Tuesday, September 22, 2015

He'll Never Get to Heaven if He Doesn't Die

Last night, I spent a decent amount of time reading about the life, court-martial trial, and execution of Harry "The Breaker" Morant. Not so much that I could confidently claim that the amount of time spent thusly had been decent enough, but I was enlightened anyway, to the extent that I'm able now to look at one of my favorite films, Breaker Morant from 1980, directed by the underappreciated Bruce Beresford, a key film in the Australian New Wave, and now out on Blu-ray, most deservedly and, to me, unexpectedly, from The Criterion Collection, in a new way. Before Saturday, it had been many years since I'd last watched it, and when you watch it as a young person, or when watched it as a young person anyway it can appear rather less complex than it is. Though in fairness to the young, there are good reasons why it might be partially misunderstood, which I'll get to. But when you learn about the real Morant, the sense that the film is "merely" a very strong example of the courtroom drama, with grit and a British-hating twist to it, begins to not just fall away, but to feel absurd.

In 1901, during the Second Boer War, which was waged between the British (with the assistance of forces pulled from their colonies, such as Ireland and Australia) and South Africa (allied with a Dutch sovereign republic located there, populated by Dutch farmers known as Boers) for reasons the explaining of which I thank God it doesn't currently fall under my purview to take a shot at, Morant, in command of a British Army unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, ordered the execution of several Afrikaner soldiers, who had just surrendered and been disarmed. Later, a German minister named Heese, who had witnessed the crime, was murdered, apparently at Morant's behest, and to keep him quiet. Three men were subsequently arrested for these killings: Lt. Peter Handcock, Lt. George Witton, and Harry Morant, also a Lieutenant, and their commander. The motivation for murdering the POWs was, allegedly, the earlier death in combat of the unit's previous commander, and Morant's friend, Captain Hunt. Complicating matters, prosecutorialy-speaking, was the question of whether or not orders had come down from British high command that no prisoners were to be taken. Complicating matters as far as the legend of Breaker Morant goes is the fact that Witton, Handcock, and Morant were Australian, but they were being tried (and in the cases of Morant and Handcock, executed) by their colonial masters, the British. Witton, who ended up only serving a short prison sentence, would eventually write a book about the case called Scapegoats of the Empire, which, as you might imagine, excoriated the British and called the trial a farce. Many believe this book, among a few other things, went a long way towards positioning Morant as a man who was railroaded, a brave and fiery innocent who had to pay the price for the Empire's callous overreaching. Which is roughly where things get interesting.

There is very little reason, you see, to believe that Morant, Handcock, and Witton were anything but quite guilty, and against the belief that Morant was a hero, there has risen in Australia a counter-movement which hopes to show that the preponderance of evidence, then and now, proves that Morant, Handcock, and Witton were murderers. I can't pretend that I'm an expert on this case by any stretch, but what fascinates me, and what brings us here tonight, is that one of the things that these historians have had to battle against is Beresford's film, which has inspired many of its viewers to regard the story as one of straightforward injustice, with Morant the primary victim of it, crushed under the boot of etc. But what I'd somehow never noticed about Breaker Morant, or let's be generous and say I'd forgotten it, is that that's not really what it is at all. Or almost not at all. A film which once struck me as so classical now seems deeply strange.

The movie stars Edward Woodward as Morant, Bryan Brown as Handcock, Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Witton, and Jack Thompson as Major Thomas, their attorney. Fitz-Gerald's Witton is the young, scared, naive soldier who depends for his education about this world of military legal madness and potential education on the bitter, witty cynicism so expertly projected by Woodward and Brown, and the nose-to-the grindstone efforts, as well as a kind of realistic hopefulness, of Thomas, which is a state of mind that Jack Thompson seems to be actually living through as we watch. Woodward and Brown, as I've said, play their roles as men who refuse to give up and don't want to die and don't think they deserve to, but their experience of the British Army has been such that they can't quite imagine any other outcome. Early on -- and this is a pure courtroom film, by the way, with flashbacks to the killings and the events surrounding them, interspersed -- as Thomas, who has had less than one day to prepare a defense before the trial begins, is offering objections and motions that are dismissed almost out of hand by the lead judge Lt. Colonel Denny (Charles Tingwell), we see Morant and Handcock glance at each, shaking their heads out of frustration, but not surprise.

The whole tone of the film matches Handcock and Morant's fatalism. Beresford uses no score, the only music being that which is occasionally played by a military brass band who appear on screen. That can of irony can't help but bode poorly for those on trial. Though Woodward, and Morant, is the star, this sort of choice by Beresford seems to favor Brown, and Handcock. Brown is really wonderful, his face almost motionless even when he's angry, which is often, but his eyes are magnificent, staring not just through you, but through the wall behind you as well. When he speaks out in court, it's fast, in a bark, and it's always a sarcastic joke. He's fucking pissed and he doesn't believe anything he or Thomas might do will help him, so he might as well tell these people what he thinks of them. The editing matches him, seems almost to follow his lead. Again, it's a courtroom film, which would seem to invite long takes, a certain slowness, but Beresford and editor William M. Anderson cut Breaker Morant, which is only about 90 minutes long, pretty fast. There are shots that last barely a second. Which isn't to say the film is frenetic, but rather, simply, that it moves. There's a frenzy in the air, as at stake is justice for almost two dozen murdered men, and the possible execution of three more. And that frenzy makes the film fast. But with no music. The film is quiet and fast. This is a style that make the courtroom formula, which on some level must be avoidable unless your aim is to turn it on its ear, feel vibrant, or rather desperate.

But they're guilty. Morant, Handcock, and Witton, and Morant and Handcock especially, killed those men, or gave the orders to have them killed. I'm not speaking here about the actual history (although from what I can tell it seems hard to deny their guilt in the real world, too); I'm talking about the film. This film, which has somehow fueled the popular belief that they were innocent, portrays them as guilty. It does argue that a "no prisoners" order was given, and it does very briefly show that Morant may have initially been conflicted about that order, but when the power was his he followed it with gusto. I'll say more about Woodward in a minute, but speaking of "no prisoners," there's a real Peter O'Toole light in Morant's eyes here.

The person most bewildered by the popular reading of Breaker Morant is Bruce Beresford, who, in this rather interesting 1999 interview, which provides an overview of his career up to then, says:

I read an article about it recently in the LA times and the writer said it's the story of these guys who were railroaded by the British. But that's not what it's about at all. The film never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time. Look at the atrocities in Yugoslavia. Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits. That was not what the film was about for me. And I never said that.

And if you're watching Breaker Morant and thinking "Those goddamn British," you might want to take a moment and think about what the prosecution and the judges are arguing for: fair treatment of POWs. Now, of course, if a "no prisoners" order was given then from some quarters, in the course of all this, hypocrisy is playing a part. But is that all there is? Can the prosecution of these killers of a couple dozen men, one of whom was nothing more than a witness to their other crimes, really be boiled down to mere hypocrisy? Are they wrong? Does their hypocrisy absolve Morant? Are we now prepared to accept "I was just following orders" as a valid excuse?

On the other hand, the film does depict the trial as unfair; Tingwell's Denny is almost a bit too much in his portrait of a man whose mind is made up. I do have to wonder why, if Beresford never intended for audiences to see the story as that of three men who have been railroaded, why the prosecution and the judges are shown as so dismissive, unbending, and unsympathetic, torturing with their obtuseness even the undeniably noble Major Thomas. You can certainly simultaneously believe that the defendants were killers and that the trial was iffy, but there's an unbalance in portrayal which, when the true thrust of the film finally hits home, can be almost disorienting.

It's enough, at times, almost, to make you think that Breaker Morant wants you to understand that these men were guilty, but that collectively we should let them all off the hook. But no, that's not what's going on here, because quite clearly, what interests Beresford the most is Morant. And casting Woodward, who was English, not Australian, was a masterstroke. In his 2004 commentary track ported over for the new Criterion release, Beresford says that he cast Woodward mainly because he looked so much like the real Harry Morant, but Woodward is so extraordinary that he could have looked like me and he would have still been the perfect choice.

If the film seems to match the rhythms of Brown's Handcock more than those of its titular character, I'd say this makes sense. The real Morant was a somewhat well-known poet (some of which is read in the movie by Woodward), and Woodward plays him as a man who somehow projects aristocracy and everyday approachability at the same time. He seems well-liked by his men, and they're loyal to him, but he has more education, and interests and ambitions which are quite unlike those of the men in his command. He seems like he should be at the table with the other judges during the trial, but he isn't. As such, liked or not, he's apart. He's apart from the film too, in a way. Woodward was a unique presence -- he didn't seem like a guy who could, or even should, make an entire movie bend to the will of his personality, but he was capable of it, and he does it here. His Morant is such an engaging yet disturbing enigma (but, as Beresford notes, would he ever have done anything like this if his friend hadn't been killed?) that Breaker Morant the film ends up feeling as though it's being held up for examination by Morant -- by Woodward's Morant. As though it's one of his poems. Which, as the ending suggests, it sort of is.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Men in Other Towns

The actress Susan Tyrrell died in 2012. She was 67 years old, and she was taken by a disease called essential thrombocythaemia, a condition that had already taken her legs below the knees in 2000. Within the name of her disease, that word "essential" seems almost like a mockery, because what could be less essential in the life of any individual than an illness that whittles you in half, just to begin with? But she died, Susan Tyrrell did, who'd appeared in a wide variety of films, including Paul Verhoeven's lunatic medieval bloodbath Flesh + Blood, the rather less violent Big Top Pee-wee, and a variety of other things besides, including the Amicus-esque horror anthology From a Whisper to a Scream and the oddball cult 80s comedy Tapeheads, which as a much younger man I must have watched God alone knows how many times. Tyrrell was living with her niece when she died, and as she wasn't a movie star, hers was a passing that went largely unremarked upon.

In 1972, when she was about twenty-seven, Susan Tyrrell appeared in the film Fat City, directed by the by-then legendary John Huston. Fat City would wind up being one of a series of films that Huston made in the 1970s which proved that while he was in his 60s, John Huston was entirely capable of keeping up with, and occasionally even outdoing those arrogant little shits like Scorsese, Coppola, and you know the rest. Fat City would be his first declarative and confident statement on the matter, following as it did forgotten failures and bewilderments like The Kremlin Letter, A Walk with Love and Death, and Sinful Davey. How the 1969 novel Fat City by Leonard Gardner made it to him I don't know, but Gardner would go on to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of the one novel he's ever written. Or ever published. That's me being optimistic.

It's a curious thing, when you regard the idea of a "cult status" as it pertains, respectively, to films and novels. A cult film tends to be genre -- horror, crime, and so on. No worse for that, God knows, but interestingly distinct from the cult novel, which can be pretty much anything. It can be a strange crime novel like The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers, or it can be a work of capital L "literature" such as the kind of novel that is academically beloved, embraced for its poetry by other writers and some readers, but culturally weirdly set aside to be read by only certain people, but by no means forgotten because we like you, we'll get to you, just sit tight, A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley. In his very brief introduction (though partly due to its economy it is one of the best such introductions I've read in a long time) to the recent, and desperately needed, reissue of Fat City from NYRB Classics, Denis Johnson relates an anecdote about a writer friend of his encountering Leonard Gardner reading a boxing magazine in a drugstore, some time after his novel had been published and been reverently passed around and worshiped by other writers, both aspiring and accomplished, if not by other segments of the population:

"Are you Leonard Gardner?" my friend asked. "You must be a writer," Gardner said, and went back to his magazine. I made him tell the story a thousand times.

Set sometime during the 1950s, the novel begins like this:

He lived in the Hotel Coma - named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself. Whoever it commemorated, the hotel was a poor monument, and Billy Tully had no intention of staying on. 

Tully is almost thirty, an ex-boxer and drunk who when we meet him has not recovered from the divorce that devastated him. He lives in one hotel after another, in Stockton, CA. One day he aimlessly wanders into a boxing gym where he meets a young man, Ernie Munger. They spar, and Ernie beats him. Billy recommends that Ernie head over to the Lido Gym and talk to Ruben Luna, Billy's old trainer and manager. "Don't waste your good years," Billy tells him. Ernie goes, and Ruben accepts him into the world of amateur boxing, and driving in cars crowded with other boxers and corner men up and down California, into Utah and other places, for a night of fights. Tully, meanwhile, decides he's not too old, and he starts trying to get back into shape, though he still drinks, and makes his living, such as it is, as a day worker, picking walnuts or chopping onions clear and filling sacks with them. But he, too, is soon back in Ruben's orbit, though in the course of this short novel, Tully and Ernie will rarely meet again.

Fat City is I suppose what you'd have to call plotless, in that the events of the novel occur with the same sense of understandable randomness as do the events of everyday life. There are no detectable mechanics at work, shaping the author's sense of what the lives of these men should become. Though of course on some level such mechanics are there, they pretty much have to be, but I could neither hear nor see the gears turning. A novel that worked like that would not find room for a chapter about another of Ruben's fighters, a teenager named Wes Haynes, whose impact on the lives of Ruben, Tully, and Ernie is at best negligible, but whose life Gardner starkly lays out as a return trip from a fight, with Ruben and other boxers, wheezes to a sleepy end, and Haynes is almost startled to find himself back in his own neighborhood, wondering what is happening to him.

...Wes saw a low building in the fog with Regale Pale glowing in blue neon in a window and was overcome with dejection. He had made no secret of his training. Acquaintances at school spoke to him as though they believed he was a professional, and he had not cared to correct them. He had believed he would be one soon enough -- because it had seemed the natural and inevitable thing for so many years, because against all contrary evidence, and simply because he was himself, he felt he could never be dominated. Now he felt he should have known all along that he was nothing. Boxers were men in other towns, in big cities far from this car parked in the darkness alongside the highway between fields of vegetables. Resting his cheek against the cold window, he thought of killing himself, but years ago, standing beside his father's legs in a crowd on a night sidewalk, he had seen a dead man profiled in a puddle of blood, his eye dumfounded, and Wes knew that if he was going to be killed he was not going to do it himself. They would have to come and get him and he would club them and choke them and shoot them and then he would run.

Tully and Ernie both meet women. Ernie meets another young woman name Faye, and they both lose their virginity on a night that ends with Ernie falling into icy water while trying to find wooden boards to use as traction so that he can get the car in which they had sex unmired from the mud. Tully, meanwhile, meets Oma, another drunk, a juicehead, a woman who, when Tully meets her in a bar, is going out with Earl, a black man (Oma is white) who Gardner writes as a man who has to put up with a person like Oma. Nothing he says will result in anything but shit from her, though she claims to love him. Even as she claims to love Earl, a thing she claims to Tully, she's drifting towards Tully. When Earl ends up in jail, Gardner charts the fragmented hypocrisy of someone who only drinks:

"And he didn't mean it. He just gets so nervous. You don't know what you have to take when you're interracial. Every son-of-a-bitch on the street has to get a look at at you. And Earl's really a peaceable man. He's even-tempered. He didn't hurt that guy and he didn't want to...He's just not made that way. He's the sweetest-natured man in the world...He's so jealous. I wouldn't put it past him to be out already, spying on every move I make."

Jealousy is quite the theme in Fat City. It's the unacknowledged engine. Even if nothing especially comes of it, Ernie can't shake the belief that Faye, the woman he never wanted to be bound to, but once done can't help judging and suspecting at the same time he loves her with a childish desperation, may find a more satisfying man, and is looking for one almost every day. And there's Oma, who spends her drunken hours kicking out at what she believes are the jealousy-based behaviors of Earl and, later, Tully, yet she's also constantly paranoid that she herself is being betrayed. Not just sexually -- at one point Tully simply walks out the door and she, who has to dress first before she can follow him, can't bear the idea that he might drink in a bar without her.

In John Huston's 1972 movie, made from a script by Gardner himself, Tully is played by Stacy Keach, an actor who was about thirty-years-old during filming but who in my experience has never looked younger than forty-five (making him physically perfect for Billy Tully). Keach plays Tully just right, with hope cut by hopelessness, optimism hand-in-hand with total despair. The opening of Huston's Fat City is a masterpiece of tone-setting (among other things) as the plot (once more, such as it is) kicking off because Keach's Tully can't light his cigarette, which compels him to not only put on pants, but actually leave his hotel room. Yet as he exits the place, Keach lets an energy creep in. In the film, Tully is less gutted by divorce than the Tully in the novel -- this doesn't ruin the character, but instead simply lets him breathe differently. So when he leaves the hotel, wanting only fire for his tobacco, he manages a happy to him, but pathetic to us (but who are we?) little dance. Maybe if I get a large-enough skinful of booze in me, I can make something happen.

And I have to say, the sweat of booze is on the film just a bit more than it is on Gardner's novel. Gardner's Fat City is not quite a booze novel (in the same way that it's not quite a boxing novel), though, certainly not in the way that Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend is a booze novel. Both in the novel and the film, Ernie isn't much of a drinker. Neither is Ruben, who in the book is what in film terms you'd call the "third lead." The drinkers are Tully and Oma, but in the film not only is Ruben (a terrific Nicholas Colosanto) pushed to a supporting role, but Tully's drinking overwhelms Keach, and Susan Tyrrell's Oma nearly overwhelms the whole thing.

I don't mean to dispense with Ernie, the film's Ernie. He' splayed by a very young Jeff Bridges, and it's a fine performance. However, here Ernie's relationship with is wife Faye (Candy Clark) doesn't carry the strain of his juvenile hypocrisy, so plainly and brilliantly, and even sympathetically, stated by Gardner in his novel. For whatever reason, Gardner the screenwriter found too much, enough, all you need, of life in Tully and Oma (it's just possible that the hard-drinking Irishman Huston guided things this way) so that the frustrations of being a drunk (Tully) who lives with someone (Oma) even drunker than he becomes the film. Boxing isn't quite ancillary at this point, but it almost is. Look at the scene where Tully makes steak and peas for himself and Oma, and begs Oma to eat. Watch Oma's introduction, when her companion is Earl, played by Curtis Cokes (a boxer in a boxing movie, not playing a boxer). When they sit down and Oma begins rambling out to Tully her irrational, rude, two-faced nonsense about Earl, look at Cokes -- this is the best kind of pay-off when casting a non-actor. Cokes doesn't pour a bunch of ticks or mugging expressions into his performance. He just keeps his face blank, because this is a guy who's lived a lot of time with Oma, and if she wants to talk to another guy, fine, maybe I can just relax and have a beer in peace for once.

But more than anything, look at Susan Tyrrell as Oma. Look at the shot of her sitting at the sad little table in the awful little hotel room where Keach's Tully will try to cook her steak and peas. She's playing solitaire and drinking something bright red, which means you know it's sweet, and so the ensuing headache will be a real son of a bitch.

The novel Fat City doesn't have a villain, but if you had to pick somebody to qualify, you might pick Oma. She's such an infuriating, hair-pulling presence, her unbearable behavior off-set for the reader only by the fact that Tully ain't much better. Yet in Huston's film, not only is Oma almost more appalling, she's also that much sadder, that much more of an unbearable drain on our sympathies. There's a scene in the film where Tully and Oma have really hit it off, the two of them drunk, in a bar. Tully head-butts a jukebox. This proves something to somebody, he supposes. Oma has been drinking all day, longer, probably, than Tully has been. Anyway, they leave. It's bright daylight outside. They're both drunk in bright daylight. Oma hesitates, and Tully asks her what's wrong. She says "I don't know...I guess I'm drunk." The sadness with which Susan Tyrrell delivers this line is not merely interesting. It's Oma's whole biography. Because listen, I can imagine a person whose definition of the the phrase "over the top," which has become a synonym for "worthless," would encompass Susan Tyrrell's performance as Oma. Watching Fat City again for the first time in many, many years, I realized that Tyrrell's work here may well be called, now, "cartoonish." When considering such critics, I'll refrain from speculation (I realize I'm kind of making them up anyway), but I will acknowledge that for all Tyrrell does to make Oma not just frustrating but also heartbreaking, and my God she is that, she's also comic. How can she not be all of these things? As an acting exercise, imagine playing someone who is not only always drunk, but who has been always drunk for many years. That was Susan Tyrrell's job on Fat City, and what she does is extraordinary. So is what Keach does, but look at Tyrrell's face. She clowns it up, but that's the result of someone who is perpetually hammered trying to live among people who aren't. Tyrrell ruthlessly plays Oma's effort to be part of a day-to-day society she'd realize has rolled right on by her if she was ever sober. Which she never is.

Susan Tyrrell, as I've said, passed away in 2012. She'd stopped acting after her disease had redefined for her the meaning of the word "essential," which means over a decade away from performing. I don't know anything about those years of her life, but I watch her in Fat City and I see one of the great performances. One that was nominated for an Oscar, which must have been nice. And then what? We forget. "History is the judge" is bullshit, because history forgets about 80% of the great stuff. I don't trust it and never have. If it's going to render Leonard Gardner's novel Fat City a cult favorite that may disappear again in ten years, then no thank you. If it's going to forget Susan Tyrrell's performance in John Huston's Fat City, then no thank you. But no one's forgotten anything yet. We all will eventually though, so I guess for this great artist all we can do is hope that the prayer of one of Susan Tyrrell's final diary entries, written just months before she died, came true:

I demand that my death be joyful and I never return again.