Entertainment Magazine: Film: California: Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Film Festival: 2011
A Fistful of Something Good: Good For Nothing
By Madelyn Ritrosky
Covered in an outlaw’s grime of gunpowder and trail dust, The Man grunted quite matter-of-factly: “My dick’s broke.”
That, my friends, quite amusingly and quite seriously sums up the spirit, theme, plot, and overall greatness of Good For Nothing. And we can thank writer-director Mike Wallis, producer-actress Inge Rademeyer, and actor Cohen Holloway for, amazingly, shooting this gem on less than $60,000. Adding higher post-production costs makes it no less amazing.
In my capsule review of this film in SBIFF: Part 1, I describe Good For Nothing as turning the “spaghetti western on its head” with the “loaded masculine iconography of Westerns.”
But I only implied there what I want to delve into here in all its good, bad, and ugly splendor.... The spaghetti western actually the Western as a genre is founded on symbolic notions of what it means to be a man, the trappings of manhood, and division from the feminine. That is, the masculine is the individualism and independence represented in the frontier; the feminine represents confining societal parameters. Yet the hindering societal parameters on women in 1800s America are rarely part of the Western genre. Thus, my reference to that “loaded head” is intentionally, well, phallic.
But in Good For Nothing, The Man so emblematic of maleness that that’s his only name has a broken dick. His apparent impotence is discovered by him only when he tries to force it with Isabella Montgomery, the film’s representative of womanhood. That is, only when he treats this woman as an object for him to use, without consideration of her as a human being. Indeed, the film opens not on the man but on the woman, and that is significant.
Film scholar Thomas Schatz describes the cultural themes that Westerns articulate. “The gradual fading of an optimistic vision, more than anything else, characterizes the evolution of the Western genre.... Both the frontier community and its moralistic standard-bearers are depicted in increasingly complex, ambiguous, and unflattering terms. The Western hero, in his physical allegiance to the environment and his moral commitment to civilization, embodies this ambiguity.... He is a man of action and of few words...”
Producer-actress Inge Rademeyer
Writer-director Mike Wallis
Actor Cohen Holloway
Thus, the loner hero of earlier films like Shane or High Noon became the fully morally ambiguous hero or anti-hero in the 1960s and 1970s with revisionist and spaghetti Westerns. Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars or William Holden and company in The Wild Bunch are violent outlaws but they’re no worse or may even be better than any number of representatives of so-called civilized society.
But what’s the same in virtually all Westerns is the equation of the male protagonist with that individualistic masculinity that is at odds with the seemingly constraining influence of femininity. This ideology grew out of gender relations in 19th century America that emphasized the democracy of the wide open frontier and of industrial capitalism for white men. Uncompromising independence in a tough world was inculcated and valued.
White women were relegated to the private sphere of the home and to male authority to help sustain men in their quest in that tough, competitive world. Thus, the subversive potential for democracy to truly extend to women was quashed consciously and unconsciously via legal, economic, and social channels, in short, in every way.
Photo: men can't shoot straight.
Exploring inequitable 19th century gender dynamics in the U.S., scholar G. J. Barker-Benfield writes, “The young man’s mythology was one of self-sufficiency, his behavioral models those of unremitting distrust of all human relationships,” yet the young woman “had to design herself to suit her husband’s pleasure, not her own.”
Setting aside the heroic efforts of women’s rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, women had but one option on the horizon: get married for survival and provide all the domestic services the man would need. Distinctions were everywhere that women were not men’s equal and were treated as such. Indeed, women had very few legal rights and highly restricted social possibilities. When women married, they had no rights at all. Women did not even have rights over their own bodies.
With that historical groundwork, let’s get back to Good For Nothing. It’s not that we don’t see sexist male attitudes today indeed conventional attitudes about male and female sexuality are all around us, sometimes in such accepted ways that it’s not questioned and even gets tangled in violence against women.
What adds to Good For Nothing is the filmmakers’ understanding of the 19th century context of attitudes as grounded in a much starker and harsher bedrock of gender ideology.
Interestingly, while the spaghetti Western leapt forward because of Italian Sergio Leone, an outsider to America’s cultural mythos of the West, Good For Nothing's new twist comes from New Zealanders. The idea of talking with Wallis, Rademeyer, and Holloway became really exciting when Mike Wallis hinted in the post-screening Q&A that while it was “meant to be a fun Western,” he was “interested in masculinity.”
When we all sat down two days later, discussing the film’s gender dynamics began with Inge Rademeyer, who plays Isabella Montgomery, confirming the research that went into this film. She said Mike Wallis was “adamant about being accurate to the time.” However, she added, for the convenience of being able to move and not drop dead from the heat, she had to “cut down on the number of petticoats that would actually have been worn.”
She and Cohen Holloway noted the stifling corset she had to wear throughout the film, with her high-necked black dress getting shredded and lost early in the story. Not only did it affect her breathing, Inge said, but riding on a horse was a challenge and her muscles would ache at the end of the day. She hastened to add that her six weeks was nothing compared to the real women who wore these things day in and day out.
Yet, fascinatingly, Inge could imagine how real women might have related to their circumstances: “Corseted, I’d become more useless but there was also a pulled together feel. That’s when Isabella came on.”
Photo: Inge Rademeyer as Isabella Montgomery
Inge spelled out the gender relations that open the film: the train and wagon rides taking Isabella to her uncle’s ranch on the frontier are because she must be handed off from one male authority figure, her recently deceased father, to another. But she never makes it to the ranch as planned because the outlaw The Man shows up and shoots everyone except her in a two-bit watering hole.
Cohen discussed his character, who is indeed a man of few words, in terms of his actions toward Isabella and “the world the man lives in.” He doesn’t think twice about kidnapping her and then trying to force himself on her. It’s the times and, in that context, the man’s lean, hard upbringing: “In his world, he’s not doing anything wrong. There’s no delineation between wrong and right, no moral compass like for us.” Cohen pointed out that the man had never even seen clean, white teeth before Isabella. Inge added that the outlaw’s interactions with Isabella as the story progresses reveal he actually “has a good heart.”
“The historical detail here was very important,” Mike explained. “She is so foreign to his world.” And in 1800s America, women in general were seen by men as almost foreign, of a different order. Mike notes that the man only calls her Isabella at the end. “This is a story of two people who meet, change each other profoundly, and then go their separate ways.” The man finally respects the woman as a human being and she him.
The tenuous relationship between the two characters becomes complicated as the outlaw evolves, ending up helping Isabella in unexpected ways. Let’s just say there are other men in the story who represent the frontier community Schatz’s morally ambiguous standard-bearers. True to Western iconography and to 19th century double standards, these men are repugnant and chilling yet candid and, at times, comic representations of masculinity.
While The Man has become a Real Man by movie’s end, Isabella has also learned plenty about herself as well as some harsh realities. She is no longer a sheltered, dependent young woman but a stronger, independent one with heightened awareness of herself and her strengths and of men and a wider world. And maybe, just maybe, she winds up meeting Stanton and Anthony at a women’s rights lecture.
The filmmakers have found that women in the audience have seemed more willing to forgive The Man in the end than men in the audience. Perhaps women can empathize better with Isabella and thus appreciate that much more what the outlaw does in the rather terrifying climactic scene near the end of the film. Perhaps also there’s the appeal of a hard, closed-off man being transformed by his relationship, however atypical, with a woman. The woman can effect important change, making the man and thus the world a better place. We still live in a world where men have more power than women.
Mike went on to explain that he loves vulnerable heroes and was as much influenced by John Ford as the spaghetti Westerns. For Good For Nothing, The Man has to cope with “vulnerabilities that allow him to realize everything isn’t black and white.” In fact, in a clear masculine metaphor, all the men in the posse have a problem shooting straight, failing numerous times to gun down each other and the outlaw.
Photo: Cohen Holloway as The Man
Mike called Cohen’s character a “semi anti-hero.” And that kind of complicated masculinity required a subtle performance. Mike had seen Cohen in another film and saw “a charming quality that was sometimes visible only in a glint of the eye.” I saw the charm, on screen and off. That glint became a sparkle when I told him that in certain shots he reminded me of Richard Gere. I could see that complex, nontraditional, vulnerable yet intense masculinity in Cohen’s on-screen performance as the outlaw.
Inge did a fantastic job treading that line between a quiet, conventional young woman of the time and one who realizes her strengths when caught in a strange, dangerous situation. As Mike’s fiancée and producer, Inge gave input on the script and always planned on playing the part of Isabella. They spent three Christmases location scouting on the South Island of New Zealand.
Altogether, it took five years to create Good For Nothing, from story idea to world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. All I can say is I look forward to watching the next step in this film’s journey. And keeping in touch with the filmmakers, because I admire what they accomplished on the screen, examining and questioning the iconography of masculinity in an engaging Western where subtle gender dynamics aren’t exactly subtle. And that’s a good thing.
Good For Nothing is definitely a fistful of something good.
© 2007-2011 EMOL.org Film Entertainment Magazine / EMOL.org. All rights reserved.
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