Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Rise of the New Western in the 1960s: E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times

On the New Western:

In these circumstances, the Western managed to survive by parodying its own formula restrictions and distorting the classic reader’s expectations of the genre. The Western also became part and parcel of the artistic innovations at hand as it was taken up even by traditionally non-Western writers such as Thomas Berger (Little Big Man, 1964), Ishmael Reed (Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, 1968) and E.L. Doctorow, to name a few. These authors turned to the most popular genre of the time with a double mission: to both deconstruct it, and to use it to revive the traditional novel-writing process through the use of Western elements. The traditional novel, like the Western, was commonly regarded to have exhausted itself.

2014 interview with Larry McMurtry

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Gender reversal of classic western images

These are great.

No more guns in the valley: Logan director James Mangold on Shane

In 2013 James Mangold introduced a screening of the Shane, a movie that was a big influence on Logan.

"The best Western films (and this is an example of the very best) are not centered on nostalgia, are not historical in nature (the moment in history when these films took place is largely a manufacture of imagination). The best of these films create a landscape that has evolved into an American mythology, one as resonant and evocative as Religious parables, Japanese Samurai tales and the Greek Gods of Olympus."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Desperadoes by Ron Hansen

I bought The Kid as soon as it came out but, for some reason, I didn't wasn't to dive right into it. I heard Ron Hansen refer to Desperadoes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Kid as the "Outlaw trilogy" and I wanted to go back and re-read the first two before reading The Kid.

Desperadoes is a different type of revisionist western where the author does a ton of primary source research then distills it all into "novel" form. What makes it a novel? Probably that the author has to create some things in order to fill in the established gaps. This research also takes into account previous fictional versions of the story. This does two things. First, it allows the author to try and dig through the myth to the man (which, post-1970's is the trend in exploring the west -- we understand the myth but we want to know what actually happened). Second, it allows the author to interact with  and interrogate the previous fictional versions

Hansen stumbles a bit with this mode of fiction (faction?) but the technique will get refined over time (and by authors).

Desperadoes is a little dry at times. Emmett Dalton is the obvious narrator because he lived the longest, but it isn't always a captivating voice. There are a lot of small, intimate scenes peppered throughout the book. These moments are the meat of the book, and where it really shines the most. Like the afternoon spent practicing jumping off of a roof onto their horses. Really, what Desperadoes wants to convey, is that the life of a famous outlaw was more down time and hiding out than committing acts of robbery. That most of the things said in the press weren't true, and they weren't super humans. With that in mind Desperadoes is mostly a success, what is on full display here isn't a myth, but a man.

It seemed to me that Desperadoes had disjointed framing devices. It opens with with old man Emmett Dalton hiding out in his library, from his own party, and being confronted with an eager young man who won't leave him alone. This is never returned to. The ending, however, is a real kick in the teeth.


Slow West

Slow West is the best modern western I've seen in years. I've watched it twice already and I love it. Some quick thoughts.

The west was a more diverse place than previous generations of Westerns might have you believe, which isn't to suggest that it was a completely diverse time, but it wasn't just all white males. There were different countries present, different accents, different languages, different cultures. All of this is on full display in Slow West.

Slow West is a gorgeously shot movie. You can pause the movie at almost any point and you will find a beautiful shot that conveys information and understands the film language of westerns.

There is a sly humor present that feels naturally funny without altering the tone of the story. And while it may be designed to bring about some small amount of levity, these moments feel very organic.

Slow West works well with it's audience to create a minimalist product. The audience is expected to know that Silas is the good man who has done bad things; that Jay is the innocent babe in the woods, that Payne is the bad guy and will die. The audience recognizes these tropes because they seen them before in countless westerns. And the filmmakers trust that the audience will have that recognition. That frees the movie from having to show back story and exposition, especially for Silas and Payne. Information about history, relationships, and motive is presents in subtle ways.

The ending - Westerns stories come with a high body count. Even the most  bloodless of studio system westerns had a high body count. But the deaths are, by and large, disposable. It happens, it's exciting (or serves a story purpose), then the character (and the audience) move on, either to the next story beat, the end of the story, out of the frame. Slow West's final two shots work really well together.  First, you see Silas righting the horseshoe and through narration telling us that he's happy and settled. Then the camera goes briefly to every single person who died over the course of the film, wherever they still lay.  It's a reminder to the audience: be happy for Silas, Rose, and the children, but that does not come without a price;  all of this lead to that. It's more consideration then most westerns muster.

<b>Highly recommended</b>