The Natural
by Scott Foundas
Sep 01, 2011 | 1658 views | 1 1 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The American cinema is far too long on technical wizards and much too short on poetic visionaries. So let us praise Carroll Ballard, an unheralded genius of wind and sky and arctic frost, of forbidding landscapes and the intrepid travelers who pass through them, of men who test themselves against nature and nature that proves itself against men. Had he come to movies a couple of generations earlier, he might now be regarded as one of the masters of the Western. As it is, it is doubtful any major director of his generation has shot fewer scenes indoors.

Ballard emerged from a celebrated crop of UCLA film school graduates including Francis Ford Coppola, a lifelong friend and supporter. (Indeed, when Coppola was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the San Francisco Film Festival in 2009, he immediately handed it over to his former classmate.) Ballard made documentaries for the U.S. Information Agency (Harvest earned a nomination for the 1967 documentary Oscar), and Chris Marker and Alexander Payne hailed his ingenious cat’s view short The Perils of Priscilla (1969) as a masterpiece. This year, Telluride presents another magnificent Ballard short, Rodeo, which transforms the 1968 national finals in Oklahoma City into a lyrical kaleidoscope of taped-up ribcages, boots inserted into stirrups, wildly bucking haunches and human bodies flying majestically through the air. A beautiful and terrifying film of man and beast locked in a primal ballet, it was ostensibly produced as a promotional film for Philip Morris, though you’ve never seen a commercial remotely like this.

Ballard next shot desert scenes for Star Wars, and then directed his feature debut The Black Stallion, which contains several of cinema’s most rapturous scenes of equine motion. It was 1979, the year of Apocalypse Now, and the apex of that great, heady era when the Bay Area presented itself as a haven for mavericks working away from Hollywood’s prying eyes. Stallion was a major hit, after surmounting the indifference of its own studio, a fate that bedeviled more than one Ballard production. In the 30 years since, Ballard has managed only five additional films—including Never Cry Wolf (1983), Fly Away Home (1996) and Duma (2005). Each was a struggle and a reminder of how little room Hollywood has for art of Ballard’s rarefied kind. Today, Ballard has traded his directing tools for those of a farmer, harvesting a modest plot of land in the Napa Valley. Though he claims to be through with filmmaking, the faithful should hold out hope for a second coming of Carroll Ballard.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: How did the idea of filming a rodeo come about? Why did it interest you?

CARROLL BALLARD: When I was eight years old, I saw a rodeo over in Reno. A guy got killed right in front of us; a bull-rider got thrown against the wall … It made a huge impression on me.

FOUNDAS: Some of the shots are astonishing—a guy being dragged along the ground in close up. You think, “How did they get that?”

BALLARD: I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of control over what happened. I needed to grab enough shots to make the story happen. So we went and shot for five nights. We were all longhairs. The announcer, Clem McSpadden, a big Oklahoma right-winger, announced there were some very suspect-looking individuals around, but they were actually part of the rodeo. He tried to give us a little protection.

Ninety-nine percent of the movie was shot during the rodeo itself. We had a couple of high-speed Mitchells, which were unbelievably cumbersome, difficult cameras to shoot with. We drew straws every night to who would be in the suicide pit, which was a hole in the ground out in the arena. We just had a pipe structure you could shoot out of. It was not exactly the safest place to be.

I went home with no idea what kind of footage I would discover. We knew we were going to have big exposure problems, even though we brought in a bunch of light to try to light it—it was a hockey stadium. I hung out in my little bedroom for three months, edited it together. I became intrigued with it as a metaphor for the American way of life. Everybody has to ride the bull. You start your business and you take your lumps.

FOUNDAS: If you had been making films in the 40s or 50s, you would have been making Westerns.

BALLARD: I’ve always wanted to make Westerns. I’ve wanted to make films about history, about the American frontier. That was my greatest ambition. But I’ve even been able to even be close to it.

FOUNDAS: Your six feature films really have integrity. Those are all Carroll Ballard movies. No one else could have made them that way. Have the long intervals between the films, longer and longer as years gone by, been strictly due to circumstance, or is part of it the resistance to taking jobs for hire, to taking projects that aren’t going to Carroll Ballard movies?

BALLARD: Several of the films I made I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about. I’ve never made a film that I wanted to make, including The Black Stallion.

FOUNDAS: The old studio directors, Walsh and Ford and Hawks, managed to find ways to make the films they wanted to make within the studio system.

BALLARD: Absolutely. And they played all the political games they need to walk that razor’s edge, to stay alive. At this point, I’m unemployable. It’s impossible. I will never make another film. I have this stamp on my forehead that says, “Warm and fuzzy nature guy.”


U.S., 1970, 20m

Precedes the feature Le Havre

Carroll Ballard
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January 20, 2012
I wish Carroll would make "The Monkey Wrench Gang."


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