Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Star gazing

I was writing a draft of a story for the Old Colony, laptop on my lap, with the Patriots floundering in the background..  I looked up long enough to note the score, find the remote and absentmindedly flip through a few channels, ending up at the scene, the wet gulch where Alfonso Bedoya and two other bedraggled ‘banditos’ accost Humphrey Bogart.

You’re forgiven if the name Alfonso Bedoya doesn’t ring a bell, but one of his lines in the classic film that I had happened upon - The Treasure of the Sierra Madres,  is as well known as famous phrases like ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat’ (from Jaws), or ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ (from Gone with the Wind). The phrase Bedoya made famous is “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges”. But it’s not the line, it’s the delivery - the acting that is truly memorable. In his few short scenes Bedoya paints a portrait of evil that is the equal of any created by any film actor before or since. Bedoya’s is a portrait of the banality of evil, the indifference of evil, the solidity of evil. And Huston (Director John) doesn’t try to embellish this evil, but simply lets it stand on its own, alongside depictions of fear, greed, and the majesty of the natural world. The Treasure of the Sierra Madres is often said to be a study of greed, but that is a major oversimplification. Say instead that it is a study of humanity, in all its shades: a study that is at times as heated as a bug under a magnifying glass, and at other times as cool and abstracted as a view of a crowded city from a great height.

But I’m babbling on here, when I meant to simply comment on a momentary distraction. It was as if I had gotten out of the car on a cool, dry night and was suddenly distracted by starlight. I looked up at the sky - or in this case, the bright screen on the other side of the room, and was transported.  The stars were aligned in a way that, even someone sleepwalking through their life would find it hard to ignore.

I looked up from the keyboard and saw Bogart confronting death, in the guise of three banditos. You know he is doomed. And when he is dispatched you accept it with the same shifting of your eyes that allows you to glide pass the carcass of an animal that has been tossed to the side of the road. And yet repeated viewings reveal how carefully Huston composed this scene. Bedoya confronts Bogart, a smiling vulture moving slowly in for the kill - while about the dying man's feet the two other bandits scurry, eyeing his boots, trying on his hat, fondling his possessions. When death comes - from a few brutal machete blows, Huston doesn’t show us the flesh being rendered, or even a painful expression.  No special effects or surfeit of blood are needed.

But I continue to babble. I mean simply to talk about how bright, how disconcerting these stars are. And how wonderful to stumble upon them, in one place, on one night.  Bogart and Bedoya, the two Hustons: great acting, great films of this sort are like constellations - especially bright, recognizable, points of light to steer by. And on this night - on this channel, Anthony Hopkins co-hosting a viewing of a few of his favorite films. So after The Treasure, The Grapes of Wrath. John Ford and Henry Fonda in Steinbeck’s classic.

At least I am not a snob, not completely. I find films of this quality the equal to great literature: comparable in terms of depth, allusion, and certainly characterization.

So I should have gone to bed. The Patriots had long since dropped their tray tables, pushed their seats back and were trying to sleep on the flight home. But there I sat, transfixed by Ford’s unblinking examination of the evaporation of the American Dream. Hard to turn away.

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