On Texture - 3:10 To Yuma and Wuthering Heights

In conversation about the changing landscape of film, critic and curator Mark Polizotti and I were both stumped for a moment about whether there was a word that was an antonym for luddite. We couldn't figure it out and frankly I don't think we want to know. We like old things. That said, even we have limits. New modes and methods of filmmaking don't invalidate antiquated ones, they simply section them off, to be appraised on different terms. This is just what needs to happen or we'd go insane with reconciliation (or separation). So whenever someone tells me anything along the lines of "They don't make 'em like they used to" I can't help rolling my eyes slightly because the rules change every few years. And thank god they do. Otherwise film would never evolve, and storytelling would dry. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Filmmakers will not settle for telling the same story the same way so they invent new grammar. And so film stays one step ahead of stasis at all times. Which brings me to my other pet peeve: when someone tells me that TV is getting right what film cannot; what Glenn Kenny calls the "TV Is Better Than Tarkovsky" argument. People who think this aren't watching films; they're watching what's down the road at the gigantic mostly digital multiplex. They pay to see Pirates of Caribbean sequels and what passes for romantic comedy these days. They don't know what modern film looks like because they don't care enough to go looking. It's hard and I don't blame everyone who can't seek out the new Kore-eda, but it just means any argument against cinema's current power is moot. And even when something great happens to hits the mainstream, they often don't know what they've got. Andrew Stanton's John Carter is the most recent example, but there are others. Films that take the best of the old and mix it with the knowledge we've gained since about how to capture modern life in textures. More than that, though, it's often a matter of time and space. 
I'm perhaps overly fond of tackling the phrase "They don't make 'em like they used to" in some form or other. Or anyway extrapolating what exactly it means. But to me, these days, it's so important to discern what made films of comparable budget and ambition from ten years ago age so much better than the films we get today. Compare the remake of Red Dawn to its source. Whatever their respective faults (and the new film is made up exclusively of faults), the biggest difference is that you believed in the time the characters spent on their own in the first film. You believed they might have spent that time training in the woods and becoming pissed off and determined. I might not have liked anyone in that film, but by sheer force of John Milius making me spend time with them, I had to respect them a little bit, and I did start to care when they dropped. Even if the remake hadn't made such a spectacular hash of the script and the editing, I wouldn't have cared about anyone because the film makes no attempt to get to know them. It talks in shorthand. Most modern genre romps do. You've seen these characters before and the writers didn't bother giving them anything close to a third dimension so why waste everyone's time? There's nothing to get to know. It's never been more clear that these are actors playing parts. It doesn't help that the industry is as transparent as it is. Choices are broadcast years before they're made. Soon we're just waiting out the clock. Sometimes I miss not knowing shit about how films got made. It made the appearance of James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma seem akin to the first time you celebrate Christmas. 

The trailer for 3:10 was a good indication that this film'd be the best sort of throwback. You knew exactly what needed to happen but almost nothing about what would. I was blown away by its pace, its grip on character and the confidence with which it carries off its best setpieces. I bought everything that James Mangold showed me. It was the best conventional entertainment I saw that year and I still rank it next to the best films of 2007, including other (revisionist) westerns like Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. A few months later I watched the original (my viewing of offbeat classics was limited to whatever TCM was showing) and despite Robert Osborne's faith in the power of the original, especially where the divergence in their endings was concerned, I couldn't help feeling like there was a third of that movie missing. Mangold and his coterie of screenwriters evidently went back to Elmore Leonard's source novel and put the muscle back in. In the Delmer Daves-helmed original, Outlaw Ben Wade is caught, the posse assembled, then suddenly they're in Contention City waiting out the train. In Mangold's version, the journey to Contention takes up most of the film. I realize it's perhaps unfair to compare a film to a later version that didn't exist at the time of its creation, and perhaps the times dictated a truncated form, but once they'd taken the story out of the film, I couldn't help finding every decision lacking. The black and white cinematography suddenly seemed to do no justice to the details around them; I understand it's meant to underscore the psychological underpinnings of the story, but I found them rather poorly thought out as well. It was a film of the barest essentials, and because I'd seen what you could do with the slightest detail in a film of this story the bare minimum would never do. 

Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma has become a touchstone for how to handle both drama and genre in the modern era. Mangold's clearly learned the most lessons from the new Hollywooders who turned the western inside out in the first place, and made solid genre fare like 3:10 obsolete in the first place. He's much more in the mold of Hal Ashby, Sam Peckinpah or a young Michael Cimino than Daves, Anthony Mann or John Ford. This means he's got a better idea how to frame characters for action setpieces, but also appreciates the old school way of centering a western around a basic idea and a goal rather than a broiling ideology. The casting has little to do with craft, per se, but every choice is perfect and fits in with the 70s ethos of every interesting face you can get your hands on. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale's faces, for instance, have never been put to better use. After years of Crowe appearing in films that don't know how best to utilize him, seeing him used so well here as an evil but slick cad again was a welcome joy. And Bale playing put upon and nervous, especially in contrast to his more famous roles, is a never-ending delight. Alan Tudyk, Dallas Roberts, Peter Fonda and Kevin Durand are the sort of people who can tell their own stories through diction and their eyebrows, so naturally they make the most out of bit parts. Peter Fonda's always likeable, but Mangold lets him essentially prop the film up during his scenes, so beautifully played is his pinkerton agent. He and Crowe have nothing to be proud of, particularly, both prolific killers, but their difference in attitude makes for compelling dissonance, even as you're aware that Fonda will ultimately not be the man Crowe will be played against in the long term. The real coup though is Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, the role he deservedly made his name on. I had to look up who played Charlie Prince in the original because I couldn't for the life of me who it was. Foster's Prince is the reason the end of the film works. Crowe's Ben Wade may side with Bale's rancher Dan Evans for the time being, but his sins are just around every corner in the form of Prince. Foster doesn't speak much, but he makes every line a crucial window into the whys of the lengths he'll go to rescue Wade from bondage. When Wade appears to refuse to lie down and be rescued, the panic that creeps into Foster's high-pitched croak is heartbreaking. Their bond could suddenly be anything from childhood friends to lovers. Prince's dedication to Wade is never put into question, nor is he ever played as sadistic, so much as pitiable because Wade doesn't return the feeling. Again, Foster is not even the third tier lead. This much work goes into a character who practically didn't exist in the original. Just look at the costumes. You know everything you need to about Wade by looking at the difference between his hat, or more obviously his guns, and everyone else's. It's this commitment and shading that makes Mangold's film stay in mind, almost frame for frame, yet remain galvanizing. All I remember about Daves original is feeling that the ending was a mammoth psychological copout that made the preceding hour and a half feel wasted. 

Mangold's biggest and best choice was to put space around the dialogue or action in any given scene, you get the feeling of living in the space waiting for the event, familiar with the dynamic of the people and place, rather than simply cutting to the neccesary dialogue or action. We spend an awful lot of time with Bale and Crowe in this movie, and it's all important in getting a sense of the film's ever-shifting power dynamic, and the film's central idea: do you act because you know someone's watching you, or because it's the right thing to do? I first noticed how well the film was paced in the scene where Tudyk's jumpy veterinarian shoots into the hills when he thinks he sees something. It shows the group dynamic in their response to the disturbance, but it also allows us insight into Crowe's character. He uses the disruption to sneak something by his captors, but then Mangold lets him go further and intimidate Mrs. Evans while no one's around to watch him. This is the heart of Wade's character; anything to have the edge on whoever he's with. Later a scene ends with a fade from the image of Crowe's twitching eye in anger to the men asleep by the campfire before a horrific incident. He sets up the circumstances, takes us a short distance later, then blindsides us by showing the immediate consequences in the most brutal and overwhelming fashion imaginable. The scene then stretches long after they've discovered the crime, dealt with the criminal, and clearly had a long second to think about what it means for them. The tone is set for the next time something like this happens, but he surprises by springing it in the middle of a scene, a lengthy dialogue scene with many reversals, instead of between them. And then splendidly, Mangold stages the next reversal and scene change on a close-up of Crowe's face that he holds for the entirety of the scene, cutting occasionally to Bale's reaction in a reverse.  Staying on his actor's faces, he allows them the fullest range of expression in a given scene, and lets you in on their interior in a way their constantly warring sentiments and bluffs don't always allow. Look at Bale's face when Crowe tries to talk him into one final bribe. It's genius; the sort of conflicted inner life Bale made his name on. Trying to talk himself and his captive into believing he's as strong morally as he is physically. Believing him isn't easy, and downright heartbreaking. And we get to live in these scenes, understand the way people move and talk and why, and get to know everyone, especially the characters who appear one-note from their introduction. He cares about people who half-lives written into their job descriptions. 

To backtrack slightly, what made me want to revisit 3:10 to Yuma was watching William Wyler's first major adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Deja Vu struck fiercely watching Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon attempt to both thesp it up and play things wild and loose on the moors. That approach to the story just played so fundamentally wrong and it occurred to me that American moviegoing audiences wouldn't have put up with the adaptation the book requires, which is why Buñuel had more luck with his adaptation, Far away from our expectations. He also took a much more conservative view of the importance of some of the book, much the same way Daves chopped up the Leonard. This is crucial because to date the best and most interesting adaptation performs a similar surgery on the text, but it's about removing the moments that feel superfluous or artificial to the milieu. What remains is all that director Andrea Arnold thought neccesary to tell the story the best way possible. It's been told before, dozens of times, so why tell it the same way? Why not be truthful to the times it's set in? Arnold thus tells the story that is most in keeping with the spirit of the novel by not simply repeating the prose or dialogue that makes the novel what it is. It's simply cinematic language. It confronts your eyes and whips against your skin. It's far more articulate than either of its downtrodden heroes, as Arnold and co-scenarist Olivia Hetreed remove most of their dialogue without sacrificing their interior life. Their passion and frustration is far more vivid when they can't put into words what they want to say most in the world. Wuthering Heights has never made this much sense before and few films were as haunting or affecting last year. 

3:10 and Wuthering Heights both get a lot of mileage out of their decisions to linger on details forgotten or ignored by their predecessors. Letting Ben Wade caress a barmaid off screen or showing the fingers of Cathy and Heathcliff digging in mud and rubbing it in their hair puts you a step further into the world of their source novels by making their pleasures and textures tangible. By copping out on the ending, the original 3:10 misses that haunting, unforgettable sound of the train's engine idling while the myth of the west is deflated and somehow simultaneously celebrated in front of our eyes. But of course the nagging question is whether their creators would have known or thought to include these details if they didn't have titanic precedents to kick against. Would Mangold have bothered to make his film so rich in detail (right down to the color photography gorgeously realizing the meticulous production design) if he weren't out to correct the flimsiness of Delmer Daves' original? Crowe's complex take on Wade feels in direct response to Glenn Ford's smirking certitude, and Evans going out of his way to explain to Wade that he isn't stubborn feels like dialogue written to correct Van Heflin's typically cracked heroism. Would it have occurred to tell Wuthering Heights as essentially a story made entirely of incident, of wind and mud meeting cloth and skin, and a few choice words from the book if Wyler and Olivier hadn't made everything so fucking obvious? Olivier's ham performance as Heathcliff will now always make me cringe contrasted with the furious naturalism of James Howson. But do I owe the one to the other? It may be true that no one's making films like Wyler and Daves anymore, but in some cases, it's a good thing we've evolved and can tell these stories the way they're supposed to be told.

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