Monday, September 24, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Electric Horseman

If you follow this blog at all, then you probably know that I am not someone who favors plot or story over other elements in film. I don’t need a mind-bender to keep me interested; in fact, I have no use for movies like The Usual Suspects, Inception, and films of their ilk. Mostly it’s because I feel like a lot of those kinds of films (with the exception of Inception which had great stunts) use their twisty storylines as a way to mask their film’s deficiencies. Sometimes the actors can make it work, and sometimes the film just falls completely flat because I’m spending the entirety of the movie trying to figure out just what the hell is going on instead of getting invested in the characters. There are countless filmmakers that I don’t need to waste your time by listing their names that can balance this, but I generally don’t look for films with “interesting” storylines” to draw me in.

So what am I getting at? Well, by selecting Sydney Pollack as my director for this retrospective I have dug myself into a bit of a hole compared to the other two filmmakers I’ve previously covered in this projected (truncated retrospectives on Oliver Stone and Ken Russell) because of the fact that I love the simplicity of Pollack’s films so much (there really is nothing “twisty” about his plots; they’re simple, classic storylines) I often find myself lacking for content beyond the general plot synopsis. The Electric Horseman is no different: a film with all of Pollack’s favorite themes, two great lead performances, a storyline that is nothing new, and a small chase scene to break up the monotony. It’s not that it’s a bad movie (just like Bobby Deerfield wasn’t a bad movie), but it lacks the elegiac tone of something akin to it like Junior Bonner. Where Peckinpah’s film was an elegy to the Old West as the New West pervaded it, The Electric Horseman is similar in tone (Las Vegas artifice/corporate exploitation of an old cowboy’s morals is similar to the ever-changing rodeo circuit and quickly evolving New West Junior confronts in Junior Bonner)  but acts more as an adventure/buddy picture; a little more light-hearted than previous Pollack/Redford collaboration, Jeremiah Johnson, but very similar in tone (both films were shot at Zion National Park in Utah, so there is a similar feel in setting).

Pollack suggested that the film has the same structure as a three act play: Act 1 is the taking of the horse; Act 2 is the chase; and Act 3 is the love story. The story concerns Sonny Steele (Robert Redford), a five-time champion rodeo star whose career has been relegated to shilling breakfast cereal for corporate sponsor AMPCO, a company that exploits Steele as he pitches to kids across the country about the importance of a nutritious breakfast. AMPCO’s corporate symbol is a horse named Rising Star. When Steele is tours the country – especially when he does shows in Vegas – AMPCO adorns him with a special suit that lights up when plugged into the saddle of his horse. There’s a great shot early on in the film of Steele riding the horse down the Vegas strip at night and all you can see is his outline thanks to the lights he dons – just another neon Vegas sign.

Steele is often inebriated to dull the fact that he’s being exploited by a huge corporation, and on the night that AMPCO is celebrating a merger with OMNI Bank, Steele finds out that Rising Star is injured, yet the horse has been drugged so that it can perform in front of the Vegas crowd. When he sees AMPCO exploiting Rising Star by not taking care of the injured horse, he decides to shake himself from his stupor of complacency and inebriation and decides to take action: he steals the horse and embarks on a journey to set it free in its natural habitat. Of course, as is the case with a lot of Pollack’s work, this idea of characters in their natural habitat is a favorite trop of his. Steele is no different than, say, Jeremiah Johnson in that he’s fed up with rapidity and emptiness of modern society and just wants to get away from it all. After Steele takes the horse from Vegas, the film turns into a pretty by-the-numbers chase film that reminded me of a live-action Disney movie as the big bad corporation tries to get their moneymaking animal back from the man that just wants it to be free. It’s very syrupy sweet and kind of hokey, but it works on a very basic level.

If we’ve learned one thing about Pollack during this retrospective, it’s that the man had to have  a love story in his movies. Even when he shoe-horns them into films like The Yakuza and Three Days of the Condor, Pollack was someone who whole heatedly believed in the idea that when men and women are at odds in a film, it’s an opportunity for a much larger metaphor about different philosophies/ways of life. In The Electric Horseman, it’s Jane Fonda as ace television reporter Hallie Martin: a woman who is only concerned about getting her story – in this case, the story is the tragic fall of a once great rodeo champion. However, as is the case with movies like this, as Hallie tracks down Sonny and continues her story, she begins to see the man for who he really is and begins to learn a little bit about why he stole the horse. Hallie is so obviously a reflection of Fonda (and this is a huge asset for the film) because she's so much more fiercely independent than other female characters in Pollack/Redford films like Jeremiah Johnson and Condor. It's not that Pollack and Redford were averse to such a character (Barbara Streisand's character in The Way We Were is the obvious example), but it's just nice to see an intelligent, pro-active woman in this role that could have reduced her to nothing but "woman who sleeps with protagonist and helps him find his way."

Look, none of this is particularly new or original or even that invigorating; The Electric Horseman is the kind of film they would have made in the ‘40s with two big stars where it’s all about the journey of the leads, the bickering, the reluctant romance, the eventual kiss, and the happy ever after. And you know what, that’s okay with me. This is a story that’s not just about animal activism (just like Jeremiah Johnson wasn’t just about transcendental themes) and saving a horse from being exploited, but it’s also about Steele finding himself and having the self-respect to allow him to be saved from exploitation, too. Pretty basic and benign, yes, but the film’s general thesis (that the cowboy outsmarts the corporate bigwigs; the old country is wiser than the new country) is interesting enough to keep our attention so that we can see what Pollack is really good at. At the center of it all, as is the case with almost every Pollack film, are two outstanding performances.

The film had script problems from the beginning. Pollack stated in an interview that they were writing and re-writing the script on a daily basis and had no idea how it was going to end until they shot it; these script problems are probably why the film is at its best when Fonda and Redford are just alone, acting the hell out of every scene. It's almost as if we're just watching these two pros react to whatever Pollack decided to write for them that day. Oddly enough, despite the on-the-fly script doctoring, the film's tone never really feels off. Since Pollack worked with such simplistic stories with such simplistic themes, that his films almost allow him to be like a jazz musician with his scripts.

We also know that Pollack had a knack for making big, commercial films with big stars. Pollack always stated that these were the kinds of films that interested him the most – that when he went to go see movies as a kid, he went to go see big stars like Judy Garland in big productions. So we know we’re never going to get anything too artistic in the way other filmmakers were being innovative with the medium at the time, but he just had a knack for pointing a camera at two stars and getting the best performances out of them. Not only the best performances, but something that usually dug a little bit deeper. His films require patience, yes, but you’re almost always rewarded with great performances, and The Electric Horseman is no exception. 

There’s a noticeable difference between Redford in a Pollack film than Redford in something like The Great Waldo Pepper or The Great Gatsby.  Obviously a lot of that credit goes to the actor and their interest in a project, but I think Pollack’s greatest gift as a director was eliciting that kind of interest – that kind of passion – out of his actors. It’s the one thing – the only thing – that keeps The Electric Horseman from just “meh.” Fonda is great, too, as the reluctant sidekick of sorts; a New World woman, so to speak, trying to figure out the Old West guy and whether it’s just part of the act or if he really feels what he says and does. Her words of admiration and thanks at the end during her broadcast of the story  on television is well delivered. I get a sense that Redford and Fonda felt strongly – as they were both heavily into activism – about the film’s subject material.

So no, The Electric Horseman doesn’t move beyond the basic to make any big proclamations about the evils of conglomerates and the exploitative nature of corporations – after all, if Pollack were so overt, I’m not sure his films would get made considering he enjoyed working in the Hollywood studio system – but there’s subtext there, just as there is in any Pollack film, if one cares to look for it. Pollack has always been interested in the idea of setting acting as a larger metaphor, and here he picks a setting that opens itself to all kinds of deconstruction: Las Vegas. Showy and artificial – a simulacrum where old cowboys can still feel relevant and play cowboy in an ever-changing world that considers them irrelevant – it’s the perfect setting to have the corporate sponsors stationed and the perfect setting to have Steele realize that his life is one giant fa├žade. Las Vegas was once a place ran by cowboys for cowboys – now they adorn those old timers with neon lights – exploit them for entertainment purposes so that modern tourists can laugh at the neon cowboy – so that they merely blend in with the rest of the Strip.

Much like Pollack’s previous film Bobby Deerfield, there’s nothing wrong with The Electric Horseman, but there’s nothing here to inspire a lot of introspective commentary. The film is what is, and it does it reasonably well thanks to some great performances (I’ll also give a shout out to Willie Nelson, in his first film role, and one of my favorite character actors John Saxon). But contrasted with the movies surrounding it (Absence of Malice was released two years later), the film stands as a highlight for Pollack because it showed that a film can be a lot even if it’s selling point is seeing two mega-stars like Redford and Fonda on screen together. Deerfield had Pacino and it flopped; Absence of Malice had Paul Newman and Sally Field and it was a real stinker. So to bring this all back around to my original paragraph: the two Pollack films have “sexier” plots, but they’re not nearly as interesting as the very basic premise found in The Electric Horseman. Because I don’t value “interesting” storylines highly, I was able to look past the film’s flaws and focus on two great performances that make this one of Pollack’s underrated achievements.


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