[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
The forces of freedom and spontaneity have a way of dominating foregrounds in Bound for Glory: kids, in closeup, singing a Guthrie children’s-ditty whose beat seems slightly out of sync with the mechanical rhythm of the motion their parents make as they stoop and pick vegetables deep in the shot; or Woody himself singing songs of protest in a recording studio while behind him in another booth a trio of radio actors read from what might well be some escapist Depression comedy script (we can’t hear their voices but their expressions and gestures are pretty inane). On the other hand, authority and oppression—or at least the powers of inertia maintaining the social and political status quo—seem to mobilize in murky backgrounds such as those we find in a California fruit camp where bosses and thugs mill about à la John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, preparing to break up a hoedown they figure is pretty subversive—a crowd of homeless migrants clumped around blinking fires, making music into the night. Perhaps there’s no hard and fast rule at work, but such a visual structuring presents itself often enough to warrant some thought; and the matter of perspective is especially vital because Bound for Glory is to a large extent about how, in the Seventies, we see Woody Guthrie as a folk hero.
Foregrounds and backgrounds matter from his first appearance. The film begins with the title handwritten across an earth-toned screen, and with Jimmie Rogers’ singing “Goin’ to California” on what sounds like an old 78. Ashby fades in on a dusty street whose look is also warm, slightly brown, and almost luminescent. As though there were never any question about how Woody Guthrie should happen into the movie, David Carradine emerges from the background and walks easily toward the camera. As he gets closer, the camera swings to include a group of men sitting around a radio, which we suddenly realize is the source of the Jimmie Rogers song—music which was heard before the movie proper had even begun. Nobody has said anything so far, but already some allusive crossreferencing is beginning to build: between time frames that shift with each new disclosure of visual and musical context, and between a folk hero already fading into the crackle and static of mortality and one walking newborn into the light of day (Rogers died in the early Thirties, the starting point for the film). The movie itself ends—or nearly so—with the real Woody Guthrie’s voice, ghostly, similarly imprisoned in mortality, high-pitched with enthusiasm and desperately optimistic, talking about change, personal conviction and perseverance in a hardened world); between the lyrics to a winsome pre-dustbowl song and a quest that will take Woody Guthrie halfway across a continent to Los Angeles and the California fruit camps in search of ideals both personal and political.
And there is something offhandedly auspicious simply in the way Woody approaches from deep in the shot towards the camera; throughout the film Ashby will persistently intermingle and layer historical as well as visual planes, creating an interesting double-exposure effect that works on our perception of Guthrie as myth. The sometimes offbalance use of music—unique juxtapositionings of orchestrated score and the music emanating from people on the screen—often adds to this layering of time and viewpoint. Again and again, Leonard Rosenman’s panoramic orchestration of time-honored Guthrie tunes tends to become an extension of, or at times a counterpoint to, Woody’s own handhewn brand of music, as though that music were somehow pouring out of the Thirties and into the present. In one scene Woody and a fellow railroad bum are perched atop a boxcar heading west. It’s a single, tremendously long take emphasizing that a country is passing by behind them, taking us under a steel span bridge, through a long tunnel, making us strain to see the characters through sooty steam that billows around them as they move along in this unique dimension of time and space. Finally, Woody leans back and starts playing his harmonica. Ashby pulls away for a longshot of the whole train, and as he does, Woody’s playing gives way to an orchestrated variation on the same tune. Woody has been visually absorbed into this golden landscape, while his music has been adopted (and adapted) by the present, absorbed into the fabric of the film itself. It’s not really a big moment, but it has a way of hanging around in your mind, a brief crystallization of feeling and direction in a movie that seems to flow so generously and often so allusively through time, finding connections—through use of music, sometimes parabolic anecdotes, or bits of finely nuanced performing—between Guthrie who’s become part of the American cultural and mythical landscape, and the man who actually lived through and sang about hard times.
BOUND FOR GLORY
Direction: Hal Ashby. Screenplay: Robert Getchell, after the autobiography of Woody Guthrie. Cinematography: Haskell Wexler. Music: Woody Guthrie and traditional, adapted by Leonard Rosenman.
The players: David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, Randy Quaid.
© 1977 Rick Hermann