Out of the West
March 3, 2010 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Out of the West - Clint Eastwood’s shifting landscape. An essay in the New Yorker by David Denby.
posted by chunking express (69 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It is always disheartening when you find someone rave about how good something or someone is, and then, elsewhere, you find just the opposite being said by another critic. What's apoor boy to do? Make uyp his own mind? How frightening!

Here is the anti-Eastwood article:

posted by Postroad at 9:52 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always hated David Denby's reviews and general writing style, but this was an interesting read.
posted by cell divide at 9:54 AM on March 3, 2010

I read that Daily Beast article, and while I'm not the world's biggest Eastwood fan, I can't get past its misunderstanding of Unforgiven:
Unforgiven (1992) is an Eastern film critic's conception of what the Old West was like in which Eastwood's character, a widower, packs off his kids to the neighbors down the road and goes off to earn a little extra money through freelance killing. Eastwood's most honest biographer, McGilligan, noted "Many critics, because they liked Clint in person as well as on the screen, strove to find artistic merit in his films, even though there emerged a basic contradiction between the films they supported and those that audiences loved. The audiences wanted the omnipotent Clint, while the critics preferred the uncharacteristic films, in which Clint found himself powerless or defeated." And so, in Unforgiven, Eastwood was able to reconcile the two Clints, by first allowing himself to be beaten and humiliated in a manner which would have made a Mel Gibson hero wince and still return to do what The Man With No Name did at the beginning of A Fistful of Dollars, namely kill the bad guys and ride off.
Unforgiven, if anything, reads to me like a refutation of The Man With No Name, a scathing examination of revenge and vigilantism and violence as a way of life. Eastwood's character kills innocent men based on hearsay, is never corrected, and emerges at the end as the least likable Western hero I've ever seen, yelling at an entire town that he'll shoot any of them dead if they so much as show their faces. To characterize William Munny's descent (or re-descent) into cruelty and lawless trigger-happy might-makes-right tough-guy-isms as 'kill[ing] the bad guys and riding off' strikes me as the observations of a man who isn't paying attention to subtext at all, and is simply getting out of the film he's watching only exactly what he has already decided he will.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:08 AM on March 3, 2010 [12 favorites]

yelling at an entire town that he'll shoot any of them dead if they so much as show their faces.

To me, that particular monologue is so good because he comes off as terrified. He's a dog, barking as loud as he can, thoroughly aware that all it takes is one lucky shot to off him. He's milking his aura of invincibility as hard as he can just to survive the ride to the edge of town.
posted by Rat Spatula at 10:12 AM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Barra is so completely wrong and misguided that his essay appears to be some sort of joke - maybe he meant to publish it on a humor site?
posted by davidmsc at 10:21 AM on March 3, 2010

I had started reading Denby's thing, but got bored halfway through and switched over to the Krugman profile. But anyhoo, pretty much what shakespearian said; I think Eastwood is pretty overrated and in some ways a lazy director (Excluding Saul Rubinek who is good in pretty much everything, the Canadian cast in Unforgiven give uniformly awful performances, and Mystic River left me cold. I should probably give it another watch.*), but the Beast piece seems pretty much opposed to the idea of Eastwood and an interpretation of what he represents, rather than anything really tangible.

That said, The Beguiled is fricking awesome, one of the best things Eastwood and Siegel ever did, together or apart.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:21 AM on March 3, 2010

Unforgiven is legitimately great, as is Josey Wales, and far too complicated to reduce them down to a few easy dismissals as the Daily Beast article does. Eastwood's films have always toyed with -- and sometimes fully indulged in -- ambivalence regarding violence and morality. But ambiguity can be frustrating, in that it doesn't make a single point, but instead seems to, and then betrays it, and then makes a counter point, and then betrays that. Wales and Munny are killers, and both sick of it, but driven to do it again anyway, and there is a mournful tragedy to the fact that they just can't really seem to get away from the brutality that haunts them.

Hell, even Dirty Harry has a weird ambivalence to it. Yes, it fully engages in the fascism that action films have always flirted with, but it's hardly fantastic about that, or even really seems to think it's a good thing. Harry's partners constantly get killed off, for one thing, which is a far more realistic presentation of the murderous cop with his own moral code than you usually see. There's some real fallout to Harry's behavior, and this is an example of an umabiguous evil -- he gets other cops killed.

He's made some bad movies. But, hey, Every Which Way But Loose? It's ridiculously fun.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:31 AM on March 3, 2010

FWIW, Denby's mentor Pauline Kael opined that critics began praising the films Eastwood directed as a "consolation prize" for the eclipse of his commerical viability as an actor.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:37 AM on March 3, 2010

Like Denby points out, Unforgiven is one of the few movies where violence actually hurts. Most movies make it seem so clean and quick and painless, that one long scene really shows what a dangerous lie that is.
posted by octothorpe at 10:41 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eastwood's films have always toyed with -- and sometimes fully indulged in -- ambivalence regarding violence and morality.

High Plains Drifter.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:42 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's brilliant, Citizen Kane level writing.

I mean, what is David Webb Peoples doing anymore? Is he just sitting on his glorious ass, eating grilled cheese & caviar sandwiches, writing follow-ups to Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Twelve Monkeys and then burning them simply so I will never get to watch them?
posted by shakespeherian at 10:44 AM on March 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'd assume that Peoples is retired, given that he's almost 70 but then Eastwood is almost 80 and doesn't seem to be slowing down.
posted by octothorpe at 10:49 AM on March 3, 2010

Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

Unforgiven is an American classic, no ifs, ands, or buts.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:53 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I mean, what is David Webb Peoples doing anymore? Is he just sitting on his glorious ass, eating grilled cheese & caviar sandwiches, writing follow-ups to Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Twelve Monkeys and then burning them simply so I will never get to watch them?

IMDB has him with three more films in production. Some of these might wither on the vine, but three in the offing is good news for fans -- the last time one of his screenplays hit the big screen was 1998.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:58 AM on March 3, 2010

Count me in the Unforgiven lovin' camp. It's clearly the guy's valediction on his efforts in the genre.

I also always felt the movie was directly influenced by Miller's 1986 Dark Knight series. Miller appears to base some of his depictions of an aging Bruce Wayne on Eastwood's aging visage of the day, and the theme of an aged vigilante facing violence and mortality is central to both works. I have no doubt that Eastwood was exposed to the work around the time it was coming out, but have no direct knowledge of this idea. Miller's dark embrace of the implied fascism inherent in Batman's madness is very much NOT carried into Unforgiven, and this helps the film rise to greatness.
posted by mwhybark at 11:04 AM on March 3, 2010

(Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates: "High Plains Drifter."

Right. That film is clearly one of the direct antecedents of Unforgiven. But that film is essentially playful. Unforgiven is purty dang serious, pard.
posted by mwhybark at 11:06 AM on March 3, 2010

Given Barra's recent article on the Canada-US Olympic hockey final, I've got to think he's indulging a shit-disturbing segment of his personality lately.
posted by cardboard at 11:08 AM on March 3, 2010

Deserve's got nothing to do with it.

It deserved (heh) Best Picture just for giving me this line alone.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:10 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

But that film is essentially playful.

I'm going to go ahead and disagree with you on this one. Here we have a film where the "protagonist" rides into town, kills three men, rapes a random woman, checks into the local hotel and dreams of a man being whipped to death. You've seen the film so I won't rehash the entire plot but I will say that I've never seen any film - including Unforgiven - where the "hero" is such a vile and repugnant human being. Yet Eastwood stills pull off the most amazing trick - as the man with no name leaves town while the red-painted buildings burn to the ground (directly and obviously recreating "Hell" on earth), he remains the only character with any moral authority. The townspeople (at least those who are still alive), though shocked, confused, abused, and scared - we feel that they are cowards and imbeciles and that they deserved their fate. That's not playful in my book.

Maybe ultimately Eastwood was being playful - certainly I feel like he's riffing on a really dark version of Shane - but the film itself is pretty heavy.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:17 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wow. I've never been a particular fan of either Eastwood or Denby, but t was a great essay.
posted by vibrotronica at 11:28 AM on March 3, 2010

Spoilers Unforgiven:

Unforgiven is set in a world where law and order are handed down by the strongest alpha-male (might makes right) Little Bill Daggett, played by Gene Hackman is judge and jury and at the start of the movie his sense of morality is the final word on the crime committed against Silky. biographer W.W. Beauchamp plays to the idea of the superhero style gunfighter and both the writen word or more likely oral tradition story telling is at the root of the young Schofield Kid, who in turn might be a window into William Munny's past or not.

The thing about Munny is he is the darkmatter to Little Bill's personal morality Beauchamp understands that at the end of the day it dosn't matter who is right, it only matters who is stronger. That strength has the final glowing biography. If Unforgiven is a refutation of anything it is simple morality tales. Munny is out of the loop in his current time and place, in that he has stopped playing the game with people like Little Bill and English Bob. The audience sympathies with Munny not because he is strong but because we imagine he is, despite his reputation, a good guy at heart; at least at this point in his life.

Munny is hanging on to the only thing in his hard-bitten existence that wasn't about alpha dogs fighting for who was on top. Love, his lost wife. He hangs on to her memory and believes he'll see her again in the sweet by and by. This starts to break down as the film goes forward and he wakes from a fever dream he had of her rotting corpse. As his faith dissolves it is replaced with the only order he understands.

AZ: But ambiguity can be frustrating, in that it doesn't make a single point, but instead seems to, and then betrays it, and then makes a counter point, and then betrays that.

That is it in a nutshell.
posted by nola at 11:29 AM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I feel it important to point out at this juncture that CLINT EASTWOOD is an anagram for OLD WEST ACTION.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:32 AM on March 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

What about Clint's first directed film, Play Misty For Me?
Clint carried (Harry films) big .45 cause Wayne too big for a pistol and needed a rifle.
But both were conservative in private lives, I recall when early in his career Eastwood was sometimes compared to Charles Bronson (the sort of getting even films they made), but Eastood went on to making better films, and also to directing films. And Clint also a musician.
posted by Postroad at 11:34 AM on March 3, 2010

Unforgiven is a masterpiece, one of my favorite movies.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:41 AM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I watched Gran Torino a few weeks ago and loved it because I have never seen a better portrayal of the stereotype of a grumpy old man. He told people to keep off his lawn! And was actually scary in doing it! No matter what Eastwood does from now on, I'll always think of his as that racist, growling old man. There's a reason Denby capped off his article by mentioning that character.
posted by painquale at 11:50 AM on March 3, 2010

where the "hero" is such a vile and repugnant human being

See, but the three men antagonize him, and the woman does too. In point of fact, by total coincidence, Mrs. Spatula and I were arguing about precisely this point last night, and I had to pop the disc in so we could watch the whole sequence where he rides into town. She marks him, primps herself, purposely bumps into him, accosts him and insults him. He turns to leave, and she pulls him back, but he's still fairly mellow ("You're feet, ma'am, as as big as your mouth.")

Finally, she swats his cigar out of his mouth.

She wanted to have sex with him, but in that day and age, women were socially barred from approaching men. So, she staged her own rape.
posted by Rat Spatula at 12:05 PM on March 3, 2010

She provoked him - therefore she wanted him to rape her.

They provoked him - therefore they deserved to die.

Eastwood has definitely worked his magic on you, friend!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:17 PM on March 3, 2010

Yeah he is a bad dude in High Plains Drifter. An awful hero in an even more awful and cowardly world
posted by nola at 12:24 PM on March 3, 2010

>Huh. The New Yorker essay feels sort of empty, just tracing development of broad themes and applying praise here and there.

I think Denby is right on the mark about having to take into account the kind of characters Eastwood had played before, all the Eastwood leading up to that movie. To me, it's a movie about Eastwood looking back on his own work as much as it is a movie about Westerns. Just try to imagine someone else playing Munny, some excellent actor, and to imagine that someone saying his lines, particularly the key ones in the saloon. Those lines and many others wouldn't have carried half the weight without Eastwood. Not because Eastwood is a superior actor in all respects, but because of all the Eastwood movie history and all those remorseless killers we remember. They made it work.
posted by The Mouthchew at 12:37 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

In a number of these earlier films, ie, High Plains, Josey Wales, I am reminded that when they are listed for the evening's viewing in the NY Times, the writer usually says "Eastwood doing his enigmatic thing." that catches it! In the WWII films, a double perspective, seen from our side and that of the Japanese, Eastwood seems to feel the need to enlarge his till then narrow view of things,. So too in Gran Torino: he comes around to seeing the good in those he disliked initially.
If he is, as one comment has it, a grumpy oldman, recall that he lives alone, with ungrateful children, a wife he loved now dead, and a veteran, confronting a world that is both bewildring and without those values he (and we) might have embraced at an earlier time. I can sympanthize. I too am a grumpy old man. But without a great car.
posted by Postroad at 12:42 PM on March 3, 2010

Eastwood has definitely worked his magic on you, friend!

It wasn't a rape; it was consensual. And, the three men were obviously looking for trouble; he leaves the bar and they follow him out.
posted by Rat Spatula at 12:48 PM on March 3, 2010

You have an odd view of what constitutes rape. Eastwood's character gets mad that the woman knocks the cigar out of his mouth, tells her "you could use a lesson in manners," then drags her into a barn, pins her down, and forces sex on her while she is shouting "let go of me!" and cries in pain. Later she tries to kill him.

Of all the things that are ambiguous in that film, and all the ideas that Eastwood wants you to wrestle with, I don't think "did he really rape that woman?" is one of them.

For those who are interested but haven't seen the film, you can view the scene at this link (it starts around 4:25).
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:08 PM on March 3, 2010

She wanted to have sex with him...so, she staged her own rape.

If I were you, pardner, I'd get out of town before sundown.
posted by the bricabrac man at 1:10 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Clint was told early in his career that he would never succeed because his tooth was chipped, his Adam's apple stuck too far and he talked to slowly.
posted by caddis at 1:35 PM on March 3, 2010

High Plains Drifter is not as cut and dried as you make it out to be (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates.


It is implied that the films main protagonist is a reincarnation (for lack of a better term) of an earlier character. One who was violently beaten to death in the middle of town while everyone watched. The idea is that he's back from heaven or hell (or wherever) to "payback" the town(sfolk) and perhaps teach them a lesson.

Please note I'm not, nor do I think anyone else here, is saying rape is alright. If you want to watch a series of films that portrays rape in a really odd way, watch Hanzo the Razor series in which the hero rapes two women in each film.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:15 PM on March 3, 2010

while she is shouting "let go of me!" and cries in pain

Again, I encourage you to re-watch the scene. In particular, watch her hands.
posted by Rat Spatula at 2:20 PM on March 3, 2010

High Plains Drifter is not as cut and dried as you make it out to be (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates.

I love how claiming that the film is ambivalent toward violence and morally ambiguous equates to thinking the film is cut and dried.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:22 PM on March 3, 2010

Dear Rat Spatula:

I just posted the scene for all to see. I don't really need to re-watch it as I just did about a half hour ago.

Like I said, if you don't think that's a rape scene, then I find that bizarre. I'll leave it at that before I say something I regret.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:25 PM on March 3, 2010

I will always have a sweet spot in my heart for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Artistically, that movie probably does more to burnish Leone's reputation than Eastwood's, but he was its star, and his quiet and confident interpretation of Blondie is a huge part of what makes that movie work so well. I especially like how his performance contrasts so wonderfully with Wallach's rich, talkative, nervous, and wounded-like-a-kicked-dog interpretation of Tuco. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic tale told well, and he is a big reason it is so entertaining. I probably watch that movie once or twice a year, often not intending to, but when I stumble across it in mid-stride and I can't turn it off. To me, that is the essence of entertainment, and one of the reasons why I have to give Eastwood his due as an actor.

I enjoyed reading Denby's essay, and while I didn't agree with Barra's, I concede that Eastwood's career has a huge arc and not everything he did is golden. Nonetheless, I appreciate his sensibilities as a director, and especially appreciate that he tries to keep his stories lean and tight.

Oh, yeah, and he also made Unforgiven.
posted by mosk at 2:27 PM on March 3, 2010

The idea is that he's back from heaven or hell...

This is another point worth emphasizing; it's pretty clear to me that the Drifter is supernatural and that therefore assigning human motives to what "he" does is a sucker's game.

(A)Ha(W)O, I guess I don't understand why you're unwilling to extend the film's ambiguity to that scene as well.
posted by Rat Spatula at 2:30 PM on March 3, 2010

I will say that I've never seen any film - including Unforgiven - where the "hero" is such a vile and repugnant human being.

I have! I think I've mentioned this before on the Blue, but check out Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.
posted by Rangeboy at 2:31 PM on March 3, 2010

Because there is no ambiguity in what actually happens - people really do get killed, buildings really do get burned to the ground, women really do get raped - the ambiguity lies in the interactions between the characters and whether or not certain deeds are justified in the context of the community of people living in Largo.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:34 PM on March 3, 2010

Back to the subject at hand, I'm going to agree with the love for Unforgiven. While I think it's the most technically accomplished of all of the films Eastwood directed, its power is also directly linked to the way it comments on, and even refutes, the revenge parables of his earlier career. Many of the films he's done since then--Mystic River, Gran Torino--contain similar messages. I can't think of another actor or filmmaker who's gone so out of his way to deconstruct his own public image.
posted by Rangeboy at 2:35 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Unforgiven. My favorite exchange.

It's a hell of a thing, ain't it,
killin' a man. You take
everythin' he's got... an'
everythin' he's ever gonna have...

(trying to pull him-
self together)
Well, I gu-guess they had it...

We all got it comin', Kid.

Screenplay here.
YT clip here. (3:29 long, brief profanity)
A brief clip of an interview regarding Unforgiven on YT here.

If I hold off from commenting someone nearly always comes along and says what what I was thinking more cogently than I, as Rangeboy did directly above.
posted by vapidave at 2:48 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Q: Would quin whup with a knotted plow line, anyone who speaks ill of The Outlaw Josey Wales?

A: I reckon so.
posted by quin at 2:49 PM on March 3, 2010

If only films could be made without bad things happening in them to anyone ever and everything were completely clear they would be much better.
Is it not possible she was raped but enjoyed being taken? There aren’t women like this? The ‘top dog’ word play was literally about bestiality, not subtext for her own power worship and twisted sexuality? She wasn’t essentially demanding protection from the town while easily throwing in with the same villains coming to kill everyone in town (and using sex to do it)?
And Eastwood didn’t rape her (or anyone as far as I’m aware). He was playing a character. What’s more it’s alluded that the character was a revenant, a vengeful spirit of the dead, in this case the sheriff (pretty clear really). There’s no assertion. And as such it is playful , comical, in parts. Particularly in exposing self-deceptions by confrontation.

If there’s some message in the overt brutal events I’m not seeing it. I’ll be sure not to participate in or willingly abet during and after the fact the whipping to death of any lawmen who might come back from the dead and dynamite any hotels.
But as far as the subtext goes I think Eastwood really laid on the tolerance of social collective hypocrisy and the ‘cowards die a thousand deaths’ horns pretty loudly. And I can see an undead avenging spirit being pretty free from human constraints.
I think though Eastwood’s films he touches on rape a bit too much and mostly with violently avenging it. So in the case of High Plains Drifter, almost refreshing to see it not run that way since it can be hackneyed. Real rape is one thing. Seeing it reoccur as a motivational event in films can get a bit trite.
Demand too much morality from any piece of fiction and you wind up with no drama at all, just Manichean morality plays.
Eastwood has had some decent comments to make as a director. Dirty Harry and other characters I find a bit wooden, but there’s nuggets of truth there. I enjoy when supporting cast has depth and they’re not just ‘bad guys’ but one can see their motivations for their actions. High Plains Drifter had that. Sort of obvious and one dimensional on that score, but it was there.
Unforgiven though is sublime in that regard. Munny saying “I ain’t like that anymore” and “I’m just like everyone else now.”
You see how colorless and weak he was and how colorful other characters are (such that they’re written about and get the attention of a writer). And how they use violence in that way. To distinguish themselves. To communicate. To define their morals and deal with the world.
That’s not what Munny does. He has no morals. Without his wife he is bereft of purpose. Empty is a recurring theme. That’s what he was. When he drank he allowed himself to be possessed in a sense. Perhaps by the angel of death (the black eyes at the bar are a giveaway). But that’s the difference. He’s empty, so violence is not something he does, but something he IS. That’s why, despite lamenting he’s not special anymore as a man, he couldn’t care less about the writer or his attentions.

The only thing he really had was that emptiness. Because of that lack of identity of his own, perhaps simplicity too, he’s receptive to others. Not passive exactly, but willing to take things in. And unlike every other man in the film (even Ned), he’s willing to accept women as something other than tools and/or a means. Unless he’s got the booze (the angel of death) in him. Then he’s willing to kill them and anyone else.
Which is why his wife felt it was safe to marry him. And why he accepted her moral code. So again, when she died, he was open, but purposeless.
It’s the other characters, gunfighters especially, that are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or whatever. Little Bill is what would be for that world commonly considered ‘good,’ not a prideful, cynical killer like English Bob, even though it’s pretty clear how brutal and repressive Bill is.
Munny though is from the abyss. Doomed to destruction, but he takes nothing from it. Or rather, only does because he’s lost. And other men set the example, so that’s what he filled himself with. And so, save for pig farming (known as one of the easiest methods (by those folks – I have no idea personally) and he does it poorly) and pining for a dead woman’s moral structure, killing is all he knows how to do. And so he’s their more honest, more clarified reflection (gaze into the abyss, it gazes into you, all that).
In a sense, yeah, same character from other movies – guy lives apart from society in order to protect, lone fighter male lover, and you have the same other archetypes (Bill representing one kind of law and justice and Bob another, in both cases despots), but it’s far more subtle and well-crafted here. And more brutally honest.
And there’s no justice, from any side. (The kid who gives the whore a pony wasn’t even in the room when the other cowboy started cutting her up, and even tried to stop him. But he’s the first one killed). The only reason Munny gets a pass is, I think, because he did genuinely love his wife and because he is so completely empty and otherwise devoid of character (as Bill tries to evoke). And because he doesn’t support any system or represent anything. He’s pure in that sense. Like a predatory animal, he just kills because it’s what he knows. He doesn’t mean anything by it. And he does what he must to survive. Unless someone shows him a better way. And the difference is he’s willing to lose himself and accept it rather than to continue to assert himself, develop his ‘sand or character’, though violence.

Eastwood's come a long way. Dirty Harry was iconic, but it was just another movie. Unforgiven is something truly special.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:53 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Because there is no ambiguity in what actually happens - people really do get killed, buildings really do get burned to the ground, women really do get raped

I suppose sucking the context out of any event isn't really making things cut and dried, it's just a way to stack an argument.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:04 PM on March 3, 2010

Is it not possible she was raped but enjoyed being taken?

Yes, it's possible. But in the next scene in which she appears, she has a gun, calls him a bastard (if I'm remembering the line correctly), and tries to kill him. 1 + 1 = she didn't like it very much.

There aren’t women like this?

Oy, you guys make me feel squicky.

The ‘top dog’ word play was literally about bestiality, not subtext for her own power worship and twisted sexuality? She wasn’t essentially demanding protection from the town while easily throwing in with the same villains coming to kill everyone in town (and using sex to do it)?

Subtext for her own power worship? She says four lines in the entire film. I'm not sure how you were able to divine the fact that she loves power and has a twisted sexuality, whatever that means.

If you want to argue that Eastwood was subtly criticizing the sexist, macho trope that the Western silverback can saddle in to any town, grab the nearest looker and turn her into his woman - even through the forceable act of sex - then maybe I could go along with that, sure.

But as far as the subtext goes I think Eastwood really laid on the tolerance of social collective hypocrisy and the ‘cowards die a thousand deaths’ horns pretty loudly.

Well, yeah.

Anyway, I can't believe I'm actually having a discussion about whether or not the woman at the start of High Plains Drifter was actually raped by Clint Eastwood's character. As good a sign as any, I guess, to log off for a bit.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 3:10 PM on March 3, 2010

“1 + 1 = she didn't like it very much”

She liked being the villain's girl? She hated it so much she went to the hotel with the nameless guy? Smiled? Willingly ate big hunks of chicken with him? Ok, she hired some guys to kill him. Completely consistent with her character. Took her long enough though. Maybe she was mad, as was said, because he didn’t go back for more.
“Oy, you guys make me feel squicky.”

Yes. Truly, there are no female sociopaths. No woman in history has ever used sex as a path to power and nymphomania isn’t a real psychological condition. All women are perfect and wonderful and only do bad things when forced to by society. Lemme just jack this pedestal up a bit higher here.

“I'm not sure how you were able to divine the fact that she loves power and has a twisted sexuality, whatever that means.”

Well, ‘cause she went off with the villians who whipped the sheriff to death? Which she watched coldly? She not only attaches herself and sides with but has sex with whomever the dominant male seems to be regardless of their ethics? And yet screams about there not being any actual men in the town who have balls? She sleeps with Duncan in order to set him up to be killed. Didn’t do that to Bridges (the head bad guy). Mostly because like the rest of the townsfolk her money comes from the illegal exploitation of the mine on government property. Think she put the drover up to stabbing the stranger? How did she do that, you think?

So – the hotel guys wife, she was raped? She seems pretty likeable. To the extent that she is actually powerless and didn’t get off on or have a hand in bullwhipping the sheriff to death and doesn’t kowtow to power by rote. She wasn’t physically forced but there seems to have been coercion there.

On the other hand, that coercive act (not to mention adultery) seems to have freed her up from the more legitimately immoral act(s) the townspeople are into.
Mordicai too, gets cut a break. Not much he could have done to stop the bullwhipping. And he’s not really happy about anything in town, but he’s powerless.

"If you want to argue that Eastwood was subtly criticizing the sexist, macho trope that the Western silverback can saddle in to any town, grab the nearest looker and turn her into his woman - even through the forceable act of sex - then maybe I could go along with that, sure."

I'm not going to say this is wrong. That's your opinion. I am going to say that this is not in that film though. Not at all. And that often an opinion says more about one's own eyes more than what is actually there.

In our world, yes, this is rape however one looks at it, yes. It doesn’t matter whether she winds up liking it or that she was an evil person, no. It’s rape.

In that world – not the old west, not a small town, but in the context of this film - it wasn’t rape. Not because she was asking for it, or she was loose or anything. It was not rape because he’s a ghost who wasn’t looking for anything to do with rape or sex or anything else but for retribution for betraying him, having him whipped to death, feeling nothing about it ethically and sponging up the blood money afterwards.
Hell the assault itself wasn’t even the revenge, his ignoring her afterward was. It fit a motif. Indeed – it wasn’t rape because society (in the context of the film) says it wasn’t. Which makes it all the more glaring and egregious an act. But not because of him.

The conventional method of looking at this only serves as a way to underscore the dramatic impact and the hypocrisy of that town. So it was done well.
I’m more offended by the scenes in Eastwood’s films where rape is used as a simple catalyst. I think it more marginalizes the genuine act.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:24 PM on March 3, 2010

I'll preface this by saying High Plains Drifter is one of my favorite movies. (I guess I fall more on the critic side of the fence w/r/t Eastwood than the fan side, by the logic of the article, as The Beguiled is another one.) It's possible that I'm giving Eastwood -- a much younger Eastwood, who was the product of a different age and evidently a bit of a womanizer and alla that -- too much credit, then, just out of blind movie love, when I say that it's always seemed to me the Drifter commits rape (almost) right off the bat because it's supposed to be shocking as hell. By which I mean to say: although if you saw a guy shoot a couple people in real life, that would, you know, be pretty shocking, it's a trope that the western as a film almost totally strips of meaning -- depending on context. When a character we like is killed, that's one thing; when it's just Random Dude #3, that guy's death is about as meaningful as a minor bad guy getting zapped out of existence in a video game. So the Drifter's opening reign of terror is basically just a series of fuck yeah moments for us -- because hey...it's Clint Eastwood! that's the guy we're rooting for! -- until he rapes the woman, whereupon most of us should be going all like, "Whaaaaaaat." Much as in Unforgiven, Eastwood is playing with genre here, subverting our expectations, and suggesting that a guy who goes around killing people is maybe not all that heroic a guy, really. More to the point, it puts us in much the same position as the people of Lago, who just have no idea what in the fuck this crazy bastard might do next.

I think the genre subversion is pretty relevant, though. Eastwood had already done his fair share of that in the Sergio Leone films, and the antihero (or just plain flawed hero, or even just the asshole-as-hero-kind-of-by-default) was in the Hollywood water at that point anyhow. It was only a year or two later you had Taxi Driver, around the same time that you had The Godfather, a few years after Bonnie and Clyde and even the relatively benign Robert Redford introducing the world to the idea of the-sports-champion-as-self-centered-douchebag in Downhill Racer. Point being, we're not supposed to make any excuses for the Drifter committing rape. There aren't any excuses. Justifiably angry or not, the Drifter is not the good guy -- there aren't any good guys, with the possible exception of Mordecai.

One thing I do find especially interesting about High Plains Drifter is that the sheriff -- who may or may not be the previous incarnation of the Drifter* -- doesn't seem to be amoral. There's a touch of Unforgiven to the notion that his betrayal at the hands of the town either brought out of him or summoned forth some evil that wasn't in the man previously, or was at least buried deep.

*Sadly, I don't have a cite for this, but I remember reading an interview wherein Eastwood suggested that the Drifter wasn't a supernatural agent at all, but was actually the sheriff's outlaw brother. In this reading (that I fucking hate), the closing shot with the tombstone is significant not because the Drifter is indicating his own grave, but because the name inscribed on it is one he shares with the brother he avenged. I have no idea why in the world Clint Eastwood would want anyone to believe this, because it's pretty lame compared to the more obvious possibility and nothing in the film hints at it besides. In any event, this would change the entire film, and not for the better, so I put in the same box as Ridley Scott saying Deckard is a replicant (Oh I don't THINK so) and Richard Kelly proposing you watch the director's cut of Donnie Darko. Just bad ideas, no matter whose ideas they are.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:40 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I hate it when I say I'm going to leave a thread but then I don't leave a thread. Bah. Stupid addictive interwebs.

I'm not going to say this is wrong. That's your opinion. I am going to say that this is not in that film though. Not at all. And that often an opinion says more about one's own eyes more than what is actually there.

Except that it's not my opinion. I'm merely suggesting that if you're going to read so deeply into the woman's character, why not read it the opposite way? If it doesn't matter that he raped her, because he's not a he, then why the film? I think the rape scene functions like so: it's a rape scene. Along with the gunfight in the barber shop, it sets up the odd relationship between the townsfolk and Eastwood's character. They already know that he killed three men without blinking and raped a woman? And they still hired him? It doesn't matter if the men were threatening or the woman was of dubious moral character (well, it does, but I'll get to that in a second). What matters for the sake of the story at that point is that the townspeople were so cowardly they knowingly put their life and their livelihoods in the hands of man who was capable of great violence without remorse.

On preview, yes, yes, yes to what kittens for breakfast said. The entire point of the beginning of High Plains Drifter is to set up what a dubious fellow the Man With No Name is. From there we see how despicable the townspeople are and the remaining film is the tightrope walk where we're trying to decide if the MWNN is justified in his strange behaviors. Yet we find ourselves rooting for him. Still, the rooting is not entirely comfortable - we still remember the rape scene, for instance. We cringe as he loots their stores. Yet we also smile as he does so. Eastwood is playing with us, and we wonder where it will lead.

I almost see High Plains Drifter as a successful "film about film violence" in a way that Inglourious Basterds was not. I think they were both going for the same thing but that IB failed and HPD succeeded. What I mean is that there is this tension tied up in the audience savoring the violence perpetrated upon the townsfolk of Largo. At times we feel it's okay and at times we feel it is not. But at the end (or at least, near the end...I think he gives the ending away a little too soon) we discover that the MWNN is merely an apparition sent back to avenge his death. Huzzah! Audience, rejoice! You are free to take glee in the punishment of the townspeople! Again, I think it was similar to the sort of A-Ha! double-reveal that Tarantino was going for in IB, when at the end we in the audience are supposed to feel like the Germans rooting on the sniper in the film - only in HPD it's the reverse. We were quietly rooting all along and at the end we are told that it's actually okay to revel in it all - fuck, those assholes deserved it.

The hope, of course, is that that is not the end of the process at all, and that there is a final stage of contemplation. Eastwood is saying that the black/white good/bad dichotomy is bullshit - no man has the authority to inflict a wave of suffering simply because of past wrongs, but we sure would like to think so, wouldn't we, because that would just make everything so much easier.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:01 PM on March 3, 2010

Drifter: Beer, and a bottle.
Bartender: Anything else?
Drifter: Just a quiet hour to drink it.
But, the townspeople just cannot leave him the fuck alone; they're cowards, sick over what they did to the sheriff, terrified of Stacey's gang, and also curious, like monkeys, and they pester him, and guess what? He turns out to be exactly what they were afraid he was, and they worship him for it.

What I mean is that there is this tension tied up in the audience savoring the violence perpetrated upon the townsfolk of Largo. At times we feel it's okay and at times we feel it is not.

Huh, okay, we really do differ on this fundamentally; the violence done against the townspeople of Lago never really bothers me because they're all so thoroughly wretched. "We all got it comin', kid". But maybe I've internalized too much of my (very mild, but non-nil) Protestant upbringing.

I don't think anybody's suggesting that it's just okay for a person to kill/rape/destroy just because that person thinks it's justified. But the Drifter is not a person, he is an avatar of divine justice, and so, yeah, as you say, it's okay. I guess at that point, I have to admit it's a revenge/justice fantasy no "deeper" than, say, Ironman, but I think where HPD and Unforgiven really shine is that, while Ironman just smashes bad guys (god what a boring movie), the "victims" in HPD and Unforgiven offer themselves up for punishment. The real glee of the audience member is not the moment of violence, it's the moment just before, when the next victim just cannot turn off their pride that one last time which is totally different than wanting to get the last word in a MeFi thread.

The woman, like the sheriff, the barber, the saloon, the boardwalk, is just another fixture of the town. The townspeople, aside from the hotel-proprietor's wife (the only one who seems to think that killing the sheriff was not an acceptable price to pay for their land deal), are all pretty interchangeable.

Since kittens for breakfast mentioned Blade Runner, I'll point out there's an "oh-but-she-totally-wanted-it" rape scene in that picture too, one that I have a lot more trouble with than the one in HPD.

And I agree with most of what people are saying about Unforgiven. It's a really strong movie, despite that one horribly maudlin bit of dialogue, about being forced to cash the checks one's written. Both movies are really fantasies about divine judgement being rendered early. In HPD the Drifter is totally opaque and probably not human, but Unforgiven is the stronger film for showing a mortal in that role, one just as broken and wretched as all the others, but just a little bit quicker, and a little bit sweeter.

I'm relieved nobody's mentioned Million Dollar Baby, which was sentimental tripe as far as I can tell.

Since kittens for breakfast mentioned Blade Runner, I'll point out there's an "oh-but-she-totally-wanted-it" rape scene in that picture too COUGHridleyscottCOUGH, one that I think is a lot less-ambiguously rape than the one in HPD.

Also, the Drifter is a ghost and Deckard is a replicant, and the best part of Donnie Darko is Patrick Swayze.

Also, my one-word review of Last Tango in Paris: "Ick."
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:31 PM on March 3, 2010

And, yeah, the best lines in Unforgiven are the ones that mean the exact opposite. Munny: "I ain't like that anymore". The Kid: "I'm not like you".
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:37 PM on March 3, 2010

I think Rat Spatula's analysis of the rape scene in High Plains Drifter is accurate -- there's enough ambiguity left in to suggest that it was consensual, a bit like the scene in Little Big Man where Faye Dunaway behaves terrified that she's going to be raped by bank robbers when, in fact, she is earnestly inviting a sexual encounter with one.

That being said, I have always been uncomfortable with the scene in Drifter, because the rape is so clearly an element of revenge, that it is in some way payback for misbehavior, just as violence is. And I don't know why I am more squeamish about people getting raped onscreen than killed, even if there are hints of it being consensual. I guess because the violence in the film has an unnaturalness about it, as though it were a grotesque dream or an extended metaphor, but the rape scene just seemed like an additional moment of cruelty and brutality.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:55 PM on March 3, 2010

(Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates: "where the "hero" is such a vile and repugnant human being."

He's not a human being. Marshall Devlin is presented as an incarnation of Satan, and the town's destruction at his hands is presented as justice. However, the film's reliance on puns - painting the town red, for, um, Christ's sake - plants it firmly in playland, from my perspective.
posted by mwhybark at 10:01 PM on March 3, 2010

... and having read though a longwinded set of HPD discussions, I see that the Satan/avenging angel/ghost/brother thing's been well covered - I would still argue that within the narrative logic "Devil" is the specific supernatural avatar the character is intended to be associated with.

I stand by my larger opinion that HPD is essentially playful, a reshuffling of the deck which still privileges jokes and shorthand, in contrast with Unforgiven, which seems bound on an actual slaughter of the genre from which it springs, and thereby enlarges it.
posted by mwhybark at 10:15 PM on March 3, 2010

What rangeboy and Smedleyman said. It's very true that part of the power of the film is the self-reference provided by Eastwood himself. If it had been made with anyone else (and the script languished around Hollywood for years -- before Blade Runner in fact), it would have struggled to accomplish what Clint could manage with a flash of his eyes -- perhaps just another revisionist Western, from a period when they were de rigeur. But with Eastwood in the role, William Munny essentially became a reification and deconstruction of The Man with No Name, a conceptual character made chillingly real. Even he had rejected his life of violence in favor of peace, and in the end, few characters have been shown as hollowed out, as gutted, as his own at the consequences of his actions. I don't care if he rides away like the others -- he's been utterly destroyed.

At the same time, though, you have to look at Eastwood's work honestly. He's a thinking man's action hero, but he's still keenly aware of his audience. These are not art films, they're genre pieces made with adult reflection. If you go back to Leone, Eastwood didn't even want to do The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- he was already trying to escape the role that would come to define him. Of course, Leone was explicitly criticizing the genre himself by trying to strip higher morality from the equation of the Western, and the Dirty Harry series does much the same with the cop genre. It's almost a given that the more effective the satire, the more readily some swallow it whole. While Eastwood does not exactly approach things satirically, this effect is visible. Blondie became the epitome of cool, and it seemed like it coolly endorsed violence, which does not seem to have been Leone's full intent. As for Eastwood's own films, this absent internal conversation appears to have bothered him enough to begin to included it at the very least in a dialog between projects and as time passed more within individual ones. While his career is littered with hackneyed personal vignettes (Eiger and larks (Loose), he's also clearly growing as a person; even if his acting often remains within a narrowly defined range of expressions, it's the use to which he puts it that begins to be the point.

Eastwood can't be a film school auteur. That's not him. He's an actor's director in many ways and it's what he does to let his actors show their stuff, such as the delightful Chief Dan George in Josey Wales -- definitely not a movie Indian. The evolutionary subversion of the tropes of the genre in that film is clearly where Eastwood begins to see things quite differently and have ambitions as a director. By the time you get to films like Mystic River, Eastwood is very fully aware of the character arcs for which he is caretaker. It's almost a truism that his characters can't escape their pasts, or must somehow exorcise them, given what his own history as an actor is.
posted by dhartung at 11:22 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well said dhartung. And thanks for mentioning The Outlaw Josey Wales, which I think is Eastwood's third best movie.

Plus a buzzard's gotta eat, same as a worm. Know what I'm sayin?
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:10 AM on March 4, 2010

In one of the Watchmen threads a while back, somebody said that Rorschach was Miller's attempt at figuring out what a real-life Batman would be like, and I think that applies to the Drifter/Blondie/Munny. So, is it an outright rejection of the John Wayne-type Western Hero, or just an attempt at more accurate expression of it?

Once you've scene these movies, it's hard to watch the old, unreflective, John Wayney movies, without seeing the rape scene done in slow motion over the length of the whole film: Goodness, such language! My heavens, he doesn't shave! Get out of here with those boots! but she's winking and making him coffee the whole time.

I always supposed that the Man with No Name had a childhood like the one Frank Morris had, and therefore had both a keen sense of fairness, a short fuse and impeccable aim. Like Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West. To me, these characters aren't so different from Will Penny.
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:56 AM on March 4, 2010

In one of the Watchmen threads a while back, somebody said that Rorschach was Miller's attempt at figuring out what a real-life Batman would be like

I find that pretty difficult to believe.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:06 AM on March 4, 2010

Yeah, Moore, sorry. I'm not much for the comix.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:25 AM on March 4, 2010

No love for Bird? I thought it was one of Eastwood's best as a director.

I too loved Unforgiven, and part of its greatness (as has been suggested upthread) lies in its layers of truth, its moral complexity if you will. It seems to me that Little Bill was basically presented as a brutal if just man (his beating of English Bob was 'good law making' if not heroic) until he killed Ned Logan - who, I would argue, is a character type present in most of these Eastwood-as-hero films: the Best of Us, the sacrifice, the idealized other (who is usually not a white male, see also Sue Lor in Gran Torino). It is this killing of Ned that crosses a line with Munny, the offense for which Munny has to extract his own well-lubricated justice.

I find lasting intrigue in some of Munny's later key lines -- "we've all got it coming", "deserve's got nothing to do with it" -- to me, they suggest something like Original Sin, that we're all guilty, we all deserve some harsh retribution, we are inherently failed. Except Little Bill did pretty explicitly deserve it because he killed Ned (although of course Little Bill wouldn't have seen it that way) -- as Munny plainly states when he enters the saloon.

Does society 'deserve' to die because we tolerate/create sheriffs like Little Bill? From the lofty pedestal of his pig farm mud, Munny is rather cut off from social concerns as such and the contradictions perhaps inherent in modern society; indeed, he seems more like an absolute and divine force by the films' end than a human being. It always strikes me as a little funny that he goes on to "prosper in dry goods".
posted by stinkycheese at 9:57 AM on March 4, 2010

“They already know that he killed three men without blinking and raped a woman? And they still hired him?”

Yes exactly. It is a rape when we look at it through our eyes. It is not a rape in his eyes. Nor in hers. It is both a rape and not in the eyes of the townspeople.

“I'm merely suggesting that if you're going to read so deeply into the woman's character, why not read it the opposite way?”

I do. It can be, and I think it is, many things at the same time. In many Eastwood’s films (especially as a director) it’s not ambiguity in meaning, it’s plurality.

The affront, for the woman raped here, is not that she was or wasn’t raped, but that the tacit agreement (I’ll give you my attentions – overtly sexual or otherwise, in exchange for access to your power) was broken. And so, her self-delusion was broken. Which is what angered her. Sex for her seemed to be a trade chip.

The townsfolk play into that hypocrisy as well. By contrast you have the hotel owner’s wife. Who suddenly is a wicked woman for having sex with the stranger and betraying her marriage. Except through our eyes, she isn’t.

So too – in our eyes, it’s rape. Not in anyone else’s in the film. Especially because there’s this veneer of forthrightness where she’s called a slut (in so many words) and yet they’re all as morally loose as they say she is.

And the hotel owner’s wife gets some of that. But she’s just enjoying having sex with a guy who’s not a true bastard (however vicious he seems to be). And that exposes yet more of their own hypocrisy.

“Still, the rooting is not entirely comfortable - we still remember the rape scene, for instance.”

I agree. I think that assault in the film was purposefully made. Here’s this apparently heinous act, and yet no one does anything about it. Part of the theme is that WE’RE morally outraged, and none of them are. And even the woman herself is only really pissed off because he cuts her off.

So the actual revenge there is removing her from the power chain and not accepting the way she uses sex. Not so much the act itself. Which is rendered meaningless from the POV of the drifter, the townspeople and the woman herself. Certainly she says she wants justice, but that’s not at all what she’s interested in. She is essentially asking the townsfolk to support her betrayal of them (by having sex with the drifter, the villain(s) and anyone else who’s ‘top dog’) and using the façade of morality (in fact OUR morality) in order to assert it. Even though she doesn’t buy into it at all either.

And it’s pretty telling that they all blow that off and reveal how dog eat dog they all are.
I think we’re supposed to be uncomfortable with the rape scene as an audience. Moreso because she enjoys it. And because we see it as rape. And none of them do. And she herself really doesn’t, she just wants power and has a means to it of sorts.

Contrast a genuinely powerful, sexually healthy woman (Catherine the Great say – despite the rumors, or Maria Theresa of Austria … I’d say Queen Victoria, but she was a little repressed) with Ilse Koch (who had power through her husband) or Countess Elizabeth Bathory who apparently didn’t actually bathe herself in the blood of her victims but might as well have.
It’s pretty clear she’s pretty twisted whether or not she’s raped. It’s supposed to be a revelatory act. I think most of the revenge stuff there is supposed to be more revelatory than overtly violent.

One of the issues I have with High Plains Drifter is that the people are ‘cowardly.’ Yes, that’s driven by greed, but it strains credulity how far they push it . They’re craven and backstabbing – but why? So it’s a bit one dimensional for me.

And I think you’re accurate in your evaluation of Inglorious Basterds. But again – I think IB is ambiguous where HPD has a plurality of meanings that are fairly clear.

Both deal with karma. But in IB you have people being agents of it (and perhaps losing their own humanity) and in HPD the stranger is the embodiment of it (since he’s not at all human anymore).

‘Irreversible’ deals with some of those revenge and sexuality issues in a more questioning manner.

But Unforgiven is magnificent in that regard. We’re not so uncomfortable with it (or at least not made to be so in the same way) in terms of violence, but rather confronted with the ‘taking a shit’ matter of factness of it.

I’ve always found it amusing, for example, that in genuine gunfights, a fair percentage of people soil their pants. And yet it’s used as an example of cowardice (the writer, in this case).
Nothing cowardly about it though really. It’s not even fear based. Get an adrenal rush, your body says “I don’t need to deal with this right now” shuts off that attention to that particular bit of the nervous system so it can devote as much attention as possible to staying alive and – bam – you shit yourself.

I don’t know how many people take big pre-action dumps. Plenty though. I do. And I used to see loads of hard-ons in the locker room before big games as well. Discussion of whatever homoerotic overtones exist wherever aside – it’s also a stress response. You get your blood up – you get your blood, up. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a hard on is just a hard on.

So too – Unforgiven. People are trying to get on with their lives but their past actions have a bearing on that and death is always waiting in the wings. And couldn’t care less what you’re doing, however important or fundamental (no allusion int’d), when it shows up. The realities of living your life don't protect you. And the hypocrisy of denying them (denying you piss/crap yourself as well, in contrast to the writer) or fear, etc. doesn't help either.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is great for that contrast between real brutal and gritty violence and the more glorified interpersonal sort.

The war scene at the bridge is one of the best parts of that film. Here you have two of the best gunmen in the west who are among the most dangerous men in their world. And who do kill as part of their living.
But then you see these soldiers meting death out wholesale, by the thousands, with cannon. And for no real good reason. And Blondie and Tuco who are otherwise so mercenary, blow up the bridge to stop the violence.

One of the best (in parts) westerns I’ve seen was Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine.’
For all the violence supposedly going around in the west, the cities back east were far more violent. And could be, because there were so many people it could be impersonal. In certain western films, the better ones IMHO, the personal violence, killing, is treated far more gingerly.

One good scene from Clementine, Doc Holiday tells Earp to draw. He opens his coat and says “Can’t.” But, he alludes that one of his brothers might be able to oblige him. ‘They’re standing right behind you” and he introduces Morgan and Virgil.
And Holiday knows Wyatt has him cold and he accepts the circumstances 'let's all have a drink.'

In other parts Wyatt buffaloes a number of people (smacks them on the head with the butt of his gun) instead of killing them.
It’s not a bad film. Bit maudlin in parts. Way way over mythologized. And I could do without the singing.
But the acting (from everyone) is magnificent and you can see parts of the ‘just so’ themes in other films and especially Eastwood’s work.

Early in Clementine you see the Earps eating out on the plain. Their brother is a good cook, they say, but they’re tired of eating the same stuff and not getting much of it. In a few words, you get the idea, food is important because you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s not much else.

Once in town, Virgil for example comes out of a saloon and Wyatt asks him how he’s doing.
“Feel good.” Virgil says. “I just had a skilletfull of ham and eggs.”
And that theme reiterates. You can see some emphasis on dinner and eating in the remake “Tombstone.” And it’s in Lord of the Rings, which I thought (along with the songs) were really doofy.

But in hindsight you realize that for folks in those environments the basics – eating, weather, booze, a shave, etc – were pretty important.

So Ned asking Munny “So… you just use your hand?” rang pretty true.

And I think it’s that which creates a contrast with the more stylized violence where no one, good or bad, takes a dump or otherwise gets about the daily business of living their lives. They just shoot people in a fabulous manner while looking bad ass.
In Unforgiven, the fact they had to go out to a ranch where Davy and the other cowboy were working in order to kill them was pretty solid.

For many westerns you’d think all anyone does is sit in saloons waiting for gunfights or dealing with grandiose plans and high concept justice instead of punching cows or mining or otherwise doing their jobs.

And yeah, you see that in the Man with No Name. Just naked purpose.

And in the incarnation of Munny doesn’t have a job or a life or a woman. The weather affects him. He’s got no business of life, no songs (IMHO thankfully), can’t even shoot a rifle – which is a far more useful as a tool on the range than a handgun which is more of a weapon – that well. Doesn’t do his job that well. Splits on his kids to go kill someone. Doesn’t even, apparently, jerk off. Just kills people really, really, well.
And that doesn’t amount to much at all. Some ink in one of the pulps perhaps. Although Munny gets a redemption of sorts. Perhaps because he eschews that, ultimately. Either way, he goes home, moves away, raises his kids, prospers (apparently) in dry goods. Becomes human.
And so gets on with the kind of living where there is no drama, so it's told in words instead of shown.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:06 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something has gone wrong in the New Yorker's legendary fact-checking department when they let Denby assert that Letters from Iwo Jima and Faith of My Fathers were in black and white.
posted by A189Nut at 11:16 AM on March 4, 2010

(The realities of living your life don't protect you. And the hypocrisy of denying them (denying you piss/crap yourself as well, in contrast to the writer) or fear, etc. doesn't help either.)
- I'll note - Bill says he doesn't deserve to die because he was building a house. There's a pretension there, that also exists in High Plains Drifter, that death completely uncovers.

One can say one's participation in society doesn't excuse one's acts outside it or protect one from retribution, even if one acts to support it. As in Little Bill's case. And indeed, in English Bob's case (nothing wrong with killing Chinamen as long as it's for the railroad apparently).
But Munny is not only outside society, he accepts this. He accepts the payback. Even down to his horse throwing him off. And, importantly, he accepts death as a matter of course whether there's retribution or not.
So where other men seek advantage, e.g. in confronting English Bob everyone and his brother shows up toting firearms and pointing them at Bob. And where Bill isn't afraid, but also takes every advantage he can get and exploits it when he's on top (kicking the crap out of Bob, yes, but also cutting loose the cowboys - that was more an assertion of his position than meting real justice).
Munny does not.
He accepts the odds, kills 5 men single handed, chalks it up to luck not himself, and doesn't capitalize on it.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:23 AM on March 4, 2010

Bill says he doesn't deserve to die because he was building a house.

I sort of take this as a criticism of society in general, building a house = working towards a future. And of course Little Bill is no carpenter, his house leaks. Even his last gasp at his own goodness or worth is flawed.
posted by stinkycheese at 11:35 AM on March 4, 2010

I want to echo what Smedleyman said up the thread, I said it before here(orangutan joke aside). Eastwood is magnificently empty in Unforgiven, it's an incredibly deep and nuanced film, worth several viewings. In fact I think I'm going to watch it again tonight. Then I'll watch Johnny Guitar, one of the other great revisionist westerns (hardly revisionist in terms of the year it was made, but wildly divergent, a must see).
posted by Divine_Wino at 12:31 PM on March 4, 2010

I've watched Unforgiven at least 7 times closely, and a few more times less closely. There are about 12 films I would give that much of my life to.

Although Dead Man is even more profound as a meta-western.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:33 PM on March 4, 2010

I was going to mention Dead Man, but it tends tiptoe the line of parody. Something that hasn't been mentioned is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I haven't read the book, but that was probably the best western of the past ten years.
posted by P.o.B. at 7:12 PM on March 4, 2010

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