Grace is Gone

Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Inglourious Basterds, is in competition at Cannes this week, so I thought I'd post a modified version of an old piece about the director (who I consider to be frightfully overrated):

If you could say that he emerged on the scene with Reservoir Dogs, a heist film that, ingeniously, has almost nothing to do with theft, you could say Quentin Tarantino exploded the scene itself with his second film, Pulp Fiction — hailed by film critics and college stoners ever since as the movie that revitalized American cinema (and, notably, brought John Travolta back to prominence). On the basis of these two films, it would be impossible to deny Tarantino's ability to bring Pop color and violent vitality to the screen: my problem with Tarantino is not necessarily in the fabric of his filmmaking, which has flashes of brilliance beyond its film-buff grandstanding and (sometimes-empty) technical virtuosity, but how flat it leaves me feeling, like a lot of white noise.

Pulp Fiction, the ultimate emblem of his work, is essentially a genre film — his inspiration for the movie's four intertwining stories were the most basic of B-movie archetypes — albeit one thrown into a jittery, colorful blender, composed of bright red blood and L.A. juke joints. Unmeasured, galloping through murders and drug overdoses as most films stroll through romantic parks in autumn, it seethes with a distinctive L.A. energy; it's the kind of the film that seems as though it, like the characters, has done few lines before going out. Pulp Fiction moves along with reckless abandon, never pausing to treat the viewer with narrative kid gloves (or visual and aural ones, for that matter): the jostle of a car, the sharp bleat of a gunshot, a glistening syringe and the firing up of a chainsaw remain gruesomely in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

There are moments, though, where the gimmickry, the inability to maintain steady attention on a single thread or character, becomes tiresome. Maybe I'm too deeply affected by the slime of Tarantino's persona, too put-off by his pot-smoking arcana and the many anecdotes of his crippling pomposity to see any of his movies objectively. But the circularity that many called the best feature of Pulp Fiction, which begins and ends with a robbery at a diner, seems representative of the lack of forward movement in his films, the fugue-like attention to details of fleeting importance to the detriment of real feeling. Pulp Fiction is the zenith of the postmodern, a manic blur of pop cultural deviance chopped up into music video chunks.

It should be no surprise then that my favorite Tarantino films, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 are his most searching, not brash and slick but quiet and gritty, like Westerns that, in the lulls between shootouts, enter dim saloons and eavesdrop on the hunted and the hurt and the lonely. The former, with a superb Pam Grier in the lead role, also culls much of its atmosphere from film history, particularly the blaxploitation films of the '70s. But here the debt is sustained, mined for meaning, examined with an eye to updating the genre to include a woman not just "foxy" but witty, darkened by failures of finance and romance, and leavened with a kind of buxom grace.

She, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, comports herself delicately but firmly, the kind of woman who kicks ass but charms the pants off you while doing it. Thurman, bird-like, her thin nose framed by perceptive eyes and a tight-lipped mouth, does more ass-kicking than charming in the first volume of Tarantino's kung fu/spaghetti Western opus; the end of the second film, however, with its quiet, painful denouement — she finally kills Bill with a literal flick of the wrist — seems dipped in pathos. Having lost everything and crawled back from the depths (again, literally — at one point she is buried alive, and at another heaves herself from hospital bed to stolen truck), you can feel the ache in her body. Thurman no longer glides but instead stoops a bit, as though lugging a great weight.

At the finale, there is none of the cold self-consciousness that characterizes much of Pulp Fiction, nor the playful cynicism of juxtaposing "Stuck in the Middle with You" with the cutting off of an ear in "Reservoir Dogs." It's just a woman finally confronting the man she once loved, the man who betrayed her, in a silent, moonlit garden. The scene achieves, in its simplicity, in its innocuous and beautiful homage to Western-style vengeance served, the heft of parable. Rosario Dawson described Death Proof as "Reservoir Bitches," but I think you'll have realized by now that Tarantino's bitches don't much interest me, even if the palette is right and the editing smooth, the ironic jokes landed with just the right flat punch. Forgive me for liking my silver screen women to show a little grace.


The Gulf

Here's a brief taste of my review of the new Iraq War documentary Brothers at War, posted here on emanuellevy.com:

Since the film’s stated focus is the bond between “brothers,” spending most of the film with Americans is to be expected. But in almost totally losing sight of the war’s other human sacrifices — Iraqi civilians — “Brothers at War” goes further than promoting an uncritical “Support Our Troops” mentality. If brotherhood means ignoring rather than engaging Iraqis unhappy with the invasion, then it also ignores the complexity of the war, and of the troops themselves. In other words, it implies that the understanding of brotherhood (violent, callous) that animates one soldier in the film animates them all: “you get one,” he says, comparing killing an Iraqi to being tattooed, “and you kind of want to get another.”


The Cruel Place We Know

Robert Altman’s rollicking upstairs-downstairs satire of England between the wars, Gosford Park, is not as ambitious as Nashville, his 1975 phantasmagoria of country music, antiwar sentiment, the cult of celebrity and Middle-American chaos; not as formally impressive as The Player (1992), whose brilliant, eight-minute title tracking shot calls to mind an entire history of cinema — replete with allusions to Pretty Woman and Touch of Evil — as it introduces the callow inner workings of a high concept studio; not as sharply drawn, as dangerous, as the earthquakes, car accidents, riverbed corpses and prank calls of the almost-apocalyptic Short Cuts (1993); and certainly not as sweet or valedictory as A Prairie Home Companion (2006), the director’s last film, in which the folksy, sometimes funereal ballads of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin come to seem stand-ins for an entire ideology of art and culture long ago lost.

But of his films large and small — and here I’ve merely touched upon the large, leaving out McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 3 Women, A Wedding, The Long Goodbye, Dr. T and the Women, innumerable others — Gosford Park is perhaps the best, the most controlled, the one which most succeeds in straddling that ever-elusive line between comedy and drama, the one so thick with meaning and detail that I feel I’m still discovering the film ten viewings on.

Ostensibly a murder mystery set at a shooting party in the English countryside in 1932, the film is better understood, I think, as a few dozen chamber dramas and family sitcoms tied together into a coherent whole, aided by Altman’s magnificent ability to keep the action just this side of nervous breakdown — all while maintaining the intimations of such, the social anxiety, the secrets and lies, the sense that the England of the Depression was already roiling for a fight. Julian Fellowes’ superbly acute, witty and ultimately affecting script only misfires by making Stephen Fry’s police inspector too much an unthinking boor, and minus Fry’s disappointingly broad humor, the same could be said for the cast. I wouldn’t be the first to call it a Who ’s Who of British stage and screen during the last four decades, or the first to find it a bit difficult to keep everything straight.

But here goes: Maggie Smith, deliciously frigid and snobbish as the Countess of Trentham, begging for an increased allowance and devouring each meal with relish while turning up her nose at store-bought marmalade; Michael Gambon as the owner of the estate, William McCordle, a capitalist come up from nothing by working young girls to the bone in sweatshops before the war, and sleeping with them to boot; Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Sylvia, bored even by murder; Derek Jacobi as the unfailingly loyal butler, Probert; Emily Watson, devilish, seductive and bitterly funny as Elsie, the lady’s maid (who happens also to be having at affair with William); Clive Owen as the mysterious — and also seductive — valet Robert Parks; and Eileen Atkins as the curmudgeonly, hard-nosed cook, Mrs. Croft, with just the faintest streak of gentleness in her face, as though it’s been buried under the past.

That was quite long, but it doesn’t even touch on the three finest performances, the ones that create the moments in which the film transcends its simpler purpose and gets at real feeling, the tenderness and beauty beneath the facades of class. First there’s Kelly Macdonald as Trentham’s maid, Mary, the film’s moral center, just discreet enough to keep her job and just indiscreet enough to win our hearts, the one through whom the emotional core of the film begins to enter our view. Then there’s the always masterful Helen Mirren, as head maid Mrs. Wilson, a woman woven up so tightly that when the seams tear the revelation that follows suggests all the cruelties of class, of even having an upstairs and downstairs so rigidly separated — it’s a moment, indeed a performance, that fills the gut and hurts the heart. And in an underrated role, a singing Jeremy Northam plays the silent film star Ivor Novello, entertaining people who look down on him for his talents. Crooning “The Land That Might Have Been” as the servants sneak into the darkened rooms upstairs and bask for a few joyous moments in one of life’s tiny, surprising pleasures, his words wrap up the film in microcosm, swooning through the disappointments and hopes of an entire country, alluding to the darkened rooms of the past — and looking toward the light, into some tenuous, questioning hope:

Somewhere there's another land
different from this world below,
far more mercifully planned
than the cruel place we know.
Innocence and peace are there--
all is good that is desired.
Faces there are always fair;
love grows never old nor tired…

Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?
Will I ever be your king or you
at last my queen?
Days may pass and years may pass
and seas may lie between--
Shall we ever find that lovely
land of might-have-been?


It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

“You’re wonderful,” she tells him, wrapped up by that rakish striped coat and the jaunty hat, her brown tresses flowing rudely down both sides of her face. “In a loathsome sort of way.”

As much could be said about Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, a sparkling, acid whirlwind of a screwball comedy, starring a he (Cary Grant) and a she (Rosalind Russell) who’ve rarely been better. Though surely not as madcap — or as winning — as Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (let’s face it, Rosalind Russell ain’t Katharine Hepburn), it does squeeze in a lot of twists and turns: Grant is Walter Burns, the ruthless, raffish editor of a big city paper, Russell is his ex-wife and the paper’s ace reporter, Hildy Johnson, and Ralph Bellamy is the dull straight man, Bruce Baldwin, with whom Hildy hopes to settle down and become “a human being” (read, a “real” woman) again. All’s fair in love and yellow journalism, so as Walter undermines Bruce and Hildy’s marriage plans at every turn, hoping to win her back, she chases down a final scoop, about an innocent man condemned to death. The battle is, in the best moments, joyously raucous: “I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you,” Hildy tells Walter after a particularly embarrassing ploy, “if they were just lighting it up.”

Watching the movie again, though, I was struck not by the speed of the verbal sparring or Grant and Russell’s fiery sexual tension, but by the harsh cynicism of a city seeming to spin out of control. Filled with gallows humor (literally — the periodic thunderclap of hangmen testing the gallows resounds throughout the film) and the press’ desperation to get the story, it often feels less like a comedy than a drama that’s curdled into sarcasm. The good guys of the movie — the accused killer Earl Williams and Bruce himself — are the ones who suffer, all while their callous counterparts gallivant around forgetting everybody but themselves. The dizzying layers of corruption, lies and general carelessness leave, as Earl suggests, a sickly taste in the mouth. “I’m not guilty,” he tells Hildy. “It’s just the world.”


A Bunch of Swindlers South of the Border

Early in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948), there's a barroom brawl that seems to sum up the whole film. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and his buddy Curtin (Tim Holt), two drifters languishing in the Mexican hamlet of Tampico — how they got there is anyone's guess, including their own — confront their first swindler, a man named Pat McCormick who hired them for a job and never paid.

The fighting isn't fast or fancy; no one's a quick draw or a sharpshooter. Instead, the fisticuffs are slow and awkward and unfailingly human; it's a sloppy fight, with men crawling on the ground and clawing at each other's legs. The other men in the bar stand idly by, watching these Americans make fools of themselves in a land they fail to understand. And though Dobbs and Curtin win the battle, there's no clear winner once the film's bigger picture emerges: The money they get from McCormick leads, almost fatefully, to their ruin.

This isn't your normal Western with Gary Cooper standing up at high noon waiting for judgment to come; you're witnessing a tragedy (in the Greek sense), Dobbs' rise to riches and fall, staggering and dusty, into the ditch where he'll be left to die.

Dobbs may be Bogart’s darkest creation, a conspiracy theorist who thinks his partners will steal his money or get him killed by bandits. He's got a face like a dirt road, recording every track of foot, hoof or tire across its crevasses. Even clean-shaven, his sunken cheeks throw dark shadows across his face, creating an ambiguous charm. As the film's antihero, who leaves with Curtin and a grizzled, old prospector (Walter Huston, the director's father) in search of the mother lode, you can see distrust flash across his face, cleaving it in two. "Fred C. Dobbs," he says emblematically, "ain't a guy that likes being taken advantage of."
Every tragic hero has a tragic flaw, and Dobbs' inability to trust is what brings him low. In the climactic scene, set in a rocky, raw, firelit campsite, his distrust turns terrifying. Trying to stay awake all night so Curtin doesn't make off with his share, Bogey's smile turns delirious, his mouth stretching into a maniacal grimace. He's lost his grip on reality, turned into a ghoul of sorts, exacting vengeance for uncommitted crimes.

To some extent, all Westerns examine the tense balance between society and the individual, the line between friends and enemies. Huston is one of the masters of the genre. Even by 1948 he had such a grasp on the material that he could twist it into something much darker. This isn't a "meditation," as some might be prone to call it, despite the fact that there are no duels on Main Street or men in white hats. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, there's action to make the directors of lesser, higher-octane Westerns swoon. The difference is that Huston finds equal tension under the cover of night: when Dobbs, seeing that the old man has left the tent, decides to go check on his share of the loot, you half expect him to start shooting right then.

The genius of the film is that we half hope he does. Dobbs, unlike his partners, is a man in full, not generous and kind like Curtin, or funny and wise like the old man, but someone whose humanity streaks across his face like land illuminated by a flash of lightning. It isn't until the after the credits have rolled that our intellectual and emotional minds separate and we realize that Dobbs is as much the villain of the film as the hero. If his weren't the first face we see, we'd be prone to root against him. Instead, we recognize our own lightning strikes of greed, those moments when the friends we have seem less than they are and the benefits of loneliness seem better than they ever have. We pretend we would act differently, that we root for him because we don't know what's coming.

But we know what's coming from the beginning: the old prospector, like a one-man chorus or even a sighted Tiresias, warns Dobbs and Curtin that "gold is a devilish sort of thing anyway ... not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from wanting $10,000 more. I know," he continues softly, his eyes full of the sorrow of a man who's lost himself in this Unholy Grail, "what gold does to men's souls."

Dobbs smirks, of course, sure of himself like an Oedipus of the desert. He knows what's coming as well as we do but goes merrily along with the charade until violence bubbles up from within. Every hero's tragic flaw, really, is that he doesn't realize that he has one.

Run Aground

The elderly parents at the center Tokyo Story return midway through the movie from an excursion to a seaside spa only to find that their daughter, Shige, who concocted the plan to send them there in the first place, is too busy to give them the time of day. Guilt-ridden by the burden they feel they’ve feels placed on their children, they decide to spend the night apart — the wife at her daughter-in-law's small apartment, the husband with an old friend named Hattori. "We're really homeless now," he says with a laugh.

Home indeed plays a starring role in Tokyo Story, director Yasujiro Ozu's placid compositions using rooms as frames, peopled by unruly family members so constantly mobile it seems they are afraid to find out what the world sounds like severed from chaos. The characters are bound by the homes, happy or not, that they've built, the camera dormant as they mill about, lingering after they’ve left — taking in the ineffable sorrow of the empty room, of routines followed and loved ones subtly, unknowingly, neglected.

The elderly couple, however, seems to have realized the value of taking a moment away from the clutter of everyday life. The charming, pudgy matriarch and rail-thin, sometimes-alcoholic patriarch are by no means perfect, but in their basic goodness and their love for each other we see something worthy of rapt attention. Even sitting on the edge of an inlet to the sea, watching the world change and deciding to return to the countryside, they are captivating. Here is some generative kindness, some luminosity: like a small gift placed gently in the palm of a hand, such a moment protects against the shoals beneath our family lives, the sharp edges that, never acknowledged, cut and sting and fade below the surface once more.

The final bit of the film takes place in the country town where the couple lives, in silent hills pursed by the patter of a riverboat — a breathtaking coda to the Tokyo portion of Tokyo Story. The mother has fallen ill and the children come to lavish her with attention. Too late, it turns out: the mother dies, and the children’s city lives return to view. Why not take the night express back to the city? Shige asks. Our hearts break — not because of her callousness but because she’s forgotten that some things, once lost, are irretrievable; not because she is eager to get back, but because she was too busy to realize that her mother’s trip to Tokyo was the last one she’d ever make.

A Homefront Picture

No warning shots are fired across the bow, no prisoners taken or Flanders fields crossed, but William Wyler’s homefront picture, The Best Years of Our Lives — about three veterans returning from World War II — is a battle film through and through. It has that same fragile toughness we’ve come to expect from our troops, that same inner salient where memory and duty fight it out to a draw. But it does not begin and end, Saving Private Ryan-style, by the battering waves of Omaha Beach, or travel into Apocalypse Now’s addled heart of darkness. It takes place in middle-American Boone City, a mythical place of soda fountains and parking lots where GIs looking for a loan are “gambling on the future of this country.”

By turns pious, moving, sentimental and tough; sprawling, claustrophobic, mincing and unflinching; too careful, too long, too overtly heroic, not even close to unhappy in the final determination, it is still better than “decent and humane” (David Thomson’s faint praise) — and far more than the “schmaltz” Manny Farber saw. Frederic March captured a vulnerability he had never before displayed. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography gave the mundane a layer of suburban chaos, suggesting that the American order was not as neat as the vets (or their women) would have hoped. And those women: Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, appropriately frustrated and loving, tidying up after a man’s mess, leading lives they wish resembled those of the years before the war just a little more.

What works is the tale’s soft sorrow, the tender disappointment of a hero’s welcome leading inevitably to a sense that even a war’s survivors lose something vital, something they may never fully reclaim — to the touchy, touching notion that Boone City is a salient unto itself, where the battle continues apace.


"You Must Remember This..."

There she was, swooping down on him in that dress — you remember it, the black-and-white knockout, stitched with sex and chilly New York glamour — asking the inevitable question: “Anything else bothering you?”

When you’re a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart and you’ve just received the cinema’s most swooning kiss, the answer is inevitable, too: “Uh-huh. Who are you?”

It was Grace Kelly, of course. In that moment she went from actress to star — all alabaster skin and perfectly coiffed hair, cutting remarks delivered with such Main Line gentility you couldn’t tell she’d drawn blood. And in the perfect thriller, no less: everything held back, deferred, repressed until it blew up in the bright light of a flashbulb.

The film was Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, about to embark on the most fruitful period of his, or any, career — within a decade he would make The Man Who Knew Too Much (again), Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. Kelly and Stewart found a delicate blend of tough humor and soft sex that felt like the Lubitsch touch; Thelma Ritter, never funnier, lent her working-class Cassandra’s two cents of wisdom; the courtyard of the apartment complex in which L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) so voyeuristically wallowed formed a world in miniature, its details straight from Zola’s pen.

There’s not a throwaway moment in it: Wendell Corey’s police lieutenant glancing significantly at Kelly’s overnight clothes; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) kicking out an overeager suitor before sitting down to cry; the chilling strains of a love ballad drowning out the sounds of murder. So compact, boxed into that studio apartment at the height of a Manhattan summer, Rear Window is in fact a thousand diffuse yarns being rolled into one. The dog, the garden, the lonely woman below, the creepy man above, the photographer and his socialite girlfriend across the way — when the threads come together it’s like the reinvention of the medium, the action so distant, the protagonist, like us, so impotent, that Hitchcock needs to craft a whole new form of suspense.

What he comes up with has so many layers an entire book could be (and has been) written about it. Needless to say, it’s all about watching and being watched, seeing what’s in front of us and missing what lurks behind the neighbor’s apartment door; about the simultaneous impotence and virility of looking; about the personal and sexual transgression of the voyeur. In other words, we’re watching perhaps the best movie ever made about the cinema — that art form where we, like Jefferies, look out into the bright world from a dim room and wait for the dramatic to happen, where we watch Kelly’s ingenuity as she escapes discovery by a hair’s breadth. You remember the moment — the one with the ring and the telephone and the villain’s eyes taking you in from across the courtyard? Of course you remember it, and you always will.

American Beauty

Ethan Edwards is a "mean sumbitch," as they say, his face craggy with hatred and age --- he resembles other humans not so much as he resembles a canyon, throwing deep shadows across the landscape except at high noon. The frontier seemingly resides at the end of his chin, at the upward curve of his hat, at the point on the porch where hastily constructed civilization ceases to exist and the vast desert behind him begins.

Such is John Wayne, né Marion Morrison, all glinting sun and terrifying darkness.

Such is, as they say, America itself. But we don't remember Ethan Edwards, really, nor Ringo Kid nor even Rooster Cogburn --- we remember Wayne in The Searchers, Wayne in Stagecoach, Wayne in True Grit; characters are almost superfluous.

Wayne's performances are his alone, an extension of the persona, a jutting out of the frontier. Perhaps that gets at the heart of the matter: the frontier, as suggested by John Wayne, is the borderland where America meets itself with an eruption of violence, order lost and tenuously restored. And perhaps that's why The Searchers is often considered not only Wayne's best film, but the best Western ever made --- it draws from American iconography and darkens the emotional palette, a kind of cyan filter of our collective memory.

In the film, Ethan Edwards returns from fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He soon falls victim to a Comanche raid that leaves most of his family dead and his niece, Debbie (Lana Wood in the younger years, Natalie Wood when Debbie is older), abducted. The rage Wayne musters is startling. Though his earlier films have elements of this roiling power, they also glide along at the pace of his glorious gait, best described as walking side-saddle, or flowing with the odd sweetness in his molasses-and-sand voice.

Not so in The Searchers, where brevity becomes the soul of disgust. "Living with the Comanche," Edwards says, "ain't living." Debbie, in living with and marrying among the Comanches, isn't better off dead. To Edwards, she already is.

Here are all the American themes, stacked like Russian dolls --- unpack one and you discover another denser element of the whole. Race, xenophobia, miscegenation, war, the West, revenge, destiny --- they coil like snakes, nearly impossible to unravel without getting bitten in the process.

The Searchers has always been, for me at least, a difficult film to watch, so total is Edwards' commitment, as he searches for Debbie over the course of five years, to killing her and her abductors when he finally finds them. (And you know, if you know what American cinema and John Wayne are about at root --- that is, fulfillment of the most basic sort --- that he will find them.)

More pertinently, it seems darkly instructive that John Wayne, the one man most closely associated in the public consciousness with the history of American film, is best remembered (by me at least) not as John Stryker, the gruff-yet-tender soldier who leaves his money with a bargirl in Honolulu in Sands of Iwo Jima, nor as the gallant Capt. Brittles of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, trying to negotiate peace with the Cheyenne, but as Edwards, American darkness coagulated into human form.

The beauty of America has always been, in promise if not in practicality, its do-or-die mentality, its element of risk. I no longer think it a coincidence that we use the word "experiment" to describe our foray into democracy --- it smacks of Alexander Fleming stumbling upon penicillin, resounds with the idea that going for broke, giving up everything to forge a new, better life, is what America is all about.

But we've tended to clear the path with fire rather than ingenuity. And here I am talking not just of our treatment of Comanches but of all American Indians, of Africans and African-Americans, of Cubans and Filipinos, of Chinese and Japanese, of "Slavs" and "spics" and "kykes" and "micks" and "Dagoes."

We've always been afraid of other outsiders joining our bande à part, of coming in and stealing away with our future. That's why The Searchers, more than 50 years old, and Wayne himself, who would be 100 if he were alive today, continue to make some sense to me as a historian and film critic, if not as a person. What Wayne represents --- for he is truly larger than life, no longer solely individual but also metaphorical, symbolic --- is this beautiful and terrible past of both pioneering and xenophobic impulses.

The fear that animates The Searchers hits me more strongly than the quiet heroism of some of his other roles, perhaps, because to me America is no longer the man in the white hat, riding in on his horse to save the day. We invade; we kill and capture; we abduct.

For a man whose name is important --- Marion Morrison, for whatever reason, will never be as compelling as John Wayne, and not just because we're used to the latter --- it seems instructive that The Searchers, in its title as in its content, is a kind of response to The Birth of a Nation: born of revolution and developed through codified racism.

Our nation is a tricky thing to discuss without feeling a little saddened by the mistakes of the past. But history is important here. If the racism of Griffith's epic suggests the darkness of the past, from slavery through to Jim Crow, then John Ford's film suggests something else entirely. The racism in The Searchers, set just three years after the Civil War and released just two years after Brown v. Board of Education is, thanks to Wayne's magnificent performance, something to focus on, to question, to feel uncomfortable about.

The Searchers is about, at root, just what the title says: spreading the searchlight across the shadows, convincing us to use our do-or-die mentality to achieve the American promise rather than hide behind our fears --- in short, to find the most open and pure frontiers we have yet to cross and extend the best parts of our experiment.

Who knows, we might discover something yet.

Jesus Walks?

I counted 10 dead bodies in the first 20 minutes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, some crumpled in a dark saloon, some slumped under the unblemished white arches of an isolated ranch, still others baking in the colorless desert sun. Individually, and even to an extent en masse, the deaths make no lasting impact; like footprints in the dust, their outlines mark the ground momentarily before winds of change irrevocably carry them away.

But the sheer volume of bloodshed, in so short a span, reminds one that the West, as Sergio Leone envisions it, is a heartless place where death nearly always comes earlier than expected.

If one believes in God, and one imagines that a West like this would make it hard to, then it might not be an outlandish hallucination to picture Him galloping along, spurring his horse on, shooting at will.

In the subgenre of film that came to be called the "spaghetti Western," for its American genre and Italian director-producers, it sometimes seems as though the only impetus not to kill as you please is the fear of being killed in retribution, the eye-for-an-eye clause having become a kind of binding legal document of the irreligious.

This sense of murder as duty-bound runs throughout the genre, but in Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy, anchored by Clint Eastwood's hardened, almost Christ-like figure, it reaches orgiastic pitch. The films seem to combine the sensibilities of two national myths, in which age-old codes have laid out rocky paths in the otherwise empty desert. To stray is to lose a sense of definition.

Leone's films revise the myths to question the veracity and morality of earlier genre exemplars, to question the existence of God by showing murder among the devout. In essence they ask, "Are you there, God? It's me, America." Our national myth, of individual liberty and the immigrant success story, becomes instead the true tale of death and destruction we have ignored for so long, the number of dead bodies that pile up merely a representative portion of the untold millions who have fled or been killed in our wake.

If the frontier is the American experience, then the spaghetti Western makes the point, clearly, forcefully, under an unrelenting sun, that even the good guys, the quiet ranchers who never marched into towns and saved damsels with guns blazing, are culpable for something.

By the time we see Clint adding four to the body count --- first a voice off screen, a heavy presence seeming to stand behind us as though we, too, are party to the robbery --- the myth is dead. God, too, must be dead, because his angel Gabriel has just kicked some major ass.

We are meant, by such an introduction, to cheer for Clint because he's Clint, and a righteous one at that. But modern audiences, savvy to political terror on a grander scale, are equipped to see the myth for what it is: a myth. And thus our heroes begin to drift silently away --- and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly begins to seem a little heavier with the weight of my own repressed feelings of violent anger, misanthropy, vigilantism. Leone's film is a reminder, first and foremost, of what is unacceptable but unavoidable in terms of the human heart. Indeed I see Clint as a figure from the Bible or the Odyssey, those two epic works of fiction: someone we may love but can no longer believe, because he pulled the trigger.