"Hearts of the West" (Howard Zieff, 1975) You've gotta have some kinda admiration for a movie that starts out with dialog you always think of yelling when a movie starts in a jabbering theater: "Allright, people, settle down, please, please!" And then, when we're all settled we are given a screen-test--the illusion (it's all acted, after all) of a reality (screen-tests are "real" world versions of movie illusion) of an illsuion (the movie-world that we see on screen).
Through it all stumbles Lewis Tater (Jeff Bridges), but he does it both in 16mm black and white for the screen-test, but also through the 35mm color for the movie-movie that we, the audience, see. Lewis keeps plunging himself through reality and illusion and multiple layers of the two. Lewis is shown to be a writer writing illusions (his western stories), acts them out (which is also an illusion/delusion, but a reality that they are acted out, but that's also an illusion). He is sent a letter from a Nevada correspondence college (reality) to which he goes to attend classes and hang around campus. His brothers are yokking it up as he tells of his plan because they can't adjust so easily as Lewis to crossing between reality and illusion (if they call the college a "ranch" and use all sorts of western jargon, then it has to be able to teach western writing--it's gotta be for real--but the western jargon is idiotic and hype to the brothers).
So Lewis goes to college. It ain't there. The college is an illusion, but not really, it's there in the form of the real post office boxes ticket agent Dub Taylor points at. The college is an illusion, but it's there in the reality of the boxes. And Taylot talks about it as though it were really there. Tater is thrown out of his funk by a landlady who sets him up for the night. There he can start professing his abilities ("I'm a writer!--also an illusion if you take the words of Howard Pike (Andy Griffith), "You're not a writer 'til somebody tells ya ya are," for reality--but still Tater writes--he is a writer, whatever his talent) and acting out his illusions of battling desperadoes with an imaginary whip. Then, suddenly illusion becomes reality as he must fight and flee flea-bag desperadoes. He "wanders through thedesert, parched and thirsty" turning the reality of his situation into the fantasy of his novels. Who should he wander upon, or who should wander upon him? Real cowboys.
But not real cowboys--movie cowboys. They are, but they are not. Lewis becomes one himself, living out his fantasies on a movie set in anillusion of the West, while (in reality) he is being stalked by the two con-men he has inadvertently robbed. The conflict of reality and illusions abound: Lewis, overcome by his fantasies, going berserk, charging the leading man, extending a "bullet-tearin'-his-gut" death, generally screwing up a scene; the improbably scene where Lewis must pose as a young businessman to get some cash from the bank-notes of the two swindlers at the bank (improbable, but...what is a more interesting situation where a young actor must act a role to gain something, ala Hitchcock's "Stage-Fright"); Howard pike's "in-the-nick" entrance as he shoots one of the swindlers full of lead--he only shoots imaginary bullets--blanks--which are enough to convince the crook, and us, that he has been shot, especially after Lewis really has been shot (his disbelief that such a thing could really happen exemplified in his "there's a hole in my leg...a round little hole" My God! It isn't pointing your finger and whistling air through your mouth, it's real!), and the final confusion as Tater, led into the ambulance, tells Pike, "What a story this'll be...independent wealth." Reality turned into Fantasy. A complete turn-around from the beginning of the film when Lewis' fantasies became true. Now, the truth will become a story--a fantasy. Lewis' life is now enough to fulfill his need of fantasy and illusion.
Howard Zieff directed "Hearts of the West" very simply and economically, a habit handed over from his commercial-making days. His "Slither," to me, was a vacancy--I can't remember much of it, except that it was paired* with "Scarecrow," which at least has Gene Hackman, Al Pacino and Vilmos Zsigmond going for it. And if i've dwelled too long on Rob Thompson's script a bitt too much (a bit?), it is because I found Zieff's direction of this story a trifle pedestrian. Zieff can direct a fine picture for writers, for he doesn't let his direction get too flashy and hurt the story. That's good if ya got a good story like "Hearts...," but it you've got an "El Goose-egg" like "Slither" his direction can't help.
Written December 1, 1975
I had to re-read this several times (and again, even as I was typing this out), and had trouble following it each time. So rather than re-review the movie, I feel like using this space to review the review. It's all too much "theme-paper" analysis assuming that the reader has already seen the film (and that's not a safe assumption, given this particular film) as opposed to being a good summation/review of the particulars for people who, it is assumed, have not seen it, and are making a decision to do so. For example, I give away far too much of the plot, and, again, as this film is not often seen, or even known about (undeservedly so, I think) that's not a good thing. Not a very good review, and notvery well-written. An "off" day.
So, perhaps a little summary is in order. "Hearts of the West" was a fairly-low budget film written by Seattle-based writer Rob Thompson, who, after a long time seeing B-westerns, wrote a screen-play about the early days of film-making--not too long after the time of the cowboy era, really--and of an aspiring writer who lived and dreamed the Old West, or rather the Old West portrayed in pulp-novels and the silent westerns. It was light-hearted, with some dark spots, and a unique voice that set it apart from most other movies being made at the time.
What I remember of "Hearts of the West" are the performances of Jeff Bridges and Blythe Danner, but especially Andy Griffith (playing a morally ambiguously character after years of squeaky-clean "Mayberry" television work) and more especially Alan Arkin--all riding-cropped egomania as the director. And I remember the bits of dialog--those sited in the review, like "a ROUND little hole," and "You're not a writer 'til someone says you are" (a favorite of mine), but also his screen-test line "This ain't a ca-tillion!" Rob Thompson the script-writer moved from films to television, and from writing to directing, and his quirky brand of each breathed that atypical freshness to such quirky shows as "Northern Exposure," "Ed," "Monk," and "The Book of Daniel."
It's nice to find entertainment outside of the cookie-cutter.
* This was in the day of double-bills (R.I.P.)