Alexandra Lange | Essays

Outsider Art

A recent New York Times article on an Ang Lee film retrospective made me rush immediately to my Netflix queue. I loved his Sense & Sensibility, admired Brokeback Mountain and swooned over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the article reminded me of a few films of his I hadn’t seen, including Lust, Caution and Ride With the Devil. The latter, a Civil War movie from 1999 always sounded so odd in his oeuvre and neither war movies nor Westerns (which this proved in its way to be) are usually at the top of my list. The article mentioned that the film festival would be showing an extended cut, with new scenes and new music, but Netflix only had the old version.

The orginal Ride With the Devil is more than fine just the way it is. Well acted, well written, and reasonably well paced, and full of Oh my God, it’s _________! moments. The cast is stacked with good actors from before they were famous, including an appropriately immature Tobey Maguire (acting perhaps a touch too dopey as the passive hero), a charming Jewel, an unrecognizable Simon Baker (in vain golden side curls and chin whiskers), Jeffrey Wright trying to act as if he is not the smartest man in the bivouc, and about one minute of Mark Ruffalo demonstrating he has no place in a period film. Oh, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers too, acting just as crazy as always with long silken 70s rock band hair.

In the article, Ang Lee says he was attracted to the story because he identifies with the losing side. Ride With the Devil tells the tale of the Missouri bushwhackers, an irregular army that sided with the Confederates but chose to stay at home and protect their own lands, with disastrous results. One is alternately sympathetic to and horrified by their actions as an army and as individuals, which makes it much more absorbing and nervous-making than a Spielberg production. (The battle scenes are also a lot smaller and more confusing, because it’s not a Spielberg production.)

Watching this movie I had rejected as anamolous made me see what all Ang Lee’s movies have in common. His heros and heroines are not losers but outsiders, even artists. They are set apart from common culture because they are gay or green or German (Maguire plays the son of German immigrants) or poor or women or poor and women. They are usually polite, their disruptions are stealthy, and whether or not they will win is up in the air to the last. In Ride With the Devil, what would count as a win for Jake Roedel (Maguire) is up in the air until the final minutes, since he has set himself up as a follower, and only learns to lead when everyone else is dead.

That’s an odd kind of hero, hard to make sympathetic, much as the long-suffering Elinor in Sense & Sensibility is hard to love in her passivity and propriety. Lee has traveled in space and time and to the comics (home of outsiders) to find his stories, and it will be interesting at some retrospective 20 years hence to see if he ends up telling more tales from East or West, this century, the one before, or the one before that. His next film, Taking Woodstock, looks to be the flip side of the American 1960s of The Ice Storm, so maybe he will return to the Civil War too, looking for losers on the winning side.

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