Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THREE WESTERNS: Blackthorn, Rank, Buck


The aesthetic of Blackthorn, a sequel to the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is more Henry Farny than Charlie Russell.  Long pale vistas with a dark strand of far away travelers. Or possibly a man on horseback coming down a mountain trail full of shale.  It’s not as “pretty” but far more striking.  Figures struggling across a salt flat, silhouettes on the horizon.  And that’s kind of the story of the whole film.  Classic, but not what we’re used to -- renewed.

Sam Shepard, who plays Cassidy has an “earned” face and an easy seat in the saddle that come from being there, doing that.  Nicolaj Coster-Waldau looks so much like the young Shepard that they must have gone out with a genome card to look for him.  Instead of the distraction of someone “being” the young version who is only vaguely reminiscent, we have the first jolt of “how did they DO that?” and then it was fine.  Every actor in this film, including all the indigenous people going about their business, are really fine.

The plot is the usual Western one: survival.  And for the last few decades the specific problem of survival in old age.  These are not the geezers of the early Westerns, kind of eccentric and laughable with funny voices.  These are the erect and dignified men they always were, just a little tired.  They make us distrust this handsome younger Spanish fellow with the mustache.  He thinks too much.

The second film I want to bring up is about young men with maybe a ten year -- if that -- career as bull riders:  “Rank.”  The title is a double-meaning.  It’s a documentary about a hyped version of something that was once real.  First, rodeo made wine from the grape juice of ranch life; then came the brandy of national competitions, professionalized and glitzy.  And finally this kind of rocket fuel made by skimming off only the bull-riding competition.  These men are all young, they enter walking among literal fireworks playing around their feet (no horses), patriotic displays (SEALS rappelling down from choppers), and brass bands.  

In crisp new pearl-snap shirts, body-armor vests, and fringy chaps with Christian symbols on them, this is a whole different thing than veteran Freckles Brown taking one last turn on ol’ unridden Tornado.  This is not Robert Mitchum in “The Lusty Men.”  This is out of the extreme sports world with guys who take as much care with their rosin-soaked glove attachment to the bull harness as a ballerina twisting her carefully broken-in pink satin toe in the rosin box:  everything depends upon that one connection to a whirling world.  Except that no one ever gave a ballerina a million dollars and a massive gold belt buckle for being the best dancer in the world.  The final irony is that the World’s Best Professional Bull Rider turns out to be from Brazil.  Repeatedly.

The third movie is also documentary:  “Buck” which is about Buck Branaman, the real “horse-whisperer” who coached Robert Redford for the movie of that name.  This one is about the two sides of the American West: men so twisted by the drive to survive and their own failure to understand anything but raw force, that they beat their own children nearly to death -- opposed to the small-town Montana coach, sheriff, and ranch couple who stepped in to rescue Buck and his brother when they were still young enough to turn in a different direction.  Their mother had died before she could find a way to take the boys and get out.  Even after the boys had gone to the foster family that raised two dozen boys from similar situations, Buck’s dad lay on his belly up in the hills, watching him through the scope on his rifle.  He declared that when they were eighteen, he would kill them.  I don’t know why he would wait.

Rescued together, the two boys turned out differently.  Not THAT differently.  They are peaceful men and both are horse-whisperers.  There are a LOT of whisperers in the West and they are often survivors.  I expect that Sam Shepard himself is more of a whisperer than a bull-rider.  On purpose.  Check out his writing.

“Buck” is also a documentary, but something happened that couldn’t have been planned.  The concept was to film Buck doing one of his innumerable horse clinics at which he addresses horses with problems and shows the owners how to figure them out and solve them.  This time a young woman brought a horse that had been oxygen-deprived at birth.  The mare died and the colt was not breathing at first but was revived.  It was never quite right.

So Buck began to work with the animal, an unaltered stallion.  It seemed spoiled and a little erratic.  Then suddenly it went into a rage and attacked the man who normally worked with it.  The tape nearly showed a man being killed.  Buck finally eased the horse into its trailer, using two long limber sticks with flags on the end -- slowly and carefully hazing him along.  Before that, held in a corral, the crazed studhorse would lunge over the man-high rails in an attempt to bite anyone who walked near.  

The young woman then confessed about the damage she had sustained, the eighteen other uncut stallions she had on her ranch, and other things Buck should have known about beforehand.  He addressed her in no uncertain terms, saying she was endangering herself and others, that she was irresponsible, that it was no kindness to the animals, reminding her again and again that it was HERSELF she was punishing.  He did not say what was perfectly obvious and what she sort of knew before showing up with her killer horse: it would have to be put down.  No human miracle could save a horse like that.  She was near being a murderer with her fantasies.

This is not a safe world.  People who work with big animals know that, both in the old days when horses were still cowboy transportation or now in the rodeo ring where the these bull riders have FOUR clowns -- who don’t even bother to be funny, because their job is saving lives.  We romanticize the danger so we can enjoy the adrenaline rush.  Admit it:  this was a MUCH more interesting documentary with a rank horse in it that Buck could not save.

Many of us hope to learn about animals (including people) who are uncontrollable and dangerous, even to their own families.  But some of us get off on it.  The more shooting, the more fist-fights, the better.  It is the survivors -- and there are lots of them in the West -- who must teach the sensationalists how to tell when the line is crossed.  Marked by scars, usually.


Brad Fisher said...


Ron Scheer said...

Enjoyed this. I'm familiar with all three films. I liked 2.5 of them. As a story, I thought Blackthorn fell apart before the end. To me, it seemed to betray its own ethos.