Tuesday, September 22, 2009

1976 - Bound for Glory

It's September and that means it's the beginning of the new TV season here in the States, which makes me very excited. Not that I need any more things to add to my viewing queue, but there definitely seems to have been somewhat of a renaissance as far as television shows are concerned. Television is the new film, as some pundits say. And I can certainly see why they say that. The new crop of cable shows (and even some network shows) that have popped up in the last few years leave some of those mind-numbing formulaic shows of previous decades in the dust. I'm not really sure when it began. It may have been The Sopranos, which is over ten years ago. But now, you have similar gritty fare, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter, Damages. Or no-holds-barred satires, like Weeds, Californication, Entourage. Even some of the traditionally formulaic ones are becoming more intelligent, like House and The Mentalist.

Hmm, not much more to add to that, really. Maybe that was just an excuse to list my favourite TV shows, all of them worth a peek if you haven't already seen them.

Today, I sat down to watch the first of the nominees from 1976...

Bound for Glory
Hal Ashby
Robert Getchell
(based on the autobiography by Woody Guthrie)
David Carradine, Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, Randy Quaid
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins

If you're as ill-informed about country folk singer Woody Guthrie as I was, Bound for Glory is a pretty good introduction. You've probably heard of "This Land Is Your Land". That's one of his. And although that song isn't quite the definitive representation of his music, it does give you a decent indication of his social activist bent.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie lives in the heart of the Dust Bowl in Depression-era Texas. Not able to make enough money painting signs, he makes the trek to California, where, rumour has it, anyone can find a job. It's a long and arduous journey, but once he gets there, he's disillusioned to find it's slim pickings, worse even than back home. Scores of out-of-work men scramble for a few poorly-paid positions harvesting crops, a situation that just don't seem right to his idealistic mind. In spite of the tough times, Woody always has a song to sing. Literally. Wherever there's a guitar or a piano, he'll entertain those folk who'll listen. Eventually, a friend introduces him to a radio producer who puts him on the air, beginning his music career. However, he never stops trying to promote the cause of the struggling working class, defying his sponsor-placating producers. He also makes trouble on work sites by performing free for the workers, inciting them to unionise.

As biopics go, Bound for Glory is a fairly successful one. It certainly paints a clear picture of its subject, a complicated man despite his country bumpkin demeanour. But perhaps it's too successful at depicting the slow and tedious atmosphere of the Depression. Pampa, Texas, where the film begins, is a slow town and director Hal Ashby does a wonderful job of making the audience feel that, for the film itself begins very slowly. The journey to California is the most interesting part of the story, in my opinion. Full of fascinating characters in a string of vignettes, this section of the film combines adventure and suspense beautifully. However, when he finally arrives in California, the whole thing slows down again.

I'm sure it's all symbolic of Guthrie's own penchant for taking his time, but there's a fine line between presenting a metaphor of tedium and presenting tedium itself. That said, there is a great deal of atmospheric mood throughout the film, so there's always something by which to be entertained. If nothing else, the volume of country folk music should keep lovers of that style humming along happily. And it appears all the actors are doing their own singing and instrument-playing live, rather than lip-synching to an audio track, creating a very approachable tone to the film. Plus, the Oscar-winning cinematography is spectacular. There are some amazingly beautiful images atop trains.

The political overtones (or are they undertones, I'm never quite sure of the difference) resist any heavy-handedness and, in fact, the message of the film probably has more to do with Guthrie's moral stance rather than the union concept as a whole. Woody is destitute for the vast majority of the film, but never asks for a free meal. He's constantly standing up for what he believes and, on several occasions, refuses money if it means he has to sacrifice his integrity. It's all about dignity.

I was going to write that David Carradine personifies the role of Woody Guthrie, but having had absolutely no exposure to anything related to the folk singer, I really can't back that up, other than to say that Carradine's portrayal is very natural. And I can totally see why he was cast in Kung Fu - for a white man, he sure does look Asian. I was also very impressed with Melinda Dillon's performance as Guthrie's wife. Confusingly, she also plays a brief second role as Guthrie's singing partner on the radio. Weird. A youngish Randy Quaid appears as another jobless hopeful that Guthrie befriends. And, to satisfy my love of spotting actors better known for other works, appearing in cameo roles are M. Emmet Walsh, Mary Kay Place, Brion James and, for the second time in this project, James Hong of Seinfeld's The Chinese Restaurant fame. (He was also in 1966 Best Picture nominee The Sand Pebbles.)


  1. You pretty much mirrored my feelings toward this film, Matt. To me, there was a significant drop off from the other four nominees to Bound for Glory. Not that I feel another film was robbed, though I may have voted for Marathon Man for the fifth slot.

    Bound for Glory and Haskell Wexler did deserve the Cinematography Award - really fine work.

    I last saw Bound for Glory about three years ago, so I think I'll skip the re-watch.

    As to your TV comments. I'm not a big watcher of network television - time constraints. But of the few I do or have watched, Mad Men, Dexter and Damages are regulars and I have stuck with Lost since the beginning and will certainly be watching the final season starting January.

  2. Hmm, yes, Marathon Man. That would have been a much better choice. Bound for Glory was the only film of the five nominees that I hadn't already seen, and now, even before watching the other four again, I'm fairly certain it won't be in the running.

    And yes, I watch Lost, too. I didn't acknowledge it, simply because it's more of a guilty pleasure. It really isn't as well written as the other shows (the dialogue is a little clichéd), but the storylines are just so damn mysterious, I have to keep watching. And now that we're finally getting some answers to the years of questions, I certainly can't stop now...

  3. I just watched this week's Mad Men episode (just terrific), and their end credits song was a tribute to Woodie Guthrie. How's that for a tie-in coincidence.

  4. I recently saw this on cable and I have to say it was just OK. I can understand the importance of honoring Woody Guthrie (a hippie’s hero for his idealism) with a film but it was tedious to watch.

    Sal D