Yuma Blues
a rant
John Kilgore




Reprinted by permission from The Vocabula Review, March, 2008.



ith great excitement, I just rented the newly released DVD of 3:10 to Yuma, one of 2007's most celebrated movies only to pop the disk out of the player, a few hours later, badly disappointed. Notwithstanding some crackerjack dialogue, bravura lead performances by Russell Crowe and Christian Bayle, and a well-paced, memorable plot, the film finally amounts to the most Godawful baloney you ever tried to choke down.

The fault lies entirely with the action sequences, the gun battles that are always the heart of the Western. In this case, they are too frequent, too long, too loud, too gory, too populous, too casual, too acrobatic, too predictable, too destructive and lethal by an order of magnitude, and in a word, unconvincing. None of the choices made by any of the participants makes any tactical sense, or bespeaks even the most slender desire to go on living. To the extent the contestants have any comprehensible motive, it appears to be to do what they are doing making a movie and everyone seems in a rush to perform his bit dying in an explosion of catsup, say, or drilling three enemies in a heartbeat, or sitting still amid the chaos with a sardonic and evil grin so he can hurry on to the next fight. No one ever drops down behind a rock to reload or fire from behind cover, because that would waste time that could be spent showing bodies twitching as the lead socks into them. Who lives and dies in any given skirmish is entirely and visibly at the whim of the director, and at the adventure's end, Russell guns down everyone in sight, including the four devoted cronies who have been struggling to rescue him, just because, what the hell, there seems to be some unspent ordnance left, and some of the bit players have not yet had the chance to try their death rattles.

No one ever gets convincingly scared in this movie, and even the fellow who pleads for his life as he is being incinerated inside a locked stagecoach (a quietus as contrived as anything on the Mr. Bill Show) seems to be practicing his acting lessons. For all the meticulous realism lavished on minor points (we hear bullets pinging off tin, la Saving Private Ryan, and see wounds that would do credit to the AMA Journal), the demeanor of the actors assures us at every point that nothing dangerous is really happening. To the extent we believe any of it, this universal disdain for death, it is impossible to imagine how any of these lunatics could have survived for five minutes prior to the opening of the film, let alone long enough to build (for instance) the handsome stone ranch house (half a million, easy, even after the bad guys burn down the majestic barn that accompanies it) in which Christian is pursuing his life of honorable poverty as the curtain rises.

Understand that I did have some idea of what I was renting. I have no general objection to a genre that consists of fight scenes, long build-ups to fight scenes, short sequels, and some perfunctory love plots when there is time. Nor do I object to the stylization of violence, so long as the goal is to get at something true that might escape the net of mere naturalism. Homer has his warriors give long boastful speeches before they fight, an impossibility (surely) in the midst of a pitched battle. Shakespeare does much the same, and graces his goriest moments with unforgettable death-speeches in iambic pentameter. But in such cases, artifice is a means of getting at the truth: it brings into the frame the richness of otherwise invisible background, the worlds of feeling and consequence without which the violence is mere sensation. The goal is always to find some kind of human meaning in the horror, some perspective short of insanity wherein to place the trauma of bloodletting. It is serious storytelling that aims, finally, to fortify the understanding, sending us back to the dangerous world a little better prepared to face what we may encounter there.

But the violence in 3:10 to Yuma and, I have to say, in most of the action movies I have seen in the past decade or so however realistic it may be in a trivial sense, seems half hysterical in its drive to deny the reality rather than illuminating it. The typical movie seems not to be thinking about violence at all, or doing so only in the most perfunctory and sophomoric way, but merely exploiting it, quickening the pulse, keeping the cash register humming. The fight scenes seem to have been dreamt up by people who have never been mugged, never been in a fight, never been persecuted by a bully, never hunted or fished, never been beaten or raped by family members, never seen a wound or a bad car wreck. These auteurs seem to have learned about violence mainly by watching other movies, and their creativity resides disproportionately in technique. They deliver more and more fights, louder explosions and groans, heavier blows, sharper close-ups of more desperate injuries, and ever more vivid and gut-churning special effects, while remaining empty of ideas as to what it all means. The real world the ugly, dangerous world gradually drifts out of sight, and what is left is a busy intramural competition between technicians, nice people really, vying with one another to find new and better ways to titillate the audience. The image is the image is the image, and nothing further is intended. If a minor character gets his head blown off, the comprehensive meaning of this is, "The director has, at this point, decided to show you an exploding head. We know you paid good money for your ticket, and this is a feature we feel adds value to the product. We hope you liked it. We must admit we think it was well done. Did you notice the spattering of brains in the upper-left corner of the screen, captured in partial slo-mo?"

But the trouble with violence conceived in this way as a basically separate ingredient that can be added or subtracted al dente is that it fails to convince, and thus rapidly loses its kick. When this happens, there is nothing for a producer to do but increase the dose. At this distance, it is rather hard to remember that the original Rocky was a good movie. Charming, sweet, understated in crucial ways, it built its little world carefully, with attention to detail, then took us in, made us care. But the sequels were the products of a formula abstracted from the first film, movies about movies, and despite massively greater funding, never recovered the zest and freshness of the original. What had been vision and meaning, content, gradually became mere product: bigger and meaner-looking opponents for Rocky, longer fights, ghastlier cuts, many more blows per round (something like four times as many in Rocky IV as in the original, I believe), sexier babes marching around between rounds, more improbable last-second flips from defeat to victory. Delivering and receiving vastly greater punishment than is in fact possible for the poor breakable human frame, the boxers became steadily less believable and sympathetic. You looked in vain for any resemblance or relevance to the real world, any glimmer of insight. Going from the early film to the later ones was like trading the honest endorphin high of a good workout for the equivalent produced by oxycontin.

Having ranted thus far, I realize that my real problem is not with 3:10 to Yuma, but with the whole direction of modern cinema, modern culture, modern life. Probably I have some kind of implicit quarrel with tectonic drift and the expansion of the universe. I do not question that the movie is "one of the year's ten best," or even "the best Western since Unforgiven," as the box tells me; but I wonder what this says about us as a culture, a species.

So what? you might say. A movie is a movie, and almost no one confuses it with reality. I had this argument with one of my classes, a few years back, in regard to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the gentle Ang Lee fantasy wherein the warring martial artists flit through the air like the lost boys in Peter Pan, the women regularly beat up the men, and fight scenes long enough for the viewer to take a power nap result in no one getting hurt. I must see it, my students insisted. I did, then had to report myself disappointed, annoyed, mystified. I quit trying to like the movie, I told them, about the time the little slip of a girl went into a bar populated with ten or fifteen thugs, trained martial artists all, and beat up all of them, being capable of this for no reason that has anything to do with reality (God
knows), but simply because we like her, and we are entitled to have things come out as we wish. A little later, she and the hero are trying to settle a slight misunderstanding in the usual way, with swords and balletic kicks, and they take off for a sort of nuptial flight across a lake and through the trees, where they perch for a while like exotic birds before resuming hostilities on the ground. For an English teacher accustomed to thinking in terms of character, motivation, and plot, it is a depressing moment, simply because no one else in the theater is asking why warriors who can fly do not consistently do so. When ET, at the end of Spielberg's breakthrough movie, suddenly proves capable of levitating all those bicycles another archetypally bad moment in American cinema, in my lonely opinion there is at least the excuse of his being an alien with unknown powers. Not here. Whether the fighters fly or not is a matter of pure directorial fiat, divorced from any hint of character motivation.

My students looked at me with dismay and puzzlement. You don't understand, they said. It's just a movie, no one expects it to be real. And that bouncing around in the trees was such a cool special effect. They had never seen a special effect quite like that, in any other movie. In my mind's eye, I saw my students strolling through Hollywood as if it were a vast Wal-Mart, filling their carts with individual moments and effects, no two quite alike, each individually wrapped for the customer's convenience.

But it turned out that the students were far savvier consumers and critics than I. Years later, I rented the film for a second look, at the stern insistence of a respected friend (just prior to sounding off in this column, if all the truth be told), and found myself liking it rather better. If one quits bothering about the incoherent narrative and cardboard characters (I find now), those endless fights begin to succeed as ballet and opera and graphic art. And in the end, the movie engages with reality by way of negation, as romance sometimes does. Notwithstanding the way it obsesses over the question of who can beat up whom, as the guys and I used to do at the back of the eighth-grade bus, the film at its heart is as fastidiously pacifistic as a Quaker librarian. The relentless niceness of the characters, combined with the insistent transmutation of violence into everything violence is not an art, a science, a vocation, a religion, orderly and predictable and morally coherent finally gives us a more or less clear glimpse of our own world, as it were in the rearview mirror.

Perhaps eventually a second viewing of 3:10 to Yuma will lead to a similar reassessment, but I don't think so. Critical judgments are not so much doubtful as singular. Art notoriously makes, and succeeds by, its own rules; no sooner have you codified the rules for beauty and decency that apply to art-thus-far than a new work comes along, full of visionary insolence, to defy them in ways we eventually admit are valid and authentic. Then, too, the element of subjective difference never can be washed out; de gustibus non est disputandum, though we compulsively and endlessly do. These familiar facts of aesthetic life furnish the small loophole through which Hollywood regularly drives its semitruck of commercial exploitation. Nearly everyone, I think, agrees that the cultural landscape is cause for deep misgiving; but no two citizens quite agree on which eyesores need to be removed.

Like everything else, imagination is ultimately equipment for living, and therein lies our danger: divorcing fancy too entirely from serious thought, making it too exclusively an organ of immediate pleasure, may cause, as the Victorians once warned in a different context, a kind of blindness. By no means categorically a bad thing, escape can be therapeutic and even cathartic; but the question is one of proportion. Like the fast-food industry, our popular culture gives us too much of what we want, not enough of what we need. The result can be understandings too bloated on cheap wish-fulfillment to get reality into focus when events require it. If you are raped tomorrow, or attacked at random by a group of thugs and so badly injured you require years of therapy, as happened to a good friend of mine some years back, you will not find much spiritual help in 3:10 to Yuma, where Russell Crowe is kicked many times to the head, hard enough to kill any mortal, but by the end of the next day is chipper as ever, with hardly a bruise to show for his experience. If you are struggling to find the strength to confront a bully, as most boys are sooner or later, if you can't do it and are miserably, desperately wondering where courage comes from, the movie can only confuse and mislead you on that score. It rents you courage, so to speak, by giving you two impossibly courageous characters with whom to identify for the duration. But then it returns you to real life poorer than ever.

And then, of course, there is the question of net social effect. Most people do indeed make clear and firm distinctions between the schlock on the screen and the real lives they are living. No one ever shoots up a city council meeting purely because he has seen a violent movie; if such things happened, we would have instituted censorship long ago, in self-defense. But the issue is whether our systematic trivialization and misrepresentation of violence and its effects (what effects?), our dreaming of silly dreams together, makes society as a whole a little more prone to violent acting out.

I believe that it must, that it does, and there are plenty of authorities on my side of the argument, if they have not yet been gunned down by the authorities on the other side. Acts have deep roots, and the choices you make depend in many and complex ways on the vision of the world you carry around, half unconsciously, inside your noggin. The problem, too often construed in clumsy quantitative terms, or in those of an outdated Skinner-box behaviorism, needs to be redrawn in aesthetic ones. It is not that we see too much violence, or that all violent content is "desensitizing." The problem is that we see violence too stupidly, in images drawn too mendaciously by an industry that is too good at pushing our buttons.

So after all there is a price to pay for our cheesy fantasies and bad art; perhaps not so large a price, given the magnitude of our self-indulgence, the net value to everyone of our serial adrenalin highs. But a price, nonetheless. The bill collector, these days, is always male, usually white, and usually young. His favorite venue recently has been high school and college campuses. Among many other problems in his life, most of them much worse problems, he is a very literal-minded reader of bad movies. What he knows about violence is what he has seen there: that it is way cool, and the aftermath is not much worth worrying about.