Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tough Mercies

Once again a poor contemporary film - Crazy Heart (2009) - propels me back to the film that ostensibly inspired it - Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies (1983). Crazy Heart is so lamely executed, made by people who have as little feeling for life as they have for film, that the characters emerge as pathetic rather than sympathetic. In fact, Crazy Heart, which some critics called "Tender Mercies Lite", is a practical demonstration of how to escape from life, how to misrepresent the truth, and how to avoid art.

Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his performance as Bad Blake, a country singer on what he seems determined will be his last legs. As played by Bridges, he is a messy human being, with failed marriages and responsibilities left behind. He spends at least half the film drunk, with his pants hanging open, travelling from town to town at his manager's direction. The film commits a quite glaring mistake when Bridges steps onstage, whether in a small town lodge or an arena, and he and his band play brilliantly - until Blake falls over and has to run backstage to throw up.

T-Bone Burnett supervised the songs Bridges sings throughout the film. So instead of a broken down old country singer no one wants to hear any more, Crazy Heart gives us an award-winning soundtrack album. Bridges has even taken a year off (which must be nice) to take his new-found guitar-playing and singing talents on the road.

The biggest mistake Crazy Heart makes is that Jeff Bridges' performing sounds far too polished. He's supposed to be playing with pick-up bands in saloons and bowling alleys. Anthony Quinn liked to tell a story of his days of shooting with Fellini for La Strada. Fellini arranged for Quinn to arrive in a small Italian town and perform his Zampano strongman act in front of whatever crowd showed up, shooting the scene with discreetly-placed cameras. On Fellini's signal, Quinn rode up in his wagon and prepared for his act. A crowd gathered and Quinn launched into his performance. He was brilliant and a huge crowd showed their appreciation for this apparently unknown performer with a hatful of cash. Quinn packed up his motorcycle and rode out of the town square. Later at night, Fellini phoned Quinn and told him they would have to re-shoot the whole scene. "But why?" asked Quinn. "I thought it was perfect?" "Because," Fellini replied, "you played the scene just like Anthony Quinn, the great actor. And of course the crowd loved it. But you're not Anthony Quinn. You're Zampano. You're supposed to be lousy."

Before Tender Mercies began shooting, Robert Duvall drove all over West Texas, listening to the people's speech and singing with local bands in preparation for his performance as Mac Sledge, a former country singer who finds himself one morning broke in a motel four miles from the nearest town. He asks the motel owner, Rosa Lee (played beautifully by Tess Harper) if he can work off what he owes her. She eventually gives him a steady job, pumping gas and doing odd jobs around the property.

Twelve minutes into the film, there is a scene between Mac and Rosa Lee in the backyard garden. Mac comes straight out with "I guess it's no secret how I feel about you. A blind man could see that. Would you think about marrying me?" This is precisely the point at which Pauline Kael, an occasionally sensitive critic, decided that the film had failed her. "I kept waiting for Tender Mercies to get started - to get into something. I was still waiting when it was over and I was back out on the street...[It is] proof that a movie doesn't have to be long to be ponderous." (1)

I can only guess that Kael was disappointed that the film, in her estimate, hadn't earned the sudden access of emotion between Mac and Rosa Lee. I think the point that Horton Foote, who wrote the script, and Beresford were making was how little their characters are capable of expressing their feelings. Mac has to do it through the platitudes of a country song. Duvall himself wrote the song that he sings at the film's climax, "If You'll Hold the Ladder (I'll Climb to the Top)". The song's clumsy poetry is typical of country songs, which give people, who are, evidently, in their millions, an outlet for their deepest feelings.

Duvall is so perfect as Mac Sledge that he sounds (to my ears) dreadful when we finally hear him sing, his voice (intentionally) a collection of vocal mannerisms learned from a lifetime of singing in honkytonks - just the sort of twangy cowboy music I've tried to avoid all my life. He isn't catapulted, as in Crazy Heart, back into fame after his recovery from drink. He is simply redeemed by love and by a profound faith, but sadly mystified by the workings of God. After a reunion with his daughter Sue Ann, she is killed in a road accident that leaves Mac at a loss:

"I was almost killed once in a car accident. I was drunk and I ran off the side of the road and I turned over four times. And they took me out of that car for dead. But I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died. But I got no answer to my prayers. I still don't know why she died and I lived. I don't know the answer to nothin'. Not a blessed thing."

Bad Blake gets into a remarkably similar accident and survives with a broken leg. In fact, the similarities between Crazy Heart and Tender Mercies are many - too many to avoid comparing the two films. Blake has a son he hasn't seen in years. Instead of an ex-wife country singer, he has Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who has managed to remain successful and not lose everything. Instead of Rosa Lee, Blake gets AA. In fact, Robert Duvall appears in Crazy Heart as an old friend of Blake's who helps him recover from alcohol. Bridges' film couldn't done without Duvall's imprimatur, but I suppose they believed that genuflecting at Tender Mercies wouldn't hurt. Boy were they wrong.

(1) Pauline Kael, Taking It All In.

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