Monday, October 16, 2006

Robert Aldrich Blog-A-Thon: Apache


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I apologize for the long silence on this blog; I can't believe it's already been more than three weeks since my last post. Some of that time has been spent watching movies but it still feels like I've missed an awful lot. For example I unfortunately ended up seeing only a single solitary film from the Mill Valley Film Festival lineup, the one I was able to catch at an advance screening here in Frisco: The Queen. This shiny new Oscar hopeful ought to satisfy just about anyone looking for an intelligent film, but will probably disappoint anyone looking for a brilliant one. Of course, intelligent films are rare enough that I expect this one to do very well against its as-yet unseen competition.

Arranging trips to Mill Valley or San Rafael is difficult enough but the past few weeks I've been stretched particularly thin. I hope I can figure a way to make it to the latter venue for an October 26 screening of the Magnificent Ambersons and at least one or two of the Otto Preminger films playing the first weekend of December. I'm disappointed I missed films argued for so beautifully in places like here and here, but I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to go on a road trip to the Lone Pine Film Festival with my dad and then report on it for Greencine Daily. One real highlight of attending the festival was getting a chance to meet and talk movies with one of the best filmbloggers on my sidebar, Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Dennis is hosting a Robert Aldrich Blog-A-Thon today, but since I've already got several unfinished pieces I want to finish up and publish here this week, I'd all but given up on the idea of contributing, especially since I'd only seen the director's two most widely-esteemed films, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Kiss Me Deadly. But then I read about the difficulties preventing fellow blogger Girish Shambu from contributing a post to today's event, and I realized that I had no good excuse not to come up with something, however lame. I popped in a previously unwatched videocassette of Aldrich's 1954 Apache to see what I thought of it on a first viewing. What I've come up with is far less a contribution to the blogosphere's Aldrich-knowledge than an apology explaining why I emerged from a viewing of a Robert Aldrich film without having much of anything to say about Robert Aldrich.

Though my decision to pick Apache from among all Aldrich films to watch and write about is essentially due to happenstance (it was the one title of his I had conveniently lying around the house), I also thought it might be fortuitous to look at a film in the genre (the Western) that was also the focus of the film festival I'd just attended and written about. My fascinations with film genres in which a talented auteur director might be easily able to slip in touches more interesting and unexpected than in a Hollywood "prestige" picture have led me to become particularly interested in Westerns, but not to the point of becoming any kind of an authority on them as my exposure is still too narrow. Focusing a large portion of my film-watching efforts on the offerings available on Frisco cinema screens has helped to ensure that; Westerns simply don't get screened in this town very often. Even those of the spaghetti variety, like the Leone films playing the Castro next Tuesday and Wednesday, aren't seen terribly often here. So after a weekend at Lone Pine I've definitely been spending more time than usual considering Westerns, and particularly the way they portray American Indian tribes.

But nothing could really have prepared me for the utter preposterousness of seeing Apache's stars Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters in Technicolor "redface" makeup for ninety minutes. (Angelina Jolie might do well to look at this movie right about now.) Well, perhaps I could have eventually gotten used to it if the dialogue and acting weren't so stiff and humorless (Lancaster's Massai makes a single joke toward the end of the film when he places a tiny cornstalk up to his ear, but even that feels like far too weighty a moment), or if the history lessons weren't so bizarre in their inaccuracy. The film's premise rests on an understanding that Geronimo's Apaches (and, as the film implies, all other tribes as well) had no knowledge of farming until they were introduced to it by whites. The screamingly ludicrous symbol of this is a sack of seed corn (corn!!!) given to Massai by an Oklahoma Cherokee with the intention of helping him mimic white culture.

The gaping erroneousness throws the entire film off-balance, to the point where it's difficult to unpack just what messages are being sent, other than misinformation. There are attempts to bring up issues like assimilation and cultural relativity, but they can't really go anywhere. Still, it's worth watching the engine of Hollywood narrative techniques for once applied to get us rooting for a character who in most Westerns would be an unqualified villain. Massai's freedom fighting often resembles terrorism but the deck is stacked to have the audience feel the maximum amount of pity for his tragic character. By the end of the film he turns himself in and lives happily ever after, which I understand departs from the actual, more tragic fate of the historical inspiration for the character. It made me think of the requirements of the Hollywood Production Code. It seems unlikely that a film with the stance of Apache could have been made much earlier than 1954, by which point the code was starting to become a little less tight of a straightjacket in its requirements for the depiction of protagonists. But at the same time there's no way filmmakers working under the code could ever consider showing the truth of the worst atrocities committed against Indians, as it would mean terrible crimes would have to go unpunished. One Code-friendly option could have been to show the crimes and then punish them, but that would go against the sweep of a history in which perpetrators of such crimes have long gotten away with their misdeeds.

There is my reaction to a single viewing of Apache. It would take a far greater investment of study of the film and of other Aldrich films for me to be able to look past the biggest stumbling blocks I found in this film, primarily the 1954 convention of casting white actors in non-white roles, the stereotyped dialogue, and Hollywood-style rewriting of history. I hope to inch my way closer to a better understanding of Aldrich and what exactly he brought to the table through the other entries in today's Blog-A-Thon, but to be honest I'm not too eager to revisit Apache anytime soon. In fact, I feel more like running in exactly the other direction from Hollywood depictions of American Indians right about now. Which means the 31st Annual American Indian Film Festival coming to the Lumiere and the Palace of Fine Arts Nov 3-11, including a screening of the Journals of Knud Rasmussen Nov. 9, can't arrive soon enough!