Watching “The Hero” while Comey is being interviewed about his new book is an exercise in the surreal and the ironic. Sam Elliott is very much the laconic, lanky, strong man facing death, which is the adversary no one can overcome. He’s not a top level cowboy actor, but you can bet that if there is a Western written by Louis L’Amour and starring Elliott, it’s going to be iconic — if it’s a little bit captured by its time.
In terms of place, Elliott was born in Sacramento but finished growing up along the Columbia River near Portland, part of the wet West with lots of trees. I grew up on the Portland side and am five years older. I don’t have a mustache because I’m female and I don’t have a drawl unless it’s on purpose, like his. Elliott tries to set up a connection with Texas but I don’t — because why would I?
Elliot sounds a bit like Robert Mitchum, who was a much heftier actor in terms of weight and gravitas. (ahem). But he claims he doesn’t use pot, while Mitchum served time for it. When the results of the weed and mushrooms are shown, they are not depicted negatively. More like access to that oceanic feeling of belonging to the universe. But you have to buy it.
Marc Basch and Brett Haley appear to be a team, with Haley taking the honors as director. They are not naive Western writers — there are no horses in this film — but they appear to be experts in contemplating the ironies of life in Hollywood where — even more than usual — reality is elusive and much of life is imaginary, remembered, guessed at, and sad.
LA is the location of the Gene Autry Museum of the American West. https://theautry.org/exhibitions/masters-american-west#lg=highlights&slide=1 If you go there, you’ll see that they try to make an association with French impressionists. It’s the plein aire thing. a claim to be “Culture.” Ol’ Singin’ Gene, whom I always despised because I was a Roy Rogers fan, is sort of washed away, but his money paid for the basic museum. It’s a great little money-maker, just like Autry himself. The art has nothing to do with the movie, but the audience attending is the key to both. It’s about the fondness of imaginary history shared by unlikely people who feel elevated by their fondness.
Elliott’s deft depiction of being the beloved icon among people who have no self-awareness, no real understanding of a period that only lasted a century, and his ability to feel trivial amusement as significant. But on the other hand, and not depicted in this film, Western art can be impressive — just like Western film. But the hero is correct in lifting up the sweet little dumpling of a fan as the important one and awarding her a generic plaque.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM3NeAOyv94 is a good example of dialogue that works well between males. https://lauraprepon.com/red-carpet-sundance/ is a good clip about why the experience on-set came through in the film itself. Mostly the story is in someone’s house, not one of those pretentious piles of stone and glass that the aficionados need for confirmation of value. The decorations are not avant garde paintings but simply film posters.
Two vital aspects of this “Western” definition are religious expression and wry/dry humor. Living on the wide expanses where survival is often a matter of attitude, these are vital to the genre.
The best religions are seamlessly expressions of the land and sea, those rhythmic expressions of power that far exceed human aspirations, even living in Malibu where the dangers of fire and tsunamis are what keep people humble. This film, which has clever dialogue and a short arc of action which plays out mostly on an humble deck with a good view, presents iconic images of sea and desert with the classic feet of a hanged man indicating death. No formal institutional trappings or personalities are present — except Sam — but the interleaved memento mori are valid. If you watched this film with no sound, you could still “get it.” The simplicity and obviousness are part of the charm.
Aside from the one-liners from under the mustache, the ironic humor comes mostly from the wisecracks of the comedienne who somehow loves this old man even as she mocks his balls. Maybe one of the key ironies is that of the lovemaking, which is tender and convincing. We are so insistent that sex is evidence of youth and health. Another anomaly is this woman’s eyebrows, which are like insect antennae. I guess she does “twig” to reality, of a sort.
The spine of the actor Elliott’s life — as he states it — is work. To him this is what defines being a man, because it was what his father and his father’s man friends saw as the key. Even their fun was work, because it was outdoor things like hunting and fishing, the active use of intelligence and muscle to achieve some goal, something to show for it. He didn’t choose his movie roles for their possible impact on his career but merely because they were projects worth doing. (As his friend remarks, if the people you’ll have to work with are assholes, the work had better be double good.) He didn’t care whether the story spooled out on stage, television, film or whatever. Was it a good story with excellent writing?
But evidently his father didn’t consider acting to be work. A generational schism was never healed. In fact, this aching welt persists through American society and feeds the mythology of the West, where many of the real cowboys were looking for replacement fathers to escape cruelty and exploitation. This may be the origin of something missing from today’s films: a gentleman’s code of politeness and protection. The gunslinger with the gruesome face says at the end of the scene, “Thanks, Sam.” — and since we didn’t expect it, we laugh. If an actor gets lost in fantasy, believing it to be real, then that’s not work — it’s just psychosis. Madness.
For a long time I was part of the fantasy of the Western and even some of the reality of “cowboys and Indians”. In order to sell sculptures of these subjects, we participated in the ceremonial auctions and parties where people dress up and spend money. But the real essence of truth and this film are that the best moments are simply lying in the blissful grass and smiling, even as knowing that someday we’ll all be under it.