Another movie for the Iranian president to see, or any other person who yearns to be a movie-type cowboy instead of a real one.
Lonely Are the Brave, filmed in 1962 with Kirk Douglas as the drifter rejecting the modern West, and the great Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau as his costars.
It was based on The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, written over twelve years before Desert Solitaire. In its pages his unsentimentality about the West and humanity’s cherished dreams crashes into pretty-sunset-cowboy-romance pictures with forty tons of steel and the shriek of air brakes, literally two short pages before the last line.
The book begins like most other mid-fifties western novels, with a cowboy drifter in the mountains, at peace with himself and his surroundings. “He was sitting his heels in the cold light of dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass,” Abbey writes, letting the drifter then enjoy a smoke under a juniper, scour his pan with sand, and then cajole and outsmart his horse, Whiskey, “the bitch”–a pastoral of the human as one with the wilderness. But the book ends with this elemental being struck from the face of the earth, as “…the traffic roared and whistled and thundered by, steel, rubber, and flesh, dim faces behind glass, beating hearts, cold hands–the fury of men and women immured in engines.” Damn that Abbey. If it weren’t such a good book, I would’ve sank into depression the size of Hells Canyon, Idaho.
Blowing through the text is a deep ambivalence about humans’ place in the wilderness and the movie kept that uneasy love/hate relationship with the mythic cowboy.
Although Jack Burns (Douglas) boldly proclaims his manifesto…
A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them…. Have you ever noticed how many fences there’re getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?
…he’s fully aware (okay, okay, the scriptwriter is aware) that that drifty thing comes with a steep price:
Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live. It’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you. Because he couldn’t love you, not the way you are loved.
(Note that “you” was Gena Rowlands–honestly, I would hang up my spurs for her. That Burns guy was nuts.)
So there’s a movie for the Human Beings Versus the West and the West Wins Category.
BTW, it’s not a movie from the fifties though; if you want one of those, check out *Wild Western Web newflash* 50 Westerns from the Fifties, which promises to reveal plenty of undervalued gems.
I read Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent words with a dizzying feeling of deja vu. Wait–wha?–we’re cowboys again?
“American materialist politicians, whenever they are beaten by logic, immediately resort to their weapons like cowboys,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech before a crowd of several thousand in northwestern Iran.
Interesting that our statesmanlike leader–intellectual to the point of at-times dismaying distance and wafflement–is being called a lowdown, dirty cowboy. Who knew that Ahmadinejad had such a grasp on Western frontier history? His use of the term “cowboy” is historically accurate. Before the days of John Wayne, cowboys were the ruffian types. They were the thugs that Wyatt Earp despised, none other than–hold on to your ten-gallon hat–the Democrats, a populist group at odds with the Republican bankers and railroad magnates.
We’re talking the kind of nineteenth-century American history that heavily mustachioed novelists and Americana experts adore. Iranian schooling must be incredibly cosmopolitan.
But that’s not all, folks.
Ahmadinejad then throws in an awesome shoutout to spaghetti westerns, referencing the trash talk the Spanish-speaking villains growled at Clint’s Man with No Name (you know, when the lips move but the dubbed-in voice doesn’t quite match up).
“Mr. Obama, you are a newcomer [to politics]. Wait until your sweat dries and get some experience…. [American officials] bigger than you, more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”
I am in awe. Ahmadinehjad must know for a fact that Americans of a certain age, suckled on the celluloid milk of Hollywood westerns, would look to strap on guns and, like Kurt Russell in Tombstone, tell him to “skin that smoke wagon” and then bitchslap the eff out of him. (Check out minute 2 on of this fine piece of Americana.)
The problem is with the Iranian president’s ploy is twofold.
A.) Most rational politicians with foreign policy experience know that bitchslapping leads to missile crises.
B.) Most rational Americans understand that Hollywood takes the truth out of history to make exciting stories with lots of shooting and happy endings.
I hope we have a president who fits this profile.
And an aside on the historical Wyatt Earp:
Sure the skanky cardshark in the bar had it coming to him, but Earp was looking to a.) take his place as a dealer, b.) ingratiate himself with the local Republican moneybags in town, and c.) make a living and a name for himself. What history shows is that Earp isn’t so different from most Americans–just wanting to get ahead, earn a nest egg, have a wife and kid and house, etc, etc. In the days before Social Security and Medicare, you were on your own; I can’t blame the guy for being ambitious and looking out for himself. But let’s not make him into a figure worthy of hero worship, shall we? Mr. Ahmadinejad, kudos to your knoweldge of Western history, but may I suggest some movies for further research into the American love/hate relationship with the macho cowboy image? The Searchers, is what I recommend.
Where is the West? It is in you and me and you, too, bucko.
Fresh (or not so fresh) from yet another sojourn into the wilderness of Self, the Great Plains of Novel…my answer can only be that while we goggle at yowling coyotes and saguaro cookie jars, sunsetted cowboys and pretty prairie lasses in way-too-tight jeans, the real West is that frontier between what you know as your self, and what you know as no-self. Call it despair. Call it the wilderness. Call it no man’s land, unmarked territory, death. Sorry to be so melodramatic, but, sweet cheeks, once you’ve even stepped a toe into that place and returned, things like taxes and getting into fights with siblings seems quaint, like gingerbread Victorian towns that need to prove themselves worthy of an Interstate rest area.
Westness can come in two basic shades: optimism and pessimism. When you are face-to-face with that hairy cliffhanger between self and no-self, what are you?