Movies: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Stroszek
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
This is the 2018 Western anthology film by the Coen Brothers.
This was a good movie, and I was completely, 100%, not in the mood for it.
You know what you're in for very quickly: we open on Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy, cheerfully crooning his way across the Old West. Then he goes to a bar, someone starts a fight, and he gruesomely murders all of them.
Ah. Okay then. This has a lot of the hallmarks of the Coen Brothers' work. They often lovingly dust off out-of-fashion genres, like how The Hudsucker Proxy runs with screwball comedy. They work well in a heightened, deliberately-arranged movie universe — not quite to the level of Kubrick or Wes Anderson, but you still get lots of neatly-symmetrical shots with very precise color correction.
And there's the usual black comedy. There is no unadulterated joy in the Coens' universe. What happiness there is, is muddled by violence, and doomed by the characters' own self-destructive or self-aggrandizing interests. I think, though, that Buster Scruggs takes this to a point where it even loses *me*. I can roll with, say, the vicious double- and triple-crosses in Blood Simple, or the cantankerous artists in Inside Llewyn Davis. But Buster Scruggs often felt more like "Hey! Here's a cute puppy!" And then they shoot the puppy in the head, and then laughing at you for caring about it.
And even that, I could usually roll with. But facing down the enormity of the COVID pandemic, I wasn't in the mood. I took each sympathetic character as a small, happy thing to hold onto, and then I felt betrayed and stupid when it all went wrong. Again: not the movie's fault, just where my head was at.
I could still appreciate the skill with which this was made. And I honestly loved how different it felt from the *plotting* of conventional movies, or anthologies, or short films. It felt more... ephemeral, somehow. Light. You'd expect a platform, and then a tilt, and then a struggle towards some goal. Climax, resolution, denouement. For the most part, these stories jettison all of that — the plot structure designed to maintain a story over half an hour, or an hour and a half. Instead, we meet our characters, we set up the situation, we live in the witty dialog for a while... and then there's a twist, and that's it. We're done. Off to the next one.
The vignettes are reportedly based on short stories, and you feel that in the structure.
So I'm glad I saw The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It was refreshing, and different. They craft dialog as finely as ever. It was definitely another sharply-drawn, heightened world to add to the Coen Brothers' collection.
But damn if it didn't feel like yet one more thing to be sad about.
This is the 1977 Werner Herzog comedy about a down-on-his-luck Berlin ex-con who moves to Wisconsin.
This is an interesting follow-up to Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I feel a little like Herzog makes his movies because there's something about people that he doesn't quite understand, and the movies give him the chance to put humanity under patient, meticulous examination. Whereas Aguirre seemed to put a madman's fight for power under the microscope, here he's looking instead at America.
And that examination feels direct and real. He uses a lot of non-actors, and what look like scouted locations rather than constructed sets. It all feels true-to-life, or at least it matches my vague childhood memories. You can see his fascination with small details of American life: a polite banker talking about back payments, an auctioneer's patter, a display of trained animals.
The film is a comedy, but it's hard for me to get on its wavelength. Part of it is just the bleak trajectory of the film: Stroszek gets out of jail only to run afoul of local criminals, and his journey to the US only sets off another downward spiral. I do see fun, surreal aspects to the story — the armed robbery that finds the bank closed and the next-door barbershop with only $32 onhand, or the patient explanations in German to smiling, uncomprehending Americans.
But mostly I just feel the sadness of the story, and the odd sense that I'm seeing the world of my childhood from a different angle. The movie never quite demands your attention, but it keeps offering the sorts of details that you could only get by cobbling together the movie with non-actors. The plot seems to meander, but that feels okay, because you don't expect this to follow a conventional movie plot — you just go for the ride, and see what it'll show you. If anything, it feels more like a documentary than a narrative. And you can't really look away, because it all feels so off-kilter.
I'll remember this one.
For next week: I've got a book about epidemics and John Mulaney's latest special in the backlog. Meanwhile, I'm watching the first season of Star Trek: Picard and the third season of Parks and Recreation. I'm reading a book about Hollywood producer Jon Peters and a book about everything wrong with the human body; on The Great Courses I'm listening to an audiocourse about the historical Jesus.