Sunday, May 08, 2005

More about Westerns (and their relation to "film noir") ...

Terry Teachout has another terrific essay, this one for American Cowboy magazine, about viewing Western movies in Manhattan. It's a lonely life for Teachout, lonely as John Wayne in The Searchers, Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch, or Randolph Scott in ... well, you name it. Westerns, you see, occur in a moral universe where tall buildings are nowhere to be seen, where a man is responsible for his actions, and where good and evil can exist in its most elemental forms. They are, in short, red-state movies, antithetical to Manhattan values. Which would explain why Manhattan repertory houses don't show them very often, why Teachout's friends are reluctant to accompany him to these movies, why New York just doesn't get it when it comes to this classic, quintessentially American mythos.

And here, as they say, is where I get off. Granted, if you're a fan of repertory cinema, you're not likely to see a classic Western in New York City, the very mention of which inspires a grizzled cowboy in a picante sauce commercial to cry, "Git a rope!" But ironically, you're much more likely to see these movies in Manhattan than in Omaha, or Santa Fe, or any of the other places traditionally associated with the movie Western. Being a fan of movie westerns is much more lonely, when you have only a television and a DVD player to give you your cowboy fix.

I've attended three years of the Virginia Film Festival, and in all that time I believe I've seen one movie that qualified as a genuine Western -- Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, shown as part of the 2003 festival. (Seeing Treasure on the big screen can change your life, if only because you'll realize that once, not so long ago, movies tried to do more than kill two hours on a Saturday afternoon.) Considering that these festivals were programmed around topics such as "Wet" and "Speed," you'd think there would have been a few more Westerns scheduled, especially since fast horses and "watering holes" (of all sorts) are practically fixtures of the genre. This year's festival theme is "Justice," a central preoccupation of the Western. That said, I doubt we'll see more than one Western in the lineup, if that.

In one respect, this observation would seem to confirm Teachout's thesis. Virginia itself is about as red a state as one can imagine, the sort of place where a classic Western should be playing in every corner bijou (or so Teachout seems to think). But the programmers of the Virginia Film Festival are academics, and if academics don't maintain a "New York state of mind" -- blue-state and left-wing -- they're not likely to remain in academia for long. Still, as tempting as ideological analysis may be, I suspect there's a more prosaic reason for this apparent neglect.

To put it bluntly, the problem lies with television. Thanks to PBS, I was able to grow up on Lash Larue, Ken Maynard and Gene Autry programmers, just as my father did. Classics like Red River and The Naked Spur were frequently aired on local channels in the days before basic cable, and home formats -- first VHS, then DVD -- made these films easily accesible to mass audiences. Repertory cinemas ignore westerns not because they're hostile to the social and political values these films espouse, but because audiences have already been saturated with oaters, programmers, horse operas, and every other sub-species of western known to cinema. The western, long believed the least domesticated of all film genres, has taken up permanent resident in the American home.

Only film noir is as thoroughly overexposed -- no surprise, given that noirs and westerns have so much in common. Both usually featured low budgets and meager production values. A noir could be shot in a studio with minimal lighting and small camera crews; Westerns required a studio backlot as well as some location shooting, but the necessary locations (for programmers, at least) could be found within a few minutes' drive of Los Angeles. The films were usually shot fast and cheap, sometimes in ten days or less, and they tended to focus on action, rather than dialogue or psychological brooding.

The most striking similarity between westerns and crime pictures is their Aristotelian approach to character: Action makes a hero or a villain, a good person or a bad one. For this reason, it could be said that both genres inhabit a moral universe rather than a psychological one. Noirs are never accused of simplisme, as westerns often are. Yet some of the most renowned directors of 1950s westerns -- Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Fuller, even Fritz Lang -- also created the great noirs. Of the major directors in the noir pantheon, only Orson Welles and Billy Wilder never directed a western (Stanley Kubrick's aborted foray into the genre, One-Eyed Jacks, was credited to Marlon Brando). Nor was this crossover phenomenon limited to film: Elmore Leonard got his start writing pulp westerns, then took up crime fiction.

Noir suffers less from critical and audience overexposure than the western, because the conventions of film noir are undefined and, I think, undefinable. From the beginning, "film noir" was strictly a term for critics, and until roughly the mid-1960s, filmmakers weren't much concerned with it. The turning point came when Europeans like Jean-Luc Godard and Roman Polanski began to craft deliberate hommages to Hollywood's B pictures (so that in one sense there are no true film noirs, only "neo-noirs"). Even so, to my knowledge no director has ever introduced himself by saying "I make film noirs," as John Ford once anounced, "I make westerns."

The western is a well-defined genre, with conventions so thoroughly established that audiences often believe they know everything about them before they see one in a theater. The action occurs in a few identifiable settings: Forest, desert, mountains, groups of large boulders or a cliff, perhaps a town with a wide main street. The climax usually involves a shootout between heroes and villains (with the stipulation that the heroes never outnumber the villains), and the film's plot is designed to provide us with an irreconcilable conflict that will lead to the predestined climax. Westerns that end with compromise, like Howard Hawks's Red River, often leave audiences feeling cheated, and westerns that end with the outright triumph of evil, like Corbucci's bleak Il Grande Silenzio, leave us feeling duped.

Budd Boetticher's seven westerns for Ranown Pictures took repetition of setting, character and action to its austere extreme. Each film featured the same lead actor (Randolph Scott) playing nearly the same character (strong, square-jawed, stoic), with similar plots that take place within the same landscape and among the same sets. A stagecoach stop from The Tall T serves as another stage stop in Westbound, then becomes a ranch house for the finale of Comanche Station. John Ford did something similar over several decades -- though not, perhaps, to the same degree -- when he used Utah's Monument Valley to double for every Western locale from California to Texas. (Among die-hard Texans, the opening of The Searchers, in which the words "Texas 1868" appear over a distinctly un-Texan butte, tends to provoke giggles.) This is not to say that westerns are necessarily more formulaic than other genre films. But the conventions are easier to identify, because they repeat themselves from film to film on a straightforward visual level.

That said, westerns also attained a level of respectability that "film noir" by definition could not: Boetticher's Ranown pictures and Fuller's oddball Forty Guns and I Shot Jesse James cost no more than an average Republic programmer, but the classic westerns of Mann and Ford were high-budget "A pictures." For many film scholars, the very aura of an "A picture" renders it suspect: They assume that major studio productions -- especially during the era of the Production Code -- are less subversive and innovative than "B movies," and therefore not as worthy of study. (A few films like The Searchers have been saved from opprobrium because they were generally overlooked at the time.) Westerns were often an exception to that trend -- few films undermine the "official" values of home and hearth more thoroughly than Mann's 1950s collaborations with Jimmy Stewart. But even so, they're much too widely known to be featured at an average rep house.

Repertory cinemas tend to focus on unfamiliar, highly regarded or iconoclastic films, things you're not likely to see on television or home video. Westerns fail to meet all three criteria. The classic westerns are so well-known that Americans who have never heard the word "cinephile" can still recite dialogue and remember key plot points. These films are generally (and unfairly) maligned by critics who see them as emblems of everything wrong with the American character. (The recent leftist bestseller What's Wrong With Kansas shows that this tendency has intensified of late: With Bush, Cheney and the entire state of Kansas, all the bugbears of the Left seem tied to the Wild West.) Worst of all, westerns tend to be seen as wholesome, conformist narratives, bereft of the incisive social criticism needed to make them socially relevant to contemporary audiences. Western movies are not only "quaint," they're everywhere. They lack even the bohemian allure of "trash culture."

Yet perhaps the lack of serious critical attention isn't altogether bad. After all, it isn't as if Westerns have disappeared from American consciousness; they're simply hiding under the cultural radar, and their cultural influence is inversely proportional to their visibility. Every American home with a television set is now a western outpost, and anywhere you see the telltale grey-green glow, you can bet that a lonesome cowboy will make his appearance very soon -- if he isn't there already.

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