Sunday, August 29, 2021

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, A Reappraisal

The other night Butch Cassidy was on TCM and I watched it and recorded it, and today I watched it again, this time with my wife and her caregiver, so I got to comment and even put some of my comments onto Twitter while I was sitting there, being my own contemporaneous commentator. It was fun! I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd reassess BCATSK here in writing. I'm not sure that my title is right, because I'm not sure I ever appraised it in the first place, except to give it an A+.

I have recurrent fantasies of being in a plane and sitting next to someone I don't know and finding out who they are and making a remark, which is a double fantasy, actually, first from sitting next to them, especially when the people I think of sitting next to would doubtless be flying on a private plane or at the very least traveling with someone, and second, from actually being able to say something, because my experience in the few situations where this has occurred is that I tend to get tongue-tied. But, if I had my fantasy and I was seated next to George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy, and I stayed collected, what I would say is, you are such a genius. There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

But then he would smile and I would want to elaborate. I would concentrate on Butch Cassidy, even though I loved The Sting, too. “Can I tell you what I liked about it?” I'd ask. “Sure,” he might reply, no matter his inner reservations. “Fans!” he might think, “What a bore!”

But what I would strive for wouldn't be to show him how smart I am – my default position, or you could say my fault position – but to relive it with him. And in the end, few people can resist hearing how great they are; I'd rely on that.

First, it's a mournful picture, because it's about time, and time always runs out. It's a nostalgic picture, nostalgia, from the Greek, nostos – return home, and algia – pain. The pain of returning home, or remembering how it was, memory. From the start, when we're told it's mostly true about these people and these deeds, and that they're all dead now. The musical theme that sustains the movie all the way through, especially plaintive at beginning and end, mournful but beautiful. The faux old movies of Butch and Sundance, black and white, speeded up, herky-jerky, the way movies were at the beginning of movies, which was roughly the time of Butch and Sundance.

And time is what's run out for them, we're told very directly. The marshal they visit in the midst of their flight from the hit squad Mr. E. H. Harriman has assembled to capture and/or kill them (we suspect the latter,) this marshal tells them they're doomed, that their time has passed. What can they do? They have to leave the West, because it's been modernized. They go to New York where we are treated to period music and faux sepia still pictures of Butch, Sundance, and Etta in the modernizing New York, where they can't stay, of course. They have to seek the past, which is Bolivia, for them, where the banks are old, the police are rudimentary, the jungle is old. They try to find a place where they can thrive, just as we see now with climate change, where plants and animals try to find a place to survive higher up the mountain until they run out of space.

Even the posse can't work out in this aging West, which Butch and Sundance observe from their second floor whorehouse of choice where they are honored guests, and the old time sheriff is displaced in his posse-talk by a salesman selling bicycles, “the future.” Of course, when the Butch, Sundance and Emma have to leave the West, the bicycle is left with its wheel spinning in a gulch and Butch tells the future it's not for him, he's off for reclaiming the past.

Emma is the only one who knows how to extract herself, although we don't know how she'll do it. But she just up and leaves them as she said she would, so she doesn't have to see them die. They don't have a way out, because they can't leave their charm behind, the charm she loves and we love. She's embedded with the guys, but not stuck with them.

The sensibility of the movie is exactly 1969, when it came out. They are self-conscious about the changes around them, and they exhibit grace under pressure. It's all going to end, but we'll be clever and appreciate every minute that remains, carpe diem. In 1969, of course, we couldn't see the future, but we could certainly see all the changes that had happened, and we were savoring every minute. I can't say we had the same foreboding that Butch and Sundance had, but there was Vietnam, there were nukes, and there was Nixon. Plus, with changing mores, having two guys and a girl wasn't so outlandish – sometimes it seems Butch and Sundance are really married, they bicker like it. How refreshing!

I love the craftsmanship of the movie. The distinct scenes, or segments, or whatever they're called. The card game, the Hole in the Wall leadership challenge, the first robbery, at Etta's place, the bicycle montage (no talking) with BJ Thomas's Raindrops and Etta's what if it were you and me Butch, the second train robbery where the money flies in the air and they laugh at themselves (look what we did! We are totally crazy!), the big chase where corporate interests are out to wipe them out, the big vistas of the Southwest and how little the people are but how intense vs. the immobile background, back at Etta's and definitive change under pressure with the packages and the buggy, New York as an interlude with sepia stills and contemporary-sounding music in the foreground (no talking), Bolivia, going straight and ironically only then killing people (Think Vietnam. In the movie the only killing is done by the corporate interests or the government, except when Butch and Sundance protect themselves), and realizing what Butch and Sundance are doing to Latin America as the Banditos Yanquis, even when they are charming. The use of music is just genius, Burt Bacharach – I hadn't realized it was him. That's what got me watching it for the second time, I realized I was humming it.

I don't know a lot of movie jargon; there must be a word to using film technique the way “painterly” portrays painting. But whatever the word is, Hill tells the story in movie technique that is native to the art. Music and pictures not words in New York and on the bike. Music as the leitmotif. Sepia vs. technicolor ( Kansas vs. Munchkinland.) It's so filmic.

So, what I'd say to George Roy Hill is, man, I just can't get over I'm sitting next to a genius. You really are, no matter what else you do, no matter who else you are, what a gift you have, and what a gift you have given. But it's not likely this will happen. GRH was born in 2021 and died in 2002 of Parkinson's. See how film cheats time? He's gone, but we still have Butch.

And, oh yeah, I should have added that, as my friend Bob mentions, "you could have at least nodded at William Goldman who wrote the damn thing.  All Hill had to do was point the cameras in the right direction."  Needless to say that Bob is a writer.  But if Goldman sat down next to me, I'd say the same thing, and ask him who did what.

OK, so this is not really a reappraisal, it's a recelebration, a resavoring, a reversion to my own past of hopes and dreams. I think I'll watch it again. Maybe tomorrow. As soon as I get through Season One of The Bridge. I guess not too much is going on in Shenkinland.

Budd Shenkin

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