Saturday, March 31, 2007


Since there is a constant muted but perceptible buzz about the contemporary shortage of Westerns, a statement in a TV review caught my eye. “He’s a 21st century Marshal Dillon,” says the executive producer of “The Unit,” which is written by David Mamet and former Delta-Force member Eric L. Haney. The producer means that Dennis Haysbert is big (6’4 1/2”) and has one of those deep Black Velvet voices. “He carries himself in a way that demands you...look at him.” He’s a “compassionate warrior.” If he were given an order to do something wrong, “He’d find some way around it.” Yeah, that sounds familiar.

When I was in seminary, we used to talk a lot about the “wilderness” meaning the space where one didn’t understand what to do, couldn’t interpret what was happening, but knew that danger was involved -- a test, an ordeal. In the Bible the wilderness is often the desert. Then we would talk about how in modern times the wilderness has moved to the inner city. Sophisticates would suggest that the true wilderness was the human heart and mind. Now it looks as though we’re back to the Biblical desert, but in modern times.

What we’ve considered the “Western” genre has had some strange and sometimes unacknowledged rules. For instance, if an Indian writes about the West, it’s not a Western -- it’s a Native American novel. If a white writes about an Indian, that’s a Western. A white cannot write a Native American novel or movie. Everyone understands that “Smoke Signals” and “Skins” are NA movies, but “The Missing” and “Dances with Wolves” are Westerns. Dennis Haysbert is black, Mamet is white, and I don’t know about Haney but his name sounds maybe Irish. So this is a Western, maybe sorta.

I wonder if there will be female Delta force soldiers. Probably not. Women can be side-kicks or evil adversaries, but rarely six-foot-tall and so on. But Westerns can morph into other genres and when they do, sometimes there can be the equivalent of the massive male, like Sigourney Weaver in her robot loader in "Aliens." Westerns really make good sci-fi (like Star Wars) because if outer space or a strange planet aren’t wilderness, nothing is. The moral dimension is there in Aliens: the scary creature is only trying to have babies and protect them. The heroine knows it, sees the justice of it, but sacrifices herself to save her own kind. It’s a very severe version of killing people who are different (usually darker) for the sake of one’s own kind.

The most recent Western I’ve read is Wheeler’s “The Final Tally,” a reissue of an early Eighties book. It’s interesting because the writer is just learning the rules at that point so the skeleton shows. The gimmick is that “Santiago Toole” is both a doctor (“above all do no harm”) and the sheriff (“enforce the laws”), which means his moral dilemmas are persistent and unresolvable. For instance, in this story there is a teenaged daughter whose father has made her into even more of a monster than the usual fifteen-year-old girl you’d like to slap silly. She’s about to shoot Santiago, but he has one of those female sidekicks, in this case a half-Shoshone wife named Mimi. Mimi shoots the girl in her gun hand.

The most successful Westerns always have an element of macabre humor (like ghetto Westerns, e.g. NYPD Blue), so when the girl’s finger is shot off, a magpie swoops down and steals it out of the grass. Santiago the Doctor heals the girl, there is a trial, she is convicted and Santiago the Sheriff hangs her. The author has some fun with the size issue. Santiago is not particularly big, but the good-guy cook is really big and the biggest one of all (collossal) is a pesky federal marshall who keeps trying to take over. So Santiago uses his wits -- well, the author’s wits, which sometimes appear in the story as good luck. There is also a judge who is the obligatory eccentric geezer (Gabby Hayes, Chill Wills) -- he makes little ammunitions loaded with sand and shoots flying insects.

How is this different from Deadwood, the sophisticate’s Western? A Western is supposed to be rural. Deadwood is Manhattan in the Black Hills. The forces and descriptions in a Western are about terrain, geology, weather, and large animals. I got this far in my thinking and went to the blogosphere for ideas. I found this: It’s a guide to Western movies meant to be for teachers in English schools. It has some good bits.

“The Western has never been about that sliver of time between the American Civil War and the onset of modernity. It is, to use Jay Fred MacDonald's words, a "memory and vision of the deepest meaning of America." ... the genre itself is visionary, paring the past down to essence. Civilization is reduced to its bare particulars on the frontier, the edge of all things, so that each object that rises in the empty country acquires a weight in isolation verging on the symbolic.

“The Western is a man standing framed in a doorway, alone looking out at a desolate expanse; the line that separates the wilderness and the garden; the cost of violence; the moment at which society's foundations are laid over blood and sand.”

All of a sudden, I have an insight. Westerns are about the terrible price we are willing to pay in order to create a new country. Though it is often bloody and cynical, in the end the product is optimistic, an orderly human community in what was a wilderness. It is about looking forward to the vision and believing it. This is what makes it unique to the American West (and to outer space). Even people who are getting very frustrated with the wrong moves and the selfishness of some developments, still believe in this dream. (Which is why the “buffalo commons” idea -- giving up and bringing back the buffalo -- won’t work for a Western.)

Europeans don’t really have Westerns because their “orderly human community” vision dwells in the past, a lost Golden Age. Their stories are about the collapse of Empire and the heroism of those who tried to sustain it. They are about decadence, corruption, implosion. They are built on ruins. This is also why Native Americans don’t write Westerns -- their world was destroyed and must dwell in memory. Southerners don’t write Westerns -- not because of their climate, but because their plantation vision was destroyed and because it was founded on the moral evil of slaves who were not even allowed to have a vision of an idyllic past in Africa -- at least not until Roots.

If you accept this, then it is obvious that few are writing or reading Westerns because few are optimistic about the orderly human community vision in our future. The urban wilderness and the terrorist “other” are winning. Most attractive visions of the future are technology-dependent, which destroys the religious dimension that nature has become and even destroys nature itself. The movies that come closest to Westerns are the apocalyptic ones where the former civilization is wiped out, leaving a strong man and a few other survivors to begin again on the new frontier, trying to understand how to clear the wilderness which is often depicted as the debris of ruined cities.

Maybe most deadly of all the recent Western-killers has ironically been the actions of the true believers, who thought they could go into Iraq and create a new order friendly to our aims, brushing aside the local Iraqis in the same way as America has brushed aside the Native Americans. This has been a “cowboy” war in which victories are assumed to be easy for the righteous and the moral dilemmas of the frontier are simply ignored. We are driven by mercantile greed. “Deadwood” is a cynical anti-Western both because the goal of order is profit and because nature (the dependable religious dimension of Westerns) is excluded. The fat banker, the corrupt saloon keeper, and the homesteader-hating rancher were always the villains in the past, because they are community destroyers.

Are we healing the world (the doctor) or are we punishing the world (the sheriff)? And to what end? This is the moral dimension that needs to be explored and lately appears so unresolvable that no one can plot a true Western based on optimism. Lately we have so abused nature in the West that it would be fair to use the word “demonic.” Think of the hellish images created when the Italians (whose ideal world was ancient Rome) got their hands on the romantic American West.

Only if the writers are able to define a human community of the future that is more than International Corporate Oil interests will “The Unit,” be a Western. Perhaps the preservation of the beloved community back home can do the job (displaced from the future to a different continent) but only for Americans. Think Mamet is up to it? If not, we aren’t looking at Marshal Dillon. Instead we’ve got Colin Powell, unmanned by his own morality.


Ambulance Driver said...

You know Mary, it's a rare blog indeed that engages me and makes me think.

Yours is a blog that I can't "surf," and I mean that as a compliment.

Now as far as Deadwood being the "sophisticate's western," I tend to think of it as either "Sex in Dodge City" or "Sixgun Sopranos" - which is to say, not a western at all.

Anonymous said...

Whether one likes "Deadwood" depends heavily on age. Those of us who remember World War Two tend to want heroes or heroines we care about. Younger people are content to watch characters mistreat one another, and that is their entertainment. In "Deadwood" there is no one to care about; everyone abuses everyone else, in the most sinister fashion. For younger people, the material is proof that the world is a rotten place. Older people already know that, and prefer stories that offer hope of joy or success.

Richard Wheeler