NICHOLAS RAY: Part III
Wind Across the Everglades
I made the joke earlier about the specimens in Ray's menagerie and if I keep that going, this film is like one of those five-legged, eyeless sea creatures with pock-marked translucent skin, one of those abominations nature cruelly allowed to keep existing. This film is a true mess - nervous, confused, and upset-looking actors wading through an aimless plot nevertheless chocked to the nuts with drama and theatrics; tone-deaf dialog, jittery editing completely lacking in rhythm and precision, a simplistic obvious script. Its sole virtue is gorgeous location photography with a palpable sense of the swamp and the beasties dwelling therein. At least they got the Everglades part right. Directed by Nicholas Ray, but the pet project of screenwriter (and famous HUAC fink) Budd Schulberg and his brother Art (who produced), there's a prodigious level of animosity and endless contention over responsibility for true authorship for this film, but the one thing everyone can seem to agree on is that it stinks like the rotten mud and ham festooned amongst Burl Ives' beard and jowls.
Art Schulberg's daughter was there as a surprise guest to introduce the screening* and she had nothing but harsh words about Ray. Apparently, he didn't make a very good impression on her as a seven year-old. Either that, or she took her dad and uncle's stories about Ray at face value - it's impossible to imagine that she knew at the time that he was whacked out on heroin and utterly incapable of filming. So, she essentially showed up to repeat some of her uncle's famous hearsay and character assassination that's the most famous element of Wind Across the Everglades. I think I've demonstrated that I'm no apologist, but her characterization of Ray felt like a cheap-shot and reeked like bullshit. Factor in that Ray always maintained that it was Budd Schulberg who wrecked the film through his excessive meddling, legendary carousing and thinly concealed desire to be the true auteur on project. Schulberg is a lovely fellow who also attempts to take the lion's share of credit for the Kazan films in which he participated, going so far as to suggest that he guided Kazan's direction of the actors and placement of the camera.
At any rate, that behind the scenes in-fighting is the only interesting thing this film has going for it. It's a tepid recounting of the Audubon Society's early days as a government-sanctioned entity on poachers (and their insatiable lust for beautiful, beautiful feathers) in hick-town Miami. The aforementioned Burl Ives plays master-poacher "Cottonmouth," named so for his propensity for carrying around a dangerous Cottonmouth water-snake in his pocket like it were nuthin'. Don't he know those fellas are more deadly than a rattlesnake and don't give you the favor of a warning? Ives is particularly ridiculous in the movie for two reasons: 1) Schulberg told an amusing anecdote about how the massively fat Ives was so afraid of Cottonmouths in real life that he refused to walk around the real swamp locations and demanded to be carried to and from his mark. Which is hilarious. He's repulsively obese and must be clocking in around 350 pounds. It's hard to believe that there were human beings with so little dignity as to submit themselves to hefting around a mud-coated, sweat-soaked whale of a priss so terrified of unlikely animal bites as to be carried about like an overgrown red-bearded baby. 2) Ives always appears on-screen holding a snake, as per the notorious description of his character. Only, the snake he's always holding is clearly a thin little harmless blacksnake. It's really ludicrous, especially in light of the film's other remarkable nature photography: in the generally authentic contexts of the nature on display, such a laughable detail is glaring. There would have been two easy options: a minor prosthetic diamond-head for the blacksnake or a defanged Cottonmouth. Either option would have been so simple, but I guess just as much could be expected of a troubled production: the small details are a complete failure.
Christopher Plummer stars as the renegade high school science teacher turned Audubon Society poacher-battler and his performance is remarkable. To call it "bad" would not do it justice - it scarcely qualifies as a performance at all. He apparently stepped in for Ben Gazara at the last second** and he seems beyond bewildered. I spent a long time thinking about how I could describe what's happening with Plummer in this film and I think the clearest thing I can say is that in this film he doesn't even seem like an actor at all: he just seems like some guy in front of the camera. He struggles to remember his dialog, the film cuts away from his close-ups at strange moments as though there was barely any usable footage of certain lines, he seems inexplicably on the verge of tears at times and he exudes unendurable stress and anxiety throughout. Onscreen, he seems hapless, helpless, utterly adrift. His expression constantly reverts to a strange, ironic configuration: a weak smile seemingly desperate to contort itself into a frown. Half of his time on screen feels like outtakes or something; the kind of abortive half-takes that end up in blooper reels because somebody accidentally swears. The poor bastard: he's a sonambulist in a waking nightmare.
Probably the biggest indication of the film's disjointed, ruinous production is the complete lack of connective tissue in the construction of the film. The narrative doesn't flow so much crash randomly forward like a river into waterfalls: unidentified characters take part in scenes as though they have been properly introduced, unrelated scenes abut each other in disjointed jumps, dramatic tension seems to be building only to be randomly deflated by minor events, big emotions and serious speeches are delivered with no context, languid moments are interspersed with rushed and tense confrontations (frequently making the movie feel as though it is hurrying up to slow down and vice versa). Side characters are put in the forefront only to disappear. There's a love-story that's pathetically intimated to be in the offing - it goes nowhere, only to suddenly be vigorously pursued with a tender tone so unearned and underdeveloped as to be repulsive. Shots don't match from cut to cut: here, Christopher Plummer delivers his line at sundown in near darkness; cut to: he speaks to characters standing in broad, blue-skied sunny daylight. It's more egregious than a Troma movie. The aesthetic failings are of an artwork clearly unmoored from any unified vision - it's a movie that alternatively oozes indifference and hysterical failure.
I'm probably being excessively cruel about the film, but honestly – it's a joke. Schulberg (and Ray) don't have much of a critique and present the tale of the Audubon's proto-environmentalists taking on poachers as a simple black and white tale of pure-hearted do-gooders versus incorrigible no-goodniks. They certainly don't see what's condescending and offensive about noble-souled, well-dressed, moneyed and utterly clean foreign interlopers taking on a filthy, poor indigenous population – a population portrayed by a bunch of inveterate hams putting on their best good ol' boys accents and whootin' it up like inbred yokels. Burl Ives, as the main villain, is given some moments of humanity and spiritual redemption at the end, but those moments are delivered with Ray's trademark cheesiness – it ends up being a ridiculous depiction of "uncivilized other" allowed to attain the status of "noble savage." It's no surprise that the film features a (ultimately) noble Native American who teaches our hero the ways of the swamp, only to suffer an honorable death at the hands of the callow villains – why, those fellows could learn a lot from our savage friend. But will the white man ever learn?
Admittedly, most critics don't go to bat for this one, but important figures like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the New Yorker's Richard Brody lavish it with excessive praise, which is a joke. If you are unable to state (in no uncertain terms) that this movie is a waste of celluloid, then you're being intellectually dishonest. In many ways, this film is the sister film to Johnny Guitar: critics who ruminate on the "cadenced mise-en-scene" (Rosenbaum), "poetic script" (Geoff Andrew) and "celebrat[ion] of the vitality of the crude animal outlaws" (Brody) are slopping deep into the slimy, repulsive muck of a chaotic mess and disgracefully grasping for plumage. Christopher Plummer would've spit in their faces. I mean, holy shit, take a gander at this quote from David Thomson: "[Ray] addresses a profound attraction in the Western: the invitation to abandon rules and hypocrisy and live by night, in savage innocence, on dangerous ground." That's like some shit I'd write as joke - he can't be serious, right? "Even when Steven Seagel is marked for death, he's out for justice, on dangerous ground." Once again, I don't like the film, but the critics are far worse than anything onscreen.
Gypsy Rose Lee, history's most famous ecdysiast, is in the film for about two minutes and does absolutely no ecdysiation - which I think we can all agree is a disappointment. Also, the second unit nature photography of the 'glades really does look purty.
* Also spotted in the theater: FF programming mad genius Bruce Goldstein, excellent Val Lewton doc director and World Cinema Foundation honcho Kent Jones and Film Comment H.N.I.C. Gavin Smith.
**Peter Falk also has a small role, meaning we just missed getting a proto-Cassavetes swampland team-up!
Second Chances: Nicholas Ray continue on Friday, 8/14 with the final installment, featuring Ray's masterpiece (Bitter Victory), his most gawd-awful film (Hot Blood) and the wrap of this whole endeavor.
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