Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Westerner

Reprinted from PoP--An Emporium of Popular Culture

Pop Eye
By Scott Duhamel

The slow and steady tracking-shot-into- close-up at the opening credits of the early Gunsmoke years is more than iconic, it is emblematic and will ever be a lasting (and essential) western image in American pop culture. While directly quoting the tracking-shot-into-close-up that steers all Western aficionados dusty souls, that justifiably empyrean big screen vision of John Wayne twirling his shotgun in 1939's Stagecoach, it offers itself up as a brand new (NW) defining image of The Westerner. When Ford spotlighted Wayne, that shot resonates as both the moment that that grand auteur would realize that Wayne was the right figure to represent his western balladry. Gunsmoke’s echoing shot, pulls up to a handsome and sturdy but slightly weathered James Arness (pointed to by Wayne himself after he turned down the potential spotlight dousing offer of a TV series), essentially conveying the simple fact that then iconoclastic, rosy-cheeked, cocksure adventurer of Wayne’s Stagecoach has been replaced by Arness’ Matt Dillon, a man with one foot gradually settling into the winds of oncoming civilization and one foot still planted firmly in the wooly freedoms of expansionism, yet still the lone American adventurer, a sharper, more expedient voice of law and order and right and wrong , an erudite arbitrator of frontier justice, a man who has killed, can kill, will kill, but prefers not to. The Gunsmoke close-up finally focuses on Dillon/Arness’ eyes, and they are the eyes of a nation progressing and receding, from a landscape of little rules but highly defined codes, one populated by individual valor and courage yet poisoned by wantonness and cruelty, with the ever sturdy Westerner forced to question the vagaries of right and wrong in a rapidly changing landscape.

True confession: Growing up I somehow missed the brilliance of Gunsmoke (1955-1975), the smartest, sublimely collective atmospheric (and obviously longest-running) western tale maybe ever told. Certainly individual western s movies had more impact and it’s unarguable that decidedly more overtly artistic westerns were made for the big screen yet Gunsmokes’s lasting impact, and it’s astoundingly continual high level of creativity are something to behold. I missed out on Gunsmoke, as a budding revolutionary and wanna- be hippy, because I knew there was an Arness-Wayne connection and I assumed it to be an onerous political one, and John Wayne was just somehow unacceptable in the turbulent late 60’s and early 70’s.

Years later I would read about Marty Scorsese screening The Searchers to his NYU film class, but prefacing the screening with an impromptu show of firing six shooters just so that his rabidly anti-Wayne film students would settle down for that sublime John Ford film. I missed the weekly imprimatur the Gunsmoke was searing into the collective consciousness, and have had the pleasure of rediscovering the lengthy series with continued viewings in the last few years. Although the show presented itself as hugely traditional, it was, in turns, ribald, self-conscious, cornpone, stark, moving, comical, and outstandingly consistent. Outlaws swung brazenly into town, showgirls had hearts of stone and of gold, the cowpokes were filled with grandeur, whiskey, goldust dreams, American immigrant exuberance, and more than often, just plain broken down.

With the Zen-like Dillon (who, of course, spent time with the Indians and treated with respect from the initial show) often presiding as an onlooker or mere sideman (until there was a call for action) , Gunsmoke’s Dodge City was inhabited by the cagey , flinty and determinedly philosophical Doc (Milburn Stone), the perpetual rube Chester (Dennis Weaver), the occasionally becalmed but raging bull Quint( Burt Reynolds), the red-headed highly astute business women and unabashed mistress Kitty (Amanda Blake), and the quintessential sidekick Festus (Ken Curtis), he of the cracker barrel sentiment, hillbilly rambunctiousness but the wondrous naturalness of a man at peace with his environment (like Dillon), plus a baker’s dozen of regulars from the town drunk to the officious main street businessman, never mind the uncountable appearances of every sort of actor (up-and-coming, down-and-out, character greats, stars that were and stars to be) Hollywood had to offer.

Arness’ Dillon is a stately but full blooded representation of the American Westerner and his whittled down performance, filled with pauses, squints, grunts, asides, and one sentence summations formed an amazingly well-rounded figure, highlighting a performance of depth and maturity. He embodies the transition from the traditional western to the post-western, while the modern world hasn’t fully cast a shadow on his travails, he, the great seer, knows that it is coming, and that his destiny is to help strangle the primitive world the created him and that he has so long embraced. I’ll say it straight up---James Arness' Matt Dillon is a truly tragic hero and one of the most essential starring roles in TV history. RIP James Arness 1923-2011.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Female Trouble

The following column is reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Like most pop culture vultures, or at least those who deign TV an acceptable medium, I’ve had a long term on-again off-again relationship with NBC’s Saturday Night Live over its long and storied (and lengthy) run. I’ve come back as a regular viewer in recent years, blithely ignoring those occasionally dead-on-their-feet sketches as a nature-of-the-beast thing. What’s brought me back (and many others) to the late night comedy altar is the succession of smart, sly, and vibrant women ---Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and currently, Kristin Wiig—that have continually nudged large portions of the show back into uproarious regions. I headed to a screening of Bridesmaids recently, an unusual detour down the unfamiliar back roads of the chick flick, solely because the new comedy was co-written and starred Wiig, and I went with heightened expectations.

Wiig co-scripted Bridesmaids with comedian and Groundhog veteran Annie Mumolo, although the movie was made under the signature imprint of producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up,The Forty-Year-Old Virgin)and directed by Apatow protege Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks), also a noted TV helmsman (The Office, Nurse Jackie).Wiig plays Annie, an attractive but perpetually unkempt single woman stuck in Nowheresville, suffering from the pangs of failure produced by a small business bakery failure, stuck in a unabashed booty call relationship with a handsome cad (Jonn Hamm), all the while slowly imploding while waiting on couples in the bloom of romance from behind the counter in a jewelry retailer. Her only anchor is her lifetime gal pal Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who shatters her fragile existence by announcing her sudden and impending nuptials.

Wiig’s Annie, a lifetime good sport and perpetual onlooker, mutates into a wedding anarchist, prodded even further by her discovery of a potential new BFF for Lillian, Helen (Rose Byrne), a snotty control freak bent on shaping the wedding into a dream affair. The movie, a sly feminine answer to The Hangover, follows this former triangle , along with three additional bridesmaids, Becca (Ellie Kemper), Rita (Wendy McLendon- Covey), and Megan (Melisa McCarthy) as they go on a not-so-magic carpet ride that encompasses pre- wedding sartorial choices, a trip to Las Vegas, and eventually the ceremony itself, with Annie comically and frenetically unbalancing all the way. (The male characters in this movie don’t mean a thing, and that’s a remarkably refreshingly observation to note.)

Obviously Bridesmaids has a bit more up its chiffoned sleeves than pratfalls and outlandish female behavior. The movie, which doesn’t offer much visually or formally, gently prods at the at the troubling conditions of both romantic resentment and class covetousness. Wiig’s everywoman is much like the lost male souls that Apatow’s features usually revolve around—although not quite akin to those character’s essential manchildness because Wiig’s downright hilarious portrait of a woman on the brink holds at its center an emotive weight that somehow resonates despite the comedic machinations which propel the movie.

Bridesmaids is a rambunctious tale, and it does feature a fairly raunchy centerpiece that will be debated as too much or perfectly over-the-top, but most certainly will draw the approval of the male audience the movie needs to insure its commercial success. Is Bridesmaids an exquisite leap into a new age of proto-feminist mainstream comic cinema? I don’t think so, but it is legitimately funny, has a ton of heart, and features the absolutely first class Wiig operating on all cylinders, and that combination makes it worth seeing.