From the Archives: From the List of Shame Files: Tombstone and Rashomon

From the Archives: From the List of Shame Files: Tombstone and Rashomon

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

In anticipation of the upcoming screening of Tombstone Rashomon at this year’s Cinedelphia Film Festival I took the opportunity to knock two films off of my shame list. Can you guess which ones? No? Idiot.

My apologies, you’re not an idiot. I’m an idiot, because up until this weekend, I had never seen Tombstone, nor Rashomon.

Friday night I watched both Tombstone and Rashomon, not in that order.  To be fair, I believe I’ve seen Tombstone before, but only in the most literal sense of the word ‘seen.’ I know for a fact that I watched it over the course of a few days in one of my high school history classes, but does that really count? The only thing I remembered about it for all these years was that my teacher fast forwarded through the scene with Lowell from Wings because he drops an F-Bomb (I now know to refer to him by his real name – Sandman from Spider-Man 3). So no, I can’t really say I’d seen it before because this time around everything else felt fresh. And by fresh, I mean “dated and cheesy.” After finally paying a visit to Unforgiven a few weeks back (a movie deserving of its own shame list entry), I thought I would be in for a similar treat. And yes, it was indeed similar, but only in that it was a western made in the 90s. Otherwise, they couldn’t be more different. Unforgiven, for one thing, actually feels like it takes place in the Old West. Tombstone, conversely, feels like it takes place at the Old West Casino in Atlantic City.

Not necessarily a bad thing, though. The movie is quite entertaining on a surface level. But it just doesn’t feel as lived-in as it should. This is very likely due to the nature of the production which, if IMDb is to be believed, fired its first director, Kevin Jarre, who also wrote the film, early in production. According to Kurt Russell, he himself took up directing duties while the studio sought a replacement for Jarre, and claims to have been at the helm for the bulk of shooting, with the studio’s eventual choice, George P. Cosmatos (Rambo), serving only to keep things running smoothly. It makes sense, in view of this, that Russell would feel so close to the film. It also makes sense that the direction is relatively amateurish and unfocused compared to less troubled productions.

Another reason why the film felt unfocused, I learned, is that upon Jarre’s exit from the film, which was slated to be a sprawling epic, the script was quickly reduced to being primarily about the Earp brothers rather than covering each character thoroughly. This was done to lessen production burdens, and while it does feel like there is much more movie bubbling under the surface, especially with such a large cast of prominent actors and the most undercooked romance outside of your uncle’s last rebound, I think this reduction may have been the film’s saving grace. As it were, the Earp boys are the most interesting aspect of the film (with the exception of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, more on him shortly).

We hit all of the standard western locales — a saloon, a train station, the dusty trail. And we also hit the most famous western locale of all: The OK Corral. By the time Tombstonereaches this infamous setting I had grown excited. I knew this would be the ultimate set-piece — it’s the showdown at the OK Corral! It surprised me how much I’d forgotten about this historical showdown until the moments leading up to its depiction … and it surprises me how quickly I’ve forgotten it after such a bland staging drew to a close. Maybe I’m spoiled. I dunno.

That’s really the rub of the entire film — it’s good enough, but it’s not great. Certainly not as great as its reputation declares. Certainly not as great as it should have been (and probably would have been given a less troubled production).

Still, there’s a lot to love, the easiest being Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. With his southern aristocrat accent, and his tuberculosis-borne layer of sweat covering his skin at every moment, Doc Holliday is the definition of a dangerous man with nothing to lose, and Kilmer clearly relishes bringing him to life in all his drinking, chain smoking glory, as quick with a witty retort as he is with a pair of six shooters. It’s the high-octane Kilmer performance that didn’t appear again until Wonderland or, yes, MacGruber, and it’s a clear sign of why he’s a star. In those rare cases where he wants to bring it, he brings it.

Underused, but equally effective is Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo, the wild-eyed gunslinger with a taste for hooch as strong as his unshakeable ego. He’s a great opponent for Holliday, and their final showdown is the only moment which comes close to the heights of its cinematic forbears.

I didn’t know how ready I wasn’t to watch Bill Paxton die slowly on screen. Damn it. Damn it to hell. And the many, MANY, odd close-up reaction shots that punctuate almost every gunfight were a weird misuse of Paxton’s expressive face. This should be a cakewalk for anyone to frame, but each and every one was laughable — almost as laughable as Kurt Russell’s “no! No! NO!” rampage on the river. What a weirdly ineffective and wildly comical choice.

So yeah, I was slightly disappointed by Tombstone, but thoroughly entertained nonetheless.

Kurt Russell is still my favorite actor of all time.

Rashomon was a much different experience. I expected to watch a classic film for which I’d have to make a few concessions of quality due to it being foreign and old. Instead I received a purely entertaining, painfully relevant yarn about the nature of truth when taken from a subjective stance.

Rashomon is a collection of conflicting accounts of a murder. And watching this now in a world where the concept of fake news is prominent to the point that it’s actually become a huge political discussion, Rashomon hits every beat.

The first story we hear is that of an elderly woodcutter who found a dead body. He shares only the bare facts of the tale: I found a body, it was this person’s body, I have no further information, I wish not to be involved. The woodcutter represents the bulk of society. We know that a newsworthy event occurred and as long as it doesn’t affect us, we’re happy to move along and let it slide. We’ll call 9-1-1 but we’re not trying to come down to the station. Real news, fake news, who cares? Leave me out of it.

The second story is that of the accused. He explains that the killing occurred in an honorable way. He did not wish to murder the man, but was put into a situation in which the only way to honorably move forward was through violence. This jibes with the rules of the time, but we must question his truthfulness. He claims that since the courts will have his head in any circumstance he has no reason to lie. This guy represents the culprit of the newsworthy event. The modern excuse usually takes the form of either “I didn’t do it” or “Yeah, I did it, but I wasn’t wrong.” Unfortunately, we have to take his motives at his word which, given his guilty look (he’s a known bandit), is not that strong.

The third tale is that of the witness. We want to believer her, because she has the least compelling reason to lie. She just wants justice for her slain husband, but due to having passed out during the event, her story is incomplete, and must be regarded as questionable.

The fourth tale, and the most interesting, is that of the victim as told through a medium. This represents the people who step up to speak on behalf of a silent or deceased victim, and whose testimony is basically worthless, yet manages to carry weight due to a raw appeal to emotion.

Of course, we find out the the woodcutter has been withholding a fair amount of information as well, offering a fifth and, as the movie purports, most accurate depiction of the events. But at this point, can even his account be fully believed?  I think that’s the question we as an audience are left with as the film ends.

Experiential truth in its purest form is just that – experiential. “You had to be there,” so to speak, and when it comes to anything that cannot be put to the test of the scientific method, such as a past experience, the best we can do is commingle the stories of those present and mine the common, and therefore potentially truthful aspects of them. Even so, we may not ever reach a pure truth. It is this challenging notion the drives Rashomon, and could still inform current discourse. Everybody thinks they are right, including liars, who do so with the idea that a more valuable truth, albeit a less pure one, emerges from their lie. At a time like our own when everyone has a platform to place their opinion, no matter how baseless, into the world for public consumption, the lessons of Rashomonare more valuable than ever.

It’s also just a great samurai-era non-samurai picture, that despite its challenging content, is ultimately uplifting. And something about torrential rain in depicted black and white movies just does it for me. So cozy!

The final tale is host to one of the most brilliantly choreographed comic action pieces I’ve ever seen. It’s a Keaton-esque blast that almost feels out of place if not for the committed performance from Toshiro Mifune and the always assured direction of Kurosawa. It’s moments like this, coupled with the unwavering thematic dissection of truth and it’s tumultuous relationship with human nature that earned the film an honorary Oscar before a foreign film category even existed.

If you haven’t seen Tombstone, do it … but see Rashomon first.

I’m happy to remove both from my shame list. I no longer feel like an idiot.

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