Tag Archives: Westerns

Breakneck, Slow-Burn Romance-a-vengeance — “The English”

“The English” is a revisionist western that’s both masterpiece and constantly flawed. It’s deeply moving, yet can also feel like it’s just a little too off-center from its own reality. Let’s get this out of the way first: “The English” is one of the most beautifully filmed series of the year. Its cinematography is up there with “Pachinko” and “Cracow Monsters”. There are outdoor shots here that could only have offered brief windows to capture each day, when the sun was at just the right angle to create the perfect shadow in a cloud of dust. The visuals can strike pure awe.

Emily Blunt plays Lady Cornelia Locke, come to the American West during the heyday of the genocidal annexation of Native lands. She seeks vengeance against the man who killed her son. Chaske Spencer plays a man with many names, but who most English know as Eli Whipp. A Pawnee scout for the U.S. Army, he was raised to sergeant by the end of his service. Yet as the series tells us from the outset, the minute he leaves the army, he’s just another target for every white settler.

The pair meet as both are nearly killed. Locke’s target knows she’s coming, and Whipp had the audacity to politely ask for a drink at a bar. Obsessed with the latest fads such as astrology, Locke is convinced their meeting is fate. Whipp is just heading north to settle on a piece of land. He’s reserved, cautious to let anything out, but he agrees to accompany her until their paths diverge. The West they travel through is rife with danger, so even getting that far is a blood-soaked nightmare.

Each sequence is tense and beautiful. Some are exemplary of the violent era of Clint Eastwood-led Spaghetti Westerns. Others can echo the pointedly anachronistic dialogue of a Tarantino period piece. Scenes of clever banter between Locke and Whipp are framed like the romance subplots in a 50s Western. There’s clearly a mastery of every era of Western at play in “The English”, but sometimes they’re piled on top of each other to the point where the boundaries lack clarity.

This makes the pacing…unpredictable. A few scenes cut from one to the next with no transition to suggest time passing or places changing, careening ahead at a breakneck speed. This contrasts sharply to the care taken in measuring distance or time-to-travel at other points in the series.

At other times, “The English” takes things very slow, melting into nuanced dialogue and investigating every detail of a room. The sense of language and place here can be remarkable. But then again, nearly every dialogue starts with the characters knowing more than you do, even about non-dramatic elements like their own decisions. That means even in these lulls, you have to fit details into a picture and race to keep up.

Now add to this a story of cattle-rustling by Locke’s target in a completely different area. That shouldn’t confuse things too much, but this parallel story is told to us in a confusing way that asks us to have faith it’ll clarify later.

This means we have genres played very differently piled together. That’s OK. It gives us stop-and-start pacing, which is fine. Faster moments can lack some context, and slower moments are sometimes written so that we theorize the context before it’s told. That’s also fine. Cutting away to a parallel but linked story where the context is actively denied us? That can work. Each of these elements is something that can function on its own. Shove them all together without clear reasoning and what you’re left with might make you shrug your shoulders, give up on the larger arc, and just enjoy the episodic elements, character development, and beautiful scenery. That’s still a lot to love.

So much of “The English” is depicted with crystal clarity. You can see for miles in many visuals. Blunt and Spencer each get a few of the best dialogue scenes of the year. And while I get that making things indirect and confusing also aids in many of the themes of “The English”, the feeling that this is all intentional gets lost.

As viewers, we perceive whether a storyteller is confusing things intentionally, or because their storytelling lacks needed distinctions. That doesn’t mean our perception about that is always accurate, but one of a storyteller’s responsibilities is to make the viewer feel as if the confusion is intentional. To feel comfortable going forward in confusion, we have to trust that the person confusing us has an intent in doing so.

Showrunner Hugo Blick makes clear that he has a plot reason for doing this throughout. The problem is one of presentation. The biggest place this rears its head is with some of the acting. As remarkable as the setting, leads, and cinematography are, there’s something missing in a branch of the supporting acting. It’s as if not everyone is clear on what type of series they’re in. The Tarantino-esque characters shoot self-aware dialogue from the hip. Conflict invites more serious and dramatic takes. Meta conversation about the themes feels essentially modern. Blunt and Spencer glide across all of this with skill, and it’s powerful when the story can do the same. Yet fairly regularly, some supporting actor will drop in playing a different genre than the one we’ve shifted into. This can feel unintentional and even obstructive.

Even if Blick knows exactly where he’s going and has told the leads and his crew, it can feel like he’s often forgotten to convey this to the supporting cast. Now, there are some who can encompass many genres at once. The Native American and First Nations actors are routinely the best part of their scenes. Kimberly Guerrero, Gary Farmer, and William Belleau each elevate the series by making their supporting parts feel inhabited and grounded. Similarly, new immigrants played by European actors who retain their accents work well.

The only place I felt the reality of the performances slipping was in actors portraying characters who had supposedly been living in the U.S. for a few generations. Many are played by British actors, and I felt like something was missing here, as if the performances are played up instead of inhabited like so many of the other supporting roles.

The good performances here are great. Blunt can switch between being a garrulous, fad-obsessed open wound to an incandescent, determined killer at the drop of a hat. Spencer hides a complex, torn, and traumatized character just underneath a stoic surface. Farmer can balance the overly friendly against the existentially threatening. It can all be captivating one moment, but then Nichola McAuliffe sweeps in like she’s been charged with a Mad Max-Game of Thrones mashup.

Within the larger plots, and within individual scenes, there’s just a little too much of some actor coming in who doesn’t know the scene’s swapped genres from the last. That’s usually not the actor’s fault, but rather a bad choice or miscommunication in direction. Blunt, Spencer, Farmer, Guerrero, they can all re-immerse you in a word or a look, so it can only do so much damage…but when it happens on top of pacing issues, dialogue that approaches context as backfill, and an antagonistically confusing parallel plot, it’s constantly noticeable.

The considerable number of elements in “The English” that work ought to make it the best series of the year. For good stretches, it feels like exactly that. I have no problem highly recommending it. You’ll rarely see something this beautiful. Yet it gives itself so much extra, unproductive work to overcome. I like that it’s not streamlined, that it treats meandering as an assertive storytelling act, that it breaks down attitudes of integration vs. assimilation, that it bluntly criticizes the reality of American colonization and expansion, but then some actor will waltz across like it’s Tarantino by Will Ferrell for a few lines and I’ll just wonder what the hell is happening. Then Blunt stabs someone in front of that Spain-as-Wyoming countryside and I’m right back in. “The English” is a great series, if you can overcome its narrative and tonal jolts.

You can watch “The English” on Amazon. There are six episodes.

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‘Genre’ is Not a Naughty Word

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Yesterday, a friend of mine commented that she disliked my describing Rose Byrne as a “genre darling” in my Neighbors review because it confines her within a narrow field of film and the word ‘genre’ is generally derogatory. I can absolutely see where she’s coming from, but I’d like to explain why I used the description and why ‘genre’ is not a naughty word.

There’s a difference between a judgment and a descriptor. My reviews go to paper, too, so they don’t get to be as free-form as some of my other articles – I’m limited to about 700 words. Sometimes, I have to describe personalities very quickly. Rose Byrne is most often associated with ‘genre’ films; that’s how the most readers will know who I’m talking about in the fewest words. In my judgment, I hardly think Seth Rogen ought to be a “comedy mainstay,” as I described him in the review, but that’s how readers know him because that’s how he’s used. Any time I can effectively describe an actor in two words rather than list off movies, it frees up an incredible amount of space I can use to talk about the film itself. And Neighbors has an issue that demanded the space: one of the least responsible inclusions of rape I’ve ever seen on film.

My goal was to concisely describe Rogen and Byrne and Zac Efron so that an audience would immediately recognize who I was talking about. Maybe I succeeded and maybe I didn’t, but when we call Rose Byrne a ‘genre darling’ or William H. Macy and Tilda Swinton ‘indie darlings’ or John McCain and Barack Obama ‘media darlings,’ it doesn’t define them as being capable of nothing else but those specialties. It defines them as being so particularly excellent at those specialties that they stand head and shoulders above incredibly crowded fields. It is not mutually exclusive to being good at anything else and it is not meant to cage them within a particular genre.

The Martian Chronicles lead

When I say Byrne carries Rogen and the comedy, that’s a judgment. When I say she shouldn’t have played a scene in which she gets a girl drunk so she can peer pressure her into sex and physically force her into sexual contact, that’s a judgment. But saying Byrne has a history in ‘genre’ film is no different than describing Efron as a “former Disney wonderkid.” They aren’t meant to be complete definitions, but rather to get a reader on the same page as quickly as possible.

Insofar as ‘genre’ goes as a derogatory term, I grew up watching and reading almost nothing but genre. I love genre. To me, ‘genre’ is a far more appealing word than ‘drama’ or ‘literary’. Genre can do things neither of those can. Robert Heinlein is genre. Ursula K. Le Guin is genre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Gibson and Margaret Atwood are genre. The Thing and Star Trek and Gravity are genre. In 1992, Star Trek: The Next Generation had consecutive episodes that argued for gay marriage rights and for the humane qualities of euthanasia. Show me one other U.S. TV show that’s willing to risk that much every week even today, let alone 22 years ago under 12 straight years of Reagan/Bush.

‘Genre’ isn’t something to be ashamed of. ‘Genre’ is what everything else secretly wants to be, cause ‘genre’ has enjoyed golden ages ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ could only dream of, and takes social stands ‘drama’ and ‘literary’ take their cues from a decade later, after ‘genre’ takes the initial risk to show that it can work.

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Samurai films and monster movies are genre. They’re how Japan chose to confront, on a nationwide scale, the guilt and shame of blindly following leaders into decades of genocide and war. Superhero movies are genre. They’re fast becoming our best venue for culture-wide dissections of privacy and military-industrial concerns in our own government. Martial arts films are genre. They’re what allowed China to stake their claim to cultural relevancy alongside Hollywood: first among their own people and, later, to the West itself. Westerns opened up Spain’s film industry the way horror movies opened up Italy’s. Magical realism brought Latin American writers to the fore. Mexican horror (through the Spanish film industry Westerns created) has become the premier translation for Mexican Catholicism’s uniquely evolved fusion of modern doctrinal religion, old-fashioned spiritual animism, and ancestor worship.

‘Genre’ can help heal countries, can call out governments, can help introduce cultures to each other, can kickstart national film industries, can translate the incredible complexities of entire religions and cultures. ‘Literary’ and ‘drama’ don’t often get to be so outspoken. In my opinion, they far too often play it safe.

So screw ‘genre’ being a derogatory term. I don’t get on board with that. ‘Genre’ is what people want to go see. ‘Genre’ is what takes risks before more accepted forms do. ‘Genre’ changes minds and elicits ideas and time and again has to make smarter, sharper arguments than more ordinary forms. So if I bother to call something ‘genre,’ what I’m really saying is, “This shit’s brave.” And if I bother to call an actor a ‘genre darling,’ what I’m really saying is, “This actor takes risks and, because of that, they do things 99% of their contemporaries can’t.”

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Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Mary Shelley, Ray Bradbury, Georgie O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas and all of Impressionism were ‘genre’ before they became so overpowering and immediate as artists and movements that they became accepted as somehow ‘dramatic’ or ‘literary’ and therefore ‘classic,’ suddenly off-limits to ‘genre.’ But the truth is none of them ever left being genre. ‘Accepted’ just caught the hell up.

‘Genre’ drags everything else forward. Everything. I will never use that word in a derogatory way, but I will absolutely keep using that word, because ‘genre’ is what I was raised on and I can’t think of any piece of art I like more than a science-fiction movie like Moon or a horror movie like Let the Right One In, a Western like Once Upon a Time in the West or a martial arts film like Police Story, a crime movie like Stray Dog or a mystery like North by Northwest. Not calling something ‘genre,’ that’s derogatory. But ‘genre’ is the future. It always was and it always will be, and there’s absolutely nothing ‘literary’ or ‘dramatic’ can ever do about it. They’ll continually play catch up to ‘genre’ for the remainder of human existence. And if that’s not a ‘genre’ ending, I don’t know what is.