Wednesday, May 28, 2008
I don't know what to make of this Monte Hellman character as a director. I can't ever decide if his movies are full of truth or just full of it. That said, I done went and saw my favorite of all the Hellman movies I've seen so far (this would include The Shooting, Ride in the Whirlwind, and Two-Lane Blacktop). The picture in question would be 1974's Cockfighter.
Perhaps an aspect of the admiration for this film comes from the collaboration involved. The movie is based on the novel by Charles Willeford. Willeford, in case you ain't hip, is one of the great American writers of the 20th century, god rest his twisted little soul. Not just a paint-by-numbers genre scribe, his work is at its best a ding-dang parade of pathos. Willeford wrote the script. Hellman wanted to do a total re-write, but Roger "never lost a penny" Corman put the hammer down, and Hellman proceeded to, with an addition and rewrite of a few scenes, shoot the Willeford script. Hellman even casted Willeford himself in an important role.
This is one of those situations where the collaborators together manifest something better than any one of 'em could have done on their own: Hellman gets out of his comfort zone as a director and has to play it a little more exploitation, Corman is forced to go artier 'cause of Hellman, and Willeford gets to spin a yarn in context of his own script, rather than a Hellman-ized version of a Willeford script (only a slightly Hellma-nized version, at least).
Speaking of Willeford, the casting all around is pitch-perfect from top to bottom. Warren Oates as the lead and Harry Dean Stanton (two Kentuckians) as his counterpoint/nemesis are paired just right. Warren Oates, as ever, is the man. The dvd includes, as a bonus, Kentucky filmmaker Tom Thurman's documentary on Oates, (stay tuned as I'll be speaking more on Thurman's docs soon right here). All of the other characters, including Willeford himself, play out pretty much perfect. Watch out for a young Ed Begley, Jr. as a Lil' Abner style hillbilly, and fallen matinee idol Troy Donahue as Oates's alcoholic brother.
In many ways, Cockfighter plays more real than reality. Filmed on location in rural Georgia, and shot by the indomitable Néstor Almendros , one can get a sense of the 70s South-land. Granted that I was a wee lad, it looks, from my Kentuckian perspective, how I remember it to look. The extras were indeed locals on the cockfighting scene, and I swear I knew the Kentucky versions of all those folks.
One thing that's gonna throw a lot of sensitives off this movie is that these cocks mostly seem, documentary-style, to be getting killed. It's true, while some of the action was faked, the game cocks were dying on camera. One simply couldn't make this kind of picture today. Whether it ruffles your feathers or not, one has to come back to the point that cockfighting, legal or illegal, is about as old as humanity itself, and continues on today. Hellman, himself uncomfortable with the "sport" of cockfighting, notes that no matter what his personal feelings, the cocks in the film would have been fighting and dying regardless (the extras would actually hold bouts during down time, while they crew was doing set ups, etc.). I share the director's perspective that what is more interesting than the ethical questions is the film's determination to represent this subculture on film.
As the elder JSH likes to say, the 70s sucked, and people got to know. But, as with anything else in life, you turn over a few rocks, and you can find who was speaking the truth, or even if it not speaking the truth, making it worth the while, even in the suckiest of epochs. Perhaps obviously, this movie did not do well in theatrical release. Despite some title changes, alternate versions, and different approaches to marketing, Corman couldn't find its audience (Hellman blames this in part on the scenes that Corman did demand, which were the more gruesome inserts of the cockfights, and Hellman himself didn't shoot those). But, ultimately, it has found its audience in home video over the years, and rightfully is one of the crown jewels in Hellman's distinct filmography. And, all said, this is some classy exploitation, folks. If you're going to get some 70s on your shoes, this is one suggested path to step in it.