Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's 1992 Western, represented for many the arrival of Eastwood as a director to be taken seriously. He had already garnered critical success with some of his previous efforts, most notably his debut Play Misty for Me (1971) and Honky Tonk Man (1982) and one of my favourites White Hunter Black Heart (1990), but in their midst came such pap as The Rookie (1990) which came out the same year. For the gem-like wonderfulness of Bird (1988) came the workmanlike Firefox (1982). More importantly perhaps, Unforgiven was a successful western at a point when the very idea of such a thing seemed an impossibility. As with Jazz (Eastwood's other great love), it seemed as if the best lay in the past and all that remained was to pay homage to the long gone greats. Unforgiven is a thoughtful, deep and moving piece of work. To say it is a deconstruction of the genre (albeit true) is to suck out the vitality of what it does. Like saying Casablanca is about some people waiting for a plane. William Munney is one Eastwood's most complete portrayals. A man who has eschewed not only killing, drink and fornication, but also masturbation and cursing out and mistreating animals. It is an abiding irony throughout the film that the first of his resolutions to fall is killing people for money. Next comes cursing his horse. The equation of lives for money is explicit. The prostitutes, Skinny says, represent capital, damaged capital in the case of the girl who gets cut. This is a rudimentary savage form of capitalism. Munney himself is called (ahem) money. But it is not only the economy that is revealed to be deeply wrong. There is also a subtle critique of the broader political system.
English Bob (played with wonderful aplomb by Richard Harris in one of his finest late career roles) baits and teases the Americans on their predilection for shooting their presidents. This is in the wake of Garfield's assassination, the headline of which we spy in a folded newspaper. It is a fact he pontificates on throughout several different scenes and the lauding of monarchy over the young republic is at first not supposed to be taken seriously. Bob is obnoxious, elitist and long-winded, and later we will find he is also an imposter. However, he refers at one point to how a member of the royal family would be protected from assassination. The aura of majesty would make the assassin's hand shake as with a palsy, he says, and the monarch would remain unharmed: 'Whereas a president, well, why not shoot a president?'
By the end of the film, with Munney, having returned to drinking and full throated and competent violence, he goes through Big Whiskey on his horse and a man raises a rifle to shoot him, encouraged by his friend, but the man is unsure and his hands shake and he lowers the rifle. Exactly as English Bob predicted it would in the case of a king, leaving us with the impression that William Munney is the King of America.
David Webb Peoples adds an addendum to the film which offers the possibility that Munney transferred his skills to more orthodox capitalism and did well in dry goods in San Francisco. This is only a rumour and given the compromised nature of hearsay and legend in the film, there is no need to believe it.
In the end, Unforgiven is a masterpiece, beautifully shot, brilliantly paced and with some of the best dialogue from the writer who gave us Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys. He also gave us Salute of the Jugger and Kurt Russell in Soldier, but no one is perfect.
There is an odd feeling when you finish the first draft. There is an irrepressible urge to show everyone which must be repressed but is (I thought I just said this) irrepressible. Amateurs is now done. The first draft is now done. My last novel has so far run to 10 fully rewritten drafts, and those have come after it has been submitted to my agent. So actually we might be talking about closer to 15 drafts. Soon you begin to think that a final draft doesn't actually exist. The way there is no such thing as a perfect performance (or text) of Hamlet. There are simply a mass of performances, a mass of conflicting texts and somewhere hovering over everything is the ghost like uberHamlet that will necessarily never exist. Do you see how we're talking about my draft of my novel but somehow I managed to finagle the conversation round so that almost imperceptibly we're comparing me to Shakespeare. Funky, isn't it?
When you do a PhD you don't hand it in, you never finish it, rather you submit. I like that and that is also true of creative works of writing. Ultimately you give in. You accept that you have failed enough. Wordworth wrote so many versions of the Prelude you can cover a large tabletops with the various piles, and all you can do to get a definitive text is slice it like a salami via date. So what do I want you to take away from this?
Me, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, in the same sentence. Not bad.
Berlusconi is shit
When thinking about Italian politics, the adjectives of choice are Byzantine, cynical, operatic, paradoxical, comic, tragi-comic and tragic. Oh, and corrupt. Berlusconi's government of the last twelve months has been the Walking Dead, clothed in the reeking rags of every one of those adjectives. Having survived a confidence vote in December via the not entirely original method of buying parliamentary deputies to make up for the few (too few) ones who because of principal or miscalculation had jumped ship, the government lumbered on and did nothing constructive as the economic crisis progressed, preferring to occupy itself once more with legislation aimed specifically and explicitly at easing Berlusconi's personal legal complications. Many outside of Italy are probably curious to know why someone like Berlusconi has managed to dominate Italian politics for nigh on twenty years and in the process become the longest running political leader since Mussolini. Explanations are exasperatingly dismissive at times, to the point of racism. Berlusconi is a Latin lover that seduces the electorate, with a queue outside the bedroom door panting for it. Or perhaps Italy is a country that constantly searches for the charisma of the Leader (Mussolini calendars are on sale everywhere at Xmas and are still a big hit). However, the picture is more complicated than that. Italy is an intensely divided country. It surrounds a couple of independent states (the Vatican and San Marino). German is spoken in Alto Adige, Ladino in the Dolomites, Sardinia and Sicily have their own identities, dialects (or languages) and histories. One of Berlusconi's coalition parties, the post-fascist Lega Nord, was born from the wish to separate the prosperous North from the poverty and crime ridden South and thus create a mythical independent country called Padania. Imagine Hobbiton run by Goebbels. In the same coalition, for a time, Berlusconi also had the Alleanza Nazionale, a more traditionally post-fascist party which promoted the unity of the patria and was based mainly in the South. In the same coalition. Berlusconi was Orwell's 'double think' in person. His survival depended on the ability of the electorate to keep two opposing ideas in the mind as both being true and still function at the same time. He's for family values but sleeps with girls who could be his grand daughter; he's anti-communist but best friends with Putin; he's for a united Italy but favours the North; against organised crime but also against the magistrates who are in the front line in the battle against organised crime. People didn't even have to vote for him to get him. They knew if they voted for the Lega or any other coalition party, they could be against him but still effectively gift him with power. The opposition has been divided both politically (left, right and centre) and also in methodology. Nanni Moretti, the noted director, gave a speech castigating the left for not having anyone capable of challenging Berlusconi and then set in course a form of political opposition that consisted of standing around institutional buildings, holding hands and forming a kind of daisy chain. This misguided political theatre (the girotondi) simply reinforced the image that the opposition wasn't serious. Berlusconi might be comic but he was always in control of his own comedy. The left ended up looking foolish which is far more politically damaging than just not getting someone's jokes. The end of Berlusconi (or this chapter at least) came not with the left, but with the right. Berlusconi was getting old and had lost all credibility. The double think was stretching to snapping point. And more than anything Italy was getting bored of Berlusconi. He had gone on too long and simply the word Berlusconi would now evoke groans. Add to this some real fear about the economic disaster Italy was facing and it was time to get serious. But again, before we sing victory, his defeat has not been a political victory for the left. The electoral reform carried out by his government means that it is now extremely difficult for a party to get a clear majority in both houses, hamstringing his successors. The government that takes over is technocratic rather than political and their actions are likely to be dictated by the IMF and the Central European Bank, rather than considerations of social justice and they may well feel their mandate doesn't extend to introducing serious electoral reform. In a year's time, it wouldn't be impossible that Berlusconi's party, having perhaps opposed the austerity measures and thus won back some consensus, will go on to win an election and in 2013 will nominate as President of the Republic, Silvio Berlusconi. Or he could be in jail. Or knowing the extent of absurdity double think can accommodate, perhaps both.
The Walking Dead is shit
I'm sorry that so many of my TV reviews this year have been critical, but it seems we are perhaps seeing the end of what was an incredible run of high quality American television drama. It started with The West Wing and The Sopranos, and I think is ending with Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. I would argue that the drift into shitness coincides with an ideological drift to the right. Survival fantasies have always been the buried fascist of a liberal imagination. There's an 'I told you so' arrogance to the disaster, and there a good excuse to enjoy firearms guilt free. Falling Skies does this and so does The Walking Dead. With a fantastic pilot now a distant memory and Frank Darabont out of the picture, The Walking Dead resembles the post-mortem pedestrians of its title, stumbling from one episode to the next, gaining no momentum and shedding credibility like scraps of rotting flesh. Just as its characters get themselves trapped again and again and again, so does the narrative, which overly relies on people tripping up, accidentally shooting each other and just being plain stupid. I suppose they have to be stupid because our heroes are after all fighting the brainless, but just how stupid they are almost beggars belief. When a doctor admits that he's actually a vet, Lori Grimes (played by the pop eyed Sarah Wayne Calles) says 'What do you mean you're a veteran?' And this is not supposed to be funny.
Add to this the constant weeping. Lori Grimes and husband (Brit actor Andrew Lincoln) are the main culprits. Showing us people moved is not the same as moving us. I understand that you care about the children, but there's very little given to us for us to care about. It is one of those awkward paradoxes that TV children tend to be so irritating that far from evoking sympathy when they are put in danger, I am always tempted towards the opposite go get 'em feeling. Remember Jurassic Park, and how annoying it was that the children and Laura Dern survived. There's time for this season to save itself but I'm not sure I can be bothered any more. Perhaps one in the head would be the kindest move. What do you think?
I once had the pleasure of walking past Werner Herzog. He was coming out of a back door at the Exclesior on the Lido and I was rushing to a press conference with Michael Moore. I wanted to get there early because I had a couple of questions about Capitalism: a Love Story and I basically brushed past Herzog as he came out of a side door. It is a moment I bitterly regret with all my heart. Why? Well, because Herzog in my view has quietly been filling the world with films of genius. Not simply his high profile Klaus Kinski adaptations, but also his fantastic documentaries which span from the informative and moving Grizzly Man to the completely odd Fata Morgana. Even a workman-like effort such as Rescue Dawn has a lot of merit. He was in Venice to promote Bad Lieutenant, a project that looked doomed to failure. How could Herzog's Germanic intellectualism possibly compete with Ferrara's mad catholic obsession?
By being madder came the answer, and madder in a way that was both surreal and deeply satisfying. Watching the film again I get the idea that Nic Cage's bent cop dies twenty minutes from the end but Herzog being Herzog, he neglects to tell you. I could be wrong but check it out and you might see what I mean. Herzog being Herzog the surprise film that year turned out to be another film that Herzog had directly apparently in the afternoons when he wasn't making Bad Lieutenant: O Father, Father, Why have you Forsaken Me?
I've just watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which it turns out isn't even Herzog's latest. Like most of his documentaries, the film is actually a cinematic essay. There is no pretence to objectivity. Herzog is having his say and can't conceal his delight when he learns one of the scientists used to work in the circus. You can imagine him wondering whether Bruno S. would have liked the role. His prolific output might stand against him when it comes to reckoning him as one amongst the greats. In this he's a kind of more straightforwardly intellectual version of Woody Allen, even though that doesn't sound right. The two of them have a lot in common, in fact. They pursue their own themes; they have the craftsman's contempt for dillydallying; they never let perfection be the enemy of good and with the exception of Mighty Aphrodite and Small Time Crooks they have never made a totally uninteresting movie. Which considering the number of films they do make, and th enumber of brilliant films they have on their respective CVs, is saying something. Oh and Scoop.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.