Archive for March, 2009

March 27, 2009

A River Runs Right Past It; or, Landing in Nebraska City

by cowboylands

Walking Nebraska City’s main street from the Missouri River is a journey *cue swelling orchestra* filled with echoes of the hopes and disappointments of intrepid pioneers making their monumental trek across the wide country on the Oregon Trail.

O Pioneer!!!!

Freighters, Nebraska City, 1860 (Nebraska State Historical Society)

 OK! OK, OK… sorry. Sorry for the purple prose.

I’m forced to be dramatic, because Nebraska City, Nebraska’s historic river landing sure isn’t. Surprising for such an important stage in the migration of settlers across the Old West. Or not so surprising, if you think about its place in the New West.

To get to the landing, walk down the slope of Center Avenue, over the train tracks, and past the weighing station of DeBruce Grains. In the middle of the night, the train wails evocatively (and often), while in the daytime the actual tracks are drab. You may feel as if you are trespassing, but the land is public (you have to ignore the sign that reads something like STOP, TURN BACK, GO NO FARTHER OR ELSE because it is speaking to several-ton trucks, not bipeds).

The river rushes smoothly past DeBruce’s grain towers and barge pier, past a muddy point (the fabled landing), and past a waste treatment plant that exudes its municipal duty. Alongside the bank dotted with soda cans and anonymous scraps of plastic, a shallow stream spills into the river, depositing rural and suburban effluvia from its own journey.*

Nebraska City (archives of University of Nebraska, Lincoln)  

Somehow, it is still possible to see something mighty in this scene, to imagine steamboats pushing against the current, carrying families huddled with their belongings and gazing wide-eyed at the broad street cresting the hill above them. Or, when the river was wilder and shallower, to imagine pioneer wagons swaying as their horses plunged into the current and bore them across. (The problem with seeing so many westerns is that I can only picture this with a fringe-coated Gary Cooper.) The point is, you want to see something on the riverbank to commemorate this stage of the pioneer trails–a sign, a kiosk with brochures, even a cheesy T-shirt shop. 

So why isn’t anything there? Pondering that while I stood on the muddy bank of the river, I began to understand the ambivalence that towns like Nebraska City have for rivers that brought them to life.

The Missouri was once a wild, tantrum-throwing child, ox-bowing and meandering over its flood plain, gathering up rain and snow melt and dumping it too often onto crops and towns. It has the largest upstream drainage basin of any river in Nebraska, so it deserves to be anthropomorphized by organizations as sober as the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, who calls it “capable of thwarting almost every attempt to control it.” 

The river is a bankable resource, so from that perspective it makes sense that its wildness be subdued. Major floods–meaning muddy, debris-filled, five-mile-wide, dike-breaching, human-killing disasters–have occurred in 1881, 1943, 1952 (the flood of record), 1967, 1978, and 1993. Floods in 1993 soaked homes, farms, and businesses and “threatened” the Cooper Nuclear Power Plant. (I put that in quotes because I’m sure it’s a euphemism for something quite dire, such as a potential Armageddon.)

Towns like Nebraska City grew up battling the river, while it is often the people who live the farthest from the battlegrounds of man vs. nature who most want to stand close to nature and admire it. So I stood, and having the leisure time to do so, watched the waters slink past me. Here the river is not “inviting.” It is not “sparkling.” It’s like a troubled teen who has long since accepted adults’ view of him or herself: sullen, uncommunicative, and prone to lashing out when it gets the chance.

Once upon a time, weary travelers greeted this gentle slope toward mercantile civilization with cheers. Now the riverbank is what it is—a place where even the river doesn’t pause.

It probably will remain that way. It would be expensive to prettify, and the businesses that are already present may give more back to the town than a lonely sign would (in the financial sense).

It’s like many other places along rivers in small towns. Actually, like other places along rivers in big towns too: In north Brooklyn I can take a walk down any one of the side streets but not even get close to the East River because of old factories, piers, and warehouses. But this area between the river and the land has new value. The shift in commerce away from the ports of New York drew the Brooklyn waterfront into a legal battle between community organizers and luxury housing developers. It’s a fight that polarizes environmentalists and businesses, long-time residents and modern-day carpetbaggers, but with a little luck what will arise from the fray will be sustainable dreams of what urban planning could be (imagine! green parks!! for us!!!) and new paradigms for the complex intersection of humans, commerce, and environment.

Nebraska City’s historic landing is what it is. For now. But people—DeBruce Grains, residents, tourists, the town board–they can dream, can’t they?

…as time slips by, as swiftly and as remorselessly as the Missouri. (How’s that for purple prose?)

 

*Let’s not get too sentimental about a pristine space—in the nineteenth century there was probably garbage lying about from the travelers moving through. Maybe not aluminum cans, but still… Interestingly, what I did not see much of were cigarette butts. No one stands there to look at the view. I mean, no one.

 

 

The unique pontoon bridge across the Missouri River at Nebraska City, 1888 (Nebraska State Historical Society, N361-24)

 

 

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March 19, 2009

AIG High Noon Smackdown Hoedown Showdown

by cowboylands

Weren’t we supposed to be done with all these cowboy showdowns? Then along comes AIG, thinking business as usual, and they caught caught in populist crossfire. I’d feel sorry for them, but I’m not. I can hear a constant rustling in the bushes as one by one all of AIG’s friends and comrades abandon them to their fate. 

 ©2008 es

So who is the cowboy hero this time? Will Pres. Obama, manfully saying “I’ll take responsibility,” channel his inner James Stewart and prove that being a milquetoast can also mean you’re a hero? (check out the classic Destry Rides Again, or the post exploring its political ramifications here). 

Will Tres. Sec. Geithner, looking more and more beleaguered, stay the course and be so like Gary Cooper’s Marshal Kane in High Noon

Will the outraged, just outraged senators prove their manly mettle and finally 

a.) start exercising their vote-given duty to speak for their constituents instead of ignoring the business-as-usual tactics of the financial world, which frankly, seemed fine to many of us constituents two or three years ago so let’s not get too worked up unless we can actually see fit to shift our 401Ks to more sustainable and earth-friendly, people-friendly managed funds?

b.) just start exercising! Ride a cowboy!

Or will the hero be the American populace, who shaking off the burden placed on them by western movies (the community are sheep; the community needs to be protected by those stronger, faster and better; the community are venal and weak–see any movie starring C. Eastwood)?

Historically, outrage rises and dies away like the wind coming down from the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend, Texas (like clockwork, every sunrise and sunset as the hot-tempered temps and the cool-tempered temps even each other out). 

What potentially makes this wave of outrage different?

It think it’s the Internet frontier, which allows every voice to link to another voice and to another and another, irrespective of who owns what media outlet. It heightens every conflict into a showdown (sometimes ignoring truth-telling and fairness). Yet it seems less manipulative than the so-called fair media outlets. While the stories in periodicals and news programs go through a vetting process, there is always that shadowy figure behind the stories, perhaps pulling strings or whatever metaphor you’d like to use. 

The Community in western movies can also be a force for good–calling in the rule of law; developing culture; weighing in on decisions that affect independence of the individual and the interdependence of the town. 

It would be good to draw the AIG mess (and the other companies who just didn’t get outed) away of the luridly lettered OMG journalism into more of an acceptance that we, the people, are truly saying WTF, and we, the people, who will create and foster engines of future financial development, are truly saying we can do better. 

March 16, 2009

High Noon; or, Cramer Stewart CNBC Cowboy Stamp Showdown

by cowboylands

The New York Times isn’t above reaching for hyperbolic language like a grocery store rag. I couldn’t help discovering–OK everything even remotely related to the West gets shot to my e-mail like a .44 caliber bullet so I can read these things greedily as if they were pulp novels, of which I have over three hundred in case you didn’t know–I couldn’t help discovering that the NYT‘s version of the Jim Cramer/Jon Stewart face-off was titled “High Noon.” 

Appropriate? Or another mismanaged use of Cowboy metaphor? 

To the discerning movie buff, “High Noon” evokes Gary Cooper’s pained gait as his Marshal Will Kane marches to his showdown. The revenge-thirsty nemesis and his gang loom large in the movie, but as not as forebodingly as the cowardly townspeople who allow Kane to fight their battles. Above the characters of the movie floats the lovely visage of Grace Kelly as Kane’s pacifist-wife, who ends up taking part of the showdown herself in a poignant twist. 

Without going on the well-traveled trails of Cold War/McCarthy era allegory, we can see interesting comparisons to the aggressive and slightly sanctimonious Stewart taking down CNBC’s sloppy (at best) and criminal (at worst) media coverage of the financial meltdown while voicing the populist rage and a few well-placed F-bombs; to the cold-blooded hedge-fund managers toying with 401Ks; and to the passive media/entertainment-fed populace who would prefer to let managers or government make their money choices for them. I’m stuck on who would play Grace Kelly’s Amy Kane, but maybe someone else could come up with that. I have a novel to write, after all…

It’s rather a nice comparison, but when I watched the clip from The Daily Show what did NOT come to mind was

 

  • Fred Zinneman’s spare and minimalist direction
  • the stoicism of Gary Cooper’s portrayal of an honor-bound public servant
  • Frankie Laine’s rich voice as he sings the title song
  • two evenly matched opponents, almost twin-like in their shadowing of each other’s good/bad sides.

 

 (in this photo note the way Cramer’s lips are pulled back from his teeth in a grimace that begs a comparison with the groveling dog, not the snarling wolf) 

Instead, I saw a cringing Cramer squirming to lick someone’s ANYONE’S boots and a remorseless Stewart stamping on the CNBC’s correspondent and letting him back away just enough to take another step and grind him deeper into the dust. I saw the showdowns of the spaghetti genre after The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, when there was a liberal use of blood and dust and sadism and the one who was on the ground was a wretched, weak specimen of humanity–someone else groveling on the ground, getting the shit kicked out of them, not you.

The “showdown” in the clip was a little gut-turning, in the way those spaghetti westerns usually make me a little nauseous. But did I watch, fascinated, a voyeur who dearly wants to be able to assemble facts (with the help of a team)  and hit with a barrage of plain-spoken truth. I did watch, a corrosive populist rage fizzing in my blood. I watched and my fists clenched, my pupils dilated, and I’m sure I would have squished Cramer’s/CNBC’s fingers under my shapely cowboy boot too. 

Verdict: Appropriate. The good, the bad, and the ugly of America at an economic high noon. 

March 13, 2009

Where the West Begins

by cowboylands

Another blog hiatus, but another excellent reason–a writing residency “where the West begins.” Nebraska City, dear buckaroos and buckarettes, is the place where the frontier began. Dripping from a shallow crossing of the Missouri River, pioneers were invited on their trek across the plains by a wide main street that gently lifted them to level ground and feed stores and grocery stores and dimly lit bars (wait, that’s the twenty-first century).*

During the spring and summer months, Nebraska City is a basket of green trees and quaint buildings. In the winter months, the empty storefronts glare back at you. The bars do a steady business, especially, as bars are wont to do, right after working hours. The antique/secondhand shops are staffed with people who eagerly ask how you are and strike up a conversation, as you are part of rare breed in these months–a visitor. 

Where is the fabled west? It’s in the historic Oteo County courthouse and the boulder and plaque about the pioneer trail. It’s also in the wide skies, and the stare from a group of men before a bars that follows you wherever you go. And it’s playfully subverted in the wonderful Fort Western western apparel shop with barbed-wire-print bed sheets and pink boots.**

The West is made pretty and patterned, like the wallpaper in the residences at KHN and the array of cups and glassware at the second-hand shops. But underneath it is some pretty tough stuff, like a work ethic that amounts to “put your head down and get through it,” and a little resentment, a little bemusement, toward these drifters from Brooklyn and elsewhere who have time to write and paint. 

Nebraska City is on the edge, I think. The highway swings to the northwest, pulling traffic away from the center of town. The train tracks skirt the more rundown houses and pause briefly at the terminals by the Missouri. Yet good folk make their casseroles and go to church and work on the boards of Civil War museums and run coffee shops and quilting classes.

And I sit in my studio, tapping out a novel, wondering when the sheriff will come by to tell us to get out of town and keep on drifting. 

 

*Thanks, Mr. Frank Sheehan, painter extraordinaire, for the succinct description you gleaned from countless historical and travel brochures while I was wrestling with whether my protagonist is a Stoner or a Loser in high school. 

**The place also has its share of gloves and boots for wrangling, but I am choosing to highlight the odd things. Rather unfairly, I will admit. 

March 1, 2009

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; or, Relationships in Westerns

by cowboylands

Relationships in westerns???? At first the very idea seems incongruous–after all, they’re westerns for Tonto’s sake, not kissy-fests where people talk about feelings. But as part of the greater romance genre, they’re only leather chaps away from the bodice-ripping paperbacks* commonly called romances. So let’s get in touch with our get-in-touch-with-our-feelings side and talk about some relationship westerns.  

Man with horse: Lonely Are the Brave, 1962

Directed by David Miller and starring Kirk Douglas and his femme fatale horse, Whiskey. He just couldn’t give up his horse…until it was too late. The highway-crossing scene always makes me cry. 

 

Man with woman: Uh-oh.

Westerns tack on a love interest in the most cursory way. And he often leaves. Or she dies. Or stays with her husband. Sheesh. Is there no hope for monogamy? Nothing here. 

Woman with woman: Oh. My. God. That was truly my reaction when I saw the fantastical Johnny Guitar.

1954. Directed by Nicholas Ray, with baroque abandon. Starring Joan Crawford, Sterling “I am a stranger here myself” Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge. Yes, it would be heavy-handed to pronounce this a lesbian western. But there is something about the way Hayden stays in the background and the macho but fem Crawford has to have a showdown with the butch McCambridge. (Spoiler alert) I seem to recall McCambridge dying, so maybe there just isn’t any hope here either. 

Man with man: OK, OK. EVERY western that shows two men sharing a can of beans and a campfire.

Or the bestest relationship movie ever, so sad it stomps all over Love Story with spurs on, and that just happens to be about a gay relationship: Brokeback Mountain. ‘Nuff said.

But I’m adding another:

Appaloosa, 2008

Directed by Ed Harris, and starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. Oh, and Renée Zellweger is in there somewhere. 

This is quite a serviceable western*****: it has dust and sweat-stained saddles and gun fights and guys that are bad guys but good when you compare them to the truly bad guys, etc. What gives it some class is its lack of archness, that same archness that gets pretty tiresome when it refers to latent homosexuality in westerns.** But neither is the movie a boneheaded assault on our refined sensibilities. These men have a relationship, bucko. Viggo and Ed are married. Well, not in a church way. In a fundamental way. They finish each other’s sentences–they even have the same rhythms of speech and walk. They try not to hurt each other’s feelings,and anyway, they don’t talk much. Viggo sews socks and Ed provides the macho eye-squinting thing that’s needed in any good relationship.*** And one of them (spoiler alert) soberly but with a sense of duty and self-worth, sacrifices his own happiness for the other, which happens in marriages–sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small everyday ways. They wuv each other in a believable and unsentimental way. (spoiler alert) But damn it all! One of them leaves town. 

Are there no good relationships in westerns????

 

 

 

*bodice-rippers that I copyedit, with great glee, especially the sex scenes. Except when the writer writes that the man “plunders” a woman’s “riches.” Then I can only visualize strip mines and the horrendous ecological impact from the mines of greedy-gut/sloppy-assed/inhuman corporations…

** note to self, this means you!

*** this can be either partner.

*****Appaloosa is a fine western all around. It has men who look great in holsters and pitched gun battles that seem true-to-life: the violence is over before anyone can blink and everyone looks a little embarrassed and shocked by it. This reveals my true western nerdness but here goes: even the pitch of the gunfire is different from most westerns. Rather than rolling epic gun blasts, the sound of the shots is flat and brief, horrifying in its mundaneness.  

And it has western porn in the closing credits! Shot after shot of close-ups of leather pommels and coiled ropes and gleaming spurs and creased boots…