My mind turns to our visit to Ephesus (in Turkey) a three thousand year-old city resurrected as a dazzling embodiment of its original self.
As we walked through this restored City of Antiquity, I asked our tour guide Sarhan a standard annoying Pomerantian question:
“Sarhan”, I inquired, with a note of innate skepticism, “What exactly am I looking at?”
To which he guardedly replied,
“What do you mean?”
I then explained what I meant.
“Is this an old city they dug up, or is it some “Disneyfied” recreation of what they believe it once looked like?”
Sarhan’s answer was, a clever combination of both. Which had to satisfy me because it’s true but which mostly didn't because it did not sufficiently clarify which part of the restored city was which.
My reaction to Ephesus returned to mind while pondering a movie I saw recently called “The Rider.”
I have seen biographical movies where the lead character plays himself. The Jackie Robinson Story comes to mind, in which the actual Jackie Robinson played Jackie Robinson in the movie. Then there’s To Hell and Back, where “Congressional Medal of Honor Winner” Audie Murphy performed as “Congressional Medal of Honor Winner” Audie Murphy. More recently, there was Private Parts, in which “The King of All Media” Howard Stern portrayed “The King of All Media” Howard Stern.
Except for Stern, who was surprisingly believable as himself, the other two appeared demonstrably “wooden” onscreen. That perceived lifelessness could have resulted from the unfamiliar environment they were thrust into. Or they may have been demonstrably “wooden” in actual life, playing their colorless selves impeccably accurately. Or it could have been the cognitive dissonance of “I never did that” versus “Well, you do in this movie.”
“But it’s supposed to be me.”
“It is. As interpreted by us.”
“But played by the actual me.”
Whose head wouldn’t be spinning? “I’m me, playing ‘notme’, who’s supposed to be ‘me.’ I want more money!”
“The Rider”, written, produced and directed by Chloe Zhao, is the cinematic depiction of the life of Brady Jandreau, a rising rodeo performer whose career is derailed by a serious brain injury, acquired during competition. The film deals with how you move forward when your believed “Purpose in Life” is no longer available to you.
The thing is, like Ephesus, some of “The Rider” is real and some of it’s “manufactured” to look real.
As I type that, my brow reflexively begins to knit, the pertinent question once again being,
What exactly am I looking at?
Is it the real story of Brady Jandreau and his quest for personal meaning after his injury? Or is a dramatized replica of those circumstances? And if it’s a mixture of both, where exactly is the distinguishing line?
Let’s start with this, which blurs the lines right from the get-go.
In the movie, Brady Jandreau is called “Brady Blackburn.” Why? To protect his privacy? It’s a little late for that. The guy’s acting in the movie. Maybe, shot in the South Dakota’s “Badlands”, “Blackburn” sounded more authentic than Jandreau, South Dakota standing in for a more “Jandreau-typical” state that did not want to be involved. Do you see how befudding this is? What’s wrong with the actual names?
Going the aforementioned “Biopics” one step further, instead of only the movies’ lead actors playing themselves, “The Rider’s” cast includes numerous other characters from Brady Jandreau’s life, playing themselves.
Brady’s father, Tim Jandreau, plays “Wayne Blackburn.” I guess he demanded more “separation” from his character. They changed bothof hisnames.
TIM JANDREAU: “Now nobody knows it’s me… except the guy on the screen… is me.”
Brady Jandreau’s actual younger sister Lilly, portraying “Lilly Blackburn” – “Usemy first name. Who cares?” is totally believable because she’s Brady Jandreau’s actual younger sister Lilly. Also, perhaps most memorably, Brady’s personal hero who lost his power of speech and most of his motor abilities in yet another rodeo tragedy is heartbreakingly “present”, playing himself.
Mixing actual personages with professional actors works seamlessly. Everybody feels real. (And not demonstrably “wooden” at all.) You can also understand why Ethan Hawke, or somebody, didn’t play Brady. Aside from budgetary considerations, “Brady Blackburn” is required to display his prodigious abilities in the “breaking the horses” interludes. Watching a tutored actor execute those maneuvers would not be close to as remarkably credible. How do you duplicate “being a ‘natural’?”
Still – in the obligatory “caveat paragraph”, generally appearing near the end – three-quarters of the way through the movie, when a bereft Brady parks his car on the roadside and cries, I wondered, “Is that the script or actual life?” The muddying question took me right out of the “Crying Moment.” Which, maybe also, he didn’t entirely successfully pull off.
But hey, that’s acting.
And Brady Jandreau’s a cowboy.
I loved Ephesus, whatever it was.
I felt a similar enthusiasm for “The Rider.”