Monday, August 29, 2016

"FEARLESS", a series about bull-riding

Of all the hard-core dangerous conflicts that men invent to test their guts and muscles, bull-riding has to be one of the most spectacular.  Not bull “fighting” where the man stands apart and dances for his life, but right on top of a living freight train who doesn’t want anyone up there on top of him.  HIM.  Talk about extreme fighting.

It is clearly an American sport.  If you are lonesome for the good old West, the frontier where men were honest and women admiring, then you need to remember two ironic things:  West is now South (Brazil) and the heroes are mostly genetic Native American, with a little Africa and Spain/Portugal in the mix.  They are devoutly Catholic, pushing aside all memory of how many Indios the Euros killed to force that religious system onto them not so long ago.  

Coming as Brazilians evades the trip-wires that forced the North American “Indians” to form their own rodeo organization.  The Brazilians do run into the weighted judgement that scientific research says is unconscious, mammalian, inevitable.  The AIRCA members are full-spectrum rodeo contestants that include all events, like roping and barrel-racing.  No one anymore does chuckwagon races because they were too dangerous for man and horse.  
Bill Linderman by Bob Scriver

But danger is the draw for bull-riding.  It has been pulled out of the full-hand of events and hyped to the point of being more Hollywood and Vegas than cowboy.  The contestants walk out across a grid of fire under swirling lights with blasting music and shouted narrative, bare-bellied women standing by.  (No buckle bunnies because no buckles — just belly buttons.)  If this sounds intriguing, Netflix is streaming a six-part series called “Fearless.”  At least they were — it has disappeared overnight, just as I got to the end!  Probably a legal reason having to do with money.  Millions are involved.

By the end you will have Brazilian heroes, not just because of their courage, skill and ability in the face of being nearly destroyed but also the equal courage it takes to spend months and months with surgery and therapy.  You’ll also know their families — old-fashioned families like we fancy North Americans once were — their children and ranches, seeming idyllic because these riders made big money and spent it at home.  No one dies in this series, though there are many near-lethal injuries, but there is one rider who gets fed up and one rider’s wife who gets fed up.  Both are tragedies from some points of view.

The world champion bull rider was currently J.B. Mauney, who is from North Carolina, but as signalled by the feather occasionally in his hat, is American Indian, no doubt Cherokee.  In our day the RCA champ was Larry Mahan.  The trophy for Best All Around was a small version of the portrait of Linderman Bob made and Mahan ended up with a whole row of them.  

By now Mauney (pronounced “Mooney”) may have been bumped by Kaique Pacheco, a rookie who walked off with everything.  The commenter explained that bull-riding is like dancing and the two are actually partners, each anticipating the other’s next move and compensating to fit.  Pacheco has a consistent pattern, based on the physics of levers and springs, that keeps him in place for eight seconds.  It helps to be barely into his twenties.  He has the kind of inscrutable face we associate with movie Indians.

A record of all the rodeo sculptures by Scriver

I’m a little strange because I am as interested in the bulls as in the riders.  This is because Bob Scriver made the rodeo series of bronzes with my help just before we divorced.  There was a roping calf in the backyard, a bull-dogging steer in the driveway, and Bob wanted a bucking bull but his mother wouldn’t let him buy one.  Whew.  Indelibly I remember measuring Tornado’s shoulder width while teetering on the top rail of a small corral and avoiding his thrown-up head.  Just as vividly I remember the morning we went to make studies of Reg Kessler’s bulls in their pasture over on the Flathead, but it was foggy and we could only see silhouettes so had to give up the project.  Looming, peaceful beasts, they came for hay pitched out of a pickup and stood there mildly gazing at us.  

Kansas City Board of Trade

That was the end of the Sixties when Bob had been commissioned by the PRCA to make a portrait of Bill Linderman who was not only a repeat all-around champion, but also cleaned up the rodeo cowboys through the Turtle Association, the first organization that became PRCA.  He made them improve their manners, pay their bills, wear clean clothes — become like today’s Brazilians, who with their grins, searching eyes, and lithe but battered bodies take the bull-riding prizes.

Bob and I got interested in specific bulls by name, just as good riders do, because knowing their bucking patterns is key to staying on.  Bob liked to work in linked series, so he was making portraits of typical animals and then depictions of them in action.  With the coaching of Bill Cochran, a veteran bull-rider, Bob made action portraits of “a spinner,” a bull who spins and is most dangerous when he suddenly changes directions in mid-spin; “a hooker” who rears up in front and throws his head back in an effort to knock off the rider (if his head connects with the rider’s head, a concussion results); and “a twister” who is long and flexible enough to whip back and forth in midair.  Some say this is the bull that might be impossible for anyone to ride.

Freckles on Tornado

The riders consult each other about the style of each bull, which travel among the rodeos the same as the contestants.  “Tornado” was a twister that had never been ridden and Freckles Brown was an unbeatable rider.  In the 1969 National Finals we watched the final duel between the two aging but defiant contestants and Freckles went the full eight seconds.  A bronze resulted, of course, and the hype and sentiment was sincere.  

Bill Cochran is the rider on “An Honest Try,” the big sculpture that became Bob’s motif.  Bob’s book of photos of the rodeo bronzes is called “An Honest Try”.  Bill has been dead a while and his son just put his dad’s casting of “An Honest Try” on the market.  A fiberglas version is in front of the Blackfeet Heritage Center which was built as Scriver StudioGordon Monroe was the fiberglass tech and he does sculpture of his own.
The fiberglass "Honest Try" at the Blackfeet Heritage Center

The first rodeo bull I met was the one I fed some hay through the fence at the annual Livestock Show in Portland when I was about three.  The first rodeo movie I ever saw was “The Lusty Menin 1953.  The one about a bull was “Eight Seconds” in 1994. “Fearless” will be spinning, hooking and twisting in my head for a long time.

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