Saturday, August 08, 2009

Into the Western

Some creative talent was just made to make Westerns. Walter Hill, say. Tommy Lee Jones. Viggo Mortenson. But they all know it, you can see it in their choice of material. Others aren't quite there yet. Tom Jane. He desperately needs to play a decent cowpoke with a fast draw and a bloody past in a modest modern Western. I feel its his destiny. Michael Madsen. He did it in Blueberry, but nobody saw that, and got close in Kill Bill to playing the shit-eating bad guy he looks and talks like, but not quite close enough for my liking. Javier Bardem, surely born to play a Mexican bandido? He would imbue such a stock figure with depth and humanity. Salma Hayek. As a whore in some border town.

And then theres Marco Beltrami. Hes a soundtrack Composer, responsible for a dozen forgettable Scores for action and genre movies. Remember the Hellboy score? No, me neither. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines? Nope, but I'm presuming it ripped off the original theme Bigtime. Live Free or Die Hard? Did that one sound like Michael Kamen's original? I, Robot? Sorry, I'm drawing a complete and utter blank.

But put Beltrami on a Western, and its a different story. Put Beltrami on a Western, and he'll net himself an Oscar nomination.
Maybe its the Morricone factor. Just as some composers seem to feel the need to go all Bernard Hermann whenever they write a score for anything remotely Hitchcockian, many young composers embrace their inner Morricone as soon as men in hats ride by on horses on screen. Out come the surf guitars, the unorthodox choral passages, the eccentric rhythms.
On his score for 3:10 to Yuma, Beltrami is guilty of all this. But he does it all so well. And he writes some great melodies to twist the stylistics around, which is always key. The main theme, a swooningly romantic passage, is lovely and sounds classically Western but also inescapably modern.

This is because Beltrami puts his own stamp on these familiar elements. He modernises where he can - there are synthesisers and samples alongside the electric guitar and orchestra and mandolin. The score sounds like a score for a Western, but could also belong to a modern action film in its propulsive sense of forward momentum, in its constant tension.
Here is the closing theme, the best showcase of that melody:

And this, the very Morricone Bible Study:

3:10 to Yuma is as Classical a Western as Hollywood can make these days, devoted only to telling its story without much in the way of subtext or genre revision in mind, and so the strained romanticism of Beltrami's score is a good fit. His other prominent work on a Western, for Tommy Lee Jones' fantastic The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a lot stranger and more experimental, which suits the material. At heart it contains an unmistakeably Western theme, picked out on guitar, but Beltrami surrounds it with strange synth noise, echoes and a jerking percussion which make it thoroughly modern. There are also haunting quivers of what sound like Native American instruments underneath the main melody, which is lovely in itself:

Beltrami seems to be splitting his career cleverly at the moment, working on big genre movies (like the upcoming sci-fi actioner Repo Men and Knowing) and also on projects for quality directors, such as Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Bertrand Tavernier's In the Electric Mist. However, there are no Westerns on his slate at the moment, which is a damn shame.

Novelist George Pelecanos loves Westerns. He refers to them in his books - one of his recurring heroes, PI Derek Strange, is a Western nut and even listens to Soundtrack cds at his desk ( I bet he loves Beltrami) - and writes reviews and articles about them on his website and in online and print media. He wrote a great piece for Sight & Sound a few years back in which he discussed Elmore Leonard adaptations, including a couple of Westerns (he praised the unjustly underloved Valdez Is Coming) and I've read his paeans to Classic Western Novels like Oakley Hall's Warlock and Charles Portis' True Grit. He even contributed this List of 10 Best Westerns to Read for Amazon and this one of his favourite Western movies to the Rumpus. So he knows the genre.

His own books are basically Urban Westerns, in a sense. He tells tales of Men in conflict, of law and order, full of moral quandaries and loyalty and violence and blood, of honour and revenge, and always with an extraordinarily vivid sense of place. He has written several period books - altough only The Big Blowdown is set in a period far removed from his own experience - and recently worked as a writer on HBO's The Pacific, set during WW2. But he needs to write a Western. His crime writing has become somewhat repetitive in its setting, characterisation and concerns, and a change of focus would freshen up his approach, I think. A screenplay would be good, but I really want to see Pelecanos try his hand at an Elmore Leonard-style Western novel; taut, spare and gripping the way Leonard used to do it. Pelecanos is more than capable.

A few years ago I would have said I fervently wanted Quentin Tarantino to direct a Western. Now, post-Kill Bill; not so much. But I would love to see Michael Mann on a western. Or Terence Malick. Carlos Regaydas. Scorsese or Soderbergh. Peter Weir. Many more...

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Blogger Monsterwork said...

Madsen in Kill Me Again, or The Getaway remake...he's making a Western, even if everyone around him aint.

10:31 pm  
Blogger David N said...

No disputing that. But I want him surrounded by people who are. Playing a bad guy. He plays Virgil in Wyatt Earp and it feels all wrong.

And speaking of people who have played Virgil Earp - Sam Elliott. Should only EVER make Westerns...

12:57 am  

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