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Slim Pickens

Review: Honeysuckle Rose

Here’s a contemporaneous review of a movie little remembered now, but as it chanced, the film marked the late Robby Müller’s first encounter with the American land and its light. —RTJ

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 23, 1980]

Honeysuckle Rose is the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg, a modestly intelligent filmmaker who specializes in probing the esoteric fringes of the U.S. scene, locating sources of peculiar vitality and distinctiveness, and then watching contentment bleed away. Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), starring Schatzberg’s former lover Faye Dunaway, studied the neuroses of a high-fashion model; Panic in Needle Park (1971), which introduced Al Pacino to the screen, dealt with the lifestyle of druggies; Scarecrow (1973) hit the road with a couple of bums (Pacino and Gene Hackman), Sweet Revenge (1977) sampled the criminal career of a car freak, and last year’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan forsook the fringe areas for the no-less-esoteric center of things, the private life—and private side of the public life—of a U.S. Senator.

Honeysuckle Rose hitches a monthlong ride with a middleaged country-western singer-musician-composer named Buck Bonham (Willie Nelson), who drolly allows as how he and his band are going to break into the really big time any day now, “on accounta we’re about the only ones they haven’t got around to yet.” Making It Big isn’t even a sideline concern of the film’s, though. Buck already appears eminently popular on the Southwest concert circuit and no one is hurting for money. The big problem—quiet, insistent, constant—is Buck’s inability to work out a life formula that will satisfy his manly need for rootlessness and his family’s (wife and son) desire to have him around the home more often. Keep Reading

Review: Blazing Saddles

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The first wave of reviews said it was hilarious; the second, that it wasn’t that funny. I caught it on the third wave and it was almost that funny—assuming, that is, that you have a stomach for unrelenting bad taste, dirty jokes, and goodnatured, let’s-be-egalitarian-and-offend-everybody racist references. That wasn’t structured as a putdown—I have one of those stomachs myself. But halfway through Blazing Saddles I suddenly realized I’d guffawed good and hard at quite a few things along the way, but I could call almost none of them to mind. Like Friedkin and Blatty in their department, Mel Brooks tends to shock and run. I’d probably laugh a second time at Slim Pickens’s riding up and demanding “Whut in th’ wide wide world uh sports is goin’ on here?!” because, although it’s a dumb joke, it and Pickens were both funny the first time and Pickens would still be delightful the second. I wouldn’t be caved in a second time when John Hillerman pretentiously invokes Nietzsche and David Huddleston responds, “Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard!” with a ten-gallon scowl, because that gag lacks even the whimsy of “wide wide world of sports” and depends purely on surprise to work at all. Both Hillerman and Huddleston have done fine comic turns in the past (for Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? and Newman-Benton in Bad Company, respectively; and there was also Hillerman’s truly menacing job as the sheriff—and his bootlegger brother—in Paper Moon), but Brooks encourages them to turn in only the broadest, most insubstantial, TV-variety-sketch performances.

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Review: Rancho Deluxe

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

I have to be on the side of any film in which Harry Dean Stanton is ordered to “Hoover the Navajos”—i.e., vacuum-clean the Indian rugs. The line could only have been written by Tom McGuane, who’s made a specialty in recent years of writing almost surreally funny sendups of the New West. The rugs belong to Elizabeth Ashley, bored but miraculously goodhumored wife of rancher Clifton James who, fresh out of empires to build, has recently focused his obsessive attention on apprehending a couple of one-steer-at-a-time rustlers. In this effort he is—or is supposed to be—abetted by horsethief–turned–stock detective Slim Pickens, who manifests a disconcerting preference for sitting in front of a TV set in the bunkhouse and ignoring the clues James finds and the theories he cooks up. The hard guys interfering with James’s peace of mind (or providing him with esoteric entertainment—take your pick) are about as dangerous as defanged garter snakes: Jeff Bridges, a poor little rich boy with a spoiled marriage behind him, and Sam Waterston, an Indian whose militancy is of a benignly comic strain and whose blood traces back to Ohio Cornplanters rather than the warriors who once rode the surrounding Big Skyline.

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John Ford Reprints the Legend

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

John Ford was probably more conscious of the meaning of history than any other American director; in a sense, the evolution of his historical vision is the measure of his growth as an artist. This evident fact is often commented on but, surprisingly, almost invariably in only the most general terms. A natural, useful way of defining this evolution more precisely is to compare closely related films Ford made at different stages of his career. An ideal subject for such a study, a pair of films sharing a common setting, literary source and group of recurring characters, is Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright. So closely, in fact, are the two related that it has become popular to describe the second film as a “remake” of the first. While such terminology is not exactly accurate, it does suggest that a comparative study of the two films should make it possible to analyze the evolution of Ford’s historical perspective in precise, concrete terms.

One way to measure the extent of this evolution is to compare the respective endings of the two films. Each conclusion revolves around a parade, but their tones are as different as their times, as day and night. Judge Priest ends with a sunlit parade; the final shot is of Confederate war veterans marching forward past both sides of the camera. In fact the parade literally surrounds the camera, as if to engulf the audience in the celebration taking place on screen (and the shot itself makes the ending uniquely processional in the work of a director whose final images are almost invariably recessive). In addition, the entire parade sequence is organic; everyone connected with it could be encompassed by a single longshot. Even the purely personal moments (such as a final feat of tobacco-juice-spitting marksmanship) are visually presented within their larger context, shown on a screen teeming with people.

‘The Sun Shines Bright’

The final image of The Sun Shines Bright is of Jeff Poindexter (Stepin’ Fetchit) sitting alone on a porch in the evening, lazily playing his harmonica. The music is audible, but otherwise there is scarcely a sign of life on the screen; the shot could almost be a still photograph. The final image of a solitary figure suggests an individual isolation consistent with the visual fragmentation of the entire final sequence. Each character or group, all the (surviving) members of cast and community who have been important in the film, are given recognition time here (as in Judge Priest and countless other Ford films), but in this case the reintroduction is accomplished without any unifying group shots; we see each pan of the community but never the entire social organism. For example, while the title character in Judge Priest last appears on the screen as one (not particularly important) part of the veterans’ parade, in The Sun Shines Bright he is last shown walking away from the camera into his house alone. As he passes through a doorway, a room, and another doorway beyond the realm of natural lighting, we are watching an individual receding into legend rather than a social group advancing into a dynamic future.

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The Beautiful and the Damned: Major Dundee

Sam Peckinpah’s much-messed-with 1965 film Major Dundee has just come out on Blu-ray from the boutique label Twilight Time. The two-disc set features both the 2005 reissue based on a preview version of the movie and the version released theatrically 48 years ago. Both are worth having, as the following Queen Anne & Magnolia News article from 2005 suggests. – RTJ

[Originally published in the Queen Anne News, April 11, 2005]

Sam Peckinpah was one of our great modern filmmakers, but for many his name summons up such a fearsome Hollywood legend, of blighted career, outrageous excess and epic self-destructiveness, that remembering the great films becomes secondary.

Richard Harris and Charlton Heston keep the flag aloft
Richard Harris and Charlton Heston keep the flag aloft

The legend began to lock into place with his third feature film, the 1965 Major Dundee—though it’s worth noting that even his universally admired second film, the elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), was nearly thrown away by its parent studio, only to be hailed as “the best American film of the year” by Newsweek magazine. Ride the High Country was a small film—a program picture, really—featuring two over-the-hill cowboy stars (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott). Major Dundee would be, by mid-’60s terms, an epic, with a $4.5-million budget, two recently Oscared or Oscar-nominated stars—Charlton Heston and Richard Harris—and an international cast with more color and flair than, perhaps, any one motion picture could accommodate. It was also to be a film of vast and complex thematic ambitions, a dual character study that sought to refract not only the historical tensions of the Civil War–era frontier but also the fractious America of a century later, astir with the civil-rights movement and the beginnings of what we would come to know as the Vietnam era.

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Review: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid vies with The Ballad of Cable Hogue as Sam Peckinpah’s most personal film. Not that Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, or even that compromised early project The Deadly Companions could have been made by any other man. But those films at least flirt with conventional notions of how movies are built, notions derived from viewing other men’s work. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is thoroughly perverse in conception and realization—and in its refusal (several people have remarked it independently) to get out of one’s skull the day after one has seen it, and the day after that. It is not my intention, here, to do much more than to record my astonishment, admiration, and awe, and (since it has been graced by a particularly contemptible, willfully misrepresentative review in the local evening paper) to urge anyone who cares for movies to see the picture at the earliest opportunity. M-G-M hasn’t so much released the film as set it outside the company vault and wait to see whether some passerby notices; it opened locally at two drive-ins and a plaza twin in Bellevue. Impatient moviegoers are warned: aside from the generally known fact that Sheriff Pat Garrett was somehow involved in the death of William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, the viewer has nothing to go on but his faith in the eventual emergence of a narrative; characters appear, seem to be known to the other characters, are not pointedly introduced or given time to develop the sort of identity we normally expect from a motion picture inhabitant, and may in fact die before we’re clear on who they were or why they appeared in the first place (though often we learn much more about them later, from the effect their absence has). Violence-baiters are also admonished: this is possibly Peckinpah’s bloodiest film, certainly the most carcass-strewn since The Wild Bunch; virtually every sequence is built around a killing, usually more than one.

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