Since me ‘n Kip Stanton, author of “Chasing the Rodeo,” have exchanged email messages now, I figure we’re on the same wave length and the proof of that is that we agree that the two all-time best rodeo movies are “The Lusty Men” and “Junior Bonner.” However, there is a third that’s a pretty good runner-up, so I decided to watch it again the other night: “Cowboy Up.” The phrase means don’t admit you hurt, tough it out, never give an inch. (Okay, so that’s Hank Stamper and he was Ken Kesey’s timber country hero, but the principle remains.)
The next day I got some copying done in Great Falls and the clerk turned out to be married to a bull rider, which is the subject of the movie. She even looked a little like Molly Ringwald, the bull rider in the movie. She thought this was a GREAT movie! It was shot after the National Bull Riding Finals started happening in Las Vegas, complete with strobes, smoke, rock ‘n roll, fireworks and actual flames -- very hyped as “extreme sports.”
But that wasn’t really the point of the film, which was written by Jamie Redford, son of Robert Redford. Bad things happen to good people and Jamie developed a condition that required a liver transplant. It failed. He fought hard to stay alive long enough to get a second transplant and that one worked. My prejudice is always to look at the bio of the author, and this time it was quite revealing.
In the movie, the father of two brothers is one of those Western monster fathers, so over-the-top macho that he destroys his own children. In this case Exhibit A is a time in the past when the dog was badly hurt and the father tried to make his small sons kill it. Euthanasia, you know, though one son insists that the dog could be saved by a decent veterinarian and one tends to believe that. (For another instance, this time in a memoir, see Mark Spragg’s account of his father making him destroy a horse that the boy had caused to be irremedially hurt.)
The focus of much of Western (and frontier) literature is the problem of when tough is not tough enough, or when tough is just TOO tough. Either is destructive, immoral, and perhaps fatal -- but the decisions are often “combat decisions” without enough knowledge or time to reflect. Still, some people are corrupted by being tough.
In this story, the mother has had enough and runs the father off, holding a gun on him until he’s gone. The problem is that the older boy seems to understand, but the younger boy is confused by the father being a (briefly) champion bull rider who took his son up on his shoulder while accepting his trophy in the spotlit arena, imprinting him with glory-hunger. The older boy grows up to be a rodeo clown (a life-saver) and begins to parlay that into being a stock provider. The younger boy wants to be a champion, in spite of near-death trauma.
This still doesn’t get to the actual point Jamie is making, I think. What he has seen is that no father can protect one from death -- not even Robert Redford. And there’s no rhyme nor reason to who dies and who survives. The older brother is wiser, smarter, more balanced. The younger brother is rash, immoral, overemotional, etc. Guess who gets the women. Guess who gets killed.
So I looked at imdb.com to see what the remarks were and found them sophomoric. Most of the posts were evidently written by the younger brother. Big complaints about the women looking old and their haircuts being unflattering. (We’re talking Daryll Hannah here, who has a little echo riff about two sisters, also quite different from each other. And Molly Ringwald is a grownup ranch wife.) As though it were some kind of crime for barrel-racers and ranch wives to be real. The mom, who is quite young-looking in a ball cap and sneakers, has Russell Means for a sidekick, whom the reviewers demanded be a more effective father figure. They evidently don’t know anything about Means’ real-life problems with domestic violence. He’s playing the part of a dependable man and he did it well, but if one took that aura into account, one could say this mother had a taste for dangerous men.
But to me the most sophomoric comment was about the bucking bull the older brother owns: a massive beast who is happy out standing in his field with the sun setting behind him, but a killer in the arena. “Oh, that Jamie is always putting in some kind of nature mysticism. He oughta get over it.” Their own sneering and superior attitudes are... oh, never mind.
This movie never made it to theatrical release. The previews were evidently along the lines of these comments and the movie went straight to video. We should be grateful for video! Heck, out here on the prairie it’s too far to drive to a movie theatre anyway. And it’s good that this movie wasn’t lost.
As it happens, most folks around here -- rodeo fans or not -- know that death can come suddenly, through an error of one’s own in judging the roads or large animals or one’s own shortfall. They know that part of toughness is simple humility in the face of a larger force. (And what Jamie would like you to know is that if you meet Death somewhere, be it bull or eighteen-wheeler, it would be a good thing if you’d signed a witnessed organ donor card so that some good can come of it.)
On blowhards.com a recurring subject has been the disintegration of writing (and I’ll include movies here) into genres and pretensions so that readers of one category actively avoid another, sometimes out of snobbishness and sometimes out of anti-intellectualism. I think part of the phenomenon is seeing only the narrative content -- what happens -- without any consciousness of theme, symbol, echo (esp. echoes of other media or life itself), image, and so on. People who read without these elements, esp. those who don’t even sort of “feel” them in an unconscious, unacademic way, are inclined to sneer at rodeo movies because they don’t know anything about them. They can see them as “extreme sports” and glam women or maybe transgressive men -- but that’s where it stops. How can they enjoy the authenticity if they’ve never even been to a rodeo? And they crave an ending that is both a surprise and a statement of some kind that they can understand. Everything has to have hype and dazzle.
A “literary” sophisticated watching or reading of the same film -- if it’s a decent film -- will yield up far more to think about and feel. The French are almost too much inclined to do this, because one can look at an ordinary experience in a psychoanalytic way and find amazing things in it. Maybe some things that aren’t justified. (I mean, is Jerry Lewis really that significant?) And the reaction of many genre watchers and readers will be like my Heart Butte high school students: “Aw, you just killed it.” To be intellectual is for them to lose the ecstatic projection that makes them think it’s THEM in the movie. But to reject all reflection means to lose the richness and the application to their own lives, the real value of literature.
Once in Bozeman I managed to sneak into a class taught by Tom Moore, the Jungian and spiritual writer, where a college-aged boy had also crashed the class, evidently desperate for self-knowledge. He wanted to know the meaning of a dream wherein he was driving down a road, ran over a snake, got out to look at it -- it reared up and looked at him, then died. When Moore slowly coaxed the young man to the snake=penis=potency/masculinity equation, the boy had one of the biggest “aha” experiences I’ve ever seen. Zounds! The world shifted under his feet!
An excellent teacher in my sophomore high school year took me to the same realization in regard to modern poetry. She was the elegant, lesbian, graceful daughter of a lawyer, and the national head of the NEA that year. I hope you never find out how illiterate and rude a fool the present head is. That may be part of the problem. The principal in Heart Butte said to me, “Why would anyone want to read a story twice. It only takes once to find out what happens.” Another ignoramus.
I’ve probably watched Jamie Redford’s “Cowboy Up,” three times. No doubt I’ll watch it many more times, because “what happens” is not the whole story.