Steelyard Blues

Director: Alan Myerson  
Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle

When I was in high school, I came across a quotation that has stuck in my brain for more than twenty years since I first read it. The quotation was, "Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist," which I subsequently found out originated with the philosopher Ralph Emerson more than a hundred years ago. I have to admit that my first instinct upon reading that quote was to not think too much about it. I felt that Emerson must be some kind of wimp to use such a fancy word such as "whoso", a feeling that I felt was confirmed when I subsequently found out that Emerson's middle name was "Waldo". Despite thinking such thoughts, the quotation stuck in my mind and I couldn't help but think about it. The more that I thought about the quote during the next few weeks, the more I thought that this Ralph Emerson might have been on to something. True, Emerson might have had a wimpy and uncommon middle name... but I had a wimpy and uncommon first name. In that regard, I was definitely a non-conformist, and thinking about it some more, I realized that I was a non-conformist in many different parts of my life. Unlike the other kids at my school, when I turned sixteen, I didn't immediately race to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driver's license. Even if I had got my driver's license then, I wouldn't have used it, because I was content to simply stay at home and watch TV, read a book, or muck around on the computer. Needless to say, my "oddball" behavior couldn't help but be noticed by my peers at school, and I was often mocked. That's why I took comfort in that quotation - since I was a non-conformist, I was more of a man than the other kids at school.

My non-conformist ways have continued since high school. Take this web site, for example. While I decided to focus on unknown movies so I would be able to stand out from the hundreds of other movie review sites on the Internet, I also chose this focus because I am so often drawn to the offbeat, to what others ignore or barely give any focus towards. When I see a great unknown movie, I get an extreme feeling of pleasure, because I feel I am experiencing something special that just myself and maybe a few other people know about. There are many times definite advantages to being a non-conformist. Neverless, I will admit that despite what Emerson said, I do think that it's a good thing that not everyone is a non-conformist. When you think about, we all need some kind of agreement to keep a society stable. If everyone had a different opinion about everything, I think that any civilization would quickly crumble and everyone would be lost. No one would be able to agree on what to do, and nothing would be done. Anyway, despite what I just wrote, I do feel that it is a good idea for every society to have a section that has people thinking in a non-conformist way. This is how new inventions are created, by people who are not satisfied by how the quality of their lives are, and have the ambition to make things even better. Non-conformist thinking is also the way how a government stays stable. If a government wasn't able to think about different solutions for a problem in society, nothing would ever be done. We'd still be in the Stone Age.

But when it comes to non-conformity in a society, there can be individuals with this mindset that might be considered a problem to the majority of the society, towards those who are more likely to conform. There are those who are homeless for various reasons, whether it's because of mental Steelyard Bluesproblems or for various addictions. There are also those who disregard the rules in a way that has them branded as criminals, whether it is for petty or more serious crimes. Then there are those who just have a personality and attitude that jars with the rest of society. People like those fascinate me. While people like that can irk me when they don't have any regard to others, at the same time I admire them for acting exactly like they want to. That's why Steelyard Blues appealed to me when I found it in the bargain bin of my local discount store, because it promised to deal with multiple misfits all looking for their place in the sun. The movie starts off with one Jesse Veldini (Sutherland, Free Money) being released from prison after a two year stretch. His district attorney brother Frank (Howard Hesseman, Head Of The Class), who has political ambitions, is determined to keep Jesse from further embarrassing him, and forces Jesse into the confines of a seedy apartment and a job at the local zoo. But Jesse refuses to be confined, and quickly restarts his relationship with his other brother (John Savage, The Deer Hunter). He also reconnects with mental patient Eagle (Peter Boyle, Everybody Loves Raymond), a hooker and sometimes girlfriend with the name of Iris (Fonda, Klute), as well as a oddball named Duval (Gary Goodrow, My Man Adam). Together, these five misfits hang around Duval's property, where there is a rusted-out seaplane Duval is restoring. Duval's friends eventually join in with the restoration, with the hope that once the airplane is finished, they can fly to any place they feel like and leave their confining lives behind.

The screenplay for Steelyard Blues was written by screenwriter David S. Ward, who has made a name for himself by writing screenplays that concern oddballs and misfits clashing with a more or less normal society. (Some of his other movies include Major League, King Ralph, and the Oscar-winning The Sting.) Knowing this before watching the movie, I was prepared for something quite unconventional, especially since this was a movie from the 1970s, an era where nonconformity was not unusual in Hollywood movies. And more often than not, I liked the movie's spirit of nonconformity. Still, there were some parts of the movie that I wished could have been handled in a more traditional way. One way that I think Steelyard Blues could have been better constructed would be how many of the characters are introduced. For starters, pretty much every character I listed in the previous paragraph is introduced in the movie's first few minutes. As you can probably imagine, with all of these people making an appearance in such a short amount of time, it is difficult for the viewer to keep things straight in his or her mind. We are given very little information as to how they characters are related to each other, and there are equally confusing other moments like how Eagle (who has just escaped from a mental asylum) somehow subsequently manages to bump into the newly released from jail Jesse on the streets just a brief time later. (And we are given no clue at that point what their relationship is.) The relationships between the central characters do become somewhat clearer later on in the movie, though not entirely - there is always some confusion about the relationship between any two (or more) of these characters.

Another problem I had with the movie was its reluctance to announce where it was going. While part of me was glad that the movie was definitely not following a plot I had seen in many movies before, I was kind of frustrated that for the longest time, the movie didn't seem to have any point. Eventually we do learn that the characters are planning to fix that airplane and leave their confined lives behind, but until that point there were several moments in the movie when I was thinking, "What does this have to do with the movie's plot?" to a scene that didn't seem to have any purpose towards advancing the plot. Still, I must admit that often when I was thinking that thought, at the same time there was something else about the scene in question that pleased me. Although there are plenty of moments that stop any advance in the movie's story, quite often instead we are given moments that give us insight into the characters' minds. For example, there is one scene where Frank and Jesse are in a small room. The ex-con Jesse pulls out a ball and starts throwing it with force in the vicinity of his successful brother Frank, almost hitting him. Frank then grabs the ball and starts throwing it with equal force towards Jesse, also almost hitting him. They both laugh at this, but you can see that they are also gritting their teeth at the same time. While this moment may not advance the plot, it does give us insight into these two feuding brothers. Jesse obviously has some resentment towards his interfering brother and Frank is frustrated by Jesse's unconforming behaviour. And both brothers are letting off steam in an extremely childish way, showing that although they are both adults, they still have a lot of growing up to do.

As I said, there are a lot of little character moments like that throughout the movie that make Steelyard Blues a very pleasing experience despite the lack of plot. Quite often these moments are very funny, like an early scene when Jesse visits Frank's office and unintentionally (or not?) starts to destroy the surroundings as he and Frank speak to each other. These character moments, by the way, wouldn't have worked very well if each member of the cast had not found the right tone to make their characters and actions believable. Each of the principle actors finds a unique tone that both differentiates from each other yet comes across as natural and believable. Fonda's prostitute character, for example, comes across as weary and fed up with her life, just like what you would expect from someone who's seen and done it all. When these characters get together and interact, there is a casual feeling, at times almost like these actors are improvising instead of spouting off dialogue we have heard in other movies before. This unpredictability really interested me and kept me watching, despite stuff like the fact that there isn't a lot of plot going on in the background. I wanted to see what these characters would do, and how they would end up. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that the ending, as odd as it will come across to many people, felt exactly right for a movie concerning itself with kooky and unpredictable characters. No, Steelyard Blues isn't for everybody - those wanting the same old things done in the same old ways won't find it endearing. But for those wanting something different than the same old thing will find it extremely appealing.

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See also: Breezy, Door To Door, My Man Adam