Wednesday, 27 August 2014
The Wild Bunch is not my favourite Sam Peckinpah film. There, I've said it. Even worse, though, is that I don't particularly like it. The stylized violence in the opening and closing battles is everything I expected and more, but it's all the stuff in between (if memory serves that is) that was thoroughly disappointing. The "characters" and their attempts at manly bonding felt forced and hurt the whole experience of the movie for me. Granted, it's been quite a while since I've seen it and I owe it a rewatch, but I found that two other views of the Old West by Peckinpah - Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid - provided much stronger and more interesting characters while still splashing the blood around a bit. But they did it in very different ways...
Ride The High Country is, for the most part, a classic Western. Told mainly via interactions between its male characters, its straightforward story reveals its themes of good, evil and redemption fairly early on and builds on them. Steve Judd (Joel McRae) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are two former partners who reconnect in their later years to help bring back a deposit of gold to the bank. With the Gold Rush winding down, many questionable characters are trying to get a final crack at a stake and the bank doesn't believe their gold will be safe without some protection. What Judd doesn't know is that his old friend Gil and his young impetuous associate (named Heck) plan to keep the gold for themselves - whether Judd wants them to or not. Along the way up to the mining town, they stop for a rest at a ranch run by a strict religious man and his daughter Elsa (an impossibly young Mariette Hartley). She's looking for a way out of the restrictive setting of the ranch she's never been allowed to leave, so she tags along with the men when they leave the next day. She's decided to go to the mining town to marry her fiancee who works there with his brothers. Somewhat predictably, all doesn't go as planned...Elsa's fiancee and his progressively creepier brothers see her presence as being useful for only so many purposes - mostly sex and cooking - and to be shared by all. On the way to the mining town, Heck and Elsa flirt a bit and Heck makes a pass at her. She rebuffs him, but he insists and she needs Judd to pull him off. Judd knocks Heck to the ground and is followed by Gil giving him the same treatment. Though it shows the goodness in these two old timers (both saving the poor "defenseless" woman), it creates an awkward follow-up scene when Elsa actually apologizes to Heck (I guess for not allowing him to fully take advantage of her) and he seems to be sulking. It is quite jarring from a modern day perspective to see Elsa do this, but it almost makes sense given the obvious hierarchy of man over woman in this early part of the 20th century and her desperation to keep moving away from her father's ranch. It also establishes firmly where Heck's morality is based and how he can only crawl up from there.
The morality in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is somewhat sketchier. Most of these men have done bad things, but their moral centres revolve around respect and honour to their friends and partners. Pat Garrett and Billy are old friends, but when Garrett goes to meet Billy at the beginning of the movie it is solely to give him a warning: that Garrett will be his executioner. They part on good terms and Billy considers several options for leaving the town and his gang behind. With deputies in tow, Garrett manages to capture Billy after a shootout, but Billy escapes by gunning down two of the deputies (one self-righteous fool and one honourable man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time). From here, the chase resumes until its foregone conclusion. There really isn't much more to the story than that. Given the scarcity of dialogue, some gorgeously shot scenes and an unspoken fondness for the Old West, one can easily understand why the film often gets described as being poetic, evocative and elegiac. However, the film as a whole is far too scattered and littered with half-drawn characters and scenes that it's hard to see it as a complete work. There have been a few versions of it though: the studio edited theatrical release which Peckinpah disowned, a "preview" version which TCM put together that attempted to pull together Peckinpah's vision (the version I saw) and a director's cut which theoretically comes closest to Peckinpah's intent. Along with numerous production issues, Peckinpah was in full alcoholic mode during the shooting of the film, so it ran over-budget, over-schedule and certainly caught the attention of the studio suits. And yet, for all its problems (e.g. way too many cutaway shots to Bob Dylan, an odd soundtrack, scenes left adrift, etc.), there are some absolutely glorious moments.
Many of those moments are created by the leads (James Coburn as Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy) since how they say things (or more often, don't say) becomes extremely important due to the paucity of dialogue. Whether it was Peckinpah's direction or their own decisions, the actors bring these characters fully formed to the screen. Coburn's silent glares speak volumes and Kristofferson has a natural charisma that definitely surprised me. And then you have Slim Pickens...Now it's always great to see Slim in anything, but his short yet unforgettable appearance in the film is one for the ages. Even though we had just briefly met him a few minutes earlier, his death scene is both heartbreaking and beautiful. After being shot in a gun battle as another of Garrett's recruits, he stumbles to the river and sits and waits for his life to fade out like the setting sun. Most of the other famous cameos in the film, though fine, don't have any of that staying power. Perhaps Peckinpah was going for the feeling of a rich tapestry (mixing in a bit of Dylan, Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Barry Sullivan and more), but none of them are given much with which to play and instead they feel somewhat wasted. Ride The High Country, in contrast, does far more with its characters and provides enough meaty dialogue not just for its central roles (Scott and McRea), but also the supporting roles with weight (Heck, Elsa, Elsa's fiancee) and the rest of the cast (the brothers, the drunken judge, the brothel owner). Both Scott and McRea truly stand out and, like Coburn and Kristofferson, add a great deal more to their characters. They manage to create something perfect in the delivery of their lines. It's not that the line readings are particularly realistic, but just that the words seem to tumble effortlessly out of their mouths. Even when they say things like "The Lord's bounty may not be for sale but the Devil's is...if you can pay the price" (and other phrases that essentially state themes of the movie) it just sounds right coming from them.
Judd tell Westrum at one point: "All I want is to enter my house justified". By the end of the film, after Judd's consistent take on what's right and what's wrong, you feel as if he has succeeded in his quest and even tugged along Westrum and Heck while he was at it. Garrett, on the other hand, may very well have been trying to reach that same lofty goal, but by the time the opening scene replays itself at the end, you realize that he may have gone about things the wrong way. After deciding to throw in with the businessmen looking to clean up the West (in particular, to get rid of people like Billy), no amount of rationalizing his decision could make it feel right. Though we don't see his life between the killing and the years-later bookends, one gets the feeling that Garrett has struggled with trying to justify his actions and has paid a price. In High Country, there's an understanding of that grey area between good and bad: "My father says there's only right and wrong - good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?" "No it isn't. It should be, but it isn't". That seems to be a statement about how people are always in transition - becoming bad from their natural good state or trying to get back to being good through redemption. In Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, it's more a statement of fact - everybody has some of both, so choose your actions carefully. Some have called Peckinpah's final Western a eulogy for the Old West, but it feels more like one for the films about the Old West. One that leaves you feeling quite melancholy.
If Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid didn't completely win me over with its ramshackle nature, it certainly left an impression - in particular in relation to its main characters. Ride The High Country has a much greater hit ratio (and even shows some early bits of Peckinpah's different view of violence), but also leaves its strongest impression through its two lead characters. And that's where The Wild Bunch left me cold - the characters. But both of these Westerns have left me considering Peckinpah's other films (in particular The Wild Bunch) and has made me eager to revisit them and fill in the ones I haven't seen (The Battle Of Cable Rogue and Major Dundee for example). I think that alone is pretty high praise.
Wednesday, 6 August 2014
You may notice a distinct difference in the quality of the screen caps contained within this post. 36th Chamber Of Shaolin has a proper widescreen aspect ratio and clear image (straight from the Dragon Dynasty DVD) while Five Deadly Venoms has a poorly cropped 4:3 image that was obviously recorded years ago off TV to well-worn VHS (and then transferred to YouTube where I found it). Was I desperate to catch that second film and willing to watch anything I could source? No. It was actually a bit of a design point.
Several months ago when I first mentioned this pairing of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films for my Blindspot, it was suggested to me that I should swing on down to Chinatown and get my viewing copies there. After all, crappy, English-dubbed copies are how most people get introduced to Kung Fu in the first place. Though I completely saw the merit in the idea, I was against it for two reasons...First and foremost, I really can't handle cropped films and bad dubbing - hell, even Fellini films dubbed afterwards back into their own language (as Fellini intended) drive me a bit crazy since things like intonation never quite match up quite properly when dubbed. I've been a stickler for proper aspect ratios since realizing what they were (somewhere during the mid-point of the VHS years) and mostly seethe if I come across a film on TV or DVD in a bastardized form. Secondly, I already had that copy of 36th Chamber on DVD sitting at home on my stack of unwatched films. But the idea of watching at least one of the films in the format in which I would've seen my first taste of Kung Fu was still somewhat appealing. My knowledge of Kung Fu is not extensive (loads of Jackie Chan, the more serious Come Drink With Me, the much less serious Mad Monkey Kung Fu and all sorts of clips and scenes from Sunday afternoons long ago), but when I think of it, I do indeed think of desaturated videotape stock, people being cut out of the frame and halting English dubbed over to attempt to match with the characters on screen. Oh, and enough wooshing and whacking sounds to make a foley artist break into a sweat.
All of which can make a Kung Fu film somewhat hard to take seriously. But then I started to watch 36th Chamber Of Shaolin...Its opening sequence of Chia-Hui Liu (aka Gordon Liu) framed in different manners executing solo Kung Fu moves was enough to show that there was a great deal of artistic craft going on here. Not that I doubted there would be, but it completely settled me into being able to look upon the film as a complete entity. It also validated my decision to see this film on its full canvas - what a shame it would've been to miss the entirety of each of these opening shots. Not only the backdrops and art direction, but the perfectly sculpted body of Liu and each one of his refined moves. When the story starts, though, his character San Te is somewhat less attuned to the ways of the Shaolin monks than he is in those credits. He is a frustrated young student watching his surroundings get overrun and manhandled by the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty. His protests get him in some trouble and he manages to escape to the Shaolin monastery. He seeks to become enlightened in the ways of the masters of martial arts so that he may return and help get back ownership of his old village to its denizens. After being left to tend to menial jobs for awhile, he figures out that he can now ask to be taught Kung Fu. He discovers that it is a painstaking process and that he must focus on and master individual skills one at a time in 35 separate chambers. The film glides by quite easily as it works through a straightforward three act structure: young student in village; student at monastery working through the different chambers one at a time; monk leaving school to seek justice.
There's less straightforward about Five Deadly Venoms. The plot description is easy enough: a student of all five major disciplines of fighting (Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, Toad) is instructed by his dying teacher to find 5 previous students. Each of the five had mastered one of the five styles and the teacher is worried that some of them may turn evil. The student knows all five styles, but has mastered none and so must team up with one of the five to ensure none of the others commit any crimes. The teacher does not know the names or faces of any of these masters, so the student is left to his own devices to find them. Like 36th Chamber, the film opens with some great montages as we see each of the five masters (in their masks) performing their specialized skills. The choreography and filming is definitely leaning to the sillier side of things (Centipede smashes plates falling from the ceiling, etc.), but it certainly sets up the rest of the film to be a battle between these five with the wildcard of the student thrown into the mix. And it is to a certain extent, but also continually falls apart into over-explanation, needless plot points and the occasional bits of goofy humour that don't work very well (at least not for me). Worst of all, there seems to be a definite lack of actual Kung Fu throughout the film. The final fight is great and helps to redeem things, but short of the little bits sprinkled here and there, it becomes somewhat tiring as we flit between Centipede/Snake and Lizard/Toad as they try to outmaneuver each other (while the student observes). Meanwhile, Scorpion is unknown to everyone.
Admittedly, I have to firmly blame the crappy quality of the video and the annoying dubbing as prime reasons for not enjoying Five Deadly Venoms as much as I likely should have. A pristine copy probably wouldn't have vaulted it above 36th Chamber, but with blurry faces continually being chopped at the edges of the frame and English sentences being chopped into odd meters, I found it hard to stay with the story and get pulled into the film. I expect it is still a few notches below 36th Chamber in terms of its action, story, pacing, cinematography, etc., but I feel I need to see it again in much better circumstances. The concept is terrific - 5 different styles of attack based on reptiles and insects held by 5 hidden masters and only one student left to find them. There are moments of real mystery as you try to figure out who is who at the same time as the student, but it never felt like a cohesive story. Only the final fight really gels as the student finally dives headlong into battle with and against the masters and we witness a variety of well planned choreography. As with 36th Chamber, there's certainly some "fantasy" in some of the moves (leaping on the sides of walls and staying there, hovering in air longer than gravity would allow, etc.), but it all fits into the reality of the worlds in the films so there's no issue. 36th Chamber's Kung Fu moments easily win out - the battles are more crisp, there are more elements in play (various weaponery for example) and even the training sections as San Te moves through the chambers are really entertaining. My favourite is probably the Head Chamber where he solely practices using his head for different Kung Fu moves (initially getting battered by having to bat heavy sandbags around with it) as well as the first time he crosses the water using only the floating pieces of wood. This is where 36th Chamber excels - in treating its slightly ridiculous set pieces with serious tones while finding the right mix of physicality from its actors and the added "effects" (e.g. editing, wires, and huge dollops of additional sound).
The foley editing of arms and weapons whooshing through the air and fists connecting with bodies is certainly overdone and can feel comical at times. It obscures and wears down Five Deadly Venoms (though with what feels like additional music, I can't say for sure how much is present in the original cut of the film), but feels just fine in The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. I don't profess to be a Wu-Tang Clan fan (a neglected area of my musical background), but the seminal rap group was heavily influenced by 36th Chamber. It's easy to see how San Te building towards creating a new 36th chamber in order to share Kung Fu with the common man could have been inspiring to a group of diverse rap artists. One could also develop an entire philosophy simply from the words of wisdom spoken by the many monks from the different chambers. Five Deadly Venoms had much less depth, spirit and entertainment within its restricted walls, but there was still enough there to possibly draw me back for a revisit with a superior copy of the film. At the very least I could get some better screencaps from it...