Tuesday, June 30, 2015

time to settle these free grazers

This month of Westerns is coming to an end. Just two more days after today. I will have watched 42 Westerns in 32 days. I will have driven over 2000 miles, visiting Tombstone, Arizona and Lincoln County, Roswell and Fort Sumner, New Mexico. (Wanted to go to Monument Valley as well, but that would have added another 400 miles or so.) Got a nice sense of the openness of the West while out on the road. Open Range was filmed in Canada, but it's got a nice openness to its early shots, before Charley (Kevin Costner, for the third time this month) and Boss (Robert Duvall, for the second) head into town to retrieve Mose (Abraham Benrubi).

It goes right back out into the open after just a few minutes in town. Oddly, this makes it stand out from a lot of Westerns; so many Westerns for decades have centered themselves in the town, dealing in the civilizing parts of said town in conflict with forces of chaos from outside, often in the form of Cowboys, outlaws. The conflict here is more between Ranchers and Cowboys. The former has fences, barbed wire (still relatively new in the 1880s); they close off the land where Cowboys previously would roam freely, letting the cattle graze a location then moving on. This film is structured the opposite of other Westerns in that the dangerous forces are coming out of the town, not going into it. Like in Unforgiven or The Quick and the Dead, it's the town that is corrupt.

It's a strange sort of angle on the Western myth. At some point, yes, we put out fences, tamed the West by sectioning it off. Coming so recently, and so late in the course of the cinematic Western, Open Range seems more like a lament for the the freedom of its title, rather than a celebration of its taming.

Boss boils down the... morality (I guess) of this story: "[Stealing] Cows is one thing. But one man telling another man where he can go in this country is something else."

I want to put a political bent on it, like the Western was inherently conservative and now it's turning progressive, except the literal setup here--wanting to roam the land free while fences mean progress--is a strange mix of conservative, wanting to go backward to a simpler time, and liberal, wanting to be free. Maybe it's just not as simple as politics. Maybe the Western has always represented a struggle between the civilizing forces and our natural impulses toward the open range, doing what we want to do. Perhaps the shift in some of these later Westerns doesn't represent an urge to move backward but a... sadness that we just can't. We can go visit, go for a drive perhaps through the Arizona and New Mexico countrysides. But, for this world to work, most of us just can't live out there anymore. Backward just ain't much of a thing.

Outside of the text, Open Range also operates as a lament that the Western has, for the most part, gone away. Westerns were huge on television once. Not long after this film was out, we had one more television Western, but unlike most every one that came before--Deadwood. Deadwood did not deal in the open frontier or, necessarily struggles with outside forces like Cowboys or natives. Deadwood was more of a Shakespearean treatise on law and authority, how the civilization part should be run, not a debate on whether or not it should.

As for complaints, I should note that the inklings of romance between Charley and Sue (Annette Bening) seem tacked on, but, since I was talking about feminism yesterday, it's nice to see a capable woman in a Western. The wives in Wyatt Earp seemed pretty capable but Wyatt was so dismissive of them it's hard to be sure. It would be nice if Sue has a more important role in the overall plot. (Then she had to walk out into the middle of the gunfight. Nice.)

And, this is a serious gunfight.

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