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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

July 9, 2006

The Western:
...I finally "get" it!

Given that last week I reviewed the western graphic novel, The Long Haul, and we recently ran the "weird" western, Serenity, I was thinking about that hallowed old genre recently -- the western. You know, guys in cowboy hats and wielding "six guns", riding horse and having high noon showdowns. The WESTERN.

To a lot of younger people, the western is a kind of quaint artifact of another age, something more often read about but not actually seen. Once the Western dominated movies and TV -- or, if not dominated, at least it was a formidable presence, like cop shows are today. I'm old enough to be one of the last generations to remember the era of the western. Even then, I was at the tail end. Most of my memories are of seeing Gunsmoke in after school reruns, or watching western movies relegated to Saturday afternoons on TV. The western was still ubiquitous, but it was clearly its twilight, existing as an echo of what it had been.

And today? Well, the western isn't even that.

I was never a huge western fan but, I'll admit, they have a resonance that can elicit a nostalgic interest from me. But lots of others were huge western fans -- no, HUGE! The western takes on an almost mythic importance in both their psyche and in their definition of Western Culture -- or at least American culture. Whenever a western movie in recent years is coughed up by Hollywood, critics often fall all over themselves to expel praise from their lips, and the actors often talk about how acting in a western is a dream come true for them.

But more often than not, such attempts at western revivals fail commercially, and the much anticipated resurgence never happens.

Then, a year or two back, I picked up a cheap combo DVD that featured episodes from various old western TV series of which I'd heard but never seen -- The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Wagon Train. And you know what? I think I finally began to "get" the western.

Don't get me wrong. I'm still not a hardcore fan, per se. But I began to see something.

More to the point, I began to perceive that a lot of other people didn't "get" the western, that in all their praise, all their learned essays analyzing the western, and in all their vaunted attempts to revive it, they had missed the point and were dooming it to failure (Kevin Costner, I'm talking to you, man).

You see, when people talk about the western, they usually distil it into basic essences -- it's deliberately simplistic, they say, and that's it's appeal; it's about white hats vs. black hats (literally) telling easy to digest parables of good vs. evil.

But here's what I realized watching those old TV episodes -- gather 'round, kids. You see what a lot of people seemed to have missed is that the western isn't really a genre after's more an idiom.

A genre implies precisely what fans of the western have claimed -- recurring motifs, consistent themes, repetition of narrative structures. And so modern audiences shrug and grin condescendingly and wonder how you could have gotten all those movies and TV shows out of one genre. And the answer is...they didn't.

Westerns were linked by their common environment...the wild west. But beyond that? Well, anything went. Westerns could be comedies...and they could be dramas, they could be grand historical epics...and they could be breezy little action movies, they could be fun romps...and serious parables of responsibility and consequences.

Watching that DVD of old TV westerns, right there was displayed the scope and variety inherent in the so-called "genre", particularly as they borrowed or incorporated aspects of other genres (one series, "Stories of the Century", used an incongruous Dragnet-esque documentary-style voice over narration). And because westerns could boast an inherent undercurrent of suspense and violence (what with all those gunslingers) they could actually refrain from indulging too quickly in overt suspense and violence. It's promised by the idiom, so the story itself can unfold a little more obliquely and unexpectedly, in a way that a rigid crime drama -- with its obligatory murder in the opening scenes -- can't.

The western provided an amorphous backdrop that could be shaped to almost any kind of story, benefitting from the safety buffer of historical distance. Want a story about a lone hero in a lawless a western. Want a story about a hero rebelling against too much law and a western. Want a story about a hero raising a family on a a western.

The problem with the well-intentioned pundits analyzing and codifying what a western "is" is that they are, in a sense, robbing it of the thing that allowed it to endure for so long...its flexibility.

Too often, when Hollywood filmmakers attempt to revive the western, they do it by deliberately trying to invoke the cliches in ways that the original era of westerns often strove to avoid. As well, they've added that extra little post-modern spin...they've made it pretentious. From the Oscar-winning Unforgiven to the more recent ill-fated Open Range, a lot of the modern westerns get bogged down in their self-importance as they attempt to create meaningful theses while dealing with deliberately simple and archaic themes -- Unforgiven's "sometimes y'gotta a kill a man...but it ain't easy." (at least until the bizarrely cartoony climax) to Open Range's even more simple message "sometimes y'gotta kill a man...period."

The fun is drained out of a lot of them (is it surprising that in the 1994 box office showdown, the bloated and self-important Wyatt Earp was outgunned by the leaner, less pretentious Tombstone?) in favour of irrelevant-to-the-modern-world, bordering on fascist "messages".

In fact the irony is that there's more than a little hubris involved, as often these modern westerns are meant to be "revisionist", supposedly smarter, more profound than their originals...which might be true...if you define the "western" solely by Roy Rogers' marathons (which maybe they do, since I think movies like that are where the whole "white hat/black hat" cliche comes from).

Perhaps the big problem is that, because there are so few westerns made today, when a filmmaker makes a western he often feels a weight of responsibility -- he isn't just making a movie or TV show that happens to be a western, he's making THE western, the torch bearer for an entire genre. But I don't think that's something earlier generations of western filmmakers felt -- none of them thought they were making THE western, so they had the freedom to be more creative, more interesting. From movies like "The Magnificent Seven" to "Cat Ballou", from "3:10 to Yuma" to "Little Big Man", and in TV series from Maverick to Bonanza to Kung Fu a lot of ground is covered in style and themes. All are well regarded, but none are definitive...and none are meant to be.

In a way, the modern approach to the western reminds me of some of my ambivalence to a lot of super hero movies -- they too seem to be hamstrung by filmmakers who are too self-conscious of the genre in which they're working, as opposed to focusing on the story they're telling.

Ironically, it could be argued that the western shares some commonality with another "genre" that isn't really a genre -- science fiction. The strength of both is that they're really a "genre" that can be used as petri dish in which all sorts of stories and themes can thrive. And both, at least in movies and TV, instead too often are restricted into narrow, cliched narratives.

Well, pardner, my job is done for this week's editorial, so I guess I'll mosey on over the horizon. Giddy up!

D.K. Latta, editor

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