CURTIS WHITE: One Eyed Jacks

One of the best critical writers on film (or most anything) is Curtis White. Added to that, he is talking about one of my favorite films: One Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort.

[Read the full article in John Stepplings comment at the end of this post]

“Complexity. Rio is no simple avenging angel. He’s a one-eyed Jack himself. It’s not that he has a “dark side.” This is not a movie about good and evil. He is complicit. He is one of the tubs-of-guts and he knows it. His violence against others is also an expression of self-disgust. In the very first scene of the movie, Rio eats a banana as his compadres finish robbing a bank. Casually, he tosses banana peels onto first one side of a scale, then the other. Justice: two banana peels balancing each other. This is the attitude of the character who will exact personal justice from the movie’s great wrong-doers? His dealings with women are equally cynical. He lies to them, plies them with jewelry (all given to him, he swears, by his dead mother) in order to fuck and thus humiliate them. He is the shiny prince of white male malice. His own awareness of complicity with the tubs-of-guts becomes clear in the scene I described above, in which Howard “gets his.” For that is the same morning after Rio has shamed Louisa. He has taken her to the beach, lied to her about himself and his feelings for her, and impregnated her as part of his revenge against her stepfather. Clearly, his disgust with Howard’s brutality is in part a reflection of his disgust with himself.”
Curtis White

White touches on something here that can be seen throughout American film and literature. One doesn’t see it often enough, mind, but it is manifest in the best work from American writers and artists. It is the realization that we are complicit in the violence and venality all around us. This complicity, however, is also a station on the journey toward, if not redemption, then awakening, and awareness.

 

Kent State Massacre. photo by John Paul Filo

 

The closing monologue in No Country for Old Men (more in the book but also in the film) is a pure meditation on this lesson. One can see it characters such as Ahab (Moby Dick) and in Denzell Washington’s character in Training Day, or John Wayne’s in The Searchers. One could argue the flaw or greatest weakness in Training Day ( a film I admire hugely) is that Alonzo (Washington) never takes the final step toward an awareness (as Wayne does in The Searchers) and thus an embrace, however painful, of one’s own flawed soul. The final shot of The Searchers, shot from inside the farmhouse, shows Wayne walking ever so slowly toward us and pausing, and finally turning away. He cannot ever live in that domesticated world he has fought to create. He must turn away and step back into the ‘wild’. All three actors I’ve mentioned, Brando, Washington, and Wayne, possess enormous physical grace — and magnetic presence. These are larger than life physical specimens….each with his own ineffable form of physical grace. John Ford and Brando sensed this very clearly, though I suspect Fuqua much less so. Training Day is an excellent film, but falls short of the profundity of the Ford or Brando film. Interestingly Kubrick was set to direct One Eyed Jacks, but had conflicts with Brando — and one might well imagine the reasons. Brando was not a Kubrick actor (as Montgomery Clift was not a Hitchcock actor in I Confess…though Hitchcock deals with this in a more inventive way).

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is, in a sense, an updated examination of the same questions raised in One Eyed Jacks. For really, while revenge is engine for the plot in ‘Jacks, its not at all what the film is really looking at, or expressing. I am reminded of Audiard’s A Prophet again, as a meditation on the holy. The journey toward that which is sacrosanct, that which is set apart–by virtue of a solemnly undertaken journey–gives us the preconditions of the spiritual architecture of holiness. In the case of the individual, it is the release of those mechanisms of clinging to illusion — usually the illusion of a well-defined and concrete self. In No Country the demonic Chigurh is a post-modern white whale. The sheriff (Tommie Lee Jones in the film) has spent his adult and professional life enforcing a set of beliefs about law and about morality. That Chigurh cannot be stopped is clear, but in what way the Sheriff himself has aided this madness is the subject of the final extended monologue (much longer in the book). Writers from Raymond Chandler to Melville and Joseph Conrad, from Jim Thompson to Dostoyevsky, have all approached these questions: guilt, morality, fate, and violence. It becomes the search for a way to justify one’s own powerlessness as it is set forth in systems of social law. What is the final court of appeal? That there is none is a realization difficult for lesser artists, I think.

Where does Wayne go after that final shot?  Where does Malik go, and what does he do? Or Kid Rio?  That Alonzo dies is the exact problem with Training Day.

Those characters who know a truth, and yet are forces of destruction, are particularly and peculiarly American I think. I can think of places in poets such as Whitman and James Wright, as well as William Carlos Williams and Alan Ginsberg, where this is touched upon, and one can certainly go back to Shakespeare to see the purist positing of these dynamics, at the front edge of modernity. There are countless mediating factors, class and money to start with. Directors like Pasolini and Bergman dealt with it in most of their work, but fewer American directors have. Perhaps Hawks did, and Ford to some degree, and maybe Boetticher in his best work. I would suggest that our present climate and the contradictions of advanced capital and globalization have provided a gaping hole in the collective consciousness of 21st century America, but it is a hole, so far, too dangerous to be wrestled with except in a few noted examples. Our addiction to militarism, and its attendant system of values, and the voyeuristic compulsive repetition of cinematic violence, are clear evidence of this specific American pathology — the insistence upon the self, and the rationalizing away of any objection to these beliefs — regardless the cost of this denial. This is not an argument for pacifism per se.  A Mao or a Fidel, if Quaker, might not have liberated their people from abject poverty and near slavery. It is rather to attempt an analysis of what violence actually is, and how we are to live alongside it.

–John Steppling

ps
Perhaps the film that most closely resembles One Eyed Jacks thematically, is Anthony Mann’s Man of The West. It is indeed the same story, crossed with a Freudian take on “King Lear”. I think its Mann’s best film, and its possibly the darkest western ever made.

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3 responses to “CURTIS WHITE: One Eyed Jacks

  1. here is the full essay….and a better link….
    http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/book/?fa=customcontent&GCOI=15647100034260&extrasfile=A1262216-B0D0-B086-B6D5F4C75AAB62A7.html

    Whatever, Dude
    Curtis White
    For reasons obscure even to myself, I remain the eternal (not to mention gullible) optimist about the most recent movie claiming to transcend mass market commercial expectations (most of which, as Mark Crispin Miller pointed out in our last issue, are little more than an extended chapter in the History of Shit). So we have seen Cradle Will Rock, American Beauty, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, and David Lynch’s The Straight Story lauded as “major cinema.” And when asked whether I “liked” one of these heirs to cinematic art, I invariably say, “Yes, I liked it,” whatever aesthetic force my “liking” might have, because I probably did “like” it more than The Matrix or MI2 or you-fill-in-the-blank cineplex fodder. But I also feel rather dumb about acknowledging a world in which liking or not-liking are my only options. When we capitulate in this way, aren’t we just saying we’re no better than Beavis and Butthead? This sucks, that rocks, this is awesome, and everything is finally just a lot stupid. Of course, this is a perfect state of affairs for a culture that thrives on thoughtless and ephemeral enthusiasms. Remember Refrigerator Perry? The dolls, the games, the enduring ballyhoo?

    Anyway, in my heart-of-hearts, I am usually also thinking—as I leave the theater after yet another encounter with the new seriousness, my half-felt affection stuck in my throat—”that’s not it.” Not what? That question, my friends, cannot be answered by telling you what I like or don’t like.

    A short while ago, I happened to pick up Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria at a local video outlet. I thought I’d seen about everything from Fellini, but not this one. My response to Cabiria was, “Ah! That’s it. That’s a moviemaker working with the subtlety, complexity, and original vision of a great novelist.” That’s the real deal.

    Needless to say, there are an awful lot of assumptions about the “good” packed into these anecdotes. The assumptions are part of what used to be called an aesthetic. As Frank Kermode put it thirty-five years ago in The Sense of an Ending, those fictions from which we may hope to learn, those fictions which aspire to art, are “peripatetic” in the sense that they deviate from “schematic expectations,” “basic paradigms,” and familiar conventions. And this is so not because somebody “likes” it better that way, but because, “the fiction under consideration is one of those which, by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naïve expectations, is finding something out for us, something real.”

    That, folks, is an aesthetic judgment; it is exactly the kind of thinking that virtually no one does any more (why bother?: “it’s all good,” as we say); but with it one can summarily dismiss most recent pretenders to cinematic art to the shit-hole of corporate commerce whence it came and to which it righteously belongs, even the finally assuringly formulaic Being John Malkovich. (Although I have to admit that I loved those damn puppets at the beginning. That’s where the movie should have stayed. But that would have been too close to the disturbing work of real filmmakers like the Brothers Quay for Hollywood’s stodgy comfort.)

    Now, I know that by citing Kermode and arguing for formal invention and using Fellini as my leading example, I leave myself open to the charge of modernist, aestheticist elitism. (Or, worse yet, I’ve performed my own irrelevance. As Kermode worries, “To speak clearly on these issues is to attract the charge that one is simply no longer young enough or bright enough to grasp the exciting things that are going on.”) Why can’t I just “learn to love”? Maybe I need a little vacation at an American Popular Culture Re-education Camp. Here my own students can instruct me, as one recently did, that, “The world loves American popular culture because it rocks.” Whatever, dude.

    Tell you what. I’ll prove Kermode’s point and my own, at one and the same time, by arguing that even a cowboy movie, for Christsake, can aspire to the role that Kermode has described for us. Well, my favorite cowboy movie can: Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks.

    In plot, One-Eyed Jacks is a revenge play. Kid Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are banditos in Mexico in the 1880s. They’re gay-blade hair-raisers in the Butch and Sundance mold. After one robbery, they are pursued to a hilltop and surrounded by federales. Longworth leaves Rio (whose horse has been shot out from under him) to go to a nearby ranch for fresh horses. He takes the gold they’ve stolen with him. And, of course, he neglects to return. The remainder of the movie is devoted to Rio tracking Dad down five years later and exacting his revenge (“Standing up for himself, same as any man would do”). By that time, however, Longworth has gone straight and is now married with a step-daughter (Louisa, played by scrawny Pina Pellicer) and employed by the town of Monterey as its sheriff. Rio’s complex revenge of course involves killing Longworth, but before he can do this he seduces Louisa, whom he impregnates on first union, kills another man (Howard, a drunken brutalizer of women), is surrounded, whipped and has his shooting-hand shattered, recuperates, is surrounded again, nearly hanged but escapes with Louisa’s aid after which he kills Longworth before finally riding self-consciously into the clear blue cinematic sunset. Without Louisa.

    I would make the following arguments for why anyone ought to “like” this movie. I will arrange my moments of liking as if they were buttons on Jacques Lacan’s famous couch. Make of their arbitrary arrangement what you will.

    •I like this movie principally because it has it both ways; it is both a fine representative of its type (a cowboy movie, a western) and a commentary on its type. As a self-reflexive commentary it is, in Kermode’s terms “peripatetic.” It “reconfigures” rather than merely “configuring,” or reconfirming, the generic expectations of cowboy movies. Brando obviously delights in being the cowboy badass Kid Rio, and yet he just as clearly thinks its one of the silliest (and most sinister) roles he’s ever played.

    •This is also a movie of deep, eccentric and personal vision, and a lot of that vision is quite unpleasant. Brando’s famous misanthropy is present in full force. The characters here (especially the white men) are paunchy, corrupt, self-indulgent and cruel. The women, Mexicans, and even Chinese are by-and-large self-contained, intelligent, live with personal dignity and try only to avoid the messy, selfish and dangerous passions of white men like Dad Longworth. (Why is he called “Dad”? What kind of name is that? Is this a movie about fathers? Patriarchy?)

    •All of the performances in this movie are brilliant, nuanced, and full of expression. Ben Johnson (who plays bank robber Bob Emery) is one of the great, unacknowledged cowboy actors. And Slim Pickins should have called it a career after this movie. As Lon—Dad’s deputy sheriff and Louisa’s frustrated suitor—he is all nastiness and self-indulgence. He epitomizes tub-of-gutness. He is purt, fat, American self-congratulation for nothing. He also has some great comic lines: “I gotta lot of funny things to do today, but lippin’ with you ain’t one of them.” Delivered as only Slim could deliver.

    •Visuals. Especially the face of Brando. He was never more beautiful. Among the tubs-of-guts, slobbering, beer spilling from their chins, watermelon dripping down their bellies, brutalizing women and betraying their friends, Brando is radiant, straight, athletic, and empowered, as Buddhists say, to act in the wrathful manner.

    •Dialogue. There is legitimately good dialogue in this movie revealing complex character and motive and all of that other stuff I’m supposed to admire. But what I remember most vividly are the things that Rio calls people, usually after he has knocked them down. “You tub-of-guts.” “You scum sucking pig.” “You gob of spit.” (To which last slur Deputy Sheriff Lon responds, “I sure am, ain’t I?”)

    •Violence. Most of the violence in this movie is reserved for those pure, redemptive moments when the beautiful Kid Rio swoops down and administers punishment and justice. The scene in which Rio beats the drunken brute Howard (who has forced a dancer from the evening before to stay up till dawn, pouring tequila and chili down her throat) is holy in its directness and unbelievably powerful. The camera work which catches the force of this series of punches is spectacular. As in other early Brando movies, his violence is a metaphor for his passion, his commitment, his engagement in the issue at hand, his authenticity, and his “good faith” to the life force.

    •Complexity. Rio is no simple avenging angel. He’s a one-eyed Jack himself. It’s not that he has a “dark side.” This is not a movie about good and evil. He is complicit. He is one of the tubs-of-guts and he knows it. His violence against others is also an expression of self-disgust. In the very first scene of the movie, Rio eats a banana as his compadres finish robbing a bank. Casually, he tosses banana peels onto first one side of a scale, then the other. Justice: two banana peels balancing each other. This is the attitude of the character who will exact personal justice from the movie’s great wrong-doers? His dealings with women are equally cynical. He lies to them, plies them with jewelry (all given to him, he swears, by his dead mother) in order to fuck and thus humiliate them. He is the shiny prince of white male malice. His own awareness of complicity with the tubs-of-guts becomes clear in the scene I described above, in which Howard “gets his.” For that is the same morning after Rio has shamed Louisa. He has taken her to the beach, lied to her about himself and his feelings for her, and impregnated her as part of his revenge against her stepfather. Clearly, his disgust with Howard’s brutality is in part a reflection of his disgust with himself.

    •This contradiction in Rio’s character is never resolved. He does come to take a more earnest sense of justice and seems to learn to respect the humanity of others, especially women, but even in the film’s last scene, a scene of Jamesian ambiguity, he parts from Louisa, the mother-to-be of his child with the words that were in earlier moments of the movie simply lies: “I’m going to Oregon. I’ll be back for you.”

    •One-Eyed Jacks is left balanced on these multiple ironies. Is this a serious cowboy movie or a commentary on cowboy movies and their inane black hat/white hat ethics? Will Rio return or is he lying again? Has he changed or is he still one of the tubs-of-guts? One thing is clear, the opportunity for cynicism, the opportunity for complicity and malice will never be gone. Rio will never be either good or bad, but always in the position of having to choose.
    What this movie achieves it achieves through self-awareness of conventional expectations (and a willingness to play with those expectations), personal vision (however dark), studied complexity, and a “plurality” of interpretive possibilities (as Roland Barthes might put it).

    In short, it is a work of art.

  2. This is a fascinating piece; it will send me back to One-Eyed Jacks with a totally new perspective. I so totally understand his gaining his sense of re-appreciation of what art is in cinema when he mentions Nights of Cabiria. I have always loved that film and, though I enjoyed the excesses of the later Fellini (particularly the ecclesiastical fashion show in Fellini Roma, the traffic jam in the same film, the oddities of Juliet of the Spirit), I always felt the early Fellini was extraordinary and, on the basis of that handful of films, he was in my personal pantheon before I relegated him to The Far Side of Paradise. Yes, and, also I agree with you, Steppling, about Mann’s Man of the West (I think I may like The Naked Spur more than you do) and the better Boetticher films and the best of Ford (The Searchers, My Darling Clementiine, Rio Grande) and Hawks (Rio Bravo, Red River), but I always thought Brando’s film was a giant folly but that in itself should make it worthy of reconsideration. The truly great films, it is turning out, more and more, were never truly appreciated critically upon their initial releases, or even by paying customers although the audience was usually more right than the critics, something they no longer are, because they are fed so much crap on a regular basis. Art does have everything to do with personal vision, even if that vision doesn’t meet our expectations as to what vision is. I think there are too many people who say they like Hitchcock and Ford and Hawks and Chaplin but who haven’t got a clue as to what makes them great artists. Even if Brando never directed a film, he has a claim on greatness because he transformed our notions of what acting can be. Most actors still don’t get it. It’s about being, not pretending. And it is not easy. In a nutshell, those who achieve art are usually difficult. “Have it your own way.” “Precisely,”

    HP

  3. Curtis White is fuckin’ funny.

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