Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Siegel Film: Flaming Star (1960)

The fifth in a series of appreciations of the work of director Don Siegel, courtesy of the current retrospective of his work at New York's Film Forum.

My favorite Andy Warhol is 1963's "Double Elvis." The image itself, Elvis with an unreadable snear on his face and a gun at his hip, is great, but doubling it ads layer upon layer (like the fact that it calls to mind Elvis' twin brother Jesse, who died during childbirth). I loved the Warhol painting and I knew the still was from Don Siegel's Flaming Star but until I saw it earlier this evening I didn't realize how perfectly it captured the spirit of the film as well.

Presley plays Pacer, which is, I believe, Native American for "One Who Is Named in a Lame Attempt to Sound Cool." A half-breed, Pacer lives on a small farm in the great American West of 1878, with his white father (John McIntire) and half-brother (Steve Forrest) and Native American mother (Dolores Del Rio). Despite the family's mixed heritages it lives in peace with its neighbors; the open scenes paint the land as an agrarian utopia, but that doen't last. The local tribe, the Kiowas, gain a new chief, who seeks to reclaim his people's land. He slaughters Pacer's neighbors, increasing tensions between the whites and the Native Americans. Pacer and his family are caught in the middle: both side expects them to be with them, both sides equate their neutrality with aggression.

Siegel plays the Native Americans for fools a few times, but he doesn't pussyfoot around the central issue: they are right, the land is rightfully theirs, or at least was at some indeterminate point in the past. Now, entrenched for some 20 years, the whites are settled and they aren't going anywhere. Siegel paints the sides not as good and evil but as two conflicting point of views and lifestyles that cannot co-exist. In the director's judgement, neither is right and both are wrong. In fact, the film is structured around moments where there are no "correct" actions, when doing the right thing for yourself means doing the wrong thing to others. It's a far cry from the short film, Star in the Night (1945), which played earlier in Film Forum's Siegel retro, a Christ allegory that proposes that beneath its superficial squabbling, mankind is inherently good. Flaming Star suggests the earlier position is a load of bunk.

The film is littered with tiny moral abysses, where no decision is correct. Pacer must hold a child at gunpoint to save his mother's life. The structure of racial violence in the film resembles the ripples from a rock thrown in the pond: starting from that one simple spot, and spreading to everything in sight. The circle is endless: the Native Americans kill a family, the only survivor kills the first Indians he can find: Pacer's family.

Siegel's visual style isn't quite as pungent as in the marvelous Hell is For Heroes but one particular image lingers with the viewer. One of the main characters from Pacer's family dies, and the survivors hold the funeral on a hill near their farm so that their home, lush and pastoral, is visible in the distance behind them. Lingering in long shot, the farm crystal clear in deep focus, Siegel communicates the way the perfect life the family led is forever behind them without a single word to that effect. When another family member dies, Siegel repeats the image, and the impact is doubly painful.

Flaming Star is regarded as Presley's best performance. I'm no expert (though I love Viva Las Vegas and have an undying love for Phil Karlson's Kid Galahad) but he is outstanding the role: utterly convincing as a cowboy and a half-breed. Like Harry Callahan from Dirty Harry a decade later, Pacer straddles the line between two worlds and finds no place in either of them, desired and hated by all. He is everyone and no one, like a ghost of himself, or Andy Warhol's interpretation of such a concept.


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