Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Death in the Land of Enchantment: Tony Hillerman On Screen

Let’s get this straight: Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was not a Navajo.  Nor did he belong to any of the other Native American tribes that still populate the American Southwest. Oklahoma-born, Hillerman was of German descent, and remained throughout his life a practicing Roman Catholic. But he built his career on eighteen mystery novels featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Particularly after his move, as a young journalist, to New Mexico, he became fascinated by the spirituality and the harmony with nature embedded in the traditional Navajo (or Diné) way of life. One of his proudest possessions in later years was a plaque from the Navajo nation naming him among the Special Friends of the Diné, for his skill in respectfully conveying tribal ways to generations of readers, both Native American and not.

 My colleague James McGrath Morris is another writer who’s an adoptive son of New Mexican. He’s built his career on biography, and it was no surprise to see him plunge into Hillerman’s life story, which includes an impoverished childhood a serious injury on a World War II battlefield, and a long, happy marriage. I salute Jamie Morris on the publication of Tony Hillerman: A Life, now newly available in stores and the usual online outlets.  

 Since Hillerman often reached Best Seller status, it’s easy to imagine that Hollywood would have come calling. And it did, via actor/director Robert Redford, who has his own emotional connection to the Southwest and its native people.  Redford’s first attempt, backing a 1991 film version of Hillerman’s The Dark Wind, was an unmitigated failure, stemming perhaps from the wrong choice of director (Errol Morris, a famed documentarian, had never made a feature film) and producing partners. Lou Diamond Phillips and other major players were not Native Americans, despite an initial promise that native people be hired to fill out the cast, and Hopi and Navajo tribesmen took offense at how they were portrayed in the film’s story line. Both Redford and Hillerman came out of the experience feeling humiliated.

 They tried again in 2002 with a TV movie, Skinwalkers. It featured two Native American leading men, Adam Beach as the young, eager Jimmy Chee and Wes Studi as the more haunted Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Director Chris Eyre had tribal roots as well. The production, aired as part of PBS’s usually Anglo-centric Mystery series, garnered high ratings, and led to two more Leaphorn/Chee dramas, Coyote Waits and A Thief of Time, both released in 2003.  The major cast, featuring native women as well as men, remained the same as before, and new tax breaks led to filming in New Mexico, always a vital supporting character in a Hillerman story.

 I recently watched A Thief of Time with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance. Some of the acting is weak, and Hillerman’s complicated storyline (which mixes arcane tribal beliefs with some good old-fashioned murder) is hard to follow. But Wes Studi, who first made his mark in Dances with Wolves, is an effectively taciturn Leaphorn, and it’s a delight to see movie veteran Graham Greene, an Oscar nominee from that same 1990 epic, as Slick Nakai, a scalawag evangelist who peddles native antiquities on the side. According to Jamie Morris, Hillerman started out convinced that a novelist had no business trying to interfere with the filming of his book. But he did express objections (to no avail) when his female archaeologist character was turned into a flaming sexpot.  Still, the film succeeds in showing us the magnificent New Mexico landscape in all its red-rock glory. 


Friday, October 15, 2021

“No Time to Die”: James Bond Shaken and Stirred

James Bond has taught me a valuable life lesson. Back when my generation was discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (President Kennedy was a fan!), a guy I was dating lent me a paperback copy of Casino Royale. I dutifully started reading it, but wasn’t all that enthralled. Restlessly, I scanned the back cover, which proclaimed, in breathless prose, that the novel was full of exciting moments . . .  like Bond romancing a beautiful lady spy. I was puzzled. Though almost through the novel, I’d only seen Bond get horizontal with a nice, wholesome young woman, so where was this female spy? Uh oh! I’d just ruined the novel’s major plot twist. Lesson learned: from that time onward, I’ve never glanced at the promotional copy on a novel’s back cover before diving into the book.

 When it comes to Bond movies, I’m hardly the ultimate fan. I enjoyed several early ones; it’s hard not to fall under the spell of the suave, witty Sean Connery. But the various villains with their weird fetishes and bizarre hideaways were too outrageous to be taken seriously. I’m not much on sexy sports cars, nor am I the right gender to fully appreciate the gaggle of Bond Babes, always so intent on shedding their clothing at the slightest provocation. In the post-Connery years, I didn’t watch a single Bond movie, until Daniel Craig came along.

  Even more than Sean Connery, Craig is an ambitious actor, active on stage and screen. Looking at his credits, I’ve discovered how often I’ve seen him in a wide range of parts: as an Irish mobster in The Road to Perdition, as English poet Ted Hughes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath, as a Swedish journalist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as a South African who’s part of a Mossad assassination plot in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. He seems to have a fondness for accents, and I suspect he relished every honeysuckle syllable when playing New Orleans detective Benoit Blanc in Knives Out.

 Craig reportedly had a great deal of input into his five appearances as Hollywood’s most recent James Bond. Not for him the insouciance of Connery. His Bond is less cocky than mournful, keenly aware of all that has been lost (friends, lovers) on his watch. The script of No Time to Die turns out to be a canny remembrance of things past, at the same time that it pushes his personal story forward.

 Though the film certainly contains beautiful and accomplished women, they do not emerge dripping wet out of the ocean, as a bikini-clad Ursula Andress so memorably does in 1962’s Dr. No. In a cheeky reversal, it’s Bond himself we first see rising from the water, and his still buff physique cannot detract from a smidgen of middle-aged flab. (Craig is now 53.)  In A Time to Die, the closest we get to a Bond Girl is the scintillating Ana de Armas, who last appeared with Craig as the good-hearted nurse at the center of Knives Out. Here, she’s a kick-ass assassin in a barely-there black evening gown, the movie’s joyful nod to the Bond movies of old. But the sexual side of Bond is most engaged in a poignant, even somber, interaction with Léa Seydoux, returning from an earlier Craig/Bond film, Spectre..  

 As the latest Bond villain, Rami Malek too is mournful rather than exuberant. I like director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s addition of Japanese Nōh touches, which suit the austere mood. And the scenery is so gorgeous (particularly an Italian hill town) that I’m almost ready to board an airplane.