Sunday, September 11, 2005

beta feels oates with the hired hand and the shooting hand

While a truly awful film transfer, bordering on a taped TV show quality, (and who is really going to go back and properly archive every two-bit TV western that strolled into a plywood town like some mean, squinting, dusty stranger, especially a Roger Corman one?) it was worth tracking down the hokey DVD titled "Big Screen" Cowboys just to see the early Monte Hellman western that was tacked onto it, entitled The Shooting. (Hellman would go on to cult classics like Two Lane Blacktop and The Cockfighter, as well as executive produce this little film called Reservoir Dogs.) It's the earliest Jack Nicholson appearance I've ever seen, playing a murderous gunman named Billy Spears. Of course, Jack's entrance midway through is all but lost in the evening shots that the transfer destroys any and all subtlety of, the shadows but indistinguishable mottled blobs. Now Jack is the quickest draw, but the real star is Warren Oates, who apparently is the quickest bare-handed grave-digger in the West. Just like in The Cockfighter, Oates chews up the most scenery when he's silent, his face just a flicker to suggest those freight trains of emotion that tunnel below the surface. So accompanies a Feldman-esque soundtrack of cycling motifs, full of anxiety and heightened edginess.

Banged out in 1967, you wouldn't be able to guess its place in American history unless you could tap into the edginess of the times, and then the fear and loathing is not just palpable, but seething and bile-forming. It's a ride of attrition, cruelty to both man and the horse (even a bluebird is shot for spiteful sport), as Oates and a ranchhand help a woman bent on revenge track the offending party that may or may not be his brother, while psychopath Spears trails the party. Weary bodies, already sick of the killing (the cruelest threat is getting your face shot off) are trapped to struggle along with and depend on for survival with truly awful sorts. A simple man like Oates (who is just searching for his brother) is forced to associate with sociopaths and vengeful people, where revenge is the only principle, the taste of blood paramount to slaking of hunger, thirst, sanity. He becomes one of them, not killing Spears when he has the chance (and exact revenge on him for killing his buddy in cold blood) but instead smashing his right hand so that he can never shoot again. The slo-mo ending feels like one of those dreaded dreams where your body won't respond to stop the madness, much less salvage itself. All feel helpless and staggering afterwards.

The next weirdest Western then (aside from High Plains Drifter, I reckon) must be this one that Peter Fonda made after Easy Rider, The Hired Hand. Maybe Jack wore off on him, as I still haven't seen a genre flick that readily incorporates a Bruce Conner-like transparency of film images, an invocation to the four elements, and a reading from the ancient Gnostic text, the Gospel According to Thomas into its fibers quite like this. And of course, there's Warren Oates again. And looking back to my original discourse, I realize I've basically looped myself, so I'll just post some of this Americana cosmisch musick from the reeaaaal Mister Tamborine Man, Bruce Langhorne:

"Three Teeth"
"Arch Leaves"


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