You can’t Beta good western


(c) DMC Film / Film 4


The Beta Band were a Scottish group active from 1996 to 2004 whose songs showed a wide range of ideas and influences and incorporated a wide range of sounds and samples.  Appropriately, if not very concisely, their Wikipedia entry describes their oeuvre as ‘folkatronic, experimental music, downtempo, indie rock, Scottish, folk.’  I quickly heard about the Beta Band because their drummer, Robin Jenkins, had attended the same high school that I had in Scotland and so a lot of people I knew were talking about them.  But during the years that they were on the go, I never warmed to them.  I found them a bit too self-consciously eclectic and improvised.  Having a sound that seemed all over the place didn’t endear them to me, even if it was in the name of art.


Eleven years after they disbanded, I’ve recently listened to their double-album swan-song The Best of the Beta Band (2005) and I’ve decided that, actually, they were really good.  Maybe I’ve matured and my ears have become better attuned to quality.  Or maybe the Beta Band simply sound an awful lot better in retrospect, after a decade when the contemporary music scene has been dominated by the dire and ghastly Simon Cowell; and when the best new acts you can hope for seem to be ‘landfill indie’ guitar bands, whose best bits sound like the work of older and superior bands like Joy Division, the Jam and the Undertones and whose other bits sound like an anonymous sludge.


Now the Beta Band’s DJ, sampler and keyboard-player John Maclean has turned his hand to film-directing and he currently has a film on release, a western called Slow West.  As you might expect from someone involved in Maclean’s old musical combo, it’s an eclectic affair.  Its ingredients are more disparate than, say, the ingredients of those 1960s spaghetti westerns where Clint Eastwood would ride into town, mumble a few words, smoke a few cigars and kill a few people.  Slow West features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians; a pair of husband-and-wife Swedish bandits; a German social anthropologist who’s studying the Native American tribes; a bounty hunter masquerading as a clergyman; a haunted forest; some flashbacks to simpler, more innocent times in Scotland; and some slapstick comedy involving a washing line that wouldn’t have gone amiss in an old Laurel and Hardy movie.


Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.   He reins in – that’s a good phrasal verb to use when you’re talking about westerns – these elements and the result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but that nonetheless has a narrative that’s lean and linear.  Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay, an innocent love-struck teenager who’s pursed the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic and across the 19th-century American West – where things become wilder and more dangerous the further west he goes.  He ends up hiring a mysterious, hard-bitten and not-necessarily-honourable bounty hunter called Silas, played by Michael Fassbender, to act as his guide and guardian.  It’s a wise move, as throughout the movie danger intrudes in a number of forms – other bounty hunters, outlaws, natives and not-to-be-trusted fellow travellers, all in possession of that volatile trigger-happiness that seems endemic to characters in western movies.


Actually, I read once that gunfights in the Wild West were rare because of the high price of ammunition and the low wages of the average cowboy.  Shoot-outs like the one at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath The Wild Bunch (1969) would probably have left the survivors bankrupt.


Slow West has a fine cast.  Fassbender is his usual dependable self and there are good performances too from Ben Mendelsohn as a shifty rival bounty hunter and Caren Pistorius as the girl whom Smit-McPhee is searching for.  You also catch a glimpse of Alex Macqueen, who played the oily Julius Nicholson in Armando Iannucci’s caustic political sitcom The Thick of It, in the role of Smit-McPhee’s unsavoury uncle back in Scotland.


(c) DMC Film / Film 4


But Smit-McPhee gives the film’s most engaging performance.  He’s memorably naïve and vulnerable – but stubbornly set in his ways.  In fact, he pursues his romantic dream with a hapless and somehow Scottish determination that reminds me of a similarly dreamy, hapless, Scottish and determined male adolescent, the title character played by John Gordon Sinclair in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981).  Yes, we’re talking Gregory’s Girl out west here.  That’s how odd this film is.


In one of the film’s best sequences, Fassbender and Smit-McPhee get wasted at their campfire with a bottle of absinthe.  Smit-McPhee goes for a wander, returns to the campfire and after a while realises that he’s sitting at someone else’s campfire.  It’s the sort of anecdote that a teenage lad would delight in telling, bragging to his mates about how drunk he got the other night.  The difference here is that the people whom the inebriated Smit-McPhee finds himself sharing a campfire with are ones who’d happily cut his throat.


Kodi Smit-McPhee, incidentally, first made his mark in John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  I find this disconcerting.  Why, it seems only yesterday that he was the little boy accompanying Viggo Mortensen through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing cannibals and other post-apocalyptic unpleasantness.  But today, he’s the romantic lead in a western.  God, they grow up so fast…


As you might expect from a film made by a musician, Slow West has a pleasingly lyrical feel to it.  But it isn’t as bloody and violent as the last western made with major creative input from a musician, 2006’s The Proposition, which was scripted by Nick Cave (and was also directed by John Hillcoat).  Slow West has a high body-count, admittedly, but there’s less viciousness involved than in The Proposition – people shoot each other, and people die, but often there seems a haphazard, accidentally quality to it all.  Too many guns are being waved around by people who really don’t know how to use them.  (This, of course, bears no resemblance to the situation in America today.)


It’s also a lot less grotty than The Proposition, a film whose verminous, lank-haired characters made you grateful that someone finally got around to inventing shampoo.  Maclean even includes a scene where Fassbender shaves Smit-McPhee with a knife-blade – clearly this is a vision of the Wild West where the blokes have time for their personal hygiene and grooming.


Do I have any criticisms of Slow West?  Well, the German character, Werner (Andrew Robertt), feels a little too similar to the one played by Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2011) – although he’s not onscreen for long, so it hardly matters.  Also, while we never doubt that Fassbender’s character will eventually do the right thing, his transformation near the end to good guy, from morally-ambiguous guy, feels a little too abrupt and fast.  But generally, watching Slow West is a near-flawless way to spend 85 minutes of your time.


I’ve always been a big fan of western movies and it’s irked me that, during the last three decades, the genre has almost petered out of existence.  However, if filmmakers continue to make westerns very occasionally, and if the very occasional western that comes trotting along is as good as Slow West, I think I’ll be happy.


Jamie’s got a gun: film review / Django Unchained


At long last – here’s that Django Unchained review…

(c) Columbia Pictures


According to a recent article in the BBC news-website magazine, a quarter of the cowboys in the old American West were black (  Indeed, the black lawman Bass Reeves is thought to have inspired the character of the Lone Ranger; and the experiences of another black man, Brit Johnson, were the basis for The Searchers, the novel by Alan Le May that John Ford filmed in 1957 and arguably made into the greatest western movie of all.  But if you watched such movies any time between the silent era and the 1970s (when the western perished as a major cinematic genre), you’d be under the impression that the American West was entirely populated by white people.  Well, apart from those pesky Red Indians, who tended to all get shot anyway.


Going by the movie history of the Wild West, in fact, there was only ever one black person who lived there.  That was the great American-footballer-turned-character-actor Woody Strode, who appeared in American and Italian-made westerns such as Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Professionals (1966), Boot Hill (1969), Chuck Moll (1970), The Deserter (1971), The Revengers (1972), Keoma (1976), Lust in the Dust (1985) and The Quick and the Dead (1995).  In 1968 he turned up in that rarest of beasts, a British-made western, Shalako, and the same year he appeared in the epic opening scene of Sergio Leone’s generally epic Once Upon a Time in the West – another contender for the title of greatest western ever.  Strode was a close friend of John Ford, the genre’s most influential director, who in 1960 cast him in the title role in Sergeant Rutledge, a western-cum-courtyard-drama in which a black sergeant in the US Cavalry in the 1880s is falsely charged with the rape and murder of a white woman.


Other than Strode, the black presence in western movies was negligible.  A few were made specifically for ‘coloured’ audiences in the 1930s, and a few ‘blaxploitation’ ones (usually starring the indefatigable Fred Williamson) were made in the 1970s, but that was about it.  Things only improved when the western no longer existed as a continuing genre, thanks to sporadic retro-items such as 1985’s Silverado (featuring Danny Glover and Joe Seneca) and 1992’s The Unforgiven (featuring Morgan Freeman).  In 1993 Mario Van Peebles directed and starred in Posse, about a group of black ex-soldiers in the late-1890s West – a story told in flashback by an old man played by none other than Woody Strode.  Despite its honourable intention of representing the ‘8000 black cowboys’ whose stories Hollywood ignored, the critical consensus on Posse was that it wasn’t very good.


It says it all that the most popular film from the western’s classic era that was both upfront in having a black hero and unflinching in showing the racism he was subjected to was none other than the 1974 Mel Brooks spoof, Blazing Saddles.  In Blazing Saddles, the ridiculous townspeople of Rock Ridge, threatened by an evil railroad company, are more concerned about the skin pigmentation of their new sheriff (Cleavon Little) than they are about their town’s impending demolition.  It says a lot for Little’s good nature that he hangs around and tries to protect their shithole town against the villainous railroad-men.


But now we have Quentin Tarantino’s new western, Django Unchained – yet another Tarantino ‘pastiche of already disreputable genres’, to quote that cultural Lord Snooty in the Guardian, Adam Mars-Jones (  The Wild West in Django is pretty black.  The main cast is largely black (Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington and the inevitable Samuel L. Jackson), there’s a black-related theme – slavery, which was a rather big phenomenon in 19th-century American history, although for some reason most makers of western movies seemed not to notice it – and the soundtrack features some black musical genres, including blues and rap.  And this being Tarantino, the N-word is sprayed around in the dialogue as liberally as the bullets are in the shootouts.


I’ll start by getting my main criticism of Django Unchained off my chest, and the problem is the same one that spoiled my enjoyment of Tarantino’s previous movie, Inglourious Basterds: an ultimate failure of logic.  In the last reel of Basterds, we were expected to believe that in a cinema building where Hitler, Goebbels and pretty much the whole leadership of World War II Germany had gathered to watch a film, the Nazis would post two — yes, two — guards.  Obviously, the underwhelming security presence made it easier for Brad Pitt’s men to liquidise the enemy.  Tarantino would no doubt throw up his hands at this criticism and exclaim, “Hey, it’s set in a fantasy universe!  That sort of mundane detail doesn’t matter!”  But even as a fantasy movie, Basterds needed some internal logic.  And actually, earlier in the film, the Nazis had been shown to be paranoid about spies and infiltrators.


About a half-hour before the end of Django Unchained, the title character, played by Jamie Foxx, finds himself entirely at the mercy of vengeful forces that are ready to cut him into small pieces.  Yet they don’t.  After a wholly unconvincing reason is given, Foxx is allowed to live (and fight) another day – which goes against everything we know about the forces ranged against him.  The audience is left with the impression that Tarantino’s creativity failed him.  He just couldn’t think of a better way to get Foxx out of this tight scrape.  And in fact, it would’ve been better if Tarantino had simply ended the movie there, as Django feels at least half-an-hour too long anyway.


With that reservation out of the way, though, I can say that Django Unchained has much to enjoy.  Like Tarantino’s best movies, it contains both the sublime and the (knowingly) ridiculous, at times in the same scene.  A sequence involving a night-time raid by a group of prototype Ku Klux Klansmen invokes D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 epic Birth of a Nation before turning into an episode of comic idiocy that Mel Brooks could have concocted for Blazing Saddles in 1974.  And as usual with Tarantino too, the dialogue crackles.  While characters soliloquise and verbally spar, you feel you’re being treated to a sumptuous aural banquet of garrulity.  (That sounds like a phrase Tarantino might write himself, actually).


It helps that the actors spouting the dialogue are excellent.  As Dr Schultz, a German bounty hunter who frees Foxx from captivity and enlists him first as an informant and then as a partner, Christoph Waltz is at least as good as he was in Inglourious Basterds.  Here, he convincingly portrays a character who, despite being a state-sanctioned murderer, retains enough humanity to take Foxx under his wing and retains enough romanticism to eventually help him search for his wife, who is still kept as a slave.  It helps that Foxx’s wife, played by Kerry Washington, is called Broomhilda, a name that reminds Schultz of the quest of Siegfried in German legend.


Broomhilda, it transpires, is a slave on a huge southern plantation called Candyland, owned by one Calvin J. Candie, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Now probably like many discerning cinema-goers, I’ve been biased against DiCaprio in the past – the DiCaprio-mania that swept the world after he sank beneath the icy North Atlantic in the big movie of 1997 made me a bit prejudiced when it came to assessing his acting abilities.  But he is very good here, playing somebody who is both rottenly racist and rottenly decadent, but containing, just about, a streak of gentlemanly charm.


When Django and Schultz infiltrate Candyland on their mission to rescue Broomhilda, they manage to manoeuvre around Candie – but they fall foul of Stephen, the wily and poisonous ‘senior house slave’ who, despite his skin colour, might even be pulling Candie’s strings on the plantation.  Stephen is played by Samuel L. Jackson and this may be the best performance he’s provided for Tarantino, which is saying something.


A few people, including the afore-mentioned Adam Mars-Jones, have pointed out that for all the ballyhoo about Django Unchained being a western with a black hero, Django spends a lot of time hovering passively in Schultz’s shadow and letting the German make the decisions.  However, the film charts Django’s progression from slave to free-spirited gunslinger, so it’s a necessary stage of his development that he spends time as the bounty hunter’s apprentice.  It’s later in the film that he starts to think for himself and becomes proactive.  (Proactivity is something that I wish Kerry Washington’s character had more of, though.  For much of her screen time she merely stands around looking worried.  At one point she even faints.  For a Tarantino heroine, she is disappointingly un-kick-ass.)


Another criticism I’d defend Django Unchained against is the charge that it treats a serious subject, slavery, in an inappropriately cartoonish manner.  The movie undeniably has cartoonish qualities, especially in its later stages when bullets fly in ever-increasing quantities and ketchupy exit-wounds spurt with ever-more frequency.  But the film’s depiction of Candyland gives it some psychological weight.  In the warped society existing under Candie’s roof, the relationships between the oppressor and (a few of) the oppressed have become tangled.  Candie is terrifyingly brutal towards his human belongings but he can’t exist away from their company either.  Meanwhile, Stephen is a slave but, with his master, he conspires to be a monster to his fellow slaves.


In a speech Candie delivers in one scene, he recalls how his father was shaved every day by Stephen’s father with a cut-throat razor, yet the latter was never tempted to dispatch the former with a sudden flick of the wrist.  Candie explains this using the phony science of phrenology, claiming that blacks are inherently submissive thanks to the shape of their skulls.  But as we see Candie and Stephen connive, we realise that the real reason was probably a morbid symbiosis that has passed from fathers to sons.


Before signing off, I should say that Django Unchained is a treat for film buffs thanks to the number of old movie tough guys and character actors who appear in cameos or even micro-cameos.  Watch carefully, with your finger on the DVD-player pause button, and you’ll spot James Remar from The Warriors (1979) and The Cotton Club (1984); Don Stroud, whom I haven’t seen since he got impaled on the prongs of a fork-lift truck in the Timothy Dalton Bond movie, Licence to Kill (1989); Russ Tamblyn, who played Dr Jacoby in Twin Peaks back in 1991 and played Riff in West Side Story thirty years before that; Bruce Dern, who should need no introduction from me; Robert Carradine, brother of David and Keith – the three of them played the Younger brothers in Walter Hill’s 1980 western The Long Riders; Tom Savini, the famous gory special-effects man who worked on George A. Romero’s zombie movies; and John Jarrat, the Australian actor who played the psycho-killer in Greg Mclean’s terrifying 2005 film Wolf Creek.  Oh, and if you’re a connoisseur of old, crap 1980s TV shows, the guy who played Matt Houston and one of The Dukes of Hazzard are in it too.


Incidentally, here’s a guide to those black westerns, such as they were, that were made before Django Unchained: