Friday, May 17, 2013

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

(Michael Cimino, USA, 1974)

Cimino's debut is deceptively ambitious, and it sets out, with remarkable clarity and breadth, a great many of the themes that he would explore in his subsequent films.  As a first feature, it's astonishingly good, exhibiting a confidence of style, a mastery of tone, and a technical proficiency that few directors achieve even after years in the trenches.   Of course, it's a great movie in its own right.  The film starts as a wild, rambunctious romp, and then turns elegiac, even tragic, revealing a worldly heaviness that had been present all along, hiding just out of sight.  The protagonists are a pair of star-crossed American dreamers, on the run from the past and seemingly sprung whole from the awesome landscapes they frolic through.  Eastwood's Thunderbolt and Bridges' Lightfoot are perfect archetypes and perfectly themselves: two vividly rendered characters who also happen to be the poster-children for unreconstructed American ne'er-do-well-hood.  Judging by the original poster, the film was sold as yet another Eastwood tough-guy caper flick, but at heart it's a romance, both in the old and the new sense.   Lightfoot, who takes on a vaguely Christlike aura as the film progresses, recognizes at once what it takes Thunderbolt the whole film to realize - they are a match made in heaven.  There's a few different ways to slice their relationship, and Cimino keeps it just amorphous enough to be interesting: father-son, brothers, lovers, friends.  Ostensibly, they're friends and partners in crime, as Lightfoot makes clear in his plaintive entreaty to Thunderbolt:  "I don't want your watch, man, I want your friendship!"

And contained within that desire, in all of its disarming directness and neediness, there is something much greater at play.  Lightfoot's dream, which he expands to include Thunderbolt and even, fleetingly, the other members of their hapless posse, is one of an almost religious power.  Through his helpless, openhearted enthusiasm, he offers a kind of grace to the other men:  advanced age that becomes youth, enmity that becomes friendship, and the transformation of crude criminality into heroism.   Lightfoot - the ecstatic lodestar of the story, is who Huck Finn might have grown up to be if he'd been born in the fifties.  His life is a picaresque, but it also bears a mark of darkness: the flipside of his plucky search for a good time is a troubled attraction to mortal danger.  Thunderbolt recognizes this, to some extent, but he's a man whose wayward youth has curdled into a broken-down old age.  He has run out of dreams.  Thus, when Lightfoot arrives, he represents a kind of salvation.

It's possible that Cimino leans a bit too heavily on the Christian mystique angle of the story. As is the case in all of his films, there is a kind of latent fog of meta-textual confusion surrounding the story: ideas that become people that shift back into ideas.  Which is not to say that the characters are ever less than fully alive, just that their actions are sometimes subsumed into the sheer mythopoetic frisson that consumes the director.  But it is in these glimpses of vertiginous ambition that one can recognize the Cimino that would go on to make Heaven's Gate, and it's thrilling to see.

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