The Hanging Tree (1959)

The Hanging Tree (1959)

Noted as Gary Cooper‘s last starring western I knew  he had something special in The Man of the West (1958) could the same darkness be replicated? The answer is complicated really. One you don’t have Anthony Mann behind the camera, Man of the West was really his last great film before his death. What we have in The Hanging Tree (1959) is a film about our primitive urges as human beings, not exploring all of them in real depth but at least scratching under the surface of the idea to reveal just how easily lead we can be as a group, a society when pushed, and not even that hard.

When Dr. Joseph ‘Doc’ Frail (Cooper) rides into yet another boom town, gold is being found and spent. A good ol’ fashioned  hanging is taking place over a a crime that is never made clear. The whole town i is there, driven by revenge and a sense of justice, a law and order that they all get behind, you break the law and you break your neck. The Doc looks on saying little, is he different from these average townspeople who are hungry for gold, living on a shoe-string at times until their luck comes in. In this opening sequence you can see no expense is spared as the surrounding landscape is built upon to bring this gold-mining community alive of only for a few month as filming got under way in Washington-state, a landscape straight out of the classics which we identify as the old west, a perfect setting for a forgotten way of life.

We don’t have to wait long to discover what the Doc is like as he treats his first patient Rune (Ben Piazza) for a gunshot wound after stealing gold from another mans (Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) mine. With no money to pay him for his services another method is needed, becoming his man-servant, a slave almost to the doctor, a public figure who the community should look-up to. A private arrangement based on blackmail brings these two men together, one of slave and master, both white so invisible to those around them. The Doc’s reputation is one that precedes him, one of dark acts that they cannot forget. Having both friends and enemies in the town.

A hard man who is tough to break until a stagecoach hold-up leaving one survivor who suffers badly under the sun. Its set-up like a car crash hit and run, rolling down the hill, minus the explosion. The Doc takes his time to visit his latest patient a foreign girl Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) who is to become his most important patient after taking all kinds of payment for his work. From a simple kiss from a child on the cheek, to receiving horses. He’s more like the traditional image of Doc Holiday than your average frontier doctor wanting to treat the sick and heal the wounded after gun0fight. He does have compassion and drive to do his job, sometimes his motives can be questioned. 

Once he has comet the aid of Elizabeth he hardly leaves it until she is on the road to recover, when we see another side to Cooper’s character, something I didn’t find as Link Jones in Man of the West whose violent past came back to haunt him. Here we have a man driven by his urges, unable to shake them off, something bathing in them as he lashes out, especially opposite Frenchy who at least admits that he’s only human. You could say he’s a pervert by todays standard, washed down for the 1950’s. He can much like Rune can see through the doctors image to find a possessive figure who won’t let Elizabeth go once better.

When the three (Elizabeth, Rune and Frenchy) of them team up and stake a claim which is propped up by Doc behind the scenes. Never far away from the trio, pulling the strings, supporting Elizabeth, a confident woman who won’t take any messing about. When the success comes the trio’s away, striking gold, mayhem ensues in the town. Giving into basic urges following the few leading to destruction and eventually death in the town, bringing us back full circles, that little seen or spoken of tree of justice is brought back, Showing just how human and flawed we are, following the crowd, our greed and desire for safety are out of control, no measure of fairness, witness and crime and prosecute.

For Coopers last western, not quite his last leading role but certainly in the American frontier he has come full circle from being the all round hero who saves the day to being a flawed and complicated man. The male figure is not so straight forward in reality, not even in the west are things that simple, finding ways to survive, making mistakes in their past and trying to live with them. All in the midst of all the progress in the gold rush and the drive for law and order. What I can take away from this film is the landscapes and complicated characters who try to look into the darker side of life.

Kelvin Ferguson – Westerns Compressed

Last night I was taken aback by a post shared on Facebook, which in-turn I had to share. It was so breath-taking at the time when I saw fifty montages of fifty westerns. Comprised of every frame at 10 second intervals. An investigation to discover the overall colour palette and look of the film. All with incredible results when each of these frames from the respective films are placed upon each other to create a ghostly blur of an image. It doesn’t sound much when you think about it. A methodical task to understand the make-up of the film. A process better explained by Kelvin Ferguson in this post which had me at westerns.

It’s Ferguson’s thoroughness of the work that really drew me to the work, taking a huge number of films and analysing them. The genre is far from dead, it’s breathing summing up the aesthetic of the genre in 50 images, well quite a few more (you get the idea). They are so intricate, drawing you into take a closer look at these films. Admittedly the black and white film aren’t so successful, there are some interesting surprises which do pop-out at you which brings out the essence of the individual film.

Each time I look at these I see something different, It’s like looking into the clouds or into TV static creating new images out of noise.

The Rover (2014)

The Rover (2014)The Rover (2014) was first brought to my attention as a post-apocalyptic western, the western part really stick in my mind, which is not surprising really, making the viewing of this film all the richer. A cross between the Mad Max trilogy and the west. Set after a global economic collapse which again like most past events in these films are never really explained, the mere mentioned is a mystery to us, only the characters have any idea what went on, in this case 10 years previous.

In a sense The Rover is a very simple story with plenty of action thrown in the middle to make it worth your while, which is hardly fair. When Eric’s (Guy Pearce) car is stolen whilst he is having a quiet drink. His only means of transportation in the Australian desert taken from him, by a group of men who crashed their own car due to a fight. Like taking another man’s horse, an extension of himself. A means of movement and freedom is stolen. The gang of men, made up of American’s, South Africans and Australians didn’t count on the persistence of this lone man who is able to make his way on the road. Meaning business as he scares the hells out of these wandering men. Everyone is out for themselves in the harsh reality where all men carry a gun for protection.

They didn’t count on one of the men; Henry’s (Scoot McNairy) brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) who they left for dead to being found by Eric. It’s not the start of a beautiful friendship, more a bargaining chip in ensuring he gets his car back. He doesn’t care about the mentally disabled Rey who grows to need the cold killer who takes what he wants when he needs it. Driving along the open dusty road that seems to go on forever. Nowhere is safe, always having on the edge of your seat, not knowing who to trust.

It’s nice to see Pattinson growing out his teenage fan base of the Twilight series to become a half-decent actor who knows a good part when he reads one. Able to assume the part of a disabled person, taking on mannerism without being comical, coming almost naturally. Whilst Pearce is chewing the scenery, the angry older man who has seen it all, not caring what life throws at him.

The world that director David Michôd creates is dark and dangerous is not without fault. The presence of the army is left lingering. Are they the last resort in this chaotic world? The governments only way of controlling the country, are they the government? In George Miller‘s world the police are non-existent by the end of the first film. The breakdown of society is being held in place by the army here, whilst it’s not that strong as we find out. All that aside it’s a decent thriller once again from Michod who gave us the far darker Animal Kingdom (2010) which was far grittier as a criminal family slowly turned in on itself. All that said I think Australia does the post-apocalyptic genera far better, with the landscapes to play with it, you can really believe the barrenness of a future world where little or no-one is left alive. The Rover is a continuation of that genre, as we pursue a car not really knowing the reasons that drive that, it goes on forever…it feels to reveal a very human need at the end which you don’t see a coming.

Iron Horse of the Studio Update (12/4/15)

Even spending a day away from the studio hasn’t stopped my making some progress on the video. I have progressed to almost 7 minutes now. Last night I had 4 mins. I have also stayed working with footage I shot on day two, closing in on day three. Things are moving faster, it also varies on the track footage that breaks up the clips, which have to be edited, and sped up to suggest movement at train-speeds. There are a few more fun moments in there now. I’m even seeing the track being laid out in front of me as its progresses which is what I wanted, its both fun and adds context as track allowed a whole country to be connected, it allows me to progress through the studio. It really is coming together.

I won’t be picking it up until next weekend now, when I should have the majority of it completed by then, leaving me to polish it off, and found some train audio to add on top to be more authentic.

Festen/The Celebration (1998)

Festen:The Celebration (1998)Another film I noticed when I watched documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), mentioning Festen/The Celebration (1998) in the last episode as film progresses from celluloid to digital. Noted as the first film recorded on domestic home video cameras. At the time a radical move to make, part of a movement of film-making known as Dogme which stripped back film-making to the essentials, the plot which is what I got most out of the film myself.

Of course by todays standard of slick films it visually it comes across as amateur, there’s no lighting, relying entirely on the natural illuminations of the rooms/sets they are in. Yet at the same time we have all made videos on our phones or cameras with little thought, just in the moment. Capturing moments in our lives. This is about capturing whats in front of the camera a little else. Which is a family coming together for a 60th birthday part at a hotel they own, where all hell breaks loose.

From the opening scenes we see two brothers, one Christian (Ulrich Thomsenwalking down the road, passed by his brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) in his car with his family. Deciding to throw his wife and kids out in favour of his brother, we can tell already where loyalties lie in the very fractured family who come together, fighting from the moment all three siblings meet at the hotel. We can see what their family is life, just by looking at these three including sister Helene (Paprika Steen). The importance of appearances is very important as they meet all the extend family and friends, keeping the host face on as long as possible.

Sounds like your average family drama with all the big revelations that come out over the next 24 hours. Its intensity is built up in the intimacy of the hand-held camera that can get into angles and places that a hunky standard film camera had no chance. Today we can achieve the angles with ease on a daily basis on our smartphones without even thinking about the meaning of the angle, the emotion, the thought behind it, they are throw away in comparison to this carefully constructed film, just like any other, which threw out all the gloss to leave the camera and the actor. Who themselves had to be the camera-man to get the shots.

It has opened off the possibility of film, who can make film has becoming a universal act. Pick up a camera and shoot, If you’re lucky enough you can get paid for it which is always a bonus. But is that a good thing, when everyone can make a film? I mean are they all worth watching, would they reach a wide audience or just a handful. Some are just home-movies, not open for mass consumption. It has allowed for new forms of film and documentary to be made, how we see the world, when big events happen, we see YouTube/phone camera footage on the news within hours of the story breaking. How we view film has in that context has changed, the speed of production can be a quick as adding a filter to being a two minute film made in one shot. Creativity has blossomed. Yet there is still something in a film that as intimate as Festen that really pushed the boundaries of how we view and shoot a film. It would really be something to see this film projected, how would the quality of the image be affected, would it matter after all when you have such engaging characters all of whom we can relate to?

Iron Horse of the Studio Update (11/4/15)

I’ve had a full day editing my video together today, something I’ve been waiting to do all week. It’s really coming together. I know I say that a lot, if I were to show you a raw cut of the film you would see why. I’m holding back sharing any material with you until its ready now, not even a screen-shot until the big reveal.

So how far have I got? In term of piecing it together I have just gone into second day of filming so I’m moving as fast as the complexity of the scene I am piecing together. Having to make more decisions as it all comes together. It’s looking fun in places and looking to be the longest duration for a video I have made to date, which it needs to be to take in all of the studio, weaving from bay to bay. I am also very aware that the steam coming out of the train has to be included in the clips that I have found, making sure they are included as edit the piece. I’m hoping to do more tomorrow and can share more with you them.

¡Three Amigo’s! (1986)

Three Amigos (1986)For some reason I don’t really like watching or seeking out comedy westerns, the blend of two completely different genres, one action-packed full of grand characters who throw their weight about the other based on the build-up to line that encourages laughter. Or maybe there is so much difference, the both rely on the audience to trust them on taking them on a journey to enquire and explore a subject to discover more. When you bring the two together I feel its poking fun at a genre I love. I’m only starting to accept that the fact comedy is celebrating the genre. Especially in a time when Three Amigo’s (1986) was released there weren’t many westerns in production, the output in that decade was not between 10-15 a year, compared to the hey-day of the 1950-60s. With less than 10 from the U.S that year, not even a Clint Eastwood who was still directing classics in the guise of the man with no name. The Three Amigo’s goes back to just after the birth of cinema, when westerns and other films were being produced and released on almost weekly basis. A prolific time in film when the medium was still being refined, genres such as the western were still in their infancy, no time to really develop characters, there was still time to create the image of the West that had just been tamed. Just south of the border a revolution was underway in Mexico which didn’t stop them discovering the heroes of the silent screen.

In the case of Carmen (Patrice Martinez) comes across a Three Amigo’s film, mistaking it for a real-life document of life, a trio of gunmen who fight the bad guys where they stand. The appearance of bravery, good over evil occurs before her eyes. Something we have all fallen for, taking the constructed as reality at one time or another. For me I remember vaguely seeing Charles Laughton as Henry VIII as a child, believing him to be the real monarch. It’s not until that facade, the construction is broken do we understand what is going on, before we eventually fall under its spell, even with the prior knowledge that allows us to determine what is reality. The desperate Carmen telegraphs the three actors fresh on the streets after demanding more money for their next film. Could this be their next big thing, take their on-screen persona on the road, perform life before an audience?

That’s not what she has in mind for Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase) and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) who now homeless, jobless and penniless, the first of many whose careers are made or broken by movie moguls of the era. After breaking into the studio they make off with their costumes to South of the Border where their future lies. It all sounds quite promising for both sides, as the parody of The Magnificent Seven (1960) begins to play out. Unwittingly hiring actors as gun-men not performers to defend a town against bandits lead by El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) who is the archetype baddie. So far it’s a pretty standard western stuff coming our way. Spending most our time at the local saloon where we meet a few German’s who at this time are the enemy over in Europe. Here in South America its quite the opposite, seen more as villainous friend and little else, adding more dimension, its not your standard western anymore.          

All this is setting up the scene for the trio to arrive they are still very much in the dark, acting very much the consummate performer, unaware of the danger that awaits them out in Carmen’s village. It’s all about cliches of the actors, being confident in the role they have been playing for so long. They have had great success so are blind to real danger until it bites them…like a bullet to the arm. Even when the first time they meet El Guapo’s gang they are unaware of the danger, playing the part, as if they are among other performers, why would they think otherwise, the telegram was abridged before they even received it. Its great fun to watch, having the prior information is a great build-up to the danger and the reveal, that is reality. 

When reality does bite as much as they now have to make the leap from performer to gunfighter, from mouse to man in the space of this short film. Its all done with real fun, as the cowboy has to pick up his gun and shoot for real. A point that is never really raised, After shooting all those blanks to real rounds there is no understanding that they are now killing other men, instead if relying on trick photography to make it a reality. That would probably be the only major flaw of the film. So caught up in the gags which all work for me, It’s not all laugh out loud but theres enough to keep me going. Probably because I only know of Martin, I’ve heard of Chevy Chase, maybe my lack of familiarity with the other comedians distanced me from the comedy.

The musical number summed up for me the love for the genre, a heavy on the landscape, the sunset and cacti which surrounded the campfire scene, the night before the set-off for the hideout. Its incredibly fake but I don’t care one bit, I’m too caught up in the moment that is so rich with love and warmth, not just the fire but the musical number itself.

Summing up this fun western spoof that sees actors assume their roles in reality is something you rarely see. Western actors cannot seem to shake loose the characters they portray, assuming that persona outside of the film set. Here it takes on another dimension, imagine The Duke firing away against bandits, it would be an awesome sight to see. Also the usually two-dimensional Mexicans are played with more intelligence, they aren’t just firing guns in the air and saying “gringo” etc, they are treated with more respect in a comedic setting. The film is however let down the period in time, the silent era, only die-hard fans of film would know of any trio being spoofed. I can only think of Harry Carey from that period, no trios. The audience can’t relate as easily to this era which does let it down. The routines they perform do produce some good moment which go someway to the audience engaging more.

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Iron Horse of the Studio Update (6/4/15)

The third day of filming was over in a flash today, having only a handful of sequences to film. I began by choosing a clip that I could use to get around that tight spot in the studio. Knowing I had to think how to adapt a scene to what I had. With that hurdle overcome I move onto the final few sequences that seemed to roll along smoothly.

Filming finished only a few hours after starting. Moving into the edit suite I have already started to piece the work together. Discovering what I have and how to work with it. Remembering old the techniques and refreshing myself. The good thing about this work is that its all filmed in sequences, meaning my plan should allow the editing process to move quickly. Which I will find in the studio and whenever I can grab it. My first priority is making sure that what I have works before I go back to do any more filming more footage. Once its all there I can begin to refine it before I finalise it. So far I can say it looks good and a lot of fun to watch already.

Pitching a New Idea

I was considering reviewing God Bless America (2011) a dark satire about the current state of America’s culture. Which in short think was too extreme, using violence to counteract all the trash that they have on TV, the need for fame, basically the annoying flippant remarks and pop-culture that has come over the country in recent years. That was the point of the film anyway as two disillusioned people go around shooting anyone who is mean, who deserves to die. It’s ironic that all the small annoyances that grinds the gears of a few have to be dealt with by becoming a serial killer, which leaves a sour tastes in the mouth. When gun-control is seen as a great freedom (the right to bear arms” has seen unnecessary killing such as high-school shootings used to right small wrongs. Maybe it doesn’t translate that well across the pond? I too get annoyed with some of the things mentioned in the film, I still wouldn’t go around shooting them all.

Anyway thats not the point I’m trying to make. There was a scene at the beginning of the final act where the two killers are staying in a motel room built in the form of a Teepee. For me this is very ironic and possibly insulting, or am I just being to sensitive the Native American history? When whole nations were forced to move onto reservations, adopting the white mans way of life. To see people now stopping at these concrete structures designed by Frank Redford ” who was heavily influenced by the native Indian culture. He would bring his imagination to a reality in the early 1930s…” Native structures/homes that are now erected for guests to stay in enrolee, when just over a century before they were still very much in use by their original makers.

Maybe this is Redford’s way of showing his love for the nations and the culture that has is a signifier of an assumed history. Thomas King can explain better than myself – ” These bits of cultural debris-authentic and constructed-are what literary theorists like to call “signifiers,” signs that create a “simulacrum,” which Jean Baudrillard, the French  Sociologist and postmodern theorist, succinctly explained as something that “is never that which conceals the truth-it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” God, I love the French theorists. For those of us who are not French theorists but know the difference between a motor home and a single wide trailer, a simulacrum is something that represents something that never existed. Or, in other words, the only truth of the thing is the lie itself” Of course you have to consider this is quote from a provocative book, which tries to asses the current state of the authors people. Considering the authors culture has been re-appropriated for tourism and commerce, a false history is created. The political point was to eradicate and control.

I can’t let this image and idea just pass me by, as I know I want to explore that Native American, the Red indian, the Injuin’ in more detail I can’t ignore the history as controversial as it is, their portrayal on film has to be addressed from being simple one dimensional obstacles to a fully formed culture that is stereotyped. Maybe this motel chain is my way in to this deep subject that needs thorough investigation in order to properly respond.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Maps to the Stars (2014)When I think of Maps to the Stars (2014) my first thought is Bart Simpson’s selling fake maps to tourists in Springfield, who believe Moe the bartender is Drew Barrymore. That’s something I can’t shake loose. It’s only when you get to the land of dreams where everyone comes to make their name, wanting it up above a cinema in bright lights, for all to see them. Te desire to be loved, seen and adored above all else.

I think John Cusack is right, it the most revealing look into life behind closed doors. For an actor who began his career in the early 1980’s he has seen people come and go, the big changes over 32 years, which is a long time when you think about in terms of a modern Hollywood career. With all that said he wasn’t the draw to this film. Looking more for the director David Cronenberg whose films I have seen more of recently, more of his earlier work, which all had a sense of dread and impending doom that builds up at the end of the film. Usually bloody and gory with you starting to turn away from the screen as you have an idea of what could happen. Yet you can’t turn away completely, drawn by his complex characters who we have seen for the films duration. After his last film Cosmopolis (2012) I felt alienated by the complex language, I never really understood it, I won’t be returning to it anytime soon either.

I would however with Maps to the Stars which begins at what we believe to be a fan’s viewpoint, a weird looking girl Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) from Florida who in-fact knows more than she’s letting on. Already having a connection to Carrie Fisher, just how did she pull that one off? Apparently just by connecting on Twitter was all it took, its incredibly easy today to reach celebrities, just a few characters of text in their direction, if they answer you’ve made a connection, however brief that is, you can build your life around that. All this is part of the fast-paced world of Hollywood today that is based on image and profile.

We meet all the characters briefly before we go back for more. The young teen star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) who is doing his bit for his own profile, whilst not really caring. Another obnoxious teen-star who already a premaddona wanting it all right now, a creation of his own young success and driven family to live the Hollywood dream. Waiting to see if he can begin shooting another sequel in a franchise that built him up. Waiting to join him on-screen is a true child of Hollywood Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), wanting to make this easy money maker. A neurotic actresses who cannot escape the shadow of her late Art-house actress mother who died in a fire. We first meet her having an unusual therapy and massage session with with self-made guru Dr. Stafford Weiss (Cusack) whose has an incredible hold over her. She soaks it all up, he has all the answers, with his help she will be better. 

It takes to join all the dots up but all of these characters are connects, the Weiss family is a fractured one doing their best to live off the system that allows them to function. With their own domestic problems. Not being able see their son is a just as flawed as their dangerous daughter. Whilst actress Segrand is desperate for a role that she loses all compassion for her friend who first gets the role. Theres a loss of humanity with these characters, even Robert Pattinson‘s wannabe actor Jerome Fontana who is easily led. His connection is not half as strong as the rest of the characters, his screen time is also poor in comparison to John Cusack who also had a with credit a sign of status but replicated in screen time.

Of course as with all Cronenberg’s films there is that build up and complication of the characters situations that becomes unbearable. What we learn about these unsavoury characters begins to make sense. The visions that some of them have make more sense. Pattinson in comparison gets on lightly going with research for a script which is not intone, is his comeuppance off-screen. It’s not a perfect film, let down by the special effects, or the sign of a low-budget which I can accept. Once again Moore is on scary form, is she channelling dark desires we don’t usually see on-screen.  Maps to the Stars is probably as spot on as you’re going to get, even in the aftermath of the Sony Leak last year which revealed just how similar the film world is to any other industry, lots of in-fighting, arguments, all normal really. The industry that plays on our fantasy is as real as any other beyond the glamour. It’s how you decide to live your life and take the opportunities. Those further down in the film-system are in their own screwed up world, all trying to get on the best they can. Surely theres a better way though?

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