The Short Fuse Muse

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

Back in the autumn of ‘04, I was watching All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) when I was suddenly taken by a composition of an entrenched German machine-gunner, firing upon a French infantry charge.

When the movie ended, I took a few screen captures to ponder over. In my mind’s eye, I kept the camera angle, but exchanged the weapon for a wrist-braced slingshot. The new operator pulling back on the bands was a long-absent friend: Chastity “Titty” Garfield, an olive skinned, 20-year old, short-haired tomboy. Distancing away from the image, I saw her crouched on the wooden deck of a tree house overlooking a heavily wooded backyard, aiming at something below. She was wearing a black tank top, cargo shorts and green flip-flops—exactly as how I last saw her.

Titty had been a supporting character (named Leyaní Garcia) in a road fantasy I had been obsessed with from 1996 up until about 2002. Exit the Sand was about two couples that flee a civil war-torn America for a falsely advertised utopia, where they drift apart, grow old, die, and are reunited in a place that isn’t a heaven or a hell, but where something like a deity awakens. I am not a spiritual person, but I’ve always been fascinated by some of the stories one finds in religion and mythology, along with the relationship between the material and its psychological as well as sociological effects.

After many revisions (including a screenplay submitted to the first Project Greenlight contest), Titty and her boyfriend Freddy (who played the part of Alfredo Muni)—both of whom having helped lighten the story up with some humor—had had enough of the scenario. And since the project had ended my four consecutive years of writing nature and fantasy poetry, both she and her beau, along with my hobby, faded away.

Back on the tree house, Freddy was nowhere to be found. But I knew seeing Titty again meant that he couldn’t have been very far. Because for all the fighting they had done in the aforementioned story, it had simply been just an act they had put on for me. Freddy’s by and large a pacifist, and while Titty is attracted to the excitement and glamorization of violence, she doesn’t really enjoy watching people get hurt, except in make-believe.

I immediately felt compelled to find a story for them as the leading characters, but no satisfying adventure or plot came to mind. Instead I jotted down moments of them simply hanging out together.

Freddy resembles a bear in a cartoon sort of way, though not particularly hairy. Half-Cherokee, he’s a big-boned, handsome faced fellow who likes to feign passiveness, which helps to balance Titty’s impulsive behavior. They met in a Chinese bistro, which was where Titty had landed her first job as a server. Freddy had been there a few times before, but this time he was lunching alone.

She had gone over to his table and introduced herself as his waitress, like it was no big thing. He looked up from the menu, briefly smiled, said hello, and kept on browsing.

Freddy: You know, I’m in the mood for something new. What do you like to recommend?

For some reason or other, Titty’s mind went blank. Her face contorted sort of funny-like, as she tried to squeeze out the information while glancing over his menu. He smiled again, thinking she looked cute.

Freddy: I’ll make it easy on ya. Is there, like, a plate you’ve liked so much that you’ve eaten it to the point where you’re sick of it?

Titty (pointing a finger at him): Yeah! Mongolian beef with garlic noodles.

Freddy: You see? Perfect. That sounds good.

Titty: Aw, nah, man. It’s great. It’s just that I’m sick of that s—t.

Titty’s eyes went huge with embarrassment, as she slapped a hand over her mouth. Freddy started chuckling, which got her to smile.

Freddy: Alright, let me get that s—t and a Coke with a shot of Jack. I’ll start dieting again tomorrow.

Laughing to herself, Titty headed off towards the kitchen and bar area while glancing back at him. Unfortunately, not paying attention to oncoming traffic, she crashed into a busboy carrying a tray full of drinks, and fell on her rear end. Luckily, the busboy also survived.

My favorite night out with these two became the seed for what seemed like a chapter in a story. I believe it came from the idea a friend of mine had about vampires, which I did not want to steal, so I decided to instead give Titty a reason to refer to vampires.

Months later, while I was working as a licensed realtor—which I was not cut out for—I met an accomplished Latin music video director, while showing her property. The leading topic of our conversation was cinema and who we regarded as our favorite directors, with a few questions about utilities and amenities here and there. During that time, I was crazy about Luis Buñuel; the reason partly being was that I was eagerly awaiting The Criterion Collection’s release of The Phantom of Liberty (1974), which was causing me to revisit and discover some of his other work. So when I mentioned him and she responded with similar sentiments, I felt we were on the same page. And this made it feel all the more positive when she brought up the notion of considering doing a low-budget film, provided she could find the right material. Of course I let it be known that I enjoyed writing and so she asked if I could generate a film treatment; or a detailed synopsis used to sell a film idea. I immediately told her I had a story in mind. (At least I thought I had a story, by sewing together what I had.)

Pressed for time, and inspired by the chain of events, I took a Buñuelian stylistic approach so as to quicken my decision-making while working with the material at hand. I imagined writing for him something for modern American independent film audiences, which would would utilize some of Buñuel’s recurring obsessions; or, at least those I enjoyed most. In addition to this helping me visualize what I had in my head, I brought in French actor Alain Delon as a model for one of the story’s new characters, as I thought it a shame that the two never got to work together.

In the end, she and I both liked it. But there was no money. It didn’t bum me out though, because I Am a Rock (named after the Paul Simon tune) was fun to write. The story took place in South Florida, with a few sequences in Tennessee and Sherman Oaks, California. It was a surreal coming of age tale with Titty (once again as Leyaní) flying in to visit her cousin, who’s projecting the desire for a father figure onto his mother’s new boyfriend while fancifully imagining the man’s somewhat unknown and mysterious background.

Having just recently read it again with the intentions of presenting it, I realize that some of my favorite bits (those that existed prior to the Buñuel influence) were readapted into the crime novel I was writing before abandoning it for Pick Up the Gun, My Son. (Incidentally, the character of Tracy Little in Pick Up is none other than Titty, but as a more mature adult.)

Since I’m not going to be returning to work on that novel, and being that neither she nor Freddy will be appearing in either of my latest efforts, The Superkiller is being converted into a screenplay to be posted up very soon. It’s definitely the most fun the three of us ever had together.

Dirty Little Billy and Sony’s DVD

Shortly after the theatrical release of True Grit, the Coen Brothers were approached by Entertainment Weekly and asked to name their favorite Westerns. Disregarding whether some of the titles were mentioned jokingly as favorites, I decided to seek out the two I had never seen before: Greaser’s Palace (1972) and ‘Doc’ (1971).

I sometimes like to browse through both the positive and negative customer reviews on Amazon.com, mostly to look for differences, as well as similarities, in tastes. And occasionally the reviewer will recommend other interesting items or titles. This was the case when browsing through what Dr. James Gardner (of California) had to say about the DVD of Doc. His referral of Dirty Little Billy (1972) as “the ultimate revisionist Western” intrigued me, as did the film poster. And so, a few days after I watched Stacy Keach, Faye Dunaway, and Harris Yulin in Doc—which wasn’t bad at all—I had my first viewing of studio magnate Jack Warner’s last independent production; having obtained a poor, but watchable, TV-recorded copy.

Now, thanks to Sony Pictures’ Screen Classics by Request, it’s officially available on DVD. And it’s very unlikely that the film has ever looked or sounded better.

Dirty Little Billy is a tale of how an inept New York teen brought out west transforms into a menacing outlaw. The chemistry between the characters, the balance of humor and drama, and how the story is told, causes my “little grey cells” to dance with ideas. It doesn’t matter that this is fiction inspired by Billy the Kid’s life, or that there aren’t any admirable figures. This is finely crafted entertainment with a scenario that could be set nearly anywhere in the proceeding centuries, presenting the banding of society’s misfits and how each one is molded. This film will be of interest not only to American and Spaghetti Western fans, but to both cinephiles and movie watchers in general.

The first image is of the fresh mud that welcomes the McCarty family to the fourth-rate town of Coffyville, Kansas. The soft wet earth feels as if it’s always been there, though the family has just arrived a day after one of Coffyville’s “famous sun showers.” Young Billy, his mother Catherine, and his stepfather Henry are quickly sold a dusty, run-down farmhouse harboring a goat and two chickens.

Their sales agent is Ben Antrim (an amusing performance by Charles Aidman). Supposedly, he has people coming here from all parts of the country to “work themselves to the bone, so that he can get rich.” During a town meeting (featuring Gary Busey), Antrim passes along a rumor regarding an epidemic in a nearby town, which will “hopefully” force out its inhabitants and have them move into theirs. The rise in size of Coffyville’s population would thereby qualify them as a “third class city,” which would allow them to elect a mayor, a council, and a professional peace officer.

The McCartys. Billy (Michael J. Pollard), Henry (William Sage), and Catherine (Dran Hamilton).

Henry McCarty (William Sage) is a hard-working Irish immigrant wanting to cultivate his own land, while Catherine (Dran Hamilton) wants her son to follow his lead and adapt to a new routine. Billy’s mother seems to have always been too soft on him, while his stepfather is too hard. Having “bellyached on the train, all the way out here,” Billy just wants to be back in New York. The little “bum” hates farming.

Henry’s growing intolerance for Billy’s uselessness to him boils over one night, and he threatens him into running away. Billy doesn’t need much persuasion to leave, as he really just wants to get back east. But having no money, he can’t go very far. “Just walking” through town, Billy gets caught in a cross-fire between Antrim’s inexperienced lawmen (Ed and Len) and the town’s residing menace. Goldie (Richard Evans)  is a saloon dwelling, card gambling degenerate who sometimes violently demands for the prostitution of his girlfriend (Berle) to help financially support them. Both his nonconformist stance against Antrim and the fear he generates around town appeals to Billy, who does what he can to gain his respect and mentorship.

A great deal of the story is spent in that little saloon, which also shelters drunkard Charlie Nile and a bartender nicknamed Jawbone. Moving along with just the right pace, the story spends an appropriate amount of time with the characters; showing us what makes them tick. Among the most memorable sequences is a card game that goes all wrong; leading to wild gunfire, and concluding with a bloody knife fight between Berle and a woman named Lou. (Rosary Nix—wherever you are—you rock!)

“Double or nothing.” Stormy (Scott Walker) and his girl Lou (Rosary Nix).

Michael J. Pollard’s eccentric performance is as fascinating as you’re likely to read about elsewhere. But upon repeated viewings, which I have found rewarding and worthy of study, the supporting cast becomes more and more noticeable for their fine contributions; even when just relying on body language. Keep an eye on the silent exchanges between Billy and Lee Purcell’s Berle—they’re beautifully directed, and quietly contribute to his character’s development and aforementioned transformation.

Richard Evans deserves special mention. Goldie is such a brilliantly written component to the detrimental education of Billy the Kid—at least, in this story’s universe—and Evans acts within the confines of that character’s restricted psychology so well that he’s easily one of the most important ingredients to the film’s potency.

Besides all around great acting—including the extras, which is a rare thing—and editor David Wages’ crackerjack timing, the cinematography by Ralph Woolsey (of 1970’s Little Fauss and Big Halsy, and 1972’s The Culpepper Cattle Co.) compliments both the richly detailed sets and the performers perfectly. His use of sunlight is also impossible to miss. It’s really a treat for a movie lover to find something as well-crafted as co-author/director Stan Dragoti’s feature film debut. And it’s due to a recent viewing of The Hired Hand (1971)—an extraordinarily gorgeous film—and Dirty Little Billy which has inspired me to write my second Western. One dedicated to the genre’s future.  I don’t buy too many movies, but this one’s a keeper. My compliments to the entire cast and crew.

Billy, Goldie (Richard Evans), and Berle (Lee Purcell).

DVD Specifications: Runtime: 1:32:06 / Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English) / Subtitles: None / Widescreen anamorphic – 1.85:1 / Theatrical Trailer (2:36) / DVD Release Date: March 1, 2011 / Keep Case / Chapters: 10

Special thanks to author Edward M. Erdelac for getting me back into American Westerns with some goodies to get started with. Check out his “Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen.”

Ed and Len (Mills Watson and Alex Wilson) guarding the street outside of Goldie’s saloon. “We’ve got things to do.”

Goldie’s sleeping.

“What the hell more do you want?” Ben Antrim (Charles Aidman) asks Billy.

“It’s a wonder that Goldie even looked at me.”