Sunday, July 16, 2006

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

(Over a month ago, I was contacted by a representative from M80, a company that provides "online grassroots marketing" services for big companies like the Gap, Miramax, Comedy Central, House of Blues, and Interscope Records who are trying to figure out how to harness the power of blog-buzz for their products. Based on my mention of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in my dual write-up on The Proposition and Lady Vengeance, they asked if they could send me a gratis copy of the recently released two-disc Collector's Edition DVD of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to review here. I said yes.)

I find myself growing bored with collectors' editions and endless amounts of special features on DVDs. My ever-decreasing attention span to one side, I think a large part of it is nothing more than the fact that the novelty of having easy access to all that behind-the-scenes footage is just wearing off. (Whither the heady excitement of the early days of building my DVD collection?) Not to mention that, as pointless and predictable EPK interviews become ubiquitous on DVDs, online, and in multiplexes, the quality-to-quantity ratio is discouraging enough that I simply don't have the patience anymore to slog through it all at home on my relatively crappy TV for one interesting observation from the fight choreographer. The amount of the drug I have to consume to get that same old high just isn't worth it for me anymore.

All that being said, it's curious to spend time with two discs' worth of special features for a movie I don't really care about one way or the other. I think I'd only seen it once before, a couple years ago when I was at the height of my irrational hatred for Robert Redford (I've subsequently crested that wave and seem to be settling down into a kind of bemused annoyance), and pretty much felt the same about it then as I feel about it now. I respect its popularity and influence on cheekily self-aware deconstructions of genre flicks, but, for whatever reason, it just doesn't touch or resonate with me at all.

So, perhaps the most valuable thing I got out of the whole experience was some satisfaction for my curiosity about director George Roy Hill. Butch Cassidy is the only film on his resume that I've seen, but unlike, say, Sam Peckinpah or Peter Bogdanovich, whose work I am similarly ill-versed in, I had gleaned essentially no generalized, even stereotypical, sense of his auteur's fingerprint from the pop-culture ether over my years of watching movies. On the first page of my notes from the day I started watching one of the supplemental documentaries, I even wrote, "who is George Roy Hill? I know he's the director, but what else has he done?"

I think part of the reason my ignorance about Hill, and perhaps also my ambivalence toward the film as a whole, bothered me as much as it did was because of my knee-jerk assumption that since this movie came out in 1969, in the early days of the American New Wave, I should have been able to identify it in terms of its director's authorial voice, yet couldn't. And the more I mulled it over, the more I began to realize that my tendency would be to identify this movie as anybody's but the director's. It's easy to credit the film to Newman and Redford, whose sexy, insouciant acting style set the bar for four subsequent decades of similar performances that often nail the sex and insouciance without the actual acting chops to back it up. (I mean, for only one example, Clooney and Pitt in Ocean's 11 are pretty much direct descendants of this exact buddy movie energy.) It's equally easy to call the film Goldman's, still one of the few screenwriters in Hollywood who we can identify by name and general style, or Bacharach's, whose minimal yet insidiously memorable score defines a huge part of the feel of the film. In my geekier moments, I would even venture to claim that the film actually belongs to Conrad Hall, one of the all-time great cinematographers who helped us as an audience become aware of what the camera was doing, who recognized that beautiful shooting wasn't always flawless shooting and made it safe for us to relish lens flares, sudden in-camera zooms, and other idiosyncracies that would have been unthinkable in the classical Hollywood style. But never would I have said, "oh yes, this film's got George Roy Hill written all over it."

Yet, as soon as I started watching the special features, I found a deluge of anecdotes and testimonials to Hill's strong personality and artistic vision. Just remark after remark about how instrumental he was in the construction of the final project, how he creatively and respectfully sparred with the actors over their choices and opinions, how he orchestrated a two-month-long practical joke on Redford, how his commitment and energy held the entire shoot together even after his back went out and he spent a good portion of it directing laid out on a pallet, and how he went to the mat defending the more iconoclastic, and now iconic, aspects of the film (casting a then relatively unknown Redford opposite Newman at the height of his popularity, the "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" musical sequence, the tweaking of traditional Western conventions by showing Butch and Sundance running away from the law rather than standing firm and fighting, the tonal mingling of comedy and tragedy throughout).

And this impression doesn't just come from others' accounts. There's a wonderfully retro-feeling making-of documentary from 1994 included on one of the two discs that illustrates, in his own words, the gruff veteran's demeanor everyone else kept going on about. It gives a great sense of Hill's gloves-off approach (complete with f-bombs flying). And it makes his deceptive invisibility even more puzzling. Is that his actual innovation here, the actual proof of a true auteur's hand--that he exerted control so assured that it gave a strong and unselfish frame that would allow ample space for the other contributors' work to be actively noticed and appreciated? If so, that's some amazing fucking ninja stealth, that kind of ability to lead from behind, to make it look like everyone else is doing the work when it's only through his (luckily, benevolent) master plan to grant them the latitude to labor under that perception. Of course, I'm not ruling out the possibility that I might be reading all this through my own ignorance and lack of context for his body of work; he did win the Best Director Academy Award for The Sting just a few years later, beating out--get this--Bergman, Bertolucci, a young George Lucas, and William Friedkin. Perhaps I'll feel differently if I ever get around to seeing The Sting or Slap Shot or The World According to Garp. (See, though, did any of you know he directed those movies? Or did you just mentally categorize them as that other Newman/Redford movie, that Newman hockey movie, and that Robin Williams/John Irving movie with John Lithgow in drag?) I dunno; I'm not entirely convinced of my own argument. At any rate, it's a neat little mystery to puzzle out, reconstituting the boundaries of an unfashionable American movie master.

And, of course, as often happens to me when I spend some considerable time with a movie I may have been ambivalent about before, I've developed a begrudging affection for Butch Cassidy. Paul Newman is a nearly perfect human; anything I have to say on the matter is going to pale in comparison to watching his movies or doing a Google image search and drinking in the dreaminess. (I know it's all about the baby blues, but has anybody taken a look at this man's nose recently? Just beautiful.) You can see Redford working really hard to be worthy of this career-making role, but I can forgive him almost anything in this movie for the sake of the moment when, before the ball-kicking knife fight, Butch tells Sundance, "Listen, I don't mean to be a sore loser, but when it's done, if I'm dead, kill him," and Sundance drawls in response, "Love to," then looks up with that little wave and slowly breaking homicidal smile. I could just watch that exchange on repeat for hours. And, unlike the bon mot from my hypothetical fight choreographer, I'm totally willing to watch, and rewatch, a demonstrably well-made movie I may not happen to like for the sake of coming across a gem like that.


Michael O'D said...

As Mr. Newman told Homer Simpson on the latter's dreamy fantasizing while looking at a "Newman's Own" crate of lemonade:

"Homer, I'll tell you what I told Redford. It ain't gonna happen."

Nice review.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that "bemused annoyance" is the stage after irrational hatred. Maybe I'll find that place with the American Juliet Binoche.