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Movies -- December 1995

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"


by Michael Sragow

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.

Wild Bill (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.

THE early shots of Wild Bill and California Joe picking their way through endless prairies inspire acute nostalgia for the notion that we had "men to match our mountains." The epigraph on Wild Bill's screenplay is from Whitman: ". . . an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." That suggests how much imaginative territory Hill reclaims in a hundred minutes or so. Exhilaration mingles with melancholy; Hill comes to bury Hickok and to praise him. After decades of revisionism, Wild Bill reminds you that for a century and a half the American West provided the ideal landscape in which to envision individuals developing a country and making their mark without wealth or pedigree.

The most imposing and entertaining rendering of Hickok's saga before this, Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman(1936), starring Gary Cooper, began with Lincoln ordaining the cultivation of the frontier the night he was assassinated. Hill doesn't get so grandiose, but he does weave in Wild Bill's background as a Union scout and his reverence for Honest Abe. He manages to harrow and preserve a Hickok myth composed of glamour, humor, and gall. The story unfolds rapidly, limning significant characters in fleeting gestures; in a single glimpse of Wild Bill's pitiable theatrical career, Keith Carradine gracefully impersonates Buffalo Bill Cody. But the movie has a scale and amplitude to suit its theme. It dramatizes how a large-spirited man like Hickok could shape his personality by pressing against the breadth and anarchy of the West. It also details how depleted he could be by the spiraling down of the West into a low-rent Sodom called Deadwood. Hickok moseys down a Deadwood street at night and sees a boy who stole a horse, a Chinese man who "looked the wrong way at a white woman," and an Indian who hit town after Custer's Last Stand, all sitting in a giant birdcage, waiting to be hanged. Wild Bill synthesizes the legendry of The Long Riders and the history of Geronimo: An American Legend. It's a grand summation.

In staccato opening bursts Hill presents events (apocryphal and real) that built Wild Bill's name, from a mounted one-on-one with an Indian known as Whistler to murderous one-against-many barroom brawls. The episodes are similar only in Hickok's avidity--although he never engages in violence without frontier justification, he's always prepared for a fight. Hill doesn't hide his esteem for Hickok's scrappiness: it's what makes the gunfighter a prodigious figure. Nor does he prettify the violence: it's messy and emotional. When Wild Bill brains and then shoots a soldier who is grabbing at his leg in a room filled with hostile troopers, the act is shocking--yet instantly comprehensible as part of a churning chaos. Hill is peerless at defining the moment of truth in a showdown, and the moment of regret directly afterward. You know how impressive Bridges's performance is going to get when Wild Bill guns down a badman and then, by mistake, his own deputy; Bridges captures his feral anguish, and Hill frames it in a chilling slowed closeup of the turn of his head. Wild Bill develops an ironic attitude toward his own prowess and celebrity. In a primitive Nebraska saloon a swipe at his bearskin hat sparks a shoot-out between the hero and a gang aiming to fleece him; after killing three men and grievously wounding another, Hickok wryly comments, "Oughta understand--you don't ever touch another man's hat." It becomes a signature line. Bill creates a persona out of roughhewn dandyism and a sardonic willingness to carry ideas to their limits. In the black-comic high point a goaty guy in a wheelchair (Bruce Dern, in glorious dudgeon) calls Bill out, and Bill doesn't flinch from the challenge--without giving away the joke, you could say he sits into it. Bill is always wide awake, especially in the center of a storm. That's why it's such a presentiment of doom when his sight starts to fade.

DRAWN mostly from Thomas Babe's play Fathers and Sons, Pete Dexter's novel Deadwood, and historical accounts, Hill's script creatively reconstructs what happened when a fatigued and ocularly challenged Wild Bill stayed a spell (his last) in Deadwood. It's about the inevitable consequences of forgotten deeds. As soon as Bill arrives, Jack McCall (David Arquette), an odd, unformed boy-man, announces that he's going to kill him. California Joe repeatedly offers to murder McCall, while Charley and Calamity try to keep Bill together body and soul. McCall contends that Hickok deserted his mother--he can't stand to see the man who left her lionized. Although Bill refuses to explain or apologize, he suspects that the kid is right. Bill wounded McCall's mother, Susannah, twice: when he abandoned her for a scouting mission, and when he returned and shot her new man dead.

With his eyes going and his ethical code shaken, Bill is caught between the magnetic attraction of his fame and his own need to slow down. Yes, this is the old story of the champion gunslinger who has become too juicy a target. But there's internal tension, too. Bill positions himself with his friends and public as an ordinary fellow while accepting a hero's mantle. He's growing tired of the balancing act. If yuppie audiences can find this movie, it might strike a chord, because Wild Bill shows how the game-playing of youth can overtake them or use them up--and how rising generations are ready to exploit their weakness.

For respite Bill visits a Chinese opium den, and has a troubling, marvel-flecked memory while under the drug. Out hunting with California Joe and others, he pursues a fox that eerily vanishes into snow; he returns to find his campsite threatened by ten Cheyenne dog soldiers, whose leader asks if he has seen "the little dog." Cleverly improvising, Bill says that he chased the fox into the netherworld, where the creature predicted a long life for him. The Cheyenne leader applauds Bill's brazenness, but says that the next time Bill sees the little dog, he won't survive another moon. Bill's biography is like that--a contest between kismet and his own made-up fortune.

Hill's moviemaking is like that too. A spontaneous, lyrical strain has always tugged at the well-wrought terseness of Hill's writing and direction. It emerges strongly in the edgy freshness of the acting. Bridges's magnitude might have been predicted from his credit sheet: he's been piling up milestones ever since he played the stock-car champ Junior Johnson in Lamont Johnson's The Last American Hero (1973). But he comes up with a mixture of fierceness and limpidity that's continually surprising.

YET the aesthetic charge of Wild Bill goes beyond performance. In collaboration with his cinematographer, Lloyd Ahern, and his editor, Freeman Davies, Hill gets as close as any contemporary director to the caméra-stylo ideal: using the lens as a pen, or maybe a gunsight. The imagery's liquid pull is seductive; Hill lets viewers think they're discovering for themselves where the bullets fly, just as DeMille did when his Hickok picked off Indians. The spectrum of this movie is amazing: if Deadwood during the day looks muddy and baleful, at night, when Bill drifts toward Chinatown, it takes on pre-neon colors. Sometimes the screen whites out at moments of fatal impact, a device that subliminally keys into the black-and-white shadow play occurring in Wild Bill's head. (One of the film's many eloquent details is the shadow puppets in the Chinese quarter.) Hill actually shot Bill's flashbacks on black-and-white videotape and then converted them to film. He explained the choice to me this way: "I wanted a feeling that was lighter and more buoyant than you'd get with a normal hand-held motion-picture camera. If we lost detail, that was fine as long as we could tell what was going on, because I also wanted to reproduce an overexposed, Matthew Brady look, something that would seem more real for the period and more personal and true for the rendering of memory."

Paradoxically, that use of video technology is the sort of inspiration that would hit a movie-bred director, not someone who jumped into films from television. Hill, fifty-three, said that he can't disagree "with the constant drum roll of articles about why movies aren't better. "He continued, "The argument goes that it's the televisionization of the form--the demand for narrative shortcuts and immediate sensation. Going for those is something that everybody used to accuse me of--but I always thought I was doing them in another context, exploring what was interesting about comic-book and pulp-fiction techniques. Comic books and pulp may not be the top rung on the ladder, but they are part of literary tradition."

Hill perceives deterioration at every level of the movie business. "The story meetings are vastly cruder than they were twenty-five years ago. The people making decisions are totally dependent on readers, and unlike the old days, when reading for studios could be a thirty-year profession, readers today have no background--they're young people who want to be screenwriters or, worse, executives. They want to promote themselves to positions where they don't have to read scripts."

Despite his hard-guy reputation, Hill feels out of synch with the industry prototypes for action movies: "The contemporary Schwarzenegger-Stallone thing is fundamentally different from the Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster, and Lee Marvin movies we used as models in the sixties and seventies. The modern action film has become in effect a science-fiction film, and I don't lean that way myself." To Hill, even those movies currently held up as exemplars of the form reduce human dimensions and over-rely on effects.

"I was at one point involved in The Fugitive, and I didn't do it, and it proved to be an incredible success. But saying that up front, I have to note that it's finally less complex than the TV series. In the series the hero had a troubled marriage with an alcoholic woman and they were debating whether they should have a child and would the marriage hold together. All this deepened the notion that when his wife was killed, he felt somehow guilty even if he was innocent, and it enabled David Janssen to play the part as if he were guilty. I always thought the TV Fugitivewas comic-book Dostoyevsky: because the hero was accused, he took on not only the surface aspects of guilt but the persona of guilt, the angst of it--and that's a much more complicated vision than the movie's. But this aspect of the movie, to the best of my knowledge, was unchallenged by any critic at that level. It was very well made, and Tommy Lee Jones was excellent, and one could say that its sheer entertainment value dismissed any other considerations. But when a TV series of the sixties is deeper than a movie of the nineties, aren't those considerations we should examine?"

Although Hill says, "I don't want to sound like The New York Times," he has grown to recognize that "movies are not going to get a hell of a lot better until writers and directors read more books and see fewer films." One American writer who comes up in conversation with Hill is Ambrose Bierce. Wild Bill, like Bierce's Civil War stories ("An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "Chickamauga"), suggests that if you look at physical reality penetratingly enough, or from a fresh, oblique angle, you can pierce through to the metaphysical. But Hill isn't as mordant as Bierce. He told Jeff Bridges that he made Wild Bill to celebrate "a certain historical expansion of the American spirit." The result fulfills Hill's own manifest destiny.

Photography by Sam Emerson
Copyright © (1995) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; Realized Ambitions; Volume 276, No. 6; pages 120-124.

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