Why (WESTERNS) Matter by Todd Cauley of The Gentlemen's Blog to Midnite Cinema
First off, I would like to wish a very happy fifth anniversary to the LBL, and raise a glass to Master Kelley for his dedication, his talent, and his exquisite taste in choosing guest writers (tee hee hee). Salute!
Great cinema is a dialogue between the viewer and the viewed (indeed, this relationship exists in all creative media). Genre cinema uses its specific trappings as a sort of shorthand in this dialogue (think of it like the difference between having to drive somewhere on the highway and having to drive somewhere but knowing a shortcut). If this dialogue is about life, and love, and death, as great storytelling typically is, then a Genre must have malleability. This is why we get what we offhandedly refer to as “generic” trappings. Thus, we have the Final Girl of the Horror genre, the Dystopian Future of the Science Fiction genre, and the Big Duel of the Western genre. The trappings are (mostly) genre-specific, and it’s their aesthetic appeal to a particular audience that makes them effective. They are already amenable to thinking about bigger ideas, because they have been (or are being) entertained.
So, then, why the Western?
Westerns have dealt with topics from race to gender roles to injustice to brotherhood and touched just about every other topic in some form or another going all the way down the list. Because they can. However, like Jazz music, the Western was born in the United States. Its very nature precludes it from having been imported from outside this nation. Of course, other countries have churned out Westerns, but the genre is, at its heart, the mythology of America (in fact, an uncle of mine told me that my grandfather loved Westerns as a youngster, and they provided him the visual template for how American men were expected to behave). There is a primal power at work in great Westerns, the same as there is in a legend like, say, Theseus and the Minotaur. These are struggles crying out for witnesses. The Western is as much the stark pain of childbirth as it is the exhausted celebration afterwards, reflected in one of the most primordial conflicts, that of man versus nature with the end goal of conquering a hostile land. The journey by pioneers into the West is arduous, the landscape unforgiving, and that is compelling cinema.
Nevertheless, the land isn't the only source of adversity, and the theme of opposites plays out in the Western via the gunslinger. These people are the samurai of the West, or the flying aces, if you will. They are largely defined by their skill and dedication to the art of killing. Consequently, they are usually evenly matched, and the final showdown, when done right, can be some of the tensest, most engaging film moments you will ever see.
That this is the ultimate conclusion to any given number of disputes also comes from the lawlessness of the time, and that plays in as a part of the Western’s appeal. Lots of folks would love to shoot it out with a scoundrel or two (Michael Crichton understood this for his film Westworld). It’s a fantasy, as all fiction films are, and as with any fantasy, it has its heroes and villains. Look at some of the most famous men of the Wild West: Billy The Kid, Jesse James, “Wild” Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp. Many could just as easily be seen as antiheroes as bad men or champions or guttersnipes (indeed, some start on one end of the spectrum only to wind up on the other end and even back again). Factual accounts of deeds or misdeeds aside, the Western is a study in shades of grey (“Even bad men love their mamas”). There is an unspoken moral code inherent in the Western, and when that code is broken, there are repercussions, but all of the characters in Westerns understand this code, and they impart it to the audience in their actions. In the struggle of the Western hero to establish and reinforce civilization on the Frontier, however, this code can become nebulous, because the strain it places on the protagonist has the capacity to overwhelm. There’s a quiet honor among these violent men, and even if that concept does not contain even one scintilla of truth, we the audience will it to be truthful, the same as we will it to be truthful that the shining knight always rescues the damsel in distress and so forth.
I could go on and on about Westerns for pages, creating ever increasing circles within circles (and likely becoming even more confused than the rest of this essay has already been), touching backs to fronts and ends together, and that’s a further aspect of the genre’s importance, to my mind. It keeps giving. Within the basic framework there is the capacity for multitudes. There is always something going on under a great Western’s surface, and it’s a weathered, clapboard surface we know by heart. The joy is in the unearthing of the treasure beneath and observing either its confluence with or divergence from its veneer. And that, my friends, is a give and take; expectation and resolution; dialogue. But you can suffice it to say that great Westerns are great Cinema.