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Pale Rider

31 Jan

Spoiler alert:- if you haven’t seen the following films; Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Noon, Shane or Rio Bravo, but you plan to and you don’t want to have any plot details revealed, then maybe you should stop reading now.

I don’t normally write about films I don’t like, but I’m willing to make an exception for Pale Rider.

I should also mention that I have a great respect for Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker (I don’t care to comment on his politics) and the following remarks should be read with that in mind.

Maybe Pale Rider should have worked, since it’s an example of Clint Eastwood revisiting an idea that he had used successfully before.

The origins of High Plains Drifter (as I think Clint Eastwood has said himself) lie with High Noon. High Plains Drifter starts off from considering what would have happened to the town of Hadleyville if Will Kane (Gary Cooper) had been killed by Frank Miller and his gang.

Needless to say there’s more to High Plains Drifter than that, and it can also be read as a ghost story where the drifter (Clint Eastwood) may be the ghost of Jim Duncan, the murdered sheriff of Lago. (Or possibly he’s a man who’s haunted and driven by Duncan’s ghost, it’s hard to say and to a degree this enigmatic quality is part of what makes the film so effective).

Pale Rider, on the other hand is pretty obviously a reworking of Shane. And maybe this is where the problems start because while High Noon is a complex, brilliant and highly intelligent film, that’s not a moment too long, Shane, in my opinion, is a pretty lightweight children’s novel that was adapted into an overblown, overlong, pretentious sagging mess of a film.

In fairness I should add that it’s also a film that is loved and revered by an enormous number of people whose opinion is every bit as valid as mine and it’s also worth mentioning that even I enjoyed watching Jack Palance, clearly having a whale of a time, playing the wicked gunslinger. In fact I would have found the film much more tolerable if he’d had a lot more screen time, but regrettably that’s just not the way the story was written. (Maybe an idea for another film, anyone?)

Having said that, starting from what I consider to be vastly overrated source material needn’t have been a fatal weakness. Sometimes you can create something really interesting as a response to source material that you really don’t like. For example Rio Bravo was very much John Wayne’s reaction to High Noon – a film he described as ‘un-American’ and essentially it’s his retelling of a broadly similar story in his own way, reflecting his own values and perceptions. (Personally, I think High Noon is the better film, but both are undeniably classic examples of the genre). But then again, maybe Clint Eastwood doesn’t dislike Shane as much as I do and he’s trying to emulate it, rather than reacting against it.

So in Pale Rider Clint Eastwood is revisiting a method of working that had worked form him before. Pale Rider is also similar to High Plains Drifter in having an enigmatic central character (played by Clint Eastwood himself) who may, or may not, be the ghost of a righteous man who was murdered.

The film starts with thugs riding into the camp of a group of eco-friendly(?) gold miners where they cause mayhem and shoot a small dog. The small dog belongs to Megan (wikipedia puts her age at 14, I had the vague impression that she might have been a little older than that, but I’m a poor judge of ages and I suspect that Sydney Penny, who played Megan, probably was a bit older than 14).

Megan goes off by herself to bury her little dog and prays over the grave. As I recall her prayer is not altogether Christian in some respects and her prayer seems to act as an invocation that summons the eponymous pale rider out of the haze. (And this recalls the appearance of the Drifter in High Plains Drifter).

Megan’s, would be stepfather, Hull Barret (played by the excellent Michael Moriarty) heads off into town for supplies, against the advice of all and sundry and is set upon by a gang of thugs, basically more of the same thugs who rode into the miner’s camp. He is then rescued by an enigmatic stranger (Clint Eastwood) whom he invites home for supper.

So far so good.

But then Clint Eastwood seems to start making a series of mistakes that turn a promising start into what seems to me to be a self-indulgent vanity project.

I think most of the mistakes revolve around the character of Megan. She is clearly a young girl who is hovering somewhere on the verge of sexual awakening and maybe this was dangerous territory for a man at the stage of life that Eastwood had reached when he made this film.

The first problem with Megan is that she’s under written and under developed.

From a promising beginning, where she seems to conjure the mysterious drifter, out of the ether, she then lapses into being a silly little girl who falls in love, or at least becomes infatuated, with Eastwood’s character. (Henceforth referred to as The Preacher). There is even a somewhat toe-curling scene where Megan offers The Preacher her favours (and is turned down in manly fashion). This rejection seems to prompt Megan to make the absolutely bizarre decision to visit the mining camp owned by Coy Lahood. (The truly hissable villain who not only employs the thugs who have been harassing the miners, but who is also an eco-rapist using hydraulic mining methods that are shown to be incredibly destructive and are also apparently about to be outlawed).

The camp is being run by Lahood’s son, Josh (played by the late, and sadly missed, Christopher Penn). Josh is initially hospitable and shows Megan around the camp. He is also closer to Megan’s age than The Preacher and, one suspects, the underlying reason for Megan’s visit. The implication seems to be that, having had her advances rejected by The Preacher, she is now throwing herself at Josh. (Honestly, outside of the fantasies of middle aged men; do teenage girls really behave like this?).

In any case, Josh soon shows his true (and rather despicable) colours by attempting to rape Megan amidst a cheering mob of Lahood employees. Megan is rescued by Club, (Richard Kiel) another Lahood employee, but one whose mother clearly taught him better. A shot of The Preacher looking on approvingly indicates that he would have intervened (probably with a rifle shot) had Club not done so.

In the meantime Lahood Snr hires the sinister Sheriff Stockburn (John Russell) and his posse of equally sinister deputies. (Billy Drago in particular makes a superbly sinister deputy). Stockburn’s reaction to a verbal description of The Preacher indicates that the two men have a history although Stockburn indicates that The Preacher is already dead. (As he may well be – it’s that sort of film).

From here on in we should be back on reasonably solid ground. The sinister sheriff and his sinister deputies will seek to kill The Preacher and drive the eco-friendly miners off their claims and they will, in turn, be duly despatched in various ways by The Preacher.

Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood makes another mistake at this point. One of the themes of the film has been the somewhat troubled relationship between Hull Barret and Megan’s mother, Sarah Wheeler (played by the truly excellent Carrie Snodgrass). Barret has been nothing but nice and kind and gentle towards Sarah and he has been protective and nurturing towards Megan (and not even a tiny bit sleazy, his intentions towards both women are entirely honourable and appropriate). Unfortunately Sarah has been abandoned by Megan’s father and she feels unable to commit to Hull and accept his offer of marriage due to her consequent inability to trust men.

For some reason, Sarah then has a sexual encounter with The Preacher and we are expected to believe that this, somehow, facilitates Sarah’s relationship with Barret. (As opposed to undermining it and possibly even destroying it completely, which seems much more likely to me).

Other than sheer vanity on the part of Clint Eastwood, or possibly pandering to what he assumes his fans expect of the characters he plays, I don’t see why the plot should take this turn.

Much like Megan’s infatuation with The Preacher and her subsequent visit to Lahood’s mining camp it seems to be driven by male fantasy and not by any plausible motivation on the part of the women concerned. And this is particularly curious in a Clint Eastwood film given that, generally speaking, he has a pretty good record when it comes to the female characters who appear in his films. He has even been described as the most successful feminist filmmaker in Hollywood.

All in all, I think that somewhere inside the self indulgent mess that is Pale Rider, there’s a much better film trying to get out.

So what would have made Pale Rider a better film?

Well, the first thing that could, and should, have been done would have been to give Megan a little more complexity. Not to mention a little bit of common sense.

It seems to me that having conjured The Preacher out of the ether, Megan’s attitude towards him should have been a little more ambivalent than simple-minded adolescent infatuation.

She might well have been fascinated by him, but wouldn’t she have been the least bit unsettled, and possibly even afraid of him? Shouldn’t she have been the least bit disturbed at what she had managed (albeit inadvertently) to do?

Her visit to the Lahood camp also seems like clumsy story telling. She has to know that the camp is full of people who are far from friendly neighbours and while she might not anticipate the attempted rape, surely anyone with any common sense would have expected some kind for trouble from the visit. Is she supposed to be stupid, reckless or just self-destructive? (I won’t even bother with the possibility that she’s somehow inviting rape. It would have a parallel with one of the more disturbing scenes in High Plains Drifter, but there’s a difference between an adult woman of uncertain sexual mores behaving in a provocative manner and a pubescent girl doing the same).

So it seems to me as though this scene is about placing Megan in jeopardy and in giving Josh an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s really not a very nice man. The first purpose seems to me to be redundant and the second could surely have been managed rather better.

I also think the sexual encounter between Sarah and The Preacher could also have been dropped. It seems to come out of nowhere, to serve no real purpose and to be altogether implausible.

I also think that Hull Barret is much too passive as a character.

He’s presented as being nice, reliable, decent, altogether tedious and ultimately ineffectual. I think if he had been shown to have a bit more moral authority, preferably expressed in a non-violent way, the film would have been more balanced and there would have been a greater degree of moral complexity.

In short there would have been the possibility of suggesting that there are ways of being a good man other than simply killing bad men.

As it is, however, the suggestion seems to be that good men who don’t kill are boring (and sexually unattractive) and that the only way to be truly heroic (and get laid) is to kill someone. (Even Barret ends up shooting Lahood Snr in order to prevent him from shooting The Preacher in the back. The fact that The Preacher has clearly already survived being shot in the back, given all the scars revealed when he takes his shirt off to have a wash, suggests that Barret’s gesture is an unnecessary precaution, although I suppose a welcome act of generosity nonetheless).

So there it is.

In my opinion Pale Rider is one of Clint Eastwood’s failures. He does have them from time to time. And I think the reason it’s a failure is because in this film Clint Eastwood does not follow his usual practice of allowing his female character to be fully developed and have credible motivations and because he builds his own character up at the expense of other characters.

If you want an example of where Eastwood gets it right see The Outlaw Jose Wales where Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) may be strange and certainly falls in love with Wales, but is at least an interesting character. As is Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams) and Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman).

In addition to this Clint Eastwood consistently gives most of the best lines to Lone Watie (Chief Dan George who delivers those lines with understated aplomb), while Fletcher (John Vernon) plays a key role as observer and commentator (almost like a one-man Greek chorus). This is Clint Eastwood at his best and most generous and it’s one of his best films.

And you’ll see similar characteristics from him in what may be an even better film, Unforgiven.

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The Use of a PYT as a PV for a PT Does Not Necessarily Prove Misogyny (But it Might).

29 Nov

Horror films have often, and sometimes quite rightly, been accused of misogyny. This is hardly surprising given that a great many distinctly unpleasant things happen in horror films and they very often happen to women. I can’t offer any statistics on the subject, but it’s my general impression, having watched quite a few horror films in my time that a disproportionate number of these unpleasant happenings either happen or are threatened to happen to women.

There is also the question of the way women are actually portrayed in horror films. For example, either as weak, silly and generally in need of rescue, or alternatively as predatory, deceivers and seducers. But I think this is a separate and more general issue and certainly not one that is specific to any particular genre.

What I intend to offer is a structural examination of how horror films work, why this tends to encourage the use of female characters as victims or potential victims and why I don’t think that this is necessarily misogynist in intent or in effect.

I think the best way to explain this is to consider the mechanics of how to put together the kind of scene that one would expect to see in a horror film.

At the heart of any self-respecting horror film there has to be a Potential Threat (PT).

This can be a vampire, a serial killer, a monster or a herd of zombies. (As I have suggested elsewhere, one zombie on its own isn’t much of a threat – and would probably feel quite lonely, zombies are nothing if not social creatures).

In order to demonstrate that the PT is indeed a threat, he, she, or it, has to inflict varying degrees of unpleasantness on someone. Otherwise the audience may conclude that the PT is, in fact, some perfectly harmless member of the community who just happens to be wearing a boiler suit and a hockey mask and carrying a steak knife, chain saw or possibly a flame thrower for some entirely innocuous purpose.

Therefore the PT needs to have at least one Actual Victim (AV) and, in order to maintain some degree of tension over a period of time, someone who can be seen to be in danger from the PT, but who is not immediately dispatched. What one might call a Potential Victim (PV).

Otherwise they’re really not much of a threat and you’re going to end up with a pretty bland horror film.

Now, in order to be effective the PV has to have certain key characteristics.

First and foremost, the PV has to be someone the audience will care about. In other words, the PV has to possess some quality that the audience will engage with. The second key characteristic that an effective PV must possess is that they must appear to be vulnerable to the PT. If the PV seems capable of fending off the PT then there isn’t much for the audience to feel any sense of foreboding about.

These points are relatively obvious, but it’s worth looking at how they impact on the options available the filmmakers.

There are, of course, many ways to encourage an audience to engage with a character. One of the most effective is to hire a really good actor, someone who can engage an audience through the quality of their performance. This can be expensive and it will also require a certain amount of screen time to give the actor an opportunity to show the audience who their character is.

What is sometimes a safer and easier option is to hire a popular actor, someone that the audience already knows and likes because of their previous body of work. This can be very expensive.

Another option would be to find a really good scriptwriter who can create a really interesting and engaging character for an actor to portray. This requires hard work and talent and although it’s generally nowhere near as expensive as hiring a really good, or really popular actor (not always the same thing) it will still cost a certain amount of money. It will also, like using a really good actor, require some screen time.

Hiring a good director will generally be more expensive than hiring a good writer, but usually less expensive than hiring a popular actor, but again, the use of skill and creativity to make a character attractive to an audience will require a certain amount of screen time.

All of the above options can be very effective. But if one assumes a low budget, limited talent, and a general sense of urgency about getting on with the gory bits that the audience is actually paying to see, then a simpler option is to forget all of the above and just hire an actor who looks nice.

This need not be expensive, and requires only basic competence from all concerned. It’s also an option that will require very little screen time to exploit, since all you have to do is show the actor to the audience and they will, hopefully, be engaged.

When one considers the demographic that horror films tend to be aimed at, which would be (mostly) young(ish) men, then the obvious choice when selecting an actor who will looks nice to them, is to choose an attractive (probably) young woman* in order to play a role that one might characterise as a Pretty Young Thing (PYT)**.

Clearly some women also like to watch horror films, but this doesn’t present a difficulty since women also seem to like looking at attractive women. (Look at the cover of any women’s magazine and you’ll generally see a picture of a woman. Not the same kind of picture that you would see on the cover of magazines aimed at men, to be sure. But this fact does seem to indicate that while women may not (and almost certainly don’t) look at pictures of women in quite the same way, or for the same reasons, as men do, (regardless, I suspect of sexual orientation – men tend to be far more visually oriented than women) they do still like to look at pictures of women.

So it seems reasonably likely that a PYT may well engage women just as effectively as men although probably in a different way. (I think this point applies quite well unless the PYT in question is really wimpy and useless in which case I suspect that most women, far from engaging with her, will want to give her a slap).

So if you can put a PYT on the screen, you will probably engage most of your audience with a minimum of effort and expense.

Another major advantage of using a PYT as your PV is that you don’t need to work very hard to find a PT who can provide a plausible sense of menace. All you really need, in fact, is an actor with a suitably sharp implement. (Hockey masks, boiler suits, gloves equipped with blades on the fingers and clumpy boots are optional extras, and you don’t even need an actor who is particularly big. After all, how big do you need to be in order to threaten a PYT if you’ve got a suitably sharp implement at your disposal?).

When carried out effectively, for example in Halloween, the formula works very well.

But then again, John Carpenter also had a very good actor in Jamie Leigh Curtis, (Donald Pleasence was also brilliant) a very effective script and sure hand in developing atmosphere and character and generally scaring the living crap out of his audience.

A far less competent version of the formula can be seen in Friday the 13th Part Whatever It Was. (I can’t remember the number but it’s the one where they spend most of their time on a ship going to New York).***

This film dragged on for a seemingly interminable running time with an apparently infinite series of deeply unattractive teenagers being carved up for no obvious reason unless the film makers had simply set themselves some kind of quota to meet. It’s not the only horror film I’ve seen where the PVs totally failed to engage my sympathy, but at least with a film like Nightwing I could have a certain amount of fun from cheering the bats on. (I’m referring here to the rather disappointing 1979 screen adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s rather good novel of the same title which is not to be confused with the later superhero film and TV series).

Of course there are variations on this basic formula, and arguably the variations are much more effective than the original formula.

For example, in Predator we had Arnold Schwarzenegger and his impressively pumped up pals tramping through the jungle with enough military hardware to fight a small war.

Clearly there’s no point in sending some character armed with a steak knife to threaten these PVs, you need something much more formidable than that. And, of course, that’s exactly what we get in the titular predator. He’s bigger than Big Arnie, better armed than the entire troop of pumped up pals and also invisible. (He’s also, as Schwarzenegger’s character points out, an ugly mother f*cker).

But then again, this stripped down and rather efficient little horror film wasn’t exactly produced on a shoestring and it featured Arnold Schwarzenegger at pretty much the height of his popularity (ie before he decided to try his hand at comedy). In other words, there was no need to depend on a PYT since the budget was big enough to afford a popular actor. (Having said this the film does still feature a female character, Anna played by Elpidia Carillo, who’s somewhat less vapid than your run of the mill PYT, but still essentially there initially to be dragged around, and latterly to be protected, if not actually rescued by the pumped up pals).

Another, and rather more radical departure from the basic formula is to eschew the PYT option and go for a tough, smart heroine who can and will fight back when threatened. This was clearly a large part of Joss Whedon’s thinking in creating Buffy Summers, given that any vampire who tried his or her luck with Buffy was definitely taking his or her life (unlife?) in his or her hands.

Ellen Ripley (Alien) and Sarah Connor (Terminator) are similar in a way, but different in as much as they aren’t born with a mission to take on the monsters. They’re simply women who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and have to use what skill and courage God (in the form of Ridley Scott and James Cameron) gave them in order to survive.

Come to think of it, Laurie Strode (Jamie Leigh Curtis’ character from Halloween) is also a heroine in this mould. She’s a pretty normal teenager (which means much tougher and smarter than the normal inhabitant of a stalk and slash feature) who just happens to find herself in danger and manages to kick some pretty serious ass in self-defence.

Her ass-kicking is, regrettably, not quite serious enough to save us from a whole series of sequels, but this is often the trouble with clever and effective films – they tend to be successful and therefore spawn all manner of inferior sequels, spin offs, rip offs and ‘homages’ ad nauseam. (And it’s worth remembering quite how original Halloween was in bringing the horror genre out of the creepy mansions and crumbly castles and sticking it right in the middle of the picket fences and lawn sprinklers of suburban America. It may seem like an obvious cliché now, but it wasn’t back then).

So the basic formula, which is effective in a workmanlike sort of way, can also, like so many formulae, provide the basis for variations that are much more interesting.

And I would argue that those who stick more closely to the basic formula are probably acting more out of laziness, lack of funds, lack of imagination or lack of skill than misogyny. I also like to think that the effect of this formula, since it depends on the sympathies of the audience being with the PV, as opposed to the PT, and so also probably not misogynist.

There are exceptions, obviously.

Freddy Krueger may have started out as the villain in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, but as the franchise progressed it changed and Krueger became more like an anti-hero than an out and out villain. There’s a similar invitation to the audience to collude with the villain in the last scene of Silence of the Lambs.

These exceptions are, however, simply ironic variations on the basic formula I have described. (It’s also worth noting that the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise typically featured strong female characters who played a decisive role in the plot while Clarisse Starling was clearly far more than just another PYT).

Therefore, even the use of a PYT as a PV for the PT does not necessarily demonstrate misogyny in the plot of a horror film. It’s far more likely to be yet another example of film makers exploiting a tried and tested solution to the problem of how to engage an audience with the minimum expenditure of money, screen time and effort.

(And if that last sentence didn’t make any sense to you, you’ll just have to go back and reread the rest of this post).

* Clearly sexual orientations vary, but I’m not persuaded that the tendency of men to engage with female characters is necessarily predicated on sexual attraction, although that will often be a part of it. Misogynists aside, I think most men tend to have some kind of protective response to a woman who is perceived to be at risk. This may be nothing more than the (less un)acceptable face of male chauvinism, but it’s a rare, and pretty suspect man who doesn’t have this response to some degree or another.

** The term PYT is intended to indicate a particular type of screen character (ie young, pretty underdeveloped and very often with very little to do except be threatened, rescued, seduced etc etc – eye candy if you prefer). It is NOT intended to refer to any actual woman or girl living in what passes for the real world.

*** The original Friday the 13th may not have been quite this bad, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen it and I have no plans to. Jason X with its science fiction backdrop and mocking references to its own franchise tropes, including a holographic version of Camp Crystal Lake complete with bikini clad PYTs, is actually quite amusing and should probably have marked the end of this rather dismal franchise. Unfortunately, it didn’t.