Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tommy Lee Jones and his masterpiece

"If you turn the movie's sound off and just watch the movement of it, and try to look at it the way a dog or a bird would, not recognizing any shapes, it's quite pleasing. It's a balletic event. It moves beautifully; the shapes, the colors have an abstraction. It's about movement."
- Tommy Lee Jones, director, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Tommy Lee Jones is one of the finest actors working today. His facial expressions, body movements, and speech patterns are mesmerizing; communicating so little, but suggesting so much. Watching his film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, I discovered that his mastery over the craft of acting has carried over to his direction, which has that same sense of understated lyricism that defines his best performances. As soon as the film ended, I started it again with the commentary. Watching the movie with the commentary, I learned that Jones is not just great actor and director, but a outstanding critic as well! That it's his directorial debut is perhaps most staggering.

Maybe his knack for these seemingly different modes of expression, i.e., acting, filmmaking, criticism, stems from his understanding of cinema, which he suggests in his commentary. The quote (at the top) was something he mentioned seemingly off-the cuff, in his down-trodden voice, like he's merely making any plain observation; which it is, and it isn't. Turns out the man himself is just as soulful and elusive as the characters he inhabits, not to mention even more compelling. There's no "artist's genius" attitude or pomposity in that statement. It spoken so simply, without any complicated language or scholarly terminology. Yet it is as deep an insight that can be offered about the film. He makes statements like these throughout the commentary. Listening to him reflect in his quietly introspective sort of way is inspiring. It's like he's channeling all the great artists and thinkers that have inspired his art, which this film certainly is. His knowledge and demeanor may speak to not just to his lyrical artistry, but also his strong sense of criticism. After all, as my loyal readers are aware, I've argued to great extent in previous posts that criticism is inextricably linked to cinema.

I am mentioning this quote (at the top) in particular because as I was thinking about the film, I couldn't stop wondering how Jones envisioned its compositions, finding such beauty and benevolence in the most simple of things. Unlike many actor-turned-directors, he seems to understand that acting/actors, while important, are elements of the larger picture, or image. That said, the best movies find rhythms and poetic impulses through the most simple observations of people, or lived experience in general. Good cinema is therefore focused on the image, the framing of a narrative. It's not about what's on screen or suggested underneath, but the relationship between the image and that which it depicts. In that convergence, the spectator becomes part of the image. We process it according to a wide array of physiological and social principles, all stemming from the pleasure of pure movement -- shapes, and colors -- and the primal urge and necessity of communication, or narrative (which is really just another word for communication).

I realize that I've not included a single observation regarding the story, plot, or characters. This is intentional, but I realize just the same that for those who haven't seen the film, it may be difficult to draw any connections with no knowledge of the more concrete elements of the movie. Therefore, I'll let someone else handle that explanation: Jeff Shannon, of, who is much more adept than myself in the art of plot commentary. But I'm singling out his account because it's suggestive of those lyrical moments that the film is really about. Shannon says:

"While the majority of critics and Oscar®-voters heaped praise upon the "gay cowboy" breakthrough of Brokeback Mountain, Jones delivered this equally resonant, elegiac study of male friendship in a Western setting, crafting a flawless parable of borderline existence on the border of Texas and Mexico. It is there, amidst some of the most beautifully bleak landscapes in recent American film, that Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) set their existential quest for meaning, focusing on the honor-bound commitment of Texas ranch foreman Pete (played by Jones with a heavy heart and deep moral conviction) to return the body of illegal Mexican immigrant ranch-hand Melquiades Estrada (played in flashback scenes by Julio Cedillo) to his preferred resting place in the Mexican wilderness. Estrada had been accidentally shot by Mike (Barry Pepper), a newly-arrived U.S. border patrolman, and Pete forces Mike to participate in his cross-country ritual of duty--a voyage of revenge and redemption that will change both men forever, and bring some semblance of meaning to the senseless death of Pete's good friend. In triumphant collaboration with cinematographer Chris Menges, Jones carefully instills his superior cast (including Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, and Melissa Leo) with the slow, desperate rhythms of lives on the border (of Texas and Mexico, and life and death), prompting many critics to draw praiseworthy comparisons to Sam Peckinpah's thematically similar 1974 drama Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and the exquisite absurdities of Luis Bunuel. Whatever your own reaction might be, Three Burials is not a film to view or respond to lightly; there's humor and more than a bit of madness to this great, inquisitive film, but Jones is looking deeply into the soul of humankind, and he dares you to draw your own conclusions about the journey Pete and Mike have taken."

Strange as it is, the film is subtly operatic in its climax. It brings story elements and thematic details together, as any classical climax would, while continually revealing more and layering what's there. Somehow, it's where the film was always going, if it was indeed "going" anywhere at all through it's journey. That exact question is what Jones so deftly explores in his subtle compositions, morbid humor, and quirky observations of life on the border, literally and figuratively. Although the film is linearly structured narrative for the most part, it evokes the underlying tension of all narrative (i.e., communication) via the juxtaposition of the desire for structure and the complete absence of it, as in instances of untimely, senseless death. Like Pete (Jones' character), we are all searching for that structure, yearning for it, needing it, even if it may not really be there.

Those who claim that cinema is dead, or is not an art, or that all movies are the same, should take the time to see this film and take it in. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is that perfectly intangible experience of cinema, both celebrating and ruminating on narrative and faith, and the extent to which they define experience, let alone each other. It's poetry, fable, and myth. Living, dreaming, dying.

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