For a filmmaker who once enjoyed a hearty reputation as a bad-boy subversive, Quentin Tarantino has always been awfully eager to please, especially in his early films, which are neurotically obsessed with coolness as pop-cultural vindication. A key moment in Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance, which Tarantino wrote, spells this obsession out when Patricia Arquette’s reformed prostitute, Alabama Whitman, repeats, “You’re so cool,” in voiceover as an incantation that embodies a supreme and fragile sort of male fulfillment. Alabama is talking about her unlikely adoration of Christian Slater’s nerdy protagonist, Clarence Worley, who was once a clerk in a comic-book store, which is obviously and consciously similar to Tarantino’s heavily mythologized background as a video-store employee. Like Clarence, Tarantino made phenomenally good on his dreams.
Related to True Romance is Tarantino’s stint hosting Saturday Night Live in the wake of Pulp Fiction’s stratospheric success, where he appeared in a sketch in which he boasted that, as a once overweight clerk ignored by women, of course he sleeps with all the actresses he works with. Tarantino’s early films revel in this association of dwarfed masculinity transcended, as they’re fueled by the energy of a frustrated creative who’s finally permitted to let his emasculated white-boy id run wild. Yet there’s also an insecure mania in Tarantino’s early work, as if the bottom could fall out from under the cool braggadocio at any time. Coolness is unstable and fickle.
As Tarantino’s first film as both writer and director, Reservoir Dogs indicates a remarkably fully formed cinematic sensibility, for both better and worse. It’s a personally impersonal film, which is to say that Tarantino’s fetishizing of objects—coffee, sunglasses, boots, posters, guns, knives, music, movies—and intricate genre situations inadvertently reveal something specific about him, which is his deep and abiding need for these tropes and textures as comfort blankets. An odd vulnerability is inherent in Tarantino’s reluctance to stake out explicitly emotional or political ground—of which he’s aware. And there’s an earnestness in Reservoir Dogs that renders Tarantino’s obnoxiousness palatable, to which QT’s countless imitators have often seemed willfully blind.
Reservoir Dogs is another film about a heist gone wrong, in which a half-dozen profane and entitled white dudes blow each other to pieces with guns that the director never fails to erotize in glisteningly phallic compositions. Racial identity is obviously on Tarantino’s mind. Black women are lusted after by these characters, and the worst thing a white man can be called is a “nigger.” This epithet is more disturbingly evoked in Reservoir Dogs than in Django Unchained because the former uses it only a few times, allowing the bitterness and resentment of its utterance to hang in the room, or, in this case, the dilapidated warehouse that serves as the film’s nearly singular set.
Tarantino would profoundly grapple with white men’s uncertain grasp of African-American identity in Jackie Brown, and with the empathetic limitations that might be tragically inherent in relationships between American blacks and whites. In Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Pulp Fiction, blackness is a pose—something for a white boy to admire from a fearful distance. Tarantino isn’t unaware of this, but he isn’t truly willing to challenge this sideways racism either. For instance, the prospect of white and black men violently fucking appears to turn Tarantino on; he thinks of such taboo collisions as the height of outrage and a sure way to bolster the bad-boy persona he craves. In terms of pop-cultural reverberations, Tarantino was correct.
In Reservoir Dogs, there’s a prolonged and disreputably amusing moment where Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), the second in command of an operation to lift uncut diamonds from a bank, ribs a friend and cohort, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), for how much he presumes that black cons must have fucked Blonde while he was in jail. This moment thematically connects to Nice Guy Eddie’s remembrance of a waitress who might’ve looked a little like Pam Grier (star of Jackie Brown), who glued her abusive husband’s cock to his stomach. Comedy and racially tinged sex and violence are always linked in Reservoir Dogs, paving the way for the racially motivated rape in Pulp Fiction, which is nearly staged for comedy and has an obscene subtext of wish-fulfilling role reversal. In Tarantino’s world, the white boy gets to be the rapist. (Correspondingly, think of Gary Oldman’s black-thug wannabe in True Romance, whose murder sexually empowered white-dweeb Clarence.)
To look for these sorts of meanings in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction—to take the films seriously, in other words—is to invite scorn from Tarantino fanboys and even serious critics. Yes, contrary to the insistence of SJWs all over, art should be allowed to be offensive and artists should be able to access troubling parts of their personalities, but we should also be willing to acknowledge when such indulgences take us into troubling or simply boring waters so as to map said waters. QT has often ingeniously positioned himself ahead of criticism. To view his early films with scrutiny and sincerity is to be a prude who’s immune to the sheer adrenaline rush of sensation that they offer.
And make no mistake: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are carefully cultivated in terms of fetishism and momentous juxtaposition of foreplay (via dialogue) and orgasm (via violence). Tarantino is a distinctively, theatrically threadbare stylist who knew how to spin his limitations early in his career to his ultimate advantage. The filmmaker is certainly aware of the aforementioned dissonances and disturbances; that’s partially the point, as these films are less without a paradoxical patina of safely controlled outrage.
For all the cinephiliac references that abound in Reservoir Dogs, there’s a figure of inspiration to Tarantino that’s been acknowledged but underestimated: David Lynch. Tarantino’s early films take Lynch’s totemic pop-art aesthetic and dilute its political and psychological undertow, replacing it with attitude. The most infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs, its Thanksgiving centerpiece of violation, is when Mr. Blonde tortures Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), a cop whom the gang has taken hostage. Blonde slices off Marvin’s ear with a glistening straight razor, which he pulls out of an immaculately macho cowboy boot, while Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” plays on a cheap stereo in the warehouse. This mixture of atrocity and kitsch is unthinkable without Lynch’s work, particularly the scene in Blue Velvet where Dean Stockwell’s character lip-synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.”
There are many differences between these respective scenes. Lynch mines a horrible moment of exploitation and degradation for its nightmarish beauty, as beauty and subjugation are always unresolvedly and ambiguously intertwined for Lynch. By contrast, Tarantino’s glee over Marvin’s torture is reprehensible and embarrassingly infantile: He values the scene for its visceral sensation. Tarantino lingers with faux rapture on a close-up of Marvin as his duct-taped head bleeds as the song plays on and Mr. Blonde dances around with brio. Lynch achieves true rapture though, without shortchanging the painful implications of the images and situations, because rapture requires pain, or emotion, which requires tonal risk.
Reservoir Dogs introduced the core conflict that still runs through Tarantino’s filmography: between sensitivity and inquisitiveness and shock-jocularity. Cumulatively, Tarantino doesn’t have a solely cartoonish relationship with violence. Jackie Brown, Death Proof, and The Hateful Eight abound in violence that’s upsettingly beautiful and cathartic as well as mysterious and socially undigested. Not coincidentally, these are among Tarantino’s least profitable films. Even in Reservoir Dogs, there’s a yearning for something richer than what Tarantino the astute showman knows will “play” to vast audiences.
This yearning is visible in the extraordinary performances of Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi as the most significant of the quintet of jewel thieves at the center of Reservoir Dogs. These are great and experienced actors, but Tarantino’s rapport with them is astonishing, particularly as a neophyte. For all its problems, Tarantino’s early work has a vitality that’s missing from the more ambitious and preachy epics that have turned the filmmaker into a gory social-issues artist—a hip version of Stanley Kramer. Tarantino now has the power to command vast budgets and fabricate his own realities wholesale, while Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown depend on an element of spontaneous verisimilitude.
Tarantino finds Cassavetes-style poetry in Roth, Keitel, and Buscemi’s craggy, vulnerable, working-class-hero faces, and he captures and encourages gestures that transcend the film’s warring thrill-ride mentality. As Roth’s Mr. Orange dies on a ramp engulfed in his own blood, Keitel’s Mr. White combs his hair back with unmistakably paternal love that renders the final twist of the narrative authentically painful. Betrayed, Mr. White weeps, collapsing into a soundscape of bullet-ridden despair. Tarantino invented a certain kind of disenchanted 1990s-era cool that complemented the rise of bands like Nirvana, but pop culture learned the wrong lessons from him and vice versa. When Tarantino dares to look under the perverted and wounded hood of male ego, his ego, he reveals himself to be a major artist.
This talented, hard-working thespian’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision.
When he was a young man, Al Pacino, a dreadfully handsome troublemaker and high school dropout, was often homeless. He sometimes slept on the stage at HB Studio, where he was studying and performing. The aspiring actor had ambitions but not many means. He took work as a busboy, a switchboard operator, and a mailroom clerk for Commentary Magazine. He was cheerful and hard-working, with an unbridled energy and, despite his circumstances, a pertinacious optimism. “I didn’t walk to work,” he once told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, “I leapt to work.”
Born in East Harlem and raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in the south Bronx (his grandparents were, funny enough, from a Sicilian town called Corleone), he went by the nickname Sonny, and was called “The Actor” by friends and family due to his penchant for performing scenes from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which he saw when he was five. “Borderline shy,” by his own admission, Pacino lived in his imagination, seeking solace in the darkness of the cinema. (Before he pursued a career in acting, he wanted to be a baseball player, a natural inclination when one grows up in the Bronx.) When Pacino was two, his father abandoned him and his mother, and one feels this absence lingering over his most famous performances like an unanswered question. He regularly plays solitary men, professionals dedicated to their work, men whose family lives are a shambles, or whose families are their life. Think of Frank Serpico, twitchy-eyed and bushy bearded, uttering, “If I could just work alone, if I could just work alone…”
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, maybe the great father-son film of the New Hollywood era, Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the good son who turns into a vindictive gangster, to his father’s immense disappointment. When he takes over the family business, Michael exudes a ruthlessness that his old man disavowed. Freud talked of men wanting to kill their fathers to become them, but Michael breaks his father’s heart and becomes someone else, someone increasingly craven, a man slowly slipping into evil. He loses his soul in his search for power. Watch Pacino, hair shellacked and slick, as black as crude oil, as he grabs his brother, Fredo (played by John Cazale), and notice the vehemence in his eyes as he says, “You broke my heart.” He looks as though he could tear Fredo’s face off right there.
Though Marlon Brando was the ostensible star of the first Godfather—it’s his sullen and sapiential face that adorns the poster, and he who took home an Oscar—the trilogy really belongs to Pacino’s Michael. It’s the story of a man whose potential for greatness transmogrified into evil, slowly and heartbreakingly—of the college boy, the war hero, following not in his father’s footsteps, but in a disfigured image of his shadow. Cinematographer Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting throws upon Michael a visual dichotomy, half basked in golden light and half shrouded in shadows. As The Godfather progresses, he veers increasingly into darkness until he emerges, alone, into an autumn afternoon, left to ponder his iniquitous decisions.
Despite the composed, sometimes phlegmatic demeanor of Michael Corleone, that simmering indolence and careful elocution, something seethes behind his eyes: a sufferance for violence. All of Pacino’s great characters have the potential to hurt or maim or kill, usually out of necessity or a particular sense of pragmatism—a rarefied dangerousness. Pacino has a tragic air about him. One feels it in his stare: an overcompensation for some unuttered anxiety or self-doubt in all that shouting that typifies much of his raspy-voiced later work. There’s a protean quality to Pacino’s acting. Like his great characters, these unrelenting professionals, he isn’t unwilling to do what’s necessary: to explode when his instincts command him to, to recede into placidity when the scene calls for it. Bespoke or bedraggled, garbed in elegant suits or a leather vest, he emanates a peculiar masculinity, a kind of vulnerability.
From 1971 to 1976, Pacino had a run of performances that boggles the mind—in Jerry Schatzberg’s A Panic in Needle Park, the two Godfather films, and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Each performance has become enshrined in the American cinema canon. In these roles, one finds a man mining the depths of masculine fragility, finding ways to express pain, desperation, and egomania that didn’t adhere to the cinematic image of the drug addict, the criminal, and the gangster. In Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, from 1973, Pacino finds not only the juvenility in a former sailor, but a kind of heartbreak disguised as juvenility. The actor’s Francis is a man of tenuous mental and emotional stability, who suffers tragedy, has a mental breakdown, and lapses into catatonia. There’s nothing gimcrack or stereotypical about Pacino’s embodiment of mental illness; it’s empathetic and earnest.
In the ‘80s, Pacino did more controversial fair, notably as a cop infiltrating New York’s gay leather scene in William Friedkin’s salacious and invidious Cruising, and as the bombastic, cocaine-huffing megalomaniac Tony Montana, a sort of Michael Corleone type without the discipline, in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. While Scarface has become embedded in the pop-culture lexicon for its riotous ending and the way Pacino holds that grenade launcher as if it were a lover, Cruising, chopped up by Friedkin in post-production to avoid an X rating, remains the more fascinating, epochal piece of lurid pulp. It’s with great empathy and curiosity that Pacino approaches the role of an undercover cop, slowly slipping into the faux-identity that’s been created for him.
In the ‘90s, Pacio began to craft his own caricature, though he didn’t succumb to it. He extrapolated all that incendiary indignation, that despair and loneliness, into something resembling a stark-raving lunatic, men of profound desperation. This is the Pacino most often parodied, and most unfairly maligned. In Michael Mann’s almost-three-hour opus Heat, he married his contemplative sadness and his proclivity for erupting into voluble paroxysms. “Cause she’s got a great ass!” bellows his Vincent Hanna, an L.A.P.D. lieutenant, to a loose-lipped police officer who, after finding out he let slip sensitive information, wants to know how he got mixed up with a duplicitous phone sex worker. Hanna’s eyes go wide, his mouth like a great hungry O. His hands cup the hypothetical hindquarters. It brings to mind Whitman’s phrase “a barbaric yawp.” Then, he adds, “Ferocious, aren’t I?” as an aside, as if the other cops in the room are the audience to his Looney Tunes act.
That scene, in all its histrionics, is the apogee of Pacino’s shouting period, which began around the time of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, in which he played a corporeal cartoon character, Big Boy Caprice, and reached a fever pitch when he played John Milton, the head of a chthonic law firm in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate. But whereas those two outlandish roles presented Pacino with the opportunity to chew scenery with wanton relish, to go full-on hammy villain, his turn in Heat is, for all its ferocity, a deeply sad performance, an ongoing act of contrition. His eyes are wreathed by bags, sunken in from so many sleepless nights. There’s an ashen languor to his face. Vociferous and volatile, with that underlying hint of fragility, his Hanna is one of those cops who’s dedicated to his job, whose life revolves around his vocation. He carries his badge as Sisyphus does his boulder. (Pacino admitted, two decades later, that Hanna has a cocaine habit, which helps explain why he’s so labile, so clamorous. He needs the spark, the rousing scintilla, of each line setting his brain on fire, to keep him going.)
Later in Mann’s film, during a moment of tender resignation, Pacino’s character elucidates on why he harbors so much pain, why he keeps his work so close. “I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp”—he snaps his fingers—“on the edge”—snap—“where I gotta be.” The timing and rhythm of this delivery is precise, as exact and measured as any stratagem crafted by the career criminals he’s chasing, yet Pacino exudes a certain fluidity, a certain malaise, as if the words are just seeping out of him.
Heat earned pre-release notoriety for featuring the first shared screen time between Pacino and Robert De Niro, and the ire of some fans who were disappointed by the reticent badinage that comprises their much-hyped meeting. “My life’s a disaster zone,” Hanna confides to De Niro’s Neil McCauley, “because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” The scene represents the most low-key acting either performer had done in some time—just two professionals tersely chatting, making small talk that is, they know, infused with ominous warnings, like milk into coffee. “Brother,” Hanna says, calm and assured, “you are going down.”
For his second collaboration with Mann, 1999’s The Insider, Pacino dialed it back down and returned to a recurring theme of his work: struggling with the moral quandaries of professional men trying to do the job. There’s Frank Serpico and Vincent Hanna, Michael Corleone, Steve Burns in Cruising, the burned-out—but still, in his way, quite suave—detective Frank Keller in Harold Becker’s Sea of Love from 1989, and Will Dormer trying to navigate the sunlit brume in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film Insomnia. Even Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik, a despairing, broken-faced man driven to extremes, fits into this pattern, though his motivation is one of love, not professionalism.
What, then, to make of the last two decades of Pacino’s career—that period during which he made an appearance in Martin Brest’s legendarily bad Gigli, starred in a bevy of police procedural detritus, and gave a surreal performance as an ersatz version of himself in the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill? As the pathetic, last-gasp salesman Shelley in a 2012 Broadway revival of David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, Pacino acted with what Ben Brantley called “the exaggerated pantomiming of a boozy player in a late-night charades game,” which is to say he wasn’t great. Yet, when he appeared in Mamet’s film version, in 1992, he earned an Oscar nod for his sleazy Ricky Roma, a chicanerous smooth-talker.
It’s not that he’s lost the ability to act: Despite potential “comeback” roles as the eloquently flustered Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack and as an aging actor struggling with dementia in the Philip Roth adaptation The Humbling, both directed by Barry Levinson, and as a lonely keymaker in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, he’s been relegated to VOD titles like Misconduct and Hangman. No, Pacino still has the chops; he just doesn’t appear in films that deserve them. Pacino’s is one of the great, flummoxing careers of American actors. He’s a profoundly talented, hard-working thespian whose ungrudging sense of explosiveness sometimes deviates into empty grandstanding, and who’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision. In the final moments of Heat, as De Niro’s robber lays slain before Hanna, the thief manages, for his final words, “I told you I’m never going back.” Hanna, exhausted, victorious but not triumphant, intones, simply, “Yeah.”
Pacino’s Way runs at the Quad from March 14—29.
The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered
Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema.
Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema. As cowboys, detectives, bar-stool sages, scruffy-faced wage slaves, he was a man comfortable dwelling in silence, whose presence and unfussy utterances commanded, without begging for, your attention. He had the air of a proletarian flaneur, a dusty wanderer with a landscape for a face, carved with wrinkles. As prolific as he was consistent, he appeared, by his own estimations, in over 200 films and television shows, and he never gave a bad performance. He didn’t seem to even be giving a performance. He simply existed. Like Robert Mitchum, he under-acted his parts, buttressing a film, augmenting its other performances, with authentic behavior and natural reactions. “You look at me when I talk to you,” he spits to Alan Ladd in 1958’s The Proud Rebel. “I’m looking but I don’t see anything,” Ladd retorts.
One gets the sense that Stanton didn’t love being a “character actor,” and he expressed vexation over the dearth of leading roles offered to him. But he helped to legitimize the importance of supporting actors, a vocation often considered a prerequisite to bigger roles. Especially in the second half of his career, he epitomized what a supporting actor should do. As the bereaved father in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, swaddled in the agony of loneliness, he brings to the film an aching knowingness that its younger stars had yet to experience. And as the estranged brother in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, he makes crying feel like the most painful, meaningful thing a man can do.
Stanton died, at the age of 91, just weeks after the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return aired. Though he worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, John Carpenter, and had a labile friendship with Marlon Brando (begot by insults, and conducted mostly through phone calls when the corpulent Brando was in his twilight years), it was in David Lynch that he found his greatest consort. The filmmaker, also an American Spirits aficionado, cast Stanton in five projects, beginning with Wild at Heart in 1990. Watching animals tear a chunk of meat on television, his lips pulled back in a macabre smile, Stanton puts a demented spin on the detective archetype he’d played so many times throughout his career. An agitated F.B.I. agent in The Godfather Part II, a corrupt L.A.P.D. detective in Farewell, My Lovely, an intervening good cop in Slam Dance, an astute detective in Christine—he imbued all of these roles with tonal and emotional variations, finding in their broad generalizations the details that make a character memorable.
Before he played cops, Stanton killed them. He began his career playing criminals, creeps, and ballbusters. “I was a classic cop killer,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “That’s what started me off.” The first film to really make sincere use of his dramatic gifts was Monte Hellman’s 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind, written by and starring Jack Nicholson, for whom Stanton had been best man at his 1962 wedding. Nicholson explained to his friend, “I want you to just play yourself.” Nicholson, three years from his breakout role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, saw in the insouciance and composure of Stanton’s acting style something that others had overlooked, and rather than cast him against type, he cast the role of the murderous gang leader, the kind of role that would normally have gone to someone intimidating and a little unhinged, a Lee Marvin or Jack Palance, against actor type. Eventually, Stanton decided to hang his guns up: “I wanted to play lovers,” he said.
Though he didn’t often, if ever, play romantic roles, he found in his collaborations with David Lynch a painful romanticism, a sense that life, however cruel, would, eventually, offer solace, something in the way of love. Joaquin Phoenix, in his recent New York Times Style Magazine profile, says that great performances are the result of great direction. Lynch isn’t known for coaxing subtle or naturalistic performances from actors, but he brought out the best in Stanton. As Carl Rodd, the coffee-swilling proprietor of the Fat Trout trailer park, introduced in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Stanton tapped into the malaise of age. He’s initially a torpid-eyed grump, staring off like a somnambulist; he makes the best goddamn cup of “Good Morning, America” and wears flannel on flannel. He isn’t ambitious.
Twenty-five years later, in The Return, Carl, now calmer, kinder, a man who’s appalled that one of his tenants is selling his own blood to pay the rent, is still in the same place. He says, “Not much I got to look forward to at my age…except the hammer slamming down.” Sitting on a park bench, staring at the trees rustle in the breeze, he witnesses the hit-and-run death of a child. Carl watches the boy’s essence rise in a luminous golden orb. As the passersby stop and gawk, bray, react with varying histrionics, Carl slowly approaches and comforts the mother. The scene vacillates between the absurd and the tragic, but Stanton, the most reliable of American actors, provides a brief sense of stability. In this tragic moment, Carl performs a minor miracle, consoling the inconsolable. He shows that Twin Peaks still has good people in it.
Lynch’s direction of actors is rarely discussed, but he placed palpable trust in Stanton, allowing him to act against the hysterical happenings surrounding him. In a series that showcases career-best performances from most of its cast, the actor remains compelling because he represents the average guy, the citizen often forgotten in the cursed vicinage of Twin Peaks, whose more eccentric characters and striking oddities garner the most attention. Stanton, as always, augments the film enfolding him. As a supporting actor, his artistry was unparalleled: Method actors are often heralded for “disappearing into roles,” but Stanton disappeared into his work.
In a later episode, Carl strums his guitar, singing the western folk song “Red River Valley,” the prophetic words pouring sinuously from him. Around him is violence, chaos. The image acts almost as an elegy for Stanton’s enduring appeal. Even on the cusp of 90 (The Return was filmed in 2015), he seems, if tired, still committed, his body sagging, the words coming slower, but his heart is still in it. Some of cinema’s most luminary A-listers, like Pacino and De Niro and Brando, gave way to mawkish caricature in later years, taking roles for paychecks. Stanton, denied leading-man status for most of his career, never slipped into self-parody. His persona only grew more sagacious.
In an interview included with the Repo Man DVD, he’s asked, “Does the way you look at the world influence the way you act? In a film?” After a moment of silence, he says, “Obviously.” He was born in West Irvine, Kentucky, in 1926. His father was a tobacco farmer. In high school, he sang in a barbershop quartet and was in the glee club, and served in the Navy during WWII, surviving the 82-day Battle of Okinawa, an experience that hardened him, left him thankful to be alive but with a detachment that seems to have manifest in emotional diffidence in interviews, his low-key deliveries in films. After his home was robbed in 1996 and he was tied up and had a gun pressed against his face, he mused to reporters, “I think I’m blessed with a pretty tough psyche.”
He was reluctant to disclose much of his personal life. In Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, he croons “Blue Moon” in response to the question, “Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself?” He turns Americana into a koan. His placidity earned him the nickname “Harry Zen Stanton.” His penchant for ontological musings and belief in predestiny, a word he said “scares people shitless,” didn’t extend to sincere supernatural beliefs. He wasn’t religious in a conventional sense. He could quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Book of Revelations at length but preferred the “more human” Jesus of The Gnostic Gospels. He also did a series of quotidian exercises called the Five Rites, a Tibetan practice to “stimulate your chakras” that predates yoga. He thought, he hoped, that after life there would be nothing. His turn as the mendacious, self-professed prophet with 14 wives on Big Love has a skeptical quality to it, the performance of a man who didn’t believe the bullshit his character posited. “I’m big into Eastern concepts,” he says in Partly Fiction. “The horror of life, the love of children, the whole phantasmagoria—it’s all meaningless.”
Reticent, even cryptic, he spoke with terse, exacting language, with an acerbic wit, but sometimes he just spoke his mind. While recording a podcast in 2013, Jen Kirkman asked Stanton what he thought about the guy Molly Ringwald ends up with in Pretty in Pink. He said, without missing a beat, “I don’t give a fuck.” When Kirkman pressed, irksomely asking how he would feel if he had a hypothetical daughter, she correctly predicted he would, again, not give a fuck.
Singing, Stanton’s first passion, seemed preferable to speaking, and he wasn’t shy to flaunt his chops. In 1962, on a forgotten show called Checkmate, Stanton first showed off his vocal prowess, tinged with a self-aware ennui. With a guitar slung over his leather jacket, he belts, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” His musical talents were used more prominently a few years later, in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke; he gazes off, a thousand-yard stare, a death-row stare, cooing a hymn of futile hope. The camera zooms in on that great, lissome face, toward those wispy lips, beads of sweat clinging to his stubble.
A suspicion of fatalism suffuses his performances. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, he plays Brett, the engineering technician on the commercial spacecraft Nostromo. Stanton, who didn’t like horror or monster movies, plays the role the way he played all his others: with an authentic nonchalance, a middle-class denizen grinding away, waiting for his paycheck—which is to say, “right.” While looking for the cat, which he let escape, Brett becomes the first of the crew to meet the fully grown alien. Looking up at the creature, a hulking black something that looms over him like inevitable judgement, he has the same nonplussed face as the cat. How else should one react to the unfathomable?
Because Stanton was already middle-aged by the time he appeared in Alien, most moviegoers never knew him to be young; he seemed to have drifted into popular culture like a piece of space debris, or maybe a tumbleweed from one of his early, generic western films. The ‘80s turned out to be Stanton’s decade. There was an acidic quality to many of his films, the corrosive remnants of halcyon memories and bad decisions lingering, scarring. He seeped into the mainstream while etching out his own niche in smaller, odder films.
On the cusp of 60, with nearly three decades of credits to his name, Stanton finally got the leading role he’d wanted, in Wim Wenders’s Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas. Moviegoers remember the red baseball cap, vibrant against a beige expanse, an image that circulated social media after the news of Stanton’s death, but the devastating beauty of the film stems from the raggedy sapience of the performance. Travis, who remains mute for much of the film, is a cipher whose identity, whose anguish, is slowly revealed, in drips, culminating in a Sam Shepard-penned story about a dissolving relationship. After so much silence, the unflustered, epiphanic delivery is deafening. A peepshow, a two-way mirror, a phone call with the mother of his missing son. The camera goes back and forth between Travis and Jane, who doesn’t know with whom she’s talking. His voice doesn’t give him away; the story does. A man, in love, plunges into alcoholism, into mental degradation. His life falls apart, his family leaves, his house catches fire. He’s not performing a recital but recalling a moment lodged in time, in stasis. It’s a realization. “Now he got really crazy.” It’s a story of paranoia, of anger—and eventually, he finds penance. He’ll end up alone, of course, but he’ll find serenity.
Like Mitchum, Stanton often uses passivity, a kind of pensive ennui, to tell an internal story that defies words; unlike Mitchum, normally languid but capable of volatility and biblical violence (most notable in Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter), a man who had a Sisyphean desperation to him, Stanton remains devastatingly unperturbed. His most famous role is one of self-realization, sacrifice, one that doesn’t erupt but, at the right time, fades into the horizon. The performance is daring in its subtlety. Given the chance to finally lead a film, Stanton lets the landscape out-act him.
That same year, in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, he played the garrulous mentor to Emilio Estevez’s punk. “Look at those assholes,” he snaps. “Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.” Stanton, who had played working-class washouts for over 20 years, was ready to move on. His star had risen. David Letterman called him “the world’s greatest character actor.” Roger Ebert said that no film featuring Stanton could be altogether bad. He hosted Saturday Night Live. Then he went back to playing supporting roles. And American cinema was better for it.
Also Starring Harry Dean Stantaon runs at the Quad from September 23—30.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil: Revenge of George’s Minions
Some believe that there’s simply no place for political commentary let alone a point of view in a film review.
Because my review of Revenge of the Sith was more or less a positive one (at least I thought it was: I said “better late than never” but what I think I really meant was “too little too late”), I didn’t expect to be bombarded with much hate mail (a real bummer because we were planning on a sequel to our “Star Warts: Attack of George Lucas’s Minions” column from 2002), but who knew that my laidback observation that several scenes from the film court anti-Bush readings would inspire as much vitriol and nasty presumptuousness as it has, from conservatives and liberals alike! Though I think I’ve said everything I wanted to say about Revenge of the Sith in my review of the film, I feel the need to address some of the disturbing e-mails I’ve received from rabid Star Wars fans (most of whom haven’t seen the film), especially since there’s very little opportunity for me to do this kind of thing, what with our resident columnist Alexa Camp assigned to respond to all hate mail that floods our inboxes. (Fret not Alexa fans: We promise you one of her hate mail columns real soon.)
Alex Sandell, some maniac who writes for a website called Juicy Cerebellum, calls me a “whore” in the subject line of his e-mail, accusing me and the editors of my “corporate fucking Micro$oft site” of using our review as a means of securing “money and fame.” Since I don’t know what’s remotely “corporate” about Slant Magazine—an alt-weekly-style e-zine that reviews films and music and makes its two founders very little revenue—or how our review of the film will bring us fame and fortune exactly, I can only assume that Sandell is suffering from some form of delusion, the same affliction that seems to be plaguing all these individuals who are tending to Revenge of the Sith’s Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes in the same way they do Lucas’s films. Just as the dramatic Sandell assigns me way too much power (breathlessly he writes, “Thousands of people are already boycotting the film—based on YOUR quote”), so do a disturbing group of hate mailers who are pleading with me daily to change my rotten rating of the film to a ripe one, ostensibly because a higher Tomatometer rating legitimizes their obsession with the Church of Lucas. When did Star Wars fans become such shills, silencing the skeptics who are apparently trying to pinch poor Lucas’s collection plate?
Typically I’m not concerned with the idiots that hide behind the anonymity of their computers to lob misshapen and half-assed insults, but I thought it was amusing that one person who accused me of possessing a fourth grader’s writing acumen gets to hide behind his employer’s fascistic e-mail protection policy, which apparently allows employees to crap on anyone and ensures that “any unauthorized use or dissemination of this message in whole or in part is strictly prohibited.” Someone should tell the folks at ABN AMRO Bank N.V. that Jay and Silent Bob are on their way to beat the mother-fucking shit out of James Bieniewicz. But that’s nothing! To Jesus Ramirez, Dwight Benignus, Newbie Was Taken and Dan (who wrote to me asking, “Uhm, whats up with all the penis metaphores in your revenge of the sith review?”), I give you dictionary.com’s definition of metaphor, which I find particularly apropos here: “One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol: ’Hollywood has always been an irresistible, prefabricated metaphor for the crass, the materialistic, the shallow and the craven’ (Neal Gabler).” Guys, I get that the humor flew over your heads, but it’s Lucas, not me, whose making the metaphors…I’m just here to point them out to you.
But I digress. In Revenge of the Sith, when Obi-Wan says, “Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes,” after Anakin says, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” it seems like a rather obvious dig against George W. Bush, but what do I know: When the entire audience at the film’s New York City press screening cheered at this little exchange, they must have been suffering from some form of mass hysteria, responding not to the verbal exchange but to the size of Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen’s light sabers. It all seems so cut and dry, yet people have been angrily pointing out that Bush’s you’re-with-us-or-against-us challenge has been uttered countless times before. (I’m sure it has, but quick, name one person who did!) And I’m sure there were many allegedly failed pot smokers before Bill Clinton, but that doesn’t mean that a movie featuring a character blurting under pressure that he “didn’t inhale” is referencing my father’s bad hookah experience in Havana in 1965.
Others have also stated that an anti-Bush comment couldn’t have been made or intended because Star Wars was conceived 30 years ago, which probably means that while Lucas was writing Revenge of the Sith (this is after 9/11 and Bush’s attack on Afghanistan and Iraq), he intended the light saber duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin to evoke that day in 1975 when Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (of cult leader Charles Manson’s posse) pointed a gun at Gerald Ford’s stomach, right? Even the hate mailers smart enough to acknowledge, admit or welcome the anti-Bush reading seem equally belligerent and close-minded. (One reader went as far as to call me a “retard” because Darth Vader was meant as a swipe against Richard Nixon!) It’s as if the one compliment I’ve paid the film (it’s contemporary resonance) is being lambasted by a group of people unwilling to accept that language, tradition and pop iconography are malleable and evolve as our human culture does. Even some of the nuts on Free Republic, where my article was posted on their creepy-crawly message board, seem to understand my basic point that only a few sequences exude an anti-Bush bias and that it’s something that doesn’t exactly spill over into the rest of the film.
In my review of this final chapter in Lucas’s space opera, I state, “I imagine that Revenge of the Sith is very much the film Lucas’s fans want to see, but are some of them ready for an anti-Bush diatribe?” I thought the question was rhetorical and I certainly didn’t expect it to strike such a nerve. To my surprise, there actually seemed to be an answer, and Star Wars fans—at least the ones who voted for Bush—were letting me know what it was: “No!” Even if fans silly enough to deny that Lucas (or playwright Tom Stoppard, who did have a hand in polishing the film’s dialogue, at least according to Christensen in a recent issue of Playboy) may have coded a swipe against the President into the script, is it something that constitutes a betrayal of their faith in the Star Wars franchise?
In an e-mail, Lezlie V. Cox explicitly answered the question I posed in my review: “Hell yes I’m ready! I’m ready for anyone to call this tyrant a tyrant. Someone needs to say it…kudos to George Lucas for having the balls to do it!” Lezlie’s message is especially illuminating when coupled with Craig Winneker’s “No Star Wars For Oil” article on Tech Central Station. In addition to pointing out some more anti-Bush digs I didn’t bother to catalog in my review (”’This war represents a failure to listen,’ Padme laments at one point, before declaring after a vote to give executive power to Chancellor Palpatine: ’So this is how liberty dies—to thunderous applause’”), Winneker questions Lucas’s need to add so much topicality into the story line. He states, “This stuff has no place in a Star Wars flick.” Except there are people like Lezlie who think this universe does have room for this kind of topicality.
The Star Wars films have always thought in black and white, and it’s this rudimentary thinking that explains much of its appeal. By not taking anything remotely resembling a partisan political or philosophical stance, these films have allowed us to interpret Lucas’s characters as we see fit. But in Revenge of the Sith, Lucas dares to add a few none-to-subtle and very specific shades of gray, and the effects are understandably jarring. It’s not something either fans or non-fans expect, and I’m sure it’s not something people who voted for Bush or believed in his weapons of mass destruction want to see. For 30 years, a partisan agenda has never gotten in the way of the experience of a Star Wars film, so why start now? I imagine liberals would be wary of a Star Wars film that criticizes Clinton, but to Sandell I must say: If thousands of people are allegedly boycotting this film because of my crazy interpretation, think of all the serious film snobs and Dems that are know going to give it the time of day!
If the countless e-mails I’ve received from people telling me how I should and should not write my reviews are any indication, some believe that there’s simply no place for political commentary let alone a point of view in a film review. Paul Andersen of Portland, Oregon tells me that “the best way to review movies is to ask if the movies worked” and Rita Snyder, a professor of psychology at Denison, acknowledges that the film “may show signs of rebellion against Bush” but then goes on to tell me that she voted for Bush and that I should “keep political views out of the professional arena of evaluation.” Well, Paul, I think anyone with a fourth-grade education could discern from my review that I thought the film was borderline okay (slower types also have the star rating on the site to work with). As for you, Rita, have you e-mailed Lucas yet to tell him to take the political views out of Revenge of the Sith before you buy your ticket?
Seriously, who are these people who want to read lobotomized film reviews and dictate where political thought does and does not belong? It’s all so absurd, because any reasonably intelligent person understands that film doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that great art is often inextricably bound to the politics of its time, a similar relationship that exists between politics and great criticism (which was a subjective enterprise last time I checked) and one that’s easily avoided by changing the channel, so to speak: Go read Gene Shalit, who spends more time piling puns into one of his “reviews” than offering anything resembling serious critical thought. (”Revenge of the Sith took revenge on my boredom!” he might say.) I realize you can’t win with your average Star Wars fan (I know because some of them are my friends) but, in the end, my problem isn’t with them as much as it is with people like Dude Spellings of Eugene, Oregon (hey, Paul, you and Dude should hook up some time!). Dude inquires, “Is it possible that Lucas just made a movie and the commentary on current events is yours?” I don’t know, Dude, why don’t you tell me after you’ve actually seen the damn film. Isn’t it possible the commentary is there and you simply refuse to see it?
Review: J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier Is Eaten Up by Its Murky Lifelessness
Review: Jordan Peele’s Us Stylishly Filters the Horrors of Economic Oppression
Review: Captive State Is a Crafty Genre Piece that Underserves Its Best Ideas
Review: Lambchop’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) Doesn’t Say Much
Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on Sony Blu-ray
Review: The Hippy-Dippy Out of Blue Suggests a New-Age Law & Order
Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date
Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education
Review: Dragged Across Concrete Is an Uncanny Shot of Pulp Fiction
Review: Jordan Peele’s Us Stylishly Filters the Horrors of Economic Oppression
- Film7 days ago
Review: J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier Is Eaten Up by Its Murky Lifelessness
- Film2 days ago
Review: Jordan Peele’s Us Stylishly Filters the Horrors of Economic Oppression
- Film7 days ago
Review: Captive State Is a Crafty Genre Piece that Underserves Its Best Ideas
- Music7 days ago
Review: Lambchop’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) Doesn’t Say Much