Saturday, June 26, 2010

Film # 22 & 23: A Texan Double Feature (Jun 24th)

Baby, The Rain Must Fall
1965, 100 min.
Directed by Robert Mulligan

Lone Star
1996, 134 min.
Directed by John Sayles

The week was shaping up to be Texas-sized. My calendar was full, but I'd be darned if I don't make as many of these Summer films as I possibly can. I've come to appreciate the ambiance for the double features shown, and these couple of weeks have been particularly special. Starting with The Last Picture Show and Giant, the theatre was showing "Texas films" as its subject. Not chosen because of their location, but because I see these Texan characters resonate with themes that apply beyond the great state. For instance, I was very surprised by Giant and what it had to say about society's evolution of generations.

Thursday's films had a sense of promise. The first one, Baby The Rain Must Fall, was written by (Wharton, TX native) Horton Foote. As someone who grew up near the Gulf Coast (and only about 60 miles from Wharton), I was curious to see how much it felt like home to me. The second is one of my personal favorite films. I recall being one of the few people to actually see Lone Star when it came out theatrically. After reading a glowing recommendation in Premiere magazine, my desire was so great that I recall driving over 100 miles to see it (in a Corpus Christi theater called "Cine 6"). I love that movie. As I entered The Paramount that night, I couldn't help but smile at what I saw in front of me in the lobby...

Was it serendipity? Ah, I could not wait to see it again on the big screen. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I could see one of my favorite movies again, I was ready to see another Texas story. Alas, I was not impressed.

To be perfectly honest, I found Baby, The Rain Must Fall to be terribly disappointing. For a movie that seemed to pride itself on being written by the prolific and gifted Horton Foote (Oscar winner for adapting To Kill A Mockingbird), I found the screenplay to be its weakest link.

Now, I fully understand that Foote writes "quiet pieces" (Tender Mercies is an excellent example of what Foote is capable of) but Rain is just a sloppy construction. The premise is interesting, but the events never coalesced for me. It feels like whole chunks of story are missing; scenes that explain motives better and those that may be, you know, good. I think the main problem is that Rain had no idea what kind of movie it really wanted to be. At times a family drama, a "man tormented by inner demons" story, and a spooky (?!) story, it's just a mess.

Henry Thomas (Steve McQueen) is a recent ex-con who is trying to start a singing career in the small town of Columbus, TX (his hometown). Perhaps he's trying to capture that Johnny Cash vibe, but Thomas seems unable to walk the line. His wife, Georgette (Lee Remick), and his little girl have relocated from Tyler to make a life with him, but he still dreams of making it big. Georgette agrees to work so he can focus on his music, and that setup seemed interesting. Sadly, the story just seems to sputter from there.

You see, there is someone else who has ideas on what Henry should do now that he's out of the clink. Miss Kate is an elder woman in town who evidently raised Henry and wants him to go to night school as a means to better himself. The fact that Henry is a grown man and doesn't have to take that from her is not addressed. Oddly, she is referred to with an air of fear in the town, almost as if she is Wharton's own Lord Voldemort. Kate keeps threatening to have Henry thrown back into jail if he doesn't give up his music career (dun-dun-DUNNNN). And it seems she might actually have the power to do so, since Henry appears genuinely worried. I wasn't sure how she was able to wield so much influence, since she's referred to in such mysterious tones yet is unable to leave her home.

To contest her strong opinions of his life, Henry repeatedly goes to her spooky house (which looks an awful lot like The Munsters' House from the old TV show) yet is never allowed to talk to her. He leaves messages with the housekeeper or simply shouts angry words up the stairs at Miss Kate during these visits. In fact, since her character's appearance isn't unveiled until the third act, I was fully expecting her reveal to be exactly like Norman Bates' mother. Instead, when the camera shows her, she's just an old lady who resembles Thomas Jefferson. I thought to myself, "This was the payoff?" Sigh. Needless to say, compared to the rest of the film, these scenes are just weird. The change in scenery and tone would be jarring enough, but the change in the film's score made these scenes feel like they were from another movie. Why the spookiness? Why the slow reveal of this character? W. T. F.?

The performances are, for the most part, uneven (only Lee Remick brought her A-game). McQueen occasionally shows flashes of brilliance in his role, but his role is so handcuffed by the screenplay that he's just a character with no sense of direction, instead of playing a man lacking purpose. He comes off as unnecessarily angry and "one-note" during the second half of the picture. If scenes are laying on the cutting room floor somewhere, I'm sure a tender performance from McQueen is in there. As the film stands now, such an acting job is not quite present.

Lee Remick, as Georgette, has the most interesting and underdeveloped role in Rain. I was fascinated by her character, who seems all too willing to make sacrifices for the man she loves. Of course, as I see Henry hem and haw his way through the movie, I found myself asking why she would do such things. What's her story? How has she been able to balance work and raising a daughter alone for so long? The film provides no answers. She becomes another ball for Henry to try and juggle, and I was dismayed to see this shoddy treatment of such a character and performance. Kudos to Remick also for getting the right accent and cadence for the region depicted (for the record, McQueen wavered into a distinct East Texas accent from time to time). Overall, she has the right tone for the film that I think this story was trying to be, but nothing else matches her.

Also, the film telegraphs its intents with the subtlety of a jackhammer. Mere minutes after the opening credits sequences, I could tell you the ending of the film (of who was going to run off with whom). The rest of the time was spent waiting for Henry Thomas to self-destruct. For the audience, time might also be spent trying to mentally train myself not to think of E.T. when anyone said the name "Henry Thomas." Such clumsy treatments of plot make for a very long experience watching this movie.

Worse, this story didn't feel authentically Texan at all. The location was pretty much generic flat land (which is a distinction of the Gulf Coast, mind you), but nothing about the film's experience felt like a Texas story. It could have taken place in any other Southern state, perhaps one that matched the cast's accents (since most actors were trying to sound like Gone With The Wind). Foote's screenplay is a half baked creation. He should have given it a few more rewrites to flesh out some ideas and plot threads. In short, the whole movie was a damn shame for all the talent involved. I got the impression that the narrative was supposed to be tragic (lack of subtlety, remember?). But is it tragic when the person has control of their destiny and just chooses to be a self-centered a%#hole? If so, should we care? Go to school or play your music, Henry. Just do something and grow a pair. You know what else falls besides rain? Testicles.

I was really bummed during the break between the two movies. I hadn't felt let down during the Summer Series before, but Rain really left a bad taste in my mouth. So downstairs I went to fetch some popcorn and Dr. Pepper. Time to revisit an old favorite on the big screen. After years of seeing it on tape and DVD, seeing it on the big screen was like a reunion of sorts.

Lone Star, in my opinion, is one of the great all-time underrated and overlooked films. If it would have had a bit more marketing behind it, I think it would have been a sure Oscar contender in multiple categories. Alas, this was in the late 90s, when the Weinsteins devoured up Academy Award nomination slots like Krispy Kreme. One, count it, one nomination for the screenplay (which is truly excellent). That's it. Friggin' Independence Day had two nods that year (technical categories, but still)! At least the National Board of Review gave this film special recognition for "excellence in filmmaking) that year. Because of its themes regarding race relations and generational differences, it's in many ways a spiritual sequel to a film like Giant. To me, Lone Star is the single finest film about Texas and the cultures of people inside and around our borders.

My praise could go on for hours and hours, so I'll try to be brief. The film begins as a murder mystery, but quickly expands beyond the borders of a simple narrative. The remains of a body are found on an old military base's shooting range near a South Texas border town. The local sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) investigates and determines it may well be the remains of a predecessor from a few decades back, corrupt former sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson). Wade had simply disappeared one night after being confronted by a righteous young deputy named Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who became his successor. For years, everyone thought the virtuous had merely chased the nefarious out of the town. However, the younger Deeds holds a heck of a grudge against his late old man. Sam would like to discover that his father wasn't as squeaky clean as the rest of the town perceived him to be, and starts digging for dirt.

Not that anyone in the area missed the former lawman, because he was a true s.o.b., devoid of scruples. Kris Kristofferson (in his finest role) plays Wade as the most vile kind of man. The fact that he didn't get more recognition for this film is a sin. This is the kind of role that Oscar voters salivate for. Heck, Daniel Day-Lewis has been nominated twice since Lone Star was released for playing similar bastards (Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood). Charlie Wade won't just drink your milkshake; he'll seize it and then shoot you in the face. Kristofferson plays Wade not as a cardboard villain either, but a flesh and blood prick, steely in resolve and vulnerable to pride. Chances are, we've met people like this, but very few get to exercise this level of contempt while flashing a badge. Power and graft went hand-in-hand during the tyranny of Charlie Wade, and the fable of his departure made for local legend for both he and Buddy Deeds. His skeletal remains, however, suggest there might be more to the story.

"More to the story." This phrase becomes a major theme in Lone Star, and manifests itself in different ways in this town of Frontera, TX, touching many different people. Citizens argue over the content and point-of-view of history books, with some wanting a more balanced view while others still cling to the "John Wayne at the Alamo" version. The lives of several different people at the army base are slowly revealed to us and place human faces above the uniforms, especially the new colonel in charge (Joe Morton) who has a link to this town. A local business woman (Míriam Colón) glosses over her own cultural past while exploiting migrant workers. Games of politics are volleyed around an affable old mayor (Clifton James), who also served under Wade's iron-fisted rule and may hold clues to what happened forty years prior. Layers and layers of complexity are uncovered, making the stories more human and empathetic.

As Sam continues to investigate beyond the "popular version of the past," he also crosses paths with an old flame from his teenage years, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña). Seeing an opportunity to correct mistakes from their own past, Sam and Pilar rekindle their old romance, one that was hindered by their respective disapproving parents. When they were kids in love, society wasn't as forgiving to the idea of a mixed heritage romance.

The integration of different cultures is another major theme of the film, and the maturity in which the subject is handled elevates Lone Star into genius. The point never feels forced, and the movie's guidance by John Sayles (writer and director) paints a Tex-Mex portrait of cultural ambivalence. All themes are anchored by the characters, and all characters feel true. the film is without a phony moment, and it's a wonder to behold the balance of tension, humor, drama and romance in its running time. By the end, you feel you know all of these people. And heck, you probably have met people like this over the course of your life. And if not, you will... if you live in Texas.

The great lesson is this: history does not have a singular point of view. Like any choice we make in life, we can learn from it or disregard it. Just be aware that the same story can be interpreted and remembered many different ways. Yours are not the only pair of eyes watching your history unfold. The past is not absolute. It isn't just one lone star, it's an entire galaxy.

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