Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book of Note (#3)

Recently I watched Hud for the first time in about thirty years. It's a movie that made an impression on me as a boy when the BBC used to show it, which seemed to be fairly often. Although easy to lump in with that other Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke -  both set in the present day South, hard bitten and mean - Hud never seems to get played on US television, and nor does it seem to be particularly fondly thought of, or even remembered. Probably that's because  where Cool Hand Luke allows its lead character to go out in a blaze of glory, his spirit unbroken, Hud's ending is bleak and unsentimental, a 1970s ending in a 1963 movie.

Viewing Hud for the first time as a grown-up, I found it ever so slightly overstated in terms of its moral design - the contrast between the staunchly principled Texas rancher Homer Bannon and his slickly charming but cynical and unscrupulous son Hud - but still haunting and impressively somber.  The element I picked up that escaped me as a youngster is that it's a sort of meta-movie: at once an elegy for an earlier mode of Western (embodied in the patriarch Homer) and a preview of the new post-heroic Western featuring lashings of brutal violence, characters with no redeeming qualities, unhappy endings, etc. Pauline Kael called Hud an "anti-Western" - even "anti-American". 

Watching the movie made me wonder whether Joe Carducci had anything to to say about Hud in his new book Stone Male: Requiem for the Living Picture;Would Homer Bannon -  weathered and leathery after a life on the open range, a man of few words but ironclad  morality - correspond to the hero archetype celebrated in its pages?
Stone Male is long-awaited.  I remember Joe talking about this book as an imminent thing when I interviewed him in 1996 about his classic Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church.  Other books came out in the interim - Life Against Dementia, a collection of writings;  Enter Naomi, Joe's memorial to SST's resident photographer Naomi Petersen  - but Carducci never stopped working on what may well be the grand opus of his life, even more so than Rock and the Pop

For Carducci originally arrived in Los Angeles as a cine-fiend looking to break into movie writing. Getting involved in record distribution was a detour from his chosen path, as was his subsequent recruitment by SST as a manager to put the label on a more solid organisational footing.  His experiences at SST and the feeling that the critical establishment in America had failed to engage with the most crucial rock music of the era led him to formulate the stunningly original rock aesthetic contained within R&tPN. But although the book was rereleased a couple of times with updates and expansions, it turned out to be both his grand statement on rock and his last statement: grunge might have been the triumphant vindication of Carducci's theories, but in its wake his interest in rock waned.  So he was drawn back to his original and perhaps Number One passion: the movies. 

Rock and the Pop Narcotic's polemic against college-educated liberal taste is, however, paralleled in Stone Male - a celebration of  the Western (along with other action genre films). Carducci's intent is to rescue from condescension and incomprehension that lineage of granite-jawed leading men who under-emote (John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Gary Cooper, Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood - and countless lesser known figures he's salvaging from obscurity). At the same time he is implicitly - sometimes explicitly - demoting that breed of scenery-chewing blowhard (Brando, Dean, Hoffman, et al ) that gets perennially rewarded and awarded by the Motion Picture Academy and by middlebrow critics.  

Carducci's particular interest is actors who are non-theatrical because they never had any formal training. In the early Westerns, they often started their careers as stunt men or handling horses. Many had fought in one world war or another. For Carducci this infuses their physical presence - the way they carry themselves in front of the camera - with an aura of having been tested, an ingrained knowledge of physical adversity and danger. But more important than such real-world experience is the fact that these actors aren't trained thespians.  "The heroic image affects you more if the actor's non-professional," Carducci told me in '96. "That interests me because I don't like over-acting."

But how about Hud? There's no mention of  it in Stone Male's index, which somehow didn't surprise me. Melvyn Douglas, the actor who played Homer Bannon, gets a passing mention, seemingly as an actor who career goes down the wrong path as far as Joe's concerned. Paul Newman appears twice. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid figures for Carducci as a softcore dilution of the strong, silent tradition that he's eulogising and elegising. But Hombre gets the thumbs-up, with Newman's role bracketed alongside Charles Bronson in Chato's Land, Kurt Russell in Soldier, and Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey as exemplary under-acting. 

These "four starring roles," writes Carducci, "... are terse in the extreme - the hero has less dialogue than many an extra...  Each of these [roles] goes beyond laconic in the tradition of Eastwood, Wayne, or Cooper to become a thing that tests not just the actors' intrinsic presence, but the writers's abilities to lay out plot and character in the physical action, and the directors's abilities to write this action across landscape with a camera. These films are modern star vehicles but they are also rare tests of talkies against the grammar of the silent film for long stretches.