The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Most Westerns are set in the 19th century, at a time when the United States was aggressively expansionist within its continent, and settlers were pushing the boundaries of the territory towards the western coast. The Coen Brothers treat this history as fodder for a number of stories in this Netflix-originated anthology, some of which focus on the comic side of the genre, but others delve into something more primal.


Until I saw True Grit (2010), I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the films of the Coen brothers. I know it seems heretical (and, sure, I found The Big Lebowski enjoyable), but I thought they were essentially charlatans and made arch, bitter films about people they considered themselves superior to — or so it seemed to me up until that point. There are parts of this anthology which I think hark back to that, so maybe the hardcore will be pleased; it’s a pretty thorough mixture of impish comic touches (Stephen Root prancing about shouting “pan shot!” is a highlight), character portraits (like Tom Waits’ solitary gold prospector), brutal violence and nastiness (the story with Liam Neeson particularly callously so). Pretty much every story ends up with one of the characters dying (not always the one you expect), and while some of them the film treats as pretty funny, others are laden with pathos. My favourite story is probably Zoe Kazan on the Oregon Trail (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”), and even if the way it ends does seem particularly indebted to a certain spirit of male-centred alienation, heartbreak and loss, it at least seems to be dealing with a character arc rather than a punchline.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based partly on the novels All Gold Canyon by Jack London, and The Girl Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017.

Criterion Sunday 42: Fishing with John (1991)

The Criterion Collection certainly throws up some oddities from time to time (who will ever forget — or forgive — Armageddon?) but Fishing with John is one of the odder entries, being the six episodes of a TV series made by John Lurie (hence the ‘creator’ rather than ‘director’ credit) and screened originally in 1991. It’s nominally a fishing show, in the sense that he takes a bunch of (male) celebrities out on the water in various places attempting to catch fish, but tonally it feels more of a piece with Twin Peaks or the offbeat deadpan stylings of early Jim Jarmusch (in whose films Lurie occasionally popped up, and who is his guest in the first episode). Things proceed in a laidback manner, as the two men travel to their fishing boat, or eat in cafes and drink in bars, and fall to chatting. Indeed, they tend to have very little success at the actual fishing. The conversations have a roundabout, somewhat surreal quality, but the most overt humour comes from the (extremely unreliable) narration, taking an omniscient viewpoint in the style of such shows, but undercutting it with deadpan drollery. In a sense, nothing much happens, but the journey is pleasantly diverting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Creator [Director] John Lurie; Cinematographers Michael Alan Spiller, Tom Krueger, James Nares and Steven Torton; Starring John Lurie, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch; Length 147 minutes (in six episodes of c24 minutes each).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2015.