Monday, July 14, 2008

The Home Viewer 9: Just Another Word

Oops; forgot to post the following column I wrote for our local paper back on July 3. My editor asked for movies about "freedom and independence," and all I had was a re-imagined memory: nine years old and setting off firecrackers, nervous and eager, doing exactly as I pleased.

When I was a kid in New Jersey, my Fourth of July fireworks connection was Tim--actually, his older brother Ed, a genuine early-1960s hood, scary and impressive. Ed got us the good stuff: long double-row strands of Black Cat firecrackers; cherry bombs that looked like miniature versions of those hand-held explosives favored by cartoon villains; and the legendary M-80, which sounded like Doom clearing its throat and could punch sudden holes in most anything we’d cram it into. And of course the showering rockets and Roman candles, propelled above the suburban rooftops or spreading like fiery peacock feathers in the gloom of my backyard. No sparklers or fizzing bottle rockets for us; Ed brought only concussive oriental danger, Adult Supervision Required--but seldom obtained.

And so, if this Home Viewer is about movies of freedom and independence, it starts there, in the peril and joy of sulfuric freedom, the reckless independence that made me both grin and flinch.

Nothing Left to Lose

A guilty pleasure: movie heroes who couldn’t care less. Things are going so well--or so terribly--that nothing can touch their upward trajectory or downward spiral.

First, joy. Watch Richard Dreyfuss clench his teeth like a roller-coaster enthusiast in Let It Ride (1989), a gambling movie that captures the full-tilt thrill of a winning streak, as Dreyfuss’ compulsive gambler--who repeatedly promises his wife (Teri Garr) he’s coming home--keeps playing the ponies, while every other loser at the track rides with him, for once picking nothing but winners.

But also despair. Watch Nicolas Cage contort that happy-puppy face of his into manic, hopeless-but-unstoppable yearning in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Like Dreyfuss, Cage’s insomniac ambulance driver is surrounded by like-minded madmen (Tom Sizemore, Ving Rhames, John Goodman); but here they fuel Cage’s guilt-ridden quest to drive anywhere for redemption. Trapped by regret, he frees himself to ride the nightmare wherever it wants to take him.

The Burden of Freedom

I’m thinking of the Kris Kristofferson song, in which at first he prays that God forgives those who don’t understand him--but then, as he considers he has “wounded / The last one who loved [him],” he prays she will forgive him. From the egoism of the self-righteous to the humility of the self-aware; there’s your burden for you. And nothing captures this better than movie incarnations of the Hemingway-esque “code hero,” who lives by a personal morality in a dark world, and whose failures are of no concern, as long as the code is followed. If these heroes are humbled, it’s by the code itself, which treats its faithful followers with indifference.

Despite its problems, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) confronts the burden of freedom, interrogating John Wayne’s code hero, Ethan Edwards, with a strange combination of sympathy and fear, even disgust. Ethan is the outsider, entering the homestead uninvited, his seemingly unbreakable resolve both respected and loathed. It’s as if Ford realized he had invented “John Wayne,” and was using Ethan to discover if he’d done the right thing. True, Ethan is the only man for dire circumstances--but he brings trouble with him, and is forced to cast off his pride to save the innocent (Natalie Wood) as well as himself.

The weight of the code can be felt in many films, from the hard-boiled detectives of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Murder, My Sweet (1944) to the hard-boiled crooks of Touchez Pas au Grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1960) and Shoot the Piano Player (1962). Just a word on two particularly startling examples: Detective Story (1951) and This Gun for Hire (1942), starring actors--Kirk Douglas and Alan Ladd, respectively--who couldn’t be less alike, but who manage to take their characters (Douglas a police detective, Ladd a hit man) all the way to the pitch-thick bottom of the code. Pride and despair drive them, expose them, finish them off. Among the darkest noirs to ask where personal freedom ends and personal responsibility begins.

Yankee Dandies

All right, I haven’t forgotten the Fourth of July. But if we’re going to get freedom and independence, we have to earn it. And if the Fourth means Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), then so be it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Jimmy Cagney’s George M. Cohan may be as grand an old guy as the flag he wrote songs about--but after all, it’s still Cagney. Seeing him draw himself up to hoof it like a flaming pinwheel, his face steady, his eyes staring into the camera, I can’t help but think of The Public Enemy eleven years earlier or Cody Jarrett seven years to come in White Heat--the three of them cocky and infinitely pleased with themselves--and relentless in their self-assertions.

Only Mickey Rooney could summon more energy than Cagney (if you don’t count Kate Hepburn in screwball-comedy mode), but you’d be hard-pressed to find an actor happier to be a sociopath in one movie and a barnstorming vaudevillian in another. So maybe this is the perfect Fourth of July movie: like fireworks, high jinks and mayhem combined, with a big explosive finish. Top of the world, Ma.

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