Monthly Archives: November 2015
In the seventies, Hollywood was trying to figure out what to do next. The major studios had pretty much collapsed in the sixties. High-profile movies with big stars were bombing at the box office, while low-budget films that ignored all the accepted rules were raking in millions. Realizing that the old formulas weren’t working any more, but clueless as to what the younger generation wanted, studio execs greenlighted a number of offbeat projects in the hope they’d get lucky. It was a heady time. Sure, the studios still put our plenty of bland rubbish, but for a while when you went to the movies you knew there was a chance you’d see something new and different.
Scarecrow was definitely different. From the opening scene with two guys standing on opposite sides of a lonely country road, not speaking a word of dialogue, you can tell this movie has a rhythm all its own. For the most part, Scarecrow just follows these two rootless men, Max and Lion, as they hitch across the country. In place of a plot, you just have people, and the film takes it’s own sweet time, letting you get to know each of the people these two guys encounter.
Max has just gotten out of jail, and plans to open a car wash with the money he saved while he was doing time. Lion has been away at sea, but now he’s decided he has to go back home and try to connect with the child he fathered but hasn’t seen. At first, the two don’t have much in common, aside from the fact that they’re heading in the same general direction. But over time they become fast friends, and we realize that one thing they do have in common is that they’re both terribly naive. They may be grown men, but in many ways they’re as innocent as children. Neither one really understands the world around them.
As Max, Gene Hackman shows what made him such a unique and compelling actor. He has an unselfconscious openness, a fuzzy looseness that makes him seem completely accessible, but he also has a presence that holds your attention and an energy that’s a little scary. You’re always a little afraid of what he might do. Al Pacino plays Lion, and he still has the freshness of a young actor who’s willing to take chances. Lion is kind of shy, unsure of himself and of the world around him, and his reactions often seem as spontaneous as a child’s.
But the whole cast is wonderful. Eileen Brennan just has a small part as an irascible barfly, and still makes an impression in the short time she’s on screen. Dorothy Tristan radiates an easy warmth as an old friend that Max decides to drop in on. She never says a word when he starts flirting with her partner Frenchy, but you can see the twinge of jealousy in her eyes. Ann Wedgeworth plays Frenchy with an unabashed openness that’s totally winning. She immediately falls for Max, and she can’t stop flashing her huge smile, just waiting for him to make a move.
It’s not just that the actors are in fine form. Director Jerry Schatzberg knows how to use them. Again, this movie is primarily about people, and Schatzberg shapes each scene to bring us closer to the characters. Screenwriter Garry Michael White gives him a lot to work with. You have to wonder if White didn’t spend some time hitchhiking himself. He seems to know these people and their world well. The cinematography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, slowly unfolds a panorama of the American landscape. This movie was shot in the bars and coffee shops, cheap hotels and bus stations that line this country’s rural highways. Zsigmond shows us the worn and wasted beauty in all of it without ever making us aware there’s someone behind the camera. Editor Evan Lottman is completely in tune with the movie’s vibe, throwing away the rule book and letting the people and the places determine the pace.
Max keeps talking about his car wash. Lion keeps thinking about the day he’ll get to see his child. What makes their story sad is that both of them are going nowhere. What makes it beautiful is that at least they’re going there together.
Jane Campion has had her ups and downs. First getting attention as an independent filmmaker in Australia, she broke into Hollywood with an offbeat fairy tale, The Piano. Her much anticipated follow-up, Portrait of a Lady, tanked at the box office and didn’t appeal to critics. Nobody knew what to do with the lovely and disturbing Holy Smoke, and In the Cut, a modern day noir, was a little too twisted for mainstream audiences.
With Bright Star, Campion went back to making small films for small audiences. But maybe intimate is a better word than small. This quiet, introspective movie may have been shot on a limited budget, but it has more weight than almost anything made for mainstream audiences. If Campion has turned away from Hollywood, it’s only so she could embrace the bristling honesty that’s at the core of her work.
Bright Star tells the story of the romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. Brawne was an independent-minded young woman in love with the art of making clothes. Keats was a willful, brilliant young man obsessed with the art of making poetry. Their relationship was a slow, deliberate dance that started with them circling each other cautiously and ended with them embracing each other rapturously. It’s easy to see why the material appealed to Campion. She’s always been fascinated by relationships. And in speaking about Bright Star, she’s said that she was interested in telling a story about people who talked.
Words are crucial to this movie. The words spoken by these people are full of meaning. The characters write letters, read aloud, quote from memory. These people take words seriously, sometimes too seriously. An offhand opinion can start an argument. A light remark may cut someone deeply. In part this is because these lovers, at times so supremely confident, are also terribly insecure. If they burn others with their scorn, it’s probably because they feel they’re burning inside themselves.
Bright Star is a period piece, but Campion doesn’t just take us back to another time, she immerses us in it. This film is so sensually rich you can feel the crisp fabrics and smell the freshly cut flowers. Image and sound are carefully woven together, allowing us to experience the pace and feel of this vanished world. We see the way light falls across a finished hardwood floor or filters down through a grove of trees in spring, courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser. We hear the faint rustle of stiff skirts bustling down a dark hallway and the hushed chatter of birds drifting on the ether of a lazy afternoon. I wish I had a better idea of who to congratulate for the ravishing sound design, but in this area the credits are complex and not always easy to decipher. I hope that I’m not too far off in singling out sound effects designer Craig Butters, production sound mixer John Midgley, and sound effects editor Sean O’Reilly. My apologies to those others whose names I haven’t mentioned.
Campion credits Janet Patterson, who designed the costumes, for bringing an organic approach to her work, finding clothes that fit the actors rather than dressing them in fashions drawn on a page. Fanny’s dresses, hats, and shoes all show the meticulous care she takes in everything she wears. John’s clothes, on the other hand, show how little he thinks about his wardrobe. His mind is on other things. Patterson also served as production designer, and she shows the same care in creating the settings. The rooms these people occupy feel lived in, the poets lounging in their dusky library surrounded by stacks of books, the Brawnes busying themselves about the house in their tidy, joyful domesticity.
Campion’s technique is more simple and direct here than in her previous films, but her insights are a complex as ever. She seems to have relaxed into a kind of serene classicism. In Bright Star she chooses set-ups that are more or less straightforward, finding compositions that catch what’s happening between the characters without driving it home. This puts the focus on the actors, and the leads deliver wonderfully nuanced performances. Abbie Cornish uses the slightest changes in her expression to register sudden, sometimes violent, changes in Fanny’s mood. As played by Ben Whishaw, John may seem distracted, disengaged, but it slowly becomes apparent that he’s keenly aware of the world around him and painfully sensitive to it. Paul Schneider is excellent as John’s zealously devoted and very jealous friend. Thomas Brodie-Sangster doesn’t have much dialogue, but he plays Fanny’s brother Samuel with an easy grace. And I have to say that Edie Martin has a kind of magical charm as Toots.
It’s not easy for directors like Campion to get films made. A project like this is clearly not going to make it with mainstream audiences, which means running down the money often takes longer than making the movie. I hope she’s done with Hollywood, because I’ve seen so many filmmakers get beaten up trying to play that game. But going the independent route isn’t easy either. It usually means more control, but it also means working like a dog to get funding, and a lot less attention when your work finally gets shown. It’s a tough gig. We should do everything we can to support her, and all those like her.