SFIFF Report: Kanbar Awards: David Webb Peoples & Unforgiven

I started the day at the Kanbar Award presentation honoring screenwriter David Webb Peoples.

After an introduction and a selection of clips from his films (which include Bladerunner, Unforgiven, Hero, and 12 Monkeys, Peoples was interviewed on stage by novelist James Dalessando, an old friend of his.

A few notable Peoples comments:

  • Peoples started out wanting to write books. Then "I started seeing some of those great movies. I thought books are shit. Writings is shit. Everything is images. I worked as an editor at KQED. I had nothing but distain for the writers. Subsequently I got a job editing a picture. The script seemed to me pretty awful. I felt I could write better. I started writing screenplays. I got to love writing screenplays."
  • "I’ve always liked revisionist westerns. I wasn’t crazy about John Ford."
  • On directing (which he did once): "I didn’t get it so good. I had a good cast, a good crew, even had enough money. I realized my limitations."
  • On rewrites: "You should try to make it better, but if you can’t make it better, you shouldn’t make it worse.

Unforgiven

I remember being the only person who didn’t like it when it was new. Seeing it again, 20 years later, I still see it as flawed, but great, as well. The problem, and it’s a serious one, is that the climax throws away every brilliant thing that leads up to it. But until that climax, it’s one of the great westerns.

Clint Eastwood (who also directed) stars as William Muny, a once-horrible killer who gave up that life when he married a good woman. Now he’s a widower, a pig farmer, a tea-totaler, and a father of two young children. Desperate for money, he sets out with two companions on one more job: to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute, and now have a price on their head.

The picture is very much a critique and attack on the conventional western. People die badly. The picture makes abundantly clear that gunfights aren’t clear, and the winner isn’t the fastest draw, but the most cunning, the most aggressive, or the most lucky.

For most of the running time, this is one of the greatest westerns ever made. Everything falls into place–script, acting, sound, the aggressively not beautiful photography. It all comes together to say that the western as we know it is not only a lie, but a harmful one.

Then, at the end, it just blows it, violating everything that has gone before. I suppose a realistic ending, and one that would have fit into the film’s themes, would not have been as commercially successful.

The festival screened Unforgiven off of a Blu-ray disc, which is acceptable but not ideal. Since the film was shot in ‘scope, the Blu-ray was letterboxed. The image was considerably smaller than a scope 35mm print or DCP.

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