Friday, May 16, 2008

Masculinity Personified

Clint Eastwood.

I've been watching Westerns on ACM lately - Silverado, Hang 'Em High - and there is no one else who can do all of his character development in the first ten seconds of a movie. I know, Clint isn't in Silverado, but it's Silverado as compared to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or A Fistful of Dollars. Silverado was just a mess of a movie. I mean, just a mess. It has about 70 plot points, but no actual plot to string them together. It has too many characters with no chance for character development. And it was pre-Dances with Wolves (which turned the Western motif on its ear, being about society as the insurgents rather than society plagued by insurgents, if I remember my Pop Culture and Anthropology class correctly), so it had a lot of standardized tropes with which to work. Silverado was not trying to turn anything on its ear. Which is why it is so shocking that such a predictable movie could waste so much time on an overly complicated plot and visual exposition cum character development. I mean, it has a petty criminal/gambler turned barman, a kingpin turned sheriff and mayor, a slick gambler called Slick, a petty criminal/prettyboy, the brother of the prettyboy, the free blackman/sharpshooter, the midget lady saloon owner... and their families, and their friends. Kevin Klein (yes, Kevin Klein in a western!) is the most convincing. He delivers his lines quietly, a man made of sheer confidence. And they're all lines like, "That's my hat," and (about his horse), "Can't you see she loves me?" Kevin Costner is (of course) the pretty boy, and he's (of course) very good at that. But that's all the more we get to know about his character because he's not capable of or allowed to use more than the broadest of strokes. Don't ask me why Klein gets to use subtlety and Costner is asked to ham around and look like he was told nothing about his character or the plot beyond "you're a sexy cowboy with ADHD that none of the ladies can resist." Only there aren't really any ladies, so a lot of the time he looks lost and confused.

Silverado has an all-star cast. Besides the Kevins there's Danny Glover, John Cleese (plays an Englishman in America), Jeff Goldblum (Slick), Rosanna Arquette (okay, so there are a couple ladies), Brian Dennehy (playing a very convincing low-talking kingpin turned sheriff) and some guy called Scott Glenn, who movie nerds probably recognize. You would think that each of them would be able to embody and demonstrate their respective cliche in less than a minute, but the movie works tirelessly to reinforce the stereotypes with scene after pointless scene of each character reaffirming who he is. And the plot. Oh the convoluted and yet entirely too simple plot.

Here is the plot, in a nutshell: Two guys who meet by happenstance. One wants to be a bartender. One wants to move to California with his brother. And they do.

Everything else that happens is impossible to follow. But I have an analogy. A piano can only play 88 specific notes. Your brain fills in the midtones to make scales sound smooth. A guitar has infinitely more variation possible - you can actually make the midtones on the instrument. (And if "midtone" isn't a real word, too damn bad, it's the one I'm using.) Silverado is like a piano: it has lots of set plot points, but nothing in between. Your brain is supposed to fill in the plot between Kevin Klein in the desert, left for dead and Kevin Klein discovered by Scott Glenn. Then they are in town. Then Kevin Klein shoots a guy to get his horse back. Then he makes out with the horse. Then he sees Dennehy, an old friend. Then he has new clothes. Then he turns down a job with Dennehy. Then he misses his hat. Then he goes with Scott Glenn to some other tiny town. Then they have dinner. Then the hotel discriminates against Danny Glover. Then... You see, it's all discrete events, but there's no real connection between them because they have to rush on to the next plot point at breakneck speed to make it through the ridiculously complex story.

But what has this to do with Clint? Clint Eastwood knew (and probably still knows, but is no longer making westerns, mores the pity) that the point of cliches was to cut to the chase. You don't have a crusty loner with no past because you want to delve into the depth of his past. You have a crusty loner because you want the viewer see everything he cares about for themselves. A crusty loner is a kind of tabula rasa. The thing is, everyone knows you don't just wake up one day crusty and alone. A past is inherent. But it's going to be a bad past, a sad past, of trespassing or being trespassed against. It is mostly irrelevant. Clint knew that and he worked it. In the first minute he's on-screen in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, you know exactly who he is. With one look he banishes the need for a past. With a flick of his wrist and a light to his cigarette he banishes the need even for a name. He wears the cliche like a suit and it looks good.

There's a moment in Hang 'Em High (he's in the brothel having fallen from his horse after a grueling three day round up of some cattle rustlers and a guy who tried to hang him at the beginning of the movie - see, lots of plot, none of it in isolation!) when the prostitute who is bringing him breakfast coyly asks if there's anything else she can do for him... he's staring at her hard and angry, like he stares at everything throughout most of any movie, and then she asks in this little knowing voice, and his face kind of lightens, and then he smiles so sweetly, with something like genuine pleasure. Character development! Now we know he's not dead inside! And it took no exposition, no unlikely conversation, and it didn't waste valuable plot development time.

Now: is Hang 'Em High a good movie? Well, that's a fair question. It's very predictable. It's about lawlessness and what happens when the rule of law is as unconcerned with justice as the brigands. And two lonely people who were violated by lawlessness find love, some amount of healing and bring true justice to the west. Or so I assume. I'm only about 3/4 the way through it. But they let Clint smile at the Broken Girl, so I'm guessing they totally do it by the end. But Hang 'Em High does it's job, mostly because Clint is so awesome. It lacks the artistry of Sergio Leone. (But what doesn't, am I right?) But I will tell you this: Hang 'Em High is a better classic western than Silverado by a long shot.

None of this really makes a case for Clint being the very soul of masculinity in our times, but it does make a good case for him being an awesome badass, so that's something.

My conclusion: Clint Eastwood is so manly I think I may be pregnant.
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