April 5, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

by Nick Schager

White Hunter Black Heart

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Willem Dafoe's ignoble expedition in The Hunter.]

Clint Eastwood's surgical dissection of the iconic alpha-male persona that made him the '70s biggest box-office draw began as early as 1980's Bronco Billy (if not before, lest we forget the goofball shenanigans of 1978's Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel). Yet that critical modus operandi, which would gradually come to dominate his latter body of work (up to 2008's Gran Torino), began in earnest with White Hunter Black Heart, an adaptation of Peter Viertel's novel based on his experiences as a screenwriter on John Huston's The African Queen. It is, on the face of it, a wholly uncharacteristic vehicle for Eastwood, who not only helms the film but stars as John Wilson, a blustery, boozy movie director-cum-adventurer whom the star embodies with the same swagger, fierceness and drawn-out drawl of the legendary Huston. Devoid of serious action or genre accouterments, it's a character study with a thinly disguised true-life backstory, and one that winds up perfectly suiting Eastwood's patient, unfussy direction, especially with regards to his depiction of Africa, a "dark continent" that Eastwood refuses to romanticize or sentimentalize, instead shooting it with a straightforward sense of danger and toughness.

White Hunter Black Heart

White Hunter Black Heart's disinterest in glorification also extends to its protagonist, although its attitude toward Wilson is ultimately more complicated than simply "yay" or "nay," with the film cannily embracing its protagonist's contradictions even as it positions his story as one about the terrible consequences of foolhardy machismo. Introduced wearing a riding outfit while reading the newspaper in bed, Eastwood's Wilson is a jovial, blunt man used to speaking his mind and doing as he pleases, a hardheaded sort who despite deep debt embarks without a moment's hesitation on his African film with screenwriter pal Pete (Jeff Fahey, in the Viertel-proxy role) in tow as both his creative and hunting partner. Disgusted by his producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza), Wilson gets financing even as he deliberately sabotage his own film, via plans to first go on safari with Pete in order to kill an elephant. That quest turns Wilson into a veritable Ahab, discarding logic, reason or safety for crazed obsession that even Wilson himself doesn't quite understand, though his admission that what appeals to him about murdering an elephant is that it's a legally sanctioned sin speaks to his general rebelliousness—a trait that Eastwood dramatizes less with showy histrionics than via his increasingly stony, far-off eyes.

White Hunter Black Heart

Eastwood embodies Wilson as both a charming rabble-rouser and a man driven by staunch morals about the phoniness of happy endings (as he and Pete debate early on, in a slightly too on-the-nose scene) and the necessity of taking principled stands no matter the consequences—"If you fight, you feel okay about it," he tellingly informs Pete. Those two qualities come to the fore in White Hunter Black Heart's most amusing scene, in which Wilson absolutely eviscerates a woman he's attempting to woo with a caustic anecdote after she confesses—in front of avowed Jew Pete—that Hitler's one good idea was gas-chamber extermination. Wilson's duality is also forcefully felt in his simultaneous disgust with the Hollywood money machine and his defense of the system's "whores" (amongst whom he once counted himself), in his egotistical demand for financing and then cavalier abandonment of the production for hunting escapades, and—most fundamental of all—in his desire to create art and risk self-destruction. An arrogant son of a bitch who nonetheless courts a bloody beating in order to stand up for blacks against the racist Europeans who populate swank African hotels, Wilson is a man of various, often mismatched colors—or, rather, a figure who recognizes that life can't be pigeonholed by easy three-act narrative arcs, given its true nature as a then-this-happened, then-that-happened string of diverse events.

White Hunter Black Heart

White Hunter Black Heart's indictment of haughty colonialism is slowly but subtly linked with Wilson's own blind arrogance toward the ramifications of his actions, which come to the fore as he's further gripped by elephant-killing mania. Far from an interloper—he's embraced by the locals, and visually meshes with the hardscrabble landscape—Eastwood's Wilson seems to belong in Africa, even if the end result of his fixations can only lead to doom, regret and a dawning realization that his He-Man attitude toward the world is more irresponsible than admirable. While Fahey is hamstrung by Pete's one-dimensional goody-two-shoes responsibility, Eastwood delivers one of the finest, and loosest, performances of his career, smiling and joking about with a gleeful recklessness that's founded upon rigid values that are then slowly eroded by his actual confrontation of the lethal wild and what it means to treat life with king-of-the-world bravado. A layered and, by film's conclusion, haunting turn, it also affords Eastwood a preeminent scene of disarming take-it-as-it-comes humanity—as a monkey rips a script out of Paul's hands (an instance of nature triumphing over Hollywood artifice), and then proceeds to scatter pages across a lavish dinner table, Wilson doubles over with laughter and, epitomizing his fondness for life's unmanageable unpredictability, elatedly gasps out "God, this makes it all so worthwhile."

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Posted by ahillis at April 5, 2012 1:29 PM