Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ramble on Westerns

Having recently though about what I like to read in other blogs, I’ve decided to introduce a new series called Rambles. These will be more casual, free-form posts in which I’ll talk a little about what I’ve been thinking, doing and watching in regard to films. It will give me a chance to briefly mention some of the movies I don’t intend to review and also to spout opinions that aren’t necessarily about a single picture. Hopefully it will provide a little extra personality to the Film Walrus, although feel free to skip them if this type of thing bores you (they’ll be clearly marked).

For my first ramble, I’d like to talk a little about westerns and my relationship with them, because they have been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve also been viewing (and enjoying) far more than I usually do from a variety of cycles including the classical (“The Naked Spur”), the revisionist (“Heaven’s Gate”), the spaghetti western (“Sabata”) and the contemporary (“3:10 to Yuma”).

The western has traditionally been on of my least favorite genres. Even when I became seriously interested in film I often consciously avoided them because even “the greats” (especially those by John Ford) left me unimpressed at best and incensed at worst. I found them to be uninspired, ugly and dated. I was annoyed by the simplistic morality and disagreed with the painfully conservative patriarchal model that preached isolationism, vigilantism, imperialism and sexism as obvious moral rights. Plenty of them have an implicit fear of progress, technology, intellectualism and diversity. Throw in the racist depictions of American Indians, flat stock characters and low production values and you have a pretty unappetizing menu.

I still don’t like many of the first wave, the B/W B-movies from before the 1940’s and I’m yet to get over my disdain for Ford, Wayne and much of the classical regulars. However, discovering the revisionist American westerns of the 60’s and 70’s and the underrated spaghetti westerns awakened me to a whole new set of possibilities. The often brutal amorality of the protagonists was a breath of fresh air and the realism-smashing creativity provided something to get excited and interested in. There was Ennio Morricone’s brilliant scores (and other composers with daring, grandiose music) and plenty of darkly charismatic characters that weren’t just self-important meatheads (every John Wayne character) or lame Jesus surrogates (Shane). I don’t think that expressionistic violence and cynical anti-heroes are absolutely necessary to keep me entertained, but it took a fundamental shake-up to the underlying assumptions and conservative approach latched to the genre before I could see its more subtle attractions.

There are still duds amongst the more modern westerns and gems in the old-school oeuvre. I’m remain skeptical of whether the wheat-to-chaff ratio makes investigating your average western worthwhile, but these days I do occasionally get excited about one. There is something fascinating about the artificiality (across all generations of the cycle) and the industry/audience obsession with this quintessential “genre.” There is so much tradition; so many clichés and rules that span setting, plot and themes. Perhaps only Tolkien fantasy comes close the repetition of so many arbitrary (certainly history provides only the slimmest takeoff point) elements. By comparison, science-fiction has almost no rules and spans into an enormous array of subgenres and unique variations.

What this allows is a unique opportunity to examine an artist(s) at work within the very narrow confines of self-imposed constraints, a bit like learning to appreciate Dogma 95, a nursery of bonsai trees or some equally specific craft. Rather than attacking westerns as repetitious, I’m coming much closer to enjoying the minor variations on old formulas, the idiosyncratic touches on basic stereotypes and the once-invisible presence of specific styles, techniques and influences that distinguish each film.

It still doesn’t make the average western rival the occasional creative spark that leaps from the nearly uniform tangle of wires. My favorite westerns are still some of the most conspicuous exceptions to the old formulas: “Dead Man,” “American Astronaut,” “El Topo,” “Django,” “Keoma” and “Johnny Guitar.” However, I can now tolerate a much higher number of films, and adopt a simpler aesthetic appreciation for doing an oft-done cliché particularly well.

This brings me to “3:10 to Yuma” a western remake in theaters now (Sept 2007). It doesn’t seriously vary or subvert the genre in any drastic way, but it is quite brilliant in its use of character dynamics, scene construction (not just the sets, but the situations, atmosphere, blocking and cinematography) and not-quite-what-your-expecting genre devices. Not all of the recent attempts at reviving the genre (“Open Range,” “The Proposition,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) have impressed me unduly, but this one did. I’m actually makes me excited to see what new cinematic stranger might shamble into town next.


Mad Dog said...

The new Western with Brad Pitt is supposed to be excellent and may actually have a chance of getting me into the theater.

Molly said...

You know I like westerns, but you are right about the wheat/chaff issue. I used to think I hated them, too, until I discovered movies-that-didn't-star-John-Wayne. Though I will admit that he and John Ford grew on me once I came at the genre sort of backwards and worked my way back around to them. But most recent westerns have left me pretty cold, so I'm glad to hear you say good things about 3:10 to Yuma.

FilmWalrus said...

Looking forward to the new Brad Pitt western, especially since Pitt (along with Blanchett[!] and DePalma[!]) managed to take home Venice prizes.

exactly why,
It might take me a looong time to get over the Wayne-dislike. I think he contributes to a lot of present day difficulty with our generation getting into the genre. I do think that you are right about the way westerns grow on the viewer and to some extent mere quantity (along with a certain amount of viewer relaxation and cooperation) helped me get into them more.

I still like the anamolous ones best.

The-Iron-Inspector said...

Hi Walrus...I'm a big fan of the western The Outlaw Josey Wales has to be my favourite along with a few others. But if you want to try a western thats a little bit different(I know you've seen El Topo) try My Name Is Nobody...who would have thought a western could be funny??

FilmWalrus said...

I only saw "My Name is Nobody" earlier this year, but I absolutely loved it. There are a lot of comedy westerns I despise ("Blazing Saddles," "Destry Rides Again"), but that one is a definite classic. I have a little Hall of Strangeness review in part 19.

"Outlaw Josey Wales" is another good western and I've often meant to watch it a second time. You share your love of it with Mad Dog, who usually eschews the genre.