31 March 2008

How the West Was Watched

Earlier in the year I half-way sarcastically mentioned that my New Year's resolution was to watch more Westerns. It's not really a resolution of any kind, but I have been watching more Westerns, (more out of interest than obligation, really). Along with that I have been watching some revisionist-type Westerns or movies that make a comment on the Western in an updated sense. I'll go through a brief list and let you know what I think:

Stagecoach (1939) dir. by John Ford
My Darling Clementine (1946) dir. by John Ford

These are the two that started this whole fascination. I watched both of them for an American Film class and was impressed by how surpisingly engaging they were. Not only that, but I saw a lot of similar characterizations, film techniques, and situations that were echoed by Kurosawa, who I am much more familiar with.

Stagecoach was also my first real film experience with John Wayne, who always existed as an American icon, but who I did not really recognize other than a stereotyped (often mocked) caricature. My Darling Clementine made me like Henry Fonda even more, making him one of my favorite classic Hollywood stars.

The Searchers (1956) dir. by John Ford

A follow-up to my interest in Ford westerns was this 1956 film featuring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet (for the Confederacy) who is disillusioned, angry, and a stranger in his own home. This is often cited as one of Ford's greatest films. There are lots of underlying themes and tensions in the film, not to mention pointed framing techniques that convey meaning. Take a look at that still on the left - Edwards is outside the home framed by the door, the wilderness in the background; he belongs nowhere.

Tin Star (1957) dir. by Anthony Mann

I bought this one on a whim after remembering it being mentioned by a friend of mine a while ago. I figured I liked Anthony Perkins and Henry Fonda enough and that Anthony Mann is supposed to be an interesting Western director, so it was a safe bet. I was right. Perkins is an effeminate (again?) sheriff who needs Henry Fonda to get him to toughen up and shoot straight in order to assert his authority in the dead-end town. Classic.

Red River (1948) dir. by Howard Hawks

Another class-required screening, which I happily Netflixed. John Wayne is an overbearing self-made cattle driver who brings up young Montgomery Clift as his son/protoge. Eventually Clift takes control when Wayne reaches a level of near insanity, which I think is fantastically portrayed. You can also see a divide between the two characters in terms of acting style, Clift being one of those who practiced "the method." (You know it's funny; as I was typing this post my iPod shuffled to "Right Profile" by the Clash, a song about Montgomery Clift. How appropriate.)

Fistful of Dollars (1964)
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) dir. by Sergio Leone

There is no one cooler than Clint Eastwood as the man with no name. I actually saw The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly a long time before I saw the other two (and maybe even before all the other movies on this list), but could appreciate the trilogy as a whole after knowing more about Westerns and the intertextual dialog between Ford, Kurosawa, and Leone.

The visual style and overall feel to these films are so quirky that they completely transport you to a different world, some madeup Western landscape with non-synch sound, with people too cool to be real, with washed-out color, and with an INCREDIBLE score behind it all. The music to these films is so good; each has its own little theme (the one from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly probably being the most instantly recognizable) that plays throughout the the film as almost chapter headings or act transitions. Anyway, yeah, awesome.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) dir. by Robert Altman

A sad and wonderful poem of a film. The washed out visual style (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, who also did Altman's Long Goodbye, among other things) gave the feeling of a faded photograph, a moment passed. The film is a revisionist Western in that it is dealing with the same time period of Western expansion in US history, yet decides to revise the content - not the historic content, but the content and conventions of the Western film. There is no glory to the man with the gun; the film actually makes him extremely unattractive in an emblematic scene containing an obnoxious gunslinger and a passerby on a bridge. There is almost nothing romanticized in the film other than the beauty of nature and the longing of one person for another. "I've got poetry in me!"

My Own Private Idaho (1991) dir. by Gus Van Sant
Midnight Cowboy (1969) dir. by John Schlesinger
Easy Rider (1969) dir. by Dennis Hopper

I am grouping these films together because they are all modern responses to the Western film and each of them in some way references the myths and ideals of the Western hero and turns it inside out. In Midnight Cowboy we have Joe Buck coming from the West into grimy New York City. In My Own Private Idaho we see a the staple Western campfire scene in which Mike confesses his love for Scott - homosexual cowboys? Easy Rider is most blatant, I think, in their reference to the Western myth as Wyatt (Earp) aka "Captain America" and Billy (the Kid) go from West to East on their bikes in search of "freedom." I like the first two films on the list very much, especially Midnight Cowboy. I think My Own Private Idaho is my favorite Van Sant and arguably his best. Easy Rider is an okay movie that felt a bit too self-conscious to me, though it contains a great side character played by Jack Nicholson.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) dir. by James Mangold
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) dir. by Andrew Dominik

I group these two together for kind of obvious reasons: they are updated Westerns that were both released in 2007. 3:10 to Yuma was a lot of fun to watch and it made me want to dig back deeper to take look at older Westerns (this is also after having seen Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine). Anything related to the Western that I'd seen of films from the late '60s to the present had been kind of ironic or sought to reverse the conventions of the Western, like the group of films listed before this. However, to find straightforward, non-ironic Westerns being made today was kind of refreshing. The Assassination of Jesse James was less of a "straight-forward" Western, but still an unironic drama that was soaked in the period without wanting to turn it inside out. Come to think of it, I can probably even include No Country for Old Men in this list, though it only really has Western elements as opposed to being a typical "Western."

Well, that's about it. I have lots of more films to watch. I have The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Wild Bunch at home waiting for me, as well as tons of other stuff in my Netflix queue. Overall, I'm excited to have been able to more deeply explore a genre I knew little about last year. I think it would be interesting to have a different genre focus every 6 months or every year, since there's always so much to learn and take in.


nakaikoi said...

Nice post Kazbert. The Wild Bunch, probably the most gruesome but most entertaining Western I've ever seen. That machine gun scene still stuck in my head till this very day.

I loved the Searchers. The girl that gets kidnapped... Natalie Wood? She reminds me of Laurel.

Once my thesis is done I shall watch the others on your list. I love that epic feeling you get from a good Western.

Tymon said...

I need to see The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly again. So good, from what I remember.

JVC said...

I'm glad you are enjoying the beautiful and existential genre of the Western. As I told you, it is probably one of my favorite genres. The Western and the Musical, are the only true original American film genre creations. The lack of any real "rules" and the morality play that is displayed is exciting. And the issues of what it is to be a real man are often implied. Your menu of different Western era courses will only help your appetite more ... whether it be classic John Ford, stiff oaters from the 30s, colorful heroics, psychological Anthony Mann or 70s revisionism. You are probably the ONLY younger person I know that has welcomed the Western into your movie purview. Most find it ... too laconic. The comment your friend made about THE WILD BUNCH is true ... the film is the most vicious western I have seen ... its violence may not seem as bloody as some films today, but the impact and coldness it displays will never leave me.

chinlingo said...

Yeah man. It's going to be inside the booklet. I just finished all the design work after 13 hours of nonstop tweakage. I went to bed at 7:30 am.
Crazy times.