Vast Wastelands and Iconic Americana

05/19/2010 4:00 AM |

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Directed by John Sturges

The plot of Bad Day at Block Rock, “an individual takes on several bad guys while the townspeople do nothing,” is American primal myth subject to the tincturing of zeitgeist proselytizing and personal politics; it’s basic Western meat from Huck Finn to The Sheepman. Bad Day‘s anonymous inflection on the theme is something of noir rehash, a 50s exorcism of repressed war-time trauma, reflected in the corroded ethics of the ghost town. Here everyone’s become victims of their own victimization of a Japanese American farmer/MacGuffin—a timely incidental to the hush-hushed stuntedness of the place where no one will say a thing except for Lee Marvin, growling in another man’s bed, and Ernest Borgnine, crackling like a hyena while tailgating Spencer Tracy off the road. The rest is homily: detective Tracy intoning the honor of the dead and guilt of the living to no avail as pressure and violence mount. But in Bad Rock, a “formalist Western,” the story just provides the rules to the game.

Sturges’ game, as if moving by inventory through a cultural wasteland of flaking facades, diner stools, Rosie the Riveter plaid button-downs, trucker hats, pinball machines, slate Ford Deluxes, and a double-barrel amaranth gas pump that looks like a town monument to itself, each of these dwarfed by an infinite horizon, is twilight western. Bad Rock’s a sunlit graveyard and microcosm of American materialism run dry. The film works beautifully as architectural survey: by the end of the film every public space has been laid out, one by one, just as every townsman’s been given a crucial moment in which to define himself on the side of good (freedom) or bad (repression).

The point, given form, is that if angelic Tracy hadn’t swept in, the town (America) would continue as a series of systematized functions on infinite loop going nowhere: the one character playing the pinball machine at 3, the other drinking the shot of whiskey at 4, another standing at the hotel all day waiting for nothing to happen. These are the implications of American suppression. Sturges’ images, of the slanting light over a town and people that never move, have the fragile durability of Rockwell processed by Hopper: mythic images of people in eternal pose because they have no place to go; images so flat that it looks like the scene, set, and setting could be peeled to grain.

Bad Rock‘s playset town, particularly its garage, ostensibly gets atomized further by Godard in Made in USA, Von Trier in Dogville, and (putting the pieces back into the landscape) Wim Wenders in his early films: the utility of Western stagepieces enervated to mere icons, taking the love of the directors instead of things they’re emblems of. The film’s pure Americana world, like Hopper’s, is of people and places as firm and secure to the landscape as they are peripheral to it. The effect is largely an achievement of the Cinemascope, which Sturges’ pushes and pulls to open and close an illusory space at one—Cinemascope’s scroll-like wallpaper flatness opened up by vista-deep polysynchronous staging then flattened to bas-relief by static, rock-like blocking and unmoving compositions.

In Sturges’ widescreen, actors can appear in close-up and still be subsidiary to 90% of the screen-space, while characters tend to fill out the frame on all sides like fixed cowboy mannequins. In its two best moments, a train pulls across the screen in close-up and a shadow passes by a window. Everyone seems to have been directed like a ghost, fixed and fleeting, and more than anything else, the locked-down vision of a desert island America, people and their hobbies in nowhere places doing nothing, seems to point to early Fassbinder, in which characters stand around like an audience waiting for a show that never comes. In its hard-nail way, even its lack of compelling content, Bad Rock, like Sirk’s films from the era, seems to mark this move to a flat iconography of goods and people, a strange intersection between existentialism, materialism, and Western myth, three favorite post-war ideologies in which people are defined only by their spaces and how they appear.

May 21-27 at Film Forum