Saturday, September 19, 2009

Positively Zwickian!

"I don't get Brad Pitt, do you?" Pauline Kael asks her interviewer in the book Afterglow, as she rattles off her likes and dislikes among actors. Jeez, lady, what's not to get? He's a rare Hollywood superstar who (relatively speaking) doesn't seem to take himself too seriously, who is aging gracefully into his 40s, who comes across happiest and strongest as a performer when cast in spry support. He was sexy and jaunty in Thelma & Louise, ingratiatingly manic in Twelve Monkeys, energetically dim-witted in Burn After Reading, wry and self-mocking in Inglourious Basterds. How many other A-list celebs would have agreed to what is essentially a background character in Raine, would have willingly played most of his part in the tavern scene as an offscreen voice, would have sported a ridiculous Italian accent? ("Bawn-jerno!") Pitt's best roles take advantage of the fact that he's a scene-stealing bit player trapped in a leading man's body. His worst put his handsome mug front and center and ask him to do nothing but pose like a pinup boy.

Which brings us to Legends of the Fall. Anybody recall this film? It was released in 1994, as Pitt's star was rising and filmmakers were still figuring out what to do with him. Neil Jordan botched the job in Interview with the Vampire (though, in fairness, he had an equally miscast Tom Cruise to contend with). Yet Robert Redford had directed him well in A River Runs Through It, preserving Pitt's smartassiness while bringing out a hitherto untapped sensitivity. Legends of the Fall is A River Runs Through It run amuck. It adds one extra brother, replaces Tom Skerritt's flawed but caring patriarch with Anthony Hopkins' more overbearing version, ramps up the familial angst, and bloats itself into (so it believes) a tragic American epic.

I caught about 20 minutes of Legends this week while flipping past Oxygen, and it's even more horrendous than I remembered. (If ever there was a movie for the Oxygen Channel, this is it.) I had forgotten that Pitt's character was named Tristan, and that he is the type of turn-of-the-century Harlequin stud with flowing golden locks that was mocked at the start of Romancing the Stone. I had forgotten that Pitt along with his two sibling, older Aidan Quinn and younger Henry Thomas, all fall in love with the same woman (Julia Ormond, whose appealing and natural flintiness was airbrushed during this period in a misguided attempt to make her an ingenue). All also go to war -- the First WW -- where their wounds are distributed with dour predictability: Quinn's are physical; Pitt's psychic; and Thomas's lead to his untimely death. Legends of the Fall is the kind of movie where the baby brother with the doe-eyed fiance back home isn't just shot; he's ground into mincemeat by a German machine-gun. Any illusions left over from Glory that Edward Zwick was a competent director were quickly dispelled by this unintentionally hilarious, tone-deaf scene, only one among many.

But wait, there's more. After Henry Thomas becomes machine-gun fodder, Pitt isn't happy. No siree. He feels responsible, but more than that he feels that the Jerries are responsible, and he's primed for vengeance. Heroic Man Of Nature that he is, he slips into the tent of a Native American compatriot, apparently confiscates a knife, puts on war-paint and ambushes the pair of Germans. (Note: I wasn't paying complete attention during the tent scene, so please correct any errors of assumption.) Then, after slitting the poor bastards' throats, Pitt scalps them. It's unclear precisely what he does with the scalps but Ormond is undoubtedly drawn to his psychotic machismo so they must have done the guy some good. (There's a later scene where he waked from a nightmare and puts a knife to her throat. If that's not a turn-on, I don't know what is.) Pitt and Quinn return home for the interminable second half of the picture, and I changed the channel.

Pitt would work with Hopkins again in the somnambulant Meet Joe Black. (Directed by self-deluded auteur Martin Brest -- never has a director demanded so many takes for such meager results.) And he recently appeared with Ormond in Benjamin Button, though they share no scenes. I'm tempted to deem Legends of the Fall his worst film, yet the scalping scene gives me pause. What do you think: Is Legends a forgotten favorite of Tarantino's? Are we overlooking the Zwickian influence on his work? 


Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - you nudged a soft spot here because I love Legends of the Fall. I love its epic visual beauty and its emotions, and I love Brad Pitt in this movie - as well as everyone else on the cast. I loved the three-brothers element of the film and the locations. Anyway, I'm not writing this comment to argue.

As for the scalping - first of all, Tristan brings the Indian knife with him to war. It's his knife. He takes the scalps and hangs them on his body when he rides back to camp. He has gone completely Indian - but that savage side of him has been set up by previous scenes of him trying to count coup on a grizzly and by his associations with One Stab, his Indian friend who helped raise him.

Yes, I thought of Legends when I saw Basterds. I also thought of Legends when I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The shot of Ben at the helm of the sailboat he sails around the Gulf seems to be a clear allusion to or borrowing from the shot of Tristan at the helm of his grandfather's schooner that he takes to lose himself in places of high adventure (loved that part of the movie too).

Craig said...

Feel free to argue, Hokahey! I agree it's beautiful to look at. But the, it just wasn't for me.

Thanks for clearing up the business with the Indian, the knife and the scalps. It had been years since I'd seen it in its entirety, and like I said I wasn't paying full attention.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'll add some defense on Legends. It is a movie full of epic events -- not exactly an epic itself -- and so in that way the melodrama is kind of unavoidable (there's so much story smashed into its running time), but I don't think of it as a melodramatic movie, to be honest (even though I can't really argue with your characterization), and I think it holds up much better than Glory, since you brought that one up, too.

Now, you do just have to go with the movie when Tristan goes crazy and "goes Indian" as Hokahey says. But I've always thought that Ormand kind of manages the impossible ... makes real this unbelievable character who sets to marry one man, falls in love with his brother and then marries the third brother. The movie works because of her performance and the performances of the brothers; each of them distinct men.

I have to admit that I like the sight of Pitt on horseback with the hair flowing behind him, even if I rolled my eyes when the movie was released because of all my female friends at the time who went weak-kneed over it. It's Western poetic. That's the way I see it.

Anyway, as for the Basterds part, I think it's coincidence.

Craig said...

Don't get me wrong, there's a place for melodrama. It's just that "Legends" heaps it on with a big Harlequin spoon: the estranging father; the romantic triangle (or quadrangle); the horrors of war; the Thoreau/Fenimore Cooperean literary wild-child with one foot in the past and the other ahead of his time. I'm willing to go with the scalping scene, silly though it is. What I don't care for is Henry Thomas being riddled with machine-gun fire, as if one bullet wouldn't be enough of a tragedy, as was Matthew Broderick's death in "Glory". The way Zwick milks it is utterly shameless. (Get it: Milk? Utterly? Heh heh, heh heh, heh!)

I think Ormond escaped this (and "Sabrina," Pollack's attempt to Audrey Hepburnize her) to go on to better things. I prefer the edgy, angry Ormond of "Smilla's Sense of Snow" than the one mooning over Tristan.

Craig said...

Before I forget, I was being mostly facetious about the "influence" on Tarantino, but there's no doubt in my mind the scene had occurred to him when deciding whom to cast for Raine. I know we disagreed over a similar possible coincidence about Tom Cruise and subway scenes from "Risky Business" and "Collateral." Similarly, I think Michael Mann, like QT, is too much an encyclopedia of movies not to have had something in mind with that (especially considering Mann's early movies shared with "Risky Business" the musical stylings of Tangerine Dream).

Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - Having read Jim Harrison's eloquent novella upon which Legends is based, having read many Western novels and non-fiction about Native Americans, loving Westerns as I do, I find nothing silly about the scalping episode. When I saw it, I fell in love with this movie. It was different. It was awesome. Tristan was brought up by an Indian and, like I said, he had the guts as a teenager to go up and touch a sleeping grizzly. The scalping made Tristan awesome. We can agree to disagree. Just had to put that in.

Jason says it for me - it's "Western poetic," and loving Westerns, I loved this movie. It's my favorite movie by Zwick.

Craig said...

Well, what can I say about something somebody loves? No more than you or Matt Seitz could convince me "Pulp Fiction" is self-indulgent or bereft of emotion. I guess it boils down to Ebert's Maxim: "A movie isn't what it's about; it's how it's about it." If you buy the premise and all the elements leading up to the scalping episode, then you're inclined to believe. If you think it's all nonsense, then that scene is more of the same.

For me, that's the kind of moment where it helps to have read the original source material (in a way, like the last "Harry Potter" movie), or where it helps to have an obsessive filmmaker to put it over. Zwick's body of work suggests he is sensitive and tasteful, with soft-liberal values that go down easy. "Legends" is a curious anomaly for him, in a way, in that it doesn't really fit directly into his social concerns. (It does in a roundabout way, of course, being anti-war and so forth.) From the looks of it, he was out to make a good movie, a beautiful movie, possibly an Oscar-bait movie, but a sweeping American epic. It's a movie that's all about passion; for me, though, it doesn't feel passionately made.

Richard Bellamy said...

I enjoyed your comment. Funny about Pulp Fiction. I like what you say, "If you buy the premise and all the elements leading up to the scalping episode, then you're inclined to believe. If you think it's all nonsense, then that scene is more of the same." Well said. It really fascinates me - the whole challenge of presenting a story on paper or on stage or on film and trying to get your vision across; some people buy into - some people don't. Being a drama director in high school, I know that's the case when some people come up and say they really loved the play and others say, "Great play," while you know they're thinking, "Uh, like, he's insane."

Craig said...

It fascinates me too. And when you mentioned Jim Harrison the scalping scene suddenly clicked: I could totally see that passage in one of his books.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yeah, Jim Harrison. I wonder if Cormac McCarthy has been influenced by him. I remember reading a novel by Harrison called A Good Day to Die - that was bleak and cynical and nihilistic - with spare, Hemingwayesque prose. Just the kind of thing McCarthy would love.