' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Honkytonk Man (1982)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Honkytonk Man (1982)

There is a remarkable Iris Dement song from 1993 called “Mama’s Opry.” Its narrative revolves around her as a young girl and her mother listening to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and her mother singing along, and how that version of the Opry in her living room and the memories it engendered were just as special as the real thing. It taps into the idea of dreaming, which may be broad and might be false, but is always eternal. The American Dream is a pollyannaish behemoth, and being a music star might be the most elemental of all American Dreams. It is a dream that "Honkytonk Man" skewers even as it professes utter devotion to it.


The film is categorically Eastwood. Clint directed and produced and starred as the primary character, country and western musician Red Stovall, who makes fast friends with his nephew Whit, who is played by Eastwood's son, Kyle. This could elicit nepotism charges but I would argue these charges to be false. After all, what is country music but a family affair, like Hank to Hank Jr. to Holly, which is but one of innumerable examples. As Stovall, Clint also does his own singing, which is admittedly rough but also lends a certain gravelly authenticity that behooves the genre in which his character exists.

When we first meet Red on the family farm in the midst of a vicious dust storm in the heart of The Great Depression in Oklahoma, he is passed out drunk, and so we assume another in a story of a one-time star burning out. Instead "Honkytonk Man" flips the script and presents the star in the midst of burning out on his way up, not done in by the American Dream but by reaching for it. He's traveling cross-country to Nashville to audition at the Grand Ole Opry where riches may await for both he and his relatives.

He takes a shine to his nephew, teaching him to play guitar but also giving him his first glug of whiskey. Convincing the family to let him take Whit along to Nashville, as well as Grandpa (John McEntire), who's got old friends along the route, a road trip film breaks out, carving out room for all the standby pit stops. They visit a house of ill repute where Red pays for his nephew to have a brief encounter. A stopover at a blues club on Beale Street finds Whit getting high for the first time, if by accident. Red wields a shotgun to get a bundle of cash owed to him. None of this is new. In point of fact, it’s ancient, but then so much material for the best country and western music is ancient; it’s all in the telling. And “Honkytonk Man” is told with a languidness befitting of its rambling central character.


On a recent episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver lampooned the American Dream, and how its ethos, defined by Marco Rubio as “haves and soon-to-haves, people who have made it and people who will make it”, instills a sense of false optimism that can just as easily yield disaster as it can a heroic Rocky Balboa freeze frame. The underlying viewpoint of the bracing, hilarious monologue, underlined by Oliver mimicking a roll of the dice, was that no matter how steep the odds, we hopeful Yanks just can’t stop betting that sun is gonna start shining down on us any day now. This idea is captured poetically by Eastwood in a sequence in a car at night on a lonely old highway that might well have been a dry run for the sequence in the car at night on a lonely old highway in his grand masterpiece “Million Dollar Baby”, except that there its star/director was doing the listening and here he is doing the talking.

It is a sequence that finds Red ruminating on the love of his life, the one who got away, not least because she was married, but mostly because he was a no good bastard (his words). He talks of their existence together as a couple poor wayfaring lovebirds, working harvests, living in flophouses and sharecropper shacks. They had nothing really, aside from each other, but it was the happiest he’d ever been. Of course, being the happiest you’ve ever been is never really enough. “Maybe if I get this break on the Opry,” he concludes, “we won’t have to stay in any flophouses or sharecropper shacks again.” Then the car vanishes into the darkness. Sometimes you don't realize your dream came true until it's long gone.

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