The Naked Spur, Anthony Mann (1953)

It’s amazing to me that this movie ever got made. It has a very thin veneer of western genre conventions, but just underneath it is a hugely overheated and desperately claustrophobic Freudian melodrama of near-Sirkian proportions. What the hell must people have thought when they went to see this in 1953, expecting to eat some popcorn and watch some Indians shoot their bows and arrows? The story here is purportedly about a bounty hunter forced to take on unwanted colleagues in order to get the job done, but like most Mann pictures, it’s really about power, emasculation, the ways in which technology disrupts natural processes, and the fundamental advantages enjoyed by evil in its struggle with the good. I found this movie absolutely dispiriting and enervating, and probably in that regard Mann’s oater masterpiece.

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The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino (1978)

I’ve wanted to look at this again, partially but not only because I’ve been thinking so much about the after-effects of combat. Still, I kept putting it off, remembering it as a three-hour meat grinder of the soul. And it is that. But it’s also fresh as a daisy.

“They don’t make ’em like they used to.” I hate that kind of facile sentiment. But this movie is solid evidence for it. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary film with a ensemble cast of such a caliber, a frame of reference of such scope, and crucially, above all, such incredible patience. Cimino famously melted down after this picture, but none of that can ever mar his achievement here. He lets each scene play out to its conclusion, whether it takes place on a battlefield in Asia or in a grocery store in Pennsylvania, and every scene matters.

Those raised on a irony-rich diet are saying about now “Oy, come on, this thing is tur-GID to the max.” To which I say yes, and God bless America.

Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, George Dzundza. It’s beautiful and excellent. I’d put it up there with The Godfather and Badlands, for real. Have a cup of coffee after dinner and go there.

Home Front, Richard Hankin (2006)

This is the story of Jeremy Feldbusch and his family. Feldbusch was badly wounded early in the Iraq war and lost his sight. He’s now a spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project, a veteran’s advocacy group. Hankin does the good hard work of living and breathing with Feldbusch, his family, and his community over a long period of time, and so achieves a depth and intimacy that other documentaries about returning veterans which just put them in front of a camera and ask them questions cannot. There are many scenes here which do a great deal to reduce the usual platitudes and abstractions to the very concrete, daily, unnoticed problems that veterans and their families have to deal with. Feldbusch is not a saint, madman, hero, zombie, proselyte, politico, flag-waver, cynic or any other stereotype. He’s sometimes volatile and sometimes calm, sometimes extraordinarily insightful and other times pretty thick-headed. He’s human, and not a number, and thanks to Hankin for introducing him to us.

I just have to say, as preface to my next entry, that the Feldbusches live in Pennsylvania, and the scenes in the film that blew my mind most were the ones where Feldbusch and his father determinedly figure out a way for Feldbusch to go deer hunting, despite his blindness. You need to see the shot of a blind veteran lugging a dead doe through the snow. It’s the kind of thing fiction just can’t do.

The Counterfeiters, Stefan Ruzowitzky (2007)

An ambitious Nazi discovers in a concentration camp a man he recognizes from his pre-war job as a police officer: the world’s greatest counterfeiter. Recognizing an opportunity, he puts the man, along with a team of talented printers and engravers culled from the general population of the camp, to work making English pounds and American dollars. Classic conflicts ensue: the counterfeiters eat well and sleep in beds while literally on the other side of the wall people are being murdered. Should the counterfeiters sabotage the Nazi project, salving their consciences but likely losing their lives? Should they do anything they must to stay alive? Small, but effectively claustrophobic film based on true events.