Monday, August 03, 2009

Tintype Gallows, Plains, & Steers

Lonesome Dove (1989)
directed by Simon Wincer
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

The heart of Lonesome Dove, and its most important role, belongs to Anjelica Huston and to her character, Clara. The first half of the miniseries is just the sort of adventure that McMurtry’s novel is supposed to reconsider: the emotional rejuvenation of a small outfit of long-retired Texas Rangers upon their decision to take the first herd of cattle into Montana. Everyone, of course, remembers Robert Duvall’s turn as Gus at the expense of everyone else. People like my parents praise each role equally, but at the end of the day, it’s lines like “You pigs get” that they quote each time they remember them. Parents love Lonesome Dove, I guess because it makes them think that television used to be better than it is - which is, of course, the same tired argument that actors like Robert Duvall make every time they put on a pair of cowboy boots for this year’s Broken Trail.

I’m convinced that McMurtry couldn’t resist that first half of his story – the jokes at the expense of Mexican cooks, the raids across the border to steal horses – and the best proof is Diane Lane’s pretty, unhappy, oft-abused Lorena. “Lori darling,” of course, is the line my parents like most, because it’s the line that Gus gets to say at his moment of great heroism. But Lori is really just shorthand for who Gus was, which, by the second half of the movie, is more or less irrelevant. It becomes irrelevant when Gus is reunited with Clara, the woman he loved most in what we assume was a lifetime of great and plentiful loves.

There is nothing that Lorena reflects in her hopeless, childlike devotion to Gus that Huston does not reflect in her brief, barbed words towards the same man, or in her carriage with her children and in her house, and in her few moments of solitude when no one but her husband is at home. Gus broke Clara’s heart, and he and she have lived with that – and made lives full of sadness and joy apart from each other - for decades. The lesson of Lonesome Dove is how impossible it is to live that hurt down: over time, our cruelties and mistakes will repeat themselves, and pile up at a pace to equal the ways in which we try to be better and to learn. We live with our choices, again and again, long past the point of believing we can’t endure them any longer - until, at last, we can’t.