Saturday, July 23, 2011

Call Them Irresponsible

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a lightning-strike film.

I say this because without the electrified chemistry between leads Paul Newman and Robert Redford the picture would not have succeeded at the box office, nor would we remember it today as a classic example of Americana. Irreverent, rambunctious and largely devoted to a commonplace, jocular and mutually debasing form of male friendship – call it “buddy-ism,” if you will – the movie is a failure in everything other than the intangibles associated with its unique and irrepressible tone.

This judgment might seem harsh, until one scratches the surface of what is ultimately a very superficial film. I mean, for starters, it is not much of a Western. Or at least, we can think of several better Westerns from the same time period without much effort. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, to name just one titan, is released less than 365 days before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is released the exact same year. In the case of the Leone outing, the plot is intricate and bloody journey through the American West and the triumphs and tragedies of the nation’s Manifest Destiny. Peckinpah’s similarly impressive effort is violent ode to the impossibility of outrunning the emerging tropes of change. In stark contrast, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is essentially a light-hearted “chase” movie, in which Newman and Redford offer up some entertaining banter as they run and run and run…

Odd interludes – and here I am thinking precisely of Newman’s bicycle jaunt with the always appreciated Katharine Ross – and the enjoyable – if somewhat out of place – Burt Bacharach soundtrack attempt to fill the ample space left by the over-simple plot, but even these cannot rescue what I believe is a clever work of whimsy. Not bold enough to be a Western, not quite funny enough to be a comedy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid defies definition and simply exists. None of which changes the undeniable fact the film was a runaway success when it debuted in 1969 and has since been preserved as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by no less an authority than the U.S. Library of Congress. However, I would argue these accolades say more about the American filmgoer than they do about the film itself. Accordingly, the key to understand the success of this picture lies in understanding what it represented for the audiences who embraced it.

Put simply, this film connected with people in 1969 similar to the way The Graduate did a few years prior. The reason both films resonated has to do with what many crudely like to call “counter-culture,” a vulgar and largely inaccurate catch-all which I will now attempt to rhetorically distance myself from, even as I unavoidably rely on what the term means to most readers. Released during a time when very serious men in crew-cuts landed on the moon and some other very serious men in crew-cuts continued to fight an escalating battle in Vietnam, Butch and Sundance – like Dustin Hoffman’s character before them – are distinctly confused and unserious in their enterprises. It is this lack of focus, this distinct uncertainty about life and one’s place in it that makes all three characters immediately accessible to moviegoers in the late 1960s – and today.

Something about Butch and Sundance’s attitude toward life feels right, given the serious of everything going on around their characters and the corresponding seriousness that accompanies the individual audience member whenever they view the picture. Unfortunately, there is little else to hold onto in the film other than this “feeling,” however vague it may be. Logically speaking, the film is a mess and the careful viewer can never really figure out what is happening, let alone take away any coherent purpose or message from the film’s events.

To hard back to another 60s classic, one which I have already reviewed, Bonnie and Clyde is a fascinating exploration of the links between sex and violence and how the display of physical power can equal titillation and ultimately satisfaction. The crimes committed in that film serve as the window through which the audience assesses the titular characters bizarre – and largely sexless – relationship. Something like this is occurring in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the metaphor is much less focused and much more difficult to discern. Butch and Sundance are friends, but what that means in the context of a film in which neither man seems to care about much of anything is the enigma behind the “feeling” we get from their warm camaraderie. 

Butch is presented as the thinker, Sundance as the man of action. What holds the two opposites together is their mutual disdain for work and their liking of an easy and carefree life of robbery. Neither fancy attachments of any sort, though both seem attached to each other, even if they would never admit it. Their treatment of Katharine Ross is particularly revealing. On the face of things, she is Sundance’s girlfriend, but she just as easily could be Butch’s – and the impression we are left to gather from this is that the romantic relationship is accidental and Sundance probably would not mind if she suddenly started sleeping with his partner. As the film winds down, Ross announces she is leaving the two men because, ominously, she fears they will meet a bad end. Neither raises the slightest objection to her departure and her Sybil-like warning is equally shrugged off by the two men.

This casual carelessness extends to nearly every other facet of the men’s lives. Both regularly lose nearly all the money they make in their robbery and neither seems to have any inclination toward a higher principle. They stop short of villainy because they are not killers – in one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Butch proclaims he has never killed anyone – and they go out of their way, Robin Hood-like not to harm anyone they come across in their life of crime (quite the opposite of Bonnie and Clyde). This is meant to demonstrate their carefree and friendly attitude, but by end of the film, both have killed a great many people and they have shifted from robbing the ill-gotten fortunes of railway barons to stealing the meager fruit of the Bolivian peasantry’s hard labor. This hardly seems winsome.

Unlike The Graduate, in which Hoffman’s character becomes somewhat self-aware and rejects the booze-soaked world of his parents, Butch and Sundance remain oblivious to their inherit shallowness and they seem no wiser at the end than they were in the beginning. Indeed, the ill-fated decision to go to Bolivia is undertaken because the country is something so utterly foreign as to be mythical to the two men. As an audience, what we are witnessing here are the dreams of children – not mature men, who care or understand that everything positive in the world is built on responsibility, sacrifice and integrity. When the pair charge from their hiding place at the film’s conclusion, we are meant to see their off-screen destruction by a hail of bullets as the inevitable and tragic end of iconoclasts. 

The only problem is the moment feels as empty and haphazard as the rest of the film. Butch and Sundance die because the law finally caught up with them, not because their “way of life” became anachronistic or their social deviance – robbery and murder – was no longer tolerated. Charming as the pair are, they lived like brigands and died like brigands. Period. Exactly what we are supposed to take away from their lives, beyond some crude combination of the 60s’ nebulous “fight the power” and “go your own way” motifs, is never clear. But make no mistake, this is a picture whose star power is bright enough to hide these flaws, hence its unchallenged status.