Saturday night and I had nothing to do. Then I started thinking about it. Wendy is in Toronto. Mikel is in Ottawa. Frank and Diana are in the Eastern Townships. Suki is in Ottawa. Jeff is in Taiwan. Judith is in Rome. John is in California. Ehab is in Dubayy. Sheesh! Everybody’s somewhere but me!
So I cooked me up some dinner and settled in to watch Giant (1956, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean) on the Lame Movie Channel. I’ve never seen it before, but always sort of wanted to. Damn, it’s long, but good. A huge Texas epic spanning about 30 years, I was struck at how progressive it was in terms of anti-racism and letting go of “old ways”. No wonder that McCarthy guy was all abuzz about “commies in Hollywood”.
(Warning: spoilers follow.)
Rock Hudson’s character, Bick Benedict, is a third-generation Texas rancher, with half a million acres and as many cows. He’s a “gentleman rancher”, wealthy but rugged, equally comfortable in a silk shirt as in chaps and spurs. He marries Elizabeth Taylor, (Leslie) a charmed young ‘un from a good family back east (Maryland). This “down home conservative Texas” versus the liberal “back east” ways sets the tone for much of the flick. For example, Bick refers to his Mexican farm hands as “wetbacks” while Leslie brings hope and medicine to the impoverished village where they live.
By the end of the movie, Bick is somewhat transformed. He defends a Mexican family who are refused service in a diner, and in the process gets whupped in a fist fight. I love this! Unlike the Hollywood of today, he lost the fight.
What does that mean? It means we, the audience, have to think about it a bit, instead of just getting caught up in the emotion of victory without contemplating what the thing is really about. Bick is transformed, but not fully. In the closing line of the film he says to Leslie “As long as I live I’ll never figure you out.” What’s happened is that he has learned to let go of the old ways because he realizes that things aren’t as they used to be. We know that deep in his heart he misses the old ways, but he knows he has to evolve to survive.
This is a much more realistic message than the standard Hollywood message of complete salvation and renewal. It’s not realistic to expect old dogs to learn new tricks. You can, however, get them to stop playing their old tricks and to give way to the younger puppies. Jessie Helms is never going to change, nor are the George Bushes, nor Brian Mulroney, nor all those fat-cat executives running big industry. The seething resentment of entire populations in the Balkans will not just go way, nor will the racism of the old guard in South Africa. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protest, boycott, and do all those other transformative actions. What we should strive for is the giving-way of power and authority to others–not the transformation of those in power.
That’s how our society evolves.
OK, enough with the philosophy. Here’s an interesting but trivial observation: James Dean plays Jett Rink, a poor farm hand who nabs a tiny parcel of land where he later finds oil. He becomes a stinking rich, corrupt, playboy. He defines the rags-to-riches Texas oil baron. His intials, “JR“, are everywhere. Remember “Dallas”, from way back in the 70s? “Who shot JR?” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that JR Ewing’s name was not “JB” or “BF”. Jett Rink was the original JR.
I enjoyed the proto-feminist angle too. In one scene, Leslie comes into a room where a bunch of men are discussing politics. One of them says to her “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about politics.” She shoots back in that icy Liz Taylor way, “You mean my empty little head, don’t you?” Then, to the room, “What is so masculine about a conversation that a woman can’t enter into it?”
There was even something of a vegetarian twist. On a visit “back east” for Christmas, the three Benedict children (ages about 3 to six) are seen feeding a turkey named Pedro. Cut to a dinner scene in which the butler delivers a delicious golden roasted turkey to the table. The youngest kid points at the turkey and says “Pedro?” When mom says yes, all three kids start screaming and wailing and refuse to eat anything, and dinner is ruined.
Then there was a young Dennis Hopper as the 20-ish eldest son of Bick. He was always bad with horses and cows, and now he declares he wants to be a doctor, not the successor to the rule of the ranch. He also marries a Mexican woman. The last scene of the film shows Bick’s two grandchildren, one blond and blue-eyed, and the other half Mexican, side-by-side in a playpen, staring out into the audience as the closing music begins.
On top of everything, my favorite parts of the film were the numerous and tremendous skyscapes. The ranch was set on a barren plain of rolling hills, with the biggest sky you’ve ever seen. Scene after scene, the sky is there, dominating the screen, with every sort of cloud you can imagine. Sometimes the ground occupies only the bottom 8th of the view, with the rest all sky.
I so miss the sky. People who live near the sea, on lakeshores, and on the prairies have the pleasure of big skies, but most of us don’t. It’s always there, of course, but in the city and in the tree-filled country we don’t pay much attention to it. If you love the sky, see this movie if for no other reason than the skies.