…There Were People Here

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High Noon (1952)

In the morning it was all going so well. Will Kane was the groom in an altogether lovely wedding. He’d been a good sheriff for a good while, and he led the town to a new dawn. He even made it through the days before his retirement, the most fatal time for his kind. We see a happy place, at a happy time, and he made it that way. He hangs up his badge and his gun after stealing a kiss from his new bride, ready to make a life with her.

But then the news comes in. It’s a report from somewhere else, at first incomprehensible. A murderer sent to the hanging post by the sheriff has been pardoned. He’s on a train, and he’s heading into town. The town had caught wind of the notion, before, they’d heard a man who should have hung got his sentence commuted, to life in prison. But they hadn’t paid it much mind, hadn’t reckoned on a pardon. It wasn’t something to bother them. Then the telegram arrives, too late to do anything about it, and there’s a specific time now you can point to when the consequences are going to show up. It’s printed on a train schedule, and it’s for certain – the kind of truth you hear in stories. The kind you can rely on. A man is coming to town at high noon, and he’s going to kill a man who got married that morning.

Curiously, things in the town remain pretty calm. There’s no great flight to the plains. People retreat indoors, if at all. Folks don’t panic; they accommodate. They rationalize. No one really wants any part of it, unless there’s a reason to care, or money to be made. The barber, who builds coffins in the back of the parlor, picks up production, gauging that business might increase. New information is always an opportunity. The town reacts like the coming of certain evil is something to size up, not to reject out of hand. There’s even a small delight in the spectacle, and in the whispered talk that the sheriff really had been asking for it over the years.

Kane isn’t sure what to do. He thinks about leaving, but decides he can’t. He seeks help from a judge, his co-equal partner in the administration of justice, the accomplice to what was not a crime. They arrested and sentenced a murderer for what he was. It must have stood for something, the sheriff suggests. The judge neatly folds an American flag, stows the scales of justice, and gathers his law books, before heading out. He thinks staying is stupid. The judge has everything he needs to set up shop somewhere else. He leaves town, in search of the next retail storefront. One place is as good as the other for what he has to sell.

The judge is one of a long series of people who decline to offer Kane help. We still haven’t met the villain, who we keep being told is on a train, coming from somewhere else.

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High Noon is, not subtly, an allegory for Hollywood’s response to the red scare. With Joseph McCarthy riding high, Hollywood picked its sides, and backed a craven bully. Blacklisting ensued, the denial of work to people because of their political leanings, or their perceived political leanings, or for little reason at all. It was a brazen sell-out, made all the more painful for how unnecessary it was for a powerful institution to bow its head so low. High Noon, written by one of the men targeted, is a protest film, its message cloaked just enough by its setting to let it pass into theaters. Hollywood can’t resist a great message, at least when it is safe to do so, and when the madness had passed the industry canonized High Noon just as confidently as it had it caused it. The critique became a new self-congratulation.

Even though the film was made clear enough for people to see themselves reflected, there’s a lot more in High Noon than just watching a diagram fill itself in. More than anything, in High Noon, we encounter people. It’s nearly the whole of it, the tour of the town, and we meet damn near everyone. High Noon‘s town is a big enough place for there to be parts in it that don’t fit the text, and don’t serve the story, despite the allegory’s insistence. Helen Ramirez, a woman in a frontier town with no husband at her side, and a hotel to her name, learns what’s coming the town’s way. We see her interact with a series of visitors, who’ve learned the same, in parallel to Kane’s procession through the town. Like Kane, she has a certain distance from the rest. She loved Kane once, but it’s behind them now. Her interactions with Kane’s wife, the film’s only conversation between women, are understandably filled with barriers. She doesn’t fit in neatly, whether in aims or identity, but people keep wanting to draw her in to the organizing principle. Her lover jealously accuses her of pining for Kane, and Kane’s wife accuses her of being the reason he stayed. They can’t seem to define her beyond reference. She rejects the imposition at every turn. She says nothing but true things, and no one particularly listens to her.

Eventually, she’ll leave town, because she can. You get to do things or you don’t. Money is the difference-maker, for Ramirez, and maybe the most interesting aspect of her relationship to everyone she leaves behind. Keeping the money flowing is the pressing task for everyone left. When Kane, our sheriff, arrives to ask the help of the respectable portion of the town, interrupting a church service, a man of stature stands up and insists the adults reason it out. He sends out the children, the first clue he’s seeing a few steps ahead. The impromptu town hall features the few moments in the whole film when people express something like morality. They’re more articulate then the sheriff himself in describing why it matters to stand up, to not be cowed. Their words are moving, and they make you hope. But nothing anyone says matters, it’s merely a sham prelude. The self-appointed moderator listens to divergent views and then delivers a flip consensus. The sheriff did well, he says. Things are good here. We thank him. But we don’t want to get a reputation as the kind of place where this happens. You understand, Will. And the sheriff leaves, with no one to follow him.

There’s signs like this, all around, of the sheriff’s failure to tend to the flock while he was focused on the grass. The policy’s been great – the town is on the mend, it’s upwardly mobile, it’s safe to walk the streets, to raise a family, to believe in things. But now that the gains are there, the town worries about losing them. They just don’t want to mess up a good thing.

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It’s not like they’d get to feel heroic, even if they had joined. High Noon never much tries to sell us on the hero, after what we first learn of him. Kane doesn’t look cool anywhere past the first stretch. He doesn’t inspire our confidence, doesn’t win over the town. He’s increasingly desperate, clinging to hopes and long-shots. He asks an old lawman for help, or counsel, or deliverance. It goes the way these visits tend to go. “Sometimes prison changes a man” – Kane says, denying what’s coming, though seeming to know that’s wishful thinking. “It’s all for nothing, Will” is the lawman’s advice, when Kane walks out the door, still trying to do it for something.

His odds never get worse, even if they never get better. He can’t even grow in our eyes by comparison. There’s no collaboration, anywhere; no one, ever, anywhere in the whole town hands a gun over to the bad men. No one tells them where Kane is, no one betrays him. The most conveyed is a drink, to one of the outlaws, when he scouts out the town in search of some liquor. The town isn’t Kane’s enemy, but it’s not his friend, either. It’s just a place he realizes he never really knew.

When you watch High Noon today, you learn about the 1950s from what they thought about the 1860s. The post-Civil War west was the specific time chosen for High Noon‘s specific message, and it resonated more clearly to its specific audience. All we can know for certain is that it was meant to make you feel ugly, sitting there in the 1950s, seeing somewhere long ago and realizing you’re making the same mistakes. Precise pasts ground us in that way, what’s been ugly and what still resonates.

When Kane’s wife, Amy, speaks of her own past, one we never see, she says her father and brother were killed from gun violence. She mentions it to explain why she can’t care now about who is right or who is wrong. It isn’t any way for a person to live, surrounded by the kind of disagreement that leaves people dead. She’s Quaker now, committed to it enough to cause Kane some of his problems. When he came to the church door, only to be sent away empty-handed, the first thing the priest says, being a priest, is that he doesn’t come to the church very often anymore. Kane says he didn’t because his wife’s a Quaker. There isn’t a church in the town who says what she believes, or maybe there isn’t a church that wants her around. And here she is, just wanting her husband to leave the town to its own devices, a person with a genuine set of beliefs, indisputably correct in her version of what a good world would look like.

The priest takes a similar view, but with an important difference. He makes no call for non-violence, he just won’t endorse killing. But he’s in a Western, and he ignores what’s around him. In that environment, rejecting the idea that violence has context means right can no longer call things wrong and be heard. And the result is that in the home stretch, the great shoot out, there’s no one left to help but Amy, who shoots someone through the back, through a window. Not someone, mind you – a man come to town to murder. But also someone, a person. She throws her beliefs away, for reasons of her own, in a town that discards principles for reasons that are all too clear. She acts because no one else would. It doesn’t register as a triumph.

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When they told him the train was coming, and the time it was due, Kane learned everything important. He keeps getting asked what he’s doing, what he’s after. The one time that Kane adequately explains himself, he says something amazing. “… I came here for help because there are people here.” He thought more of the town, it’s why he took the time saving it in the first place. The pained expression he encounters are what life looks like when that belief no longer has common purchase.

It’s all like this, in High Noon, in the town, elsewhere, the weird evasions and justifications. And we see, on the screen, how little Kane can call on, when his town is put to the test. Through it all, as the town fails to prepare, or prepares for failure, the posse waits at the edge of town, given the leisure to check their shoes, check their guns, plot their moves, size up what’s new, get drunk on the job. They get bored. They’re given time to get bored, in a movie whose plot lasts about an hour. We’re given time to see it.

The barber was right, and four coffins are ready for use at the end. The sheriff won’t be in one. But when he lives there’s no meaning to it. The collective purpose that murderers don’t get to run things has been abandoned. His existence matters not to the people around him but to the people watching him a century later, secure in their seats. But the sheriff is as distant from the audience as he is from his own town. He’s just a scared man who lucks out, and any relief he feels is not ours. He planned to leave town as a concession to his new marriage, before he learned what was coming. He bolts now without the slightest hesitation. There’s no new round of goodbyes. The sheriff drops his badge, and a man leaves town.

There’s a lot to dislike about stories demanding to be read one way. But they make it easier to see what you’re seeing. And sometimes allegories jump the tracks. Sometimes things repeat themselves. Commentaries come unstuck in time. An hour becomes a lifetime, a past becomes a present. They forget that, we forget that, and how can you blame them, us, for thinking differently? In the morning it was all going so well.

So it Went

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Reading TNR in the mid-2000s, late in high school and early in college, taught me what it meant to be a thinking, liberal person. It taught me what liberals believed, in specifics, about health care, about human rights, about political process. It opened my eyes to far more. And it told me I didn’t have to leave behind the art and culture I was so drawn to, that one could care at the same time about books and people, about history and the present, about other places and my own home.

Maybe what I took from reading that magazine was idiosyncratic, or ignored plain reality. Its lifetime provides many examples of contributions that could not have achieved what I have given the magazine credit for – writing that limited, that discarded, that denigrated. Writing embodying active ignorance or latent hate, to which an appropriate reaction is to find nothing to mourn.

It is difficult to believe this judgment is wrong. Any intellectual development I and others gained from the magazine’s pages does not justify its other sins, nor forgive them. And it would be more convenient if I had found a more pure source of awareness. Yet I wonder if I would be in a position to even hear these reactions and critiques, and understand them, if I had not grown through what I read. If I possess any real empathy or self-doubt or a willingness to revise beliefs, it is in part due to a magazine now condemned for lacking all three qualities. And I wonder if I could have actually learned from a teacher who did not embody something of what it imparted.

Few valuable things come to us in wholly valuable ways. There are many paths to awakening. TNR was one of them, and now it sleeps. I hope other voices will speak forcefully enough to let someone else have what TNR gave me. May they do better and may they, too, exhaust themselves in doing so.

November Notebook

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The Evil Dead (1981); Trespass (1992); Carlito’s Way (1993); The Thin Blue Line (1988); The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974);  In Bruges (2008); Once Upon a Time in America (1984); The Devil’s Rejects (2005); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); In the Name of the Father (1993); Interstellar (2014); The Verdict (1982); Nightcrawler (2014); Marathon Man (1976); Touch of Evil (1958); The Night of the Hunter (1955); Blue Ruin (2013); The King of Comedy (1983); Breathless (1960); Sixteen Candles (1984); Law-Abiding Citizen (2009); Battle Cry of Freedom (1988); Sabotage (2014); Sonatine (1993); The Searchers (1956); Sin Nombre (2009); Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010); The Ice Storm (1997); They Live (Deep Focus) by Jonathan Lethem (2010); High and Low (1963); Stand by Me (1986); Whiplash (2014); Foxcatcher (2014)

May revisit some of these if there’s time.

Out of this group the absolute standouts, not including 2014: Carlito’s Way, The Devil’s Rejects, The King of ComedyHigh and Low. Most of the rest, really strong. Only a few didn’t click. Foxcatcher? Nada said it best (and incidentally, Lethem writing about They Live lives up to the considerable hype).

On the others:

A man struggling with a pinball machine, alone in a bar; the odd coincidence in production which forced the powerful staging of Thin Blue Line‘s final reveal; when after a half hour Leatherface kills someone in a few seconds and the door shuts and that’s it, and you couldn’t say for certain that you just saw what you just saw; Hieronymous Bosch and the reality of hell; sincere religious belief, and what it asks and demands of you and changes about you; Daniel Day-Lewis’ impossible versatility; Nolan making his own variety of blockbuster out of the hole Roy Neary leaves in Close Encounters; children fleeing a domestic nightmare for the comparative embrace of a collapsing society; a gangster film where the white-noise sound design and MIDI synths add up to the cinematic equivalent of Wilco’s “Less Than You Think”–even where Ice Storm‘s score singlehandedly coheres a somewhat formless story about suburban middle America into something bracing and haunting; a sequel flipping the conservatism of a first entry neatly on its head, and gaining even more popular acclaim for doing so; borderland films playing out on bridges and tracks and roads; four boys from a fictional 50s Oregon who correspond to four boys from a fictional 00s Baltimore, and a long book about how they both live in one real country.

I could go on, and I won’t. There was a lot to like.

October Notebook

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Scarface (1983); Gone Girl (2014); Videodrome (1983); Eastern Promises (2007); They Live (1988); 12 Angry Men (1957); Psycho (1960); Blue Velvet (1986); Stretch (2014); Bright Shining Lie (1988); Braveheart (1995); Hunger (2008); The Thomas Crown Affair (1968); Get Carter (1971); Black Sunday (1977); Fury (2014); The Killer Elite (1975); Deliverance (1972); The Magnificent Seven (1960); John Wick (2014); Raising Arizona (1987); Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Fall’s about filling in the gaps: on classics, on directors, on genre touchstones. Making progress. Every film here was a first-time viewing except for Raising Arizona, though I’d seen the first hour of Psycho and I think GTA: Vice City may have every single scene from Scarface in it.

Blue Velvet wins this one in a walk. Not into Videodrome at all (and Scanners was awesome, so I have no clue what that says). The Thomas Crown Affair is a way better existential-criminal film than ScarfaceJohn Wick had choreography approaching Raid levels. Remaking 12 Angry Men must be the most thankless task in existence, and they still try. They Live was really fun. Stretch was disappointing, anything would be after those last two though. The first hour of The Killer Elite is brilliant. Sunset Blvd. is significantly stronger whenever it’s with Joe and Betty, and hits a peak when they make up dialogue at the party.

 A Bright Shining Lie taught me a lot.

Wrote about Gone Girl here. Wrote about BraveheartHunger (and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, from last month) here.

September Notebook

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The Road Warrior (1981); A Fish Called Wanda (1988); Blade II (2002); The Running Man (1987); Cliffhanger (1993); Demolition Man (1993); Face/Off (1997);  The Great Escape (1963); The Drop (2014); The 400 Blows (1959); Big Trouble in Little China (1986); Assault on Precinct 13 (1976); Prince of Darkness (1987); Gamer (2009); In the Mouth of Madness (1995); Scanners (1981); Body of Lies (2008); The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006); The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (2013); A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014); Boyhood (2014); Several Short Sentences about Writing (2013); The Equalizer (2014)

Here as a marker. May add some thoughts eventually. I wrote some good things in emails and stuff for work. Never great about getting momentum to finish posts on here – but you knew that.

First time watching for everything on this list except The Great Escape. Caught up to speed on John Carpenter. Best film was a tie between The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Boyhood, though The Great Escape is tough to dismiss. Worst film was A Walk Among the Tombstones (not even close), or, for real films, Body of Lies or The Running Man – mostly a terrific set.

Nathaniel P was simply beautiful.

Play it Loud

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Frank (2014) (Spoilers)

Jon, an aspiring musician and songwriter, lives with his parents and works at a job he doesn’t appear to enjoy. He seems infused with a sense of his capacity for success, though what he’s bringing to the table is not as clear. He is affable and ambitious and a bit confused. Frank opens with a broadly comic scene where he looks around him and tries to thread passing details into a song. This probably first occurred about five minutes after the invention of songwriting, and the recognition gets you on his side. He’s embarrassed by it. The next jokes have him tweeting out thoughts to almost no one, saying nothing at all. It feels at first like a step down, an indulgence the script should have trimmed. Traditional cinematic voiceover in the vernacular of social media isn’t doing much work as commentary, and less as comedy. And there are alarm bells that this might be heading somewhere silly, like the character emerged from a David Brooks column.

Frank is up to something, though, and what it’s going for with Jon only makes sense by way of a musical force with a large artificial head on his shoulders that never, ever, comes off. Frank is the one thing any viewer knows before the start of the film, printed right there on the ticket. And if you know more going in, he’s even more captivating. Michael Fassbender is an actor gripping enough to turn an unbroken stare into the only erotic sequence in a film about sex. Scoot McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal are invaluable people to have around, but Fassbender is a rising movie star saying funny things behind a giant paper mache expression covering a beautiful face. The audience’s eyes naturally follow Jon’s.

The young keyboard player is enlisted in the album Frank and his band are working on, and he sees, for a time, what we see: things to learn about, a group of people and a non-traditional songwriting process. Of course, a literal band of quirky characters decamping to a cabin to nurture their creativity risks catching the shots left over after we’re done with Zach Braff auteur projects. Frank, though, only needs the place to be funny, and it works just fine. It’s not trying to convince you of character growth, because Jon isn’t actually evolving, he’s watching, the same as the viewer. And he’s continuing to share his thoughts on social media, now with video clips and longer observations. He gains a growing audience from the raw material of an outlier project.

He isn’t half-bad at marketing, and he’s selling something with an appeal the audience in the theater can recognize. He gets the band, from the British Isles, a slot at an indie festival in the States. There might be a concern that he is actively exploiting the mental illness of the bandleader, yet Frank is unambiguous that its title character isn’t opposed to embrace by a popular audience. The problem instead is that the chance for stardom Jon sees and the type of acceptance Frank would want do not mean the same thing. And what’s charming and legitimate about the band, seen by the audience in widescreen, is not something we have any reason to think Jon is conveying in his online excerpts, if he even shares the same idea of their appeal.

Until now, he’s been a frustrating character, in the way young leads can be. He complains that even though he’s paying the rent he isn’t getting creative input. At one point, he tosses off a line about wanting misery to fuel his creative drive, the exact thing a twelve-year-old in Moonrise Kingdom took down in a sentence. He slides downward, though, to more of a lost cause than Llewyn Davis. The departure from the cabin shifts the film from clever fun with twee tropes to indicting the people fascinated by them, and Frank from then on delivers the least sympathetic portrait of a lead character in recent years. 

He fails spectacularly at migrating the band from a mystery in a video clip to a convincing in-person act. He’s worse at paying any attention whatsoever to their lives or their comfort or their existence. Frank gets off and running as a film about the creative process and a person in search of lessons about how to make art. But the story Jon wants to craft from Frank‘s contents is far more narcissistic and indulgent than what we’ve actually seen. And after it all falls apart, he pulls the film’s second major lever—unmasking Frank—as an act of abuse.

The film stays funny—Fassbender in a ridiculous helmet making ridiculous music, Gyllenhaal showing physical comedy chops I never knew she had. But the good times wear off, until they’re gone entirely, because Jon has no idea what he’s doing, or even about what he’s seen. After a year with Frank, he can’t describe any detail about the five-sixths of him he should know something about, or the man underneath whose creative process was the sole purported focus of the boy’s time in the woods. He knows he’s older, but he doesn’t have any sense of what acting older might mean. And even when he tracks him down, after a time apart, he still doesn’t recognize him.

Frank can still tap out a few notes on the piano, and it’s better than anything Jon has managed. He leaves Fassbender, his face now open, with an affable encouragement about what he’s played. Frank pointedly tells him the tune wasn’t any good. He had spent most of the film encouraging those around him, but he only affirmed what he understood. And even if no longer has a grasp on himself, he still gets a lot more about right and wrong than the boy looking at him.

The relentless chronicler without any eye for detail, the pro-creativity creative who only has an ear for “likable,” the sharer without any conception of what’s private: Jon’s right there in front of us, and by the end he’s specific enough to escape caricature. He’s destroyed something for no reason at all because he never saw it in the first place. And a film that began with kids’ gloves on has, by its home stretch, stopped softening the blow. It’s the rare critique of millenials to feel both fair and urgent.

Jon at least brings Frank back to his bandmates. Their creative center, shaken and shuffling, his eyes mostly turned downward, looks like he’ll have a long road back. They’re happy to see him, all the same, and when Frank reconnects with people he actually knows, the music sounds right again. Far more importantly, they seem okay. The hopeful tableau does not include Jon, and it shouldn’t. The only decent thing left for him do is leave: his phone in his pocket, this moment for them, the band together, the door behind him.

It’s an act of mercy.