Tag Archives: Gena Rowlands

Lonely are the Brave (1962)

Early in Lonely are the Brave, a cowboy named Jack Burns, Kirk Douglas, is riding back to civilization. Even though Burns and his horse “Whiskey” have been “out on the range” for weeks, this is not the old west. It’s the late 1950s. He looks up in the sky at a airliner, shimmering in the bright sun, leaving a trail of condensation, heading for Los Angeles. In the distance he sees, not a small town with a hitching post and a saloon, but a large patch of suburban sprawl along the highway. When he tries to cross the highway, Whiskey panics. Burns is stranded in the middle of the road, cars rushing by him on either side, an anachronistic symbol of an American frontier that never was.

I have not read The Brave Cowboy, the Edward Abbey novel that the blacklisted communist screen writer Dalton Trumbo adapted for the movie. But Trumbo is far too smart to buy into the myth of the rugged American individualist. Burns looks just like a Hollywood cowboy, the Marlboro Man come to life, but he’s not so much a cowboy as he is a homeless, casual ranch hand and farm laborer. He owns no property, just a horse and a rifle. He carries no identification. He’s a Korean War veteran with a history of getting thrown into the stockade for insubordination. Jack Burns is the kind of man the American ruling class used to steal the land from the Indians, to slaughter the buffalo, to herd cattle, to transform the wild North American continent into private property. He’s useless and he knows it.

That’s what makes his rebellion so inspiring.

After Burns coaxes Whiskey off the highway, he goes to the house of his friend Jerry Bondi, a young Gena Rowlands. Bondi isn’t Burns’ lover. On the contrary, she’s married to his best friend, Paul Bondi,who’s serving a two year prison sentence for aiding and abetting “illegal immigrants.” Unstated, but surely hanging over Lonely are the Brave, is Eisenhower’s mass deportation of Mexican immigrants in the 1950s, the “Operation Wetback” that began in 1954 shortly after the fall of Joseph McCarthy. Hollywood may have caught a break after Joseph Welch humiliated the Senator from Wisconsin at the Army McCarthy Hearings, but for Mexicans the horror story was only beginning. Edward Abbey was occasionally criticized in the 1980s for having problematic (even openly fascist) views on immigration. None of that is in evidence here. Burns, and Trumbo, see the United States, Mexican border as one more fence, and fences, Burns maintained, have ruined the old west. When Jerry Bondi expresses her disapproval of her husband going to jail, he accuses her of being jealous of his confinement exactly the way she’d be jealous of another woman. Helping Mexican immigrants evade the law, Abbey and Trumbo suggest, is a labor of love.

Burns decides on a plan. He will go to a local bar, get drunk, and get into a fight. The police will put him in jail with Paul Bondi, and they can both escape together. Burns succeeds in picking a fight with a one armed World War II veteran. To be more accurate, he tries his best to avoid a fight with a man who’s so bitter, so mean, so violent that the police decide to let him go with a warning. He then assaults a police office. It means a year in jail, but he doesn’t care. Obeying the law and staying out of prison isn’t freedom. On the contrary, breaking the law, then demonstrating that no jail can hold you is freedom. Paul Bondi isn’t interested in escape. He just wants to do his two years, then go back to his wife. So Burns escapes by himself. Burns, the film implies, is the last free man in the west, a true rugged individualist who’s all the more doomed because he has to take on the system all by himself.

The chase through the Sandia Mountains that closes Lonely are the Brave makes for both a great western and a great deconstruction of the western as a genre. It’s Jack Burns against not only the local police, but the national guard. He becomes, in effect, an Indian on the run from the cowboys, no longer a white settler, but a fugitive trying to make one last stand against the industrial civilization that will eventually kill him. The police have jeeps, radios, and a helicopter. All Jack Burns has is his rifle and his horse Whiskey.

It’s almost enough. Burns almost makes it across the ridge of the Sandia Mountains and almost makes it to the Mexican border. He disables the national guard’s helicopter, and beats up the police officer who tortured him in prison. While the police are blasting away behind him, he manages to ride into the thick forest with only a minor gunshot wound to his ankle. But to what end? Even if he gets out of the country, all he’s going to the same, corrupt civilization that he wants to escape in the United States in Mexico. He rides out onto the highway. Whiskey, as we have seen, panics in traffic and freezes up. Jack Burns has come to the end of the road. But at least he goes down swinging.

Final note: Jack Burns’ death takes on an added layer of irony when we realize that the man who accidentally runs him down is played by a young Carol O’Connor, Archie Bunker himself. Trumbo, great writer though he was, couldn’t have written an ending like that if he tried. He did it by accident.

Love Streams (1984)

I have a pretty simple metric to judge how much I like a film. How many screen shots do I take? How does it look frame by frame. Do I think the actors have interesting faces? Do I like the film’s lighting? Does it have one or more particularly striking images that work as still photographs? For Love Streams, John Cassavetes acclaimed final movie, I set a record. I took no screen shots at all.

Love Streams is poorly lit, visually unimaginative, and badly paced. It’s over 2 hours of mostly drab, unattractive people speaking in cliches. Oddly enough, however, I still recommend that everybody see it at least once. In some ways, Love Streams broke my metric. That I was at times bored silly by the whole rambling mess doesn’t mean that it’s not an important film. It’s full of psychological insight. It asks important questions about the purpose of cinema. Cassavetes is the most Whitmanesque of filmmakers. He gives his voice to damaged people. He puts their pain and loneliness at the center of his creation.

Robert Harmon, Cassavetes, is a writer, and, apparently, a very successful one, who lives in a big, rambling house in Los Angeles. He’s also an alcoholic and a sex addict, spending a lot more time drinking and hiring prostitutes than he does writing. His sister, Sarah Lawson, played by Gena Rowlands, in the middle of divorce proceedings, can’t quite let go of her husband. She was a 13-year-old daughter who chooses to stay with her father. She has no career or, for that matter, any visible means of support. Nevertheless, she’s independently wealthy, free to travel where she wants and drop in on her brother any time she chooses.

That’s pretty much it as far as plot goes.

Love Streams might best be thought of as a series of vignettes held together by a character study. The strongest part of the film, to my mind, comes when Harmon’s ex-wife comes to his house with their 8-year-old son. Does she want money? Harmon asks. No. She just wants him to babysit for the weekend. Why? Her motivations are never explained. Perhaps she just wanted her son to get to know his biological father. Harmon agrees. Chaos ensues. After his father takes him into the house, he introduces him to a gaggle of hookers — I think they were hookers — he’s hired for the weekend. The women fawn over the little boy. He runs away, taking off down Laurel Canyon so fast Harmon has to jump in his car to chase him down. As Harmon and his son start to bond, Cassavetes explores the difference between an adult and a child, how difficult it is for some men to interact with their children. We also begin to see Harmon’s milieu from the little boy’s perspective. Who are these crazy, out of control adults? Adults who damage children psychologically, Cassavetes implies, aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes they’re just people who aren’t perceptive enough to realize that children see the world very differently from the way they do. That Harmon understands this, that he even lectures his son about the differences between a man and a boy, in no way absolves him from the charges that he’s a bad father. Indeed, after Sarah blows into town, giving her brother a useful house sitter, he takes the boy to Las Vegas, a trip he had already planned, and leaves him alone in a hotel room while he goes out partying.

After Harmon drops his son back off at his mother’s house, where he’s beaten to a pulp by her new husband for reasons that are, once again, never entirely explained, the focus of the narrative shifts back to his relationship with Sarah. If Harmon never quite learned to distinguish between adults and children, we have (up until now) had an equally difficult time figuring out who exactly Sarah is. Harmon’s been involved with so many women, and Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands look so different, that we hadn’t realized they were brother and sister. Robert and Sarah, the film hints, never quite established themselves as individuals. They’re stuck inside a destructive cycle of psychological incest. If Sarah can’t quite let go of her ex-husband, follow the advice of her therapist and get herself in another sexual relationship, it seems to have little to do with the husband. He’s a colorless, insignificant character who barely registers. Instead, Cassavetes implies, Sarah is on a downward spiral because she’s stuck in the same family dynamics that turned her brother into a drunk and a sex addict. What are they? We never find out. Love Streams has no neat resolution, no sudden twists or revelations. Sarah just crashes into her brothers house and continues her downward spiral.

Does it work?

As a character study it probably does. As a film, I found it tedious, badly paced, and, at times, a crushing bore. My main criticism of the last hour of Love Streams is that, unlike the shorter narrative arc involving Harmon and his son, the second half of the film gives us no perspective outside of Sarah and Robert. They talk. And they talk. Then they talk some more. Sarah goes to a small farm and comes back with a small menagerie of animals. The man driving them all home in a Taxi cab doesn’t seem to notice that he’s transporting a crazy woman and a small zoo. Sarah goes bowling. She takes a drunken flop, one of the many drunken flops the film puts on screen. She picks up a man. We don’t learn very much about him. She comes back home. She and her brother talk some more.

It’s boring. At least I got bored. Had Cassavetes kept the focus on Harmon’s relationship with his son, had he established the little by as the film’s moral and emotional center, I think it would have been a better movie. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree. Indeed, I wouldn’t be writing about Love Streams at all if I didn’t think everybody should see it at least once. This isn’t a Batman film, the kind of cultural dreck that pollutes the discourse. It’a rarely seen independently funded movie made as a labor of love, not to make money. So get a copy of the film and make up your own mind. Love Streams is a deeply personal experience.