Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Decline of the Classic American Epic

The Good
In the past week or so I’ve been on an old Western movie kick.  I’m sure we could have a rousing debate about who the best actors of Westerns are (sorry, but I dig Clint more than I do the Duke), but that’s not the scope of this article.  Feel free, however, to comment on which Western actor is your favorite.

For starters, you’d be hard pressed to find a “good” western that is less than 2 hours long.  Many of them approach a 3 hour run-time.  In today’s film-making, a 3 hour run-time is usually seen as a potential detriment to all but the best directors and producers.  My guess is that they think that the audience will get bored if there’s not enough going on within that 3 hours, so most film-makers would rather just trim the fat and include only what is directly pertinent to the main plot.

Not so with Westerns.  In the original True Grit, the audience has to wait over 30 minutes before the hunt for the murderer of Maddie’s father begins.  In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the first hour and a half of the movie barely even references the fact that the whole damn thing is about finding some hidden cache of gold.  The majority of the time is spent developing the relationship between Clint Eastwood and the bandito guy (the Ugly).  And once the players finally converge on the same plot line, there’s a million detours along the way.

The same can be said for The Outlaw Josey Whales.  The first 15 minutes completely tells the story of why he’s an outlaw in the first place, and then the remaining 2.5-3 hours is spent covering 3 distinct acts.

What fills all of this run-time?  Well, there is a lot of down-time.  There’s a lot of scenes where there is little dialogue, and they seem to be just walking around.  On more than one occasion, you get the feeling that there are tons of scenes that run for 10 minutes that could have been condensed down into about 2 minutes of screen time.  I have to admit that sometimes when I’m watching Westerns, especially if it’s on my computer, it’s challenging for me to pay 100% attention to them, especially when it’s a scene where there seems to be little going on.

The Bad
This leads me to my main point: the movie industry is trying to make all of us develop cinematic ADD.  I had to stop and actually think about these seemingly vacuous scenes.  When you realize that their purpose is realistic characterization of archetypes that would otherwise be wholly unrealistic, and when you get the fact that the setting is a character in of itself, then you start to appreciate the Western a lot more.

At the end of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the three principle characters engage in a sort of Mexican stand-off to determine who gets to keep the gold.  The interesting thing is that they spend over 2 minutes just looking at each other.  The only camera angles in that part of the scene are extreme close-ups of their faces, and occasionally on their hands twitching as they contemplate reaching for their guns.

Would a scene like that work in movies today?  Probably not.  Most people would get bored and quickly disinterested.  My guess is that movie-goers at the time, or at least people who watched westerns, were more patient then.  The West was, at one point, vast and epic, and only vast and epic movies would do it justice.  Whereas it would seem that the genre standard is vast and epic in the classic American Western film, epic is a theme that is reserved mostly for fantasy flicks.

The Ugly
Take The Lord of the Rings trilogy for example.  Each film nears 3 hours in length, and each film goes over 3 hours when all the extra crap is put in.  Although the run-times are similar, there’s considerably more action (violence) going on.

Take into consideration how westerns are made today.  They’re shorter, not so dialogue-heavy, and there aren’t many extended scenes that that solely consist of silent, subtle action.  The setting isn’t as important, and the story seems more like it just wants to get to the point as fast as possible.  It would be like reading the Odyssey with only 1/4th of Odysseus’ encounters.  He leaves Troy, blinds a Cyclops, and bam, he’s back in Ithaca.

It’s the epic journey, the heightened realism that made these westerns so awesome.  Gone are the days of idealizing the Homeric epic journey. Gone is the classic American epic.


Damien said...

I think it comes down to the level of battle between the art and the commerce.

For instance production companies have budgets and unless the film is something "special" the director and producers are sticking to budgets. In fact that is why these days the story is shorter and the excitement starts pretty quick. In my youth that would have been only for "B" films (now they mostly follow that track). In the days you are talking about the director had his artistic license and it was the story and the plot as seen through his (or her) eyes that counted and thus the great pauses, sub-plots etc. Dino de Laurentis and his constant close-up on the eyes annoyed the hell out of the production companies but they had to keep their mouths (and eyes) shut!

Today to have the same level come out, such as the LOTR Trilogy you mentioned, ether the story itself is something so famous and set-in-stone or the director is more famous and thus more powerful than the production houses. The LOTR and up-coming two Hobbit films simply "have to" follow the books by Tolkien, and nobody is going to cut it.

I read about the battle to have the three Bourne Films not cut-down but in the end it was comprimised to a degree but at the cost of making them at the same time - that was not the original plan.

As for Westerns, I have to say that I would vote for Charles Bronson as the image, but then I am British/Spanish and I found that often Hollywood stereotyped the hispanic element that was so much a part of the West.

To be honest my genre is spy and war films and I think the classic war movies have suffered and to a degree vanished more than the classic western with only films like Saving Private Ryan coming close - oh, note how long that was!

The James Bond films are a good example of the reflection of the times, production realities and the power of the director/producer. The recent new versions with Casino Royal is yet another change, more action, harshness and brutality and less sex but certainly the gadgets!

Damien Charles

Jack Camwell said...

All very good points, and it's nice to get a European perspective on American Western films. I had to laugh at the blatent stereotyping of the hispanic element in the films.

I hadn't even thought of the James Bond films. A lot of people consider the classics like Goldfinger and Dr. No to be "boring" compared to the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig iterations of 007.

It's sad that artistic integrity has sort of taken a back seat to financial crap, but I think it's more of a commentary on how people view entertainment than it is the industry itself. Those in the film industry have to make money to continue to do what they do, and because of that they have to respond to consumer demand.

I think what I'm driving at is that the average movie-goer today wouldn't know a good movie if it bit them in the ass. I remember as a kid that I hated watching old movies because I thought they were lame. Now that I'm old enough to appreciate them, I feel as though I've missed out on a lot of good cinema.

That's not to say that every oldie is a goodie. There were some piss-poor movies made in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, but just because something is old and "out of style," doesn't mean it automatically sucks.

Silverfiddle said...

I'm a big Eastwood fan myself. The kids and I just watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a month or so ago.

I also like Eastwood's recent films. I think he is one of the few contemporary cinematic artists.

Lee Van Cleef is an awesome bad guy, btw.

Jack Camwell said...

Lee Van Cleef is probably my favorite western villain.

And I would imagine that it's because of his artistic experiences as an actor in classic westerns that he continues to pay attention to that in his later career.

Harrison said...

Depends on which western film you like. For sheer volume, Clint wins out. Alan Ladd was quite good in Shane. The problem is special effects generate ticket sales and this being a free market, whatever drives sales will be the main ingredient in the film.

Some people blame Jaws for it all.

KP said...

I would go with Clint as my favorite actor. But, my two favorite westerns would both be by the great John Ford and star John Wayne. Number one is "The Searchers". If you haven't seen that one from the mid 50s it is worth a look. Number two would be "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon". Classic stuff. I miss the western films but was pleased to see "3:10 To Yuma fairly recently.