Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In a lonely, wide-open place

Both are westerns, a highly cinematic genre, but their stories unfold far from even the most makeshift signs of civilization, in deserts of burnt gold, blood orange, aged mustard and glistening amber, places so desolate and nearly abstract and so little inhabited that we could just as easily be in the theatre—the theatre of Beckett, Sartre or Ionesco, say—as the cinema. Except that these two westerns, made simultaneously in 1965, with a combined budget of $150,000 for B-movie king Roger Corman, were helmed by Monte Hellman, who’s never made anything like a normal movie but whose every movie—1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop most famously—is shot-through with a heightened awareness of its movieness. The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind, both released to zero fanfare in 1966, are distinguished by Hellman’s quiet insistence on disorientation as a method of pulling us deeper into mystery. Hard, clean cuts are all that separate extreme close-ups from wide vistas, the present from flashbacks, what’s happening in one place from what’s happening in another. Space and time are compressed in these compact, unpretentious yet very weird genre pieces as indebted to Antonioni as they are to John Ford. Both are films are now available in a single package from the Criterion Collection.

“Something’s coming,” Gashade (Warren Oates) whispers to Coley (Will Hutchins) in The Shooting. Something’s always coming. The West is an agoraphobic landscape, its every horizon waiting for some potentially perilous emergence. Richard Markowitz’s score sounds more in keeping with Japanese horror than American westerns. Gashade’s a former bounty hunter now tending an unprofitable mine. An unknown gunman has killed one of his partners and his brother has run off. A woman (Millie Perkins) turns up, offering Gashade good money to lead her to the town of Kingsley. She won’t say what she wants there, but Gashade—played with a humble, weary stoicism singular to Oates but echoing Bogart—has a bad feeling. The dread is ever-present, like a strange weather pattern that won’t let up. The film also stars Jack Nicholson and was written by Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce), who would soon write Nicholson one of his most iconic roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Eastman’s iconoclastic Woman With No Name imbues this western with a refreshingly feminine sensibility that would not be lost on future filmmakers—The Shooting is most certainly somewhere in the DNA of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010).

Ride the Whirlwind was written by Nicholson and is somewhat more conventional, though its atmosphere is equally eerie and still. It opens with a small gang, headed by one Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), holding up a stagecoach somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Utah. This motley crew cross paths with a trio of cowpokes (Nicholson among them) on their way to Waco. A drama of mistaken identity and frontier justice ensues, but what lingers most in my mind isn’t story but detail, like the lynching victim stumbled upon by the heroes early in the film. What lingers too, for any cinephile at least, is the incredible array of soon-to-be famous, or at least cult-famous, faces assembled here. Hellman had a special genius for casting: he understood that Oates could be so much more than a character actor, that Nicholson could be captivating when doing as little as possible, and that Stanton could be fascinating by playing against a character’s primary attributes. These are both very special, spectral films, artefacts from a transitional moment in American movies, and Criterion’s two-for makes for an excellent double-feature and off-Hollywood history lesson.