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How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Westerns

In Movies on May 30, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Two anecdotes:

I am nine years old. In an effort ot distract me and my sister from our mother’s recent death, my father takes the two of us (and our tiny brother) to a rodeo just outside of Portland. It rains, and the performance is not particularly good that night. My sister and I are pelted with rainwater and are undistracted from our loss.
The other:
I am fifteen years old. I have completed my freshman year of high school, and it is summer. For most places, I am just too young. They will hire sixteen year olds, yes, but not anyone younger. Because I cannot find a job in Portland before summer vacation lets out, my father arranges for me to work on a garlic farm in eastern Oregon.
I get off a Greyhound at the designated spot. A man in a workshirt asks me if I’m Joe, and I say that yes, I am. I get in his car and he takes me to his farm, where I’m work for the duration. I live with his family- he, his wife, and two daughters. My room is in the basement, and I sleep on a cot next to a large meat freezer. On the wall, there is a poster. It is a poster of Ronald Reagan. He is wearing a cowboy hat, and the poster reads: “AMERICA: REAGAN COUNTRY.” I sleep next to this. When I am alone in the basement, I listen to the Led Zepplin tapes that I brought with me, or read some of the Asimov novels that were in my suitcase.
During the day I move irrigation pipe. I learn how to ride a motorbike, shoot a rifle, and move large sections of pipe in a set pattern. It is an easy job because I don’t have to think. It is a hard job because it is repetitive and physically exhausting.
When I converse with people, I realize that I am in the minority. The people in eastern Oregon do not like abortion, or gay people, or people who are not Christian. They listen to Rush Limbaugh and modern country music. They watch versions of Hollywood movies that have the nudity edited out, and the swearing bleeped. I am in foreign territory.
I try to stand up for what I believe in- I tell that that it’s okay to be gay or have abortions. I am argued with, and I lose, because I’m only fifteen. I know that I’m right, but I cannot defend myself.
Therein are the reasons that I’ve never loved westerns. Also, my dad liked them and I dismissed them as a genre for old people.
Westerns have reminded me, perhaps unfairly, of that postmortem rodeo and that summer on a farm. I am reminded of a certain bleakness, crying in the rain, or trying naively telling a whole swathe of America that homophobia is wrong.
When I thought of westerns, I thought of that poster of Reagan in his smug cowboy hat, “AMERICA: REAGAN COUNTRY” above my old cot. I did not want to be a part of that. I did not want to enjoy or abet that.
I thought of westerns as enemy territory- lumped them in culturally with Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Christian rock. The repetitive myths of Red State America.
I am now prepared to say I was wrong about westerns.
Yes, this is all in part because I’m playing through Red Dead Redemption right now, for those of you who know what a horrendous geek I am. That is the catalyst. But, I have to acknowledge that there were always examples of the genre that I’ve enjoyed.
I quite liked the Dollars trilogy, The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, Stagecoach, The Searchers, and Unforgiven. However, each and every time I watched a western I enjoyed, I simply assumed it was an exception, a classic that was non-representative of the genre. Last night I saw Tombstone with some friends of mine, though, and it’s really clicked for me- the western is not a genre that has much to do with rural America.
Yes, Red State America might lionize the cowboy, but, truth be told, westerns are just like space operas, gangster movies, fantasy, etc. They are fantasy films. They do not actually take place in America in the 1800s. The desolate land they show is an idealized no-man’s-land, a fantasy apocalypse. The movies where Clint Eastwood guns down outlaws have nothing to do with history- they take place in the same cinematic universe as Star Wars and Kill Bill. This is a facile revelation to have, but, fuck it, I’m enjoying it.
Westerns, now that I’ve divorced them from history and political context, are a great genre. They’re about civilization without infrastructure, organized crime, social and political progress, self-reliance, social and political ostracism, and, of course, shit-tons of dead dudes.
The world that they take place in is fairly divorced from the actual American frontier, if only because several of the gun tricks pulled off by cinematic gunslingers are actually impossible. More importantly, though, there is nowhere that bleak violent. There is no place that is actually as nihlistic or horrible as the west that the Man With No Name or his compatriots inhabit. It is as fanciful as Dagobah.
Because of that, (and because of encroaching maturity) I’ve been able to watch westerns and simply enjoy them, like them as a genre piece as opposed to monuments to Red America. I recently rewatched A Fistful of Dollars and loved it. It, like the science fiction movies and books that I love so much, exists in a world apart from and other than our own. Its world is a compelling alien and cinematic one, an open dead place of violence and airlessness and unthoughtof potential. It is an curious place, one that exists without coordinates or real dates. Because of that, I thought not at all of the horrid bleakness of Red America and enjoyed it thoroughly.
  1. I had a similar revelation after reading Blood Meridian and watching Deadwood. Both works present a pretty idealized, dystopian version of the Old West that I doubt is particularly representative, but turns them in to legitimately interesting works (as opposed to more sentimental pioneer fiction, which still doesn't appeal to me). The rugged, individualist frontier mythos has grown on me quite a bit over the years, too.

  2. It took me a long time to get over myself and appreciate westerns, too. I highly recommend Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Paul Newman & Robert Redford at their best.

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