• An Honest Bull Session with Carroll Ballard

    By Michael Sragow

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    Rodeo

    Few endeavors give programmers greater satisfaction than introducing one master filmmaker to a masterpiece by another. We got the chance to do just that when we scheduled Carroll Ballard’s Rodeo (1969) and Francesco Rosi’s The Moment of Truth (1965) as this week’s Short + Feature on the Criterion Channel, then asked Ballard, the cinemagician behind such enchanting films as The Black Stallion (1979) and Duma (2005), to look at the bristling action classic by the director of political-movie milestones like Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Hands over the City (1963).

    I figured that Ballard would feel a kinship to Rosi, and I even learned later that Ballard’s wife and collaborator, Christina Luescher, was a friend of the Italian filmmaker and had decorated the magnificent sets on his 1976 Illustrious Corpses. In the films we’ve paired on the Channel, Ballard and Rosi hurl us into the arena with bull riders, bullfighters, and fierce bovine antagonists, creatively exploiting documentary techniques in their quest to create dynamic and expressive cinema. Rodeo is a short nonfiction portrait of champion Larry Mahan during the 1968 National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City, while The Moment of Truth stars actual torero Miguel “Miguelín” Mateo as a young peasant bursting with energy, bravado, and ambition who makes a name for himself in the bullring. Yet the films share a ravenous appetite for lived experience, and for all the nuances to be found in the Hemingwayesque spectacle of men testing their smarts, skills, and reflexes against animal strength and instinct. They are alive to the intricacy and seduction of obsessive preparation and ritual, whether it’s in shots of bull riders snapping their flat braided ropes and adjusting their belt buckles, or toreros waving their magenta-and-gold capes and climbing into their skin-tight “suits of light.” Each artist is stunningly subjective in his ability to bring you inside the athletes’ heads—and scarily objective in his view of bulls as formidable opponents.

    Ballard saw the parallels immediately.

    What was your first reaction to The Moment of Truth?

    It was very interesting to me, because had I seen the movie before I did Rodeo I probably would have done it differently! Had I known there was another movie out there about a man with a date with a big animal, I would have tried to make the transformation of reality in Rodeo more dramatic—the dream-nightmare aspect and the slowing of time more upfront—to make it stand more on its own.

    Actually, they are very different movies, but they have a few aspects in common. I can see how we both kind of used the same approach. I shot Rodeo at the National Finals Rodeo when it was going on. One thing I did was put a red shirt and a black hat on every cowboy who rode a black bull. So I got all sorts of freebie shots I could then bridge through the material with. I can see Rosi did a similar thing, where he cast a real bullfighter and shot him doing his bullfighting, then integrated that material into more of a fictional story. I think some of that came out of shooting with a really small crew. Moment of Truth was shot in Techniscope so he was shooting with very light cameras, which opened the door to making a film like that.

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    The Moment of Truth

    The spectacle is thrilling but it’s also horrifying.

    Once I went to a bullfight in Tijuana, and I was completely appalled. It was the bloodiest thing imaginable. Four or five horses got killed. They had their guts ripped out—the bulls were running around with the entrails on their horns. It was just unbelievably awful. This film, I thought, did a good job of getting what goes on while avoiding the worst of that stuff.

    Rosi does want us to see the bullfights, at least in part, as ritualized slaughter.

    That’s the point of that parade at the beginning, with the religious imagery—the guys with their black costumes that look like Ku Klux Klan outfits. That’s the element that fascinates me in the film. I wish there had been even more of that.

    In the introduction to Rodeo you recorded for Criterion in 2014, you talk about your experience of going to a rodeo with your parents when you were a kid.

    I was very young. I was maybe six, seven, or eight years old. I was with my parents, we ended up at this rodeo, and I didn’t know what to expect. I was so impressed by what the people were doing with horses and big animals—I didn’t know much about those big animals!

    I always remembered the moment when a rider was killed before my eyes. I was never anxious to see the rodeo again. But when I was doing pictures for the USIA [the United States Information Agency], they wanted me to submit some ideas for American subjects. I prepared this little five- or six-page treatment of rodeos. The element that’s missing in it, from what I did in the movie, is that I wanted the action to slow down, slowly. The idea was that we’d follow this guy before he rides, with all this anxiety, and finally when he rides, the action slows down. Somehow Marlboro got wind of that treatment and proposed making this picture.

    Slow motion really hadn’t been done much in America—you were shooting after Bonnie and Clyde came out, in 1967, and before The Wild Bunch came out, in1969.

    It was mostly a gimmick, used occasionally for sports things and stuff like that. But I wanted to heighten that moment. I wanted to make time change, the way it seems to when you’re anxious about what’s going to happen.

    Getting into a character’s perspective, even if the character is an animal, seems crucial to your work.

    Point of view is the whole ball game as far as I’m concerned.

    Unlike Rodeo, Rosi never uses slow motion—

    No, I don’t think he does—

    But he does get some of the same effects when the action itself slows down, like in that great close-up of the matador’s head with the bull’s head right behind him.

    Right. And though it looks really good, some of that stuff has to be faked. When the guy’s face hits the ground in Rodeo, we obviously had to fake that. He must have done the same things with the toreador.

    How much poetic license did you give yourself when putting Rodeo together?

    I didn’t have a clear conception of how I was going to do this movie. Marlboro gave me twenty grand to make it and I hired four of my friends to help me shoot it and we all flew into the National Finals Rodeo. Marlboro had stipulated the guy they wanted to be featured [Larry Mahan], so I followed him as he was actually doing the rodeo, because he was National Finals champion at that time. Rodeo kind of dumps you down in the middle of his world with Larry the bull rider. We shot him every way we could think of. Then I guessed at what I had on film and tried to fill in with stuff I faked. That was a little bit of the method that Rosi also used. He probably did a lot of the bullfight stuff before he did the rest of it, so he knew what he had to fit the story into.

    There was this famous Oklahoma guy who was an announcer at the rodeo. He was a state senator, and his name was Clem McSpadden. This was during Vietnam, and we were all bearded guys from L.A. He gave a little speech for us every night to keep us from being attacked. Every night he would announce to the crowd that there were these people among us here, and we have officially sanctioned them. [Laughs.] It was like operating in a foreign country. The rodeo was five nights. I had enough money to buy a case of film and that was it. We ran out after the fourth night.

    Rosi used long lenses to get closer to the bulls than anyone ever had before. Did you use them too?

    I used a combination of things. Everybody on the crew was shooting. I had cameras shooting out at the ends with a really long lens. I was shooting with a handheld 35 next to the guys who were riding. Then we had this thing called the suicide pit. It was a hole in the ground in the middle of the arena, with some piping sitting on top of it. That’s where we did the real slow-motion stuff. We had to use an old high-speed Mitchell camera. It was like a B-29, that thing. Gigantic. It took anywhere from six to ten or fifteen seconds before it could get up to speed. So when the guy opens the gate and the bull comes flying out, you’ve got to get up to speed and be ready to do some really fast focusing and follow the action. Every night we drew straws to see who would go into the suicide pit.

    When you said you were shooting next to the guys—

    I was just there in the chutes. The chutes are made out of steel pipe, and I’d climb up and just shoot off of there. In all my films I use these handheld Eclairs, CM3, the old originals; they were very easy to move around.

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    Rodeo

    You’ve always shot documentary-style, even when telling fictional stories.

    I was always more interested in documentaries, because they were real.

    Rodeo shows you what chance can bring you. So little of it was actually figured out beforehand. When we scored the movie we didn’t have enough money to go into a place to do the music. So we put the Moviola [an editing machine with a postcard-size screen] in the sound booth. We had the guys look at it through the window with the movie running. [Laughs.] They improvised music that was going to fit. You did not want to record the sound of the Moviola, so the guys just looked through the window of the booth.

    We did it in like four hours. The music guy was a great folk musician, Dick Rosmini, a twelve-string guitarist, totally brilliant. He said, “Why don’t we base this on ‘Amazing Grace’?” It was before Judy Collins did her record, before it became part of popular music. “OK, we’ll do riffs on that.” I’d never heard it before, that great old hymn. We had a banjo, a pedal-steel, a Dobro, a twelve-string.

    In the finished film, how much is Larry Mahan, the rodeo guy?

    I’d say maybe 25 percent are the other guys.

    You do wonder what leads men to put themselves in such danger, trying to hold on to a bull for eight seconds.

    The great rodeo movie that nobody has made yet is about the relationships that exist between these guys. A lot of them are obsessed with trying to prove their masculinity, to the point where it gets out of hand. It’s an American phenomenon.

    Many years ago I was hired to do a picture called Junior Bonner, because people who saw Rodeo thought, “OK, this is the guy we need to make a rodeo film.” I was on for maybe a month, working with Steve McQueen. And then they brought on Sam Peckinpah to do the film. What I think bumped me off with McQueen was—I was trying to get him to be this really insecure guy who has to pump himself up to do this stuff and have that relationship with the other guys. I don’t know for sure, but I think that made McQueen really uneasy, so he bailed and brought in Sam. McQueen actually was a very insecure guy—and that’s the guy I wanted, if he’d been willing to play him. But McQueen was uncomfortable moving out of his own macho routine.

    Watching Rodeo and Rosi’s movie—

    It brings you back to a different time—that’s what interested me the most about seeing Moment of Truth. A lot of what’s in those films came out of the time they were made in. It was a time when certain things became possible. We were in totally different situations, but we exploited some of the same openings.

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