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July 31, 2011

Two Westerns
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:38 PM * 34 comments

Captain Stanley: Do I need to introduce myself?
Charlie Burns: I know who you are.
Captain Stanley: Good. I know who you are.

I want to talk about a couple of movies I saw recently (on DVD). Both Westerns, for some value of the word “Western.” One good, one bad. Both ugly. For some values of the word “ugly.” [The Proposition]

The first is The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat, written by Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave). The film is set in the Australian outback in the 1880s as morally ambiguous police interact (“fight” is the wrong word here) with morally ambiguous bushrangers. Morally ambiguous, hell. Downright evil and psychopathic bushrangers. Evil, psychopathic bushrangers who believe that life is improved by a touch of poetry. Third leg of the wobbly triangle are the “wild” aborigines.

Your main protagonist (“hero” is the wrong word) is Captain Stanley (played by Ray Winstone), a police officer who is intent on “civilizing this place.” Your main antagonist (“villain” is the wrong word) is Charlie Burns (played by Guy Pearce), who wants to protect his simple-minded younger brother. In order to do that, however, he has to deal with the proposition of the title: Kill his entirely-too-clever elder brother. That elder brother is crouched out in the hills, not three days’ ride away. The elder brother is balanced by Captain Stanley’s wife, a proper Englishwoman with a porcelain tea set, rose bushes, and a white picket fence. An unspoken character is the blazing heat of the Queensland summer. The events of the story explicitly take place over nine days; we see a lot of beautiful sunsets.

The film starts in media res with a gunfight, and, as bullets puncture the walls of the tin-sided hut our men are in, the harsh light enters. It reminded me of the gunfight in the vampire film, Near Dark, where the beams of light pose a danger to the vampires that the bullets do not. It’s that kind of light.

Two other unspoken characters besides the heat and light: Dust, and flies. Those aren’t just ordinary flies. They’re Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. The dust, I suspect, is the dust of “dust thou art.” There are lots of literary references. It’s all richly nuanced, deeply layered, and wonderfully performed. It’s a classical tragedy, with the ending both surprising and inevitable. It talks about a lot of big themes: family, and love, and racism, and imperialism, and civilization.

The Proposition won a lot of awards. E.G. AFI Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Music Score, and Best Production Design. Critical response was generally glowing.

It sank without a trace, earning back $5 million world-wide, on an estimated $20 million budget.

[Jonah Hex]

The other film I saw (again on DVD) was Jonah Hex (directed by Jimmy Hayward, written by a list of seven different guys). Critical reaction was a bit lot less glowing.

It too is a Western. It too has a morally ambiguous protagonist. That protagonist is offered much the same deal as Charlie Barns was in The Proposition; a pardon in repayment for killing a particular man. That’s pretty much where the similarities stop.

Jonah Hex (played by Josh Brolin) is a bounty hunter, an ex-Confederate soldier who has been hired by President Grant to stop an ex-Confederate general who is planning to blow up Washington, D.C. with glowing-orange super-padoopie cannonballs. To this end, there’s quite a lot of running around, from the dusty-desert of the West, to New Orleans, to Virginia, to Washington. Unity of place is out the window. So’s unity of time—I couldn’t figure out how long anything was taking, or (with the web of flashbacks) when many of the events took place. The female with the speaking part, (Lilah, the hooker with the heart of gold, played by Megan Fox) could have been removed from the plot entirely without anyone missing her. Her only function seemed to be as an underwear model.

Jonah’s big talent is being able to speak to the dead. Any time he needs some exposition, he knows right how to get it.

Aside from an incoherent plot, jumping around in time and space, and characters no one gives a damn about, is there anything to like in this movie (other than Ms. Fox’s PG-13 T&A)? Not really.

One thing that everyone comments on when reviewing The Proposition is the violence. It’s rated “R” for “strong grisly violence, and for language” (the characters say “fuck” a lot). But the violence is necessary to the plot. Jonah Hex (rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and sexual content”) contains far more violence; the first ten minutes of Jonah Hex yield a higher body count than the entire running time of The Proposition. That’s even before the bad guys (“villains” is the wrong word) blow up a train full of innocent civilians for no apparent reason. The violence in Hex is what the word “gratuitous” is meant to convey.

Jonah Hex, too, sank, although with a bit more trace. It earned $20 million worldwide on an estimated $40 million budget.

It didn’t win any awards.

Red Mike says check out The Proposition. (Trailer, possible spoilers.) Leave Jonah Hex right there on the rack. (Trailer, nothing worth spoiling.)
One more note about Jonah Hex. After renting it, I tried to watch it on my computer (as is my wont, when viewing films that no one else in the household is interested in seeing). The picture was jerky, with annoying pauses. So, I downloaded another freeware DVD viewing program. Same problem, herky-jerky video. Downloaded another. Locked up entirely. The disk looked okay, no obvious dirt or scratches… so I kicked the kids off the couch and tried it out on the actual DVD player attached to the TV. It worked! And lo-and-behold, right there, first thing up, a title card informing me that this disk had “advanced anti-piracy techniques” embedded in it! Thanks, guys. Love you, too. What are the bets that I can’t go out on the web right now and in less than two minutes find a copy that I can watch on my computer without paying you a dime? All that DRM does is annoy your honest customers.
Comments on Two Westerns:
#1 ::: Dr. Psycho ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 01:58 PM:

One of my favorite things to do on the Intarwebs is complain about movies based on comic books which betray the source material.

In this case, though, I fear that Jonah Hex is entirely too faithful to the spirit of the original. And that's in spite of the fact that I enjoy Jonah Hex stories in a limited way.

#2 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 02:04 PM:

One important difference for me, in the two films, was that, in one, the character was eager to take the assigned mission. You wouldn't even have to pay him, he'd do it just for fun. And if he doesn't do it? No skin off his nose.

In the other, the character is reluctant; the assignment is painful; there are no good outcomes possible. But he has to do something, because doing nothing is a choice too and the end of that path is even worse.

#3 ::: marc sobel ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 02:06 PM:

Thank you for the tips. Please do this as often as reasonable.

#4 ::: JamesK ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 02:47 PM:

The main reason I didn't even consider seeing Jonah Hex in the theaters (or ever, actually), was because of the "Female character who exists only to be an underwear model" sense I got from the trailers.

I'm a gay boy. If you're putting tits in my movie, they'd damned well better have a reason to be there other then being tits. One of these days, I want to see a dumb action movie where the entire cast is fully dressed hyper-functional chicks and one brain-dead man in a speedo who's only there to look pretty and get kidnapped.

I'll have to hunt down "The Proposition", though.

#5 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 03:08 PM:

Anthony Mann directed many westerns, but one that seldom is mentionned is "The Tall Target".

#6 ::: Lawrence ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 03:20 PM:

I have not seen "Jonah Hex," but I'm a fan of the comics, and I am assured by my fellow fans that the movie bears almost no resemblance to the comics.

The real Jonah Hex can't speak to the dead and wouldn't give a damn what President Grant wanted.

#7 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 03:22 PM:

All kinds of shout-outs in The Proposition, including to Child's Ballads (specifically, Jellon Grame, Child #90). Just fun things hidden in the layers.

The opening dialog between Charlie and Captain Stanley: Both claim to know the other. Turns out, neither one knows the other. But they will, before the film is over.

#8 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 03:25 PM:

I never cottoned a whole lot to the Jonah Hex series, but then a larger-than-usual issue came out, with art by Russ Heath, and I'm pretty sure it was titled, "The Last Jonah Hex Story." It starts around 1917, with Hex a good deal older, living with a hot Native American (art by Russ Heath, see above), and into this idyll a newspaper reporter from back east gets interested in the man. Then things pretty much go to hell. Urk vf xvyyrq va n pbjneqyl snfuvba, gur ercbegre naq gur jbzna trg gurvef, naq gur xvyyref qrpvqr gung Urk vf fgvyy jbegu fbzrguvat qrnq naq trg uvz fghssrq gb qvfcynl. Gurl chg n tha va uvf unaq, juvpu tbrf bss naq xvyyf bar bs gurz, naq gur bgure qbrfa'g qb n jubyr ybg orggre, ohg ur gnxrf n juvyr.

Gura gur lrnef tb ol, naq jr svaq bhefryirf va gur cerfrag qnl, naq Urk vf fgvyy orvat fubja va fbzr tbq-sbefnxra fvqr fubj fbzrjurer. Gur raq.

The story, by Michael Fleischer, elicited (along with some of his other DC yarns) an admiring reference by Harlan Ellison which used the term "bugfuck," which caused Fleischer to sue Ellison, interviewer Gary Groth, and Groth's magazine, The Comics Journal. When it was all over, Ellison and Groth didn't like each other any more, and one sued the other, or maybe they both sued at the same time.

I knew it was something special when it came out, though I neglected to buy extra copies for the day when its genius was truly appreciated. If I'd thought the movie was based on that issue, I'd probably watch it.

(As always, correction of details in my inadvertent historical improvements is welcome.)

#9 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 03:36 PM:

JDM @0: All that DRM does is annoy your honest customers.

Recently bought a DVD of an old movie I wanted to see, the seller of which claimed it was Region 0. (I already have a copy, but turned out to be Region 4. I've got players set up for 1 and 2. Pout.)

First clue: it arrived in a paper sleeve. Second clue: commercial writable DVD, title handwritten in Sharpie thereon.

Hm, sez I. Pop it in. Mr. Mac reports that the label of the DVD is DVD_EDIT_SOFTWARE, or something like that. "Ahem," sez I. Initial screen is a list of slots for filenames. Only one is filled in, with the title of my movie. I click, get a blank screen.

I contact the seller. "We tested it! It played fine! Oh, no no no, we didn't copy it!"


I figure $11 is probably a small price to pay for the moral lesson. But it still ticks me off.

#10 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 03:54 PM:

The guys who made Jonah Hex should get down on their knees and give thanks that anyone wants to see their movie at all, not make it difficult for that person to see it.

#11 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 04:19 PM:

I saw Jonah Hex on TV a while back. Gagworthy, but better than the average made-for-SyFy movie.

#12 ::: John A Arkansawyer sees poetic spam ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 04:24 PM:

Kip W @ 8: I believe the technical term Ellison used was "bugfuck crazy". (I keep not using it myself when I shouldn't, which usually means I should but really shouldn't. If you know what I mean.) I forget who sued whom thereafter.

#14 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 04:35 PM:

Ah but that is what DRM is for: reminding the average, non-pirate viewer that there is such a thing as piracy, so that when Giant Friendly Media Conglomerate has their lobbyists pay a few senators to pass a bill choking off the Internet, they can say it's to prevent piracy, which we all know is a problem because hey, you saw the hurky jerky video and the FBI warning, right?

or, more succinctly:

DRM is the TSA of media--proof that the Authorities are doing Something about a Problem.

#15 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 05:30 PM:

Kip W, John A Arkansawyer: I have that issue of The Comics Journal. The "bugfuck crazy" line actually wasn't about Jonah Hex: Harlan was talking about how The Spectre was probably the most powerful superhero in comics (being that he's directly powered by the Almighty) but no one had known how to use him for years and years until Fleischer took it over and started having The Spectre turn evildoers into living glass and hit them with a hammer, or turn them into a wooden statue and then dump them into a sawmill. Harlan bemoaned DC's stupidity at taking Fleischer off the book instead of keeping him on it forever, during the course of which he said that Fleischer's handling of the character was perfect because, er, well...

(I've always suspected that part of the problem was that the issue included a one-page rundown of Chasing Hairy after Harlan mentioned that Fleischer wrote it. [My copy is in storage: I believe that Groth wrote the summary.] Suffice it to say that based on the description there it's a work that lacks the warm, sweet, sentimental touches that American Psycho had. I suspect the summary of Fleischer's new book made him angry enough to decide the comments about him being crazy were worth suing over.)

#16 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 06:27 PM:

JamesK (4): One of these days, I want to see a dumb action movie where the entire cast is fully dressed hyper-functional chicks and one brain-dead man in a speedo who's only there to look pretty and get kidnapped.

I'd watch that. Heck, I'd go to the theater and pay full price for that. (The last movie I saw in the theater was the Star Trek reboot. Come to think of it, that may have been the last movie I've seen, period.)

#17 ::: Anonymous ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2011, 11:42 PM:

You can usually get around that DRM by using ripping software. Since I don't have a DVD player or a TV set, I don't have much of a choice. I think they screw up the hardware graphics decompression with some kind of bad data. Most modern ripping programs do all sorts of bound checks for that kind of stuff, so if you don't mind waiting a half hour, a bit longer than a torrent download, or so I've been told, then you can watch the disk you bought. (I don't use bit torrents except for old, out of copyright stuff.)

I like to buy my media so that the artists and investors get paid for it. I just don't want to clutter my house with obsolete viewing technology. It's silly buying a TV set in this day and age. It's like buying a butter churn. (That's not 100% true. I have a Laserdisc player for ripping old NASA and DARPA disks, but they're under government copyright so in the public domain.)

#18 ::: Brett Paul Dunbar ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 07:30 AM:

@8 The ending of that story seems to be based on the what happened to an outlaw named Elmer McCurdy.

From Wikipedia


On the television series Wild West Tech, Western historian Drew Gomber famously said: "As an outlaw, Elmer McCurdy was truly God's own idiot. He had no business being a bandit." After three years in the U.S. Army, McCurdy traveled to Oklahoma and joined a gang of bank and train robbers. It appears that McCurdy was confused about the train, and believed it contained a safe which held thousands of dollars in government tribal payments. The money train was delayed for a few hours, and McCurdy's gang actually robbed a passenger train, getting away with $46 and a few bottles of liquor. Soon afterward he was killed in a gunfight in the Osage Hills in north-central Oklahoma, shot in the chest by a .32-20 caliber bullet. A contemporary newspaper account gave McCurdy's last words as "You'll never take me alive!"

Post mortem commercialization

His body was subsequently taken to a funeral home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. When no one claimed the corpse, the undertaker embalmed it with an arsenic-based preservative and allowed people to see "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up" for a nickel. People would place nickels in McCurdy's mouth, which the undertaker would collect later. As increasingly large numbers of people came to view his remains (with each leaving a nickel), McCurdy was said to have made more money in death than in life. Many carnival operators asked to buy the mummified body from the undertaker, but he refused.

Almost five years after McCurdy died, a man showed up from a nearby traveling carnival known as the Great Patterson Shows claiming to be McCurdy's long-lost brother. He indicated that he wanted to remove the corpse to give it a proper burial. Within two weeks, however, McCurdy was a featured exhibit with the carnival. For the next 60 years, McCurdy's body was sold to successive wax museums, carnivals, and haunted houses. The owner of a haunted house near Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, refused to purchase him because he thought that McCurdy's body was actually a mannequin and was not lifelike enough.

Eventually, McCurdy's corpse wound up at "The Pike" (1902–1967,NU-PIKE and demolished as Queens Park in 1979) seaside amusement zone in Long Beach, California, inside the dark-ride attraction "Laff in the Dark" where he hung for more than thirty years with other props, many of them painted day-glo yellow.


In December 1976, during filming at Queens Park (A.K.A. The Pike), of the television show The Six Million Dollar Man episode Carnival of Spies (#4.17) (1977) "Carnival of Spies"(1979), a crew member was moving what was thought to be a wax mannequin that was hanging from a gallows. When the mannequin's arm (some accounts say finger) broke off, it was discovered that it was in fact embalmed and mummified human remains. Later, when medical examiner Thomas Noguchi opened the mummy's mouth for other clues, he was surprised to find a 1924 penny and a ticket from Sonney Amusement's Museum of Crime in Los Angeles. That ticket and archived newspaper accounts helped police and researchers identify the body as that of Elmer McCurdy.

His remains were examined in 1976 by forensic anthropologists. McCurdy's remains revealed incisions from his original autopsy and embalming, as well as a gunshot wound in the right anterior chest. Additionally, a copper bullet jacket or gas check from a .32-20 caliber projectile was found embedded in his pelvis (analysis of the projectile showed that the jacket was manufactured between 1905 and the 1930s). Also, video superimposition of the remains with photographs of McCurdy's corpse in the University of Oklahoma's Western History Collection confirmed McCurdy's identity.

#19 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 07:36 AM:

Brett Paul Dunbar #18: Did the poor guy ever get a proper burial, or at least cremation?

#20 ::: Brett Paul Dunbar ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 08:29 AM:

@ 19 I thought that I had left this in. Here's the last paragraph from wikipedia.

Final interment

He was finally buried in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma on April 22, 1977. The state medical examiner ordered that two cubic yards of concrete was to be poured over McCurdy's casket, so that his remains would never be disturbed again.

#21 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 11:07 AM:

Your main protagonist (“hero” is the wrong word) is Captain Stanley (played by Ray Winstone), a police officer who is intent on “civilizing this place.” Your main antagonist (“villain” is the wrong word) is Charlie Burns (played by Guy Pearce), who wants to protect his simple-minded younger brother.

I suppose that makes sense, on reflection, but if I'd been asked to summarise the film, my first instinct would have put it the other way around.

#22 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 11:27 AM:

I hadn't heard of "The Proposition", but now I want to see it. Sounds like it contains most of Nick Cave's main tropes, which is cool in a deeply disturbing way.

(I highly recommend his debut novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, but beware, it is F*CKED UP.)

#23 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 12:03 PM:

General thought: Grisham's Law?

#24 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 12:37 PM:

I'd heard that John Wilkes Booth's corpse (or a corpse that was purported to be his) had a long career in side-shows.

Allegedly, Jesse James' corpse (or one alleged to be his), too.

#25 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 12:41 PM:

Is Charlie the protagonist?

Perhaps. Exactly who is the protagonist is debatable.

Captain Stanley has the grand plan (civilize the Outback) and tries to carry it out. Charlie is just trying to get by, day by day.

But, Charlie is the one with the immediate problem naq ur'f gur bar va gur svefg fubg, naq va gur ynfg, bs gur svyz.

#26 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 02:09 PM:

Meredith@22: Sounds like it contains most of Nick Cave's main tropes, which is cool in a deeply disturbing way.

Nobody, but nobody, brings on the creepy like Nick Cave. He could sing "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" and make it sound warped and disturbing.

(I like his stuff a lot.)

#27 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 02:24 PM:

James Macdonald @ 24... This sounds like the premise for a Joe Lansdale western.

#28 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 04:12 PM:

Serge, 27: I think _The Magic Wagon_ involved something like that.

#29 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 04:45 PM:

TexAnne @ 28... Why am I not surprised?

#30 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 08:39 PM:

Brett Paul Dunbar @20: The state medical examiner ordered that two cubic yards of concrete was to be poured over McCurdy's casket, so that his remains would never be disturbed again.

And so his remains wouldn't wander about disturbing anyone else.

#31 ::: Marc Mielke ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2011, 10:00 PM:

Serge @27: The majority of the really good Jonah Hex comics are by Joe Lansdale, IIRC.

#32 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2011, 10:27 AM:

Marc Mielke @ 31... I never read the comic-book, for some reason, but I remember seeing Lansdale's name on the cover. As for the movie... It sounds like it was a good idea that I skipped.

#33 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2011, 10:29 AM:

TexAnne... You bad person. You made me go to Alibris, where I bought Lansdale's "The Magic Wagon". Like I need more books to clutter my shelves.

#34 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2011, 11:08 AM:

Serge, I am not the least bit sorry.

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