Monday, December 11, 2017

Godless (final episodes)

In its second half, the seven episode Western mini-series Godless slackens a bit, the breakneck pace of the first two shows decelerates markedly, and the penultimate programs leading to the final, apocalyptic gun battle slip sideways into murky territory.  All plot points lead to La Belle and the final fight between the plucky widows and Frank Griffin's innumerable minions -- it's unclear how he supports an army of the size that he leads in this desert wasteland -- but, despite, all the bluster and violence at the film's climax quite a few things remain unclear and, in fact, unresolved.  Godless has an unsettling aspect of seeming extremely leisurely and digressive in its narrative while, at the same time, strangely rushed --it's the opposite of the Latin motto "Festina Lente" ("Make haste slowly"); this show dawdles in a way that somehow seems a little too swift for the viewer -- things that we expect will be explained remain unclear, either through inadvertence or an attempt at meaningful ambiguity.  I simply didn't understand a number of things in this show.  For instance:

Who are the bison-headed blue-eyed bad guys who inexplicably slash open Michele Dockery's sternum?  (This is significant in the sex scene in which Dockery exposes her breasts and the big scar between them.)  Why has Bill, the sheriff, lost his shadow?  And why does the shadow return in the climactic gun battle?  Who is the woman running the nursery school in the wilderness?  She seems an ambiguous figure, a little like Lillian Gish's matronly protector of children in Night of the Hunter, but  also with a strangely childish and malicious aspect as well.  Why is the half-blind sheriff Bill universally regarded as a coward to the extent that women throw dishwater and slops at him when he rides by?  What has he done wrong?  And, similarly, why is the Paiute widow (played by Michele Dockery) regarded as some kind of fatal witch who has put a hex on the town?  The characters of the women in La Belle are very underwritten -- they are basically just skirts and corsets until the big shoot-out when they are skirts and corsets with six-shooters and Winchesters.  Are they strait-laced or bawdy? -- one woman in particular, a lady with dark-hair, seems particularly Victorian until we see her with another woman prancing atop a table and singing a jaunty whorehouse ballad?  (A more pointed question -- northern New Mexico, of course, is characterized by its Pueblos and its Latino population, old villages dating to the conquistadors in the early 17th century:  where is the Spanish-speaking population?  The show, full of exotic immigrants, shows absolutely no sign of the ancient Spanish culture that is predominant in the area -- in the seven hour movie, the picture never shows anyone speaking Spanish or who seems to be Latino.)

Scott Frank, the director seems to like to keep things ambiguous.  For instance, there is a puzzling sequence, quite graphic and disturbing, in which Frank Griffin, the monstrous, psychotic killer, tends to a cabin full of people dying of small-pox.   The sick have been abandoned by their kin, but Griffin pauses in his relentless pursuit of Roy Goode, his disloyal protégée, to tend to the suppurating sores of a dozen or more people dying miserably in a shack in the desert.  (His men are afraid of contagion and they flee -- Griffin makes two twin boys, lunatics who seem to have butchered their entire family, including a new-born baby, stay to assist him.)  A mysterious Shoshone who tracks Bill, the cowardly sheriff, is later revealed to be a ghost rider with a ghost dog.  Griffin turns out to be very kind to horses and a sort of "horse whisperer" -- he can get the animals to lie down on their sides just by stroking them.  This is supposed to be an emblem for Griffin's charisma, his ability to bind young people to him, the personal magnetism that he exerts on his rag-tag army of desperadoes.  But Griffin's combination of nurturing qualities with psychotic violence, which is meant to be puzzling, seems ultimately implausible.  Jeff Daniels, who plays the wicked outlaw, doesn't know exactly what to do:  sometimes, he "out-Herods Herod" and seems ready to "tear a cat"; but half the time, Daniels seems bemused -- he just mutters into his beard as if he is himself unaware of what his words are supposed to signify. 

The various detours before the big gun battle involve lesbian jealousy and an inter-racial romance.  A German princess hanging around town (she does a Lady Godiva turn down Main Street) is revealed as an artist -- she's painting the brothel-keeper, who is Merrit Wever's girlfriend, in the nude.  This leads Wever (who is Bill's sister and strides around town with six-shooters in men's clothing) to quarrel with the former prostitute (now school-marm); of course, the quarrel arises over a misperception as to the relationship between the lissome German baroness and the whore.  Whitey, the adolescent deputy sheriff, falls in love with a black girl living in the encampment of the buffalo-soldiers.  The girl is forbidden to associate with the white teenager and, in fact, beaten severely by her father to deter her from seeing her boyfriend.  A newspaper man comes to town to write an article disclosing that Roy Goode is hiding in La Belle.  This article turns out to be a summons calling all the characters back to the mining town for the climax -- Bill reads the text and returns; Roy Goode who has left the ranch rides into town; and, of course, Frank Griffin's army of bad guys also marches on the village.  (In the penultimate episode, we see the miners at dawn, before the explosion that has killed them all, walking with wives and girl friends to the fatal pit -- this flashback is a short idyllic scene, a sort of calm before the storm.)

The last episode is largely devoted to a spectacular gun battle derived in large part from the defense of the embattled town in The Magnificent Seven (which is, of course, a remake of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai.)  As in Kurosawa's film (and John Sturges' Western remake), we see the army of bandits riding relentlessly across the open plains.  They seem an irresistible force, stirring up huge clouds of dust.  In the village, the women have congregated in the hotel, a structure made of brick and iron so that it can't be burned down.  They are heavily armed and, when the bandits, ride up the street and, then, pause in front of the hotel, the women ambush them with a fusillade from the rooftop and windows of the building.  A sort of Old West Armageddon ensues.  (One must note that Kurosawa's staging of this kind of combat has never been improved -- his bandits are ambushed, retreat, and come back the next day, mounting attacks from various sides of the village.  The army of villains in Godless just mill around in the open street, allowing the women to shoot them down by the dozen.  It's completely implausible if rousing and staged with great bravado.)  The bad guys ride their horses right into the hotel, blasting at the women with their six-shooters, and the fighting in the house turns into room-by-room combat -- shot gun blasts hurl people off roofs and a horse rides through a window falling into a sea of fire.  Just when it seems that the women are doomed, Roy Goode and Sheriff Bill ride out of the roiling sea of smoke, appearing at opposite ends of the Main Street so that they can mow down the remaining bad guys.  This is very spectacular and exciting, but fundamentally flawed in that the combat is staged unrealistically -- the men on horseback pose to be shot down and the bullets never hit the horses and not the bad guys.  A number of main characters are killed, but it would be a spoiler for me to disclose who dies and how.  Ultimately, Roy Goode and Frank Griffin, son and father, engage in a duel in a gorgeous mountain meadow -- the field glitters with white columbine and the scene is filmed in extreme longshot so that we can see in the background the beautiful, indifferent, snowy summits of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  Much of the rest of the film, about ten minutes of denouement is shot poetically, tiny horseman moving across enormous landscapes.  The movie does't end exactly right -- Roy Goode has left the Paiute widow a fortune in green backs buried under a fence post (as in Fargo).  The widow uncovers the saddlebag and the greenbacks and, I suppose, becomes complicit in receiving stolen currency -- this seems morally suspect.  The director's urge to make the ultimate Western, a Western that contains all Westerns is much on display in the last episode:  the battle in the town is modeled after The Magnificent Seven, at the end of the film, a preacher emerges fro nowhere to say a few words over the fifty or so new graves in the cemetery -- throughout the show we've seen the women laboring to build a wood-frame church, a motif that invokes McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  After the gun battle, Merrit Wever's character stalks around the battlefield, firing her shotgun pointblank into dead and dying men strewn in the streets and alleyways.  Her brother, Bill, says "You don't need to kill them but once."  The scene in which the gunman who has put aside his weapons digs up a coffin full of armament and, then, dons his six-shooters, spinning them in his hands, is stirring -- it reminds you of a hundred old movies.  And, in the big shoot out, Roy Goode's Winchester runs out of ammo -- he pitches the rifle at a bad guy who is startled and drops his gun to catch the rifle:  this gives Goode the chance to draw  his six-gun from its holster and blow the villain away.  It's a great move, executed with fine balletic aplomb like much of this show -- a fleeting gesture as pretty as anything in Rio Bravo.    Despite its failings, there's a lot in this series to commend and I recommend it to anyone who likes Westerns.  The leisurely episodes have a fine pastoral ambience, there are beautiful landscapes, many splendid horses, and a number of exciting action scenes.

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