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August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
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Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
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Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
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Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Western threads
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red-dead-500

I saw the new video game Red Dead Redemption for the first time this weekend, courtesy of my pal Wilson, who described it (and I paraphrase) as “every awesome Western ever, combined.”

It is indeed totally stunning, and it’s got me thinking about Westerns. Among other things:

What clicks in your mind when you think about Westerns? Any recent movies I ought to see? Any other fun stuff out there?

Update: Yes, this post was Tim-bait, and whoah yes, he delivers. I’m considering just pasting his comment into the body of the post and moving what I wrote to the comments…

16 comments

Betty Ann says…

Appaloosa you say … you might like this http://tinyurl.com/2fkncjh

Did I just get cowboy-cat-rolled?

Sweet Jesus.

That is:

I love Westerns and watch them compulsively. My default rejoinder to any half-baked claim about science-fiction having a monopoly on ideas in literature (or even just genre fiction) has always been “what, you think Westerns don’t have ideas?

A few notes on the Western:

1) It’s a genre that we associate with movies but lives (and robustly, too) in television, books, comics, radio, and virtually all other media, and always has. That is, as long as the Western’s been around, it’s been a transmedia genre. This also means that for every Serious Man Facing Serious Issues like Gary Cooper in High Noon, there’s a little kid somewhere with a tin badge and a domino mask pretending to be The Lone Ranger.

2) That said, I love the gritty, dark-hat, existentialist stuff. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is probably my favorite. I wrote and gave a paper at a conference on Antigone in Dublin about Unforgiven, Greek tragedy, and the Rodney King verdict. Besides Eastwood, my favorite director is Sam Peckinpah, who brought the Hemingway-ethos-plus-ballet-action-choreography, which pretty much gets you current with the last forty years of the popular action film. And then there’s Deadwood, especially the dark miracle that is the first season. Anything that isn’t explained in High Noon or Rio Bravo (and a great deal that is) is explained in Deadwood. In fact, it trumps them both, because it takes High Noon’s flawed heroes in a totally bankrupt world and makes the community of Rio Bravo out of them anyways. Virtuoso sociology, as profane Shakespearean dialogue.

3) Westerns are almost always about the simultaneous necessity and limitations of civilization and all of its institutions, which is one reason why it has such an affinity with Greek tragedy.

4) They’re marvelous places to watch the collisions of cultures. It’s America, and not America, America when it was the U.S. and also Mexico, and Indian land, and wild territory. Ralph Ellison’s “Going Out to the Territory” is a terrific essay about the idea/reality of the multicultural American west, as well as a great memoir about a childhood spent in Oklahoma, and an extended meditation on Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. His unbelievably good unfinished second novel Juneteenth mines a lot of the same territory.

5) This is well-known, but the DNA of the Western is also that of the samurai film, from Ford/Hawks to Kurosawa and back again, via Leone, Peckinpah, Eastwood, and a lot of bad remakes. (BTW, this is an idea from my Unforgiven paper which is free — someone should totally make a samurai version of Antigone.)

Yo, have you played it?

“The Unforgiven” is undoubtedly a favorite of mine as well, but if you’re looking for existential grit (what a great band name!), you can’t go wrong with “The Proposition”. It’s like an epic poem.

Saheli says…

Here’s a completely random contribution: a movie I saw as a child in the theaters, which moved me deeply, and which I keep meaning to get on DVD again. Man and Boy, one of Bill Cosby’s first feature films.

Saheli says…

I should note that I think I saw it on a school field trip, because it was definitely on some sort of special run.

Will P. says…

STAGECOACH. This is the alpha and omega of Westerns, John Ford’s directing, John Wayne’s acting career, the history of film, etc. That may sound like it will be boring, but good. It isn’t.

Obviously all the Leone films. “Good/Bad/Ugly” gets the most critical love, but the first two are just so fun and uncomplicated and fresh that I think I like them better. If you want more Clint Eastwood, watch “High Plains Drifter,” and be prepared to be slightly shocked and moderately confused. Talk about painting the town red…

“Dead Man” is an awesome Jarmusch/Depp/Neil Young collabo.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” takes the Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne archetypes and throws them together. “The Searchers” is another good John Wayne standard.

The new “3:10 to Yuma” was actually pretty decent.

And obviously “Blazin’ Saddles” to see a movie taking the piss from all these classics.

Start there, and have fun! And definitely play Red Dead too; it’s great.

W

Matthew Battles says…

Huge Western fan. Tim, I love what you’re saying here about transmedia genres, which I suppose I tend to gravitate towards. I’d like to see something more general on the topic.

My son has Red Dead Redemption. I watched him play it; at a certain juncture in the game, he ended up in a lengthy wagon race. Later, he got walloped in a horseshoe duel—at which point I started cracking jokes like, “pardner, Im’a callin’ you out. Shuffleboard at high noon!” Too bad all the lawn games in Rio Bravo ended up on the cutting room floor.

I’m joking—but I also wonder what the insertion of such seemingly incidental material into the midst of genre conventions has to tell us about gaming & story & genre.

Derek says…

Two of note:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – interesting look at Jesse James, but most notable for Casey Affleck.

My all time favorite movie: “The Searchers”. So much to be said, but this movie really was the culmination of the John Wayne character, played throughout his career: tough guy, singular mission, overcoming great odds, with a slight twist that shows heart and compassion. Many subtexts as well (family, tolerance vs. intolerance, etc.). I just wish I could have seen it in Cinemascope…

The AV Club put together a guide to Spaghetti Westerns not too long ago.

Any of the Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann

Wait, 12 comments, and no one has suggested Red River yet?

Also, along with what Tim said, Westerns in book form rival the movies. In terms of fiction, the Oxbow Incident jumps to my mind first. In non-fiction, Cadillac Desert is one of the best, but you’ve probably read that already.

Also, for something more contemporary, even though it doesn’t have Injuns, I think of There Will Be Blood as a modern Western.

Tim Carmody says…

Absolutely. Another gigantic, maybe undernoticed theme in the Western is the extraction/exploitation of natural resources, from gold and silver to cattle to oil. That’s the reason everyone is there. Everything else — all the sheriffs and outlaws and gambers and prostitutes and saloonkeepers, all of it — springs from that.

Tim Carmody says…

Another note on the Western. The other big subtext for the genre is the Civil War. The war was fought — I’d say primarily — because western expansion brought with it the expansion of slavery. Or a tipping of the free/slave state balance. Either way, the status quo couldn’t hold. And slavery/anti-slavery sentiment in turn pushed and colored western expansion. Bleeding Kansas, the annexation of Texas, manifest destiny.

David Milch said that most of what we remember as the stories feeding the Western were re-enactments of the war. You had cattle drivers, mostly Confederate veterans, coming up from the South to places like Dodge City, butting up against marshals who were mostly Union veterans. You also have the explosion of guns, especially revolvers and repeating rifles, plus men who know how to use them.

Imagine, for a moment, black slaves driving cattle in Texas, or mining for silver in Arizona. I mean, you had something awfully close to slavery with Asian and European workers anyways. But imagine how different the Western would be.

The war plays an overt part in a handful of Westerns, like The Searchers,, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Dances With Wolves, or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But it’s always there.

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