At home on the range: Walter Hill – film director
Why can’t you show the truth, just for once?” says Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, objecting to the Wild West Show’s revisionist distortion of Sitting Bull’s role in Little Big Horn. “Because,” shouts Buffalo Bill cynically, “I’ve got a better sense of history than that.”
The truth in Robert Altman’s Bicentennial satire rings clear in the popular acceptance of the old Western lies disinterred in Tombstone, and its virtually coincident rejection of the hard history lesson in Geronimo: An American Legend (’93). But nothing – not even audiences’ reliable distaste for morally ambiguous heroes and unsettling histories – could stop Geronimo’s great director Walter Hill from adding this notch to his belt. The story of the Geronimo Campaign – the U.S. Army’s pursuit of the last rebel holdouts to its imposition of the reservation system – is mightily vivified by Hill. This story conflates his own sense of showmanship – what Pauline Kael might call his aesthetic morality – with the hidden truth in popular forms that Hill has consistently sought throughout an enormously accomplished, stylistically distinctive, and deceptively serious career.
As an atypical director of genre films, Hill rather precariously commands a world in which the presuppositions of genre have in some sense set the discourse of what is normative. This is as it ought to be: it’s genre’s most important function. Consequently, one might think of Hill as the quintessential genre director only to discover that he’s never done anything unselfconscious enough for a straightforward generic fit. He’s an auteur, with a sophisticated appreciation and intuitive understanding of the ritual elements that comprise genre, even declaring at one point that he prefers evoking a vaguely memorable past image from the cinematic echo chamber to inventing something. Still, his approach is original and thrillingly modern. A Californian, Hill embodies the artistic attributes Frederick Jackson Turner cited as “native” American in his famous essay on the frontier: “coarseness and strength, combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind … that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism.”
Because Hill should be taken seriously, it’s not sufficient to simply list key films and directorial influences or inventory stylistic and thematic motifs so apparent throughout his career. Yet this is necessary to more deeply penetrate his artistic muse. Style and art history, popular or not, dance together. First and foremost, Hill’s films often revel in artifice (cf. Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese). This manifests itself in their theatricalized, ante-Method style dialogue and genre-derived characters and plot devices. Occasionally Hill’s scripts admit an apt characterization (Tom Cody, the hero of Streets of Fire, recalls of his Army experience, “I liked shooting the guns, but I didn’t win no medal”), but more often, in screenwriting seminar parlance, action defines the characters. Carrying a baton passed him by Sam Peckinpah, Hill holds for the primacy of what Leo Braudy calls visual materiality over verbal mystery.
All of Hill’s films are modern, but some are more modern than others. His style ranges from skillfully reconsidered approximations of traditional genre techniques to bold application of his considerable deconstructive skills. At its edgiest, lighting, staging of events, montage, camera angles, composition, and lens choice, scene transitions, and the relative realism of characters and mise-en-scene crescendo in thundering abstraction until traditional Hollywood narrative seems torn to shreds. Hard Times (’75), Hill’s first film as a director, remains the closest to, say, a Warner Bros. social-realist film of the Thirties, and the style builds momentum up to Streets of Fire (’84), then implodes. Brewster’s Millions (’85), reinvestigates screwball comedy via comparatively generic tropes. But Streets of Fire and Another 48HRS. (’90) complete cycles in which Hill seems to be selfconsciously, ferociously, almost insanely straining against the straitjacket of genre’s traditional methodological constraints.
When in Streets of Fire Cody wins a knifefight and slaps his rival Road Master to the diner floor, the scene has the impact of pop Peckinpah, but the action’s so finely dissected, so selfconsciously fragmented, the last 17 shots of the scene, a series of partial, almost subjectless frames, are compressed into a few-seconds gestalt. Hill manages a modern sleight of hand – he shows the same knifefight, twice, and yet he hasn’t actually shown anything. His experimentation investigates audience anticipation of such events, imaging them with an economy of style that still triggers the genre response to the ritual elements.
Hill’s deep interest in genre is invested in such ritual reiterations of universal, mythic drama. Hard Times reenacts a Hollywood Studio Era sentiment, yet blends contemporaneously with crazy B movies and name-brand cinema of the Seventies: John Huston’s Fat City, Altman’s Thieves like Us, and (later) Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. The Driver (’78) outdoes early-Seventies car chase epics, and relates to Peckinpah’s The Getaway (which Hill wrote); yet it also intelligently represents Hill’s first- and secondhand response to film noir and the nouvelle vague, and to the nouvelle vague-inspiring Jean-Pierre Melville, particularly Le Samourai and Bob le flambeur – all this, and an obvious and exhilarating hommage to John Boorman’s landmark Point Blank, too, itself a powerful reaction to nouvelle vague. (A hint at its formal inspiration, The Driver was shot by The Killer Elite and Point Blank cinematographer Philip Lathrop.) The Western outlaw myth embedded in The Long Riders (’80) was treated by such key cinematic forebears of Hill as Henry King, Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray, in various decades, as well as Hill’s contemporary, Philip Kaufman. Brewster’s Millions was remade from an old genre comedy (filmed by Allan Dwan, among others), based on a still older British comedy.
The celebration of artifice entails insistent breaks from stretches of “realism.” It finds its visual analog in, for instance, shattered mirror configurations (Charles Bronson’s Chaney in Hard Times shooting his own image; the visually confused enemies at the end of Another 48HRS.). Figures literally break through screens or screenlike spaces (the James-Younger gang on horseback crashing through the notions-store window; The Driver surprisingly shooting through a rolled-up window of an open car door; the bikers of Another 48HRS. – societal decay made incarnate – expressing through the breasts of a porn-flick projection; and, in general, lots of fanciful defenestration). Characters utter lines that announce awareness of conformity to genre (Robert Ford saying, as if reading a marquee, “I Shot Jesse James,” before concluding the final, fatal act; Cates in 48HRS. declaring, “You’re done. End of story,” before he shoots Ganz, or, in Another 48HRS. – the title itself a comment on sequelization – bemoaning the movie cliche of barfights, just before starting one). The two-level two-shot, one player in the foreground, one to the side and in back, seemed conventional until Hill worked it into every film, so that it now seems subservient to his stylistic authority. Hill’s films, notably up to but not including Geronimo, evidence bravura flourishes of modern, pop style in such important tonal devices as employing extended, diagonal, and broken-line wipes and transitions; scene-length dissolves that are practically composite shots (Southern Comfort, ’81); and main-title sequences drawn out as long as 15 minutes. Those techniques reference, then expand, such seminal genre experiments as the Edward G. Robinson wiseguy drama Bullets or Ballots, in which the titles shatter like tommy-gunned glass.
But for all the flair and mastery of Hill the stylist, it’s in his thematic motifs that he truly transcends genre – a triumph of his artistic sensibility. The moral obligations of family, real and imagined, act as prime motivators of those actions that define characters. Soldiering, both literally and in the metaphorical subjugation of individualism to uniformity, marches through his films. Violence, in varying degrees of stylization, serves as a meaningful act of macho gesture: the almost fetishistic brandishing of weapons, and the transformation of character that outward display effects; drawn knives, fistfights, pistol-whippings, one-on-one duels. The mostly antagonistic, sometimes comic, frequently outright hostile relations between men counterpoint the conspicuous absence of genre-normal women. Many of the women Hill admits into his men’s club code as lesbian, and in the case of Amy Madigan in Streets of Fire we can forget about code. They exhibit attributes of maleness Hill admires – they’re as tough as leather baseball caps, as mean as snakes, spark jealousy, inspire fights; they incite action, elation, misery, mystery. There’s always a bar called Torchy’s, and it usually means a hot time.
Hill’s verbal thematics are as tight-lipped as Hard Times’ bare-knuckle fighter Chaney, and pack an equally hard wallop. Consider, above all, the incantatory invocation of “home” through many Hill-scripted films for other directors as well as his own. “When we see the ocean, we figure we’re home. We’re safe,” utters a disconsolate Swan (Michael Beck), overlooking the drab Coney Island beach the heroes of The Warriors (’79) have bopped their way back to through a perilous Odyssean journey. “Go home,” exhorts the nameless, existentialist hero of The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), after disarming with a right hook the punk who’s come up his backstairs. “Go home,” shouts the hillbilly-handsome Cody (Michael Pare), tossing the theatrically pretty Road Masters gang from his sister’s diner in Streets of Fire. “All we got to do is get home,” says the leader of the James gang (Stacy Keach), bloodied and defeated following the great Northfield, Minnesota raid in The Long Riders; “we never should have left.” “This is our home,” growls an angry Cajun in Southern Comfort, after defending the bayou against a Louisiana National Guard incursion. “I promised I’d get him home,” explains Eugene Mortone (Ralph Macchio), would-be white suburban blues boy of Crossroads (’86), to his runaway girlfriend (Jami Gertz), about the elderly blues legend Willie Brown whom he’s sprung from a security rest home in Harlem and brought to Mississippi. “Do you really think there is a home?” she responds.
For Hill, “home” illuminates a path for those who have lost their way – as well as a road back to classic genres – a reconciling of the individual to his core, to his inculcated values. In the quicksand of shifting notions of good and evil, Hill’s sense of knowing right from wrong, home, is a solid-ground ideal.
A collective idea of homeland is at the heart of Hill’s monumental achievement, Geronimo, a historical meditation on the perils of domestic imperialism. Making the point visually, Hill responds to the landscape of the West as a supernal infinitude of horizontal space. Hill and newly noteworthy cinematographer Lloyd Ahern image the West in longshots, the rock formations dwarfing the pioneers, making their fear of sharing this vastness seem all the more irrational. “Why must the white eye have all the land?” asks Geronimo (Wes Studi), given intelligent voice. Twice, darkness settles over the West, the color of the rubious sunset picked up by a lick of warm fire at encampments enshrouded in cold blue light below – fragile, survivalist outposts of territorial claim. “We’re trying to make a country here,” Lieutenant Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) later says emotionally to a comrade-in-arms, in what he supposes might be a farewell speech. “It’s hard.”
The Geronimo Campaign’s filter – a new West Point grad, Lieutenant Britton Davis (Matt Damon) – is important to the screenwriters’ complex point of view in that the story is once removed from any particular participants’ acts. Thus it is not just the story of Geronimo, Gatewood, cavalry scout Al Sieber (Robert Duvall), or Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman). The moral outrage over the abuses of military power expressed by Davis as he quits the Army (“I’m ashamed. And you have my resignation”) is a considered response to an episode in history witnessed firsthand.
In the Hill Western, even potentially simple, archetypal figures surpass genre’s ability to enrich understanding. Geronimo becomes not a Noble Savage but an admirable, fearsome historical figure, a warrior made, not born, by the murder of his wife and two daughters, and thus cursed to live falsely; this deep embitterment has exorcised the better angels of his nature. He talks of messianically eating thorns in the wilderness, and wears the uneasy mantle of a man/god mounted on a white horse in whose surrender is salvific grace. He remains a political realist, trying not once but several times to give himself up. Crook’s rebuke of Geronimo’s behavior – that, unlike Cochise, he’s a failed leader – is an echo of Geronimo’s own tribal elder. His gang of ragtag Apaches invokes the Orphans of The Warriors. It’s not until Geronimo is on the train to the East, having resigned his position as warrior, that he becomes leader, in settling a grudge between two Apaches.
The white characters face similar conflict. Al Sieber forges beyond the image of a heroic pioneer scout striking Remington poses. He’s acting true to his nature and historical circumstance, something he’s not ashamed to find fulfilling. “The way I see it,” he says to the conflicted Gatewood, “you’re a real sad case. You don’t love who you’re fighting for, and you don’t hate who you’re fighting against.” Yet later, in resigning civilian service to the Army, Sieber admits that his crusade has been historically determined; if he’d been born an Apache, he says to Crook, he’d be fighting alongside Geronimo. Duvall’s rousing performance raises this character to iconographic stature, and with his quiet, penitent death – he slips into sleep after being fatally wounded saving a comrade Apache – it’s as if he’s drifting into America’s reverie about its past.
Like a character from the John Milius-written Apocalypse Now, Gatewood is torn between the old morality – he unabashedly invokes the Biblical injunction against gaining the whole world at the risk of one’s soul – and practical military necessity. Beautifully handsome, Gatewood reinstates Tom Wolfe’s chivalrous single-combat warrior, taking on a symbolic Apache challenge, and sporting admirable horsemanship. (When The Driver skids his car full speed into a gliding reverse, this, too, is like an equestrian feat.) A defeated Confederate, he’s drawn into a gunfight over an Apache by a murderous Texan (Stephen McHattie) who cuts with fighting words, “Move it, Dixie!” – a reminder that Gatewood once fought in service of slavery. For Gatewood, and the Apache, there is no right way. He’s betrayed his homeland’s culture by becoming a bluecoat (honorably, at the behest of his father), and faces ambivalent victory in an unjust war that’s to be won not by test of battle but the new way, by the big lie. If nothing else, noblesse oblige requires the Southern officer and gentleman to feel dishonored by dishonesty.
En route to Geronimo’s first surrender to military authority, an exchange of emblematic gifts follows Gatewood’s confession to Geronimo that, should an approaching posse be allowed to present legal writs, he’d be obliged as an Army officer to turn him over. It is this revealing confession that wins Geronimo’s confidence. The reluctant warrior’s gift is knowing men’s hearts, which is why he’s so rightfully distrustful of reservation ghettoization; Gatewood, himself a “reformed” rebel, has a demystified sense of how victors are apt to behave. Geronimo takes the binoculars given Gatewood by his men. “You must be a fine chief,” Geronimo says. Gatewood replies: “Not a chief. Just a soldier.” In their final exchange, when each soldier has been further disillusioned, stripped bare of the hubris of rank, Gatewood tells Geronimo that he must relinquish even racial pride. “I’m just a man, like you.”
In asking for the binoculars (in the immediate moment, to observe the posse), Geronimo, blinded by his rage, poignantly seeks a clearer vision of the future. His gift to Gatewood is a sacred blue stone, a numinous image of the oneness of earth and sky, of the rocksolid ethereal, the gift of land-for-peace embodied in his surrender. It is Hill’s measure of the men, and a long-overdue correction of genre convention, that he depicts this exchange not in terms of material value, as an occasion for humor, but to express the characters’ values. This exchange has an equally poignant echo upon Geronimo’s final surrender, when, in the name of the one God, Gatewood gives Geronimo his silver crucifix. The gesture is made, defeated rebel to defeated rebel, not in the sense of imposing Christendom at the conclusion of a Crusade, but in recognition that it is in bearing that cross – his self-sacrifice, his relinquishing of the perilous power of hate, the giving up of his anger, his rebellion, the bloodlust for his lost family, his warrior status – that Geronimo’s tribe has a better chance of surviving a hostile takeover.
Geronimo summarizes the Hill aesthetics, albeit with an unusually sepulchral solemnity. He gives the Apache a complex voice that’s neither romanticized, naive, nor univocal. The heartrending maltreatment of another Apache, who’s served honorably as an Army scout but is stripped of rank, represents more than an ironic betrayal. It is a clear rebuff to that people’s attempted assimilation into the new American West, the strategy in which the scout had placed his faith, as well as a recapitulation of Gatewood’s moral dilemma. (“In just a few small steps,” the Wild West Show promoters tell Sitting Bull in Altman’s Buffalo Bill, “you are about to become part of America’s national family.”) Truth be told, says Crook, assigned to be both protector and persecutor of the Apache, most of the settlers would rather see the Apache destroyed than protected by the Army.
Clearly the story structure evidences treatment by Hill (through his frequent collaborator Larry Gross) but almost as recognizably story writer (and co-screenwriter) John Milius. The team gives Geronimo the ancient dramatic overtones of The Searchers and The Warriors and Southern Comfort. The Milius reprise of Apocalypse Now’s structure sees Kurtz in Geronimo, Willard in Gatewood, Kilgore in Sieber (both in the mighty personage of Duvall). Milius describes indigenous toughness as if it’s Charlie squatting in the bush. Milius abides, too, in Crook’s officious replacement, Miles (Kevin Tighe), who insists on plausible deniability.
Geronimo’s harrowing journey into the American heart of darkness engenders heightened awareness of realpolitik that gives the film an undaunted currency, with courageous references to the current politics of occupation. Then Hill makes it smart and modern, cross-referencing the contemporary images with movie historicity. An unarmed man – a medicine man, rock in hand – is gunned down by a soldier, as in The Long Riders, as in Dodge City, as in the 6 o’clock news. A miner feels arrogantly justified in coopting the land because the “hostiles” inhibit progress – the universal rationalization for colonialism. General Miles’ false offer to each Apache (“40 acres and two mules”) intertwines minority histories. Hill makes this clear without overweening: This thematic material is organically mingled in such a way that it’s not comparable to, for instance, the falsifying, facile discovery of urban gang prototypes in Posse or pioneering cross-dressing feminists in The Ballad of Little Jo. Rather, Geronimo demonstrates a clear continuity of thought branded in the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the detritus of what Larry Gross calls “an implacable, inevitable historical process.”
If Geronimo seems lacking the kicks of genre Westerns, that might be because modern filmmakers of conscience are unwilling to repeat the comforting lies those films so often celebrate. A mighty work of sad, sublimated strength, Geronimo was too respectful of history, myth, and legend – in short, too true to Hill’s aesthetics – to be popular, and appreciative audiences might feel Hill’s own sacrifice. In tone, at least, Walter Hill comes full circle with Geronimo. Only a fistful of his films approach the hard-scrabble sobriety of Hard Times, the surreal mix of familial discord and the demands of occupational rebellion in The Long Riders, the mythic encounter with the indiginous Other in the Vietnam metaphor of Southern Comfort. (The others are very recent, Johnny Handsome, ’89, and Trespass, ’92, and equally underappreciated.)
But Geronimo strikes at the heart of the most consistent and important thematic motif of Hill’s cinema, issues of racial and class, cultural and regional differences in America, a screen through which each of his films can be read. Hill’s intelligence and sincere conviction improves, corrects, revitalizes, or complicates genre, so that his films break free of its constraints. His impassioned search creates a synthesis between the moral storyteller and the often subversive stylist.
In this sense, Geronimo shares important attributes with another masterly Hill Western, The Long Riders. The Jameses, Millers, and Youngers, as well as Bob and Charlie Ford, are played by actual brothers, not to gimmick effect, but to illustrate Hill’s take on this historical chapter, that a clannish idea of blood ties was at the heart of the rebellion of former Confederates turned outlaw heroes. The original Jesse James (Henry King, ’39) is quoted by Hill in some key scenes and through the extended, poetic use of those long-coat “dusters.” Here, the coming of the railroad and the Northern robber barons they represented was the gang’s clear motive, its action impelled by the inescapable logic of 1890s melodrama.
In Hill’s revision, the Pinkerton murder of the James brothers’ mother (cited in Jesse James as driving the boys bad) comes well after the boys have become outlaws. They fancy themselves defending the South, and, one presumes, its most contentious social system (slavery). In marked strategic contrast, as if to mask their essential Southernness, Lang’s 1940 Return of Frank James, starring liberal Henry Fonda, invents a black comic servant whom Frank actually risks his life to save.
Hill will not let his antiheroes off the hook here. Clell Miller (Randy Quaid) holds a pistol to the head of a musician singing “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (“… and no man shall be a slave…”), forcing him to sing “I’m a Good Ol’ Rebel” (“… and I don’t want no pardon for anything I’ve done…”). But Hill’s as concerned with their private lives – even their macho failures, including an innuendo of impotence – as he is the legendary exploits (only one big caper, a train robbery, goes entirely well). In a film that one would expect to feature uninterrupted Hillian action, one finds the larger part dedicated to exploring the gang’s courtships, stultified family lives, and traditional rites of funerals, dances, engagements and marriages. Like Geronimo, they’re consumed with continuing their family line, preserving their culture.
At one point Cole Younger (played by the real son of Jesse James’s Bob Ford, David Carradine) travels to Texas for a vicious knife fight with the half-breed Indian Sam Starr (James Remar) over the love of a whore (Pamela Reed’s spectacular debut as Belle Starr, who sardonically notes that the victor will win “nothing you both ain’t already had”). This clarifies the status of rebels outside their clannish Missouri country – a defeated Indian and a defeated Johnny Reb fighting over dubious spoils. Overall, Hill’s addition to The Wild Bunch’s codes of post-Civil War drifters or Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (referenced in the ambush of McCorkindale’s farm) is allegiance to blood oaths: Kicking one Miller, Ed (Dennis Quaid), out of the gang – setting brother against brother – hangs like a curse over their subsequent raids. “An 18-year-old,” Jim Younger (Keith Carradine) says to the Pinkerton detective who’s killed his cousin, before gunning the Pinkerton down. “Now I have to bring him home to his family dead.” Each funeral is a dirge for the dying South.
Hill’s interest in class, race, and family was clear from the start. In Hard Times, the empathetic impulse evidenced by Speed’s (James Coburn’s) adoption of the Tennessee Williams-like hophead Poe (Strother Martin) is a blessed mark of knowing home. It draws Chaney to him, despite Speed’s bouts of uncontrollable, irresponsible gambling, exploitative desperation, and transparent Southern sense of superiority over the drifter outsider (read Northerner). Poe is introduced as the only white man in an exuberant all-black Louisiana revival, but it’s Speed who needs saving. The wealthy money-lenders control the game, control the participants, and cast distrust among the underclass. Hill locates all the fights in working-class territory-shipyards, warehouses, industrial spaces, often under crowded overhangs – emphasizing a pervasive sense of coliseum spectacle mounted for the pleasure of a patrician class. Chaney hints at wanting to put down roots with his play for the unhappy whore (Jill Ireland), but she bypasses the potentially fickle love of the loner. She’d rather be kept.
The Warriors gathering in the Bronx, a salmagundi of street gang representation, begins as brotherhood fantasy but soon snaps into a nightmare of fear, distrust, and war protest and civil rights riot dispersal. A black leader who would unite all the rival (segregated) tribes into one large (integrated) gang, Cyrus is a confluence of youth influences, as much like Malcolm X in his call to potentially violent solidarity in the face of a common enemy (the police) as Martin Luther King, in his plea for an end to fighting amongst the gangs and his contention that all of New York’s “turf” is theirs by birthright, not as territory that must be won by constant battle. Charismatic and in preacher’s robe, talking about the miracle the meeting itself represents, Cyrus vouchsafes a throaty “Can you dig it?” – Seventies street slang for “Can I get an amen?”
So from the opening scene Hill and co-scenarist David Shaber eschew the simplicity of genre youth pictures. “Can you count?” shouts Cyrus, which can be read as a haunting double entendre – “Can you matter?” – moments before his assassination. “The future is ours, if you can only count.” As the Warriors strive Homerically (actually, by implication of Sol Yurick’s novel, the source is Xenophon) for the home they know not, difference becomes accentuated. None of the gangs read as integrated except the persecuted Warriors, a New York, New World cross section of black and white, Latino and mulatto, coded homosexual (Marcelino Sanchez’s graffiti artist Rembrandt, the only Warrior suspicious of the lesbian Lizzies gang) and threatened homophobe (James Remar’s Ajax, who drops the fighting word “faggot” as easily as he raises his fist, and who is later entrapped in Central Park by a suspiciously transsexual cop, played by a mannish Mercedes Ruehl). Hill makes visible the internal confusion of sexually naive kids who have nonetheless adopted a macho code.
Years later, when Hill revisits the urban gang in Trespass, he sees the black ghetto as a reservation system, in which completely disenfranchised black youth has almost parodistically appropriated the style of “legitimate” businessmen while making drug deals in what are now boneyards, using cellular phones and videotaping their deals, trying to turn their sordid personal histories into myth. Two white working-class Arkansan firemen (from Fort Smith, working the Western myth) leave the protection of home to re-steal Greek (read mythic) altar treasures stolen from a Catholic Church years earlier. With its racial and fraternal conflict and numinous objects of ritual worship, the use of the archaic word trespass invokes the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s a religious allegory, based on myth, history, and genre (Straw Dogs and Fort Apache, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Warriors, Jack London and pulp fiction). The gold has been stashed in a now vacant warehouse building in the worst section of East St. Louis, in a neighborhood so desolate, a murder’s witness by white folks seems to give the act its only possible repercussion. As in Southern Comfort, in which the disengagement of nonchalant poker playing before the dead charges the story with the dynamics of Antigone, Don (William Sadler) and Vincent (Bill Paxton) sheepishly glide past a hanged corpse, which they decide not to report. The drug addict/orphan Lucky (De’Vereux White), so named for magically surviving three drive-bys, is the “family”-connection hostage saving the white trespassers from certain death. The scene in which Lucky instructs Don and Vincent on how to properly prepare his opiate fix can hardly contain the horrible, unsettling tension of Lucky awaiting his cross. One sees this sanctified representation of race and class conflict in The Warriors, too, when Swan and his trampy Orphan girlfriend (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), with her Magdalenian dirty feet, avert their eyes before a middle-class prom couple on a subway train.
In Southern Comfort and 48HRS. (’82), Hill uplifts racial dissonance from sub-text to story in nasty expurgations. In the former (influenced by Boorman’s Deliverance), another group of integrated weekend warriors – assigned to National Guard maneuvers in the Louisiana bayou in the year before the end of the Vietnam War – finds dissension government-issued within the ranks of war avoiders. The group’s outsider, a Texan (Powers Boothe), hates rednecks; a Louisianan (Keith Carradine) flaunts with intentional irony the dirty laundry of the domestic military. “The Louisiana Guard,” he says dryly, “had us out doing really important things like beating up college kids and tear-gassing niggers.” Later a black soldier goads an uptight football coach with a tale about dealing drugs to Fremont teenagers, a stereotype the self-righteous white man half wants to believe. Soon, the entire unit is faced with a hostile native Cajun culture, a skirmish provoked when an ignorant soldier fires blanks at them, expecting them to know the difference from afar. (The illiterate Cajuns are so low in the eyes of whites and blacks as to be off the American map – like the Apache, like The Warriors’ misfit gang, The Orphans.) And as the Cajuns kill them off one by one, not even allowing them to bury their dead in the bayou, the film migrates toward a domestic metaphor for Vietnam, the military dehumanization of the enemy and betrayal of the soldier, and the politics of American ignorance about race and class.
Jack Cates’ (Nick Nolte’s) blood-curdling stream of racial slurs toward his convict partner Reggie (Eddie Murphy) compacts years of sublimated resentment and burdened scapegoating into 48HRS. It erupts into ugly fistfights, keeping all verbal wounds open. Nolte’s beleaguered, defensive urban cop knows almost nothing about black people but their presumed (and, to Jack, threatening) sexual prowess, a counterpoint to his blues-inspiring, quickly worsening woman woes. The uneasy team’s foes have Geronimo implications: a Mission District Indian called Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) springs the gun-crazy punk Ganz (James Remar) from a road gang by faking a racial confrontation. Jack’s racist slurs are pointedly unimaginative – they’re old and ugly words. When in the end Jack discovers Reggie to be a more trustworthy, streetwise, ballsy, and likable partner than his fellow white cops, he apologizes meekly for his racism, first hiding behind the weak apologia of having been culturally conditioned by his white privilege and police empowerment. “Nigger. Watermelon. I didn’t mean all that stuff,” Cates croaks; “I was just doin’my job, keeping you down.” Reggie knowingly replies, “Well, doin’ your job don’t explain everything, Jack.”
By their reunion nearly a decade later in Another 48HRS., things had further devolved and shattered into the fragmented alliances as fragile, cutting, and confusing as the shards of broken mirror that litter the final disco shootout: Jack has been betrayed to Internal Affairs by white cop drug kings for wrongful use of deadly force. Those cops front their drugs through black street dealers, in league with white bikers out to avenge their real – or imagined – families (“We’re the only real Americans left,” says one self-described “outlaw” biker. “We believe in freedom. We live the way folks used to, back before there were big cities and lawyers and computers with your names in ’em. Free. The rest of you are a bunch of fuckin’ slaves.”) Reggie discovers in prison a rudimentary pop political consciousness at least insofar as he’s moved from mouthing the words of white Sting to black jailbird James Brown. More important, he comes to realize that, as antagonistic as their relationship remains, Jack’s closer to a real friend than the brothers inside, whose protection he had to purchase outright; in perhaps Murphy’s finest series of comic performance soliloquies, he telephones a series of former cronies, none of whom has any familial loyalty toward him. There is no such thing as black privilege, even among blacks, only black power.
Hill extends his convictions about race, class, and bonds of loyalty into unlikely genres in the Eighties. In Streets of Fire, Hill’s early reaction to nascent music video culture, modern directorial techniques, tropes, and devices push narrativity to the edge of graphic-novel abstraction. The first brilliant, self-contained fantasy of the 15-minute credit sequence contains explosive directorial virtuosity, production design (by John Vallone), music (Ry Cooder), lighting (Andrew Laszlo), editing (Freeman Davies and Michael Ripps), and costuming (Marilyn Vance), and inspired wipes and transitional effects by now fashionable design house R/Greenberg. Hill’s response to music video’s implicit challenge is to stretch the limits of genre’s ability to complete an entire story arc, establish all the archetypal characters, mount several action sequences, and throw in an entire musical number – all before the film’s putative beginning.
But Hill’s hardly content with outgunning genre form. Pop singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) represent white flight, from the integrated urban enclave, run by black authority. They have to be literally forced to return to the hometown Fish now calls a “shithole” and a “dump.” Later in a highjacked bus, a struggling, infinitely more talented black doo-wop group, The Sorelles, needs to beg the bland beauty Ellen (who admits she doesn’t write, or even think about, the songs she sings) for a backup gig. When stopped by Ardmore cops, they’re cited for the blacks in the back of the bus (“Spade musicians with a big wad of money,” a cop mutters, awaiting payola). But in the final song, a dream of a perfect society, after all societal wrong is righted – and Raven, the exsanguinated figure of Weimar decadence played by Willem Dafoe, is vanquished – the black group shares not only Ellen’s stage, but her microphone.
Audiences found Brewster’s Millions easy to dismiss, but it stands now as an imperfect, but honorable, strike at Reaganomics ascendent. An ideal project for a genre director because of its historic repetition, Hill plays it frenetic and fun. This time around, the recipient of the perversely conditional bequest is a kind-hearted black minor-leaguer (Richard Pryor), whose wealth has trickled down from a distant white relative, in the absence of any other. Hill’s take on Brewster’s dilemma is rife with telling observation: Brewster’s complete lack of pleasure at throwing money around, bereft of Eighties acquisition and bragging rights; the ease with which his unearned money unwittingly earns more unearned money; the revulsion and disgust or venal, fawning obsequiousness (even among hungry lefties) his profligate spending brings out in those around him; the sense that politics-and Brewster’s “None of the Above” campaign – is the only remaining institution for completely squandering money with no return (“Let’s get to the bottom line,” he says to thunderous populist approval, “I’m trying to buy your vote!”). It’s practically a dramatization of Eighties greed done in blackface.
Crossroads, failed by consistently poor performances by Ralph Macchio (as Mortone) and Jami Gertz (as his girlfriend), is consistently fascinating by virtue of Hill’s piqued political interest. Eugene, a Juilliard-trained classical guitarist with a fancy for blues, poses as a boy who needs a job as a janitor just to get to the surviving partner of a famous blues duo. Eugene wants to coopt a mojo, find a legendary lost Robert Johnson song, “learn the tune, get it down to the note, add a little of my own stuff, make it my own – that’s my ticket to the blues scene,” frankly admitting designs to bald thievery such as the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vaid” and Eric Clapton’s “Crossroads,” both Robert Johnson songs.
As in Geronimo, Hill gives ample voice to Other in the personage of Willie Brown (Joe Seneca), who characterizes Eugene as “just another white boy ripping off our music,” and at one point slaps him for his arrogant insolence and whiny presumption. Willie’s suffered the inequity of justice; he got life for getting into a fatal fight with his (white?) business partner, and had no one to stand up for him in court. They travel deep into the heart of Southern myth, to Mississippi where Jim Crow is suspended in time. (“I do my business on this side of the road, and you white folks do your business on that side. That’s the way they get things done in Mississippi.”) In adapting Mozart’s “Turkish March,” Eugene wins Willie’s soul from the Devil (Joe Morton) by retreating to his white roots, getting his HoJo working.
The striving to extract truth from legend confects Hill’s cinema with complexity and style. The final shot of Geronimo is the longest-held in Hill’s 15 films, and it has a prescient significance. And yet in this elegiac image – the unstoppable train of history, bearing Geronimo from his home, his family, and the West of the Imagination, winding almost imperceptibly slowly to an inevitable turn unseen by its passengers – is the completion of an ellipsis, too. For Hill started with the train in Hard Times, this one carrying a thick-skinned, taciturn Depression Everyman to his next brutish bare-knuckle fight, through a country of lonely, impoverished spectators to a theater of cathartic self-flagellation, through a land that’s expiating the meanness of poverty by pugilism. The train, a serpentine living creature, carries the Warriors through a Manhattan rife with surreal gangs, by baseball Furies in whiteface, and subway platforms with pinball machines; it awakens the soldiers in Southern Comfort to their saving proximity to civilization, to home; it bears the James gang to their undoing in Minnesota, and provides a solemn, almost Presidential funeral cortege for Jesse in the end. The train brings on the blues in Crossroads.
In Walter Hill’s cinema, images collide. in meaningful, particularly American association. A train crossing the outfield during a minor-league baseball team in Brewster’s Millions invokes the dialectics of stasis-movement, homeaway, that one sees in Edward Hopper’s painting of a Victorian home beyond a set of railroad tracks. The train is the right metaphor for expressing Hill’s passion: powerful, graceful, unrelenting, and historical. It’s the engine of his great popular art.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Film Society of Lincoln Center
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group