More standard-issue words on form, politics, and cinephilia.
The first thing I noticed about Jon Jost's Sure Fire ('90) was the speech, which captures the way (some) people talk in that deep, desert, mountainous American West—something like a cross between the Midwest and a generalized Southern accent. This is the speech of long stretches of highway and mountains, of desolate rest stops, lonely big sky country. (It's the speech of the sort of fellow I imagine Emmylou Harris & Willie Nelson sing about in one of the saddest songs ever, "One Paper Kid"—or, come to think of it, the people in Mikel Rouse's new music opera Failing Kansas.) The camera doesn't show us the characters in a frontal medium shot or close-up for some time; in fact Jost shies away from close-ups and frontal shots quite a bit in this film. I would not stress the case too far, but maybe there is something to be said for a film which emphasizes environment, custom, ritual in dealing with a weirdly, pathetically charismatic hero. The great Tom Blair exerts a lot of raw personal force in a character to whom nobody who pays attention does so because they wish to.
Monologues become positively Faulknerian, and are rendered mournful not only through the content of the dialogue and the speech tones, but also through the spatial relations between characters. Blair sits and instructs his character's wife at length about what she's to do back home while he's away on business: she doesn't listen. The wives speak amidst the ruins. The scene where Tom Blair's son gets his first gun is a masterpiece of surprise & volume. And so on. I'll try to get some screencaps put up here sometime.
The quality of light in this film bathes a lot of the shots—albeit ones I saw on an old VHS—in almost startling white: the air is complicit in the drama, takes it to another world. Subsisting mostly on a diet of standard, and recent, commercial cinema in recent weeks (buoyed along only by dear Anna Faris) I was clobbered in a way comparable to that when you see a true masterpiece, or when you are very young as a cinephile and only just begin to seek out the "different" stuff, revelling in the ineffable and deep novelty of cinema that scoots around outside the comfort zone that has been established for you.
* * *
Above: an image from Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract (1958)
Cinephilia is constantly (mis)understood as a pathology, but in many of the objects of cinephilia itself we see the artistic treatment of this problem. Murder by Contract's is a dehumanized hero (a compelling cipher, unlike the psychologized hero of Lerner's Studs Lonigan). The affirmation of will at the expense of life, as well as the attendant allure of such devotion (i.e., for some people) is the very material of this film, and it is not alone. The hero in Murder is well-regulated by time, appointment, duty; immune to vagaries of appetite—sexual or gastronomic. But he's not above his environment, and his code is shaped by something external to it: we could have a fun parlor game speculating about whether it's his Id, his upbringing, his class position ...
I penned that write-up of Studs Lonigan almost two years ago, and still haven't seen a third Lerner film (but I did revisit Murder by Contract).
Without doing a bit of research I was positive that Martin Scorsese knew Murder by Contract well and modeled some of Taxi Driver on that film. (Even if you haven't seen Lerner's film I'll bet you thought the same thing when you saw these screengrabs above!) A single bit of googling reveals as much. It goes to show how maybe the source material of classical cinema has been frequently manipulated, misconstrued. Scorsese is sometimes thought of as a politically centrist or right-leaning filmmaker (for the Catholic content, his choice of protagonists, and/or his support of Elia Kazan, perhaps). But if he's good enough for David Ehrenstein, I'm willing to give the world's most cinephilically fascinating fast-talker the benefit of the doubt. The first step in diagnosing the politics of the film school brat generation, the 'New Hollywood' of the MPAA era's beginnings, might be to trace out not only what their films said and how they related to their moment (what Shampoo says about the Nixon era & gender roles, etc.) but also which cues the filmmakers themselves took from their famously self-aware knowledge of the cinema that preceded them.