Realized Ambitions

Shouldn't critics be asking "where the American Buñuel, Bergman, or Fellini is," says Walter Hill, whose career challenges cliched notions of the "action film"

There's a peculiar rightness to Walter Hill's making a wonderful, ruminative movie in the mid-1990s about Wild Bill Hickok. After a beautiful tableau of Hickok's funeral, the first twenty minutes of Wild Bill blow the top of your head off; the next seventy-seven pack brains and feeling back in. That could be a metaphor for the careers of Hill and others who came of age during American film's creative explosion twenty years ago. Along with Brian De Palma, who broke through with Carrie (1976), and Martin Scorsese, with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), Hill, who made his debut as a director in 1975 with the Charles Bronson bare-knuckle-boxing movie Hard Times, was seen as one of Hollywood's Young Turks; they were hailed by supporters as cinematic sharpshooters and criticized by denigrators as exploitative sadists. In a 1980 Saturday Review article, "The Brutalists: Making Movies Mean and Ugly," Hill took the unkindest cuts of all. About Hill's comment "Someday I'm going to make a really violent film--like Elektra," the essayist Robert F. Moss sniffily wrote, "Nice try, but even when violence abounds in a literary classic, it shares the stage with great poetry, character development, insight, and a sense of humanity--qualities that are ignored and even scorned by the brutalists." Of course, these directors aren't brutalists--they're fabulists. In their movies poetry is visual and kinetic, character is revealed through action, insight is gained from outward perception, and humanity is tested in extremis.

(scheduled to be released this month) starts out as a ripsnorting biopic of James Butler Hickok (1837-1876)--a scout for the Union Army in the Civil War, and then a lawman, a gambler, and a gunfighter. As soon as Hickok hits the boomtown of Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory, the movie turns into a memory play. Black-and-white images of Hickok's life slither through his brain as the past comes back to haunt him in the form of his soon-to-be assassin, Jack McCall. The film climaxes in a Beckett-like existential farce, as McCall can't quite work himself up to kill Wild Bill and the hero ponders whether his own life is worth saving. As Bill, Jeff Bridges has dash and size and depth--stoic fury and heroic resignation. The robust, voluble James Gammon, as Bill's buffalo-hunting partner, California Joe, and the deft, courtly John Hurt, as an English gambler named Charley Prince (who narrates), are classic sidekicks. Diane Lane, as Bill's ravaged true love, Susannah Moore (in this telling, Jack McCall's mother), and Ellen Barkin, as a blustery, yearning Calamity Jane (she wants Bill to love her as he loved Susannah), are spirited rural heroines. They fill boots vacated by Hollywood legends long ago. But the movie is no sentimental throwback. Wild Bill looks at the Old West with both eyes open--and doesn't blink.

Will it be seen as the leap forward it is? A lot depends on whether viewers and critics can free themselves of received opinions. The media have never been more mired in conventional wisdom; these days studio heads, pundits, and editors alike tend to rally round square, crowd-pleasing productions, such as anything starring Tom Hanks. "I never thought of myself as a serious filmmaker, like Kurosawa and Buñuel," Hill told me recently, "but shouldn't critics be trying to create a more challenging atmosphere? Shouldn't they be asking where is the American Buñuel, Bergman, or Fellini?" Cursory followers of American movies would be surprised to hear Hill voice such a highfalutin question. Scorsese transcended the brutalist rap by adapting a couple of literary behemoths--The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Age of Innocence (1993)--and acquiring an image as the high priest of the cinema. De Palma and Hill, the most audacious genre stylists for two decades, still labor under it. When viewed from a pristine academic vantage point, their ups and downs haven't helped their reputations. Their careers, like those of, say, John Ford and John Huston, are patchwork quilts of sustained accomplishment, commercial misadventures, and ambitious artistic successes too often regarded as botches simply because they failed at the box office--notably De Palma's Blow Out (1981) and Casualties of War (1989), and Hill's Southern Comfort (1981) and Geronimo: An American Legend (1993).

The résumés these directors have accrued--mixing studio and personal projects, strategizing for clout in order to play for aesthetic keeps later on--bring them closer to American life as it is lived than the illusory nobility fostered at film festivals in every major American city and at the Sundance Institute, virtually the legislative capital of independent filmmaking. Their best movies have a denser moral and emotional environment than wanly virtuous or frivolous independent fare. Hill has moved faster than his contemporaries, running in zigzag directions. In his gang movie The Warriors(1979) he came on like a comic-book Fritz Lang, using rip-cut editing and charged visuals to supply (not just enhance) the drama. In his first western, the Jesse James saga The Long Riders (1980), he revealed the soul of a pastoral poet, interspersing slashing action with sweeping romantic views of the galloping outlaws in their long tan dusters and courtship scenes as formal and pretty as tintypes. He has kept on exploring new points of attack in small-scale, high-impact adventures like Johnny Handsome (1989), a revenge fable done in a startling declamatory style, and Trespass (1992), a Poe-like parable of greed set in an abandoned East St. Louis factory.

If there's an overriding trend in Hill's work, it's the harnessing of sophisticated editing and camera techniques to buttress the power of plain utterance. Wild Bill begins with the hymn "Leaning on Jesus"; its simple potency sets the keynote for a movie that for all its time-and-space-hopping is immediately understandable and moving. In Quentin Tarantino's acclaimed Pulp Fiction, three interlocking stories are told out of chronological order, so that a major character murdered in one shows up in another. The ploy provides a flip-book frisson. Wild Bill is infinitely more layered, with a cascade of flashbacks constructed to be read three different ways--as facts, as twice-told tales, as dreams. There's even a flashback within a flashback, during a gunfight. Yet Hill's aim is steady and true; the effect is to fold action into the complexities of a life.

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