Monday, 23 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (2/30): 'Dances With Wolves':

The second film up on the excitedly named FilmQuest 2012 is Kevin Costner's six-Oscar-snaring 1990 Western 'Dances With Wolves'. When setting out my (arbitrary, hastily curated) list of never-before-seen films, I always knew 'Dances' had to be on there. It was a considerable blind-spot, not only because of its huge awards success and immense popularity. It is after all the film critics accuse James Cameron of ripping off wholesale for his world-conquering 'Avatar'. But, more interestingly, this was the movie that gave Costner permission to do whatever he wanted over the following Hollywood decade - facilitating two of the most notorious and oft-derided flops of all-time: 'Waterworld' and 'The Postman'.

The thing I love about Costner - and I do mean love - is that he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. Yes, his films all carry extremely earnest sentiment, none more so than 'Dances': an unwavering elegy to the death of frontier life and Native American culture. But he doesn't take himself seriously in the way we usually associate with stars like (as one obvious example) Tom Cruise. In 'Waterworld' he plays what critic Nathan Rabin memorably describes as a "pee-drinking man-fish". Literally a man with gills who drinks his own urine. In 'The Postman' he begins the film as a bit of a cad and spends most of it trying to run away from responsibility. In that film the "refusal of the call" lasts about two hours. He begins 'The Postman' performing Shakespeare opposite a mule.*

In 'Dances' he's no different. Lt. John Dunbar is a soldier so indept he knocks himself out at one point, bumping his head on a door frame in the dark whilst some kids steal his horse. In another baffling scene, he tries to introduce himself to future wife Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell - the annoying President from the modern 'Battlestar Galactica') only for an American flag to blow in his face. He isn't one of these guys who has to be THE BEST marksman or THE BEST at riding a horse when in front of a movie camera. Even if he invariably ends up some near messianic figure by the end of his movies, he spends a lot of screentime as an unassuming and humble guy who tries his best to avoid violence and get along with folks.

It's difficult not to be impressed by the film's scope, especially in the big hunting sequence which sees hundreds of buffalo (brought in from across the US to re-create the Great Plains as was) running over vast, open landscapes, whilst men on horses ride dangerously close. It's also hard to fault its epic sense of patience. There is no (or at least very little) meaningful conflict for the first 2 1/2 hours of this 3 hour film. Instead, through scenes of gentle, piecemeal interaction with the Sioux nation, Costner's character spends his time learning and watching prior to his eventual assimilation into the group. His sensitive narration is relentlessly good-natured, with an infectious "can-do" attitude. Naive, perhaps, but disarmingly so.

There are some glaring problems with 'Dances'. For instance, why does it take this white man - a stranger to these lands - to find the buffalo for the Sioux? They've been looking for them for a while and their absence is a great source of concern - so why are they so incapable of tracking them? They don't even seem to be looking all that hard. There is a paternalistic aspect to the film which sits uncomfortably with me and it's generally a little patronising when "other" cultures are depicted as being so unambiguously wonderful. No community or society will be without its own social problems and inequalities.

Yet as two Native American tribes clash at the film's midway point, Costner opines that this is a noble kind of war: not governed by a "dark motive", but fought for control of resources (access to the food supply). Isn't that the case with every war? Isn't the war in Iraq about resources? And when he says taking part in this conflict has taught him who he is for the first time, isn't he romanticising an act of war? And shouldn't that be bad whatever adornments the two sides are wearing? With this considered 'Dances With Wolves' regrettably stoops to presenting an all too colonial view of the Indian as noble savage.

It's peddling the same sort of shallow, consumer-friendly brand of spiritual tourism that sees wealthy, white twenty-somethings visit the world's shanty towns and slums, wearing sarongs and waxing lyrical about how "real" all the people are down there - so free are they from our "westernised consumer bullshit" (along with plumbing, education, healthcare etc etc). Yay for them! No doubt Costner's on-screen epiphany didn't prevent him from going back to his mansion and having a nice hot bath. I very much doubt he now lives off the land, using every part of every animal he slays, gleefully drinking the blood from each still-beating cattle heart as a symbol of his one-ness with the universe and instinct-based macho pride. But I digress.

Overall I liked 'Dances With Wolves'. It's overlong without a doubt, whilst John Barry's repetitive and obvious score grates, but its heart seems to be in the right place even if it's history and morality are patronising. Costner is an interesting and righteous kind of American hero and his choices are sometimes laughed at with little consideration of their bravery. A common thread through all of his movies is that he plays true believers: men with hope in a hopeless world, who invariably come to carry the hope of others on their shoulders. Had I seen 'Dances' earlier it might have irritated me. But seeing it in an age of unprecedented cynicism verging on nihilism, it's refreshing to see Costner's irony-free brand of filmmaking with a conscience.

*Another odd parallel between 'The Postman' and 'Dances With Wolves' that I couldn't fit above: Costner seems to have a thing about widows. In both movies he beds a woman in mourning. God knows why, but there it is.

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