Archive for September, 2008

September 28, 2008

Newman's Own

by cowboylands

I was in love. He was the blue-eyed rascal, the master of the one liner. He was, by turns, cool and hot–matched by his partner who was hot and cool. The two of them wore their dusty britches like uniforms of hip scoundreldom, and they grasped six-guns in sure fingers. I didn’t even mind the girl who did whatever on the bike; all I wanted was to know that Paul Newman would be in the next scene, alongside Robert Redford. It was my first movie during which  I sat beside my parents and felt that flush of love…or lust. The fact that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ended with the freeze frame right before they are blown away (oh, um, spoiler alert) was perfect: it meant my adolescent desires would always be arrested in Paul Newman‘s blue eyes.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the funny movie, the movie whose script I continue to study as an exercise of flippant wit. The lanky grace of Paul Newman that caught my eye then still catches my eye when I see photos of Newman and his wife in their golden years. I saw him also in the unfunny movie Hud, in which he arrested me with his feral grace yet again, his loathsome qualities checked by, yes, those awesome blue eyes. 

Hud is the kind of western story that makes you want to move to a big city. Its characters strive to hold their own against “progress,” all except for Hud, who is ready to bend whatever way it takes to get what he wants from life. In Larry McMurtry’s book, Hud’s Texas cattleman father always does what is right–and, uncomfortably, his moral bent may be the cause of Hud’s amoral streak. McMurtry uses his usual deft prose to weave a spell of generational conflict; it’s Newman in the film who makes the audience identify with such a rat. The movie came out at in 1963, just as the old school became aware of the potency of the new school. What comes across is fear of the new and disdain for the old. What survives is neither. What is memorable is Paul Newman. 


Homer Bannon: That’s your solution for getting out of a tight? To pass bad beef on to my neighbors who wouldn’t know what they was getting? Or maybe risk starting an epidemic in the entire country? 
Hud Bannon: This country is run on epidemics, where you been? Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you’re lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln. Now I want out of this spread what I put into it, and I say let us dip our bread into some of that gravy while it is still hot. 
Homer Bannon: You’re an unprincipled young man Hud. 
Hud Bannon: Don’t let that worry you none. You got enough for both of us. 

–Hud, 1963, directed by Martin Ritt 

September 26, 2008

Cowboy Up; or, Cowboy Fact #21

by cowboylands

To cowboy up means to get going. Get the job done. Get into gear. No matter what.

 Sundown Jim, by Ernest Haycox
Cover illustration by Jerry Allison
Pocket Books, 1958
from the collection of es

A good friend of ours has cancer–the late-stage, not-very-posterchild-like kind–and he and his wife have to cowboy up on a daily basis. I can’t always follow their lead (hence doing little but working and staring into space), but I’m posting today, because Cowboy Fact #22 is Cowboys, No Matter What, Finish What They Say They Will Finish

A cowboy may be getting dragged along with his foot in the stirrup, but the cattle will all be branded by nightfall. A town may be terrorized by evil Wall Street bankers, but the cowboy will save those frightened, confused townspeople. A cowboy might be caught in the middle of wilderness without horse, water, or a map or compass, but he/she will not only get out safely but also bring out several other people, similarly lost, and have found a lost gold mine to boot. 

Maybe there are things even a cowboy can’t conquer (a couple of the famous “Marlboro Men” died of lung cancer from smoking–click here for the lowdown on the cowboy-models dying of this low down disease). But a cowboy would gird his her loins (to borrow yet another knightly metaphor). A cowboy will make the most of every moment left on earth. 

Not all is gloom and doom about cowboying up. We recently met someone who had had multiple myeloma and had undergone the full battery of toxic therapies and bone marrow transplant. His Youtube posts about the grim process are nailbiting, heartrending, and ultimately, joyful (as in the post below). Jason gets my Cowboy Up trophy of the year (damn, now I have to go and make one….).

Depending on what happens tonight, I may give two more trophies: McCain is cowboying up to debate tonight in the midst of Wall Street’s self-detonated crisis. For lack of anyone in a leadership capacity, we might as well see two potentials in a showdown. Obama will get one if he eradicates every single wimpy modifier in his law-school professor vocabulary, such as seems, tends to, could be….

And I cowboyed up in my small way to post about what I didn’t want to post about. 

 

 

 

 

 

September 21, 2008

Damn Grand; or, Cowboy Fact #22

by cowboylands

The Grand Canyon has been ruined by T-shirts, mugs, and calendars. It’s easy to dismiss the vast chasm if your eyes have been tricked by two-dimensional snapshots. But even the best photographer can’t capture that scariness that is the presence of the West. It’s big, and if you stir from the confines of the concrete parking lot, there is a chance that the Grand Canyon will kill you

That being said, it’s one of the most sublime places on earth.  Widforss Trail © One Eye Photo 2007

The canyon drops below you, one mile deep in places, which seems like nothing until you either gaze into its depths to feel your eyes refocus and refocus to unfamiliar scale and distance, or hike to the bottom and have to go back up, inching your way past urinating burros and day-hikers in agony from inappropriate shoes. 

We went down from the South Rim, yes, chock-a-block full of gawping tourists, but they soon fell away as the South Kaibab trail* dropped below the edge and began its descent through the rock layers to the ancient basalt at the river bed. Although the backpacking stove was still in the back seat of the car, about one mile above, but our best meal ever, ever, ever was halfway up the Bright Angel trail: handfuls of noodles and freeze-dried cheese powder. I think it qualifies as a cowboy moment, because only a cowboy would enjoy such dreck and boast about it after. Cowboy Fact #22: The best meals are cooked in a dented pot over a too-hot fire, or eaten cold when there is a full moon and the sound of coyotes, or any time circumstances are so wrong that they are right. 

Some people, like Picksburg Kid, travel to the North Rim. Less populated and even more beautiful (see pic above). The place to go if RVs the size of tandem semis are not for you.**

Hiking into the Grand Canyon is like visiting many places in the wide expanse that is the West; it is exhilarating and humbling. A book we enjoyed, which brought it all into perspective is called Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon. In vivid prose it describes all known fatal mishaps*** in this most famous of the World’s Seven Wonders. It also reads as an instruction manual, with the following basic rule. 

 

Take Mother Nature Seriously.****

And take plenty of water.

 

Happy trails to you!

 

*The South Kaibab is a rather deadly trail–no water and beastly hot in the afternoon. Plenty of people have passed away on this path. 

** I wish I came up with this comparison, but I have to admit I didn’t. Picksburg Kid did. Dagnabbit. 

***falls from the edge, flash floods, drowning, lightning strikes, rock falls, venomous creatures, suicides, dehydration, and murder

**** No pretending that you are falling off the edge of the Grand Canyon. Or backing up to get into the picture frame more. Honest to Pete, guys, where do you think you are, Disneyland? 

September 18, 2008

The Universe According to Annie Proulx; or, Fine Just the Way It Is

by cowboylands

Don’t read Annie Proulx’s newest book. Don’t read it if you have a drop of sentimentality about the West, if you call cowboys heroes, or if you smile fondly at pictures of cacti and coyotes or eat funnel cake and ice cream as you buy souvenir T-shirts in quaint little western towns. Proulx’s Fine Just the Way It Is will crush you.

It will destroy you as surely as if you were caught without water on a “I’m just going to take a short little jaunt” hike in the desert. As surely as the Grand Canyon will suck you in if you are goofing off at the edge of the cliff. As surely as a living on minimum wage or less with a large family to feed will grind you to a nub. 

Her characters and slice-of-life plots will take you out without a backwards glance, without even noticing. Because that is the West, dear readers. A huge and dangerous presence that exists on a different scale and pace than the mortal beings that inhabit it. We can cover up this juggernaut with smooth highways and air-conditioning. We can gussy it up with pretty Victorian towns and luxurious resorts. We can Disney-fy it and Photoshop it with glowing heroic edges. But when it comes down to Human Being/West, the juxtaposition, itself a conflict, has an outcome that is inevitable, awful, and brutal.  

 

There are those who live in harmony with the western land. Annie Proulx’s stories are not about those people. 

 

Proulx writes about the West as it is: nursing homes, tourists at the lip of the Grand Canyon, line shacks without woodpiles, blizzards. Handwritten notes faded by sun, shallow graves without headstones, a storm that freezes multiple counties at once. And what is truly terrible is that the reader knows what was written, knows who lies beneath the soil, knows the life that was snuffed out, a life simultaneously and beautifully interdependent and individual, and yet–as if in a nightmare–the reader is mute. We read, and rather than being able to identify with the protagonist (becoming “like” the vengeful gunslinger as in pulp westerns) we are forced to become the omniscient West-presence: distant, untouchable, terrible. 

“Family Man” stresses the code of family–a common theme of western literature and films. At its best, family/community loyalty was a defense (call it Fort Interdependence) against an uncivilized wilderness. At its worst, it was a feudal castle, with all the folks who weren’t related becoming vassals to the lords of the land. In “Family Man” Proulx breaks open the familiar theme to find the essence within. But woe to the reader! Personifying the West is elderly Ray Forkenbrock, who reveals a secret that has been eating at his moral code for years. His daughter’s response to learning this, and his convulsive reaction, are as subtle and potentially devastating as a thundercloud on the horizon. 

A well-respected author will mix things up; her…allegory, shall I call it?…of the devil in Hell is unexpected, weird, and off-putting. Not unfamiliar to those who come across the weird, unexpected and off-putting in the West. Things get Western in her book at that point. You have to cowboy up and take it, if you can. 

Another piece, “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” may make you crawl under the kitchen table and curl up in a fetal position. As it spins the story of lives on the fringe of society, the question about who wins the conflict between land and people isn’t answered. It isn’t even asked. It’s a moot point. As a glacier scrapes the trees and soil from the rock, so the beating hearts and vivid dreams of humans are ground away by the West. 

Does the West need mythic Cowboys? was the question a few weeks ago in High Country News and Cowboylands, capably addressed by Batboy42, et al. We mused about the importance of these cowboy heroes and stories, the underpinnings of stereotypes and archetypes of the West. And then spake Annie Proulx. 

Myths are usually of unknown provenance–their origins are dim. They explain a belief or practice, often religious. They or the characters within them embody visionary ideals. Whose ideals? Ours. Human. Mortal. In Fine Just the Way It Is the West is the all-encompassing concept. Whose concept? Not ours, ever more dear reader, but a being or universe beyond human scale. The myths in her newest book explain the world as it is: an inner and outer space so vast, that a crossing should not ever be attempted. 

 

September 13, 2008

Gunlock; or, From Cowboy to Taxi Driver

by cowboylands

In times of moral confusion, I turn to my collection of a gajillion western paperbacks from the 1940s and 1950s*. Their bold colors and bolder titles (such as Action by Night, Gunsmoke Justice, Dig the Spurs Deep) bring me back to my center. Good/bad. Right/wrong. Yes/no. 

The one-two punch of pulp writers, who must have banged these out on typewriters by the fistful, combined with the powerfully graphic work of the artists, always tell me that I can be as tough as their cowboy heroes. At least in my imagination.**

 

 Gunlock, by Wayne D. Overholser

cover illustration by Robert Stanley

Dell Paperbacks, 1956

from the collection of es

Gunlock, by Wayne D. Overholser, has a remarkably prosaic voice, given the usual purple prose of these western romances-for-men.

When  I got my eyes on Dillingham, he was bending over, reaching for his .45 with his left hand. I shot him. He fell, and I fired again. 

Not exactly blood-stirring, yet somehow this author got ‘er done and won two Silver Spur awards from the Western Writers of America. And the New York Times review for this book was “Grade A.” Oh, and Hoofs and Horns (???) called it “right out of the top drawer.”

Using the “I” of first person was also unusual; most westerns rely on the reader seeing the hero as god–the “he” of third person setting the hero apart from common mortals. A reader could be like writer Ernest Haycox’s moody protagonist, but not be him. In Gunlock, the reader is the vengeance-driven hero-next-door, who is about as matter-of-fact as a cab driver.*** Which pulls me right away to the incomparable Taxi Driver, about a young man-next-door who, driven by vengeance (and driving a cab), gives a rather nihilistic view of the self-aware and moral individual and his/her place in the world. 

In 1956 the protagonist of Gunlock instinctively does what’s right (shooting from the hip!), cleaving his way through good and bad, straightforward and twisted, until he gets vengeance on the bad guys, gets a spread, and gets the girl. Travis Bickle of Martin Scorsese’s film, twenty years later, also does what he does instinctively, getting vengeance but not the girl–and he becomes the hero he sees himself to be. The viewer who does not identify with him, or who is plain confused about whether this is a good guy or a bad guy, is then treated to the slickest and most chilling foreshadowing of more bloody vengeance on the horizon–ever

The blurb on the front of the novel could be for the film (or good for the campaign trail of 2008):

He was a peaceful man but there were some things which only a gun can settle. 

 

 The back cover adds a cautionary note, if one cares to read a yellow flag in it: LEGACY OF VIOLENCE, with a jarring color contrast. But then, who ever pays attention to the back cover? 

Dammit! My comfort routine has become disrupted and charged with meaning–what I exactly do not want. I who had desired a simple world may have to find it within myself…

You…you talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. You talking to me?

 

 

*302 to be exact. 

**Case in point. Across-the-street car service drivers on the whoop-up trail until 5 in the morning. Just thinking about the men, women, and children trying to enjoy their Friday night sleep (like me) gets me ticked. A cowboy of any gender would shout out the window, call the establishment, whatever. I tried to go back to sleep. But I guess I’m not the only non-cowboy on my city block, as no one else drilled them in any fashion. 

*** Although there are a number of poetic drivers out there. I know two as friends, and prosaic wouldn’t be in their vocabularies…

**** I wonder if the Taxi Driver analogy has come from a sleepless night due to livery drivers? One can say that the taxi drivers are the mavericks, while the livery cab drivers are more like the cowboy organizations. Well, whoever they are, they are doing the equivalent of shooting up the town. 

September 11, 2008

by cowboylands

 

 

 

September 10, 2008

Shooting from the Hip; or, What Every Candidate Needs to Know

by cowboylands


  Shoot from the Hip, copyright es 2008, based on Italian movie poster for A Fistful of Dollars

 

Everyone’s jumping on the presidential and vice presidential candidates: too cool, too hot-tempered, too much woman, too little man. And like a phantom, the Mythic Cowboy rides through before fading away into the mists of the collective unconscious. 

Thomas Friedman, in his September 9th New York Times op-ed column titled “From the Gut” describes what a successful politician needs:

If you as a politician connect with voters on a gut level, they will follow you anywhere and not fret about the details. If you don’t connect with them on a gut level, you can’t show them enough details. 

“Gut-level,” what Americans respond to, is just a cliché away from “shoot from the hip,” and a heartbeat away from the highest office in America’s theme park, Cowboyland. 

So Americans prefer a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy or gal.* What does it mean? To recklessly act, without thought of consequence? Or to speak bluntly and directly, even assertively? It depends on whether you live in a blue state or a red state, bucko. But then it doesn’t matter what we, the voters think. Shooting from the hip sounds really cool when you haven’t been in combat. And in combat, it’s just one more of the many defensive or offensive strategies you can use**

Shooting from the hip–It’s the 1950s all over again, the epitome of coolness, when G-Men did “point shooting,” the kind of aiming that relies more on the shooter’s natural reaction to stress than using the sights of a gun. Think about it: isn’t it true that if you are being attacked by the forces of fundamentalism of the non-Christian kind, it’s way better to rely on your gut instinct than fuss around with centering a target in the sights. Just shoot the gun in roughly the right direction and you’ll hit roughly the right person.

The big however for me is this: if point shooting, or shooting from the hip, is effective at short range under stressful situations, is it really a good choice for long-range international and domestic planning? The farther you are from your target, the more necessary it is to use a visual index, such a sight. As the distance grows, the shooter must use more discernment and care in lining up the sight with the target to achieve effective results. It’s a clear difference of approach, once you follow this particular Cliché Trail to its end. 

We may very well be entering year nine of Cowboyland once Election Day comes and goes. We may very well have a straight-shooting kind of guy and gal in the Oval Office. But do these two know what real gunfighters know? That a fast draw takes second place to a calm mind?

 

 

 

*Whatever my personal preference, I’m loving the fact we now can write “or gal” without using parentheses that I usually took to mean “not in my lifetime will we ever have a woman running for president or v.p.”

 ** I read a piece based on this thought–back in the days when people mentioned President Bush–to a group of Vietnam veterans against the Iraq war. I was scared shitless. Who was I, a passive-aggressive, to speak about combat and guns to those who had given their health and peace of mind so that I could write about combat and guns? They liked the piece. Whew. 

This article has its origins as a previous incarnation in the infamous and incomparable alternative ‘zine Mad Hatters’ Review

 

September 8, 2008

Of Drugs, Guns, and Succulents

by cowboylands

What are the most likely things to be smuggled out of Mexico? 

Drugs.

Guns.

Cacti.

Saguaro Vista, Arizona. copyright es 2004 Saguaro Vista, Arizona. copyright es 2004              

X-mas Kitsch

 

Especially those funny-looking cartoonish cacti. The bright green ones with the long arms that look like Gumby with spikes. On menus, you might see them wearing sombreros. The one bit of flora that says more than anything else: you are in the West, bucko.

Instead it’s “Go East, young cacti!” These succulents are being snatched from the ground and FedExed to landscaped yards in… Scandinavia, Japan, and the Czech Republic. Go figure: In the southwest of the U.S. of A., where landscapers are paid big bucks to wrest a lawn out of the Sonoron desert, these things are like weeds. Those owners would prefer the water-sucking green grass of “home,” meaning some place out East with picket fences and streams and lakes and people with time on their hands to cut the grass. Oh, sorry. Rant over. 

While there are cacti nurseries in places like the Netherlands, illicit traders and collectors will raid sparsely inhabited Sonoron landscapes to find rare specimens much in demand.* The saguaro is not rare, but its shallow roots allow it to be plucked intact from the soil. How they carry the spiny thing is beyond me, but at $60 per foot, bigger is better.

 

Saguaro Heights, Arizona. copyright es 2004 

And that combination of bucks and bigness spells tragedy for the iconic cactus, which takes a long time getting to its famously recognizable form.** It grows about one inch per year, and about 60 to 70 years to grow an arm. Having seen them at close hand, in their Sonoran homeland, I can safely say that those smugglers are crazy, that it is criminal to remove those giants, and that saguaros are actually pretty ugly. I mean, of course these cacti are beautiful, but they little in common with those bright green picture-perfect cartoon caricatures. And those coyotes with bandannas around their necks sitting beneath the tall saguaros, yipping at a full moon ? No. Whoever came up with that bit of Western kitsch should be whipped by ocotillo. 

Cactus Scar, Arizona. copyright es 2004 

Cactus Scar, Arizona. copyright es 2004 

The saguaro’s flesh is as hard as a rind, often rough and gnarled and scarred. The color is gray-green, brownish green, deep green. All greens. The spines are wicked long, ringed and curling a bit, like the fingernails of Howard Hughes. The arms bend and twist and curve and after a while as you hike or drive, you will start to feel anxious, as if there are people who are following you. You turn around swiftly–nothing. You sneak a glance casually over your shoulder–nothing!

Nothing…but saguaros.

 Running Saguaro, Arizona. copyright es 2004 Running Cactus, Arizona. copyright es 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headlines like “Cactus Thieves Running Amok” and “Cactus Thieves Prickle Conservationists” show that there is something about saguaro stealing that strikes the funny bone, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Such a problem that federal and state wildlife officials are apparently planning to  inject microchips into cactuses to track down thieves. I’ll volunteer to be part of that Cactus Posse, if only to be able to shout, “You! Drop the cactus and put your hands in the air!”

Saguaro Vista #2, Arizona. copyright es 2004 Saguaro Rapture, Arizona. copyright es 2004

 

Dr. Julian Winston: You’re getting as prickly as your damn cactus!

Cactus Flower (1969), directed by Gene Saks

 

* Why they can’t just take those damn prickly pear is beyond me. Those things cling to your shoes like desert barnacles. 

** Once I saw a cell phone tower in Arizona in the shape of a saguaro. I think they were trying to camouflage the contraption. As a fifty-foot, alligator green, shiny, fake cactus. 

 

September 4, 2008

Wild Western News

by cowboylands

 

In an American headline world dominated by an Alaskan governor, in the face of tragedy on the floodplains of India (three million people displaced), and escalating tensions worldwide, it’s time to escape into a good western, where problems can be solved in about ninety minutes. 

In this Wild Western world, a newspaper might have these headlines:

Top Headline:

COWBOY MYTHOS MAKES HISTORY!

In the midst of more chatter/discussion about Republican VP choice Sarah Palin, a quiet confirmation of all that I have been working for these many years. Um, months. Greg Piper of the Moderate Voice gives a moment in history.

Leslie Stahl from “60 Minutes” once recounted that Ronald Reagan’s media maven Michael Deaver thanked CBS for a critical report about Reagan, and she had asked why. Because of the shots of Reagan in his cowboy-style clothing on a ranch. “People don’t pay attention to the words,” he reportedly said. 

So pull on the cowboy hat, boots, buckle, set yourself up on the porch of a ranch house (and not a ranch-style house, please). Say whatever you’d like to say, because there is gold in them thar accouterments. 

 

 

In Lifestyle

With staycations all the rage, you can visit the West from the comfort of your own home. An article in the Austin American-Statesman explains that 

…there are exciting trends on the horizon. Texans can enjoy the revival of Western-style décor, which might be a result of the recent rash of big-screen Westerns (and anti-Westerns). “Brokeback Mountain” started the trend off, followed quickly by “3:10 to Yuma” and “There Will be Blood.”

Awesome! Small, dilapidated trailers steeped in regret. Rough-hewn pioneer furniture, paper for windows, and those annoying black beetles that are everywhere in the West, looking for shade, dropping out of the ceiling onto your bed. And oil-soaked furniture! Glad to know Western décor is back. 

 

In Music:

Glen Campbell, the original Rhinestone Cowboy, has just released Meet Glen Campbell. As Johnny Cash did with his American recordings, Campbell is reinterpreting some pretty edgy songs. A very affecting one is his sweet rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus.” Take a listen.  

 

 

In Food:

 copyright es 2008 

I always wanted to know how to make real cowboy coffee. I mean, I’ve sucked grounds from between my teeth with the best of them, but “rich and flavorful” is not what I would have called it. Now I know. You get the metal saucepot. I got the recipe

 

In the Travel section:

Those pale and sweltering hills look familiar. Your lips move but a dubbed voice sounds–Eli Wallach? Your vision is fractured into tight closeups of face/gun/hand/eye/twitching hand/gun/squinting eye (Clint!)/hand convulsing for gun/pow! Yup, you’re at the Spaghetti Western world of the Tabernas desert, where touristy wild west towns abounds. Stalk the streets with Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo. Enjoy this post, from an appreciator of all things Spain.  

 

Obits

 copyright es 2008 

The cowboy shirt became the cowboy shirt largely through the nimble fingers and mind of Jack Weil, founder of Rockmount Ranch Wear. Does your western shirt have a yoke? Does it have snaps instead of buttons? Does it have indescribably perfect touches like embroidered six-guns or sequined flowers? Give thanks to Jack Weil, who passed away recently. And give thanks to the nimble Googling of blogger Maureen Rogers of Pink Slip, who discovered more of what makes the Rockmount brand, and Jack Weil, so damn special. Check it out

 

One of my heroes, Jerry Reed, passed away on August 31. I didn’t know anything about his successful Grammy Award-winning music career; he was the “Snowman” in Smokey and the Bandit, which was the ’70s suburban epitome of rockin’ rebellion. Ah, the risqué moment when Burt Renolds finally took off his hat (to sink below the camera frame, kissing Sally Fields)! Ah, the killer moment when Sally Fields gives the finger to the Man–what every teenybopper in the audience wanted to do but would have to wait a couple of years and several keg parties later to try. But it was the Snowman–Jerry Reed–who loomed large for me. He drove a massive eighteen-wheeler that could crash through police barriers as if they were matchsticks; he could spout sweet trucker jargon into his CB radio; he had an amused gleam in his eye and a way of cranking up the energy with a cowboy yell. To Jerry Reed, and to all those modern cowboy-truckers out there, happy trails to you. 

 A Kenworth w900, similar to the rig that Jerry Reed drove in Smokey and the Bandit. From a truck driver/enthusiast at dreamweaver.com. It won second place–should’ve been grand prize for this mofo. 

 

 

 

September 1, 2008

Cowboys and Aliens

by cowboylands

Today’s real world has finally caught up to space westerns–the one place in the universe you could reliably find ethnically diverse crews, competent leaders who just happened to be female, and people of color who weren’t comic relief or cannon fodder. Whether you are red or blue, Campaign 2008 should be cause for back-slapping triumph and puffs of hand-rolled cigars. Viva la future! Now on to the topic on hand…or tentacle, as the case may be…

The future meets with the past on the virtual frontier. Trails duck in and out of wormholes in space, time, and personal taste. A comment about space westerns morphs into a door into another universe–very similar to the Wild West but different, in that kind of freaky way the best sci-fi stories and films create goose-bumpy ripples of unease and adventure. So it’s about time this site joined the 29th century.

 Westworld, directed by Michael Crichton, 1973

What is the basis of westerns? You have to have horses, one might argue. And six-shooters. But is that true? And what about cattle, railroads, or cowboy boots? You don’t have to have any Native Americans (bizarre, given how they were such a presence for the pioneers). Ultimately, it comes down to this: while the outer trappings can change, the tropes of a western do not. You can watch a show about a strong individual fighting for a patch of land to call one’s own and realize it’s set on a small planet in a faraway galaxy, not in Wyoming in 1872. (Firefly’s “Heart of Gold” episode) All that’s missing is, well, Native Americans. 

Here’s a swell quote by  the creator of Firefly, the late, great western, I mean sci-fi series, culled from a fan site.

“I wanted to play with that classic notion of the frontier: not the people who made history, but the people history stepped on–the people for whom every act is the creation of civilization.  Then again, there’s also gunfights and action.” – Joss Whedon

So we have a shared thematic and narrative structure, lots of cool explosions, human pathos, and great steeds. And the mother of all sites for this magnificent combo is a stellar site called simply spacewesterns.com. It has stories of cosmic cowboys ad cow-aliens, tough heroes of either gender and sometimes indeterminate species searching to find a place to call their own in the universe. I spotted interviews from well-regarded scriptwriters (the space cowboy talk behind the space cowboy walk) and senryu contest winners, whose sparse poetry evokes equal amounts of space dust and sagebrush. My favorite story was  Fatal Image by Robert Neilson, filled with a meta-reading of westerns and the theme of facing one’s fear–the underpinnings of every great showdown. Yearning to trade your ten-gallon Stetson for a ten-gallon oxygen tank and moon boots? Discover your personal universe with this (Nearly) Complete List, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter to Serenity. 

If cowboys of the nineteenth century had had Internet capacity on the range, they wouldn’t have had to shoot up towns for entertainment–they would have had plenty of excitement exploring this site. 

Until we meet in the real world, in whatever universe that might reside, happy virtual trails. 

P.S. Yes to Gary Cooper (eyes number two). Third set is the real cowboy from Texas. First set of eyes….keep guessing.