Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Assuming that Netflix has all the films, this “festival” could go on for a very long time: there are close to a hundred films with Ed Harris in them. I’m barely making a dent. But I can see a few categories forming. What’s fascinating is that the categories are so different. The three that stand out so far are: nice guys, sorta clueless, who go along until something changes them; whacko creative guys who range from the clearly disturbed and alcoholic Pollock to the more properly “inspired” and driven Beethoven; and military men who have “the right stuff.”

Recently I’ve looked at “Gone, Baby, Gone” and “Empire Falls.” Now that I have broadband, I’ve been picking up on publicity videos and sound interviews. One of the most interesting was described by the media as an “Ed Harris meltdown!” It was promo for “A History of Violence.” The panel of discussers sat at a table across the front and the journalists and photogs were in a cluster of chairs out front. “What is this movie about, Mr. Harris?”

Ed suddenly whacks the table with his hand. “What is THIS?” he demands. WHAMMO again. “What IS this?” And a third time. Then he picks up the glass of water in front of him and hurls it against the wall behind him without even looking. “It’s VIOLENCE! That’s what it is!” Everyone scatters as he stalks out. I thought it was brilliant.

Last night I watched “The Buffalo Soldiers” which has nothing to do with buffalo. The Indians called the black cavalry regiments buffalo soldiers, and the movie is about corruption in the peacetime army, which always includes a lot of blacks because they need the work. In this satirical story Harris is both a clueless nice guy and a military man sans “right stuff.” The cast is very fine indeed but this is not my fav genre. Elizabeth McGovern and Anna Paquin were remarkable. Scott Glenn, another “Right Stuff” guy, is also capable of being either lethal or righteous. It’s a youngster’s movie: lots of explosions and cynicism. But the sentiments probably brought these seasoned actors to the cast out of political sympathy.

A movie rather unlike any of the categories above is “The Third Miracle” in which Harris is a sceptical priest whose job is to winnow out false miracles when the Vatican is asked to certify saints. This is a sophisticated story, a thinking story, of a kind that rarely gets made these days. I have the tape and watch it now and then, never failing to see something new to think about. (I still miss that series from years ago about the religious staff of a major urban cathedral and the moral dilemmas they were called upon to solve, sometimes in unconventional ways, which is what caused it to be canceled.)

Which brings me to “Appaloosa,” the recent triple-threat film from Harris, in which he writes, directs, and acts. Probably had something to do with production and casting as well. This is a man whose life is truly acting, which means he has accumulated a lot of creds. Now he begins to cash them in. I love that the first of these truly auteur movies is a Western, since one of my fav movies (Oh, better start a new category!) is the Western, “Riders of the Purple Sage,” in which he plays the classic hero, Lassiter, the man who comes to restore justice and ends up withdrawing with his lover (his actual wife) to Rainbow Valley, an Eden.

In Appaloosa, Harris is a gun for hire with Viggo Mortensen as his intelligent sidekick. (I often assert that there’s nothing wrong with being the sidekick, though the role can be played for laughs.) The media has had a tussle with the meaning of this film. Is Virgil Cole a good man or bad? Does he have the Right Stuff or is his vulnerability to the Renee Zellweger part a sign that he’s a fool for love? (His PR event this time was to come up behind Renee, who was wearing something low-cut, and bending over to tenderly kiss her shoulder. What did it mean? Were they in love? Would he leave his wife?!!???)

I gather that the original book from which this movie was adapted portrayed Mrs. French for a kind of scheming minx, but Harris’ take on her makes her more of a needy child. When she shows up in the clutches of the bad guys with a rope around her neck, her upturned face is like Munch’s the Scream, but somehow it is also like a face molded of cookie dough -- sweet and distorted. To me, that’s the clue to Virgil Cole: he and Everett Hitch are protectors. They come to the town as gods with the power to destroy and though they seem nearly amoral in their rule-based “justice,” they are capable of deep attachment -- first to each other. They split out when Cole is seduced by his need to protect an appealing flower of a woman -- NOT sex! Hitch stays faithful to his code of honor, learned at West Point and now in service to his friend.

So what we have here is a discussion of what is important for society: order based on love or order based on rules? It’s a religious question in the end. If you could play God, what would you do? Neither is an ideal solution and order based on love is probably God’s big weakness. If He didn’t love us (assuming He exists) He’d have wiped us out long ago. The frontier puzzle of the town with its rules, coming to prairie where there is no rule but survival, is what puts this movie in the Western genre -- not the fact that people are riding around on horses and the women wear bustles. (I did so love Viggo squaring up for the final shootout in Eastern military duel style. Even the “Apaches” -- who were really Blackfeet from here -- have a special fondness for Viggo, partly because he’s so good with horses and so capable of mixing the poetic with the heroic.)

When I look at my motto now: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work,” I see it over the heads of Cole and Hitch sitting out on the porch of the jail, sipping coffee and chatting. They did that, didn’t they? Regular and orderly until violent and original?


Art Durkee said...

"The Third Miracle" is an entirely underrated film, and I own it on DVD, watching it again every so often. I'm not even slightly Catholic, but I do tend to be a bit monastic, and I have seen other kinds of beauty and magic in the world, so this film works for me. It's really about Ed Harris' character finding his faith; and faith is not belief or knowledge, as you know.

When you get to "The Abyss," let us know. In my opinion that's one of Ed's greatest roles so far, as well as being one of the best SF films ever made. (In the director's cut, naturally. The original theatrical release was wounded by being a cut a little too short, on the studio's demands.) In that film, he's in your category of nice guy, but the changes he goes through turn him into something much more original, I think.

Lance Michael Foster said...

There are certain people I will always watch in whatever film comes out. Ed Harris is one of those few. Viggo has become another. A History of Violence was particularly affective (not effective) at the end, when all the power in Viggo was nothing as opposed to his need to belong to his family again, sitting down at the table again, forgiven and part again.

Whisky Prajer said...

You've watched some Actor's Studio interviews, I think -- did you see Harris, circa Pollack?

He is a consistently interesting actor. Robert Duval was someone I once watched with the same interest, but sometime in the last 15 years he's become tangled in his tics. Not so, Harris.