Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Six-String Samurai (1998)

Today, I would like to go the (more than usually) circuitous route to my introduction by lauding the work of writer Norman Partridge.  His writing is often compared with that of Joe R. Lansdale, and there are similarities to be found between the two, but Partridge’s work is a little leaner, meaner, and maybe even a little more ensconced in the realm of drive-in/exploitation fare (both authors excel at the Southern-fried, homespun, matter-of-fact aesthetic popular in such television series as Justified and the like, just to give you some idea).  I first came across Partridge in the pages of Cemetery Dance magazine with a story titled Bucket of Blood, a simple tale of two buddies, one bad decision, and the titular slot machine.  Since then, I’ve sought out everything I could from the man.  His stories can be as stripped down and straight ahead as ’59 Frankenstein, as emotionally gut-punching as The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists, or as ethereally abstruse (but no less satisfying) as Incarnadine, yet there is a beating, bleeding heart at the core of every word the man types.  His novel Slippin’ Into Darkness is one of the best haunting (notice, I didn’t say “ghost”) stories I’ve ever read.  It eats at me that the man isn’t more well-known or recognized than he is, and I’ve been known to yammer on about his work to anyone who will listen (and even to those who won’t; maybe moreso).  

In 2000, Partridge wrote The Crow: Wicked Prayer, and it has all the elements that he typically brings to the table.  That said, it is, in my opinion, the least of his works (and, all things considered, that’s still pretty impressive), possibly from being constrained by the franchise owners or by some editorial mandate (this is the way it plays out in my mind, at any rate).  The novel was adapted to film in 2005, and though I can’t recall having seen it, my recollection is it is considered by many to be the least of that series.  The film was directed by Lance Mungia, whose feature directorial debut was, of course, Six-String Samurai.  What does one have to do with the other?  I have no idea.  The point of this prolix prologue (and believe me, I can bloviate further) is this: go read some Norman Partridge.  You won’t be disappointed (I mean, as long as you don’t start with the Crow book; you can check that out after you’ve experienced a fuller flavor of the man’s rich bibliography).

In 1957, the Russkies dropped The Big One on America and took over.  Las Vegas has been redubbed Lost Vegas (personally, I like referring to it as Lost Wages, but that’s just me), and Elvis has ruled there as King for years.  But now the King is dead, and Lost Vegas needs some new royalty.  Rockers from all over (including the embodiment of Death itself [Stephane Gauger]) begin to converge on the city and duel it out along the way with weapons both bladed and stringed.  Eponymous Ronin Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon) knows he’s meant to be the new King, and, together with The Kid (Justin McGuire), he slouches towards the proverbial Bethlehem, his hour come round at last (apologies to Yeats).

So, let’s tackle the obvious.  Six-String Samurai considers the Samurai genre of film from a unique, fresh perspective, though it retains the swordplay rather than relying strictly on its musical wakizashi to settle violent disputes.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the usage of instruments in the film is little more than a stylistic flourish, since so negligible is the focus on it.  One would expect Buddy (referring, I do believe, to Buddy Holly) to meet up with various other rockers of the 50s and defeat them with his superior musical skills.  Yet, the only representative foe he encounters is a young Richie Valens stand-in (Pedro Pano), and even he is brought low by Buddy’s sword, not his guitar.  Other enemies include gangs like The Pin Pals (a bowling league gang), The Red Elvises (an actual band who also provide the film’s soundtrack), and a group of post-apocalyptic Cavemen who catapult gumballs (yes, really) and LPs at our protagonists during a chase scene so slow it makes the steamroller scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery look like Bullitt.  

That the film doesn’t feature musicians as antagonists more than it does is a testament to its disjointedness in the sense that it wants to be multi-generic to the point of collapse.  So, for as much as Six-String Samurai owes a debt to films like the Lone Wolf and Cub series (The Kid is given a line to cross over which he will have to put away his childish things in order to walk Buddy’s path), it owes an equal (or even greater) amount to the Western and the Spaghetti Western genres (particularly those starring Clint Eastwood, whom Falcon appears to be channeling), the Post-Apocalyptic genre (leaning more toward the Italian end of the spectrum for its more outré facets, though there’s also a heavy influence from The Warriors in the character of the narrating DJ and the various, colorful cliques), and even The Wizard of Oz and the filmography of Terry Gilliam.  

The notion of legacies is heavy in the film, as well.  First and foremost is the fact that Elvis (that wellspring from which so much rock ‘n roll sprang [and, yes, I get that Elvis had his share of influences going back decades further]) needs to be replaced as King.  His legacy is the music that guys like Buddy live by and the civilization that it supported.  As might be expected, The Kid then molds himself in the image of Buddy, preparing to inherit his mantle when the time comes (most tellingly displayed in the scene where The Kid mimics Buddy’s Tai Chi routine), to carry on the legacy handed down from Elvis to Buddy and so on.  The Kid doesn’t speak when he initially meets Buddy, yelling to get attention, creating a reverberating echo whenever he does it, indicative of the future power of The Kid’s voice (and the idea that the student often surpasses the master’s level, given time). The central conflict between Death and Buddy is about the legacy of rock being attacked by the malevolence of heavy metal (Death looks a lot like Slash from Guns ‘N Roses), which I found a bit odd, because I would have thought that the antithesis of Rock would have likely been something more along the lines of Techno or Disco or Polka, but Metal makes for more interesting visual characteristics (this is, of course, arguable).    

Thrown into this cinematic casserole is a simultaneous love for and satire of Fifties American society.  For as much time is spent reveling in the pop culture of that time (discussing whether a 1957 Chevy or a Plymouth is the better car, why a 1957 hollow body guitar is the way to go, the film’s setup itself, et cetera), we get things like the Cleavers (get it?), a nuclear (get it?) family that’s as apple pie and suburban as they come on the surface but who harbor some dark intentions underneath (go ahead and guess what their secret is; I’ll wait).  The Cleavers are so arch, so self-consciously a send up of the superficial attitudes of Fifties pop culture, they draw far too much attention to themselves, smacking the viewer over the head with “The Point” rather than simply stating it.  This is reinforced by the visual aesthetic of the film, which employs extreme wide angle lenses, high and low angle compositions, and handheld shots that zoom in on knowingly gauche faces pointedly gurning all over the place.

With that in mind, the film is distinctly good-looking much of the time, making fantastic use of both the locations and Kristian Bernier’s cinematographic skills.  My problem is that it becomes schizophrenic, slamming from studied composition to music video mugging in the space of less than a heartbeat.  I can understand why this approach was taken: the POV of a world gone off-kilter, emphasizing the outlandish characters who have risen up from the ashes of the nuclear holocaust but are still frozen in time.  And I think I could have forgiven this if the film’s tone wasn’t just as muddled.  Buddy and The Kid play (almost) straight men to the wacky antics of the world around them, though occasionally they ape it up, too.  Worse, in my opinion, is Death and his henchmen (why they didn’t have four of them like the Horsemen is beyond me), who look marvelously diabolical.  Nevertheless, they pass comments in ways meant to be funny but fall flat instead, reducing the characters as effective heavies.  To wit: Death admonishes a gang for not killing Buddy and stops mid-sentence to admire their flashy shoes.  Later, one of the henchmen states, “The boy makes him very uncool,” in reference to Buddy and The Kid’s relationship.  While things like this are specific and intentional for the film’s approach, it comes off a bit too “try hard” for my taste (I suppose you could view it through the prism of films like A Hard Day’s Night or Head, but I feel the narrative is much too linear for that).  I’ll gladly sing the praises of Six-String Samurai from both a visual and an ambition perspective.  But the tone just doesn’t work for me on this one.

MVT:  I’m going to have to give it to the visual style of the film.

Make or Break:  The film’s opening/title sequence is truly some great filmmaking and a nice introduction to the story and its main characters, equally evoking so many samurai duels in tall grass and homesteaders gunned down in cold blood while giving us its own spin on these tropes.

Score: 6.5/10   

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