Don't Come Knocking
This is Win Wender's latest movie, in which he combines his love of America with his love of music: if there was a genre of film called Americana, it would fit right in. Here, Wenders re-unites with Sam Shepherd from Paris, Texas to tell a tale of an actor, Howard Spence (played by Shepherd) who has had a lot of success playing in Westerns but who is now fed up with the life: we learn fairly late in the movie that he wants some time out, to catch up with the things he has finally worked out are important, such as his family - which turns out to be bigger than he anticipated. He rides off the set (with theme music which made me think back to Bonanza), junks his movie apparatus - swapping his horse, spurs and a whole bunch of "cowboy" gear for a very sweaty plaid shirt and vest - and wanders off in his red socks to find a train or rental car to get the hell out of there.
Apparently, the audience booed this movie at Cannes: I absolutely adored it. Plus, I had a spooky moment as I watched it. One of my favourite travel writers, the late Pete McCarthy, wrote of Butte, Montana in his Road To McCarthy in such a way that I put that town on my list of places to visit. As I was watching this movie, seeing the Finlen Hotel and the M & M Diner, I was reminded more and more forcibly of McCarthy's description of the town - although I hadn't actually realised that was where we were or that they were the specific places McCarthy had visited. But, sure enough, it was Butte and upon checking back with the book, these were the hotel he stayed in and the 24 hour diner he described:
"I stepped inside and found myself in American lowlife heaven. To my right is a long breakfast counter; to my left, a long and very well stocked bar; ahead of me, several card tables and a handful of poker machines. There were more customers eating breakfast than drinking liquor or gambling, but only just. They are the people you have seen sitting in diners in every blue collar movie you've ever watched: hunting jackets, baseball caps, plaid shirts, heavy boots, visible weapons. The men look pretty tough as well."So, we watch Howard trying to re-connect with his past (with vague similarities to Broken Flowers, including one scene in which Howard is becalmed in a sofa) - we learn when he visits his mother in Elko, Nevada (a town dominated by casinos) that some woman has made contact with her, claiming to be the mother of Howard's son. That woman lived in Butte - a place where Howard had made a movie, before a well documented decline into drugs and alcohol: his mother had a scrap book recording every step. So, we go off to Butte.
At the same time, there is this young woman, Skye (Sarah Polley), whose path seems destined to intersect with Howard's. She is carrying her mother's ashes, intent on getting them to Butte in order to release them over the town. A third, odd, character has significance: an Englishmen named Rutter (Tim Roth) - he has been employed by Howard's film company to chase after him and take him back to his work at the film, since there is a $30 million film completion bond at stake. Rutter has some odd moments - he is out in the middle of nowhere and thinks someone is watching him then, when he gets to the diner, he gets a discourse on the various ways in which potato might be cooked for breakfast in your traditional American diner. I think this was more to add colour to the film than anything.
But the main action is around Howard meeting up with his old flame, Doreen (Jessica Lange) and getting to meet his son, Earl (Ganriel Mann). Earl is none-too-keen: he thinks Howard is a narc, has been following him - which introduces a weird element: Howard's film posters are all over the M & M diner, yet Earl doesn't recognise him from them. Earl is a very angry young man: there's a brilliant scene in which he discharges the entire contents of his apartment out through a fairly narrow window - the double bed must have been a mission! Luckily, neither his guitar nor his baby amp are broken, so he can start a song. This gets his girlfriend Amber (an incredibly whiney Fairuza Balk) dancing on this mad sofa they have - the images aren't big enough to show that where we might expect a floral pattern on the fabric, he has naked women.
By now, it is pretty clear that Skye is Howard's daughter, I think that is foreshadowed fairly early in the movie so it comes as no surprise - she plays a vital role in getting Earl to be a little less aangry and accept Howard as his father. Earl seems to have no trouble with the idea of having a half sister turn up out of the blue.
Some have objected to the thin plot, but it is far more of film about characters (who I did find interesting) and relationships. Those who want every last detail of motivation laid out like road signs will be disappointed, but eventually things do become pretty clear as to what Howard is up to. Of course, a movie about an actor is just a little too obvious, but there seemed to be a sub-text which was only ever really hinted at, as to whether Howard had any sort of reality, or whether he simply disappeared into his characters. When he does meet up with Doreen, she certainly accuses him of being a nothing, of wanting to once again disappear, taking her for his cover. The only character that rung a bit false for me was Earl: he was too much the classic angry young man to be taken seriously. One last comment must be made about the music - T Bone Burnett as the musical director here produced the beautifully sparse guitar chords which were totally appropriate for the location, and then had the film end with a very traditional sounding, yet impromptu, singalong.
Butte remains a place I must visit, and soon.