15 June 2008

The Deadly Trackers, or: My Aesthetic Sense

Several times since starting this blog, I've considered starting a separate blog dedicated to cinema. I've occasionally posted movie reviews here when I've thought the films had something to say about current conditions or were relevant to the national zeitgeist, but to date I've spared readers updates on my DVD collection and my viewing habits at home. These seemed to me purely aesthetic considerations, but I wonder sometimes whether there are purely aesthetic considerations. My aesthetic sense, such as it is, may be influenced by my larger worldview, and expressing one may well be one way to express the other.

There probably is an ideological element in my aesthetic sense, and I might be giving the game away by admitting that I'm a fan of the movies of the 1970s. I was a child in those years and didn't actually get out to movies much, and the movies I enjoyed on TV were usually older, but as I've grown older I've acquired a taste for 70s cinema that is only vicariously nostalgic, in the sense that I wasn't really living in the decade as it passed me by. I'm not nostalgic for the children's programming of the era, but for the stuff I wasn't old enough to see or appreciate.

I have exactly one grindhouse memory from those years. When I went to the movies, it was usually for children's matinees, animated features and other Disney product. One night, however, I believe in 1976, our babysitter took us to Proctor's Theater in downtown Troy for a double-bill of At the Earth's Core and The Conqueror Worm. I remember distinctly some details of the first film, but regret to report that I fell asleep through most of the renamed Witchfinder General. I woke up in time to see Vincent Price killed, and the Poe poem recited to justify American International's retitling of the picture.

Since then, while retaining my taste for fantastic or genre movies, I've developed an appreciation for more mundane product from the period. It's a retrospective appreciation in some ways, since there are some aspects of 70s cinema I could only appreciate after having later works to compare them with. The 70s, for instance, were the last golden age of stuntwork before special effects made things easier for everyone, and even the sillier car-chase and car-crash films of the time now inspire the same admiration I felt when younger for the daredevil comedians of silent film. Reality is a third dimension to most 70s films that renders most 90s and 2000s films two-dimensional (or less) by comparison. Even Star Wars, the film that allegedly ended the era by setting new standards of production, had a distinct superiority of effects for its time that gave it the same sort of individuality that Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation had, compared to the now generic CGI look of most genre films.

More importantly, 70s cinema had a different worldview, more realistic, hardheaded to the point of pessimism, and overall more mature (or more "adult") than later generations of movies. Unless you're looking at an actual youth comedy like Animal House, you feel certain that the characters in 70s films are grown-ups. The 70s were a decade of disillusionment in which, at the same time, anything seemed possible artistically. Writers, directors and actors seemed unbound by the old studio imperative of making everyone feel happy, and audiences seemed hungry for sterner stuff. Unhappy endings are an almost stereotypical feature of 70s cinema, but they strike me less as bitterness or cynicism than a clear-eyed view of a world in which Americans had discovered limits. In this sense, the nemesis of the 70s style isn't really George Lucas (who after all followed Star Wars with The Empire Strikes Back), but Sylvester Stallone. Rocky II is arguably the first film of the 80s, despite being made in 1979, because Stallone gives himself a do-over and lets himself win. Rambo: First Blood Part II makes his agenda explicit; he asks, "Do we get to win this time?" and answers with a resounding YES! -- or an inarticulate roar, depending on how you hear it. In between these milestones, Americans endorsed the ideological optimism of Ronald Reagan, and the 70s were dismissed as a decade of bad clothes (true), bad music (debatable) and bad everything, summed up in Jimmy Carter's discredited declaration of malaise, for which Reagan's optimism was the purported remedy, and which George W. Bush's decrepit optimism threatens to revive.

While movies from the 80s forward tended to propose easy answers to most dilemmas, render violence as weightless abstraction, and reduce personalities to archetypes with by-the-numbers "character arcs," 70s movies often eschewed easy answers, unless you consider the tendency to unhappy endings as a too-easy form of cynicism. To illustrate my point, I'll describe a movie I watched today.

The Deadly Trackers is a 1973 western starring Richard Harris. This was the period when Harris was sort of a western star following the success of A Man Called Horse. Here, he's a sheriff who's never killed a man, because he's perfected a system of rousing the town to stop criminals by force of numbers that compel them to surrender. When a gang of vicious hell-bastards including such 70s stalwarts as William Smith (as a hulking retard called Schoolboy) and Neville Brand (as a dude with an iron block for a hand), but led by Rod Taylor, rob a bank, the drill works to perfection, except that Taylor manages to get inside a school and take a kid hostage who happens to be Harris's son. The sheriff surrenders and lets the robbers leave town with their loot, but Taylor insists on taking the boy with them. As he rides out, Harris's wife runs out and tries to stop Taylor, so he shoots her in the face (the film is rated PG, by the way). Now the gang is in a hurry, so Taylor throws the boy to the street, and his gang tramples a rather obvious dummy. Harris's wife and boy are dead. So much for the pacifism; it's 70s vengeance time!

Harris crosses the border into Mexico on a one-man mission to destroy Taylor's gang. The Deadly Trackers is a film so tough that Al Lettieri, an iconic 70s thug (he was Solazzo in The Godfather and played bestial villains in The Getaway and Mr. Majestyk) is actually a good guy, in fact the moral core of the film. He's a Mexican lawman who tries mightily to dissuade Harris from his mission while affirming the rule of law, and suffers much for his trouble. Even getting plugged by Taylor and tumbling down a hillside (kudos to the stuntman) doesn't dent Lettieri's idealism. Harris shakes him off at several points, but near the end, when our hero has finally sunken to Taylor's level and taken Taylor's daughter hostage in a convent school to force the criminal into the open, he can't bring himself to go all the way. He brings Taylor to the Mexican town where Lettieri has promised him that a witness can get Taylor convicted of a crime in Mexico. It turns out that the witness has died, so Lettieri now has no case against Taylor. You'd think the concept of extradition to Texas might come up here, but this is far from a perfect film, so Lettieri orders Harris to set Taylor free. Harris does so, but moments later, as Taylor is cackling and inviting everyone to drinks on him, Harris blows him away. Lettieri tells Harris he's under arrest. Harris throws down his weapon, but turns his horse around and starts riding slowly out of town. Lettieri orders him to stop, but Harris keeps going. Lettieri shoots him in the back and Harris drops dead. The End.

Imagine The Deadly Trackers remade today. We'd probably miss the subplot with Taylor and one black gang member, on whom Taylor constantly heaps racist invective, which seems headed for a fatal resolution, but ends up with them parting ways amicably after the black guy pays Taylor $1,000 for Taylor's former girlfriend and becomes her pimp before Harris appears and kills him. The end is much more likely to change, in one of three ways. Either Lettieri would actually help Harris kill Taylor in a big action sequence, and let Harris go home; or Harris would turn Taylor over, Taylor would somehow get hold of a gun, and Lettieri would kill him, after which Harris would go home; or it would play out as before up to Taylor's death, after which Lettieri would let Harris go home. Whether modern screenwriters would give Harris a Mexican love interest to further his redemption is a side issue. Retaining the original ending is the most unlikely outcome, even if such 70s lovers as Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez were in charge. I'll concede that it might be more likely now than in the 80s or 90s, but that's because another malaise period seems to be settling in.

I'm not making any special claims for The Deadly Trackers as a work of art. It's an efficient, unpretentious film with nice location work that cheaps out on the soundtrack by borrowing just about everything from Jerry Fielding's score for The Wild Bunch. I submit it as a typical product of its era, an action film from the early 70s with ambivalence towards the vengeance and violence that are its reason for being. It may have been a better film if Samuel Fuller had made it, as he apparently was supposed to, it being derived from one of his stores, but I liked it better than some of the cartoonish spaghetti westerns and the ego-trip John Wayne epics of the time. There's something about that grim ending that appeals to me. I don't get it in many current movies (No Country For Old Men is an exception), but I get it a lot from 70s films. That's not to say I only like the gritty realistic pessimism. I like a lot of the cartoonish action stuff also. Whether its Dolemite or TNT Jackson or The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, there's something to the grindhouse aesthetic that Hollywood and Hong Kong and places in between (I can't speak for Bollywood, however) have lost, and I worry that it's something the culture has lost as well.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

If every movie you saw was tied to your aesthetic sense---and it seems to me that it is---you'd probably be in line for a Pulitzer as a movie critic. Bottom line, go ahead and start a movie blog. You'd probably get more traffic there than on this one.