Chinese Spaghetti, Westerns
What is honor? Jack Nicholson never raises Falstaff’s question, but the assumption that the characters in Prizzi’s Honor make about honor destroys it more thoroughly than did Fat Jack. Honor here does become a mere scutcheon for base self-interest. In the romance of mob hit-persons Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, we see elements of modern marriages (especially, as has been suggested, marriages between academics).
The leading trait of novelist Richard Condon’s and director John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor is its mockery of every relationship of trust; a Marxist might say that only the “cash nexus” remains to hold together what serves as “a family.” So ethnic bonds are said to exist, but are they really more than food and songs of the old country? The Sicilians here are said to prefer eating their own children to parting with their money. (Cf. Bertolt Brecht: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.”) Hence, some critics reduce the film to a critique of capitalism (in the spirit of Catch-22). A “trim reckoning,” this misses the true depressiveness of the film: Human life without trust and the friendship that grows from it is a wasteland, as Jack Nicholson’s fate with his women in this film bears out.
Year of the Dragon
This crude Marxist vision of America is complemented by the fascist vision of Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon. It is almost puerile to denounce his latest movie as racist (“Gook-busters”); it is no more anti-Chinese than The Godfather was anti-Italian or Cimino’s The Deer-hunter was anti-Vietnamese. In fact, the film makes clear that the Chinese are one among several barbarian tribes—Italians, blacks, Poles, and so on—which comprise America. Its defect far exceeds that of racism.
The movie begins promisingly by Police Captain Stanley White threatening the heads of New York’s Chinatown with establishing the rule of American law over their insidious personal rule. And when at first he chides the Chinese-American news reporter about having to fight “you people” in Vietnam, the Vietnam veteran means the left-wing media. But by the end of the film it becomes clear that White, who cannot foster a family of his own, cannot destroy the Chinatown crime families, nor can he offer America anything other than his pathetic, empty curses. White can’t convert the barbarians; those he doesn’t kill, he has sex with.
Both Prizzi’s Marxist and Dragon’s fascist critiques of America presuppose the collapse of the root of all decent patriotism and politics, namely, the family, which is the birthplace of the proper understanding of rights and duties. But in an America of atomized individuals, the family collapses before crime family or tribal conspiracy. Only violence can hold together such a society, and, the implication goes, only violence can transform it.
Films are, of course, primarily entertainment. But they can have a vivid impact on their viewers and hence some effect on their characters. That talented directors such as Huston and Cimino have such low and loathsome teachings to inflict on millions is surely not America’s leading problem, but it is not anything to take pleasure in, either.
To see the difference between this and Clint Eastwood’s earlier westerns one must reflect on the western. What Homer was to the Greeks, the western was to generations of Americans. The viewer and lover of westerns (viz., most Americans) comes to appreciate, if he hadn’t before, that brutality is often required to save civilization. Yet those who are brutal realize the threat they pose to the civilized community, and hence they keep a distance from it, fearful of the bad effect they might have on it. (Consider John Wayne praying over the bodies of his victims, in Red River.) But if the right woman comes along, she can civilize the drifter. See High Noon or even the ultimate satire of the western, Oklahoma.
Against this background, we see the magnificence of Clint Eastwood’s greatest western, High Plains Drifter. Here a nameless gunslinger, an apparent drifter, kills and rapes as he intimidates a pusillanimous town, which then commits itself into his hands for its safety. The stranger goes about transforming a town of cowards into a city of soldiers, who fear the return of some hoodlums who had previously ruled them. The town, we learn from flashbacks, had merely watched and listened as the hoodlums bull-whipped its marshal to death. Its continued prosperity required its complicity in his death. With his dying breath the marshal cursed the town: “Damn you all to Hell.” The stranger, as part of his defense program, has the townspeople paint the town red, so it “looks like Hell.” Thus the town knowingly suffers the evil effects of its cowardly and selfish being: Hell is itself. But the crash-education course in civic responsibility fails, as the stranger surely realized it would; the townsmen prove themselves inept marksmen and cowards, and are slaughtered or captured by the hoodlums. The stranger must secure justice on his own. Only at the end of the film do we discover, along with the stranger’s name, the civilized motive for his actions, in family honor.
But Pale Rider presents us with no such edification. The gorgeous cinematography reflects the film’s attention to nature as a whole rather than to human affairs. Here the nameless stranger (known only as “Preacher”) represents Christian themes. The movie’s title is taken from Revelations, which a girl reads as Eastwood rides into sight; the girl’s prayer for a champion has been answered. The effect is to make what we eagerly anticipated as a Clint Eastwood movie into a dreaded Ingmar Bergman film crammed with virgin springs and wild strawberries, an opening blow from which it never quite recovers. The obvious comparison arid contrast is with Shane, a film about a beneficent cowboy who knows that his continued presence will destroy the family he protects, so he leaves and thereby saves it. But Eastwood’s environmentally conscious Preacher is not nearly as morally conscientious as Shane. The classic western themes are here, but the morality of the traditional western is overshadowed by metaphysical pretensions. Almost better is a farce such as Silverado.
We should have anticipated it. Clint Eastwood voted most admired American; Clint Eastwood on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine; Pale Rider reviewed at Cannes; PaleRider given rave reviews-by New York Times’ film critic Vincent Canby. Eastwood should certainly be allowed to indulge in a delightful self-mockery such as City Heat, but when he takes himself Swede-serious in a film like this,
he no longer makes his audience’s day.