Sep 9, 2007

Way Out West

From the murky backstreets of the Internet (which in my mind resembles a cross between the British Library and Soho on an overcast Thursday), to the bright lights and late nights of Hollywood where everyone (particularly feature-writers adept in the age old journalistic skill of bandwagon-jumping) is getting excited about The Big Story of 2007 - the Western Renaissance.

Yes, miraculously that most long-buried of genres is up and about, hanging around in the studio bar downing revitalising cocktails of stubble, dirt and melancholy machismo. Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson are presently breezing through the local multiplex in Seraphim Falls stalked relentlessly by Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in 3.10 to Yuma, meanwhile in another dusty corner The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has just won Brad Pitt the best actor award at the Venice Film festival. All of which should reasonably be greeted with the kind of almighty shrug reserved for any of the American film industry's pre-pubescent fads, except that this one particularly interests me.

The first reason for this being that the trend is predated by the most recent directorial offering of that doyen of the Avant-Garde (and as long-time readers will know, my own personal cinematic hero) Kevin Costner - Open Range, a majestically epic piece of unabashedly old fashioned Hollywood cinema, starring Robert Duvall and the aforementioned sad-eyed former-megastar as free-range cattlemen victimised by Michael Gambon's bullish Irish landowner, came out in 2003. Magnificent stuff.

And certainly, Costner is an interesting figure to raise his mulletted head at this point, wedging himself as he does, between two genres that have defined Hollywood cinema. For as the Western was breathing its last in the late 70s, George Lucas was transforming cinema with Star Wars, to the point that in 1980, as the multi-million dollar catastrophe of Heaven's Gate utterly killed off the Wild West as anything other than a stage show at the Disney Theme Parks, The Empire Strikes Back was the biggest selling movie of the year. Science-fiction had undoubtedly reached the top of the Hollywood pile and with the Alien, Star Trek and later the Terminator franchises (along with Blade Runner et. al) it would stay there for the next couple of decades.

Now at this stage I'd like to try and get a little vague and political. For me the comparison of the two genres is an interesting one. Science Fiction is a genre rooted in the fundamentally leftist utopias/dystopias of everyone from William Morris to Phillip K Dick, an inheritance that can be seen in both the dank, rainy corporatised world of Blade Runner and the liberal wet-dream on the control deck of Star Trek: The Next Generation's USS Enterprise (where all mankind is united and the advice of a compassionate emotion-sensing councillor is as important as that of the gung-ho 2nd in command).

The Western, however, is a very different beast. Although any attempt to glean a consistent theme or ideology from such a mammoth genre would be problematic, there are at least reoccurring tropes - the lone hero taking law into his own hands, a nostalgic longing for a lost world of freedom and independance etc - that might suggest a fundamentally more conservative leaning (exemplified in its favourite leading men - John Wayne and James Stewart).

Now perhaps it could be argued that the transition from the Western to Science Fiction plays a part in the imagined 'liberalisation' of Hollywood (where the ever-more earnest (and, it must be said, honourable) pursuits of George Cloony, Susan Sarandon et. al. are par for the course). Though I imagine we can juggle chickens and eggs on how the relationship actually works all day long.

Now it is in the light of this that we can (and you might need to run with me on this one which, if you have bothered reading this far, you're probably already doing) read Kevin Costner's much-maligned, 3-hour long, Tom Petty-starring, Shakespeare-quoting calamity The Postman as more interesting than simply a grandiose piece of self-indulgent nonsense that it admittedly probably still is. Because what it could be argued that Costner, self-confessed 'old' conservative that he is, is doing is creating what amounts to a sci-fi Western - a wolf in sheep's clothing (or visa-versa depending on your politics) - in which his lone hero sets out across a lawless (future) wasteland, uniting disparate communities through faith in a great American institution.

There is however more to this than a very long-winded and brave if misguided apology for Kevin Costner's The Postman. I guess I'm trying to ask a few leading questions about what the return of the Western really means? Especially in an age when people are simulteanously mourning the death of the blockbusting Sci-Fi film.

The rerise of the Western isn't the consequence of one successful genre movie (such as with Gladiator or Pirates of the Caribbean) and it appears to be slightly more than the Hollywood rule that all half-baked film ideas come in pairs (Ants and A Bugs Life, Volcano and Dante's Peak, or most recently The Illusionist and The Prestige). Perhaps it could be argued that it represents the resurgence of a stream of traditional American conservatism that has been somewhat suffocated by the rise and rise (and finally it would seem the fall) of the neo-cons. That there's a longing for a republicanism not tarred by the deaths of American soldiers and and an frankly shameless series of political lies and blunders (both personified by the frankly ridiculous figure of Alberto Gonzales) that finds its cinematic realisation in the melancholy nostalgia of the Western. Either that or this generation of Hollywood's leading men just want a chance to look good in chaps.

1 comment:

Andrew Haydon said...

In not sure I fully agree that Sci-Fi is a predominantly left or liberal genre. It is generally satirical - at least insofar as it exaggerates elements of the here-and-now and imagines outcomes of current policies and thinking. It is, after all, a truism to say that every depiction of a future society in sci-fi is always an exact (if maybe sometimes unconcious) depiction of what the writer/director sees right now.

Take Star Wars - before you do, appreciate that America still sees itself absolutely as "the little guy" set against a massive empire. It did during the cold war, and it still does. To Americans (at least of a particular mindset) they are flanked on one side by communist China and on the other by sinister, statist, socialist Europe. Above them are the Canadians, who make it clear that they aren't about to help out, and beneath them, the Marxist banana republics of South America (as far as they see it). Elsewhere they are beset by Islamist fascists in the Middle East and are mortally terrified by Africa. Given the above, Star Wars is nothing more, nothing less than a parable of how the "little guy" rises up against the evil empire and utterly destroys it and its weapons. Of course, other people might see it as an attack on America, but its certainly not how conservative America has ever seen it.

Of course there are those who will argue that Star Wars is another Cowboy Sci-fi. In which case, I give you Them and They Live - the first, a silly b-movie about giant ants taking over America ("see how they work together to achieve their wicked goals!"), the second a parable of a society that has been *infiltrated by aliens*. Ho hum.