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Monday, February 6, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: A revisionist Western that still shines bright

Screen Grabs: A revisionist Western that still shines bright

'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' at the Roxie. Plus: Korean monster mash 'Project Wolf Hunting,' bloody 'Piggy,' fascist foreshadowing in 'Riotsville U.S.A.'

Hollywood was largely built on the sturdy saddleback of the Western, a uniquely American idiom that had broad appeal, was inexpensive to produce, did not necessary require marquee stars, and whose “sets” were largely the desert terrain available not terribly far from the studios’ Los Angeles HQs. But by the mid-’60s, the seemingly fail-proof genre was wobbling. Big-screen Westerns grew increasingly “epic” (and costly) in offer to offer something different from the B-movie reruns and popular series (like Bonanza) that were depleting their audience by being on TV for free every night. When those films flopped, they lost millions.

The “youth” demographics Hollywood began hand-wringing over saw Westerns and their stars (notably the openly pro-Vietnam War John Wayne) as old-fashioned, reactionary, corny, and dull. But the industry was reluctant to give up its longtime cash cow without a fight. One path was to imitate the violent nihilism of Italian and Spanish “spaghetti Westerns,” which had made a movie star of TV western star Clint Eastwood—even if he had more in common politically with Wayne than, say, Dennis Hopper.

Another was a series of “revisionist” Westerns that tore down the old myths (particularly the cowboys vs. injuns ones in which Natives were viewed as bloodthirsty “savages”) while offering distinctively New Hollywood style and attitude.

Almost none of the so-called revisionist Westerns were popular, aside from a few major exceptions like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidSoldier Blue and Little Big Man. But they left an eccentric, interesting, sometimes inspired group of films behind. Among the very best of them was 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which the Roxie is reviving this Sun/9.

Based on an obscure 1959 novel, this project had all the earmarks of success: It starred New Hollywood royalty Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (then also an off-screen couple); the director was Robert Altman, still red-hot off the prior year’s smash M*A*S*H, which had repurposed the “war movie” for a new generation as this one presumably would the Western. Further signaling that this would be no standard shoot-em-up was a soundtrack laden with troubadour Leonard Cohen’s literary ballads, while the story revolved a frontier bordello, something that might’ve only been hinted at (if that) before—but now fallen censorship walls could allow those professional ladies to frolic full-frontal-starkers in a cheerfully gratuitous bathhouse scene.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is set in 1902 central Washington state, though it feels earlier—“civilization” has as yet barely laid its fingers on the zinc mining encampment that will become a town known (somewhat inaptly) as Presbyterian Church. That changes when one John McCabe (Beatty) blows in to weigh the local prospects. He’s been a gunfighter—a past he’d like to leave behind—but is now a gambler hoping to become a respectable entrepreneur. Well, respectable as the founder-proprietor of a “cathouse,” which one might recall was a pursuit quite good enough to make the original Trump family fortune. (For Donald’s German-emigre grandfather Friedrich, in British Columbia, where this movie was actually shot.)

An unexpected partner in his plan is Christie’s Mrs. Miller, who offers her services as madam and is too pushily enterprising to be denied. She ships in supposedly classier damsels from Seattle than he’s managed to obtain from nearby Bearpaw, and oversees the completion of a first-class establishment, by local standards at least. Despite her very flinty, argumentative Cockney personality, she also develops an alliance with McCabe that is more than strictly-business.

All goes well, the town grows and prospers (duly acquiring that church in time), until inevitably it gets too big for small-time operators like our protagonists—or rather, it attracts the kinds of major-league players who will stamp out all competition. Like Walmart coming to small-town Main St., a deep-pocketed corporation enters the scene, intending a complete takeover. They offer McCabe (among others) a buyout. But when he balks, they don’t bother with further negotiation—they simply send bounty hunters to kill him, and anyone else resisting their high-end capitalist “progress.”

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is now regarded as a somewhat left-of-center classic, but it was not a hit at the time, even in a year marked by such vaguely like-minded successes as Billy Jack and The Last Picture Show. Part of the problem was apparently that the first NYC critics were shown a faulty lab print that marred Vilmos Zsigmond’s exquisite soft-edged color photography, resulting in bad initial reviews (though other critics like Pauline Kael championed the film). Also, it was not quite the billed star vehicle—while she got a Best Actress Oscar nomination, Christie is onscreen only about one-fifth of the two-hour running time)—and those expecting traditional action were no doubt disappointed that no gun gets fired until the final 30 minutes.

Then there was Altman’s penchant for over-lapping, semi-improvised dialogue, in full flower here amongst a large ensemble also including Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck, Shelley Duvall, and Keith Carradine. With its zoom-lensing onto random details, casual pace, and loose narrative focus, the movie can feel meandering—even if it’s still one of this director’s most purposeful efforts in his most characteristic style. All its atmosphere-building more than pays off, however, in a long, quiet, poetical finale, in which death comes to this fledgling community amid a muffling blanket of heavy snowfall.

M*A*S*H began looking more and more like a fluke as Altman continued racking up a full half-dozen commercial failures between it and 1975’s Nashville—which itself was only a moderate box-office success, despite enormous critical hype. Some of his best work was still to come, from the Bergmanesque 3 Women to The Player and Gosford Park. But an auteurist halo lingered over his early ‘70s work, when he benefitted the most among major American directors from the studios’ willingness to go out on a limb. While not all those films have aged well, McCabe & Mrs. Miller still has the golden glow of Zsigmond’s interior shots—and Mrs. M’s opium dreams.

Other film activity this week likewise looks backward in one way or another, from the Roxie’s kickoff of series The Ultimate Outsider: A Tribute to Jean-Luc Godard (more info here) with his 1960 breakthrough Breathless (more info here) to David O. Russell’s starry new Amsterdam. The latter attempts to combine the screwball eccentricity of his Silver Linings Playbook and the splashy, faintly fact-derived period intrigue of American Hustle, with Christopher Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington fighting fascistic conspirators in 1930s NYC. It is the kind of ambitious, expensive, stubbornly oddball endeavor Hollywood rarely attempts these days. So in the hopes that it won’t be the last such, I’ll hew to the “If you can’t say something nice…” principle and say no more.

Other new openings:

Project Wolf Hunting 
When a first exchange of captured criminal fugitives between South Korea and the Philippines results in suicide-bomber disaster at a Seoul airport, authorities decide it will be safer next time to travel by sea. Ergo military police safeguard a second human cargo of murderers and other miscreants on an ocean freighter. But the bad guys succeed in a mutinous takeover of the vessel—only to confront an entirely different menace, a Frankensteinian unstoppable-killing-machine monster hatched by long-ago secret government experiments. Its presence onboard doesn’t stay secret for long, as upon “waking” it commences a second bloodbath wave.

With its starry cast of K-pop stars and other familiar faces, incessant action tinged with sci-fi horror, and eager gory tastelessness, Kim Hong-sun’s film taps a vein familiar from a lot of other recent SE Asian popcorn spectaculars. It’s high-energy, all right, but the difference between something like this and, say, Train to Busan or recent The Roundup is that those movies had a certain ingeniousness to their excesses, as well as a little heart. Here, the large character rollcall is pretty much cannon fodder, and so many gushing blood fountains grow monotonous.

If you always kinda wanted The Poseidon Adventure and Evil Dead II to be one movie (or “Con Air by way of a Capcom survival-horror video game,” as the press release puts it), this may be right up your alley. It certainly isn’t dull. But it’s also so consistently over-the-top, it isn’t as exciting as it means to be, or as much fun as those comparisons might suggest. Project Wolf Hunting opens Fri/7 at CGV Cinemas SF on Van Ness.

Piggy
Likewise offering diminishing returns for a whole lotta nastiness is this feature from Spanish writer-director Carlota Pereda, which takes the psychological cruelty of Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl into the realm of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Mostly stuck behind the counter of her parents’ butcher shop, heavyset teen Sara (Laura Galan) is regularly tormented by a clique of same-aged, middle-class mean girls. After a particularly brutal humiliation at their hands, she is the only person to realize they’ve been kidnapped by a creepy guy who appoints himself her protector, a la Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands. The grievous harm he wreaks on her bullies is rather more revenge than Sara wants, however.

Piggy is impressive in a blunt, shocking, pitiless way until it finally succumbs to routine horror sadism, with little left in the way of character insight. (Notably, the homicidal maniac has no discernible motivations or backstory—he’s just a Generic Nut Case, targeting nubile young women because that’s what we expect from such figures.) The film already has its adherents among those who overpraise ultraviolent extreme cinema when it has any whiff of arthouse cred. And Pereda does have a bold, assertive directorial imprint. But this treads close enough to traditional exploitation terrain that I hope next time she’ll write material with more originality and depth. Piggy opens Fri/7 at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Riotsville, U.S.A.
Subjugation takes a more institutionalized form in this documentary flashback to the late 1960s, when rising popular opposition to the war in Vietnam and socioeconomic injustice at home made some (other) Americans feel such unrest “must be dealt with forcefully and swiftly,” as President Johnson put it. The title of Sierra Pettengill’s film refers to the “model town” that was built as a result in 1967, using Virginia’s Fort Belvoir to train military and police forces “respond to domestic civic disorder.”

Archival footage shows these grunts in street clothes pretending to loot and vandalize the “Main Street” set, their “riots” looking like Fraternity Rush week run amuck, then getting dragged off to the paddy wagon—all watched by crowds of dignitaries in the stands. That “skill set” was applied full-force to the protestors outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, which became a “televised feast of brutality.” Worried about incipient American fascism, Sinclair Lewis decades ago mocked the complacent view that “It Can’t Happen Here.” As this film shows, it already has—and you’d have to have your head in the sand to be unaware that major forces are working to make it happen again. Riotsville U.S.A. opens Fri/7 at Opera Plaza Cinemas.

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