I was flipping through channels as I ate lunch today (which may explain why I have to clean my television remote quite often). As I wandered through the variety of home improvement shows, weekly news roundups, and The Barefoot Contessa making scones, I happened across the film Silverado, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid.
The film, which features such 80’s heavyweights as Kevin Kline (such a good actor; why is it none of his films except A Fish Called Wanda ever hit it big?), Scott Glenn, Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, and a very young Kevin Costner, was, in my 11 year old expert opinion, the best Western ever made. It was funny, it dealt with racism in the Old West, it was funny… My cineaste criteria at the time weren’t all that complex. I think in large measure the film fell out of the public eye when Tombstone came along eight year later. No small shakes itself, Tombstone was quite an impressive piece of Western filmmaking; it was compelling enough even to supercede its most clunky lines. (At one point, an injured Sam Elliot is informed that his arm will have to be amputated. As his wife breaks into tears he tells her—and I’m paraphrasing: “It’s all right darlin’, at least I’ll still have one good arm to hold you with!” Perhaps some wine to go with that cheese?)
This trip to Nostalgia-ville by way of Westerns of the 80’s and 90’s led me to this burning question: why has the Western dropped out of the extant group of genres currently on tap in popular culture? God knows were in the middle (hopefully late middle) of some sort of horror renaissance; I’ve seen in a few places that film critics are drawing connections between the revived genre’s fascination with torture and our current political discussions of the role of torture in interrogation. [Go here for Naomi Klein’s latest discussion of the Jose Padilla case, courtesy of The Nation Magazine.] So, if current fascinations with genres allow us to reflect and question our current fears and fascinations, what is it that the Western no longer does for us? Why has it, as a genre, lost its power to speak to contemporary culture?
Is it the Western’s fixation with the frontier, which no longer lays open? Is it its pitting of the domestic sphere against men’s freedom (think: The Searchers)? Is it its inability to imagine multiple cultures as central to the nation’s development? Has Brokeback Mountain placed the heterosexuality of any two men on horseback into question? And would that be such a bad thing?
That’s enough unanwered queries and pop culture musings for one day.