‘Paint Your Wagon’ or — Born Under a Wandering Plot?
So many alarm bells immediately start sounding as the opening credits roll to ‘Paint Your Wagon’ (1969) that it’s quite a fright. Clint Eastwood sings? Ooogah! A lavish musical production with a massive budget made at a time when musicals were seriously out of fashion? Ooogah!! A lavish musical production with a massive budget adapted to the screen by er… Paddy Chayefsky? OOOGAH- OOOGAH!!! Lee Marvin in a lavish musical as the lead? OOO… or actually, no. In fact Marvin might just very well be the best thing about this whole bloody mess. At least there’s one piece of glittering gold to be found whilst panning and shifting through this muck.
‘Paint Your Wagon’ isn’t exactly awful but it has plenty of problems which include everything from, but not limited to, a directionless story, an uninspired script, laboured comedy, unmemorable songs, a confused central message and an insidious conservatism. The result is the entire project feels ass-backwards so, no matter how brightly painted this wagon is, it’s certainly moving in the wrong direction.
For one thing, it’s a frivolous stage musical but is shot (rather beautifully so, might I add) on location and with a certain reaching for period appropriate grubby authenticity. But this grubby authenticity is at complete odds with the swinging Sixties vibe that gradually starts to dominate everything; it’s like watching the end of ‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974) where contemporary reality intrudes on the period setting but executed in excruciating slow motion or if someone had tried making ‘There Will be Blood’ (2007) AND ‘Hello, Dolly!’ (1969) simultaneously.
Then there’s the issue of ‘free love’, one of the film’s main concerns I suppose, as we see Jean Seberg take both Marvin and Eastwood as her husband so, for the bulk of the movie, there’s a certain refreshing sexual openness at play only for the film to furiously snap back into ‘Monogamy is the Answer’ territory and then, disingenuously I might add, blame the older generation for any lack of moral compass in society. Indeed, the old must be banished from the sight of the youthful and take their disruptive and mischievous ways with them, and this is AFTER building them a cabin and setting this entitled couple up for the winter. What?!
Which brings me to another point that irritated me — Seberg chooses the wrong guy to settle down with. Yes, Marvin’s Rumson is flighty, immature and an alcoholic but dear god in heaven, he’s certainly preferable to the insincere, gumptionless, opportunistic Eastwood who seems to want to settle down not because of true love but because it’s the easiest available option to him. Plus it’s blindingly obvious that Seberg only marries Eastwood because he is young and handsome and Hollywood demands it. Sober Marvin up and he’ll be fine. Or have Marin and Eastwood kick Seberg out and have the two of them live together if you really want to push things out.
This could be why I enjoyed Marvin in this movie because he is one of the rare examples of genuine life at play here and the only person enjoying, or seeming to anyway, himself in this mess (possibly because he was reportedly pissed whilst filming and I don’t blame him). In the solar system of acting it’s a performance that’s at maximum aphelion from the sun of subtlety as can possibly be as it’s frequently simply a fleshy explosion of twitches, grimaces and mad, drunken stares but compare it to what Eastwood is doing, or more precisely — not doing, you at least get the feeling Marvin’s desperately trying to compensate the price of admission to anyone who’d’ve been foolish enough to pay to sit through any of this.
Oh, and I’m also perfectly fine with Marvin’s growling rendition of ‘Wandering Star’ as it’s a profoundly boring song anyway and should only be sung with crippling lethargy or maximum contempt. Preferably both.
‘Paint Your Wagon’ climaxes in a scene of large-scale of ‘comedic’ destruction of the sort that Hollywood had already moved on from a few years previously but had forgotten to inform the makers of this particular movie, possibly as a malicious joke to see if they’d ACTUALLY go away and film what they had planned in their script. It’s an achingly unfunny scene where all the visual gags land flatter than… well, than a prospecting town crashing into the ground. It’s so painful to observe it would be preferable to be crushed by any of these falling buildings than actually watching them tumble over and be expected to laugh.
‘Paint Your Wagon’ is not good. It’s not totally insufferable as the cinematography is remarkable, the set-design elaborate and Marvin is trying his darndest to inject life into it all but it doesn’t hang together or have a clear destination, simply consisting of nothing more than a bunch of disparate and conflicting elements that sort of accrue over the course of three hours before collapsing in on themselves and you’re left sitting there looking at the resultant destruction and wondering what any of it was all about.