"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Goodbye, Westerns

Michael Agresta, writing in The Atlantic (7.25.13) laments the demise of the Western, for with it goes a forum for teaching morality:

For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don't like what we see staring back at us.

Westerns have earned their place at the heart of the national culture and American iconography abroad because they've provided a reliable vehicle for filmmakers to explore thorny issues of American history and character. In the enduring examples of the genre, the real threat to the homestead, we learn, is an economic system that is being rigged for the wealthy, or the search for the bad guy becomes a search for meaning in a culture of violent retribution, or the treasure of the Sierra Madre is a diabolical mirage of the American dream.

This is nonsense, of course, because filmgoers liked cowboy movies because of the gunfights. We never saw the big-time rancher who forces the idealistic sod-buster off his land as a greedy capitalist.  The thugs who set fire to the poor farmer’s barn and run off the livestock didn’t represent the evil, predatory nature of a laissez-faire economic system. The cowboys who thundered across the plains shooting at naked savages in war paint and feathers were not racist marauders and retrograde symbols of America’s inherent genocidal nature.  They were men in black hats or white hats.  Heroes or villains. Cowboys or Indians.

Americans have always loved Westerns because we like adventure stories pitting the good guys against the bad.  It doesn’t matter if these good guys are The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, or Clint Eastwood; or Hans Solo, Batman, Superman, or He-Man. 

It doesn’t matter whether we follow their exploits in the movies, on TV, or in comic books.  We have always loved a rip-roaring tale with heroes and villains, lovely ladies tied to the railroad tracks, great vistas, and a thrilling score. Star Wars was a space western. The Terminator movies were sci-fi shoot-‘em-ups just like the films set 100 years ago on the Western plains.

Agresta has an axe to grind – American ‘imperialism’ – and like many RGE (Race, Gender, Ethnicity) freaks, is turning over every rock looking for examples of bad behavior:

Over the '50s, '60s, and '70s however, as America enforced its dominion over half the planet with a long series of coups, assassinations, and increasingly dubious wars (my bolding), the figure of the cowboy grew darker and more complicated. If you love Westerns, most of your favorites are probably from this era--Shane, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the spaghetti westerns, etc. By the height of the Vietnam protest era, cowboys were antiheroes as often as they were heroes.

Once again, sheer nonsense. Why did we love Butch Cassidy? Because it had humor, insouciance, and male bonding.  A new genre was born.  Why did we line up for the spaghetti westerns? Not because they were reflective of the dark forces of American nationalism and rude pushes for hegemony.  They were simply great fun. The Eli Wallach character (The Ugly) was nonpareil – he was a scurrilous, low-down, cheat and coward; but he was likeable and a perfect foil to the tall, iconic Man With No Name.  The Bad, the slit-eyed evil Lee Van Cleef villain was pure caricature.  The sweaty, Fellini-esque Mexicans, half-breeds, and layabouts that populated the dusty West of Sergio Leone were a nice change from the trim, barbered villains of the early days.

The recent movie, The Lone Ranger, deserves its pitiful audience response.  We can’t be fooled.  That warn’t no goddam Western!  It was Johnny Depp doing his tranny Pirates of the Caribbean thing with all that eye make-up within a sanctimonious story of The Noble Savage. 

When my sister and I used to watch the old-fashioned Westerns of the Fifties, and the barebacked battles on the plains, we didn’t see white men killing Native Americans in an expression of Manifest Destiny at its most immoral.  We saw only a wild chase on the plains with lots of whoops and hollers, gunfire, and thundering hooves.

I love the Jason Bourne movies for the same reason.  Yes, there is the unholy complicity of American security agencies gone rogue, but the movie is not about that.  It is about the car chases, the shoot-outs, and the good ol’ fist fights.

Agresta never gives up and he is PC to the very end:

The other great theme of the Western, after that of the conquering of native peoples and the establishment of civilization in the desert (bolding again mine), is that of loss and of nostalgia for a certain way of life--the early freedoms of the West, the idea of riding across an unfenced landscape, the infinite possibilities of the frontier. That "West," of course, is already gone, fallen, conquered. It has been for decades, even though holding onto some sense of it seems crucial to our identity as Americans. Movie Westerns have been tracking that loss for a century.

We are soppy fools, he says, to have a nostalgia for the West which is not simply a part of history, but “gone, fallen, conquered” – a boil on the back of American history finally lanced.  Good riddance, he says, but at the same time laments the passing of the genre. He can’t make up his mind.

Most of the rest of us can.  If we don’t love Westerns the way we used to, it is for a good, and very simple reasons.  The high-tech version of good guys vs. bad guys is much more fun.  We are neither rejecting the West and our past, nor finally resolving our ambivalence about American westward expansion and native American genocide.  We simply like Uzis, laser guns, and gigantic, volcanic explosions.

Time for the PC crowd to lighten up.

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