Sunday, July 06, 2008

Peter Fonda, "The Hired Hand" (1971).

A few days ago I started reading Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock 'N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998), a book delivering all the salacious details of the American film industry in the 70's. With my enduring interest in film, you'd think that I might have already gotten around to this title. Finding it for a quarter last Sunday certainly helped pique my interest. Anyway, it's a great summertime read. It's light enough to be tremendously entertaining, but at the same time there is enough meat between the slices to keep me from feeling ashamed of the empty calories. I'll probably get around to posting a review whenever I finish.

If nothing else, Biskind's book has rekindled my desire to revisit my shelves, searching out the gems that cannot wait. I thought I had a lot of 70's classics, and perhaps I do- but there aren't many that I haven't watched yet. However, one flick that I've kept in the plastic for a couple of years already is Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971). There is plenty of gossip about Fonda in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, so it seemed particularly appropriate that I finally break the seal and watch it. Obviously Fonda is primarily known for his acting career, so I had no idea what to expect from his directorial foray into the Western genre. I suppose I imagined something completely over the top... like a postmodern, psychedelic trip through the desert.

To my surprise The Hired Hand is remarkably restrained. Regardless of how it must have seemed during its theatrical release, Fonda's movie demonstrates some reverence for the traditions of the American Western. It has a very simple plot. Fonda plays alongside frequent collaborator Warren Oates, riding across the beautifully-depicted landscape (photographed in stunning fashion by legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond) and getting into sketchily-drawn shenanigans that are largely beside the point. Fonda's character Harry is getting a bit road weary, and feeling an urge to reunite with the wife and daughter he abandoned seven years previously. Oates (Arch) plans to continue on his ride to the coast to get his very first glimpse at the ocean. But circumstances conspire to send both Harry and Arch back to the old homestead together.

Hannah Collings (Harry's wife, played by Verna Bloom) is predictably unsettled to see her phantom husband return after all of the intervening years. Her daughter is now sufficiently grown-up to be disturbed by the revelation that her Daddy is not dead, as she has been told since she was old enough to understand what that meant. Hannah has become hardened out of necessity, and the local townies pass up no chance to let Harry and Arch in on what she has had to do to survive. It's a bitter pill that Harry must swallow, but he'd be a pretty small man not to own his responsibility for those circumstances. He's decided he's sticking around. Meanwhile Arch is feeling the vibes from Hannah, and realizes that he must be on his way.

The film is ultimately about the conflict between a man's duty to his family and his competing desire to run with his friends. It pits filial against familial loyalty. Fonda has managed to convey this complex dynamic in a way that is at once minimalistic and (even) tender. In this respect he has strayed far beyond the traditional borders of what was typically a hyper-masculine milieu. While there is a hint of awareness of the secondary status of women in many Westerns, it is often reduced to a joke or a cliché. Given the prevailing attitudes of the 70's (and the presumptive influence of his pro-feminist sibling), I guess we shouldn't be too surprised that Fonda worked against the stereotypes. In the process he created a poetic document that transcended the genre, without the self-consciousness that might have distracted from its power.

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