May 29, 2010

#68: Unforgiven

In 2008, the AFI defined "western" as a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier. It's a genre with a vast history and a deep commitment to examining the American spirit. So why. don't. I. care?

It's not that I don't like westerns. It's that the westerns I've seen haven't struck me as particularly exciting, or that it's a genre stuck in a rut. Although I shouldn't blame the genre, maybe it's the obsession with this time period and its history that doesn't catch me. So far on the list The Wild Bunch disappointed me and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had a lot more to offer but still ended up feeling hollow. When you break it down, they're action/thriller/epics set in a specific time, and I like action/thriller/epics ... so maybe it's just the Old West that has me bored.

Company: alone ... couldn't really convince anyone to watch it with me :)

Cuisine: whole wheat pasta and broccoli alfredo, a Red Stripe

Or maybe it's the Clint Eastwood School of That-One-Face-He-Makes Acting (for that one face he makes, see above) that has me bored. Forgive me, but as soon as I see Clint Eastwood involved in something, I've immediately tuned out. Why? Because of that one face he makes.

But this is not starting out very constructive. Let me try to pick this apart.

William Munny (Eastwood) is an old farmer who hung up his Western Cowboy Hero hat long ago after many years spent as an outlaw. When a gang of unruly whores in a nearby town, led with vengeance by Frances Fisher, seek revenge for their beaten comrade, Munny is called upon to abandon his young children (which he does with little concern) and seek out the two criminals. A thousand bucks would certainly help his ailing farm. He enlists his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman, always welcome) for the hunt.

I'll give him this: as a director, Eastwood can create a mood. It's almost always a bleak mood, but it's a mood nonetheless. But Unforgiven, coming thirty or forty years after the western genre petered out, came during an era of Western resurgence (Dances with Wolves was another successful film set on the frontier) that petered out yet again. Here and there we get a throwback, but mostly ... it's dead and gone. Maybe this frontier doesn't interest us as much anymore, now that we have so many other frontiers. I don't know.

This is all so unfocused. Well anyway, the story goes that Little Bill (Academy Award winner Gene Hackman, doing something with nothing), the town sherriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, doesn't allow firearms in his town, supposedly in order to keep the peace. He's not a real peaceful guy, but guns are just so effective that if he eliminates them, it's seemingly down to hand-to-hand combat, and in that arena he usually emerges triumphant.

No one is innocent. Morality has gone out the window. The cops are usually the bad guys. Everyone's operating on their own plane of good and evil. Nobody has real control.

Characters die. Characters get vengeance. Characters take lives without blinking an eye. Surprisingly, characters eulogize. Munny has a striking moment with a young arrogant kid who makes his first kill, expounding on the feeling of killing a man (the most romantic thing I can recall about the film, actually).

In the end, what are we left with? Why am I a better person for having seen this film? Maybe this is what I wonder about this genre: how is it relevant? Unforgiven and the genre in general leave me with more questions than answers. Not that I don't love unanswered questions, mind you, but the questions I like unanswered are hot topics, juicy discussion questions. The one I get from this is: what is revenge, and when is it okay? *snooooze* Many other films have examined this in a more exciting way, and with better lighting. (Eastwood's films always seem to be poorly lit ... I could barely see anything through all of Million Dollar Baby.) I'd love some input on why I should love this film, because honestly I haven't got a clue.

Next up: one that has a couple more reasons to love it, but just as many reasons to leave that damn house while you've still got your dignity and your sanity. It's an evening of fun and games with George and Martha in Mike Nichol's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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