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Unforgiven (Best Picture, 1992)

It takes a brave actor/director to introduce his character, a retired outlaw and assassin, by showing him face-down in the mud of a pigsty, chasing hogs. But that’s Clint Eastwood in UNFORGIVEN.

This film is the third Western to win Best Picture, after CIMARRON (remember CIMARRON? It was a while ago…) and DANCES WITH WOLVES.  It’s different from either, though. CIMARRON is about the go-West fever, the wandering feet of pioneers, and the struggle between settler and pioneer.  DANCES WITH WOLVES is nostalgic for an idyllic past, mourning the inevitability of the destruction that comes with the US spreading west.

In some ways, UNFORGIVEN is a classic Western, and for that I think we have to thank Clint Eastwood, star and director.  He is, after all, one of the iconic actors of the Western genre, right up there with John Wayne in some estimations.  The premise of the film is quite simple: after one of their number is mutilated by a customer, a group of prostitutes offer a reward for the death of the villain.  A group of older gunmen gather to try and achieve this end.

In other ways, there’s something different about UNFORGIVEN.  This is no MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, full of young gunslingers hot for action, justice, and revenge.  Eastwood’s character is patently out of practice.  His target practice is pathetic, he is unable to mount his horse for several tries.  It would be funny if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.  Wikipedia describes UNFORGIVEN as a “dark Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and the myth of the Old West.” Maybe that makes it more honest, but I’m unwilling to think it’s so simple.  As one of my history professors once said, every new history paper or book can be boiled down to the same simple thesis: things were more complicated than we previously thought.  I suspect the truth of the American West is some conglomeration of the three films, plus some things that aren’t in any of them and some things that have been lost to the historical record.

Another thing occurs to me with UNFORGIVEN.  Though the film is really about the men and their rough sort of chivalry to avenge a wrong to a woman (even a prostitute!), there is one woman worth mentioning.  Frances Fisher plays Alice, seemingly a senior figure at the brothel.  She is the quintessential strong woman of “loose morals” in the Western genre, but that’s not why I bring her up.  Sometimes you watch a movie or see a play and realize that one of the actors or actresses is remarkably suited to the fashions of the time period involved.  Frances Fisher is no dazzling beauty, though she is certainly attractive and interesting to watch.  But see her in UNFORGIVEN, and your estimation of her physical attributes may change.  Her narrow face radiates strength and determination, and the hairstyles of frontier life in the 1880s suit her remarkably.  Just like Clint Eastwood looks odd in modern clothes (as I’ll see when I get to MILLION DOLLAR BABY) but really suited to the rough leather and homespun wool of 19th-century frontier fashion, Fisher is comfortable and believable in her period clothes – even when it’s just her shift.

Finally, I’d just like to say I never expected Richard Harris to be in a Western.  For those of you who’ve forgotten, he was the original actor cast as Albus Dumbledore.  Michael Gambon did a perfectly adequate job, but for me, Harris’s death was a tragic loss to the film series.

Schindler’s List (Best Picture, 1993)

SCHINDLER’S LIST, difficult to watch and harder to forget, is arguably one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history.  There is no way I can do it justice here.

Every decision is spot-on.  The casting is genius, from Ben Kingsley to Liam Neeson to the truly terrifying Ralph Fiennes.  The film would be nowhere near as effective in color.  Filming in black and white has two main effects.  One, it gives the film an older look, and second, it highlights the morals of the moment because to call it black and white is really a misnomer.  Hitler’s Germany was supposed to be black and white, and for some it may have been – you are either desirable or you are disposable.  Schindler starts with black and white – he wants to hold onto Jews because they’re the ultimate in cheap labor and he can make an enormous profit that way – but like the film style, he realizes that it’s not so much black and white as grayscale.  Moral ambiguity rules the day.  When Schindler finally flees, leaving his Jewish employees to be liberated by the Red Army, the grateful employees give him a ring inscribed with the Talmudic message “he who saves a single life saves the whole world.”  They are desperately grateful, but Schindler is wracked by the guilt of knowing he could have done more. He could have sold his car, taken every possible sacrifice to get more money for bribes to save more Jews.

Spielberg is said to have expected SCHINDLER’S LIST to flop.  He refused a salary because he considered being paid to make this film “blood money.”  It’s even said that he made the film out of a sort of penance because he didn’t cry when he visited the remnants of Auschwitz.  I haven’t been to any of the concentration camps, though I have visited a mass grave site in Lithuania, and I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. two or three times.

And I’m with Spielberg in that these things don’t reduce me to tears automatically.  I did lose control at Paneriai, but it wasn’t immediate.  I was on a choir tour and we gathered around one of the pits and sang, and that’s when I lost it. But the Holocaust Museum, reading books like Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, and films like SCHINDLER’S LIST don’t make me cry.  They make me feel frozen.  They make me feel like I’ve lost all color and warmth.

It’s the end of the film, when it eases back into color, that the emotions of what I’ve seen become overwhelming.  Those final minutes spent watching the actors walking with their real-life counterparts to place a pebble on the grave of Oskar Schindler in Jerusalem are more heartbreaking than anything in the film.  Schindler died poor and solitary, always believing he should have done more.  He is remembered by those he saved and the descendants of those he saved as a hero.  I suppose it’s possible that both views are right.

Next Up: Forrest Gump (Best Picture, 1994) and Braveheart (Best Picture, 1995)