Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Capsules: Bird (Eastwood, 1988)/High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973)

Bird (Eastwood, 1988)
Bird is commendable and interesting because it does not follow a standard biopic formula of rise to fame followed by fall to ruin. The film begins and occasionally revisits the fall, and we don't get the whole picture of the rise or plateau. There is a deterministic quality to this approach, as the beginning is not a tidy prologue on a death bed in which Parker says "ahh, I remember when..." and the film goes into flashback mode. We're thrown into the thick of it, and it's potentially disorentating and none of the film is wholly satisfying. Is life? When we see Parker playing sax to a cheering crowd, we don't revel in his fortune because we are painfully aware of the heroine coursing through his veins and of his eventual-made-inevitable demise. Given that Eastwood is an admirer of Parker's, it's strange but, again, commendable that he didn't choose a more hagiographic, or even favorable, approach. He tells it like it is, so to speak, and though this may incur a sense of detachment from Bird's supposed superb craftsmanship and musical ability, that detachment is precisely what is so effective and rich about the piece.

High Plains Drifter (Eastwood, 1973)
High Plains Drifter is Eastwood's early existential-Western masterpiece in which he largely reprises his Man With No Name role, though arguably in a more compelling context. In addition, the behind-the-camera Eastwood seems to be doing Leone (and, probably, by way of Siegel, given his respect and connections to that director) as best he can. And he can do it damn well.

The story is complex morally, to say the least. As Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote are the universal existential pop-culture icons representing the infinite struggle for an unattainable goal, the Man With No Name embodies the spirit of the phrase "the ends justify the means." Some of the things he does are downright brutal, and the viewer must confront the "why" of the matter. The paradox is, if retribution is "right," the Stranger sets everything right. He is a sole man for and against society, and yet still for himself. Sometimes, his actions are complicated simply by his unwillingness to explain himself. Should he explain himself to the world he finds, perhaps justifiably, distasteful? He is an oasis of specific coldness in a world of general, indifferent coldness, but at least his coldness is progressive. In Lagos (Hell), morality and the lives of its inhabitants stagnate as surely as those inhabitants faced with the whipped man's cries for help. And I won't even go into the end, which is damn cool if nothing else.

There is one scene that, in itself, seems undeniably misogynistic. The Stranger rapes a woman after dragging her forcibly into a barn. Again, there's a paradox: she approached him, and obviously wanted to fuck him, but treated him with hostility rather than admit it. Her behavior exhibits the antithesis to the Stranger's quiet forcefulness, directness, and consistency, and oddly they both get what they want even if the woman won't admit it. Again, his method is probably indefensible, but the ends are satisfactory by any reasonable morality. And, in a world that doesn't allow for gentle methods, a world that won't collaborate for a greater good, do the ends justify the means, especially if no other means would work? The question is posed but not answered by the film. As cliché as it is to mention, that's good art.

This film is staggeringly rich (excuse the hyperbole; it sounds good), and there's the whole redemptive-ghost-eye-for-an-eye aspect, and others, that I haven't even touched on.


Anonymous Impavido said...

Eastwood is quite a competent director. I guess working with competent directors for 20 years gives you an education in film that you can't buy.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I was underwhelmed by Unforgiven, and was very lukewarm on Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby... what are the chances I'll like this?


2:16 AM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...

I think High Plains Drifter is far superior to the films you mention. Bird is pretty interesting too, but I can't promise you'll love it.

11:18 AM  

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