Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Lone Ranger (2013)

WHO: Johnny Depp starred in this, his second (by my count) attempt at playing a Native American character after The Brave in 1997.

WHAT: Business as usual in the world of Hollywood blockbusters is bad behavior. We've all heard about how, in the quest to gross their next billion for their corporate conglomerate masters, movie studios act in ways that put them on approximately the same moral ground as any other mega-industry. Pilfering the past by recycling properties to guard their copyrights and appeal to the name-recognition deities of mass taste. Off-shoring post-production work to exploited laborers overseas while forcing American visual effects houses to unreasonably underbid and over-promise just to get any work at all. Preventing anyone but white male actors to play leading roles in almost all big-budget releases, while relegating women and minorities to tokenistic roles. I could go on and on...

It's a wonder intelligent people who aren't paid to write about these movies are drawn to them at all. But there's something about (at least some of) us that wants to feel connected to the artifacts of modern mass culture dictated to us by advertising budgets, at least if we sense they're going to truly connect with audiences on the scale they're intended to.

Most people I know didn't get this sense about The Lone Ranger. Though it reunited the same team behind the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski, and of course Depp, it smelled like a dud from the release of the first photo of Tonto (if not earlier) to the first appearances of critical reactions, and anyone looking for excuses not to see the movie found them. I almost didn't go myself, fearing a Johnny Depp performance akin to his terrible turn in Alice In Wonderland, but reactions from friends like Ryland Walker Knight made me decide to give it a shot. 

To my surprise, I really liked it. I liked it more the more I thought about it and talked about it with fellow admirers. I saw it a second time (at the last showtime in an actual San Francisco theatre, which was pretty close to a sell-out house) and became convinced the first viewing wasn't just a fluke. This is not a perfect movie, and it surely is guilty of some of the offenses I laid out in the paragraph-before-last, but it's much smarter and worth taking seriously than most are willing to give it credit for. 

I don't have time to write the full-fledged review the film deserves, but at least I've come across a few written by critics going against the tide that I feel capture a good deal of what I'd want to say about it anyway. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks correctly points out Johnny Depp's successful use of silent film star Buster Keaton as  a model for his interpretation of a character that was originally created to prevent awkward silence on the radio. Vern wrote the best defense of Depp's casting I've been able to find so far (possibly excluding the speculation of Natanya Ann Pulley, that didn't come to fruition)
Of course it would be awesome if a full on, raised-on-the-reservation Native American actor got to star in a giant Disney summer event movie. Also, it would be great if he had the unique vision of this weird character and gave this great of a performance and worked as well with this team of people that Johnny Depp works with. Who do you have in mind?
But I think my favorite take on The Lone Ranger so far is one by Niles Schwartz, who writes, among other dead-on things:
The Lone Ranger, from beginning to end, feels strangely personal for the filmmakers, anachronistically photographic for an event blockbuster, riddled with detail and allusion, and even, as if in accord with the passing of a race that’s had their land stolen from them, understanding of its own tragic decline, as if it knew it would bomb and then perhaps be reevaluated and championed in the years to come.
I say "dead on" but I do have a problem with his wording "passing of a race"- the Comanche Nation still exists, and in fact some of the actors and extras in the film come from among their number. But substitute "passing of a way of life for a race" for the phrase, and I think there's some real insight here.

If nothing else, The Lone Ranger is worth seeing in a cinema because it's great to have a chance to hear Rossini's notes piped through a good-quality cinema sound system.

WHERE/WHEN: Multiple showtimes daily through Thursday at the UA Emery Bay in Emeryville and the Blue Light Cinemas in Cupertino, the last Frisco Bay Theatres to keep it on a screen. It may stick around for another week on Friday but I wouldn't count on it.

WHY: I think it was Paul Mooney on Dave Chappelle's Show who commented on the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai by proposing a Hollywood pitch: "The Last Negro On Earth starring Tom Hanks." The joke stings because there's no way around it: when a big studio decides to go ahead with a new ultra-expensive film production in the hopes of chasing a billion dollar gross and launching a profitable franchise, it's extremely rare for the cast not to be anchored by a white male actor. Usually this means the movie will take place in a white milieu, but even when it doesn't as with The Last Samurai, the lead character is almost invariably of European heritage. I'd love to see sweeping action epics drawn from African or Pacific Islander or pre-Columbian American legend that don't adopt the perspective of the white outsider, but the financial leverage for the creation of big-budgeted movies is so centered in Hollywood, and the studio inertia to keep remaking versions of the familiar so overwhelming, that they seem unlikely to be made any time soon. Even if they were, without the major involvement of creative personnel from the culture involved, there's little chance the end result would be anything other than appropriation.

In the meantime, there aren't many clear options for a dedicated movie fan who wants the status quo to change. I could try to shut out these desires for a less Eurocentric blockbuster and just accept whatever films Hollywood offers on their own merits, without staying conscious of what kinds of characters and stories are missing from the limited menu on offer. Or I could instead participate in a personal boycott of Hollywood film, rather focusing all of my moviegoing energies on independent film-making initiatives originating in communities of color and the numerous local festivals that support them. Both of these options have appeal, but I'm more comfortable with a middle-ground approach in which I focus attention on both strands. 

Which leads me to this August 27 panel discussion on Hollywood casting trends at the San Francisco Public Library. I'm hoping to attend and get exposed to ideas from perspectives from outside my own circles of attention.

HOW: The Lone Ranger screens via DCP at the UA Emery Bay, and (I'm told) 35mm at the Blue Light Cinemas. It was shot on 35mm.

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