Friday, July 10, 2020

my father doesn’t order me to do anything

At the emotional climax of the film, Caldwell gets drunk (off very little alcohol) and sits with Maclure on the roof of Maclure's building, and he has a poorly-written but fairly well-executed monologue as part of his conversation with Maclure:

Maclure: Sometimes I think it was easier winning that medal than wearing it. Think any of those people over there give a shit about us?
Caldwell: Do we give a shit about them? That's what matters. You know what I think? I think America is like a big fancy house. And we're the Doberman Pinschers. 
Maclure: Doberman Pinschers? 
Caldwell: A guy hears a noise downstairs, he's really happy to have his big ugly dog. But, the next day when he's got his friends coming around, he locks up the dog. Why? 'Cause he's embarrassed. But at night, sure as shit, he unlocks the dog to protect his big fancy house. If some guy comes in and the dog doesn't bite his ass, he's gonna take a rolled-up newspaper and smack him right in the fuckin' mouth. Yeah, it's like that. I'll tell you something else. And, I remember this like it was yesterday. When I was 10, my old man was laid off again, comes home and says, "We're leaving Scotland. We're going to America." And gives me this book by Thomas Jefferson. I read it right through. The next thing, I'm on the deck of this ship. My old man shouts, "Look! There she is!" I could just see over the guard rail. It's the Statue of Liberty. And I look. And that green color on her face... You know, she really is that beautiful. Anyway, that's how I see America. Yeah. And that's why I'm a soldier. We don't have to have thanks from anybody because it's-- That's not important.
Michael Wilmington, Los Angles Times, 10 June 1988, says of this scene,
...the film makers stage what they probably regard as a touching little scene... A scene where the actors can play with their warmer, shaggier sides. Sean Connery and Jack Warden--a splendid pair, who deserves much better than movies like this--are... Old buddies and Vietnam vets. While Maclure makes droll feints with a whiskey bottle, Caldwell tortuously weaves an inelegant metaphor about America being like a big fancy house and the two of them being like old unappreciated Doberman pinschers. 
The scene is poorly written--relentlessly under-felt and over-calculated--and what make it stand out is the backdrop. Caldwell and Maclure are sitting on a rooftop at night over an urban skyline like a dark fishnet full of neon diamonds--
Gotta cut Wilmington off there because that last sentence was overwrought nonsense that made the monologue seem much better than it is.

But, my point today is not about how good or bad the monologue is, but rather how it plays in what I think the movie was supposed to be about. See, the movie went through some rewrites--Larry Ferguson gets the screen credit but apparently was not the original author--and got a new director--purportedly, Tony Scott was attached. I can imagine Tony Scott directing a far more nuanced film than the one we have in The Presidio.

The title, I should mention--especially because it may tie into what I'm about to say--comes from the former Spanish fort that in 1988 was still an active military installation of the US Army. In 1989, it was decided that it would stop being such and in 1994, it was transferred to the National Park Service. But, a Spanish fort taken over by US military at the start of the Mexican-American War makes for an interesting titular setting even before we try to look deeper than the film maybe deserves. The name itself comes from the Spanish name for a fortification, or jail, and the Presidio in San Francisco was built in 1776. In 1821, it was a Mexican fortification. From 1846 onward, it was US property. It served as a base for American military engagements in the Pacific, including our invasion of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

It presides over the bay like Caldwell would want to preside over his family, but his wife has died and his daughter Donna has grown up out from under him and has little interest in doing what he says. As I suggested yesterday, the film seems far more concerned with the personal relationships--including that between Caldwell and Donna. The thing is, with a better script, there might be a stronger thematic connection between Caldwell's past-its-prime military career and his past-its-prime fatherhood. In his rooftop talk with Maclure, he talks about the two of them (and by extension, all of America's military) as guard dogs you lock away when your friends come around, that you punish for acting out at the wrong time, but that you gladly set on an invader or enemy. Caldwell and Maclure fought in Vietnam, and no matter how much American cinema has been re-fighting Vietnam for over a decade, in 1988, even that attempt to reconcile our loss there is mostly over. The Cold War is waning but we don't know it's about to be over. Caldwell and Maclure are too old, career military
(at least in the case of Caldwell; I'm not sure if Maclure's museum job is technically military)
because they are too damn old to do anything else. And, circling around the what should be the main plot, Maclure has been using his connections in Southeast Asia to smuggle diamonds through the Presidio, a sort of post-colonial resource stealing hidden beneath a veneer of capitalism. White men taking whatever they can to profit. And this plays right alongside the very manly (read: patriarchal) dispute of father versus daughter's would-be lover, and it feels so very disconnected because in the film as it exists, it is disconnected. But, it wouldn't have to be with a better script and a better director. (Not that this director is even doing a poor job, necessarily.) Instead, the men smuggling diamonds and the man trying desperately to hold onto his daughter and his military career would all fall under the same thematic umbrella. Keep in mind that Maclure and Caldwell served together in Vietnam (and while in reality Jack Warden is a decade older than Sean Connery, we might suspect they are closer in age in the film). Maclure is retired, working a museum gig where his own Medal of Honor is on display. His role there is like an extension of desperation where Caldwell might find himself soon enough. But, right now, Caldwell can still push his weight around, can still team up with the cop who used to serve under him as an MP. The better version of the story would twist the relationship side of the plot into the smuggling plot line as if both were parts of the same patriarchal urge to control the world and take what one wants, control what one has, because that is what both plot lines are. When Donna shares a scene with Maclure, it's like a remnant of that better film that could have been.

In the film that is, I'm not even sure why Caldwell visits the museum when he does--except so that we know who Maclure is later--and even more so, I have no clue why Jay would meet Caldwell at the Presidio Museum. I imagine a scene in which Donna tries to get her father to accept her relationship with Jay and they all have dinner at home, and maybe she invites Maclure as well because he seems like a sort of adopted Uncle, and then the connections between all four of them are more personal, and it would mean something when Jay balks later at finding out that Maclure is involved in the smuggling operation.
(As it is, when that moment happens, I had forgotten yesterday that Jay was ever even on screen at the same time as Maclure at all or had any reason to know who he was. Which is bad filmmaking. Jay's first instincts about the murder that begins the main plot is that someone military is involved. That one of the final details they discover is the involvement of a retired military man should not be shocking, unless there is a personal element, like Jay knowing that Donna and Maclure are close.)
Ultimately, the biggest thing missing is some sort of motivations for Maclure's involvement.
(Personal motivation, that is. Which wouldn't matter so much if the larger post-colonial metaphor player better and the smuggling served perhaps as the thanks he thinks he was owed for his part in Vietnam.)
He's retired. He still has a regular gig at the museum. We are offered no reason that he would need the money. His involvement serves only to shock. But, that presumes that we care.

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