Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Perhaps it all comes down to Walton Goggins

Boyd Crowder changes hiI'
I'm not the first person to notice that Walton Goggins is the most palpable link between the most fêted films of the current Oscar season, Lincoln (2012) and Django Unchained.  But maybe Mr. Goggins's progress from unrepentant scoundrel Billy Crash, through the ambiguously wicked Boyd Crowder in Justified through the conflicted Clay Hutchins is itself a microcosm of good and evil in the morally compromised landscape of American history.  (And, incidentally, am I unjustified in suspecting that an actor named Walton Goggins who has a certain unpredictable quality will never play a character named Bob Johnson or Tom Smith?)

As portrayed in Tony Kushner's screenplay, Hutchins is swayed to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment by a promise of employment as a postmaster, given that his re-election prospects were virtually nil.  (A Democrat in post-Civil War Ohio was virtually a non-person.)  There has been a lot of harrumphing written about the horse-trading involved in getting slavery outlawed, as if Doris Goodwin or Tony Kushner had invented corruption in the 19th century, when everyone was obviously more pure and good than they are now.  (Which is why they had slavery and child labor and oppression of women and minorities and no labor or product safety regulation.  'Cause folks used to be good and we didn't need all them pesky laws.)  Much of the pleasure of the film is observing the amount and manner of deals that must be made in order to get mediocre people to do great things, a fact confined neither to history nor to the present moment. It is all very well for great people to lead us, but they are going to have to appeal to the desires of the mediocre.

And Clay Hutchins, at least as portrayed here, is no better than mediocre.  So Mr. Goggins, over the past year of his work, moved from the straightforward sadism (probably rooted in self-hatred) of slavemaster Billy Crash, through the amoral Boyd Crowder, who cares nothing for others, but is uninterested in cruelty for its own sake, to the wavering Clay Hutchins, who is willing to do the right thing if there's something in it for himself as well.  Perhaps this is the most accurate representation of the ways in which a democracy moves toward the moral light, through the historical odyssey of Walton Goggins.

Before I go, a couple of random observations about both theatrical features. 

One of the most admirable aspects of Spielberg's Lincoln is how little it looks like a Spielberg film.  I see him as the master of camera movement and manipulation, and it is amazing how quiet and calm the camera is in Lincoln -- even more than it was in Schindler's List.   Evidently, Spielberg discerned that a text this dense was going to require some stillness so that the audience would absorb the words and not be distracted by shifting images.  It's not static by any means, and the shenanigans of Mr. Bilbo are especially entertaining.  (Despite the uniqueness of that patronimic, I can find no connection between William Bilbo and Theodore Bilbo, the odious white supremacist Senator of the 20th century.)

Does anybody else think this is the darkest Spielberg movie yet?  Not in mood or philosophical outlook, but literally low in footcandles?  Good thing we don't have drive-ins any more.  The film does make it clear what a shabby and ramshackle place the Executive Mansion was and how dark most places were after sunset.  Spielberg has called on cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to be quite a chameleon over the course of their work together, and in this film he impersonates Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness.

And one bit of trivia about Django.  This is a measure of exactly how big a movie geek Quentin Tarantino is.  The lettering of the opening titles, is not just old-timey-Western sort of lettering.  It references a specific period of late 50s-early 60s B Westerns released by Columbia.  The specific shade of red, the splintered-log style letters, all shout "late Randolph Scott (mostly, but not always directed by Budd Boetticher)!"  This is the definition of Too Hip (or Too Lame, depending on how you want to see it) For The Room.  It's mostly of interest because the critics have only referenced spaghetti Westerns, but of course Django is no dish of spaghetti.  For one thing, it's way, way too talky for a non-English-language Western (not to mention that the lips are synchronized with the sound, which is not true in Italian and German Westerns).  And the talk is interesting and tasty and probably dominates the visuals, which is odd for a Western.  Which takes us right back to Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher and The Tall T, a Western which, for about two-thirds of its running time takes place in a small circle around a campfire.

So what will it take to get Mr. Tarantino to write for the stage?

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