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Austin Chronicle Video Reviews

By Louis Black

MAY 22, 2000: 

The Outlaw Josey Wales

D: Clint Eastwood (1976); with Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke, Bill McKinney, Sam Bottoms, Will Sampson.

A nearly perfect Western, Outlaw combines Eastwood's character-driven (rather than story-driven) sensibility and the Western cynicism he learned from Sergio Leone with screenwriter/original director Philip Kaufman's sharp narrative compulsion accompanied by a mystical bent. In the middle of a long period of Western revisionist myth deconstruction (see almost any Seventies Western), in which the idea was to make political points rather than achieve archetypal resonance, Eastwood strained the nihilism from the Leone formula, coming up with this masterpiece. Kaufman wrote the script and was slated to direct, working one week before Eastwood fired him. Rumor always had it that Eastwood didn't like horses, and Kaufman was making him ride too much. Given that much of this film finds Eastwood on horseback, I suspect that's nonsense. Kaufman as a director favors the same wandering episodic structure as Eastwood -- witness his work as writer/director on The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), The Wanderers (1979), and The Right Stuff (1983), as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), on which he was given a "story by" credit. Kaufman molds his work a little tighter than Eastwood but has trouble with timing climaxes (The Wanderers ends, brilliantly, about seven times). Usually, as a director, Eastwood isn't terribly interested in telling a story but in following a character. At the same time, he is often demystifying the West. Eastwood obviously paid a lot of attention to what Leone was doing in the classic trio of spaghetti westerns they made together in Italy -- Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1966), and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) -- and explored variations of it throughout his career. In High Plains, he cut loose the mythic and just celebrated the nihilistic. Eastwood in general has an almost European sensibility that narrative action is incidental to the film, but cinematically he makes very Hollywood-style films. It makes for a jarring ride. Films like Honkytonk Man (1982), Bronco Billy (1980), and Bird (1988, even though it is a biography) drift along, rolling through a story to a point that never seems to come, which is the point. Look at Pale Rider (1985), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), The Unforgiven (1992), and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). Even when his films are action-driven, he avoids the typical narrative punctuation. His pace is more leisurely, his climaxes often misplaced. A few times in his career, when script, director, and actor came together, his narrative punch was explosive, never more so than in Outlaw. Maybe it was that Kaufman had done the preproduction and directed the first week, throwing Eastwood into it. Thus knocked from his usual pacing, Eastwood's rhythm is more precise. The story is beautifully told. Union sympathizers murder farmer Wales' (Eastwood) family. Joining rebel raiders, he fights the Civil War. After the armistice, his troop is massacred while surrendering to Union troops. Wales goes on the lam, chased by a troop of soldiers. In his journey across the West, he becomes a legend. The desolate moral landscape of High Plains Drifter is replaced by the West as a place of possibility. The path to redemption is through the creation of community, no matter how unlikely. Eastwood revisits this theme in his later Westerns like Pale Rider and Unforgiven (1992) but there, his pessimism overwhelms them. This is the moment of the hero who is both mythic and ragged, both noble and self-involved. The film chronicles a classic epic journey, from the death of his family through the renegade West. Finally he is redeemed by the creation of a new "family" leading to the death of his identity as the "Outlaw Josey Wales." Again he is just a man and a farmer, the gunfighter, as though a fiction, in his past.


S.O.B.

D: Blake Edwards (1981); with Julie Andrews, William Holden, Marisa Berenson, Larry Hagman, Robert Loggia, Stuart Margolin, Richard Mulligan, Robert Preston, Craig Stevens, Loretta Swit, Robert Vaughn, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Jennifer Edwards, Rosanna Arquette.

Watching Austin Musical Theatre's The Music Man, starring Larry Gatlin, at Palmer Auditorium, my brother-in-law leaned over to me and said, "He's good, but who was that guy in the movie -- Robert Preston?" When Preston was at his best, one can't imagine anyone else inhabiting his roles. Would The Last Starfighter (1984), Junior Bonner (1972), or Victor/Victoria (1982) be anywhere near the movies they were with anyone else? Not to mention The Music Man (1962). Preston started in B-movies and later became more of a second lead than the leading man, but he was always good and often great. Musing about Preston, I thought fondly of Blake Edwards' S.O.B. Edwards' cinematic aficionados swear by the director, claiming even Darling Lili (1970) as a masterpiece rather than the flop it is more often considered. I've never been a big Edwards fan. The whole Pink Panther series left me cold, from Shot in the Dark (1964) on. I hated The Party (1968) and found The Days of Wine and Roses (1962) pretentious. Numerous cable viewings of Blind Date (1987) and Victor/Victoria really warmed me to Edwards, but S.O.B. is a more complicated case. Mostly it's a brilliant movie, but it's also mostly a framing device for a supposed sequence from a Hollywood movie wherein Julie Andrews shows her breasts. This rare viewing was regarded as such a marketable commodity that the director is able to get backing for a whole movie hooked around this event. The movie sequence within the movie is where S.O.B. falls completely apart. Edwards is at his most broad here, which is pretty broad (given that one of the gags in The Party found Peter Sellers walking out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to his shoe, and he proceeds to drag the roll throughout the house). The scene is just a silly exercise, a vicious attack on Hollywood by a Hollywood insider, and it buries the film. Which is, mostly, a wild industry satire that enjoys the richness of actors playing off each other. Preston has only a supporting role to William Holden's and Richard Mulligan's leads, but the pleasure of this film is the cast. As Dr. Finegarten, Preston is great, but he's working alongside Hagman, Loggia, Margolin, Stevens, Swit, Vaughn, Webber, Winters, and Arquette. Famous Hollywood director Felix Farmer's (Mulligan) new film bombs at the box office, a work of wholesome family fun starring his legendary actress wife (Andrews) gone straight down the toilet. He retreats to his oceanside home where many veterans of old Hollywood, played by many veterans of old Hollywood, gather to commiserate. Then inspiration strikes. Get his wholesome wife to bare her breasts, and he'll have a hit. Which is just what Edwards does in this film, starring his wholesome wife Andrews (The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins). So the movie within the movie is a stupid spectacle about nothing, looking like the nightmare dream sequences of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. As usual, Edwards gets too clever for his own good (think 1979's 10), but here the superb cast preserves him. The framing device, the film about filmmaking and filmmakers, about a community of talents watching the present pass them by, is a remarkable and funny comedic elegy.


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