After several weeks of not watching a movie, I viewed Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s 1975 bio of Woody Guthrie, with the spouse last night. I’d never seen it; I remember when it was out, in a time when I used to believe that the Oscars actually meant something (c’mon, I was 14, gimme a break). I had always found David Carradine weirdly attractive, but could never get past the western aspect of Kung Fu, though I loved the scenes in China. Man, I just don’t get westerns. Especially not The Searchers

Anyway, I like Ashby. He’s one of the more subversive mainstream directors – in the 70s, being mainstream and being great were not mutually exclusive – and Being There is easily in my top 10 favorites. BfG starts off promising. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is drop dead gorgeous throughout, his actors standing out like cutouts against a bleak, burnt-by-the-sun Dust Bowl background. It’s like Welles’ deep focus with people instead of objects, truly an arresting 3D-against-2D look that turns a location into a theater stage. I’m one of those rare folk who can watch a movie with almost no plot but gorgeous shooting, so I started off very happy.

The early establishing sequences are wonderful: plain, unscored, slightly quirky, and with just the right amount of underlying tension; no histrionics, just quiet despair. But once Guthrie’s in California, the movie sets up a paradox that never gets wrestled with particularly well. When a pro-union activist/agitator “discovers” Guthrie in a migrant camp, BfG becomes a biopic just like every other you’ve seen lately: a somewhat fraught but consistently ascending rise to fame with hassles from The Man over artistic integrity, a couple of affairs thrown in for good measure, and grateful migrants telling Woody to keep up the good fight. Spouse mentioned that he liked that it was a pro-union movie, but….please. Hollywood is the most union of towns; even the cops have SAG cards. A Hollywood anti-union movie, shot entirely with union talent, would be a lot more interesting

A sequence that squeezed a little too much sour into the movie for me was one where Woody courts an insanely rich woman he meets in a soup kitchen. His conflict over the woman’s masses of money is easily resolved with a dopey love song that ends him up in her bed; within 10 minutes, he tells her over a breakfast two weeks down the road that he’s married and it’s over. End of gratuitous relationship that added absolutely nothing to the movie but a big mansion. Geez.

But this was just a dopey interlude that in the scheme of things wouldn’t have been so bad. The scene that blew it for me was when Randy Quaid, an earnest Okie from the migrant camp, journeys to the recording station, his face busted up by an anti-union cudgel, and tells Woody earnestly to keep on singing. Woody smiles and hugs him and promises to do so. Well, that was neat. No wrestling with any of the ironies of the situation, none of the self-loathing that lies under a couple of scenes where Woody trashes a storeroom, Who style, and kicks in the icebox that he buys for his brief reunion with his wife and kids. Just a big grin and a nod

I’m loath to blame Ashby, whose best stuff has a delicate balance and no trace of ham-fistedness. I just think the biopic is almost impossible to pull off due to the unsatisfying narrative arc of any life. The spouse and I have a running joke about the moment that comes in every single biographical movie ever made: the one where someone says, “Guthrie/Cash/Jackson Pollack/Andy Kaufman/____________, you may be crazy…..but you also just May Be A GENIUS!!!!!!” And then, to compensate for the messiness and non-trajectory that constitutes all lives, the formula arc is imposed. There is the crappy, unpromising start, the moment of truth, the decline and fall, and most of the time, the redemption. Far more successful is something like Amadeus, which gleefully grabs onto an obscure historical thread and weaves from it conflict that is entirely fictional, downright preposterous in places, but enormously fun and leaving open the possibility that things could have happened that way.

In any event, I’m not sorry to have watched BfG, but doubt I’d watch it again – except for those remarkable early scenes shot against what Joseph Conrad called an “unstain’d sky.” Hmmmm…..Ashby and Heart of Darkness. Now that’s a wild combination. Would have been awesome. Ashby of all directors understands The Hollow Man.

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