Sunday 12 October 2014

Tennessee's Partner (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Mikal Benion, Andre Stephens, Michael Rivers, Jason Tucker, Hanifah Holsome, Billy Williams, Gus Edwards and Dre Ducati
I remembered Tennessee's Partner pretty well from its festival screening. It stood out at the time because it had an all black cast, the pace was notably slow and the music was a little different to the films around it. After rewatching, it's the genre that stands out as Mills converted it into a completely different style to the 1869 story by Bret Harte. Harte is mostly known for his early work that surrounds the California gold rush, so westerns. Tennessee's Partner is one of his most remembered stories, enough that it's inspired a following. Allan Dwan directed a feature in 1955 with Ronald Reagan in the title role, playing what Peter Bogdanovich described as 'his most likeable performance.' Parts of the western musical Paint Your Wagon are clearly inspired by it, as is the Four Seasons song Big Girls Don't Cry, at least in the memory of lyricist Bob Gaudio, as recounted in Jersey Boys; he thought he was watching John Payne in Tennessee's Partner, when it was really John Payne in Slightly Scarlet. Anyway, Travis Mills turns it into an urban gangster flick.

It's an odd story, with an odder ending. I literally reread the last couple of paragraphs half a dozen times to figure out exactly what Harte was trying to say. Initially I thought he'd turned his western into a ghost story, but really he was emphasising the brotherly love between Tennessee and the unnamed character known only as Tennessee's Partner. It's a strong one because it had already survived the sort of incident which would set most brothers at each other's throats. After Tennessee's Partner had brought back a wife to the fancifully named Poker Flat, Tennessee promptly stole her away for himself. Yet when he returned, without her, as she'd been stolen away in turn by another, the Partner met him with a handshake and not an ill word said. No wonder the similarly nameless narrator (Harte makes it clear that names have little meaning in Poker Flat) felt it important to tell the tale of this forgiving man who met betrayal with loyalty. He's a simple and serious man, who risks his life for his partner and whose dying thoughts are of him.

Mills actually keeps most of the story intact, even with its translation to east side gangster story. He kicks things off at the point where Tennessee returns and tells it primarily through the gossip of two black men who sit on a porch and drink. As is appropriate for a Bret Harte story, they aren't given names but they're played by Billy Williams and Running Wild Films co-founder Gus Edwards and the dialogue is strong. This is a good way to fill in background and both of them are easily up to it. As neither of them is likely to ever leave that porch unless its to get a fresh bottle, it falls instead to Mikal Benion's character, who sits there listening but never saying a word, to literally take us with him to witness the consequences of the events they're gossiping about. Quite why he's such an obvious tail I have no idea. Maybe Mills read 'simple and serious' in another fashion entirely. Maybe his Partner is happy for someone to tell his story. Maybe it's all conjured out of the mind of Benion's character, of which more later.
What Mills cuts out is the ending, not only those last couple of paragraphs that I had to reread but quite a few before it too. In Harte's story, Tennessee is known to be a gambler and suspected to be a thief, but he apparently gets a little too blatant and is consequently tried for armed robbery. Quite whether this is true or not is open to debate, given that he's caught and tried by the man he allegedly robbed, a Judge Lynch no less, in one day, then hanged and buried the next. The wings of justice were ever swift in the old west, but they weren't always just, especially with the word 'lynch' in play. Even with his translation to gangster flick, Mills keeps it all consistent up until the trial, merely substituting the real judge for a local crime lord merely nicknamed 'the Judge', again an appropriate switch for a Bret Harte story in which everyone goes by a nickname whether they need one or not. After that, he takes a couple of details from the story and gives them a whole new meaning, thus providing an intriguingly new and more substantial ending.

I liked Tennessee's Partner when I first saw it, but that ending is what's staying with me from this viewing. It's appropriate to quote a western here, given that's what Harte wrote, so I'll quote the memorable line from the ending of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which said that, 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.' Everything in Tennessee's Partner, both the original story and this adaptation of it, are legend, recounted by a nameless narrator about characters whose real names he doesn't know. It's very possible that he transcribed hearsay to go with what he saw, or perhaps just made stuff up. The truth is so far hidden behind the words that we can only guess at it. Mills taps into this with an adaptation that does the same. If Benion's character is the narrator, ironic as he never speaks, he does the same thing: watching and listening and turning it all into an unreliable story. It's always possible that he's recounting the legend to us just as much as the old gossips told parts of it to him. But hey, it's a good legend.

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