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3 Stars Movies

Billy Bob Thornton’s doomed All the Pretty Horses

The doomed All the Pretty Horses should have, by all rights, been a golden ticket for all involved. Let’s run through its pedigree and prestige factors:

  • based on an acclaimed novel with popular name recognition
  • directed by an indie darling
  • screenplay by a proven specialist in adapting novels to film
  • starring beautiful young up-and-comers
  • score by a notable musician/producer
  • distributed by a household-name movie company known for boffo box office and landing major awards

Instead, a heavily compromised version underperformed and was widely panned, demoralizing director Billy Bob Thornton, alienating musician Daniel Lanois, and generally disappointing everyone. Thornton’s presence in the tabloids at the time may have contributed to audiences not taking him seriously. But the key to understanding what what went wrong is, unsurprisingly, Miramax and — trigger warning! — Harvey Weinstein. Yuck.

Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures is an essential history of the indie boomlet within the 1990s movie industry. Particular attention is paid to the illustrative saga of Miramax, for whom Thornton had made a tremendous splash as writer, director, and star of Sling Blade in 1996. Studio cofounder Harvey Weinstein was riding high at the time for his marketing acumen, but was simultaneously loathed for interfering in the artistic process — to the point where he was known within the industry as “Harvey Scissorhands”.

Matt Damon and Henry Thomas in All the Pretty Horses
Matt Damon and Henry Thomas wonder what went wrong.

Biskind relates how Weinstein forced Thornton to excise more than an hour from his initial 3-4 hour assembly cut, partly out of understandable practicality (a shorter running time would allow theaters to run more screenings per day) but also petty retaliation for Thornton’s refusal years before to similarly abbreviate Sling Blade. Thornton has since asserted that the assembly cut was just that, and distinct from his intended 2 hour and 42 minute cut. However unjust the butchery may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Thorton thought he could possibly get a nearly three-hour-long film into theaters without having a contractual right to final cut, even under a hypothetical producer less ruthless than Weinstein.

After Orson Welles met similar obstacles during the making of The Magnificent Ambersons, he struggled for the rest of his life to continue making movies his way. Biskind heartbreakingly describes Thornton as beaten down and defeated, to the point where he suffered health issues. In the coming years, Weinstein’s far worse abuses of power would become more widely known. In light of how he abused and exploited women, the stifling of a few movies may seem rather unimportant. But it is a pity that this particular one is so compromised.

Penélope Cruz in All the Pretty Horses
Penélope Cruz has more chemistry with this hat than she does with Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses. Seriously though, she looks fantastic in this hat.

It’s difficult to judge how I might have experienced the film if I had not known ahead of time that it was so heavily edited, but it does feel off somehow. It has notably uneven pacing; weirdly accelerating through some plot developments with choppy montages, especially in the opening sequence when Cole (Matt Damon) is forced to leave his family ranch, but slows down to a pensive crawl for others. The romance between Cole and Alejandra (Penélope Cruz) feels inert, and the looming threat from her powerful, overprotective father (Rubén Blades) never materializes. It’s hard to guess whether the full film fleshed any of this out.

Miramax was not averse to letting finished films sit on the shelf if deemed not of box office or award value — or, perversely, if insurance incentivized them to strategically not release them. Miramax also doesn’t have much of a history of releasing special editions for the home entertainment market, even for their biggest pictures. So for a movie that was not a success in its ostensibly more commercial Scissorhands incarnation, it’s interesting to note that Miramax did entertain the release of the director’s cut of All the Pretty Horses on DVD, but Thornton and Lanois refused.

Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses
From the movie’s brief foray into a ruthlessly bleak world more characteristic of Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre.

Weinstein had disliked Lanois’ unconventional guitar-based score, despite his fame and proven success with Sling Blade, and commissioned an entirely new, more conventional one from Marty Stuart. Lanois now proudly refuses to license his original score in any form, and Thornton will not release his director’s cut without it. Thornton and Lanois are still close friends, as evidenced by his appearance in the documentary Here Is What Is, so it’s safe to say the conflict is not between them. Hopefully now that Weinstein split from Miramax in 2005, the company folded in 2010, and Weinstein is finally incarcerated, cooler heads might allow the proper release of the definitive film and score.

Another ray of hope is that Cormac McCarthy has since become an even bigger literary superstar — having been selected for Oprah’s Book Club and enjoyed successful film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road — and perhaps his hard-earned Hollywood clout might help a definitive version of All the Pretty Horses see the light of day. The counterargument is that his collaboration with Ridley Scott, The Counselor, was itself a bizarre fiasco.

All the Pretty Horses is probably one of McCarthy’s most palatable works, which I don’t intend as a backhanded compliment; it is more accessible in comparison to his more characteristic poetically bleak tone. Its back half (the protagonist’s imprisonment and an extended chase sequence) is closer in spirit and tone to the likes of Blood Meridian, but its core elements of friendship and romance provide some relief from the brutality of his resolutely cruel literary universe. As the first volume in a loose trilogy called The Border Trilogy, Thornton’s film could very well have kicked off a motion picture franchise. Revisiting or continuing this saga is unlikely to say the least, but it would be welcome.

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3 Stars Movies Music

Daniel Lanois Maximizes the Room in Here Is What Is

Daniel Lanois is a unique musician, as gifted a singer-songwriter in his own right as he is a collaborator and producer. I originally came to recognize his name after finding it listed in the credits of many key items in my music collection, including Peter Gabriel’s So and Us, U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. His 1993 solo album For the Beauty of Wynona remains an all-time personal favorite.

The feature documentary Here Is What Is premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007, directed by Lanois, Adam Samuels, and Adam Vollick. It captures the recording of the album of the same name, but also serves as a kind of retrospective and mission statement. Conversations between Lanois and early mentor (now equal) Brian Eno punctuate the film. Lanois states to Eno his intentions for the movie: to create a film about the beauty of music, not everything that surrounds it (which I took to mean hagiography, celebrity gossip, and the sometimes tedious behind-the-sceens documentation typical of the genre). Eno suggests that his film should try to show people that art often grows out of nothing, or from the simplest of seeds in the right situations, not from what outsiders might assume are the miraculous inspirations of allegedly brilliant or gifted artistes.

Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno in Here Is What Is
Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno recording their new ambient masterwork, “Music for Staircases”

Lanois is Canadian by birth, but has a special affinity for the American South, especially New Orleans. He credits New Orleans for the original sensual groove that formed the basis of rock music. Perhaps intended as a visual echo of this theory, the stunningly beautiful Carolina Cerisola often appears dancing in her scanties.

Lanois details his longtime, fruitful collaboration with drummer Brian Blade. Legendary keyboardist of The Band, Garth Hudson, also joins them in the studio for some truly awesome performances. One of my favorite sequences intercuts between “The Maker” performed by Lanois’ band live in studio, covered by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, and Lanois’ band live on stage. Billy Bob Thornton, still friends from collaborating on the score to Sling Blade in 1996, drops in for a visit. We catch exciting glimpses of recording U2’s forthcoming album (since christened No Line on the Horizon, to be released in February 2009) with Eno and Steve Lillywhite.

Daniel Lanois in Here Is What Is
Which button dials down Bono’s ego?

Lanois names a primarily influence to be the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which he describes as a fairly straightforward rock trio but with ambitious, experimental production. He describes how he himself approaches production, in just one word: “feel.” He reportedly had a contentious relationship with Dylan in the studio, but the resultant albums are classics, and Dylan affirmed that “you can’t buy ‘feel.'” Another Lanois aphorism, “maximize the room,” means to make the most of what you have, rather than invite guest musicians or order up more equipment.

Here Is What Is features full performances of songs, which is especially welcome compared to two recent music documentaries recently screened by this blog: Low in Europe and You May Need a Murderer, which both shy away from actually showing Low perform. Here Is What Is‘s visuals are sometimes compromised with cheesy video effects. The film is at its best when simply following the hypnotic movements of Lanois’ hands on his pedal steel guitar.

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3 Stars Movies

The atmospheres and soundtracks of Al Reiner’s Apollo Missions documentary For All Mankind

It was a weird experience to finally see the original film for the soundtrack to which I’ve listened to countless times. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is a gorgeous piece of work, and very much colored my expectations of what the film would be. Having long pictured a largely abstract compilation of otherworldly lunar footage, I was surprised to find For All Mankind a more straightforward documentary than what was already in my head. (Bits and pieces from the compilation album Music for Films III also appear.)

Unlike In the Shadow of the Moon, the 2007 feature documentary on the same subject, For All Mankind exclusively uses original footage taken during the Apollo Missions, much of it by the astronauts themselves. The absence of new narration or footage rightly places the emphasis solely on the achievements of the original participants. But a drawback is that the interviewees on the soundtrack are not identified (the Criterion DVD edition includes an option to display subtitles identifying the speakers).

I have little to add to Matthew Dessem’s excellent review on The Criterion Contraption, or to my own thoughts on In the Shadow of the Moon. Three small observations:

  • I was completely ignorant that NASA first began spacewalks during the Apollo missions. I was under the impression they began during the later space shuttle missions. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that NASA would test spacewalks in orbit over the Earth before attempting to step out of a capsule onto the moon, but: Wow!
  • The astronauts were very conscious of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each astronaut could bring one cassette tape to play on a portable deck, and one chose Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. Another describes seeing the moon surface up close as being like something from 2001.
  • Due to the film’s nature of being comprised of original footage, there’s perhaps too much of the astronauts goofing off in zero-G, and not enough of the spectacular lunar footage. But it goes to show that even the pilots selected for being the most sane and calm people in the word still turn to excited kids when playing in outer space (with the rare exception to prove the rule).
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