Thursday, April 08, 2004

Cool Hand Luke; The Magnificent Seven; Vermeer

Three, count 'em, three old masters.
I asked my movie-junkie friend Larry if he had the two films for very different reasons.  In the case of Cool Hand Luke, I had heard of it when I was a child but never really had any interest in seeing it until, on an episode of Cheers, it was voted by the bar's patrons as the Sweatiest Movie Ever Made.  As for The Magnificent Seven, I had heard of it but never seen it and learned only when I bought my copy of Seven Samurai that it was a remake of Kurosawa's film.  But The Magnificent Seven is also a favorite of the gang at Cheers, now that I think of it.  We indeed encounter films, music, books, in the oddest or most roundabout ways.  But learning is rarely a straight-line proposition . . . which, of course, is what makes it fascinating.
Sweat indeed pours off bodies in Cool Hand Luke--it IS a film about prisoners set to work in a road-work gang, after all.  George Kennedy's character takes such pleasure in saying, "Takin' it [his shirt] off, boss!" and then smiling broadly as he does so that it would be easy to find this film, in its early stages, silly at best or a woefully miscast piece of homoerotica.  And indeed, I DID find it a bit goofy at first.  Luke (Paul Newman) is in this gang because he was caught cutting the heads off parking meters--not to rob them, but just to cut them off.  Yet the men he's imprisoned with have been convicted of far more serious crimes.  What gives?  But as the film wears on, it becomes clear that Luke, though guilty of a lesser crime, is indeed in the right place.  He simply refuses to submit to authority.  He's not mean; he's pretty likeable, in fact (it IS Paul Newman, after all).  It's more like he's a passive-aggressive sociopath.  His real crime, then, remains unspoken, undefined--not quite like Joseph K in Kafka's The Trial, but it's certainly not the sort of crime that one can find in a legal code except by implication.The famous line from the film--"What we have here is a failure to communicate!"--is uttered first by the warden and then, later, by Luke, and the significance of that fact is the film's big theme in a nutshell: Authority as Immovable Object, Luke as (almost) Irresistible Force.  In short--by its end, it's pretty easy to forget that you once thought this film was going to be silly.
The Magnificent Seven, according to John Carpenter, interviewed in the featurette that accompanies it on the DVD release, is the last of the great westerns.  By that he means "traditional" westerns.  I suspect that that's true.  Four years later, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars would be released: a film in which the ostensible hero is definitely not a white-hatted sort.  One could, in fact, see Eastwood's Man with No Name as the opposite of the six men Yul Brynner's Chris rounds up to defend the villagers against the predations of Calvera.  The Seven are gunslingers but with hearts of gold.  Only one of them obsesses over the money he's sure the villagers are hoarding (else, why would they be terrorized as they are?); the rest, though, are altruists.  Knights-errant.  It's very much a Western in the grand style.  In A Fistful of Dollars, the setting is much the same: a town terrorized, this time by TWO rival gangs; Eastwood, in need of money, hires himself out to BOTH gangs, makes it so they kill each other off, pockets his money, and rides off.  Whatever good results is collateral, incidental.  Westerns are easy to mock or satirize, as I suppose all genres are, but in films such as High Noon, The Ox-Bow Incident, and the Leone films we find depth and passion and, ultimately, true and disturbing things about us as a culture.
On to painting now . . .Thinking about Vermeer is hard work, I'm finding.  Susan and I have begun to look at his work seriously now, and for me at least, Vermeer is a more challenging painter than his contemporaries.  That's not to say that de Hooch and Maes and Fabritius aren't also fine painters--they are--it's that, if I were to offer an analogy from literature, it's like comparing Robert Frost's poems to those of Wallace Stevens.  Frost is analogous to de Hooch et al.: often narrative in quality, straight-ahead language.  Vermeer is like Stevens, then: ethereal, more metaphysical, freer of time than Frost.  At any rate, with Vermeer everything seems important: the quality of light on the wall; whether that window to the left is open or closed (as you know, in an earlier entry I tried to find significance in the fact that in Vermeer's work we never get to see out/through a window or doorway into the street and beyond); what we find at the center of the painting; etc.  Susan calls him a poet, whereas the other painters have a more narrative quality to them.  I'll have more specific things to say about some paintings later on.Something that has also emerged as she and I talk is that, although I can imagine the figure(s) in a painting being aware of me or even in some way expecting me (or not), I never imagine myself as that figure looking out.  I remain a spectator.  Susan, on the other hand, "take[s] on the skin of" (her phrase) the figures, male or female.  Whether that difference is due to her being an artist and my being a mere observer or to some other reason, neither of us can yet figure out.More tomorrow on all this, as well as some comments about the parallel universe that college assessment instruments ask us to live in.
Those wishing to read the comments for the original LiveJournal post can go here.

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