YEAR OF THE HORSENR
For some audience segment, the question on their mind about The Year of the Horse will not be whether to see the film but who to see it for: its subjects, Neil Young and the musicians of Crazy Horse, or its director, Jim Jarmusch? It can sound like an agonizing toss-up, but it really isn't. Both the rock band and the filmmaker have plenty of critical credibility, yet neither is without their potent detractors. Neil Young and Crazy Horse (the official name of the group with Young) are reviled by some for their extended jams that conspicuously creep near Dead bliss, while Jarmusch is regularly tarred-and-feathered by some critics for reworking the quiet, radical styles of Bresson, Akerman and Straub/Huillet into a popularized product. Neither total outcasts nor artists with any real mainstream pretensions, the group and the director both make work that's broadly appealing while narrowly focused in artistic range, and their austerity must appeal to a lot of the same audiences. The two could make a nice fit for a movie documentary.
But The Year of the Horse mostly brings out their latest differences. While Young and his three-piece band (guitarist Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina) continue to hone their mammoth, jagged sound into an ever-more seamless arc of noise, Jarmusch dabbles with experiment. After the oh-so-virtuously lit and framed Dead Man, it's nice to see Jarmusch try a tougher, more flexible look with his new film; however, just as Dead Man flirted with camp, and with making narrative invention for the sake of novelty, Horse too often comes across as so much fiddling with graphics and visual formats. Instead of offering insight into the band, Jarmusch is busy parading his quirks across the screen.
Not that Jarmusch doesn't try to penetrate through to what makes these four individuals tick. Some of the best interview footage is with Young's father, whose confidence in his son and very articulateness explain much of why Young succeeeded in his career. During concert footage, Jarmusch tries an innovative way of evoking Neil Young and Crazy Horse's ethereal, free-form, groping music. He shoots some of this material in Super-8, and its ghostly, dark, almost surreally flattened appearance comes close to making a cinematic equivalent to the songs. But we don't get nearly enough of it, the film arbitrarily cuts between Super-8 and 16mm footage, and Jarmusch's cutaways during practically all of the songs to 'casual incidents on the tour' involving the musicians smacks of music-video comic inserts. Jarmusch also edits in quite a lot of material from 1976 documentary footage throughout, with not much more purpose than making a half-hearted nod to the band's quarter-century history.
Watching the musicians on film go through long, searching improvisations on stage, it might occur to some viewers that the songs have the spirit of extreme long takes. Like some very lengthy shots in films by Rivette and de Oliveira, the songs step into storytelling 'deadtime,' purely to evoke mood and nuance. Jarmusch might have taken a lesson, in fact, from the memorable eight-minute, nearly single-take scene of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia performing Van Morrison's 'Take Me Back.' The concentration of Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their music deserves Jarmusch's concentration, as well. Letting the camera run on for just one of the band's 13 live numbers that are included in this film, thus taking an opportunity to allow the moments of a performance to unfold in their own time, more so than in Jarmusch's, would have been at least interesting. It may not have been commercial, but it would have been brave.