Tuesday, July 2, 2013

THE BRAVE (1997)

"He could have, had he wanted to, cast himself as the Lone Ranger, and put a qualified, capable Native American actor ... of whom there are quite a few now, in the role of Tonto," said UCLA professor Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa tribe member. Once head of UCLA's American Indian Studies program, Geiogamah had been twice consulted by Disney for their previous Pocahontas animated features and was dismayed—along with many, many others—at Depp’s portrayal of the legendary Tonto in the Mouse’s redeaux of The Lone Ranger. From the actor’s speech patterns"That sort of monosyllabic stuttering, uttering. Hollywood Indian-speak.”—to his borderline ridiculous appearance “inspired” by a painting Depp ran across on the internet, "We've got Johnny Depp with a taxidermied crow on top of his head and painted to the nth degree with paint, and he looks like a gothic freak.”

On the flip side of that, Depp was honored by Wallace Coffey, chairman of the Comanche Nation, and Santa Fe activist La Donna Harris adopted Depp as “an honorary son and member of the Comanche tribe.” Depp and Disney gave the proceeds from the movie’s world premiere to the American Indian College Fund. For his own part, it’s long been a dream of his to “fix” Tonto’s reputation as simply the Lone Ranger’s “sidekick” (though every incarnation of the story refers to Tonto as the masked man’s “faithful Indian companion”) by ensuring the Native was in all ways equal to his vigilante buddy.

So why the pidgin English? More importantly, why the bird on his head?

While we may never get proper answers to those questions, it all speaks to the actor’s long fascination of Native Americans, who we like to call “the guys who were here first.” “Asked if he's Native American, Depp says he grew up in Kentucky, where his great-grandmother and great-grandfather told him he had Cherokee blood. ‘But over there, could have been Cherokee, could have been Creek, could have been Choctaw,’ he says. ‘It was always something that I always felt very proud to have.’” (This quote and info above taken from NPR article, "Does Disney's Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them?" by Mandalit del Barco, July 02, 2013.)

Of course, Tonto is not the first Native American character Depp has tackled, but it will always be his best-known. For his first portrayal was that of Raphael, the poverty-stricken wet-brain of indistinct tribal origin who sells his life and body to a snuff film producer in exchange for a sum of money that will allow his family to survive. If this role doesn’t ring a bell for even die-hard Deppianados that can be excused. The Brave, based on Gregory MacDonald’s grim novel, was Depp’s directorial debut, notoriously booed at the Cannes Film Festival, prompting him to prevent its official release in the United States.

Best-known for the Fletch novels, MacDonald wrote the slim novel in 1991, where it received a decent audience and a notorious reputation for its third chapter, wherein McCarthy, the producer, describes in graphic detail what will happen to Raphael for the film. Two ex-wrestlers—“real monsters”—will strip him, beat him, tear out his fingernails, gouge out his eye, sever fingers and toes. It will be an hour of pain in exchange for a modest sum of money that, to Raphael, is a fortune. (The chapter, a challenge even for hardcore horror fans, prompted the author to issue a preface warning-slash-justification for its inclusion.) This is an act of ultimate desperation for Raphael. Hopelessly alcoholic, illiterate (he spells his name three different ways throughout the course of the book), at not-yet 21 he has a wife and three kids—without “knowing” how he got there—and lives with a community of junk-pickers who live on the outskirts of a city dump. They are unwanted by the dump owners, by the city, by everyone, and exist in a state of poverty that most of us can’t even comprehend. Checks “from the state” stopped coming because the man who delivered them stopped coming, or at least that’s how they understand it.

Yet, despondent and terrified, Raphael feels astonishingly emboldened with his “contract” and $200 advance from McCarthy. He has knowledge no one on Earth has: he knows exactly how and when he will die. And with this in mind, he spends the money and the remainder of his three days on Earth, trying to make things better, and more peaceful, for his family and community. Depp’s adaptation takes the central premise of the novel and takes a slightly different path towards the end. While the book is brutally straightforward, the film has a surreal quality to it, and an almost ethereal pace (which many critics found “leaden”, and from many standpoints it’s difficult to disagree). Depp’s Raphael still lives in a dump with his family and the many transients that make up their “tribe”. It’s still unclear what “kind” of Indian he is—even his father, played by Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman (who once recorded an album titled “Custer Died for Your Sins”) isn’t quite sure. Unlike his father in the book he doesn’t get offended, however, when asked. 

When not steadily framed on the plaintive Raphael watching the sun rise and fall, the camera constantly floats around the dump, focusing on the many odd details. The denizens of “Morgantown”, as they call the dump, appear more like survivors from an apocalypse. Grotesqueries abound. There’s a man walking around in a shredded tuxedo while pigs drink from baby pools. A father and son, Joe and Joe Jr. (Frederic Forrest and Max Perlich, seen at one point poking at the backend of a goat) have spent their lives drilling for oil. Like many other ancillary characters, Joe Jr. seems to have been plucked whole from Harmony Korine’s Gummo. There’s also the presence of Iggy Pop (who provided the score), so you know just how far this community has sunk.

Raphael’s wife, Rita, practically simple-minded and knowing no other life in the book, is worn to the bone in the film. She’s suspicious of the gifts Raphael brings and believes he’s returned to stealing, as are many of their neighbors. Morgantown’s sole big shot is a thief and a pimp named Luis (Luis Guzman, the one-stop shop actor when you need a vicious ethnic villain), who constantly blackmails Raphael, holding over his head some job they’d done in the past. And once Raphael is arrested and taken away, Rita will end up “working for him”. The invention of the Luis character, who is a strange composite of several novel characters ramped up for movie purposes, gives Raphael a sense of urgency. Luis is the danger that threatens his family’s chances of getting out of Morgantown once he’s paid for his services rendered.

The most glaring—and aggravating—change from novel to film has everything to do with Marlon Brando. Long having abandoned even the pretense of taking direction, Brando’s snuff producer McCarthy is a melancholy Baron Harkonnen here, wheelchair-bound and obese. He waxes philosophical about the upcoming film and is completely vague about what is to happen, or even what is happening at the moment. The McCarthy in the novel is an amoral but straightforward slug. “You look tough. You could stand an hour of pain, right? The more you can take, the better it’ll be. And you’ll be seen all over the world. You’ll be a movie star.”

Brando’s McCarthy weeps, is overcome by the beauty of what’s to come, and, in typical Brando style, is barely comprehensible during his meandering monologue. “What we have here is a little bit of shadow play,” he says, in between little blasts on a harmonica. “Maybe the more painful the death… it’s a sort of refinement. Pain is the completion of an equation. […] Childbirth is pain punctuated by joy. Watching a painful death can be a great inspiration to those who are not dying so that they can see how brave we can be when it’s time to go. It is the final measure of bravery to stand up to death in exquisite anguish.” Tears flow. “I’m sorry. But when death comes and pays us our final visit we can bid him welcome.”

In Depp’s hands—having rewritten the script with his brother, Don (billed as D.P. Depp) from Paul McCudden’s original adaptation—MacDonald’s very simple story, told from Raphael’s point of view but largely externalized and matter-of-fact—Raphael’s screen journey is turned inside. Depp is positively beautiful thanks to Vilko Filač and  Eugene D. Shlugleit’s photography. The camerawork is languid and works well with the patient editing scheme provided by Pascale Buba [by way of trivia, Buba is the brother of Romero editor and my own editing mentor, Tony Buba] and Hervé Schneid. In a sequence invented for the screen, the camera remains on Rita and the children, watching television in their trailer, while Raphael can be heard crashing around outside. When he urges them to come out, they discover that he’s built a little amusement park outside with scavenged materials and Christmas lights. The camera goes into an unbroken 180-degree pan across the various rides and games he’s constructed, and Raphael appears beside or astride each one, without a single cut (which means Depp raced around the camera for each appearance) but it’s a delightful shot, rife with love—Raphael for his children and Depp and company for the medium and the story they’re telling.

To build on that love, The Brave had a long and torturous journey to the screen. Paul McCudden licensed and adapted the novel and began shopping it around in 1993, finding a pair of first-time producers Charles Evans, Jr. and Carroll Kemp, who had just founded Acappella Pictures. They were captivated by the script and put together a package to make the film with a friend, USC film school stock room manager Aziz Ghazal. So strong was the story that the two fledglings were able to attract the attention of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, despite their negative track record and Ghazal’s position as first-time director.

Just before filming was to begin in December, 1993, Ghazal murdered his three-year-old daughter, his estranged wife and then killed himself. His body wasn’t found until a month later. First-time director Touchstone could work with. Multiple murderers are harder to spin.

Finally, after already investing half-million dollars themselves into the project, Evans and Kemp managed to get it in front of Johnny Depp. Depp’s star was on the rise thanks to the successes of Edward Scissorhands and Don Juan DeMarco, and there was positive buzz about his titular role in Tim Burton’s upcoming biopic, Ed Wood, so he had some pull and he was garnering cred at an alarming rate. Unimpressed with the script, Depp loved the central message, “I liked the idea of sacrifice for family. And I kept thinking of things I'd like to add.” (The Sad, Strange Journey of Johnny Depp's 'The Brave', LA Times, May 19, 1997 by Mark Saylor.)

In addition to co-writing and directing, Depp also sank a reported $2 million of his own money into the picture. Seeking completion funds at the Cannes Film Festival, The Brave was met with the same polarized reactions that the festival is known for. Boos and accolades. European studios began a bidding war. U.S. studios just wanted to release “A Film By Johnny Depp” and every offer came with a proviso of steep changes. "I'm prepared to listen if there's a problem with length," Depp said, but rather than be forced to make changes, "I'll put it in a vault and let it sit." [ibid] In the end, The Brave played briefly overseas and Depp kept the U.S. rights to himself, basically refusing to allow it to be seen in his native land.

Because of the nature of humans and the subhuman nature of the press, this decision led to the urban legend that Depp had been “humiliated” at Cannes, that the reviews had been “overwhelmingly” negative and that he hid the film away out of shame. Which isn’t the case at all.
Yes, The Brave is slow. It’s multiple long shots of a wistful Depp/Raphael communicate a tendency towards vanity after a while, leaving quiet contemplation behind. It has some supremely bizarre moments and there are injections of noir that seem out of place, particularly those involving McCarthy’s right-hand man, Larry (played by “Hey, it’s that guy” Marshall Bell), who keeps popping in on Raphael to make sure he returns to the cavernous warehouse studio “on time and as promised”. But so many of the quiet moments with Depp and Elpidia Carrillo, who plays Rita, intensified by the gorgeous photography, make The Brave a worthy journey. If nothing else, it will take you on your own internal meditation, however briefly—would you do what Raphael agrees to in order to ensure a better life for your family? Do you love anyone enough to die, horribly, for their future?

Call it an art film or a think piece or whatever you want, but give it a shot before you dismiss it as a Johnny Depp vanity project. Especially these days, in the wake of his off-the-rails portrayals of Willy Wonka and Barnabas Collins, The Brave is a much-needed reminder of how good an actor Johnny Depp can actually be when he doesn’t let caricature get in the way. And don’t fret that the film has never received an “official” U.S. DVD release. It’s one of the easiest bootlegs to come by, all reproduced from overseas import prints.

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