Thursday, July 10, 2014

In short: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

Sometimes it’s still surprising how damned strange 70s revisionist westerns could become, resulting in films like Philip Kaufman’s version of the James-Younger gang myth with Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger and Robert Duvall as Jesse James, a film that really lends itself to the question where the money to make it might have come from.

Surely, even in 1972, the idea of a cinema verité inspired, sometimes magically realist, sometimes ironically naturalistic western that spends its running time demythologizing the old myths about the old west while at the same time working hard to create some all of its own must have been a hard sell to the people holding the purse strings, post-hippie-dom or not. Because it is that sort of movie, Kaufman also finds space in his film for a slapstick baseball match, various digressions to emphasise the point that the USA of the time were country of immigrants (which means a lot of what the movies have taught us the West was about is wrong), satire against the rich and powerful, the absurd, the bizarre, and the lovingly observed quotidian. Kaufman shows such a good eye for the last one, as well as for the telling historical detail (even if it’s made up) that all of Raid’s disparate elements manage to fit together, if not as a narrative (just look at the people on the IMDB complaining about the film’s plot holes, missing the point of the film we’re talking about by miles), but as a strange yet believable world the characters inhabit.

It’s a film I find much easier to watch than to describe, an artefact of its time, trying to talk about its past and its present at once, yet still finding time for human warmth, humour and a sense of place that seems stronger exactly because the place Kaufman describes can’t ever have existed in the way he and his film pretend it has, just as the other, earlier movie idea of The West never existed.

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