Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Buster Scruggs: The Ballad of Oscar Morning

The morning of the Oscar nomination announcements always brings its share of surprises. This year, as always, gives us plenty of delights and disappointments: I’d personally bring more attention to First Man, and not forget about Widows so completely. But it’s a good list, marked by an international flavor that’s rather new. Look at all the love for Roma, a foreign-language film that’s both spectacular and, well, arty. Not only was first-timer Yalitza Aparicio nominated as Best Actress (along with beloved veteran Glenn Close), but the relatively unheralded Marina de Tavira was singled out for her complex portrayal of the mother of a Mexican family held together by its nanny. I’m also surprised by the attention given to a Polish film, Cold War, whose Pawel Palikowski was nominated in the Best Director slot that most had considered reserved for Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born).

Among my favorite nominations: Spike Lee, a first-timer who has long deserved Academy recognition, has finally gotten it for BlacKkKlansman. And I’m gratified that the expected acting nods for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are augmented by a nomination for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whity’s smart, witty adapted screenplay. In the same category, there’s a delightful surprise: Joel and Ethan Coen have been nominated for adapting several short stories for their mostly-original compilation film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

The Coens, who’ve been writing, directing, editing, and producing movies since 1984’s Blood Simple, are perhaps best known for Fargo and No Country for Old Men. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of their lesser efforts, which hardly means it’s without merit. The Coens are capable of being hilariously funny. (See one of my all-time favorites, Raising Arizona.) But their sense of humor tends to be dark, and they also have a real affinity for the grotesque. (Wood chipper, anyone?) It’s the grimmer side of their work that shows itself off in Buster Scruggs. The opening tale in the film, featuring a sweet-singing, fast-drawing cowpoke, has its ludicrously funny side, as when its hero lives out the thrust of its Oscar-nominated ballad, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.” But the laughs soon become more hollow as each succeeding vignette seems more ominous than the one before. The ending of “Meal Ticket,” about an impresario touring the old west with his unfortunate main attraction, is sad, and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” just about breaks your heart.  By the film’s final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” we’re in haunted territory, with a fadeout that’s eerie and unforgettable.

Most of us have, at some point in our lives, listened to spooky tales around a campfire. Such tales can raise the hair on the back of your neck, and make you wonder what’s lurking in the shadows. Ghost stories are disturbing, and yet we must admit we enjoy getting the shivers, contemplating our mortality in ways we wouldn’t do in the light of day. Sitting in the dark of a movie theatre is another great way to safely experience the more ominous side of life. That’s one reason horror films have never gone out of style. My former boss, Roger Corman, knew that fact well, as did the makers of movies like one of 2018’s most effective (and pretty much Oscar-ignored) movies, A Quiet Place. Back in 1945, a British compilation film called Dead of Night gave a lot of people the creeps. (Its most famous segment features a ventriloquist and his all-too-human dummy.) The scares in Buster Scruggs are quieter, but won’t soon be forgotten.

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