In ‘The Big Picture’ Sarah Shachat takes movies off of Roger Ebert’s List of Great Films and discovers how they’ve made an impact on the medium or what about them would appeal to your friends who think black and white looks weird.
I’d like to start this column on classic, olden time movies by talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every film is, in its way, its own universe. A film can be a zany place where people sing and dance around in public and it’s not weird; a movie can live in an urban jungle where venetian blinds are frickin’ everywhere and the hard light coming through their slates illuminates your damaged soul. A film can be an idealized or mythic version of the past, where a town gets cleansed of its evil gambler railroad tycoon rancher baron and America is made safe for white male privilege forever, over and over again.
The MCU has literalized this concept. It is a series of films that, more or less, take the same universal parameters for granted, growing and building on each other in each new release. There’s room for Shane Black to have a very Shane Blackian buddy-cop shoot out with Robert Downey, Jr. and Don Cheadle in Iron Man 3, for a WWII era musical number montage in Captain America, and for Tom Hiddleston to cackle and leer his way across a wholly sufficient, completely satisfying, please-stop-so-you-don’t-overuse-him, number of movies. But the MCU is its own bespoke subgenre under the larger aegis of Superhero Movies. There’s room for directorial play and tonal variation, but also certain expectations and signifiers built into it,those Nick Furys and Agent Coulsons who track continuity across features – across mediums, too, speaking of Coulson.
I bring this up because the challenge for the MCU going forward isn’t DC’s random-title-generated Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s in maintaining a space for variation, play, and possibility as we all get more familiar with The Avengers separately and together, as the continuity stretches far enough to sweep Robert Redford into the act. There are only so many good shwarma dives in New York. What happens as a genre collapses in on itself, becomes disenchanted with its former idealism, gets depressed or goes through an abstract phase? What happens when a genre reconsiders itself, when it decides that it’s already dead?
Strictly talking superheroes, the difference between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins is one answer. But Marvel has, if nothing else, wide reaching aspirations, and so another instructive place to look is The Western. The studio era saw big budget Westerns and B picture Westerns and all sorts of Westerns in between. You’ve at least heard the phrase High Noon, or know vaguely about the plot of The Searchers; the Coen Bros’ True Grit might’ve prompted you to check out the ’60s version with John Wayne. You’ve heard the electric wail of Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, or seen a poster of Clint Eastwood in that dusty poncho, a shotgun in his hands and a cigar in his mouth. It’s a genre that can pick up and move to Italy and become a Spaghetti Western. It can travel to space. It can, however much I may wish it wouldn’t, make itself available to Seth MacFarlane’s mean little boy sense of humor.
Unforgiven is also a Western, but one steeped and bowed under the weight of seemingly all the generic material that’s come before it. Calling the film “elegiac” doesn’t capture the cocktail of emotion Clint Eastwood dedicated “to Sergio [Leone] and Don [Siegel],” the Hollywood directors who made him a gunfighter. Yet, what Eastwood emphasizes and what viewers walk away with is the film’s merciless demystification of the genre. He reveals the meanness of its people, the pettiness and pointlessness of its violence, the insufficiency of its moral order. It might be Eastwood’s mea culpa for callous glory of his tenure as The Man With No Name, but just as you start to think that, you remember the title of the movie. Unforgiven ain’t that simple.
Eastwood plays William Munny, an old gunfighter who begins the film where, in theory, we’d like all our Western heroes to retire: a little patch of land, a little farm, and a little peace now the world has no more need of his righteous violence. But Munny is no farmer. He can’t catch a hog. When he tries, flailing about in the mud, he falls and stays flat on his face for a moment of such defeat I’m surprised it isn’t plastered over Grad Student tumblrs as a .GIF. He hasn’t much money to support his two children. He is, however, civilized. The wild old days are far enough behind that other men are beginning to have other, more legendary names for them.
Eastwood the director is making a point in this about how stories accrue meaning over time, and how that meaning can be changed or even made perverse in each new telling. By 1992, Westerns had soured, grown tired or irrelevant or (more likely) unprofitable in the age of Blockbusters. What makes Unforgiven so fascinating is that while it is absolutely a simple Western story, it’s also engaged in explaining what’s happened to the genre as a whole. Whenever you have a reporter or a writer as an observer of the film’s events, as the perfectly dandified pulp magazine correspondent W.W. Beauchamp does here, it’s a safe bet those figures are also trying to contextualize the film itself.
Beauchamp isn’t the only one who tries to put a spin on who Munny is, and more broadly, what the Western gunfighter stands for. An aspirant called the Schofield Kid appears to Munny, offering to split a $1000 bounty with the legendary fast draw. Munny’s old partner Ned Logan, who gets recruited in the bounty scheme, sees the legendary West as good old times gone by, even if he knows he’s lucky to have survived them. There’s a professional gun and even more professional character named English Bob, who waxes poetic in the sort of accent which suits a very highflown interpretation of duels at high noon; and there’s iron-fisted lawman Little Bill Daggett, played with toothy verve by Gene Hackman, who sees the violence of the frontier-taming days in the same placid light as his plans for his dream house.
For himself, Munny glosses his gunfighter days as “drink and wickedness,” something his wife cured him of so well he now has trouble mounting a horse. Yet the adventure slowly, chillingly revives “Bill” Munny, the known thief and murderer of, as the opening title describes him, a “vicious and intemperate disposition.” He’s a true gunfighter, all right, and terrible to behold. Munny, Ned, and The Kid discover the bounty is offered by the proprietor of a brothel, calling down vengeance on some unsavory types who disfigured a whore. Notice how far a cry this is from bringing in the James Gang. The bounty has been put up by the most marginalized characters in the Western pantheon, and indeed Dagget viciously disputes the matron’s right to do so. It’s in fleshing out the reality of the situation, the awkward details, that Eastwood robs generic conceits of their pleasure. The men win their reward in a low, chaotic raid on an outhouse, a setting that’s about far from the firm lines of a Budd Boetticher arena or the ecstasy of a big John Ford sky as anything can be.
Which is not to say that Eastwood’s photography isn’t as good as the old masters. Though the film has a wintery aspect, slathered in broody, clammy grays and blues, it still has glorious outdoor expanses, the romantic gleaming pistons of a steam-powered locomotive, the same swinging saloon doors you’ve seen Yosemite Sam come a-chargin’ through since you were a kid. Unforgiven is less reliant on score for emotion than it is on the lonesome rustle of the wind, the doleful pounding of the rain. In this, the film strips the romance out of the setting, yes, but paradoxically also creates a sense of generic authenticity. Different from period authenticity, it’s the sense of something being righter or truer because it’s been consciously de-glossed, and it’s important to realize there’s a level of romance in that as well.
The genius of watching Unforgiven is in sensing a passion for the genre’s mystique even as you come to a mature understanding of what’s wrong with it and what lies you’ve told yourself so you could enjoy it. Even Claudia, Munny’s beloved wife, the redemptive woman and force for civilization, appears as a horror to him in dreams alongside the angel of death. Western justice touches everyone and exacts its due. What becomes striking to us, then, is the man who can sometimes stare into that judgment still and silent. But again, Eastwood’s man is made of clay. Sometimes he can’t.
That’s exemplified in the final shootout. It’s a scene as tense as anything Eastwood’s shot. It’s proudly unreliant on twitchy editing or excitable camera moves, covering Eastwood’s ride into town in slow, deliberate pans. Eastwood appears out of nowhere – we see his shotgun gleaming in hellish torchlight before we see him. The action unfolds slowly, almost torturously, lingering on all the many staring faces waiting to see what Munny will do. It’s a neat trick. Eastwood employs his ninja skill with firearms and takes out a goodly chunk of the posse Daggit’s raised against him. He shoots down Daggit too, as simply and mechanically as the trigger on his pistol. Yet with the whole ugly weight of the movie behind it, we’re aware of how the climax both validates the excitement of the western shootout – the genre’s and the film’s most essential element – and savages it, too.
It only adds to the film’s power that Unforgiven isn’t groundbreaking on this point. There’s not a better example out there than 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which actually stages its key shootout twice, once romantically, and once more stripped of its mythic quality. Like John Ford pictures of old, Eastwood wants his audience to understand the legend, its essential wrongness, and the utility it is put to. That may sound heavy and complex, but it feels very natural. And that brings me, at long last, back to Superhero flicks. Unforgiven both puts the Gunslinger to bed and revives the setting in which he has thrived. Somewhere in the glut of building demolition and collateral damage, in the strain of credulity it takes to humor Paul Giamatti as The Rhino, the current phase of superhero movies is going to sputter out. But they also have the opportunity to be reborn.
For a long time I didn’t know how to take the verbose title cards at the beginning and end of Unforgiven. The image – the sunset, the lone tree, the grave – is clear enough. But the words, concerning the dead wife, reveal nothing more than the strangeness of her attraction to a man like Will Munny. That he was truly repentant of his evil and so was redeemed in her eyes is one way to look at it – the old western violence for morality transaction. Another is to use the genre to reach the psychology that Eastwood so chillingly reveals: to acknowledge, in our most fantastic legends and our saddest, intimate confessions, we always need someone to touch the darkness. Best if he’s someone with a code. But darkness is coming for us anyway, forgiven or no.