Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Aluminum Autumn

Years grow shorter, not longer,
the more you've been on your own.
Feelin's for movin' grow stronger,
so you wonder why you ever go home,

-Jimmy Buffett
Wonder Why We Ever Go Home

Two distinct, but geographically proximate, cultures have witnessed their way of life fade out and nearly die in the latter half of the twentieth century. The causes of the decay for both cultures were many and varied - greed, destitution, indifference, government interference,  but most especially, "the pickup truck debt...which is a sickness...worse than alcohol and dope." In the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe, and again in the 1989 film Pow Wow Highway, two sets of disparate people living in Montana romanticize, deride and ultimately pine for their fading cultures.

A euphemistic term for cowboy paradise, most of the characters in Rancho Deluxe attempt to achieve their modern-day version of the American West's dream by playing at their forbarers roles. Whether it's cattle barons John and Cora Brown, ranch hands Burt and Curt or proto-slacker, cattle rustlers Jack and Cecil, everyone is looking for their version of horseshoe heaven by diving headlong into a fading culture with predictable, but humorous results. The movie somehow reminded me of radio talk-show host Don Imus who sports a full duster, chaps, cowboy hat and boots while working in a modern day sound studio, and who never realizes just how silly he looks in his costume. Like Imus, most of the characters in Rancho Deluxe are not real cowboys or even indigenous to the west, and the movie derives much of its humor from this irony. Cattle ranchers John and Cora Brown, who appear to own the lion's share of property around Bozeman, Montana, are actually transplanted beauty parlor owners from Schenectady. Seemingly salty, hired hands Curt and Burt are also not real cow-pokes either, Curt being a former TV hot-comb model and Burt being in appliance repair. Rustlers Jack and Cecil, however, seem fully conscious of the ironies of their life and the collision of the modern era into old west culture. Even though they're aware that they're only playing at cowboys and indians, in their own way, they enmesh themselves in the culture and simultaneously fight boredom by rustling cattle, finding lost Appaloosa  barrel racers with their erst-while girlfriends, shooting up their girlfriends father's Lincoln Continental (and its horseshoe hood ornament) with a Sharp's buffalo rifle, and just outright refusing to grow up in general.

Patti D'Arbanville and Bob Dog

When Jack and Cecil shoot and chainsaw up a cow from John and Cora's B-Bar/Lazy-T spread, the Brown's see it as a chance to alleviate some of their own boredom that's been built up from living their western lifestyle. To this end, they hire "barely mobile" stock detective Henry Beige who brings his beautiful, seemingly innocent, niece along for the ride. Burt and Curt immediately fall for the niece much to the chagrin of Cora who is longing for some "gothic ranch house action."

The story is pretty straightforward with a few minor twists and the theme has been touched on before and since the movie was released. What sets the film apart is the sharp dialogue and characters written by Thomas McGuane, and the terrific cast of character actors. There's a ton of great dialogue that manages to be conversational, humorous and still pointed. Cecil's dad, played by Joe Spinell gives a classic speech about "pickup truck debt" which rings quite true for anyone living in the west. There's also a hilarious exchange between John Brown (the great and immediately recognizable Clifton James) and a clerk concerning where the "nearest negro in Montana" is located. Slim Pickens, who plays the rickety stock detective, is really on his game in the movie whether he's recounting his whacky dream where he's atop a pyramid with a "Phay-roh while below all the slaves is a-bowin' and a-scrapin'," or when sniping at Clifton James' character. These two legends are worth the price of admission alone, but when Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright and Joe Spinell are added to the mix, the film becomes a must-see for lovers of great character actors.

I've unintentionally seen almost all of director Frank Perry's eclectic list of films which include movies as diverse as David and Lisa, The Swimmer and Mommie Dearest. Although his direction isn't usually imaginative or super stylish, the characters in the films are often engaging and he usually gets excellent performances from the typically top-shelf actors who are cast in his movies. Even Perry's lesser known works such as Ladybug, Ladybug, Last Summer and Man on a Swing are interesting character studies with solid performances. Being a character based film, Rancho Deluxe, seems a very good fit for Perry and he even manages to shoehorn in a few stylish shots as when Jeff Bridges and HDS exchange dialogue in the reflection of a Pong screen. 

The downside to Perry's direction is he failed to take full advantage of the Montana scenery. Without a doubt, there are a few nice outdoor shots, but between the less than stellar cinematography and the actor-centric camera angles there were a lot of missed opportunities to really show off the incredible landscape of the area. Also, either the print, or the film stock itself was extremely grainy which further diminished the look of the movie. The pace of the film is intentionally slow and meandering, much like real life in Montana or my home state of Wyoming. Boredom is almost a way of life in the modern west and the film, quite rightly, doesn't attempt to portray it otherwise.
 The soundtrack of the film was done by McGuane's brother-in-law, Jimmy Buffett, well before he became one of the most successful concert performers of all time. Three of the songs, including the title track, Wonder Why We Ever Go Home and Livingston Saturday Night are still among his best work which is saying something given Buffett's voluminous output. His easy-going, to poignant, to rollicking styles fit in with the tone of the film quite well even if the lyrics are very much on the nose. In an interesting side note, Buffett himself appears in the film with a bar band which features Warren Oates on harmonica.
Rancho Deluxe is the kind of movie that leaves me chuckling with delight after one viewing, but kind of sad after another as I contemplate the demise of even the modern-day western culture presented in the film. But I never tire of the colorful, but amiable characters, beautiful landscapes and laid back music, even though I know I'll kind of miss them afterwards.

Score 7.5/10

"Look at these people traipsing around on a basketball court. You'd think a few lousy beads and some feathers was a culture or something."
-Buddy Red Bow

While Rancho Deluxe is funny, quirky and laid-back, Pow Wow Highway is humorous, but earnest, and somewhat more serious about its cultural message. Maybe it's because the characters aren't playing at being western denizens, they actual are natives of the west and intricately tied to it. The two main characters Philbert and Buddy belong to the North American Cheyenne tribe and reside on a reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. Philbert is physically large, but appears a little mentally slow, or at the very least, absent-minded and quite naive. He's a dreamer who, for the most part, just wants to learn and tell stories about the tribe. His life-long friend Buddy Red Bow is hot-tempered, cynical and militantly active in tribal affairs. At the outset of the story, Buddy has crashed a tribal meeting with a Bureau of Indian Affairs representative who is trying to convince the tribe to sell natural resources located on the reservation. In order to get Buddy out of the picture, the government trumps up some charges against his sister who lives in Santa Fe with her two young daughters. Buddy enlists Philbert and his "war pony" - a barely running, decrepit Buick Wildcat that Phibert literally traded for with the stuff in his pockets. Together, they head south but not before getting sidetracked along the way by Philbert's spiritual quest.

The film is, in large part, a road picture with Philbert and Buddy re-discovering their roots. The humor in it is mostly derived from the relationship between the sweet, day-dreaming Philbert and the passionate, but too serious Buddy. Philbert is played with just the right amount of distractedness by Gary Farmer. His large size, but gentle demeanor make him instantly likable. Buddy is played by handsome latino soap star A Martinez who really sells the hot-headed character well but still manages to remain sympathetic.

The film delivers its message without getting too preachy although the white characters are just a little cartoonish and one dimensional. The ending is a bit far-fetched, but very satisfying nonetheless. The film was shot on location in Montana, South Dakota and New Mexico and director Jonathan Whacks takes advantage of the landscapes' beauty. One shot in particular of Philbert's Buick traveling down a highway in mid-blizzard is particularly haunting and cool. I was really happy the filmmakers actually shot in the three different states instead of using Canada as a stand-in as each place has a distinctive look of its own. The soundtrack of the film is made up of original western-style music from Barry Goldberg along with previously recorded music by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Rachel Sweet and Robbie Robertson. I'm completely biased being a huge fan of Robertson's, but I wish he could have scored the entire film as the two songs of his that were used were easily the best and most relevant to the movie. The film is almost the same length as Rancho Deluxe, but is much faster paced, despite or because of the detours it takes which are always interesting and further develop the plot, characters or theme.
Score 7.5/10

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