Two weeks later and this is no longer a wrist problem, but my whole right arm and shoulder. The dictated reviews shall continue on.
Well it is official – I’ve lost count of the films I’ve seen since being off with a malfunctioning right arm. No matter, my best estimate is that by the end of the week I would have seen 50+ (or 1 in 20 of the movies on the list). Before I started properly looking at this list I had never seen many westerns. Like any child the films I was exposed to depend a lot on upbringing, which explains my love of good period dramas and old black and white movies. I have since been trying to properly educate myself. For example, I now know the difference between a traditional western and a revisionist western. The Outlaw Josey Wales falls squarely in the latter camp.
The more I watch westerns, the more I realise just how varied a genre it is. Similarly, I’ve come to respect the sheer talent that is Clint Eastwood. One of the first films I saw him in was Gran Torino, which meant that I got the impression of him being this grizzled old man. Now I have seen a sizeable chunk of his ouvre I can get what he is such an icon. Having seen The Outlaw Josey Wales I think I might have seen him in one of his defining roles (all I have left and to see of his main roles would be Dirty Harry).
Of all the Clint Eastwood western roles this is the one that I recognized most from other people’s pastiches. For example the character of Sparks Nevada from my favourite podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour feels very much like Josey Wales in space if he were a lawman. From the spitting of tobacco (onto live animals… ew), the ridiculously quick drawing of weapons and the repeated use of “I reckon” – this man is the ultimate western character.
What I really liked about this film was his interaction with supporting characters. Gone are the days of cowboys and Indians from the fifties, but now it is the white man who is the bad guy. Like in Little Big Man this film depicts the native Americans as the ultimate victim and has stronger female characters than the more typical floating love interests of old (of course there are some exceptions to that rule e.g. Johnny Guitar). There was a bit where I expected an old fashioned battle between the white man and the native American, but they subverted expectation extremely well. To the point where the whole message of the film is that you can be reasonable with native Americans, but not with the white man. Quite a turnaround really.
This film was made at a time when the western was dying out. In a few years’ time the famous flop Heaven’s Gate would come out an effectively kill the western forever. Sure, we still have westerns nowadays like Unforgiven, 3:10 to Yuma and Dead Man; but they’ll probably never be as mainstream as they were 30 to 60 years ago.
Nowadays the mockumentary format has been pretty much done to death. So it is hard to think of the time when it was still very much a novelty. Real Life was not the first film to use a mockumentary style, but it was one of the first to help popularise it. At the time of release this film must have felt quite weird to the average viewer. Hell, The Comeback was only 13 years ago and still people did not quite get it. Therefore going into this it is customary to point out just how ahead of its time Real Life was.
In 1973 the American channel PBS heir to a program called An American Family. It was one of those landmark series that followed her real family for seven months of their life. It became a national sensation with subjects like a marriage breaking up and a boy coming out of the closet being put out there for millions to see. When now there are hundreds of families (if not tens of thousands) who would happily go for the chance of fame it was not the same back in the seventies. We actually had privacy. The in-film purpose of Real Life is to follow up on this landmark series with their own study; the actual purpose of this film was to spoof it.
Albert Brooks made his directorial debut with this film. Where now we would see it as yet another mockumentary back then he created something very very clever. There are so many comic tropes in this film that we would now take for granted in any reality show or mockumentary. For example, there is a bit when the wife of the family wants to visit a relative in order to get some privacy from the cameras. We therefore get Albert Brooks (playing himself) pleading with her to at least allow one camera and to have her take the smaller car as the bigger one can fit more cameramen. Similarly, there is a fantastic set piece at the gynaecologist office… and I will leave the punch line out of this one.
Knowing what we know now about reality shows, which will not have been common knowledge back in the seventies, it is amazing how accurate some of the reactions have been. Granted the playing to camera made by the father is fairly obvious. However, some of the subtler things have also been captured. The fact is a lot of this feels eerily accurate and that is to the credit of Brooks.