Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Horse sense

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

Seabiscuit belongs in a familiar category in American film – a nice little story, grotesquely padded-out with sentiment and would-be significance. As everyone knows by now, Seabiscuit was the 1930’s Depression-era little-horse-that-could; a written-off nag notable only for his prowess at sleeping and eating who somehow developed into a consistent winner, ultimately conquering the mighty War Admiral in a one-on-one encounter. I haven’t read Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, on which the film is based, but the movie explicitly regards Seabiscuit as the perfect symbol for his time – a creature written off and tossed on the scrap heap, who got his second chance and made the most of it.

About a horse

The new film, directed by Gary Ross (who directed Pleasantville and directed Dave and Big), is very well-made: handsomely photographed, lovingly designed, well cast, and making the most of the story’s lump-in-the-throat aspects. It stars Tobey Maguire as the horse’s unlikely jockey (too tall, volatile, blind in one eye), Jeff Bridges as the unlikely owner (a car magnate with his eye on the future, who thought horses belonged to the past) and Chris Cooper as the unlikely trainer (an eccentric who Bridges finds living in the bush): all three of them bruised by past tragedies and disappointments. Seabiscuit provides all of them (representing the country beyond) an opportunity for renewal and redemption, and Ross takes great pains to ensure that we don’t get tugged into the horse racing scenes as mere spectacle, that we’re always aware of their wider resonance.

At which point it seems necessary to confirm that, yes, it’s a movie about a horse. At one point I wondered whether Ross has ever seen Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar, built around the suffering of a poor donkey. By which I mean that there’s nothing inherently silly about an animal bearing immense filmic meaning and weight. It’s obviously a fine line though, when the most famous horse of the last century is probably Mr. Ed. Ross’ approach to this is to minimize the horse’s presence in the film. Seabiscuit doesn’t appear for the first 45 minutes, and he’s talked about in the film more than he’s actually seen. At the start of the big race, the opening buzzer sounds, and then rather than showing us whether Seabiscuit got away to the fast start they’d been planning for (and on the preparation for which the film has spent considerable time), Ross cuts to a montage of people around the country, listening to the race. It’s a shocking negation of his movie’s dramatic possibilities, as jarring an intrusion as something in a Godard movie.

Noble history

At this point, as throughout the film, historian David McCullough provides some voice-over narration on the historical context – at various points he tells us about Henry Ford, the 1929 crash, the depression, prohibition and so forth. It’s godawful stuff, like filler from the CBS Sunday morning show, doses of medicine that we must all presume to be good for us. As the film’s opening section flicks through the back stories of the three protagonists, regularly returning to McCullough’s ponderous asides, it feels like Ross hasn’t moved too far from his earlier career as a political scriptwriter. It’s only in America, I think, that ambitious mainstream films so often muse mistily on the country’s own past. The nostalgia seems superficially rooted in pride and fortitude, but by its very existence it seems to connote insecurity, a fear of a pending America that doesn’t know or care about the country’s noble history and of where that might lead.

You would have thought that Ross’ decision to downplay the horse would mean we get to know the human characters much better, but we don’t. It feels like the three protagonists, and Bridges’ wife played by Elizabeth Banks, are together in scene after scene, but they hardly talk about anything of substance. The movie shows them to us, but doesn’t illuminate anything. Bridges’ presence is especially disappointing, consisting almost entirely of a series of crumpled smiles on which the audience can project just about anything it likes. Maybe there’s some kind of metaphor for American history in there somewhere.

Seabiscuit is hardly a bad movie, but that’s because it’s only partly a movie, and partly a multimedia cultural heritage project. I really question which is the greater insult to the audience’s intelligence – the regular summer action fodder, or this kind of golden-flow patriot fodder.

Other myths

If you’re going to do the mythic thing, you may as well go all the way, and that leads you to Michael Polish’s Northfork – another specifically “American” creation set around a dying valley on the eve of being flooded by a new dam. It follows a group of men in black charged with moving inhabitants out of the valley, a priest caring for a sick child, and a group of angels searching for a lost colleague. The movie is shot in a desaturated colour verging on black and white; it’s brooding and allusive, sometimes starkly funny, and never straightforward. Except for isolated moments, I doubt the film will have much lasting stature – it follows too specific and esoteric a formula. And I doubt whether the Polish brothers (Michael’s twin brother Mark co-wrote and stars in the film) yet have the rigour of important artists. But it’s a unique movie, and mostly in a good way.

Another kind of myth-making is on view in Alex Proyas’ Garage Days. After The Crow and Dark City, the Australian Proyas applies his technical facility (no less impressive for being more or less indistinguishable from that of Guy Ritchie or the new breed of Mexican directors or just about any other movie director under 40) to a simple story of a rock band trying to make good. The trailer and poster give away what would otherwise have seemed to be the movie’s major twist: they eventually get their big break, but they suck. The movie enjoys sketching out their sundry misadventures, although it’s all extremely (almost defiantly) basic kind of stuff, with barely a cliché left outside the garage. And much as Seabiscuit almost forgets about the horse, Garage Days definitely forgets about the music, rendering their great passion strangely abstract.

Proyas can’t make a great movie out of it, but he makes it seem like more than a purely local story. He wields the tools of cinema so dashingly that the movie almost takes on a cosmic scope. There’s a word for this of course – pretentious. But at least he’s not lecturing us about anything.

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