September 26, 2008

"Death of an Heir of Sorrows"

So many of the characters he portrayed had a restless want made of bitterness and need. There was the steady beat of an alertness to the century in them, a familiar, fierce ache of protest in the middle of some tangible decay or mood of enclosure. All hustlers, thieves, prisoners, and wounded players. The want faced with the death of some necessary fiction, some beckoning image (as if undoing his own power in the light) proving too weak, too fragile, too pathetic. And so the themes of escaping the binding lure of the American dream, or the binds that made it impossible.

They push back against constant presence of ideologies, the forces that shape what is being represented, as if in his eyes he could demonstrate that the battles were always more than those against actual opposition. The torturers of the prison may embody an evil, but it is already the chain gang, a small institution of delusion, that is the culprit.

Even that figure who was supposed to represent the worst of the new breed was given a line that knowingly nodded to the dark times that come. And so while embodying the evil himself he is able to remind the audience that the blame is beyond him, that it rightly goes beyond any single man's moral character, or barbed-wire heart, all the way to the very stuff of the system at work.

And so the son Hud says to father Homer, who takes the government ordered slaughter of his cattle with a wounded grace, and touch of tragic acceptance:

"This country is run on epidemics, where you been? Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you're lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln. Now I want out of this spread what I put into it, and I say let us dip our bread into some of that gravy while it is still hot."
That performance as Hud may seem notable for its refusal to turn away from the destructive qualities that force a man to devour the gravy regardless of the moral measures that might come before, but more than that, it stands for what drives the compulsion of the rest of the characters, the immeasurable losses that cascade across the screen, decade after decade, insistence after insistence, betrayal after betrayal, cowardly act after cowardly act, refusal after refusal, sorrow after sorrow, in some form or another.

"Death of an Heir of Sorrows," by the Silver Jews. (Courtesy of Ted Barron).