Thickening the Plot : ‘Bullets for Breakfast,’ an experimental film, cracks open typical story lines on the West and women’s place in the world.
In Holly Fisher’s film, “Bullets for Breakfast,” Ryerson Johnson, a 91-year-old writer who wrote more than 200 cowboy stories for pulp-Western magazines, reads from his unpublished autobiography, “We Don’t Want It Good, We Want It Wednesday.”
His editors didn’t want humor, social comment or women in Western stories either. All of that would drag down the exalted tale of good guys standing up to bad guys and finally doing away with them in a shoot-'em-up at high noon.
Recently though, the Western plot has thickened. Kevin Costner turned his camera on peaceful Indian culture in “Dances With Wolves.” Clint Eastwood’s current film, “Unforgiven,” written by David Webb Peoples, weaves in all of the elements that pulp magazine editors felt would bore an audience, and an ambiguity that they would have found insufferable.
There is humor in “Unforgiven’s” retired gunslinger who has trouble mounting his horse. Killing has its consequences, even for the good guys, if one can determine who’s really good and who’s bad. And although the women of the film are not its subject, they are not standard romantic objects either.
“I don’t think it’s any more real as a Western than any other. It’s a Western filtered through a post-feminist movement sensibility,” said Holly Fisher, 50, from her home in New York City. “It shows what I think is happening in my film, which is that history is relative to who is writing it and when.”
“Bullets for Breakfast,” a 16-millimeter color experimental film, cracks wide open typical linear story lines about the West and women’s place in the world in an assemblage of images, text, voices and sounds.
“To lay in the sound effects of bullets was amazing, to just feel the power of those tiny pieces on the soundtrack,” Fisher said. “Bang! You realize, ah, so that’s how you get power. I’m hoping, in the language and structure I’m trying to evolve, to find another way to make a powerful statement--not through loud noises and dramatic plot structure and cliffhangers.”
Moments from John Ford’s classic 1946 Western, “My Darling Clementine” starring Henry Fonda, are repeatedly interwoven with art postcards depicting Renaissance paintings of women, Fisher’s film footage of women working in a herring smokehouse and landscapes of Maine. Sequences of Johnson reading from his autobiography appear among those images, juxtaposed by feminist Nancy Nielsen reading her poetry. Throughout the film comes the suggestion, “There is no history, but biography . . . “
“Bullets for Breakfast” will screen Saturday with “My Darling Clementine” at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum. Fisher will be in attendance for this double bill, which was arranged with the museum by Filmforum, an organization dedicated to the presentation of independent and experimental films.
Jon Stout, Filmforum’s executive director, sees “My Darling Clementine” as the perfect complement to Fisher’s film, and came up with the idea to show them together. “The two films deal with the Western frontier. We’re reaching out to a broader audience beyond the experimental film buff,” he said.
Stout first saw “Bullets for Breakfast” at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in March, where it won the award for “Best Experimental Film.” It was the last film of the day.
“When I saw it, I absolutely fell in love with the piece. It sustained this engagement after six hours of watching films,” he said. “It’s stunning on a visual basis. The optically printed images and the rhythms she evokes with them are seductive.”
“I’m trying to set things up so there’s this afterglow and resonance, a reading between the lines. That’s really where the film takes place, between the screen and your mind or heart,” Fisher said. “If you work from a preconception, the work has to measure up to that as best it can. The way I work, I never quite know where it’s going, but I like it that way. To me, it’s the only way to get somewhere you’ve never been.”
“Bullets for Breakfast” developed from Fisher’s fascination with her mother-in-law’s art postcard collection. “They are so beautiful, like little miniatures, and they’re not the real thing,” she said. “I knew by single framing these cards in location I could explore questions of representation and perspective in a nonverbal way.
“Each card contains in the way the picture’s painted a whole ideology in a sense. I realized nine-tenths of them were Virgin Marys. I think these pictures are part of any woman’s cultural history. They are part of our collective history just the same way the cowboy films are.”
Poet Nielsen had lined the interior of her outhouse in Maine with art postcards. As a result she was brought into the film, followed by Johnson.
“It was interesting to me how very different these two writers were--what they write about, how they write, how they think, the two different generations,” Fisher said. Her footage of Nielsen, Johnson, the women workers at the fish house and the film’s landscapes were all shot in Maine, where she has a home.
In a serendipitous moment, she discovered a 20-minute Super-8 silent version with subtitles of “My Darling Clementine” on a back shelf in a New York City hardware store.
“The images were very beautiful, and I was drawn to them,” she said, adding that the good guys/bad guys formula was there along with the good girl/bad girl formula.
“But I knew this was a more complex Western than some. In fact, the cowboy is kind of domesticated. Fonda is not a Clint Eastwood. He’s shy and naive, like a virgin cowboy. I really like working with these kinds of ambiguities. I thought it was magic that I had found this film.”
Fisher said her point is not that any woman should “replace him backlit and up on the horse shooting people,” she said. “I’m not interested in an equality, that she wants to be him or equal to him. I’m interested in the notion of sexual difference, that she has a place and he has a place. I know I’ll continue dealing with issues to do with gender and trying to understand how to make a structure that puts women as the subject, not the object.”
Where and When
When: “My Darling Clementine” will screen at 5 p.m. Saturday and “Bullets for Breakfast” at 7:30 p.m. Reception between films.
Location: Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, Wells Fargo Theater, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park.
Price: $15 general, $10 museum and Filmforum members.
Call: (213) 667-2000.