Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Western Complexities

I was watching the PBS documentary The West awhile back, mostly because I think history is interesting and The West gave perspectives from a lot of varied groups of people (plus it was like educational ASMR; the soundtrack was super soothing and the people talked really softly, I recommend it for both information and for sleep). About midway through the final episode the topic of western cinema came up, and something said by historian T.H. Watkins caught my attention in a big way:
“Much of what is wrong with how we look at the west and its history is the fact that we have, in all our forms of entertainment, looked upon it as pre-digested folk drama; very simple stories acted out very simply to prove very simple things. You got your good guys, you got your bad guys, you got your Indians, you got your cowboys. And the true complexities of what was going on in the west almost never have been the subject of film in Hollywood”
The reason this resonated with me so strongly is because of where I live and work. Every October the town has a film festival-- not a film festival in the traditional sense, but more like a convention to celebrate the cinematic history of the area. In the early half of the last century a lot of western flicks were shot here with John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and other actors of that ilk, so the de facto focus of the event has been on those kinds of movies. For the last 28 years people from around the country have flocked here, dressed in their flashiest western regalia to view screenings of old western films, tour old western film locations, and attend panels of old western actors and Hollywood types.
It's unique in regards to conventions. Take comic book conventions for example; comics span various genres, tackle various topics from both the past and present, and are presented in various art styles from a broad array of artists. The audience expands while maintaining the old fan base, so kids and grown-ups alike can indulge in the medium. I went to AlienCon last year, and even though it was a little disorganized its point was varied; extraterrestrials, Ancient Aliens, Area 51, science fiction (or science REALITY? Dun dun DUN!), and so on are easy to get in to. They open discussions and start interesting conversation, it brings people from all walks of life and age groups together. What sets this film festival apart from other conventions is that the target audience isn't a niche that's likely to grow. The genre isn't that popular anymore, the films themselves are a little dull to the typical audience, content can be a little problematic (i.e. racist, sexist, etc.), and the target audience of boomers that watched stuff like The Lone Ranger as kids are either not that interested or literally dying off.
After working at what is essentially the headquarters for the event for close to a decade I've heard the same conversation over and over from the same people every year, going basically like, "Y'know, kids these days don't appreciate the classics. They don't make 'em like they used to. They don't like the good movies, like The Man From Utah and Code Of The West," to which another old timer grunts and nods in agreement. They then mention the friends of theirs couldn't make it, that so-and-so died a few months back at the ripe old age of such-and-such, that the event seems smaller than last year. They explain that it's because young people aren't attending, kids these days don't appreciate the classics, they don't make 'em like they used to, they don't appreciate the good movies. This gets repeated a few times every year, and it doesn't change much at all, much like the event itself.
The festival theme for this year is "The Role of Westerns in Shaping the American Experience" which I've thought a bit about. The genre portrays the heroism of adventurous men conquering the West for the sake of progress and freedom, of the men that drove cattle through harsh terrain or upheld the law in a wild part of the map that needed to be tamed, even though that's far from the whole story and often far from the true story. Westerns don't show the complexities of what went on in the west, and ignoring those western complexities never really stopped. For example, Native peoples brutalized for the sake of progress has been in history way too recently; protest efforts against the DAPL-- protests by Native peoples against environmental degradation and encroachment on culturally important lands-- being terrorized by hired hands is how the west was originally "won": with Native blood and scorched earth, not with some chiseled-chinned-fringed-jacket-wearing fuck playing guitar around the campfire. Westerns helped shape the American experience by teaching us to sweep the parts that make imperialism look bad under the rug and to believe in manifest destiny.
At least Django Unchained, which was shot in my neck of the woods, was a western that attempted to explore the subject of race and slavery (albeit with a lot of bloodshed and swearing), but I doubt they'll talk about it this weekend. It's almost guaranteed they'll talk about the influence of John Wayne though, who said some fucked up shit about Natives and black people. Maybe future film festivals here will be a bit more critical, thought-provoking, and analytical of the western gene, and maybe a little less idol worshiping, but I won't hold my breath.
At this rate the event will probably fade away on its own, but in the meantime I've made weekend plans out of town. Maybe I'll go to AlienCon next year too. We'll see.