Once Upon Another Time In the West

Round up some cattle with Ryland at [email protected]

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The fall season of 2007 has produced four films that challenge how we understand the genre of the Western. In September, we had James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma” and Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Here in November we have the Coen Brothers’ “No Country For Old Men.” The end of the year will see the release of P.T. Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.”

The Mangold picture is perhaps the most earnest of the four, taking up the genre as something to be applied to a story: the genre as a cycle. Dominik’s picture, while rooted in the 19th century, attempts to inherit the genre as a medium for its recurring tropes and themes, but the film falters under its own weight and has less to say about Westerns than it does about celebrity culture. The Coens break from the 19th century in explicit terms—their film is set in 1980—but their inheritance of the tradition of “local color” writers (like Twain or Cooper) helps ground one’s understanding of “No Country For Old Men” as a Western. “There Will Be Blood” bridges the 19th and 20th centuries in its opening 10 minutes, eclipsing the reliance on the designated past one often (misguidedly) associates with the Western, but its obsessions with frontiers, isolation and the American myth of perfectionism may help us to better understand how I want to characterize what a Western is today. Or, how the Western genre may still be viable, and more alive than we think, as best as time and space allow.

I first must make clear what I mean by “genre as a medium” as opposed to “genre as a cycle.” I should like to argue that genres are not simply categories for films or a set of rules to be applied in order to distinguish between films. Rather, my understanding of genre is as a way to group films in terms of family resemblance: A viewer recognizes familiar traits in films that are not simply reducible to types of ideals but varying characteristics of types. This is to say that a Western is not a genre defined by horses and six-shooters but, as I said above, by frontiers, isolation and the myth of American perfectionism (which is intentionally broad, given my limits here). Let’s look at the films.

While Daily Cal critic Daniel Spaulding found “3:10 to Yuma” a “surprisingly unselfconscious exercise in genre classicism,” I must argue the film does less to explore the notion of America as a place that affords individuals opportunities for advancement, or reinvention, as it does to explore a father’s legacy. The beauty of a Western is that its mythological understanding of story means it could be played anywhere in time but what roots it as a genre is its ties to America as always growing along with its populace. The “Jesse James” picture almost gets there, as we watch its protagonist (of sorts) grow up onscreen—from neophyte, fanboy criminal to plagued, jealous assassin—but its negotiation of James as isolated from his others says more about his community than the significance of his absence from it.

The Coens and Anderson have made films explicitly about what it means to be shunted by, or to shunt oneself from society: that is, how we choose to live in the world of perpetual frontiers. Where “No Country” offers a rather grim account of how the weight of the law has been displaced and devalued, “Blood” paints a more complex account of how Americans have grown trained into the myth of individualism to the detriment not only of the law but also the home and the commmunity. This is a country (for the old and the young) built of communities, not prized individuals: a network of individuals and how they relate, not how they stand apart from one another. Both are rich films with much to offer beyond my scope here; but, perhaps, when you encounter them in the months to come, you can approach them as films where the frontiers aren’t merely spatial but social; where isolation has its consequences; where Americans make or destroy themselves, often simultaneously.


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