Fan-Made: Case Studies Inside Film Cultures, from Tarantino to Point Break

Early on in my academic study of film history and theory, I realized that the best way to understand the impact that the Movies have on our lives, to investigate these “popular entertainments,” is to watch what is and once was popular. I’ve seen a great number of films that never interested me as a filmgoer (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3), but I feel a professional obligation to see them nevertheless. This doesn’t mean that I see everything. (Who has the time, anyway?) For instance, I draw the line at certain kinds of horror movies, like torture porn or possession flicks. Limits. We all have our limits.

But when I examine popular films (by which I mean unequivocal blockbusters or cult classics), whether I am a self-professed fan or not, I tap into another world. Or at least I try. I want to know all the angles: all the controversies, all the gripes, all the pleasures that audiences have and share with one another. I have to see what all the fuss is about.

There was a lot of fuss about the Movies in 2015. Even though comic book superhero movies, studio tentpoles based on YA literature, and reboots of long-dormant franchises still dominated the box office this year, as they almost always do, to paraphrase New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, the major studios pulled off the unthinkable: they gave us stuff that we largely wanted and liked, and thank god their original flicks with mid-size budgets did well, too. Maybe this means that film isn’t dying.

Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started in Fifty Shades of Grey. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As I actively participated in the hullabaloo surrounding the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015), Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015), and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), the whole world of fandom was thrown into sharp relief. “Fan-made,” which generally connotes those cultural products that are made by amateurs, created in the spirit of or in homage to well known works, suddenly landed on a much bigger stage, with more money attached, in 2015. Now, I’m not suggesting that J.J. Abrams isn’t a professional—even if I do think he’s famous for aping Spielberg and for re-imagining other creators’ properties. He tried his best with Star Trek; he improved upon George Lucas. I also do not mean to diminish Taylor-Johnson’s talents; she elevated her source material (the poorly imagined fan-fiction/erotica drivel written by E.L. James) by focusing on the ridiculousness of what ultimately amounted to no more than the protracted business negotiations of a sexual contract between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson won’t be returning for the next installments, and Universal has allowed James, who objected to Taylor-Johnson’s choices, to pass her husband, Niall Leonard, control over the screenplay for Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley, 2017).

However, while we’re on the topic of credibility, it is worth mentioning again that Trevorrow only had a low-budget romantic comedy to his name (Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012) before Spielberg handed him the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise and World‘s estimated $150 million budget. He foundered a few times while promoting his monstrosity, unable to convince us that the relationship between onscreen leads Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard didn’t reek of sexism and that the reason women are not called upon to direct giant studio tentpoles is because they simply don’t want to. And to top it all off, Trevorrow delivered a cynical CGI-laden horror show, without any of the thrills, wonder, or charm of the 1993 original. Can you tell that I am a huge Jurassic Park fan?

Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together in Jurassic World? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

It is well established that I am not a fan of Star Wars. But I knew that I was going to see the biggest film of the year in the theater. For a while, I just didn’t know when. Originally, I decided that I would wait a couple of weeks, allow the crowds to thin out. Then I decided that, in order to fully immerse myself in the fan culture, I had to see it opening weekend. I had my heart set on seeing filmgoers dressed as their favorite characters, maybe even turned away because they forgot to read the theater’s weapons policy and misguidedly brought that plastic lightsaber from home. I attended a sold-out show on the Sunday morning of its opening weekend. There were no Chewbaccas or Luke Skywalkers in the audience. Hell, we didn’t even have to stand in line before entering the auditorium. There were no hoots or hollers when the film franchise’s logo flashed across the screen. But I had tears in my eyes then, because I knew that I was sharing an experience with a larger, more enthusiastic community of film fans, even if they weren’t sitting in that darkened room with me. (They went at 8 pm Thursday night, right?) All in all, though, it was kind of like seeing any other movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is predicated on the idea that familiarity will sell. That is, it will fill nostalgic hearts and minds and also sell a shit ton of toys. I also understand that most diehard fans of the epic space fantasy series resent mastermind George Lucas’s three prequels, not only for introducing the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks but also for boring audiences to tears. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the last two prequels, inelegantly referred to as Episodes II and III.) So it seems only logical that a Star Wars superfan like J.J. Abrams would be able to bring back for his fellow fans what I imagine is the wonder and excitement of the early films. As I like to say, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best movie in the franchise, but that isn’t saying much.” It is a loving pastiche of the original trilogy, only it is well made. Its racially and sexually diverse cast is new and more than welcome, especially since the unequivocal lead is a resourceful young woman named Rey, who, throughout her (mis)adventures with former Storm-Trooper Finn, father figure Han Solo, and furry sidekick Chewbacca, gradually learns the source of all her magical abilities. (It’s the Force, duh.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens may be the ultimate fan movie experience that everyone wanted this year or any year, for that matter (just look at how its box-office haul continues to grow and grow, beating all kinds of records), but it left me with nothing more than a newfound interest in why it is so important and life-defining to so many people.

OK, I didn't go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.
OK, I didn’t go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.

Instead, I received the superfan experience that I had hoped to witness at Star Wars while attending a special presentation of The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Though I initially balked at the price for a ticket to the film’s limited Roadshow Edition ($20!), I reasoned that the promise of receiving a souvenir program and watching the shadow and light show of actual celluloid—and of a rare, large format, no less—unspooling through a projector had enough value for me. Well, that, and because I wanted to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest. His cinema of indulgence, as I like to think of it, is an acquired taste, but I love how he wears his ecstatic cinephilia on his sleeve. In the case of what is billed as “the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino,” this indulgence extends to amplifying the moviegoing experience for spectators to a new extreme, even for him.

Previously, Tarantino and best friend Robert Rodriguez put on a Grindhouse program in 2007, double billing their unapologetically trashy B-movies Death Proof and Planet Terror, respectively. Just as with Grindhouse, the auteur and his co-conspirators (historically, the Weinstein brothers Bob and Harvey) have injected a film history lesson about bygone exhibition practices back into contemporary pop culture, reminding today’s audiences that going to the Movies used to be a special, spectacular event. The limited Roadshow Edition of The Hateful Eight, complete with an instrumental overture, twelve-minute intermission, a handful of minutes not included on the digital prints of the film, and, not to mention, an earlier release date, subverts current film presentation trends such as surcharging tickets for movies screened in 3D and IMAX formats. You could even make the argument that the real star of the picture was the tangible film itself. Theaters had to be retrofitted with the right technology to screen 70mm, and transporting the heavy reels of film also proved a herculean task (the film is three hours long, mind you). Just read Adam Witmer’s account of what it is like to run the unfamiliar platter system of the 70mm projector at movie theaters in Los Angeles, with Tarantino sitting in the audience, to boot. It is mighty thrilling stuff.

Two of The Hateful Eight, being... hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Two of The Hateful Eight, being… hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

I enjoyed The Hateful Eight as a film story, right up until the end, anyway. But what I will most appreciate about it is the experience that I had going to the Movies on this occasion. Unlike at Star Wars, I had to wait in line to be let into the theater showing The Hateful Eight. Before the presentation began, I watched loving couples, movie nerd guys, and families with teenage or young adult children snap photos of themselves holding up the souvenir program. It was clear that I was a part of something big, something made for fans of Tarantino and for fans of cinema. I was glad that I had plunked down the $20 to attend a film event that hadn’t been replicated in fifty years. Would I do it again? Well, not every film gets or deserves this treatment, so that’s a moot point.

The plethora of reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings of popular films—or, in the case of The Hateful Eight, the reconstruction of 1950s and 60s film exhibition practices—not only allowed fan culture to come to the fore in 2015, it damn near took control of our moviegoing habits. They were everywhere, and more are even coming to the small screens. Netflix will drop all episodes of its original series Fuller House next month, and fans of the family sitcom have already proposed new (sinister) ways of looking at the story of DJ Tanner raising her own kids with the help of friends and family in San Francisco. Twin Peaks is not definitely returning, this time to the cable channel Showtime. These TV shows help prove that “fan-made” doesn’t just mean a low budget, quirky reinterpretation of known properties by pop culture consumers. It also means “for the fans.”

Returning to the realm of the Big Screen, I found myself going to movies this year that I never would have imagined wanting to see if not for the perception that they would be special opportunities for me to participate in fan culture. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was one of them, but so was Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Now, maybe it was because I had begun to appreciate the action film in all of its tense glory through repeated and ecstatic viewings of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)—more on that in part four—that I had wanted to see what one of my favorite film critics, Bilge Ebiri, had dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking.”

If I had ever seen the three original films by George Miller—1979’s Mad Max, 1981’s Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—I didn’t remember them. They mostly resonated with me through their influence on my childhood favorites Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) and Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993). In any case, I loved Fury Road. All at once, it was a recycling bin filled with iconography from every corner of cinema, refashioning elements of the modern vampire myth and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in the process, but it also felt so incredibly fresh. I had never seen a setting like that, simultaneously warm and inviting but also austere and unforgiving. Still, before its release, I never could have predicted that Fury Road, a frenetic road war movie with a preponderance of supposed practical effects and real stuntwork, would go on to top so many critics associations’ lists of the best films from 2015, including that of the National Board of Review. And a nomination for Best Picture? Who would have thunk it, indeed?

Donnie accepts that he's a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Donnie accepts that he’s a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not one for sports movies. I rented Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015) out of boredom and quickly lost interest. However, I rushed at the chance to see Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) in the theater, finding it my economic, political, and social obligation to support minority filmmakers. It didn’t matter that the only Rocky movie I had ever seen was the fourth installment in the franchise. On second thought, it probably helped that I had seen Drago bludgeon Apollo Creed to death in the ring in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985). For Creed is about a young black boxer’s coming to terms with his identity as the illegitimate son of the late world heavyweight champion. Aside from the stellar performances—especially by lead Michael B. Jordan—and an amazing single take that approximates what a real-life boxing match is like, I loved the call-backs to the original film, snippets that I recognized because I am a pop culture junkie and know Rocky iconography without ever having seen the movie. I loved the early scene where Adonis “Donnie” Johnson shadowboxes his father, taking Rocky’s place in one of their bouts, footage of which Donnie projects onto a wall, streaming the video from YouTube. Later, his running through the street while neighborhood kids on bikes roll alongside him reminded me of Rocky’s triumphal climb up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What an exhilarating cinematic moment; it may have been like what film audiences experienced in 1976. I don’t remember how enthusiastic the crowd was when I saw Creed, but I couldn’t stop grinning from how well co-writer/director Coogler had rebooted, remade, and re-imagined a cultural touchstone that had run out of gas in recent years, how he had made it relevant to today’s audiences. With every day bringing us news of another unarmed African American being gunned down by excessive police force, Creed is a celebration of a strong black body, a multifaceted character with a complex inner life. In other words, it is a reminder that Black Lives Matter and are full of underestimated and untapped potential. Shame the Academy couldn’t see it.

But not everything produced with a strong fanbase in mind succeeded financially or critically. No one really cared to see Terminator: Genysis (Alan Taylor, 2015), probably turned off by its confusing story. Is it a sequel, a prequel, or what? And the remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult classic about a group of bank robbers who spend most days catching some waves off the Los Angeles coast, Point Break, crashed and burned. Like many people who grew up loving the campy original, I was at first hostile to the idea that Warner Bros. was going to distribute a remake of my beloved romance between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. But I learned that it is possible to appreciate both versions. In fact, it is possible to watch them both at the same time.

Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Having seen the trailer a couple of times, I was intrigued by how the filmmakers (including director/cinematographer Ericson Core and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) had made a case for a new Point Break in 2015. It’s a Point Break set within the world of extreme sports, a picture about the forces of nature and economic inequality. In this version, Johnny Utah is an FBI cadet who, based on his previous experience as a poly-athlete (I’d never heard that term before!) hypothesizes that a series of crimes performed through gravity-defying stunts on separate continents are all the work of the same daring team. They’re chasing what he calls the Osaki Eight, a series of physically demanding stunts that bring one closer to Nature. In other words, this legendary philosophy (the progenitor of it died while attempting his third challenge) is kind of like The Force: it is meant to do good. But the group, led by Bodhi (who else?), commits criminal acts in order to give back, including hijacking millions of dollars being transported by a plane. Releasing the bills miles high to the Mexican villagers below, they also accomplish their goal of strategically falling through the sky and opening their parachutes inside a cave, effectively going from above to below the earth’s surface in one fell swoop. This is not your childhood’s Point Break. In addition to highlighting what was wrong with the original (the surfer gang wasn’t a band of Robin Hoods), the film is a showcase for the striking photography of beautiful natural landscapes and the real stunts performed by professional athletes that are littered throughout.

C'mon, Bodhi, why don't you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna... Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
C’mon, Bodhi, why don’t you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna… Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I watched the new Point Break with the original, so ingrained in my memory, playing at the same time in the back of my mind. I could giddily anticipate some gestures and exchanges, such as the moment when Utah fires his gun into the air in a blaze of bullets after just having it trained on Bodhi, thereby allowing his friend/object of desire to get away before the feds arrive. I was the only one in the theater who yelped when she saw James Le Gros cameo as an FBI director (Roach lives!). Despite these call-backs to the original, I can assure you that this Point Break is its own campy thing. It is less a remake and more a re-imagining. And I couldn’t help thinking that an early scene set in a dilapidated Parisian train station (if memory serves) is the closest either film comes to shooting a love scene between the men. Here, Bodhi and his gang hang out, fighting each other for no apparent reason. Although couched as a test of Utah’s character and mettle, the fisticuffs between he and Bodhi signal a love and brutalism that binds them together. I just hope that in twenty-four years, if they even wait that long to remake Point Break, Bodhi and Utah consummate this desire to turn the other into himself. To fuck, as it were.

Fargo Season Two
Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (center) confronts Gerhardt scion Dodd in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

However, the most immersive and rewarding fan experience that I had in 2015—and which carried into 2016—didn’t even involve going to the movie theater. I became obsessed with the FX original series Fargo, created by Noah Hawley and inspired by the 1996 film of the same name written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I initially eschewed the first season of the mock true crime anthology series because Billy Bob Thornton starred. I hold a grudge against the man for having won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay the year that John Hodge’s script for Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) was nominated in the same category. (More on that film in part four.) However, I had read that the show was amazing, and when I spotted the first season on DVD at my public library, I snatched up the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about Fargo.

Set in 2006, it follows Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman in a stunning debut), a sheriff’s deputy in a small Minnesota town who is the only one who can see what is really going on: perennial schlemiel Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, putting on his best north Midwestern accent) is in cahoots with the mysterious assassin Lorne Malvo (a charismatic Thornton). Malvo’s not-quite-solicited murder of Lester’s high school bully sets off a dangerous and absurd chain of events, transforming Lester from a mild-mannered underachiever into a successful insurance salesman with a murderous streak. A suitcase buried in the snow even figures prominently in a second narrative thread concerning Malvo’s manipulation of a grocery store king (Oliver Platt) who hired him to find his blackmailer. That reminds me: I really ought to check out Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014).

Anyway, I fell under Fargo’s spell immediately. I devoured episodes, reveling in the show’s intricate plotting, nuanced performances, and references not just to the Coens’ film but their whole cinematic universe. I finished in time to watch the second season as it aired, but I waited until my DVR had recorded all ten episodes before diving in. I wanted to go at my own (delayed but faster) pace.

For the second outing, Noah Hawley and his new writer’s room set the story in 1979, during the so-called Sioux Falls Massacre, which Molly’s retired sheriff of a father (Keith Carradine) referenced on a regular basis throughout season one. Going in, I already knew that at least two characters would survive: Molly, now played as a young girl by Raven Stewart, and her father Lou (played as a young state trooper by Patrick Wilson). All bets were off regarding everyone and everything else. The second season is more ambitious in style, story, and setting, incorporating a Midwestern turf war between a German-American crime family in Fargo, the Gerhardts, and a bigger, more streamlined operation in Kansas City that wishes to absorb the former’s drugs distribution business. Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a Minnesota beautician with a dream, accidentally runs over the youngest brother of the Gerhardt clan while he (Kieran Culkin, who knows a thing or two about family dynasties himself) tries to flee the scene of his triple homicide inside a remote diner. Peggy enlists the help of her dim-witted but well-meaning husband, the apprentice butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons), to get rid of Rye Gerhardt’s body. A call-back to the memorable woodchipper scene in the film Fargo ensues, as Ed disposes of Rye’s body the only way he knows how: with a meat grinder.

 

Fargo meat grinder
Ed prepares Rye Gerhardt for the woodchipper meat grinder in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

Although the characters and storylines are different between the film and each season of the TV show, a cottage industry exists in which viewers spot references to the film in the new series. Originally, this activity maddened Adam Sternbergh, novelist and contributing editor of New York magazine, whose favorite film is Fargo. Writing for Vulture, he recounts the process of coming to terms with the TV show, whose announcement in 2014 made him feel “something between doubt and existential despair,” by being “able to let go and watch the show in the spirit in which it perhaps was always meant to be watched.” The widening of the show’s scope in season two to include references to the larger Coen “mythology” has influenced Sternbergh to see Fargo as “the ultimate tribute” to the filmmakers, continuing:

The show accepts as a given that the Coens haven’t just created a distinctive visual style, or a stable of recognizable character types, or a set of consistent thematic concerns: They’ve created all those things, with such richness and abundance that their films now qualify as a genre unto themselves. The Coens may have started out making noirs, or Westerns, or comedies, but now they indisputably make Coen Brothers films. Their work has become a stand-alone genre that exists to be referenced, caricatured, borrowed, even shamelessly strip-mined. And it’s rich enough to inspire not just a spinoff, but an expertly executed ongoing televisual homage.

My favorite reference in season two to the Coen Brothers’ filmography comes at the end of the seventh episode. With the eldest Gerhardt brother in his possession, Ed Blumquist phones low-level KC mob enforcer Mike Milligan (a transfixing Bokeem Woodbine) to make a deal: he’ll give him Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) in exchange for help in getting the Gerhardts off his back. The song “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” made famous by the Dude’s dream sequence in The Big Lebowski (1998), plays out the scene before the end credits roll. But rather than lift Mickey Newbury’s original 1967 track from the film, Hawley and Co. do something extra geeky: they put on an anachronistic funky cover of the song by the pop-synth band White Denim. I’d never heard of this musical group before, but I can only imagine that they probably first heard the song as I did in 1998: while watching The Big Lebowski. In this way, Hawley and his collaborators have taken their Coen fandom to new intertextual heights. Like White Denim, Hawley and his colleagues have taken a text (almost) exclusively associated with the Coen Brothers film genre, to use Sternbergh’s taxonomy, and created something new. Placing the cover of the song inside the playful homage that is Fargo the TV series emphasizes the fan culture from which both the cover song and the TV program were born and which they continue to stimulate.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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Search and Rescue: Or Why I’m Drawn to Films About Surviving Nature, Torture, and Mars

Here is a chronological list of the films I saw in 2015 about people surviving and/or being rescued from harsh physical environments and traumatizing psychological prisons

  • Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
  • Black Sea  (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
  • Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
  • Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)
  • The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
  • Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
  • Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
  • The 33 (Patricia Riggen, 2015)
  • No Escape (John Erick Dowdle, 2015)
  • In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)

And in 2016:

  • The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

It’s overwhelmingly apparent that I prefer film stories about people fighting to survive in forbidding natural or socially constructed environments that continuously pound them into submission. Beginning with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s underrated and claustrophobic thriller about a misfit crew of Nazi-treasure hunters aboard a submarine, and continuing straight through to In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s ill-fated attempt to bring Melville’s Moby Dick origin story to life, I found myself time and again drawn to films about Nature’s punishing power over all of us and how, in the most extreme of cases, the human spirit and body are put to the ultimate test. Two docudramas came and went this fall, but I couldn’t escape them: Everest, about a deadly tourist expedition to summit the tallest peak in 1996 (you know, the one that writer Jon Krakauer participated in), and The 33, which related the events leading up to the miraculous rescue of the titular Chilean coal-miners trapped inside their workplace for over two months in 2010. As a food film scholar, I was greatly intrigued by a middle sequence in the film, in which the protagonists imagine that their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones have prepared them a gorgeous feast of home-cooked meals when in reality the miners sit down to tuck in their last heavily rationed “meal” of canned tuna and cookies.

The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

This extreme survival-centered category of film story also indexes other 2015 releases, including post-apocalyptic pictures like George Miller’s instant cult classic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road and the under-seen chamber piece Z for Zachariah. Along with its extreme setting, amidst a community subjugated under one water- and food-controlling dynasty, Fury Road blends in that other narrative thread I love to watch: the rescue film. While the titular character does whatever he can to survive in the desert—even if it means taking the passenger seat and assisting true hero Imperator Furiosa on her quest to save young women from lives spent as sex slaves under her family patriarch—the whole world rallies behind the astronaut Mark Watney, long presumed dead but in actual fact still chugging along as the first pioneer on the Red Planet in Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic The Martian. I wanted to like this film more than I did. Where many saw a hilarious comedy with a captivating lead performance by Matt Damon, I saw a dreadfully unfunny and charmless one-man show starring one of the most overrated actors working today. It didn’t matter, though. I had to see it, as a “hard sci-fi” film fan (more on that in part two) who has dreamed more than once of what life is like elsewhere in the universe.

Of course, I never could have made this observation about my moviegoing preferences and habits if these films hadn’t all appeared at once. What happened this past year (or in the years prior, while these films were in development) that so many films about survival and rescue were released? Are they a response to an underlying fear that this country is turning to shit again, what with the United States entering its fourteenth year of the longest war it has ever waged, the rampant political discord in Congress, the emergence and threat of the Islamic State, and so on? Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, which were so prevalent as to form the genre’s so-called “golden age” as they addressed the anxieties of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and overall distrust of political authority and therefore its inability to keep Americans safe, do the films of 2015 also point to something that is taking place on the national or world stage?

Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Dystopias like those depicted in Fury Road and even the effective B-movie thriller No Escape, which is set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and charts one American family’s fight for survival during a violent coup d’etat, have seemingly always been in fashion. However, this cannot explain 2015’s collective fascination with stories of survival and rescue. Most of the films are not dystopian sci-fi pictures. At this time, I cannot offer any full-fledged theory that may explain this phenomenon, only speculation. Aside from their sometimes flashy special effects, these films represented a more conservative style of film storytelling, harkening back to a bygone age of cinema. Beginning with Angelina Jolie’s bloated endurance test Unbroken (released at the end of 2014), which was probably meant to resemble a John Ford, Frank Capra, or William Wyler WWII war movie but actually recalled a Clint Eastwood picture about the triumph of the (American) spirit in the face of (excessive) adversity, this film story trend is meant to induce spiritual and emotional uplift in audiences. Just look at the raging success of The Martian. At times lauded and scrutinized for its diverse cast and for presenting that up-and-coming economic and political threat, China, as a congenial U.S. collaborator, everyone practically guaranteed that filmgoers would leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, a little light on their feet. This is a utopian vision of the future of film storytelling, and it is in stark contrast to the cynicism of The Hunger Games and Divergent film franchises and any Avengers or X-Men movie currently showing on a screen near you.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

To Each Her Own Cinephilia; Or How I Failed to Connect to Silver Screen Fiend

Cover Image of Silver Screen FiendI finished reading Patton Oswalt’s second memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, days ago but I’ve been struggling to find something to say about it ever since. That’s when it hit me: my not having much to say is indicative of how I feel about this book. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s mostly just underwhelming. As a film fanatic myself, I was very excited to read the newly released Fiend, whose subtitle is Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. I thought it would offer me insights into how I might balance my career ambitions (whatever those are) with my chronic hunger to watch and analyze films and TV shows. Instead, Oswalt leaves it until the last chapter to bestow wisdom on this topic: “Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life” (161, emphasis in original). I already knew all that. Thanks, Patton. What’s worse, he comes to the realization that the Movies have taken over his life only once The Phantom Menace profoundly disappoints him, and you know how I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas. At least I have never seen a film so terrible that it shook the very foundation upon which my cinephilia is built: I will never stop consuming films, because I want to better understand what effects they have on our lives, on our cultures.

Silver Screen Fiend briefly recounts the four years between 1995 and 1999 when he obsessively attended film screenings at the New Beverly Cinema and other repertory theaters playing classic films, in the hopes that feeding his addiction as much as possible would make him a (great) film director someday. At the same time, he also became a member of the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles, and he wrote for MADtv for a short spell before the producers finally realized that his lackluster skits just weren’t cutting it. I’m not being harsh. Here is Oswalt himself on the subject of his being fired: “It also didn’t help that my writing at the time was so fashionably half-assed. I hadn’t even developed my distaste for typos, which made all the sketches I turned in look like I’d written them while being chased by Turkish assassins on a drifting steamboat” (133-4). There are amusing if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny scenes sprinkled throughout, such as his experience shooting Down Periscope (his debut film role, which also earned him a SAG card) and the legal trouble he and his friends faced when they tried to stage a table reading of Jerry Lewis’s controversial, never-publicly-shown Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried. What they wound up performing turned out to be a creative collaborative success: a series of sketches about their not being able to perform the screenplay itself due to a producer’s issuance of a cease-and-desist letter.

Although I could relate to his experience as a cinephile—and in particular, a desire to see films in the theater as part of an audience—I couldn’t connect with him in the way that I wanted to (that is, to learn about life through an addiction to film). The book itself starts in an off-putting way: he writes as if he is in conversation with the reader, who is either a friend or an acquaintance, outside the New Beverly, someone he “bulldoze[s] right over… and keep[s] gabbing” away about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. I get it; his mind runs sixty miles an hour when you get him started on a film about which he feels really passionate. The problem is that throughout most of the book, he mainly just mentions film titles, ones that appear in the handwritten and poorly duplicated calendar that begins most chapters. Occasionally, he reminds the reader that he uses five film encyclopedias to keep track of what classics he should see, and he marks each entry with a note in the margin describing how and when he saw a particular film. An appendix at the back of the book lists all of the films he saw between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999. It’s 33 pages long and quite impressive, but ultimately not very useful. What am I supposed to get out of it? In addition to a decades-old film stub collection, I’ve kept a film journal for almost ten years as well as an alphabetical index of its contents. I can’t imagine that anyone else would ever want to look at such a document or the information it contains. (I started journaling and indexing as a way to keep tabs on what I’ve not only seen but written about as well.) So scanning the wide assortment of titles listed in his appendix, all I could think was, for example, “Ooh! I wonder what he thought of Trainspotting.”

Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.
Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt’s film addiction and comedy scene shenanigans are probably given equal “screen time” in the slim volume, but his stories about the latter were more exuberant, filled with more personalities. I think I know why this is, and it’s not because he’s a lazy writer. (If anything, he may be too energetic, especially when it comes to philosophizing about Vincent van Gogh’s creative genius, from which Oswalt draws great and sometimes confusing inspiration.) It is because, as he implies throughout, it is sometimes difficult for a rabid film fanatic to translate her enthusiasm for a film in a way that someone not as interested in it will understand and appreciate. In the chapter “You Can, Unfortunately, Go Home Again,” he writes about meeting a high school friend for a movie while they were both home for Thanksgiving in 1996. Sitting down to the Bruce Willis western Last Man Standing, he geeks out about how the “movie is based on [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest, but it got there by way of [A] Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo” (120). This fun fact lodges itself in his companion’s brain so deeply that Oswalt ruins the experience of watching Last Man Standing for the man, because he thinks he’s seen a version of a samurai film. Although I don’t condone binge drinking, this may be the best description Oswalt offers to illuminate the divide between people like us and people like his friend:

Movies, to him [meaning his old high school buddy] and the majority of the planet, are an enhancement to a life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I’m the other way around. I’m the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I’m about to drink. (122)

Owing to my gigantic sweet tooth, allow me to paraphrase this treatise using a dessert analogy instead. Some people I know don’t eat dessert or only do so on rare occasions, whereas I always eat dinner in order to have dessert. Since I’m in a confessional mood, I will also admit that sometimes I forgo dinner altogether and dash straight to dessert.

Early on in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt defines the film subculture he belongs to as one consisting of “sprocket fiends,” those who dwell in the “subterranean dimension” of repertory theaters, who travel through space and time at the will of a director and his/her vision (7-8). I learned on my first or second day in the Cinema Studies department at NYU that the rest of the Tisch School of the Arts referred to us as moles, because once we burrowed in the ground we were content to stay in the dark. Like Oswalt, I love the sound of celluloid passing through a projector. It makes me feel alive. That’s why the “First Epilogue,” written as a tribute to the owner and manager of the New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan (to whom the book is also dedicated), is the best part. In it, Oswalt shows off his classic film knowledge in a highly imaginative and dexterous manner: he curates a 30-day festival of films that were never made but will hopefully entertain Sherman in the great beyond. If only Hal Ashby could have wrangled John Belushi and Richard Pryor for an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I especially love the quick mention that a young Frances McDormand, one of my favorites, costars as Myrna Minkoff and is, in a word, “Sublime” (172).

Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite Part II

As you might have read, this month I have been revisiting the original Star Wars trilogy. Now that I have seen Return of the Jedi (I simply refuse to call them by their retroactively prescribed names, such as Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Who needs all that?), I can confirm that my earlier suspicions were correct: the series is indeed “one drawn-out B-movie.” It’s a stupid, bloated, and poorly made cult film series. Am I right in assuming that Return of the Jedi is the Godfather Part III to the Star Wars pantheon of films? While not wholly unnecessary (we desperately needed to know that Luke wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and convert to the Dark Side) like Francis Ford Coppola’s too-little-too-late second sequel, Return of the Jedi is easily the worst of the original bunch.

Let’s see. What happens? In an effort to rescue Han Solo, still frozen in carbonite, from the giant slug Jabba the Hutt (to whom Han had been in debt), Princess Leia and the bickering droids C-P30 and R2-D2 become Jabba’s prisoners. We’re treated to a song-and-dance routine by scared sycophants/prisoners which reminds us that we’ve most certainly entered the 1980s. A sex slave, Leia is forced to wear bronze lingerie. Now I understand how her Farrah Fawcett moment must have initially affected young boys in 1983 and in the years since. When Jabba rejects Luke’s holographic message pleading for his friends’ release, the self-proclaimed jedi knight has no choice but to come down in person. He makes threats (throughout the movie, too) that no one believes he can act upon, but he predictably gets the job done. Seriously, Jabba the Hutt was so nonthreatening a minor villain that we didn’t need a prolonged desert-set battle in which Luke and co. blew up his ship before the slug could feed a newly reawakened Han Solo and obnoxious Luke to the sarlacc. I have to admit that I didn’t remember the name of the giant, perfectly round mouth in the desert floor, whose sharp teeth don’t help cut down its digestion time of eternity. In the process of identifying the sarlacc, I discovered it has its own Wikipedia page. Don’t people have more important things to do with their time?

Ah, what else? Yoda dies. After saving his friends, Luke makes good on his promise and returns to Yoda’s isolated swamp planet Dagobah (which sounds too much like the yummy chocolate company Dagoba) in order to resume his jedi training. Yoda evaporates in the air (or was he just beamed up to the heavens?), but not before attesting to Darth Vader’s claim to Luke’s paternity at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and to telling the boy that he has a sibling. Lucky for Luke, Ben Kenobi appears to him on Dagobah and explains Luke’s twisted family history: Darth Vader hid Luke from the Emperor, and in turn, Ben hid Luke’s twin sister from Darth. Luke hilariously makes one guess as to who his sister must be. “Leia!” But of course, it had to be her since there are no other significant women in any of these movies, despite the fact that there seem to be no limits to this imaginary galaxy. See? The writing hasn’t improved upon the first two films.

I know that from the prequels, we learn who is Luke and Leia’s mother. (She’s Natalie Portman, of course.) But isn’t it disgusting that the writers thought it was a good idea to never to delve into this anywhere in Episodes IV through VI? Instead, it’s all about the jedi tricks and schemes to keep the twins hidden, separated, so that they can find each other seemingly by accident and intuition. Perhaps the ultimate victim in all of this is the dispossessed mother. She doesn’t even come up.

Just when I was beginning to despair that I would never see the Ewoks (for a moment, I had thought the desert people on Tatooine in Star Wars were them; my bad), I got to see the creatures in the over-long third act on Endor, which is where the crew has landed in order to take out the Emperor’s new Death Star. It’s not much worth going into, but the Ewoks take Han Solo and the droids prisoner. Their captors are equal parts creepy and cute. These forest people resemble not only Gizmo from Gremlins and a more neutral toned Care Bears line of stuffed animals, they also recall Snow White’s dwarf friends. There’s even a shot of them walking along a narrow bridge/pathway or thick tree branch that leads us straight into their compound, much like the one that the animated dwarfs sang along while marching on their way to work. Leia, separated from the group following a borrring chase with stormtroopers on hovering jet skis and taken to Ewok Central, reunites with her brother, Han Solo, R2-D2, and C-P30, whom the Ewoks believe is some sort of god. Soon, Luke surrenders to the imperial guards in an effort to confront Darth Vader (it’s part of his destiny, you see) while the rest set up a plan to blow up the Death Star. Again.

I can’t be sure of what exactly ensued. Big action set pieces or fight scenes bore me to tears, but in this case I was also feeling dizzy and queasy due to my chronic medical condition, which causes vertigo. But I do remember that, while in Darth Vader and the Emperor’s company, Luke successfully resists giving into his hatred for both–it has to be said, disfigured–men. Every time one of them taunts him to kill so that his conversion to the Dark Side may be complete, Luke fires back at his absentee father that he can feel his goodness, trying to coax the good out of him. To make a long story short, something happened that totally surprised me: Darth Vader, who for years I have thought was the supreme baddie in this franchise, redeems himself! After Luke chops off his hand (thereby returning the favor that his father had done him at the end of The Empire Strikes Back), Darth Vader kicks the Emperor down, and his mentor falls through space. I wasn’t expecting that! And I never understood how Luke, abandoned by his evil father, could forgive and love him. Especially once he took off his mask, an act that kills him.

But perhaps the worst part of Return of the Jedi–yes, even more painful to watch than the impromptu concert scene at Jabba the Hutt’s–is the montage of worlds celebrating the end of the Empire. When it finally settles on our ragtag team of heroes swaying their arms and hips with Ewoks on Endor, I was so embarrassed. And that’s a storyline that J.J. Abrams’s much anticipated and much scrutinized sequel will continue to embellish. How could anyone think that he won’t do justice to these films? It won’t be difficult to improve upon them.

Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite

For years, whenever someone mentioned Star Wars, I recited the following response: “I used to love the original trilogy as a kid. It was something that I shared with my younger brother and my mother. The three of us bought advance tickets to see The Phantom Menace in 1999, but by that time, I think I’d already forgotten the earlier trio of films.” As you can see, I deployed this not-exactly-called-for viewing history as a diversion. It’s not that I was embarrassed–well, on second thought, maybe it was: I had forgotten virtually everything about these massive films, and the only memory that lingered was the knowledge that I was a fan.

Obviously, I wasn’t a diehard fan. But they must have meant something to me if, sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, I insisted we buy advance tickets to the first prequel, which has since been reviled for, among many other things, introducing the jabbering CGI monstrosity Jar Jar Binks. I’ll leave it to those who live and die by The Force to complain about how Lucas ruined the original trilogy with the retroactive Episodes I through III. I can’t even tell you the other prequels’ names without pushing a few keystrokes over at IMDb.

Instead, I want to talk about my recent–and still ongoing–rediscovery of Episodes IV through VI. It had been nearly two decades since I’d seen them. I decided to rent them from my local public library because I was fed up with not understanding all of the allusions to the film series that regularly float around in pop culture. Whether it’s Jamiroquai singing for us to “Use the Force” or why Adam’s toy replica of the Millennium Falcon on the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs is the boy’s most prized possession, I’ve always wondered, “What makes Star Wars so great?”

Well, I’m afraid I cannot figure it out, because the most earth-shattering observation that I have made is that these films simply are not very good. While I could criticize the special visual effects, I understand that in their day they were ground-breaking. But I doubt they are the reason why millions of people worldwide worship these films.

I will attack the acting, though. It’s atrocious, and funnily enough, Mark Hamill isn’t the worst. His all-American, aw-shucks performance fits his character’s arc well: as Luke Skywalker, he goes from living on the desolate Tatooine planet, his uncle stifling him with mundane responsibilities, before he realizes his destiny is fated elsewhere. Namely, saving the galaxy from Darth Vader’s destructive vision. Princess Leia and Han Solo, two (im)probable lovers portrayed by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, respectively, have the worst exchanges that are meant to pass for sexual tension. The best part was when Leia called Han Solo a “nerf herder” in The Empire Strikes Back, thereby reigniting my memory of a power-pop band that my sister and I used to listen to in the 90s. I had no idea Nerf Herder went on to lend Buffy the Vampire Slayer its theme song. I am so not a geek.

Overall, Episodes IV and V (I have yet to watch The Return of the Jedi) appear to be one drawn-out B-movie. It’s not just the special effects and acting. It’s also the set and costume designs. When inflation is taken into account, I wonder what Star Wars‘s budget of $11 million would be today, because it looks cheap. The writing is bad, and the imperial generals and admirals have some of the worst line-delivery, which the out-of-sync (and THX-mastered) audio makes even more distracting. As for the costumes: does anyone really buy Chewbacca? It’s clearly a really tall man in an itchy diarrhea-brown yeti costume. Speaking of ensembles, in one scene, Princess Leia is dressed in an all-white ski suit, the next, a drapey, polyester nightie. Don’t tell me that George Lucas and his collaborators weren’t channeling Ed Wood and Roger Vadim when they created this mythology. And I swear that everyone pronounces Leia’s name as “Leah” in Star Wars and later as “Laya” in The Empire Strikes Back. A similar transformation occurs to Han Solo’s moniker; the long A in “Han” is further accentuated.

Some people say that Star Wars is a western set in space. On what evidence? Because the good guys wear white, the bad guys black? That’s not even true; the imperial stormtroopers almost look like carbon copies of Darth Vader, but they wear white plastic armor. It’s quite a stretch to say that the Rebel forces represent villagers or homesteaders, and Darth Vader the outlaw who comes to town to disrupt their peaceful way of life.

Star Wars is a lot of things, but it is not a western. It’s primarily a paternal melodrama, because the main conflict exists between Luke, the so-called “New Hope” of Episode IV’s subtitle, and the father whose identity had always been a mystery to him. And seriously, how could Darth Vader’s confession toward the end of The Empire Strikes Back have shocked audiences in 1980, even if they don’t know that “Vater” means “father” in German? Luke’s uncle and Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness, the only interesting actor in this whole enterprise) had dropped clues that Luke’s father joined the dark (aka darth?) side. The second installment sets up how the epic battle that we’re slowly building towards will be one over Luke’s soul. Good thing the Force is strong with him!

That brings me to my next point: Yoda. Yoda is a Jedi master who has trained Jedi knights for over 800 years. A lime green puppet voiced by Frank Oz, he might be the most offensive thing about Star Wars. Given the design of his countenance and his speech pattern (his grammar goes object-subject-verb), he is most obviously modeled on a stereotypical wise old Asian man and would later be reincarnated as Mr. Miyagi. Yoda presents the best personification of The Force, some pseudo-religion about how everything is connected and therefore anything can be moved.  This is where all of the references to “Jedi mind tricks” in Kevin Smith movies come from. And this is how Lucas and co. chose to distinguish their vision of the future in space from that which appeared on TV screens in Star Trek. I’d rather be beamed somewhere distant than have a muscle spasm in my shoulder trying to move a spaceship.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to watch Star Wars without thinking of everything that has come after it. You could say that I revisited these films because I wanted to see the parallels between the biggest movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars. Although drawn from a lesser series of Marvel comic books than The Hulk or Iron Man were, Guardians has a lot in common with Star Wars. Peter Quill’s outlaw name, Star Lord, sounds like it was ripped from the earlier films’ iconography. Like Luke, he doesn’t know who his father is, but as we understand from the set-up for the shoo-in sequel, we’re going to find out how learning his father’s identity will have significant repercussions for the whole galaxy. Like Han Solo, Peter’s a loner, a rogue and a charmer. His beat-up, lived-in ship resembles the ramshackleness of the Millennium Falcon, and the mutual attraction between Peter and the green warrior princess Gamora is as sure a thing as Han Solo and Princess Leia finally giving in to their shared desires. The main villain of Guardians, Ronan, may be dispatched by the film’s end, but he’s kind of like Darth Vader: he defies the supreme ruler, Thanos, in an attempt to control the galaxy, destroying whole planets with the press of a button, much like Vader. But Guardians of the Galaxy, by no means my favorite film, is far more appealing, visually interesting, and more succinctly told. We don’t need a sequel or two or three, but we’ll get them anyway, because that’s Hollywood’s business model.

Speaking of superhero movies, isn’t that what Star Wars really is? For reasons that I have already described, Luke Skywalker is the quintessential superhero, for he has elements of Superman (daddy issues) and Spider-Man (his harnessing the Force is akin to Peter Parker’s web-slinging). You could even say his piloting proficiency mimics the technological prowess of Batman, whom some consider a superhero and others do not. I may one day be able to understand the appeal of these stories, but I will never be able to connect to them emotionally. They’re just fairytales for boys.

Long Take: Winchester ’73 Shows How the West Was Won Still Fascinates Us

Viewed August 9 & 16, 2012

Like some—maybe even many—people of my generation, I didn’t grow up with a fondness for the western. This kind of picture wasn’t widely produced when I was a youngster. Since genres go through cyclical periods of (often frenzied) popularity and then disuse, to put it simply, timing is important, but not everything. Although my father is a fan of the classic westerns of the 1940s and 50s, he never instilled in us kids an enthusiasm for movies set in the Old West, centered on macho disputes over land, women, and personal freedom that are couched as epic battles between good and evil. It’s only been in recent years, after being forced (yes, forced) to watch them and analyze their deeper meanings, that I have come to appreciate the western. And in an effort to clean out my nearly full DVR this summer, I submitted to Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950) and found a mythologizing film-story set in 1876 about how the titular gun “won the west” and conquered the popular imagination (thus, the film is also a study in American material culture). You’re about to enter Spoiler Territory ahead. Consider this your first and final warning. Then again, the movie’s sixty-two years old. The statute of limitations has been lifted for quite some time now.

Jimmy—sorry, James—Stewart stars as Lin McAdam, a highly skilled rifleman who rolls into Dodge City, Kansas, with best friend and sidekick Frankie “High Spade” Wilson (Millard Mitchell) on the centennial Fourth of July, a day that the town celebrates by hosting a shooting competition. The prize is one of one thousand priceless, perfectly manufactured Winchester repeating rifles, Model 1873. Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) confiscates McAdam’s and High Spade’s guns as soon as they enter town, since Dodge City is a no-gun zone. This means the only way McAdam can best his arch-nemesis Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who is also in town, is to beat him at this game, which he does with a lot of panache. In one of those now recognizably racist representations of American Indians, McAdam pays little money for a Indian spectator’s tribal necklace so that he may break off one of its medallions and blow a hole through it after Sheriff Earp throws it up in the air. Covetous of McAdam’s (fully operational) trophy, which McAdam declines to have engraved with his name for lack of time (a maneuver that makes for convenient story plotting), Dutch and his men ambush the winner, steal it from him, and ride out of town without collecting their own guns from the sheriff’s brother, Virgil. McAdam and High Spade are hot in pursuit.

Dodge City Sheriff Wyatt Earp, center, presides over a shooting competition between the just Lin McAdam, left, and the outlaw Dutch Henry Brown, right. Earp has no idea what his contest has set off. Image courtesy of http://www.listal.com.

Synopses of Winchester ’73 typically relate that the film tracks the journey of the rifle, as it is passed from one person to the next. Dutch loses it in a card game to the Indian trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire) while seeking to refuel and arm his men at a saloon on the border with the Indian territory. Later, Lamont refuses to offer Young Bull (Rock Hudson in one of his earliest screen credits) the Winchester ’73, a rifle like the ones that Lakota Chief Crazy Horse (alongside Sitting Bull) and his men used to defeat Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn just months ago. In a deal gone wrong, Young Bull strips Lamont of the gun and then kills and scalps him off-screen. In this way, both sides want the rifle for protection and conquest, but it’s impossible to read their awed faces when in its presence without acknowledging that they have all bought into the myth that the gun, at least in retrospect, is “The Gun that Won the West.” In each man’s eyes, it’s his own ticket to greatness, infamy, legend. Not only will the Winchester ’73 help him reach all of his goals, it will bestow special god-like powers. (Yes, having a murderous streak running through you will make you believe you’re a god when you have the power to kill people from far away, without having to continually reload your weapon.)

For some of the men, like Steve Miller (Charles Drake), who gets it in the aftermath of an impromptu battle against Young Bull, the gun could potentially transform him from coward to brave hero. Except, it doesn’t. He doesn’t have it for more than a day. A supposed friend, the psychopathic Waco Johnny Dean (a charismatic Dan Duryea) shoots Steve dead in front of his fiancee, the former Dodge City saloon girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), whom Steve previously and temporarily abandoned when Young Bull chased their wagon the day prior, leading them to seek refuge at the camp of inexperienced U.S. cavalrymen led by Sergeant Wilkes (a funny Jay C. Flippen). It should be noted that during this hideout, McAdam and High Spade also happen upon the army’s makeshift outpost and, thankfully, successfully guide everyone in battle. McAdam rides away before Sgt. Wilkes discovers Young Bull’s rifle, and so he gives it to Steve, a golden opportunity for him to later, fatally, prove his manhood. Very fetishistic, indeed. (It’s worth noting, too, that Wilkes couldn’t have known that it’s McAdam’s rifle; he just wanted to thank him for his superb reinforcements. The historical paper trail on the gun’s provenance runs cold when one looks for the owner’s name on the engraving, which therefore suggests that the mythic Winchester ’73 belongs to everyone and no one at the same time. But, of course, as film-viewers, we know it belongs to one man specifically.)

The eponymous repeating rifle that belongs to McAdam, but from the look of it to everyone and no one in particular. Image courtesy of http://www.derekhill.wordpress.com

And that’s just it. Winchester ’73 is about men and their toys. Or so it would seem. From the beginning, we understand that McAdam and High Spade have been hot on Dutch Henry Brown’s trail for a long time for a specific crime he once committed, though we don’t know what it is. That he took off with the priceless rifle McAdam deservedly won is just an excuse to keep pursuing him. So, while I like to think of Winchester ’73 as a film that examines how a single material object shaped the lives of all those who came in contact with it, in the process both deconstructing and perpetuating the legend that the gun played a vital role in settlers’ so-called “civilized” domestication of the Wild West, I can’t help but notice that the gun itself is a MacGuffin. Sure, it’s not an empty plot device a la the eponymous Maltese Falcon in John Huston’s film noir from 1941; the Winchester is loaded with symbolism in cultural, historical, and political terms. However, McAdam doesn’t seem to want or need the gun to feel complete. He just really wants Dutch dead.

Things heat up once all parties reach Tascosa, Texas, where Dutch and his men botch a bank robbery. Waco Johnny Dean, a would-be co-conspirator, has brought with him Lola Manners. For when you take away a man’s life in outlaw country, you take with you his gun and his bride. Anyway, seeking information about Dutch’s whereabouts from Waco Johnny, McAdam has no choice but to kill his uncooperative informant, thereby releasing Lola from her prison of implied sexual slavery in one fell swoop. She’s grazed by a bullet from the gunfire in the street (following Dutch’s ill attempt at robbing), a hooker with a heart of gold because she tried to get a child to safety. McAdam chases after Dutch to the hills outside of town. Director Anthony Mann uses parallel editing to cut between the action in town and on the rocks. In this climatic scene, High Spade illuminates for Lola—and by extension, the audience—the reason for McAdam’s lust for Dutch’s blood: turns out they’re brothers, and Dutch (né Matthew) killed their upstanding father when he refused to offer shelter to his thieving son. For added pathetic emphasis, High Spade says Dutch shot his dad in the back. OK. We get it, he’s one spineless, evil dude, contractually bound to get his narrative comeuppance.

Honestly, the revelation that McAdam and Dutch are brothers is so contrived, a crucial piece of the story’s puzzle lazily tacked on before the super-imposed title card flashes “The End.” Definitely, if we knew of their familial connection early on in the film, which my father is convinced is the case (I swear to you, it’s not), the narrative would lose some of its suspense. But not much of it. In fact, if their backstory were more fleshed out throughout the picture, then the stakes would have been upped exponentially, kind of like how the paternal melodrama of Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) plays out between cattle rancher John Wayne and his adopted, rebellious son Montgomery Clift: will Wayne really make good on his promise to kill Clift in the end for his mutinous betrayal? In the very least, with an improved development of the brothers’ individual motivations in Winchester ’73, we wouldn’t have to rely on first impressions alone to size up Dutch’s character before he even makes a break for McAdam’s prize. Come to think of it, how did they manage, in that hotel room scuffle, not to hint at their relation? No warring brothers could plausibly accomplish that. Then again, if Mann and screenwriters Robert L. Richards and Borden Chase had taken the route I’m retroactively proposing, McAdam’s quest for the rifle would be even more transparently about beating his brother at a childish game of war and less about how “The Gun Won the West.”

In this promotional still for the movie, the self-aggrandizing sexual power that the Winchester ’73 gives off is completely unambiguous. That’s Lola in McAdam’s crotch, nursing a war wound. Image courtesy of http://www.hollywoodsgoldenage.com.

But the filmmakers themselves can’t make up their minds about what to do with the gun. (Or maybe I’m just projecting my own intellectual frustrations. That seems more likely.) Because in the end, after inevitably killing his brother, McAdam wins the war and takes back the spoils that are rightfully his. With the ruckus caused by the snatching of his toy now settled, he is also rewarded the love of a woman (who has proven herself good). Sure, she’s a flirt, but she’s also a defiant survivor clearly bedazzled by McAdam’s shooting skills and respectful interaction. He treats her like a lady, not a tramp. (In an earlier scene, before Young Bull’s not-so-surprise ambush, McAdam gifted Lola his six-shooter, and his gentlemanly gesture wasn’t lost on her: she was to shoot herself before letting any Indian take her captive.) So it appears as if there has been some underlying anxiety over McAdam’s masculinity, after all. In other words, regaining the Winchester ’73 does complete his own transformation. Implicitly, but not-so-subtly, he couldn’t settle down with a woman (preferring High Spade’s company to anyone else’s, it has to be said) before he successfully vanquished his brother. And now that he has his rifle prize back, his righteous, unambiguously heterosexual manhood is restored and he can aggressively pursue romance with Lola. That’s just about what you would expect from any and all westerns, but Winchester ’73 more explicitly weds generic trademarks (such as the domestication of redemptive rogue souls) to the complex processes of mythologizing the Wild West in popular American culture. It does this, my friends, by harnessing the emotive and symbolic power of the titular gun.