Friday, July 6, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Jeremiah Johnson

“I was never what I would call a great shooter or visual stylist.”

That quote is from Sydney Pollack, referenced in Roger Ebert’s obituary for the director, and it’s an apt description of the director's style that he would more or less stick to throughout his career. We’re a ways from the end-point in this retrospective, and I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself; however, I couldn’t help but think of that quote as I watched Jeremiah Johnson, a film that so badly wants to be an epic western. The film is good, even great in certain moments, but it’s a little too strained in its approach to be an epic (the movie is not even two hours and it contains overture and an intermission complete with “entr’acte” title card) in the same vein as other anti-establishment, Vietnam era westerns like Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Each film is different in tone, sure, but they all share something similar in that modern society does not allow for man to peacefully enter into nature and try and not only understand it but become one with it – to get away from all of the violence and self-imposition; society is always seeping in to corrupt and impose its own will. Those are the moments that are brilliantly effective and play to Pollack’s strengths as a director. When Pollack isn’t meandering from one scenic view to another (struggling to make the film visually poetic), Jeremiah Johnson is a beautiful, introspective western akin to something felt while reading Thoreau (there’s even a line where the character says, “the Rockies are the marrow of the world,” echoing the famous line from Walden). It is in those small, and often quiet, moments that Jeremiah Johnson works. 

This idea of peacefully entering into communion with nature is one we’ll get back to later, but for now a brief synopsis: Jeremiah Johnson is a simple western about a jaded veteran of the Mexican-American War (Robert Redford in his second collaboration with Pollack) seeks to leave civilization in hopes of finding something better in the wilderness. And that’s really all of the setup we get (aside from a hokey narration that leads into a song about Jeremiah over the opening credits) as the film is essentially Jeremiah wandering around the beautiful Utah locations. During that wandering, he pretty much does the following: learns how to kill a bear, he adopts a mute son, saves a man’s life only to have it come back and bite him in the ass, kills Native Americans, fights alongside Native Americans, marries a Native American woman, and reluctantly leads a cavalry unit over a secret Indian burial ground that results in the death of his family.

It’s a great adventure film when you think about the action scenes as if they were short films and not part of a much larger whole – and that’s really how the film plays: a compartmentalized adventure story where certain scenes act as skits, almost, that are good enough (sometimes even great) on their own, but they don’t quite coalesce into a fluid whole. Pollack even admits that he had no idea what kind of film he was making when they were shooting the film. He said that people would fall asleep looking at the dailies because it was just a lot of the characters walking around in the snow. Still, some of the wandering moments aren’t so bad, and it’s easy to see why some of the naturalists and anti-establishment folks that were into, say, Galway Kinnell, at the time responded so strongly to the film.

Some of those moments are when Jeremiah runs into the eccentric Bear Claw (Will Geer), a bear hunter that has been out in the forest seemingly forever. He and Jeremiah get into some wacky adventures that culminate in Jeremiah cutting his teeth as a mountain man by killing his first bear (he has to do so after the bear chases him into Bear Claw’s shack, complete with banjo and fiddle music). It’s all very generic adventure/western stuff, but it’s harmless enough. Other great scenes include when Jeremiah runs into Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch), a man in Dutch with the Blackfoot Indian warriors who have buried him in neck deep in the sand and have stuck feathers up his nose. It’s a humorous scene. Johnson, along the way, Johnson befriends the Flathead Indians and is given one of the tribal member’s sister to take with him and marry; the two build a life with the mute boy he adopts (after coming across a family massacred by the Blackfoot) and this makeshift family settles into a rhythm and a way of life that is quickly interrupted by a U.S. Army Calvary search party. This leads to the highlight of the film, a journey across a sacred Indian burial ground as a reluctant Johnson – not wanting to tempt the fates – leads the troops onto dangerous ground. As he returns home, he notices a makeshift grave adorned with the jewelry of his wife and races home to find that his wife and son have been murdered. At this point, Jeremiah Johnson gets really quiet, and Pollack (and Redford) films the sorrowful scene in a way that makes Johnson’s pain palpable; however, there’s also an elegiac, almost ironic, note to it all that suggests: this is all part of being a mountain man.

When it's not trying to be an adventure movie, the film’s tone – a mixture of exhilaration, contemplation, and melancholy – is one of its biggest strengths, and it’s no surprise that were it not for Pollack, the film would have been something completely different in tone. I mentioned earlier that I wanted to get back to the film’s central theme of man peacefully entering into communion with nature, and that brings me to the script stage of the film and the man any pacifist would have a problem working with: John Milius. Milius – a man’s man of Hollywood if there ever was one – wrote the original screenplay, and if you are familiar even in the slightest with the name John Milius, you know that perhaps no other screenwriter is as overt in peppering his screenplays with his macho philosophies. However, those philosophies did not mesh with the more liberal minded Pollack. 

Pollack didn’t seem to have much regard for the Milius script, which according to Pollack lacked the kind of mythical tone he was looking for. In this interview with John Gallagher, Pollack explains the process of rewriting the script:

“The script was mythical as all Milius’ scripts are mythical, but John Milius’ screenplay was primarily a piece of violence as almost all Milius’ stuff is. The original Milius script was about a guy that went around and ate trees; I mean, really, and ate livers and ripped Indians’ bodies apart and ate livers and screamed and blood ran down his beard and so on. A lot of the style and size of the piece comes from Milius, but the narrative after the very beginning and the character Bear Claw, it’s pretty different, radically, once Bob [Redford] and I began to work on it.”

In the same interview Pollack talks about how he and Milius are actually friends, and that back when they were shooting Jeremiah Johnson, it was during a point in Milius’ career where he really played up “to the hilt,” as Pollack says, his macho persona. Pollack and Milius may have remained friends, but they were so far apart politically at the time that couldn’t work together amicably on the rewrite because they both wanted it to be something different.

Thankfully, Pollack’s ideas won out. Many call Jeremiah Johnson a “mythical” western, but the film is more about the individual than about the style. I never once felt like Jeremiah Johnson’s tone worked in a visual sense; it was more of a mood that was felt  in the smaller, quieter moments like the one when Jeremiah looks upon his slain family, or the sound of the wind or a river (sound is used brilliantly in the film). If the film is trying to be some kind of epic, mythical western, it fails at achieving that tone. However, according to Pollack, “mythical is not a word I even knew at the time; maybe I knew it, but I certainly didn’t think it when I thought about Jeremiah Johnson. Somebody told me I made a mythical picture afterwards, and I started wondering what precisely made it mythical.”

I have to agree with the filmmaker’s assessment: there just isn’t much here that lends itself to the mythical. Jeremiah Johnson plays out like a series of scenes about a man trying to ingratiate himself into the way of nature. I believe that a mythical tone would have been apparent had Milius’ script been kept intact because it would have inevitably been more about the heroic – and violent – journey of a man making a new life for himself. The film, instead, is much sadder than that, more individualistic (I love the way Pollack uses the on-location surroundings from the various Utah state parks to dwarf his character). In that same interview, Pollack, looking back on the film, sees it as being in-line with his other films: “There is something in every film by any director by which you can recognize that director, I think, and sometimes I think there’s a kind of melancholy in mine. I don’t know why, but that’s what I see in them, and it’s certainly there in Jeremiah Johnson.”

So Pollack opted for the melancholy over the visceral. Pollack claims that Milius was pleased with the final version of the film because, as Pollack says, “[Milius] is a romantic at heart.” Pollack wanted to look at the film through an introspective lens whereas Milius wanted the film to be more overtly macho and violent. And from this came a film that Pollack called as “vivid and moody,” and one of the most “poetic,” films he ever made because it was one of his most visual. A picture made out of “rhythms and moods” and Pollack explains. And there certainly are some nice moments in the film where the director of photography, Duke Callaghan, simply fills his frame with the natural beauty that surrounded them on-location. It’s not a singularly memorable film, visually, but there are some nice postcard-type shots that are pleasant to gaze upon, but they certainly don’t lend themselves to the kind of anticipation that holds your interest waiting for that next great “thing” that’s going to fill the frame. For a film that does a lot of wandering, the lack of a visual punch really makes the film feel like a drag at times.
So where does Jeremiah Johnson fall in the pantheon of westerns? Unlike the artier McCabe and Mrs. Miller that came out a year prior and unlike the darker, more existential Spaghetti westerns of Leone or Eastwood, Jeremiah Johnson definitely feels like a western that is more classical in its approach to the subgenre. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but there are times when the film meanders too much for my liking, making it more akin to Dances with Wolves than McCabe and Mrs. Miller

That may be an unfair criticism considering the quotes from Pollack I peppered this piece with, but I wanted more from Jeremiah Johnson even though the film, really, aspired to be nothing more than a simple story about a man in the wilderness and the characters he encounters. Still, there’s no denying the passion that went in to making the film: Pollack mortgaged his home in order to finish the film (which went way over budget due to the location shooting in Utah’s Zion National Park), Redford poured his heart into a performance that he truly believed in (the project was a passion for him as he helped Pollack re-tool the script; Redford was also looking for a box-office winner after some clunkers post-Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidJeremiah Johnson really resonated with audiences, and he was a big reason why), the photography – even if it is a tad banal – is filmed with the eye of someone that appreciates the beauty of the Rockies, natural sound is used extremely well, and there’s a real sense of understanding in terms of tone.

Sometimes the film is introspective and melancholy, and sometimes it’s wacky (the bear scene) and a great adventure; however, it never really coalesces into the epic western that I think it’s trying to be. It’s as if the spirit and tone of the film didn’t match its visual and thematic aspirations. I see a film in Jeremiah Johnson that is the precursor – the feeling out process – to the kind of prestige films Pollack became a master at compiling (Out of Africa, to put a title to this thought). I’ve mentioned a few times the difference in looking at Pollack’s films versus the other two directors I’ve covered. And maybe that somewhat plays into my blasé feelings towards the aesthetics of this film. Pollack made the kind of movies that owe something to classic Hollywood; in that vein, he made what some would today call “prestige” pictures. Ken Russell was definitely not Hollywood (he only lasted through two films in America), Oliver Stone was a kind of polished, Hollywood version of the art house experimental film, and Pollack seems to be the furthest from them in that he very clearly and proudly (and genuinely) made Hollywood prestige pictures.

But damn, despite there not being a ton of impressive stuff to look at, there’s a hell of a lot of stuff you sense and feel in a Pollack film. More than anything you see the work of a man who was one of the very best at getting brilliant performances from major Hollywood stars. Pollack was a filmmaker during an era where big stars like Redford and Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were becoming more and more artistically inclined; actors in the ‘70s, unlike any era before it, were imposing their artistic will on a film. Actors weren’t contractually obligated to work for a particular studio like they were during the old Hollywood studio days, so if a producer didn’t give in to an actor’s demands, they could just move on to a different project being produced by a different studio (Beatty seemed to think that he could always direct a film better than the directors hired to make movies he was starring in). That is unless they had a director that could rein them in and really harness that artistic ability for the betterment of the film. Pollack had an incredible skill at doing just that. So, as you’re likely bound to hear throughout this retrospective, just because Pollack may not have the élan of some of his contemporaries (and really, because it never ceases to amaze me, just stop and think about all of the innovative filmmakers in America and abroad whose work during that era was flooding theaters), he possessed an entirely different, and just as impressive, skill: he continually got the best out of his big-time movie stars.

So as we move forward with this retrospective it will be interesting to notice the mastery of tone and the ability to get the best out of his actors. In Jeremiah Johnson, it was the ability to find the melancholy in an original screenplay filled with visceral violence; it was also the ability to take a big star – and a good looking one at that – in Redford and convincingly turn him into a man that wants to say the hell with “civilized” society and become a naturalist. I highly doubt Redford was what Milius had in mind for his version of the character, but for Pollack’s melancholy version, Redford is perfectly cast. And I think a lot of that has to do with Pollack’s ability to get the absolute best and most interesting elements out of that performance. Jeremiah Johnson was a big hit for both Pollack and Redford, and the two would collaborate again just one year later on the hit romantic drama, The Way We Were – a further example of Pollack’s complete mastery of eliciting great performances from his actors despite the film they're in not living up to the level of the performances.


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