Tuesday, September 27, 2005

america and the missouri breaks

I go through cycles of interest, usually piqued by some random event or article or news story. At the moment, formed out of, I suspect, recent events on the Gulf coast of America, I've become quite obsessed with the geography and history of the US. Yeah, I know, just when everyone was getting tired of me asking 'why is Blair so enthralled with America rather than Europe', I've gone and developed an interest myself.

It's an interest borne out of, I'm hesitant to admit, the realisation of my complete ignorance in the subject. Nodding knowledgeably when someone tells me about a conference they attended in Virginia and commenting, sagely, that New England is very beautiful indeed in the Autumn months only to notice the indecision in their eyes as they wonder whether to tell me where it really is. But the first settlers landed in fuckin' Virginia, I proclaim, later, when I look at a map, and they landed in New England, goddammit. So someone must have moved it about on the map and stuck it down there under Washington DC.

OK, so the first settlers did land in Virginia, but the pilgrims landed further North, yeah, yeah, I've worked it out now. And anyway, by that time the Spanish had already come up through Mexico and discovered the Gulf of California and the French travelled down from Canada and down the Mississipi to New Orleans yeah yeah yeah, I worked it out. I'm piecing things together now.

So, the new, America-friendly me did something the other night which I wouldn't have dreamed of doing at any time during the last five or ten years, which is sit down with a beer on Saturday and watch a Western. Did anyone else watch The Missouri Breaks last weekend? God, if that film is representative of cowboy films (okay, I know it's not) then I'm a convert. It was absolutely stunning, and - as I think I've written about maybe two movies in total since I started blogging - can be elevated beyond my film of the week to my film of the last six months or however long it is since I wrote something derogoratory about the acting in the last Star Wars movie.

Filmed in 1976 and starring a lively, appealing Jack Nicholson acting against a waning, wicked Marlon Brando, and set in Montana - see, they keep trying to catch me out with geography. Not in Missouri, but in Montana - it weaves a slight, stately story of cattle rustlers coming up against Brando's regulator. As often as not content to let the camera wander over the Rockies as follow a chase scene or a gunfight, it's immediately more mature and thoughtful than the typical Western, although what sets it apart is a magnificent display of competitive acting from its two leads. Nicholson pulls out plenty of stops with his portrayal of a charming, lonely outlaw who is almost ready to go straight; underplaying it to turn in a subtle, nuanced performance with just enough flashes of manic energy. But Brando is - depending on your outlook, and this film was savaged on its release - either encouraged to unleash all his wayward genius on the role or completely indulged. Tending toward the former explanation, Brando is just magnificent playing Lee Clayton, the unorthodox regulator brought in to pick off Nicholson and his gang.

When Clayton is first introduced he is a slightly creepy, effete cowboy with a pronounced Irish accent. He is immediately recognisable as Brando, and immediately imbued with the gravity of the actor. So far, so good. But as the film progresses, and Brando ups the ante, he grabs the film by the scruff of the neck and re-orders it around him as if he were a tornado. After the consistency of his opening scenes, Brando plays the character with increasing intensity until he threatens to bring the whole thing down around him.

Stealing every scene he's in, ad-libbing lines, his accent appears and disappears, he appears dressed as a cowboy, a preacher and, ultimately - with no explanation whatsoever - in a white dress and sun bonnet, cacking and calling himself 'Grandma'.

Yet the film retains it's stately pace while Brando causes chaos within. It's remarkable. Unlike, say, Norman Bates in 'Psycho', Brando's pychopath is not isolated and withdrawn from society, not the 'other' hidden away in a darkened motel. He is allowed free rein in a country that knows more lawlessness than it does justice. Somehow, against the cruel rancher that hires him, he doesn't even seem that horrifying. He's allowed to be a man of reputation, admired even. It's this distinction which somehow enables the film to reconcile the depravity of an age with its innate romanticism.

Brilliant, flawed, essential stuff.


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Mark Holland said...

The first English settlement was a Roanoke in what's now North Carolina. That went tits up and the population all got wiped out. Jamestown in Virginia was the first succesful settlement. Ooh, been there.

Dirk said...

Roanoke is in Virginia.

Mark Holland said...


Ben said...

I read about 'The Missouri Breaks' - didn't actually see it, unfortunately, but it sounded very good.