McCABE AND MRS. MILLER: Part 1

photo courtesy of slantmagazine.com

 Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a masterful film in many aspects but one I believe that stands out is its depiction and portrayal of the “anti-hero” character type that was so prevalent in the films of the 1970’s.  The title characters played by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie couldn’t be further from the classic Hollywood formula of having it’s two most beautiful megastars in a period love story.

          When we first meet John McCabe we see him as a faceless rider on horseback, covered in a bear-skin coat, riding through the mountain wilderness, seemingly heading nowhere in particular.  When he arrives in “Presbyterian Church”, the small Western town where he will eventually establish himself, we see that McCabe is someone who has charisma and wit which enables him to take over the townspeople who lack both of these important qualities.  McCabe appears to have a goal in mind at the start of the film when he begins drawing up plans to open a saloon and brothel to which the men of the town quickly get on board and begin building his business for him.  The first crack we see in McCabe’s personality is when “Mrs. Miller” arrives in town.  It is obvious that she is a much more driven and successful person than McCabe with her intelligence and dominant personality.  Although McCabe enjoys the fruits of his partnership with Mrs. Miller we also begin to see his content with the status quo of owning the saloon and brothel.  At this point, I felt as though McCabe had gone further than he was capable of going which is why he had no idea how to handle the meeting with Sears and Hollander from the Mining company.  Both McCabe and Mrs. Miller are both destroyed by their inability to handle the forces of authority that close in on them throughout the film.  We both believe that their initial success and budding romance will be the main theme of the film but truly, what this film is about is “failure’ and how these two characters are drifters who will only go as far as their ambition will take them which in the case of McCabe, is not very far, and for Mrs. Miller, despite her brains and ambition, is only as far as any Woman could make it in the Wild West without succumbing to the will of a Man.

          The structure of McCabe and Mrs. Miller is pretty typical, as we do have a clear beginning, middle, and end.  McCabe arrives in town, takes over the saloon, has some success, falls in love with Mrs. Miller, and is then threatened and ultimately destroyed by the Mining company.  As Thomas Elsasser states in his article, this story structure is classic Hollywood, and throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, you would most likely see John McCabe and Constance Miller fall in love, outsmart the Mining company, and ride off together into the sunset, rich and in love.  Clearly this is a story structure that was shattered in the 1970’s.  The altering of the story structure goes right along with the theme of the film which is McCabe is an “anti-hero”, another new invention of the 70’s cinema, drifting through his life until he brushes up against the authority figures and ultimately succumbs to their will.  What I found fascinating about the film was the way in which it chose a different period of history to portray the issues and attitudes of the “anti-hero” of the 1960’s and 70’s.  Films like Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider are both “anti-hero” films dealing with the current events and climate of the time period they are taking place.  For McCabe and Mrs. Miller, it was a brilliant decision by Robert Altman to tell the story through the eyes of a Western mining town at the turn of the century to show how the idea of the “anti-hero” has always existed.

          The character of John McCabe is very similar to the character of Charlie in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.  Both men are charismatic guys who skirt the edges of a criminal world.  They both find themselves with great opportunities thrust upon them yet they don’t have the intelligence or proper amount of ambition to act upon their opportunities.  For McCabe, he is clearly smart and savvy enough to walk into a town and pretty much take it over and make it his own.  Yet, when the possibility for more riches and success come his way in the form of the offer from the Mining company, he has no idea how to handle it as well as having no ambition to take his new riches and move onto something bigger and better.  In the same way, Charlie owns a bar in Little Italy with his friends and is content being the “Man” at this establishment in the way we see him wander through the bar in slow motion, dancing and laughing with girls while the patrons clap and cheer for him.  Charlie’s goal is to open his own restaurant and move “uptown” to escape the neighborhood of Little Italy and the stress of his cousin Johnny Boy.  Charlie, mush like John McCabe, seems to understand that his goals are not only unsatisfactory but also unattainable as we see both men get gunned down at the end of the films.  McCabe literally, and Charlie only gets wounded by the bullets meant for his cousin Johnny Boy.  Keeping in line with the “Pathos of Failure” both of these characters, two likeable, charismatic men with “poetry inside of them” as John McCabe says, end up not very far from where they started the films.  McCabe dies but Charlie lives.  Either way, these two “anti-heroes”, although relatable to the audience, do not achieve any type of success or “happy ending” that was always guaranteed in the films that came before the 1970’s.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: SEASON 2/EP 2 – JOHN FORD, ORSON WELLES, & GREGG TOLAND

The Grapes of Wrath' | Critics' Picks | The New York Times | 8Hours
photo courtesy of youtube.com
Here's why Citizen Kane fell below Paddington 2 on Rotten Tomatoes - CNET
photo courtesy of cnet.com

It’s February 26, 1942. The 14th Academy Awards are taking place at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood. With 9 nominations, Citizen Kane is poised to have a monumental night and the crowning of Orson Welles as the new king of Hollywood seems only to be a formality. But when the night is over, the Best Picture and Director categories would be swept by How Green Was My Valley, the epic tale of a Welsh mining town starring Maureen O’Hara and directed by none other than…John Ford.

Even the most arbitrary film fan could tell you that Citizen Kane is known as the greatest film of all time. An opinion shared by film fans and filmmakers alike, but most notably the American Film Institute. So why did it lose on Oscar night? Maybe Orson Welles himself is the best person to explain it. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Welles was asked by reporters which directors inspired him, to which he famously replied: “I prefer the old masters…by which I mean, John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” It is widely rumored that Orson Welles watched Stagecoach continuously while filming Citizen Kane. One needs only to watch the blocking and framing of both films as well as the practical sets used in both to see the similarities. But Orson Welles had more than just an affinity for John Ford while making his own masterpiece. He had Gregg Toland, one of the finest cinematographers in film history. Just before shooting Citizen Kane with Welles, Toland had just done two films with John Ford. 1940’s Oscar nominee The Long Voyage Home and the other was the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s quintessential Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath would not only win Ford his second Best Director Oscar but would also be another work of art to add to the outstanding portfolio Gregg Toland was already building. Before dying in his sleep of coronary thrombosis in 1948 at the age of 44, Gregg Toland was at the height of one of the finest bodies of work in cinema history. In addition to photographing The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath, Toland also shot classics such as Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, The Best Years Of Our Lives, and Wuthering Heights, for which he received his only Academy Award.

In The Grapes Of Wrath, Toland and Ford combined to bring Steinbeck’s classic novel to the screen and tell the quintessential story of the Great Depression. John Ford would trade in his stagecoach for the Joad family’s flatbed truck and run it through the wide open Western landscapes while Toland, drawing from photographer Dorothea Lange’s incredible series of portraits documenting the Depression era up close, produced shot after shot depicting the raw reality of Americans on the brink of poverty. With Henry Fonda, a John Ford favorite, playing the Depression era outlaw Tom Joad, Toland used both wide open spaces and tight framing in the opening shots to not only introduce the main character but also foreshadow where he is headed at the end of the film.

The film opens with Tom Joad walking down an empty country lane. In both wide shots and medium shots Joad appears as a shadow on the wide open, barren Midwestern landscape. It isn’t until he hitches a ride with a truck driver that we finally see a full shot of Henry Fonda’s face. Toland brilliantly frames Tom Joad in a tight shot inside the truck’s windshield. Joad who we will soon find out was just released from prison, already shows the feeling of confinement. Right away we can tell that the tall, thin man we just saw casually strolling along the country roads with his hands in his pockets is now stiff and getting increasingly uncomfortable with the truck driver’s inquisition about who he is and where is he going? When Joad gets out of the truck, he gives the driver a parting sneer as he sets off walking along the road, as he started the film and as he will end it…alone.

Moments later, after meeting the Preacher, Tom Joad returns to his family home and finds the farm and property deserted. Together, with the Preacher, Joad explores the dark, empty house with only the light of a candle. When the two men get spooked by a noise, they discover the Joad’s neighbor, Muley, hiding on the property. When they invite him into the house the three men crouch down around the candlelight as Muley relays the story of how the farm land was taken away from the families by the government. Leaning on the dark tone of the scene, Toland brilliantly exploits the darkness of the house. With the candlelight flickering off the faces of Joad, Muley, and the Preacher, Muley’s story takes on the air of a ghost story, with the Joad homestead resembling a haunted house. Muley caps off his tale of woe, one of the thousands shared by families of the Great Depression, describing himself as just “a ghost in a graveyard” as he remains unlawfully on the property that was taken from Tom Joad’s family.

The Grapes of Wrath would prove to be a monumental work for both Ford and Toland as it would cement Toland as a force behind the camera and it would give Ford his second Best Director Oscar, setting him up to become the first Director to win the award in consecutive years.

The other collaboration of 1940 between Ford and Toland was The Long Voyage Home based on plays written by Eugene O’Neill. A film about sailors coping with homesickness, threats from Nazi U-boats, and trying to sneak in a few drinks without the officers knowing is certainly not John Ford’s finest. The cramped quarters below deck handcuffed the man who was so talented at exploiting the wide open spaces of the American West. It is Toland who outshines Ford in this picture as we see his love for the Low Angle shot on full display. Using the narrow lanes of the ship’s port and starboard sides, Toland placed his camera on the deck and captured the sailors as they paced back and forth, having conversations, peering out to sea, or slipping and sliding as they try to take cover from a German aerial attack. One fabulous scene in particular is when the ship runs into bad weather. As waves crash on top of the deck, we see the camera being engulfed by the rushing water. It is clear that the low angle brilliance of The Long Voyage Home would only be a warmup for Toland’s next project with Orson Welles…Citizen Kane.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: SEASON 2/EP 1: THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE LEGEND

John Ford - IMDb
photo courtesy of imdb.com

John Ford was born John M. Feeney on February 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In his late teens, the son of Irish immigrants followed his older brother, Francis to Hollywood where he changed his name to John Ford. Ford found work as an actor, stuntman, and set handyman before landing as an Assistant Director. Notorious for his sardonic humor, when Ford was asked in his later years by a documentary filmmaker, “How did you get to Hollywood?” The legendary filmmaker replied, “By train.” More comical than that remark is the thought that Hollywood’s most decorated filmmaker only got his first opportunity to direct while working on a Western as an AD and his boss failed to show up due to a hangover.

In the 1920’s, John Ford gained a reputation as a solid, efficient, no nonsense Director, which put him in demand among all of the major studios. By the time the 1930’s rolled around Ford went on a successful run of films that cemented his legend as Hollywood’s greatest director. Beginning with The Informer in 1935 for RKO, Ford began flexing his wide array of filmmaking muscles. Those familiar with Monument Valley John Ford would be shocked to see that the film is deeply inspired by German Expressionism. Ford himself stated that he drew from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise but there are also many similarities to Fritz Lang’s M. The film opens with the main character Gypo Nolan wandering through the fog drenched streets and alleys of Dublin, Ireland, where shadows lurk around every corner. When Gypo’s friend is murdered by the Black and Tans after Gypo informs on him for a cheap reward, Gypo sets off roaming through the city in a paranoid daze, reminiscent of Peter Lorre trying to evade the police and angry mobs in Berlin during M. True to German Expressionism form, Gypo begins seeing the Reward Poster and his best friend’s face appear on screen, tearing away at his guilt while at the same time he blows all of his reward money on drinks and celebration. The truth finally catches up with Gypo in a basement inquisition, equally reminiscent of the moment Peter Lorre meets his fate in M. Dabbling in German Expressionism definitely agreed with John Ford as The Informer would win him his first of four Academy Awards for Best Director. Four years later, Ford would direct a film that would not only become the greatest Western of all time but it would also launch the career of the most popular film star ever.

In 1939, John Ford released Stagecoach, the epic tale of eight people on a stagecoach ride through dangerous country, each passenger dripping with dramatic presence. Stagecoach was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture where it was up against Hollywood mammoths like Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. While it lost in the Best Picture category to Gone With The Wind it has certainly stood the test of time better than its competitors. Where Gone With The Wind’s disgraceful portrayal of African-Americans finally caught up with it, and The Wizard of Oz being reduced to a children’s fairy tale, Stagecoach has endured as a testament to the art of filmmaking.

With so many aspects that make it timeless, it really is the characters that stand out above all. Ford was way ahead of his time, having not one anti-hero in the film but three. While Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his portrayal of the alcoholic but courageous physician, “Doc Boone”, and John Wayne launched his legendary career with his performance as the outlaw “Ringo Kid”, it is the performance of Claire Trevor as the much maligned prostitute, “Dallas”, and her status clash with the prim and proper wife of a soldier, “Mrs. Mallory” that outshines the typical action and gunfights of a Western film. The arc of these two characters is remarkable, going form Mrs. Mallory not even being able to sit next to Dallas at the dining table due to her disgust, to Dallas winning her over with kindness and compassion while she helps Doc Boone deliver Mrs. Mallory’s baby. John Ford’s greatest achievement in Stagecoach is not the action packed finale or the wide beautiful shots of Monument Valley. It is the compelling drama portrayed by two strong women, something that is still uncommon in 2021, let alone in 1939, when Hollywood was entrenched in the Dark Ages of racial and gender bias.

On the next episode of Director’s Spotlight: John Ford…by the time the United States entered World War 2, Joh Ford had already won his second Academy Award for Best Director, laying the foundation for his dominance of Hollywood. Everyone was now taking notice of John Ford, especially the “Boy Wonder” from The Mercury Theater in New York…Orson Welles.

‘Shoeless’ Joe, FIELD OF DREAMS, and ‘The Hero’s Journey’

White Sox and Yankees to Play at Field of Dreams
photo courtesy of ESPN 1170AM

John Kinsella:“Is this Heaven?”

Ray Kinsella: “No. It’s Iowa.”

Professor of mythology, Joseph Campbell, was famous for discovering “The Hero’s Journey.” It is the belief in what he called the ‘monomyth’, the theory that all myths from all cultures, passed down through generations, are all part of a ‘single great story.’ The Hero, begins in his Ordinary World, is called to take on a quest or journey with great consequence, overcomes dangerous obstacles, and finally returns to his Ordinary World, stronger and wiser but forever changed. Campbell’s theory has been proven over and over again when you look at the great epics whether ancient(The Odyssey) or contemporary(The Lord of the Rings). What’s truly fascinating is how The Hero’s Journey has influenced modern story telling, most notably movies. Star Wars is nothing more than a science fiction version of the monomyth, but if you look even further than the great epics you will see that most films follow the path of The Hero’s Journey.

Movies and baseball have gone hand in hand for quite some time. Maybe that is because baseball, more than any other sport, is loaded with myths and legends: Babe Ruth ‘calling his shot’ in the 1932 World Series, Sidd Finch, the New York Mets “pitching prospect” who could throw a 168mph fastball, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, after being suspended for life from MLB, playing in semi-pro games on the East Coast. Even ‘Casey at the Bat’ is considered an epic poem by die hard baseball fans. But is one of the greatest baseball movies of all time, ‘Field of Dreams’, just another strain of The Hero’s Journey? The answer is Yes!

‘Field of Dreams’ opens with a Ken Burns type montage, beautifully narrated by Kevin Costner, introducing us to the main character, Ray Kinsella. The scene quickly shows us Ray’s “Ordinary World” and is followed by the famous opening scene when Ray, at dusk in the corn field, receives the “Call to Action”: “If You build it, He will come.” Ray goes through denial at first and confides with his wife Annie that he might just be hearing things. He finally has a vision of what the Voice is telling him and he builds a Baseball Diamond on half of his farm.

At this stage of the Journey, Ray “Meets his Mentor”, the one who will give him guidance along his path. The mentor comes in the form of none other than the great ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, who happens to be Ray’s father’s favorite player. Ray initially believes that is quest is over just by giving Joe a chance to play baseball again. Hearing the Voice again telling him to “Go the Distance”, Ray sets off on a journey that leads him to meet famous writer Terrence Mann(based on J.D. Salinger), who accompanies Ray to Minnesota where they search for the legendary Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, played by Burt Lancaster in his final film role. A younger Archie Graham played by Frank Whaley accompanies Ray and Terrence back to Iowa and he is quickly inserted into a game where he gets to live out his dream and step in the box for an at bat against a Major League pitcher. Ray has just granted another wish to one of his allies by giving the ghost of a baseball player one last chance to play.

While Ray is on the road meeting ‘Allies’ and overcoming ‘Tests’, the ‘Enemy’ of the film emerges in the form of Ray’s brother in-law, Mark, in an excellent performance by Timothy Busfield. Mark wants to buy the farm from Ray and is now forcing his hand since Ray and Annie are facing bankruptcy due to the construction of the baseball field and destruction of the corn. A dramatic scene unfolds when Ray returns home and while watching a ‘game’ with his family and Terrence, he gets into a heated argument with Mark about selling the farm. Faced with the power of possessing the cradle of baseball history in his own backyard Ray ‘heroically’ says No to Mark and saves ‘Shoeless’ Joe and the ‘Black Sox’ for eternity.

The climax of The Hero’s Journey is called the “Return with the Elixir.” It states that the hero has been resurrected and may now return to the Ordinary World, although that World is now forever changed. ‘Shoeless’ Joe tells Ray that the field was not for himself but for Ray’s father, John Kinsella. Ray repeats to himself the Voice’s line, “Ease His Pain.” He then whispers to Joe, “I thought it was you?” Joe replies “No Ray. It was you.” Ray’s “Elixir” is that he gets to meet his father when he was a ballplayer, in the prime of his life. The two walk and talk as if John is just another ballplayer enjoying Ray’s field until Ray breaks the ice: “Hey Dad? Wanna have a catch?” Ray’s world has clearly changed for the better as he has reconciled with his father’s ghost. The camera pulls back to a sweeping aerial shot of the father and son having a catch as a line of headlights backs up for miles, all coming to see a brand new world…’Shoeless Joe’ in Iowa.

Happy Father’s Day!

ANATOMY OF A SCENE: Mise-en-scene in the Safdie Brother’s GOOD TIME

Good Time: A Luddite Robot Conversation - Luddite Robot
photo courtesy of Luddite Robot

The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time is an excellent film that is rich in the use of mise en scene. One example that I thought was very strong was the sequence right after the brothers Nick and Connie rob the bank and begin to make their getaway. This scene, through the use of sound, composition, and hair and makeup, grabs the audience’s attention and puts them in the middle of the intensity felt by the two main characters.

Immediately after dumping their clothes and masks, Nick and Connie emerge from an alley and wait for their getaway driver to pick them up. From the moment he enters the film in the first five minutes, Connie, played by Robert Pattinson, is in control. The scene begins with a close up, shot seemingly from across the street with a zoom lens, of Connie nervously talking to the driver on his cellphone. It is an extremely tight shot on his face and there is no mystery as to how he is feeling as we are able to see the anxiousness in his eyes. The scene then cuts to a wider shot of Nick wandering away before Connie calls him back. The close ups then continue as the driver shows up and the brothers get into the car.

The scene inside the car was very reminiscent of the opening scene of Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Similar to Bresson’s film where Fontaine is being transported to the prison in the back of a car, we see the main characters, Connie and Nick shot in close up sitting in the back seat of the car. The close ups once again are very tight so we can barely see the windows behind their faces. Even the driver is shown in close up with a shallow background so we don’t really know where he is going. Inside the car is where the sound becomes extremely important. As they ride away we hear police sirens in the background. Without seeing flashing lights we still know that the sirens are close because of the volume. When the sirens fade away, the brothers, and the audience get a moment of relief. Connie then smiles at Nick and asks if he wants to hold the bag of money. Feeling like it is a victory lap, Connie hands Nick the bag, which we see in close up. Immediately upon receiving the bag, Nick rests it on his lap as a high-pitched beep is heard. Cut to the driver in close up asking nervously, “What’s that sound?” We then cut back to Connie as he looks at the bag nervously. Once again the close up is very effective as the tight shot of Connie’s expression tells us that he knows what is about to happen.

The next shot is a close up of the bag combined with a long hissing noise. The bag slowly bursts into a cloud of pink dust. A cut to a tight close up of Nick’s face until the dust explodes and all we see is pink. The pink covers the screen creating a type of black out. We cannot see the brothers anymore. We can only hear their screams of panic as the car is engulfed in the dust. Then we cut outside of the car to a wide shot of the car spinning out of control and smashing into a parked car. The sequence inside the car ends with a close up through the windshield of the driver’s lifeless hands resting on the steering wheel covered in a pinkish hue. Although we only see the hands, the use of the pink dust covering everything lets us know why the car crashed.

I believe that close ups are essential to a film because not only do they give us a window into the thoughts and feelings of our characters but they can also create tension in space and setting. The Safdie brothers’ use of close ups in the car heightened the tension of the film not just by showing emotion but also creating a claustrophobic and trapped feeling for the characters once the pink dust exploded and all hell broke loose.