Legends of the Fall and the Shelf of Shame

legends7Well, another post in the Shelf of Shame series, this time concerning my Blu-ray edition of Legends of the Fall, a film I thoroughly enjoyed at the cinema back in 1995, and subsequently watched several times on DVD, but which I hadn’t seen since, even upon upgrading to the Blu-ray edition, which remained unwatched since I bought it (near as I can tell, sometime in 2013). One of the most sobering things about this Shelf of Shame series is the realisation of how many discs I have that I have watched only once, if at all,  and also regards just how much time is flying past and how much of a waste of money that collection on the shelves might possibly be, in hindsight.

Can we judge the worth of a DVD or Blu-ray or 4K UHD by how many times we have watched it? Is that fair or misguided? Does £20 spent on Alien on UHD suddenly become more palatable had the disc been watched five times? Should the monetary expenditure be more reason to watch less ‘new’ stuff and instead return more often to rewatching old favourites? Of course its not just films on disc, I could just as easily be remarking upon CDs and books, all the objects we accumulate.

I’m horrified that its been several years since I bought Legends of the Fall on Blu-ray and that I hadn’t watched it: for one thing, where indeed have all those years gone? On the other hand, one has to consider the worth of spending as much money as I have on discs if they are going to just sit there unwatched. I suppose a related inquiry would be, those films we enjoy and even love, how many times can we, and should we, return to them? I always feel its rather strange when someone says they only ever watch films once, but maybe they have a point. For my part though, I cannot imagine that: films are things I cannot help but return to, if I enjoy them. Even if this Shelf of Shame series would suggest some failure at that.

Its also very true that the only reason why I finally reached for this Blu-ray disc and actually watched it, was the release of the complete score on Intrada’s recent CD that arrived a few days ago. Listening to the score was a reminder of just how much I loved the film when I first saw it and of course that wonderful period from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s when James Horner’s scores were such a soundtrack to my life. I know there are many naysayers regarding Horner’s music in film-music circles, but for fans such as myself who were there pretty much at the beginning of his career, that period of Horner’s career is akin to people looking back to when The Beatles were making music.

legends2It is often true that rewatching films can offer a sense of perspective, looking at it from the vantage point of someone in 2020, older and (possibly) wiser, and naturally offering an inevitable giddy rush of nostalgia. Watching Legends of the Fall last night was a bewitching experience of impressions: the sense of tumultuous David Lean epic, huge breathtaking landscapes dwarfing the humans in nearly every frame. The great cast: a young Brad Pitt in one of his first leading roles, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Karin Lombard, who I recall appeared in a few films at the time (its funny how faces seem to appear in a number of films at a certain time that seem to then disappear- in her case, rather than disappear she simply moved to a successful series of tv roles I never saw). Of course there is the hauntingly beautiful Julia Ormond stealing the film from everyone around her with a wonderful performance. While watching the film I couldn’t help but imagine what a more ‘adult’ Star Wars prequel trilogy could have been, had it centred Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side around some Legends of the Fall-like doomed love story with Ormond as the object of his ill-fated affection (I could certainly more easily imagine a passionate and feisty Ormond as the mother of Leia and Luke than Natalie Portman). Above all else in the film, there is also that sweeping, overwhelming James Horner score that dominates the film in a way that scores really don’t anymore.

The funny thing was, even though it may have been ten or fifteen years or more since I last saw the film, I could still remember some of the lines just before they were spoken, and yet other moments came as quite a surprise, elements that I had quite forgotten. The film remains something of an oddity; even in 1995 when I first saw it, it seemed a film at odds with contemporary Hollywood; this is a film about myth, and legend. Its clearly not intended to be a true tale, its so larger than life its more a piece of modern myth-making, a tale of the early-20th century more in line with Sergio Leone’s filmography (as much a late-period Western as Once Upon A Time in America is a realistic gangster movie).

legends3That thought suggests a tantalising what-if: imagine what Sergio Leone could have done fashioning Legends of the Fall into one of his typical three or four-hour epics. It has all the elements of his films; a male-dominated list of characters with a chiefly male-dominated worldview, epic landscapes, huge battles scenes with hundreds of extras, a sense of larger-than-life fantasy, of Pure Cinema. With Leone at the helm, it would have certainly benefited from a better climactic gunfight- Leone was a master of them, turning them into operatic ballets of violence, whereas the one Legends of the Fall has ultimately feels clumsy, overwrought, relying on slow-motion to add gravitas and James Horner’s dramatic scoring.

legends1The story of Legends of the Fall is quite simple but unrelentingly dark when one considers it: I’ve always thought of the film as an overwhelmingly depressing piece (depressing in a good way, if that’s possible, like the grim denouements of so many Film Noir). At its very simplest, a beautiful young woman, Susannah (Julia Ormond), enters the lives of the Ludlow family living in the Montana wilderness, and destroys them, before finally blowing her own brains out from the guilt and sense of unfulfilment.

The film describes Tristan as the rock against which all the others broke themselves against, but that’s missing the point that Susannah is almost like a snake entering the Ludlow Eden in the films beginning. Admittedly she intends none of this, she’s just being true to her nature- beautiful and kind, but she’s finding her place in the world where she becomes an unhappy catalyst of doom. Its funny how Tristan later considers that he may be damned, and has pulled everyone he knows into this damnation, but that could just as easily have been a monologue of guilt spoken by Susannah.

But isn’t Legends of the Fall great? Sure, its not perfect, and it rushes things (a conscious decision of director Edward Zwick, who preferred to pace it as a stream-of-consciousness, of a tale spoken to someone over a campfire and consequently sweeping the narrative forwards with little reflection). But its a hell of a movie- that’s MOVIE in great big capital letters, full of passion and epic moments- yeah, Pure Cinema in the Sergio Leone vein, a win-win in my book.

Curious fact I hadn’t realised before: the novella the film was based on was written by Jim Harrison, who was also the author of the short story Revenge that was turned into a Tony Scott film from 1990 that I later discovered on VHS rental and seems largely forgotten now but which I really liked. It featured a beautifully haunting score by Jack Nitzche which is one of my most treasured CDs. In retrospect, both films share common themes so the connection is not surprising, but I hadn’t been aware of it before. You learn something new all the time (really must read that Jim Harrison novella that inspired Legends of the Fall).

3 thoughts on “Legends of the Fall and the Shelf of Shame

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    Hmm. This touched a nerve.

    A well-timed bit of writing: I’m also going through my collection and trying to work my way through the backlog of things I’ve bought but never watched: some stretching as far back as 15 years or more, DVD purchases.

    I’ve long had a tall stack of ‘eat your greens‘ discs sitting in a cupboard: the more challenging films that I feel I should see (The Turin Horse, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, Yi Yi etc). And added to that are odds and ends that are interesting but not immediately appealing (a lot of BFI Flipside discs and the like) and things I haven’t seen for over 20 years and need to refresh on (If…., a lot of a Bresson films). So I’ve been watching one a day for the last couple of months, at 5 or 6am before the day begins.

    There have been some revelations – a handful of crackers – but also lot getting listed for sale on Amazon (it’s been nice to clear the decks and get some cash back at the same time!)

    …but also the growing uncertainty as to why I have all this stuff.

    There’s always explanations I can come up with; it’s often the only way to see something, it’s cheaper to buy than to go to the cinema etc. Possibly it’s generational: in ‘our day’, ownership of a movie was a luxury. And to be able to build a collection of your favourite things was a joy.

    But after decades, it seems a little obsessive. I have more movies and books than I could watch or read in the remainder of my longest possible lifetime. And don’t get me started on music: the loft is groaning with CDs (CDs: why? When I just rip them all and put them in crates up there?).

    And I’ve been feeling some doubts about actually *watching* films over the last few years. I’m a moderately creative person but I don’t do enough, so every few hours spent watching a movie or TV is hours spent unproductively. And I’m not young. It’s hard to reconcile these realities with where you find yourself as a collector.

    I’ve seen other film-buff friends have a complete purge and get rid of everything, though I’m not sure of their exact rationale there. I don’t think I could do that. But I know I can’t carry on accumulating.

    1. I guess there comes a time, maybe its some level of Critical Mass when you just think, “shit, something has to go”. I’ve certainly slowed down on purchases over the past year or so- far fewer discs (unless in the sales- too many 4K at £10, alas) and fewer CDs. Books, well, must try harder, I’m still buying too many of them. Regards films, well maybe its just as well that physical formats are coming to an end with 4K. Its not been lost on me, the irony of buying films yet again on another format, when I originally thought Blu-ray would be the end of it.

      (They get me everytime; I recall buying the Directors Cut of Blade Runner on widescreen VHS thinking that would be the definitive edition, the last time I’d be buying that film- its sounds stupid now, but I distinctly remember thinking that back at the time. Then DVD came around -two copies on that format as I recall- and then HD-DVD and then Blu-ray (twice),and finally 4K UHD… I’ve paid my dues, Ridley).

      So anyway, two weeks on leave with no holiday to go on, and with isolation still in place nowhere to go at all, so yeah, maybe the perfect time to clear out the boxes in the loft and store some of my current collection away up there or just throw it out.

      Incidentally, your comment regards being ‘creative’ struck a chord in me, because I’ve been thinking along the same lines too. Several times over the last few months, I’ve considered the fact that I’m spending too much time passively watching other peoples fantasies and not creating my own. I’d like to write more, creatively, and of course go back to my art (I haven’t touched pencil or brush to paper in over three years now). Its never too late, they say, but as you get older, time gets shorter. Part of why I still write this obscure blog stuck in its lonely corner of the internet is just the good feeling it gives me sometimes, when I know I’ve written something good. It may not get read by many, but at least its written, and its something mildly creative.It does offer a certain satisfaction.

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