Composed with loving, painstaking care and compromised by being framed within dusty liberal platitudes, "Bound for Glory" is a revealing example of the sort of picture Hollywood is perhaps best prepared to take pride in - and overrate.
"Glory" is the most attractive and respectable American movie to arrive since the holidays, and it opens today at the Jenifer 1 bolstered by six Academy Award nominations. A long shot for the best-film Oscar, "Glory" is far and away the class entry in two categories, cinematrography and musical adaptation.
Regrettably, director Hal Ashby has allowed both the protagonist, folk-singer Woody Guthrie, played with surprising canniness and authority by David Carradine, and the Depression setting to drift away in pictorial reverie and dramatically evasive heroworship. The movie develops at a slow, deliberate tempo only to end abruptly and inconclusively, on what seems to be an attack of nostalgia for a more recent period.
At the fadeout, as Carradine's figure recedes in a vast California landscape and his voice is supplanted by the voices of Will Geer (declaiming a Guthrie, the Seavers, July Collins, Country Joe MacDonald, et al, one can't help wondering about the director's intentions and priorities. Was this elaborate, meticulous, expensive production never meant to be anything more than a giddy testimonial? It appears that Ashby was not so much interested in a character study or biographical drama as a sentimental homage, dedicated to That Wonderful Guy who wrote all those ditties that stirred the multitudes at hootenanies and political rallies back in the '60s.
One of the reason we're asked to admire Guthrie in the course of the film is that he resists attempts at commercial package and exploitation. Ashby may be unable to perceive that this movie packages Guthrie, too, and it obscures the conflicts and contradictions that might have made him a memorable dramatic protagonist.
But the movie retains signs of resistance to his glorifying tendency, notably in Carradine's performance which invests the character with enough selfishness and deviousness to keep the picture from caving in with sentimentality. Ashby may eventually promote some idealization of Woody Guthrie to cinematic sainthood, but Carradine gives off far more authentic vibrations, suggesting your basic compulsive artist-egotist, down-home division.
The ostensible source for the screenplay is Guthrie's own autobiographical effusion, published in 1943 at the age of 32. However, screenwriter Robert Getchell has used only a few chapters from this frequently stirring, frequently bombastic book, a zestful, hyperbolic narrative, literally drunk on words, that seems more reliable as poetry or folklore than autobiography. About half of the book is devoted to childhood episodes, many of them brilliantly evocative, but the movie covers only a few years, beginning in the late'30s with Guthrie as a struggling, restless family man eking out a precarious living in a dust-blown town in West Texas.
The original conception appears to have been unusually intriguing, a lyric biographical movie about the making of a popular artist. The early episodes illustrate certain things about the quality of Woody's imagination and his unfocused creativity. They also illustrate the deceptions and betrayals he can be capable of in the pursuit of his muse.
We see that Woody combines musical feeling with a native wit that can make fairly accurate assessments of people's needs and find ready words of comfort. There's a generous, outgoing, healing side to his personality that seems unique and appealing. Unfortunately, there's a catch: Woody seems to find it easier to be generous with strangers.
As the movie progresses, the filmmakers seem to backslide by making excuses for Woody, or at least playing along with his rationalizations about neglecting his family because he needs to "touch the people." However, this tendency appears to contradict the initial, preparatory sequences, which make no excuses for the protagonist at all. When Woody picks up and leaves Pampa, taping a note on the icebox door while his wife is hanging out the clothes in back, the depiction is admirably unpatronizing. It's something he's compelled to do, and you understand the action without needing to approve of it.
The filmmakers should probably have kept track of Mary Guthrie while monitoring Woody's travels by road or rail to Southern California. One of the outstanding attributes of Robert Getchell, who made his film-writing debut on "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," is that he actually recognizes women as autonomous personalities with distinctive voices and convictions.
Nevertheless, the women's roles are small enough to turn them into marginal characters.The idea of Woody as the type of egotist who tends to neglect the people closest to him while pursuing a love affair with "the people" is there, all right, but it's not anchored firmly enough to give the film a cumulative emotional irony or impact.
Ashby seems to be smitten with the image of a politically committed Woody Guthrie, although the nature of the commitment remains mawkishly expressed at best. The worst scene in the movie is a blatant gesture toward "solidarity" between Woody and the proletariat. Randy Quaid, playing a young migrant worker whom Woody encountered on the trek West, turns up battered and bruised at the radio station where Woody has begun a popular singing career. One expects the poor guy to ask for a loan, but no, he's dropped by to deliver a valentine: "Keep up the music, 'cause everybody's listenin.'"
Woody acknowledges the testimonial, rather feebly I thought, with, "Well, you keep up the good work, huh," and the two men embrace. It seems highly unlikely that Getchell wrote this sanctimonious exchange. If anything, he and Ashby seem to be working at cross purposes on several occasions.
The confrontations between underdogs and figures of authority in "Bound for Glory" usually terminate in fights or shooting of almost apologetic gratuitousness. And the impoverished settings become almost ornamental: You wonder how long it took the company to build that exquisitely squalid Hooverville or dress all those extras in flawless rags and tatters.
Haskell Wexler's photography isn't glossy; the color is textured and burnished and saturated with air or dust. There's one unforgetable sensuous experience: the ordeal of a town hit by a dust storm. The dust rolls in on a majestic special effects shot devised by Sass Bedig, but the aftermath - a night with the Guthries - seems even more terrifying, because the dust is an inescapable element inside the house.
Nevertheless, the images impose themselves too often. Ashby seems to have fallen willingly into the picturesque trap, which reaches an absurd level when Woody is beaten up and thrown out of a warehouse, but our attention is drawn to the fabulous, misty yellow of the building instead of the battered hero.
The movie might have gotten by without a dramatic focus if it followed through on the lyricism of the early episodes.Woody appears to be accumulating the raw experience that will be transformed in the lyrics of his songs, but Ashby deprives us of this form of resolution by shortchanging Carradine's numbers in the second things - the title song, "Hard Trave-half of the picture.
We get snatches of all sorts of lin'," "Pastures of Plenty," "Howdiddo," "Hobo's Lullaby," "Better World A-Comin'," "Union Maids," "Oklahoma Hills," "This Land is Your Land," "Deportee," etc., etc. - but never a complete, satisfying performance. The snatches seem even more frustrating because Carradine sounds compelling: There's a genuine emotional charge in his reedy, resonant voice. Indeed, it sounds far more charged than the flat, gentle twang one associates with Guthrie himeself.
Failing to resolve the movie dramatically or musically, Ashby leaves us with the options of relishing his political sentimentalists or surving on images of their won beautiful sake. The images weren't enough in "The Molly Maguires" or "Barry Lyndon," and they aren't enough here. "Bound for Glory" places one in the unhappy position of feeling cheated by "quality" moviemaking.