Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"He Still Keeps Singing From Morning 'til Night, 'Ride Around..."

As you may already know, last night I attended a screening of both, The Mistfits and Red River. Now, as I may or may not have already made perfectly clear, I am a babe when it comes to Westerns. Growing up, Westerns were so hopelessly out of fashion. They seemed dated, cheesy, routine. The masculinity seemed to gorge its subject matter which generally seemed repetitive, monotonous. Now, all of this I had gleaned, never actually having seen a Western. John Wayne was so much a parody of himself by the time I came of age, that parodies were being made out of parodies of him. I thought that the Western would have nothing to offer me, and furthermore, I thought that they were perhaps one of the more frivolous and unnecessary of the genre tropes. How very wrong I was.

Now, even before I begin my review, I am afraid I must interject to explain one thing. Presently, I wish to discuss Red River (leaving The Misfits for the latter end of this post), or rather, that element of the film which I found most distracting, preventing me from writing an unbiased or purely filmic reaction to the film. That element just so happens to be my newfound love affair with a certain Montgomery Clift. My lord! When going to see the film, particularly because it starred good old John Wayne, my expectation was such that I assumed Wayne would be the central figure of the film, and not just Wayne, but THE John Wayne: staunch, virile, sexy (in the manner that I most frequently attribute to that time) and steadfast. I figured he would be the protagonist, being wronged and rightfully gaining retribution for it. Yet again, how wrong I was. See, not only was I the one to claim Clift as my very own, but America, too, at the time of the film's distribution, was so perfectly enraptured with him that he became an overnight sensation. Rightfully so. There was, in particular, one key scene which caught my immediate fancy(pictured above). I had seen the scene before, but had not drawn the association out before it played itself out on the screen last night. This scene was the one included in the Documentary of Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet, for all the right reasons. Clift and encounter a fellow by the name of Cherry Vance mere days before they are to make their seemingly impossible journey. Vying for Waynes' attention, Vance and Garth (Clift) size each other up. The men unholster their pistols and compare them. Offering them to one another respectively, they shoot off each other's gun at a tin can which they make dance in the prairie with bullets. It is a scene of surprising and blatant sexual candor. This is the sort of scene which assuredly inspired the current fervent Brokeback Mountain, but conversely, shows just how unnecessary that film really is.

This sexuality runs its course through the film. Cherry becomes Clift's sidekick. At one point he and a fellow cowahand are sent ahead to scan the upcoming terrain. When the other man returns alone, Clift regretfully asks, "What's her name?" Now this melodramatic element to the film was something I had never expected from all of the prior associations I had held with the Western. Red Rivers' drama is in no way dissimilar from that of the 50 women's films - ones that might star Jane Wyman or Susan Hayward. The men are saddled up with chaps (that do little if not steer all attention toward their groins) in a way that might reflect the fashions of the women in their films. Clift was to be the new cowboy. He is sensitive and intelligent, lead by his heart rather than his ego. Here, Wayne is the old cowboy, and as the film progresses, we watch the old replace the new, eventually casting Wayne as the "bad guy."

Female sexuality is eventually introduced to an otherwise all male cast in the character of Tess Mallay. She fancies Clift as I do, and upon meeting him, jabbers away, regardless of the cavalcade of Indians who engage her Wagon train in a shoot out. She is a strong willed woman who, when mid sentence is pierced by the arrow of an enemy Indian, irritably regards her shoulder affliction, and continues right along with her sentence. She is like Dietrich in Von Sternberg's world - strong and independent. When she and Clift finally fall in love, it is in the dark prairie, under a cloud of mist and fog, well suited for any scene from The Scarlette Empress. From the moment she is introduced, she commands the action throughout the rest of the film. Acting as film's sage, it is she who ends the final standoff with a sharp tongue. She is the voice of reason that is absent in the will of the cowboys.

Marilyn Monroe similarly takes this stance in The Misfits which is really another beast, entirely. Directed by John Huston and written by Arthur Miller (at his most Arthur Miller), the film is a harsh adieu to the life of the modern Cowboy. Starting in a modern city with streets and stop lights, the Cowboys fit in all too well. They seem more in search of leisure than of the lifestyle which is integral to the Cowboy mentality. They refer to themselves by that moniker, yet they wane in their years. In a turn of sad truth, Huston casts the film with world famous actors who appear the worse for wear. In her last film, Monroe is more the kindred spirit than the ditz of previous roles. It is she who invests the lives of these men with a last breath of vitality before their roles as figures of masculinity are replaced by different societal needs all together. They cling to their prior conception of "the life," though, as we find at the end of the film, that "life" has already shifted into a role which necessitates fewer and fewer efforts as the years go by. But even Monroe seems tired, emotionally and physically. Her face is lining slightly and her body weak. The femininity that would have once desired them, now screams of their barbaric tendencies, how out of touch they are with current times.

A post-accident roughened Clift portrays Perce, a not-all-there Rodeo man, whose middle age betrays his juvenile carelessness. He rides the bulls and drinks to spurn his remarried mother, rather than to "live it up." He grows tired, but has not established a niche for himself in the society which he spurns. And, as one might expect, this society has no place for such a man. He drifts in and out of towns, borrowing money from distant acquaintances as a means by which to avoid responsibility. Huston introduces Perce in a phone booth. As he waits for a call to go through, a car carrying the rest of our "misfits" pulls up. The person on the other end turns out to be his mother who perpetually infantilizes him. He draws the door closed at the more callow moments of the conversation, but we can still hear his hushed words through the door. It is a heartbreaking moment, particularly because Clift's is a persona of great stamina sexual command. Here, Huston reduces that role to an aged sniffling man-child.

It is the use of persona that works most effectively in the film. We are watching falling stars, just as their characters are roughened by the modernization of everyday life. The roles that they fulfilled have been nullified. Nowhere is that more clear than the inclusion of the late, great Clark Gable. In what was to also be his last role, Gable plays (the ironically named) Gay Langland, whose age streams down his face like tears. He is old. That figure of beauty from Cinema's youth is dying. He is worse than dead, he is a sad old man. An old man who clings to a world which has all but ceased to exist. It was hard for me not to see traces of Lynch's Bobby Peru, a figure obviously influenced, if only aesthetically, by Langland. But paired with Monroe, Gable's age and physical fatigue are unbearable. Even at the end, in the scene with the mustangs, he fights, not, as he claims, to make his mind up for himself, but to prove that he is still capable, still alive. It is a shattering film which bids goodbye to one of cinema's best loved genres. It would never be the same again.


Anonymous tatiana said...

the first sentence alone got me. fucking hilarious.

2:07 PM  
Anonymous tatiana said...

why can't i delete my comment when i put it in the wrong place. everyone's going to go, "what is so fucking hilarious about seeing the misfits and red river?" hmm...maybe i'll just let them think i'm really profound and found some sort of covert hilarity in that sentence...or not.

11:17 PM  
Anonymous human pheromone said...

good info

9:01 PM  

In all honesty you have read too many critics who like to see sex in everything

5:13 PM  

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