: Antonioni’s films were hard to make without the muscle of intelligent and interested producers behind them, and these became scant as his moment in fashion ended. It might also have been a product of his own evolving artistry, which eventually reached a point of psychological and spiritual negation with The Passenger (1975), one he could not move beyond without betraying some vital part of himself.

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For Zabriskie Point, MGM gave Antonioni a big budget and free rein to turn his eye on America. Antonioni took his theme from a newspaper story he read about a young man who stole an airplane and was shot by police when he tried to return it. In the months after the incredible success of Easy Rider (1969), a flailing Hollywood desperately wanted to reproduce such a feat with the countercultural youth audience, but contended constantly with that audience’s cynicism over official attempts to replicate their zeitgeist, as well as rapid shifts in general audience mood, which quickly went back to wanting stuff like Airport (1970). Antonioni had tapped hip interest in artistic games with perception and social commentary with Blowup, and his distaste for the plasticity of post-war life in Italy found ready analogues beyond those shores, And yet his sensibility remained crucially at odds with the earthy and idealistic aspect of the counterculture. Antonioni tried to tap a compensating authenticity by casting non-actors in crucial roles. For a male lead he cast Mark Frechette, a fiery young man often in trouble with the law but blessed with movie star looks, when Antonin saw him engaged in an argument on the street.

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For the female lead he chose Daria Halprin, a former anthropology student and bit-part actress. It proved a rather fateful pairing: Frechette and Halprin became a couple after making the film, and moved into an experimental community. After they broke up Halprin married Dennis Hopper. Desperate for funds to keep the community going, Frechette joined other members in staging a bank robbery with unloaded guns. Frechette was sent to prison and died there, in a peculiar weightlifting accident. This tragic piece of Hollywood folklore now is an aspect of Zabriskie Point’s strange aura, the feeling that it charted some underground river most people didn’t or couldn’t follow. The script passed through several hands, including Antonioni himself and his regular screenwriting collaborator Tonino Guerra, and some young Americans writers, including the up-and-coming actor and playwright Sam Shepard. Working on the film was particularly consequential for Shepard, who would revisit many of its images and ideas in later work, including the script he would write for another fusion of European and American sensibilities, Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984).

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Zabriskie Point opens with a lengthy sequence depicting student radicals engaged in debate over an upcoming student strike, with some black activists (including Eldridge Cleaver’s wife Kathleen) presiding. One young man, Mark (Frechette), listens to the boiling arguments and conflicting perspectives and leaves after declaring he’s willing to die for the cause but not of boredom, and begins looking for more applied and practical actions to take. When he tries to bail out a friend who’s arrested on a demonstration and nags the cops a little too forcefully, Mark finds himself arrested and roughed up as well: Mark mocks the cops by giving his name as Karl Marx, and the charge officer doesn’t cotton on. After they’re released, Mark and his friend decide to buy guns. Hearing on the radio that the police have vowed to clear out the striking students on campus, Mark drives to witness it, only to see a cop gun down a black protestor when a colleague thinks he has a gun. Mark pulls out his pistol with a clear intention of shooting the cop responsible, only for someone else to beat him to it. Mark flees the campus and, after a brief spell of fraught indecision steals a light airplane and flies inland.

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Antonioni alternates Mark’s experiences with those of Daria, a woman of the same age but detached from the radical scene, one who works only when she needs money. Daria temps at a real estate company and encounters the middle-aged executive Lee Allen (Rod Taylor), who seems taken with her, and eventually asks that she head out to his house near Phoenix, Arizona, to be his secretary whilst he tries to finalise a major deal, a new estate his company, the SunnyDunes Development Co., has built in the desert. Daria heads out into the desert but before going to Lee’s house wants to visit the hamlet of Ballister, out in the Mojave Desert, because a friend of hers recommended it as a great place to meditate. The friend is trying to build a refuge there for troubled youths from Los Angeles, and Daria encounters a gang of those imported hellions wandering around the sparse Ballister surrounds. Driving on, Daria is repeatedly buzzed by Mark in the stolen plane, dropping a dress he found in the cockpit to her, before coming in for a landing. The two wander around the environs of Zabriskie Point, a lookout spot in Death Valley and the lowest point in the continental United States, where they quickly form a bond and become lovers.

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Zabriskie Point took four years from conception to release, a fatally long amount of time for a movie trying so crucially to tap an urgent and rapidly evolving socio-political moment. And yet, against all the odds, Antonioni and his screenwriters achieved from today’s perspective the rare task of taking on a such a specific moment and yet locating essential issues that continue to dog modern America and beyond. Listening to the lengthy opening argument of the student radicals is nonetheless today a surprisingly vigorous and revealing experience, as the same issues, divides, and points of contention are still prevalent, particularly in the online world: the only thing that’s missing is the sense of palpable immediacy and communal experience that defined the period, the clamour of voices in dialogue supplanted by the click of a million keyboards. Even Mark’s irritable rejection of the meeting highlights another eternal problem – it’s much easier to talk tough and jockey for moral high ground than actually achieve a political goal. The barbed comments of the black activists, who claim a leadership role because they face systemic oppression that obliges them to be revolutionaries rather than turn to it out of radical chic, lay down an axiom, and one of the white student girls raises the question, “What will it take to make white people revolutionaries?”

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Zabriskie Point proceeds to try and answer that question in the case of Daria, the more ordinary of the two pivotal characters. Daria is presented as a free spirit type intrigued by hip concepts and lifestyles, but detached from the politically engaged world Mark is all too immersed in. Her appeal to Lee as she breezes past him in the SunnyDunes office building is plain, represents something that’s profoundly absent within the confines of his daily life, and he becomes highly solicitous towards her, perhaps out of desire or simply to have someone so young and energetic around, a force from beyond the boundaries of his known world. As familiar as jabs aimed at corporate culture seem now, Antonioni did his admirable best to try and avoid the more obvious reflexes even whilst delivering it some cruel shiv wounds. Antonioni films Lee in his office, the LA skyline and a flapping American flag framed in glassy, commercial-like brightness behind him, as he tries to get in touch with Daria by phone, a sense of glazed and waning torpor slowly registering as the imperial trappings around him become monumental and immoveable. Meanwhile it’s signalled Mark himself comes from well-to-do circumstances, waving to a woman in a sports car he says is his sister, “a girl from my long-gone past.”

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Mark’s decision to stop being passive is articulated as he decries that he’s tired of “kids rappin’ about violence and cops doin’ it,” and contemplates meeting the authorities’ violence with his own. Antonioni indulges some sidelong vignettes that score satirical points, as Mark and a friend talk a gun salesman into waiving the usual legal niceties by explaining they live in a rough neighbourhood and “need to protect our women.” A college professor who’s been arrested at the protest with his students and the cop processing him puts his occupation down as clerk because it’s shorter. The plot, such as it is, is motivated by Mark’s readiness to commit violently to his cause only to rediscover joy and affection before becoming the target of the same cold and punitive force he tried to escape and transcend. The question as to whether he dooms himself in taking up arms or in failing to commit properly to the choice lingers on. Antonioni courts the paranoid echoes of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the key sequence of the campus shootings, with Mark’s vengeful intention to shoot beaten by another sniper somewhere in the bushes – a collection of gun-wielding radicals has already been noted lurking nearby. This also revisits the enigmatic assassination of Blowup. At the same time Antonioni’s long-simmering affinity with Hitchcock is nudged again as Mark, gun in hand and innocent in deed if not mind, recalls the schmuck hero of North By Northwest (1959).

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Antonioni’s protest scenes lack the still-potent immediacy of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and the film as a whole resists that work’s air of livewire exposure before the tumult of the age, at least in its superficial action, even as the opening scene betrays a great interest in its rhetorical texture. Antonioni regards both the square and countercultures as momentary figments of a much greater and longer drama than they know. Antonioni’s exacting sense of visual context as a means of communication is as much in evidence as it was in Red Desert and Blowup, but in a different key: where the first film pivoted on the heroine’s sense of a poisoned mindscape matched to a poisoned environment and Blowup saw its hero chasing his ideals of truth captured into a dissolving mass of film grain, Zabriskie Point maps out a drama of freedom and entrapment rooted in the way social values and psychic space battle upon the American shore. Environs rendered in pale cream and grey hues and dully prismatic glass are broken up by electric patches of blood red and bright green, elements in the psychic drama of omnipresent conformism disturbed by eruptions of violence and nature worship.

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Antonioni near-obsessively charts the omnipresence of advertising and garish décor around the city, at once dazzled and mortified. Antonioni contrasts Mark and a comrade and Lee and his fellow executive (G.D. Spradlin) as the two polarised duos drive through the city: Antonioni stops paying attention to them to film modernist structures and advertising billboards in zooms shots that collapse space and image into a diorama of capitalist messaging disguised in pretty colours, as pure in their way as the renaissance sculptures of Italy in conflating function in declaration with form, the stamp of the new doges upon their republic. Painted visages instruct the onlooker in what normality looks like. In a more overtly satirical and surrealist manner, Antonioni has the SunnyDunes executives gather to watch an advertisement for their new development, in which the roles of the people enjoying their idyllic new lifestyle are filled by mannequins, glimpsed in colourful and rigid approximations of the supposed suburban dream, starkly contrasting the later vision of polymorphous flesh emerging from the earth itself.

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Once Mark takes off in his stolen plane, the film becomes a remake-cum-lampoon of the closing minutes of How The West Was Won (1962), inverting the triumphalist flight in keys of Cinerama and Manifest Destiny to the coast and out to sea, this time turning away from the sprawl of LA’s infrastructure to the vast, rugged inland and contemplating the refuse of the pioneering dream. The glittering rooftops and cyclopean highways, all are viewed on high with a sense of punch-drunk wonderment, the geometries of human design and the primeval patterns of geological upheaval revealed in distant perfection. The visual texture here is the essence of the film, working up a near-hypnotic glaze of attention to the shape of the world and Mark and Daria as entities within it. Daria’s visit to the desolate township of Ballister is a delicately strange and eerie vignette, as she encounters an assortment of old-timers, including the manager of a roadhouse (Paul Fix) who complains about the imported problem cases her friend has imported to the town (“He’s gonna ruin a piece of American history.”), and a couple of incredibly old men at the bar, one of whom introduces himself as the middleweight boxing champion of the world in 1926.

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The other is an aged cowboy who sits calmly and silently in solitude as Antonioni’s camera gazes at him in profile with painterly pretence, turning him into living iconography, as Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” warbles nostalgically over speakers. Somewhere out in the desert’s deep reaches the old America subsists on its last nerve of memory and muscle, whilst the inheritors flail. Stones through the window glass cause the manager to dash outside and bellow at the marauding tykes. Daria sees them hiding behind a hunk of refuse, their eyes glimpsed through gaps. These the manifest spirits of a discarded quarter of the nation, one plucking on fractured piano innards to make sonorous music, another demanding “a piece of ass.” “Are you sure you’d know what to do with it?” Daria questions, unfazed, before fleeing these fine young cannibals. Travelling on, the lonely old grey car sliding along a ribbon of blacktop below attracts the white-winging plane, and Mark sets down in the midst of a great salt pan to meet the fawn-legged traveller after buzzing her a few times with bratty glee. Here Mark and Daria are, in their way, artists engaged with landscape as much as Antonioni himself, at spree in air and earth, with inevitable symbolic dimensions, Mark with his lofty ideals and exile from society forced to meet Daria down on the ground.

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One irony of Blowup’s success was that it hit big with an audience it teased and parodied – hipsters, artists, bright college freaks, recreational drug users, and vicariously thrilled normies. The Swinging London vibe Antonioni nailed down so well was painted in bone-dry sarcasm, as he surveyed London’s boles filled by barbarian rock bands and rooms full of stoned posh bohemians with a sense of curiosity grazing disdain, seeming to diagnose it all as a further symptom of, rather than cure for, the anomie and cultural ossification he analysed. In turning to the American wing of the youth movement he was nominally seeking out a genuine resuscitating force, and he even seemed to be trying to avoid the problems Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969) had analysed, the blind spots that would narcotise it. Blowup had proposed the ultimate dissolution of reality in the age of technology whilst Zabriskie Point’s interiorised, neutral tone invokes not the outwards-directed energy of bohemia but the problem of the interior self, one reason why the film’s twinned, key sequences are, crucially, moments of imagined psychic liberation. Whilst avoiding any of the ways of portraying psychedelic experience that became so quickly clichéd in films of the period, Zabriskie Point nonetheless attains a dreamlike sense of space and texture, as if the characters are both inside themselves and watching themselves.

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And indeed they are, because all young people tend to be doing both. Mark and Daria are deliberately nebulous entities because Antonioni feels that’s a basic description of youth itself, individuals reacting to stimuli and opportunity to accumulate character. The basic narrative pattern also returned to the motif of Il Grido, in following a character who describes a great circle during the course of his wandering, fleeing his life in one place only to arc back to a virtually predestined end. Il Grido, a fascinating if overlong and grimly slouchy work, had mediated Antonioni’s steeping in neorealist concerns and those of his mature artistry. One important difference in Zabriskie Point is that when he chooses to fly the plane back to LA and face consequences it’s an act of hope, returning as jester of the skies with the plane he, Daria, and an old-timer of the desert painted in lysergic colours and jokes. Daria suggests to Mark he simply abandon the plane and ride with her to Phoenix, but he tells her, “I wanna take risks.” A death wish might lurk within Mark’s makeup, but his determination to actually experience existence as a profound phenomenon, not coddled or swerving from all the echoing consequences of being born, represents one of the few positive gestures of consequence any character makes in Antonioni, even if it’s ruthlessly punished.

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At the heart of Zabriskie Point are the two fantasy episodes, both perhaps projected out of Daria’s mind. The first comes as she and Mark screw in the desert sand under Zabriskie Point, whereupon other lovers, some couples, some in masses of three or more bodies, seem to well out of the ground and start copulating passionately, bodies swathed in dust and sand, wet lips and caked rumps squirming in the parched soil. Authorities purportedly dogged the shooting of this scene, which utilised performers from a radical theatre group, ready to swoop in and arrest everyone for shooting pornography. As it was the orgy was simulated, but it’s still a startling interlude to see in such a prestigious Hollywood film, and one the least neurotic and purely celebratory erotic scenes in mainstream cinema. Passionate bundles of flesh viewed only with a friendly sense of sexuality in many forms, but achieved again with a strong note of surrealism, these dust-born creatures evoking Biblical myth as they fuck en masse. Most vitally for the film’s driving theme, it offers the sense that Mark and Daria aren’t alone even when they seem to be at their most separated from the rest of humanity: their experience connects them to the species as a whole. The sexual high quickly gives way to a brute reminder of actuality as Mark hides from a patrolling cop car whilst Daria goes to chat with the officer, shocked when she realises Mark lurks with his gun ready to shoot the cop. Antonioni delivers one of his visual cues as Mark hides behind portable toilets painted screaming red, blazing synapses of distress in the midst of an ahistorical zone.

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The chief stymie in appreciating the film stems ironically from Antonioni’s push for legitimacy in casting Frechette and Halprin. That might have seemed a move in the great tradition of neorealism, and as a filmmaker Antonioni never seemed greatly focused on his actors, observing them more as studies in behaviour than in a traditional dramatic manner. But Antonioni had made very deft use of star performers like Monica Vitti, David Hemmings, and even Steve Cochran, and would so again with Jack Nicholson, leaning on actors who could readily suggest and transmit the yearning and existential unease of their characters, using their descriptions of distress and foiled energy to lend specific gravitas to his psychologically inferring shots. By contrast, the two young stars of Zabriskie Point instead seem blandly emblematic, although Halprin handles the late scenes depicting her character’s disconsolate state effectively. The air of turbulence that made Frechette appealing to Antonioni translated on camera to deadpan aloofness, ironically proving more plastic than any number of young ingénues might have seemed. That said, their blankness at least resists any feeling of calculation either, offering themselves simply as people within Antonioni’s world, not extraordinary embodiments of human and Hollywood bravura.

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Despite its initial failure, Zabriskie Point’s influence has proven deep, particularly for foreign directors shifting their attention Stateside, with images and strategies referenced and recycled in films like Paris, Texas, Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993), Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Café (1988), Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003), and Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007). More recent native surveys of the period like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) and the TV series Mad Men have made it a significant point of reference, as well as more contemporary takes on its preoccupations like Fight Club (1999). American New Wave filmmakers internalised aspects of Antonioni’s vision: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and All The President’s Men (1976) all betray the imprint of Antonioni’s textures, his contemplation of fractured personality amidst sensory bombardment and the isolating glaze of modern architecture. More profane genre fare from Vanishing Point (1972) to Thelma and Louise (1991) took Zabriskie Point and mined it for more familiar variations on its ideas. Even the likes of Mad Max (1979), as a tale of renascent barbarianism hinging around grandiose destruction fantasies and desolate spaces, bore the imprint. George Lucas, who had clearly shown himself to be an Antonioni acolyte on THX 1138 (1971), repurposed the theme of youth rebellion and destructive catharsis for Star Wars (1977).

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Nor was the traffic to sci-fi one way, as at least one critic has noted: Antonioni’s lexicon had much in common with the alien desolation and domestic unease Jack Arnold had often evoked in his 1950s works like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956). Such oddball children point to the way Antonioni managed to dig to the essence of something about the nature of modern society, locked in a state of forward motion and clinging to familiar things, perpetually poised between order and a will to anarchy, constantly provoking people to jarring psychic leaps from peace-seeking to eruptive destruction. Which might well point to the artistic problem Antonioni eventually fell prey to. Antonioni had begun as a filmmaker interested in case studies illustrating social and psychological quandaries, trying to bridge the great chasm between the systems of Marxism and the vagaries of consciousness, and Zabriskie Point had been conceived in the same vein. The protagonists of both Zabriskie Point and The Passenger halt at the edge of the desert but fail to go forward and so are destroyed by the social forces pursuing them, although one is felled in making a hopeful gesture and the other reaches the end of his will. To go into the desert, literal and figurative, would be to enter the realm of the mystic, something Antonioni felt himself too hard-headed to contemplate, even as his films constantly urge towards a sense of the sublime. Or, rather, whether he was or wasn’t, that would demarcate the edge of his own concern, which was the problem of modern western society and the individuals who comprise it.

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Tellingly, following Zabriskie Point, Antonioni went to China to make a documentary about the nation at it was just starting to step back into the world at large to contemplate possibilities for other methods of social organisation, whilst his last handful of films would be much-mocked for their copious and regressive sexuality, but perhaps that was the only place he could retreat to. Mark’s flight back to LA is met by waiting cops, and when he tries to take off again they start shooting, a bullet hitting Mark and killing him. Daria, still driving eastwards, hears the report of his death on the radio and pulls over in shock. The report suggests another cruel sarcasm, that Mark wasn’t wanted for killing the cop but for stealing the plane as an “attempted hijacking”: Mark was punished not for his attempt at political violence but for an imagined one. Daria reaches Lee’s modernist mansion, perched on the side of a bluff amidst the grand desert surrounds. She wanders around the chic, elegant, yet impersonal forms of Lee’s house, the very bastion of smugness, experiencing each portion of the building as a trap goading her grief, and even Lee’s solicitous greeting rings hollow. Daria finally leaves the house.

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Cue the famous final scene, one even detractors of the film find brilliant. Daria stares at Lee’s house, imagining the executives and their inane wives inside, and envisions the house exploding, shattered to millions of shards of wood and stonework. The explosion occurs again and again, from different angles and distances, the sheer pleasure of destruction as an act charged holy awe. Antonioni then gets closer to the issue as he films the explosion of various household items in the house. A TV shatters into a shower of misty crystal. A refrigerator disgorges foodstuffs in a mucky shower. Books flap open like flowers blooming in time-lapse or jellyfish squirming through water. Violent spectacle becomes languorous, beautiful, protoplasmic, Dali-like in the depiction of hard commercial material rendered liquidinous and weightless, the act of desolation containing discovery, mesmeric dolour that also bespeaks the clarifying of the senses.

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The eruption resolves in a huge mushroom cloud of smoke billowing up into the blue sky, clarifying the relationship of Daria’s private revenge fantasy with the overall anxiety in the world, the threat of nuclear war, perpetually poised to erase the settled bourgeois life. Given Antonioni’s cinema had long suggested an intense distaste for modern architecture as the environmental signature of the age of alienation, the fact that he acts out his apocalyptic fantasia on it makes for a fitting, rather bratty coda, a moment of seeming potent rejection of a material world that is actually onanistic fantasy. Antonioni doesn’t offer any shot of the house still intact and boding after the fantasy is done, refusing intrinsically to castrate Daria’s newly potent and angry willpower. Instead Antonioni has her ride off into the sunset to the elegiac strains of Roy Orbison. Like the often misinterpreted ending of Blowup, which actually depicts the birth of a true artist, the ending here sees Daria heading back into the world armed, if not necessarily for destruction, but certainly with great power. A revolutionary of the mind born.

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1990s, Western

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

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Director: Andrew Dominik

By Roderick Heath

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an extraordinarily intense study in the savage nature of fate, violence, and false mythology. It’s also a cinematic tone poem that deliberately alludes to that least-popular of genres, the revisionist Western, and in particular the films of Terence Malick, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Robert Benton, and Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), to which it is a virtual sequel. Kaufman’s drowsy, drizzly work studied with moody anti-romanticism the final raid conducted by the James-Younger gang, now long notorious and hunted on all sides. Jesse James, as portrayed by Robert Duvall, was a quick-draw psycho still fighting the Civil War using bushwhacker rules. The film concluded with Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) dead, the gang dispersed, and the James brothers fleeing south to Missouri to form a new crew.

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Assassination examines James (Brad Pitt) in his last year, robbing a train with self-aggrandising style and self-serving violence. But he’s worn out, his nerves electric with paranoia and frustration. His gang, a feckless mob of self-appointed rebels, includes Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), a smooth-tongued, poetry-quoting skirt chaser; Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), a pug-nosed, Yankee-hating thug and Jesse’s cousin; Jesse’s hardened, cagey elder brother Frank (Sam Shepard); Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), a garrulous twit; and, new to the group, Charley’s younger brother Robert (Casey Affleck). A strange, drawling, pale misfit, Robert talks himself up as a man of bravery and character, despite coming across as mildly retarded and possibly crazy. Frank finds him “creepy” when he talks to Robert, and Jesse, trying out his practised charm on the 20-year-old, proves unable to fathom this tensely smiling enigma.

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Slowly, as Assassination progresses, the impressions reverse. Robert, the youngest of four brothers, socially awkward, and quietly obsessed, is desperate to prove himself and live up to his dreams after a youth of dreary rural rituals and tough, strutting elder brothers who belittle and bully him. His hero worship of Jesse curdles into something like hate, beginning when the outlaw casually disavows the heroic portrayals of him that have proliferated in the popular media in the 15 years of his career, and gathering in intensity at displays of Jesse’s capricious cruelty and distrustfulness that confirm that anyone, even friends and companions, might be targets for his guns.

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As the Victorian-marquee-style title suggests, Assassination has removed narrative almost entirely from the story and left a series of confrontations that simultaneously reveal and conceal motivation and character as the question of the film becomes, when, how, and why. The film gathers the deterministic momentum of Greek tragedy played out in its characters’ eyes, principally the war between Pitt’s corrosive blue irises and Affleck’s infinitely obfuscating gaze. Jesse is alternately brooding and brutal, charming and gregarious, a manic-depressive warrior who is astounded and sorrowful over his own capacity for hair-trigger violence. He is torn asunder by the need to be with people made more intense by the need to have trustworthy lieutenants and the fear that those he trusts may betray or ruin him through stupidity or clumsiness. He shoots a member of the gang, Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), on the mere suspicion he might have ratted him out and slaps silly an adolescent cousin of the Fords’, precipitating Robert’s gathering determination to destroy Jesse.

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The nature of Jesse and Ford’s psychic pas de deux is compelling as each man—and we—attempt to discern what is being communicated. Is James sure Ford is set to betray him? Robert makes contact with a Pinkerton agent connected to the state authorities. The agent assures Robert James will find out, but Jesse never lets on. Does he know—even want—this bullet in the back? Is he trying to precipitate a death that will come on his own terms? Or does his intuition fail him? Can he really not decide if Robert will betray him? An irony resolves out of the title; it is precisely Robert’s lack of cowardice that presents him an opportunity to take out the outlaw. Jesse’s merciless gaze unnerves everyone around him to the point where he can tell swiftly if they’re lying or not, but not Robert—or Charley. But Charley has no real character. He can lie to Jesse, but he can’t actually do anything for himself.

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The baleful, recriminatory regard Frank James has for his brother a rhyme in the two Ford brothers. In the film’s one moment of gunplay, a fight erupts in the Fords’ farmhouse, as Wood tries to shoot Liddil for bedding the wife of his uncle Major Hite (Tom Aldredge)—a ridiculous effort to defend family honour, as the wife, Sarah (Kailin See), is a young, fire-under-snow opportunist married to a withered old man. Robert shows for the first time his capacity for cool violence when he plugs Wood in the head to save the more likable Liddil. The killing adds another reason to the mounting list for the Fords to be wary of James and establishes Robert’s oddly dissociative ability to shoot a man from behind.

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Andrew Dominik made his directorial debut with Chopper (2000), a picture based on the mostly spurious memoirs of an Australian thug. That film made Eric Bana a movie star and joined an interesting run of gangland films like Essex Boys (2000) and Sexy Beast (2000) in studying the terror of being up close to a dangerous criminal. Assassination continues this theme, as Jesse is certainly that, and his somsersaulting moods and general paranoia make him intolerable. Yet Jesse is also a gentleman, a charismatic leader, and undoubtedly brave. He stands for something—the living ghost of Southern rebellion—and lives too vividly in the zeitgeist to be just another gunman to be eradicated. Jesse is struggling to hold onto his threads of humanity—his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and kids, his final friends—even as he is pushed by forces within himself and without to destroy. There is the hint that for Jesse, death is an extirpation of his sins and the reclamation of his humanity from a history of bloodshed. In an arresting sequence, the gang robs a train at Blue Ridge, and Jesse awaits the approaching train standing atop a block. It’s a wry take on James’ self-promotional style, but also evokes the nature of his heroic appeal to the bitter and betrayed post-Civil War populace as a single man willing to stand before the oncoming industrial juggernaut of progress.

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Ford longs to be James and possibly have his body, as a charged bath scene suggests that each views the other is a completion of himself. Ford feels that James has indelible place in the world, with his family, his fame, his assured strength and character, that he, Robert, can only fantasize over. Robert fails to grasp that such prestige comes only by putting yourself in the monster’s mouth. During Robert’s subsequent attempts to capitalise on his infamy as James’ killer in a stage show where he shows what happened, he’s foolish enough to play it like it happened instead of developing his own mystique. Charley’s bad portrayal of Jesse removes the sting from the play-acting; later, as Charley becomes embittered and regretful, his impersonation becomes more real, and Robert is soon faced with spiteful names from his audience.

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Dominik lays claim with this film to being the most talented director to emerge for Australia since Rolf de Heer 20 years ago. His feel for Americana has obvious influences, but the fresh, cleansed physicality of the film and its burnished, poetic spaciousness are rich and new. Assassination is superior to many of those ’70s mud-and-blood Westerns by being even and assured in tone, and by knowing what it wants to do rather than flailing off the path of clichés (an urge that hobbled ambitious works like The Missouri Breaks, 1976). Dominik’s stranglehold on the pacing and quietude of the work threaten initially to be off-putting, but soon proves methodical. Dominik is conditioning us to the music of the actors’ smallest gestures and the narrative’s fixated purpose; when the moments of violence come they hit with true force. The film could have perhaps been a bit shorter (maybe cutting one of the proliferation of time-lapse cloud shots), and a droning David McCullough-esque voiceover by Hugh Ross just bugged me. Films that stand up this self-importantly as “Serious Art” often have their heads cut off, but Dominik justifies his approach with his results.

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The film isn’t really revisionist because it doesn’t merely attack or subvert the James myth. Duvall’s James in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid squarely plugs his myth between the eyes when he shoots an unarmed civilian for no reason, whilst mouthing off his guerrilla war justifications, to make it clear he’s just a psycho with a gun. Pitt’s James is a layered creature, and so is the film’s interest in him. The myth of Jesse, how it enfolded him even in life, is important to the story as it was to the people at the time—idea influences reality and vice versa. Robert wants anything like the celebrity Jesse has, in whatever form, to justify his existence. Pitt is a majestic Jesse, as perfectly cast as he was as Achilles—both mythical warriors with deeply human fractures to their images—and is this time served by a good film. Such roles make dramatic weapons out of his looks and charisma, which otherwise automatically overwhelm his acting talents that, up until now, have best been showcased by monomaniacal characters (Seven Years In Tibet, 1997; Fight Club, 1999) or outright crazed ones (Kalifornia, 1993) that promised he’d prove to be more than the Tab Hunter of his day. Affleck matches with one of the best male acting performances in years. Previously relegated to light comic relief opposite Scott Cann in the Ocean’s films, Affleck’s Robert Ford grows slowly but surely from an enigma to an all-too-vivid human tragedy. In the film’s wistful, eerie coda, Robert, a grown man, pursued by infamy and tortured by destroying his friend and his own brother, can find a brief solace in the company of an actress Dorothy Evans, (Zooey Deschanel), but waits as patiently for the bullet from behind as Jesse did.

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2000s, Drama

Don’t Come Knocking (2005)

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Director: Wim Wenders

By Roderick Heath

Like, I think, many other viewers, I gave up on Wim Wenders after the overlong, over-everything sci-fi work Until The End Of The World (1991). I had barely watched any of his work since then, a sad thing considering that two of his films from the 80s, Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984), are amongst my favourites of all time. Don’t Come Knocking was selected for Cannes a couple of years back and greeted by some as a comeback, all the more promising in that it reunited Wenders with Paris, Texas’ scribe, Sam Shepard.

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Since that film’s chilly, unremitting look at humanity lost in wasteland culture, and the counterbalancing magic realism of Wings of Desire (1987), Wenders had become lost in a simultaneous desire to critique modern culture and still be a kind of pop cinema icon, doodling in inflated arthouse projects that lack both the scrappy appeal and economy of a outsider’s low-budget work. Like his mates in U2, he seemed to have long exchanged the appeal of a good hook and well-crafted tune for a desire to be cooler than God and duller than dishwater.

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Don’t Come Knocking isn’t on its face so hugely promising either. It’s laced with flourishes of the fable, always the stickiest, most potentially irritating of narrative modes, and tells a pretty familiar story. Hell, after Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, it’s the second film of 2005 to have the same plot and feature Jessica Lange. Tim Roth plays an unplayable part—a film-studio lawyer who acts like a secret service agent, a remorseless, culturally hermetic enforcer of a plastic, unfeeling corporate culture. Yeah, right, like groovy, gotta watch out for the Man, y’dig?

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And yet, Don’t Come Knocking maintains a poise of expression, a precision of pace, and a lightness of touch that are beguiling. Shepard plays a Western movie star named Howard Spence who indulges in all the modern excesses. Yeah, I know, there are no Western stars anymore, and this kicks off the film’s edge of fable, as Howard, in costume and on a horse, flees a movie set full of irritating movie types, clueless groupies, and a red-faced, infuriated director (George Kennedy!).

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Howard, swaps clothes with a drifter and proceeds on foot to the nearest car rental lot. He drives to Nevada to visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint), who he hasn’t seen in 30 years. We learn that although Howard’s family used to own a ranch, his pose as a cowboy is bogus. His mother has long since sold the property and lives in a bungalow in a Nevada gambling town. She’s kept a scrapbook of his newspaper clippings detailing innumerable drug and drink problems, brushes with the law, fights, and general catastrophe. Howard’s a bundle of nerves and angry impulses. He’s on the run from his reputation. Deeply uncomfortable in the shallow glitz of the local casino he stalks through, he nonetheless likes it when young women recognise him. It’s only with an old school friend that he loses it. He is eventually arrested for getting too emphatic with a slot machine.

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Howard soon finds from his genteel, utterly honourable mother, that he has a son, or so she was told by an ex-girlfriend of his in Butte, Montana, where he shot one of his most successful films, “Just Like Jesse James.” Simultaneously, a young woman named Sky (Sarah Polley) sets out with the ashes of her recently deceased mother, to scatter them in the mountains where her mother had mentioned being happy. Soon, both she and Howard are in Butte—she carrying a blue urn with the ashes, he driving his father’s long-unused Cadillac. Finding his old flame, Doreen (Lange), isn’t difficult; she runs the M&M Bar where they met when she was a waitress. She soon leads him to their son, Earl (Gabriel Mann), who’s a singer-songwriter in an alt-country-blues band, escorted by his girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk), who’s so flaky she could blow away. Earl’s a bundle of dynamite, fuelled by long-festering resentment, ready to go off at Doreen, Amber, or Howard.

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Like Paris, Texas and other Shepard works, Don’t Come Knocking is about regeneration, featuring Shepard’s signature ruined man struggling to recover from the wounds of the past that have reduced him to a vagabond or madman. The demons that drive Howard are obscure, but slowly reveal themselves. In fleeing a rural life, Howard has lived a modern dream, found it hollow, and is panicked contemplating the emptiness of old age. He’s a manifestation of a lost America, whilst Earl is young America—confused and consumed by disillusion and frustration. Sky attempts to serve as intermediary, recognising that the two men, instantly and violently at odds, are her brother and father. The generations are all at odds; Howard’s mother is infinitely forgiving but as easily appalled (by rudeness) as Earl is compulsively unforgiving.

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Don’t Come Knocking is essentially a love letter to an America of the mind, much like Bob Dylan’s recent albums, where, on the outskirts of town, western heroes, blues musicians, punks, and hippie chicks hold court in a mystic kingdom of Cool. Many of the visual compositions are highly reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s work, recreating Hopper’s sense of the alien in the familiar. Wenders’ eye, aided by Franz Lustig’s gorgeous cinematography, captures a West that seems simultaneously beauteous, mystical, eerie, and sparse. The film isn’t so stylised that it seems to happen on another planet, but it does unfold in a dreamy altered state into which manifestations of modern life (chintzy casinos, gyms full of programmed exercisers) appear as epigrams of absurdity. Shepard’s poetic dialogue reinforces the mood, but its feel for detail is strong, like Earl’s boho apartment, on the top floor of a weirdly severed terrace house.

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Most vitally, though unhurried, the film unfolds with a sleek, unruffled ease, moves insistently, and never quite comes to a dead stop until Howard does, in one of the film’s strangest images: Earl, in a rage, ejects first Amber from his apartment and then every item of furniture through an open window, including his couch, upon which Howard falls in bleak, exhausted depression and sits as the day drains away, having realised his son and future might be beyond reach. He’s already been dressed down by Doreen after he said they should have gotten married; she insists there’s no way she’s becoming an emotional crutch for his sorry ass (a spectacular bit of acting from Lange), before kissing him passionately and leaving him in solitude, simultaneously affirming her feeling for him whilst jabbing a thumb in the eye of menopausal male self-involvement.

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Most of the last act occurs in the open-air travesty of a home Earl’s destructive fit provides, where a ragged family accumulates in an exploded living room. Howard tries to leave town, but crashes his car in a boozy daze, and is hauled from the car by Roth, who has finally caught up with him to drag him back to the movie set. Howard manages to convince Roth to give him enough time to say goodbye to his kids. Sky delivers an impassioned soliloquy gushing her desire for Howard to be her father and end a lifelong ache, which Earl also felt but suppressed. Her words melt both Howard’s and Earl’s hearts, even as Howard is hauled off by Roth. He finishes the movie, effortlessly recapturing his style, as Sky, Earl, and Amber drive the Cadillac to come rescue him.

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It’s an unabashedly sweet and cheering ending, all the more affecting for the film’s caginess about its tone and intent—its semi-surreal portrait of modern America is sort of like David Lynch on happy pills. The acting, apart from Roth’s inevitable discomfort, is great. In addition to his skills as an author, Shepard is always a tightly wound, unusually minimal, and truthful-seeming acting presence. His underplaying works well against Mann’s souped-up bravura, and Polley radiates sunshine from her pores.

It’s a treat.

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