Posts tagged ‘wild west’

May 16, 2010

West World; or, BP versus Spencer Tracy

by cowboylands

The world around us is getting Westy, a crazy combo of tantalizing Gold Rush-type possibilities with a shadow side of hubris-based epic fails. Got BP, anyone?

In films and literature of the Wild West, there are small number of basic plot structures–whether you’d call them stereotypical or archetypal depends on how you swing. One structure, based on pulp writer Frank Gruber’s seven essential western plots, is the “empire story,” or what happens when you do a mashup of small cowboy/ranchers with–no, NOT zombies, sheesh–with greedy-guts ranchers or railroad magnates or bankers (or the poster child of the month for greed and incompetence). The conflict is of the David versus Goliath variety, with the everyman winning.

Enter my deepest desire, when the world gets all Westy on me, to retire from the daunting and depressing accounts of empire-building, biosphere-stomping corporate malfeasance to see good versus evil at a safe remove on the silver screen, with excellent western gear, and stories that turn out all right in the end.

Usually when I need a western movie fix, I turn to Netflix, my local video store, or trusty YouTube. But the cavalry is coming just in time: Some big-screen western action is coming to NYC this summer.

This week and next, May 21-27,  the Film Forum is providing jaded New Yorkers with John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock, a dark, politically savvy western from 1955 that lifts the rock on scuttling bugs of racism in a small town. Yes, it’s a real western with guns and cowboy hats and languid, laconic men draping themselves in front of CinemaScope vistas. It has Spencer Tracy, the dogged pursuer of justice. It has Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan as sneaky, nasty specimens. It has a slow but inevitable trail to truth, justice, and the American way. You know, the American Way that honors all people, regardless of economic situation, ethnicity, or gender? Yeah, that one. It’s a story of what happens to a society lost in complicity and conformity. It would be totally depressing, but, well, the everyman does win. But thanks to this stellar example of a nuanced approach to the western film genre, the victory comes with a bite: Unless you have taken a stand, you are complicit.

Dang. Maybe I better go back to some simple black-and-white Roy Rogers…

Bad Day at Black Rock, directed by John Sturges, 1955

Liz Wirth: What do you care? What do you care about Black Rock?
John J. Macreedy: I don’t care anything about Black Rock. Only it just seems to me that there aren’t many towns like this in America.     But… one town like it is enough. And because I think something kind of bad happened here, Miss Wirth, something I can’t quite seem to find a handle to.
Liz Wirth: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
John J. Macreedy: Well, I know this much. The rule of law has left here, and the guerrillas have taken over.

N.B. I actually could not find a single reference from Frank Gruber’s mouth or pen about the seven essential Western plots, but everyone says they exist. Do they really? I dunno–I got distracted by a really excellent author site for David Whitehead with delicious pics of western covers, a very fine overview on the genre, some history, and real-life western pseudonyms for a British author of westerns. Check it out. Another Wild Western Web find! And I still don’t know if Frank Gruber really, truly wrote the following list:

  1. The Union Pacific Story
  2. The Ranch Story
  3. The Empire Story
  4. The Revenge Story
  5. The Cavalry and Indian Story
  6. The Outlaw Story
  7. The Marshal Story
April 18, 2010

To Hell on a Fast Horse; or, Epic Happiness Pursued by Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett

by cowboylands

To Hell on a Fast Horse: Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, and and the Epic to Chase to Justice in the Old West, by Mark Lee Gardner began as a story of two men on opposite sides of the law, and ended as two life stories that compete to this day: Billy the Kid’s self-satisfying romp on the bad side  vs. Pat Garrett’s grim pursuit of happiness.

That Garrett shot the Kid on July 14, 1881, is in every history book, but it’s not so well known that afterward Garrett was plagued by doubters and ill-wishers who vowed he had snuck up on the Kid, or refused to believe he actually killed the desperado (the first example of “lamestream media” tearing into a favored public figure). After shooting the Kid, Garrett’s future was golden–for a time. Then his two-fisted showdown ways and gambling habits–so perfect in 1881, when the Kid met his end–contributed to Garrett’s decline in fortune and influence as the West became a place of political interests and backroom deals.

Author Gardner makes his case that, fake death claims aside, Billy was shot by Garrett’s pistol in the darkened room of a friend’s home. He describes the haunting scene in which Billy, on alert but unwilling to shoot in the dark at what could be a friend, asks in Spanish who is there. That pause of his, that spark of humanity, is what allowed Pat Garrett to shoot first.

To Hell on a Fast Horse highlights more facets of Billy the Kid’s personality than is usual. Billy comes across as a likable young hell-raiser, although a thug is a thug is a thug–he killed to get away from the law, usually without thinking twice. But his charisma is why he became a fabled desperado, and why Garrett became known as the “man who killed Billy the Kid.” It’s why Billy’s grave has scores of highway billboards cajoling family sedans to visit, while Pat Garrett’s death site had to be rescued from oblivion.

Competition is fierce in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where Billy’s bones lie in rest–in two graves. Or in one? Or neither? Wha?

You got your Billy the Kid Museum, with a replica of the grave and some awesome scruffy mannequins, and you got the Old Fort Sumner museum, and its grave with a whopper of a cage around it. Why the cage? Because people keep stealing the gravestone, wanting a part of this guy. Ironic, as his bones might not even rest in Fort Sumner anymore, as flooding took out part of the old cemetery. And why two graves? The West is wack that way, buckos.

Pat Garrett’s resting place? In the Masonic Cemetery in Los Cruces. It’s a sober-looking marker, without all the cheesy hooplah around Billy’s. But where Garrett was shot and killed in 1908, in a tangled tale of loyalties and vengeance and the kind of frontier justice that isn’t so pretty-sunset-perfect, is located in a Las Cruces subdivision with the pretentious name of “The Vistas at Presidio II,” south of U.S. 70. It has a marker, too, created by his son around 1938.

from Friends of Pat Garrett

It’s on the edge of an old road, an almost forgotten site except for Garrett’s son’s sullen resolve to make sure people knew his father had been murdered, shot in the back while pissing. No way what a fabled lawman deserves, so the Friends of Pat Garrett started a campaign to get that murder site on the map, to make sure that a memorial is set aside. Looks like they did it, although I’d love a pic to show their success.

Happiness is elusive–the more you seek it, the faster it backs away out of reach. Maybe Billy the Kid–with his wild ways and hyper-real  afterlife had a better understanding of that than the driven lawman did. After all, how happy would Garrett feel about being a ghost in the midst of McMansions in a mesa? Maybe, like author Mark Lee Gardner portrayed so well, he would just be happy to get what he could.

April 1, 2010

The West's Westness, part 3

by cowboylands

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?

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 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. 


May 13, 2008

Alt.Country; or, How to Rock a Hootenanny

by cowboylands

In riding the virtual trails of the Wild Western Web, I can come across the truly wild (Bobby Cash, “India’s One in a Billion Country Star”) and the truly wonderful: Postmodern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

Alt. country refers to a pretty diverse array of music with roots in anything from country to rockabilly to punk. You want to know anything more, Google it or check out the blog above; I have a story to tell. I got my intro into super by striding into a bar in the hip capital of the Eastern Coast Western World, Williamsburg, and settling back with a big shot of whiskey, neat. From the corner of the room came a terrific growl and bang, and then with the beat-beat-beat of my heart came the pow-pow-pow of power chords from a standup bass and banjo. These two rangy guys, as tousle-headed as farmboys and as tattooed as sideshow sidekicks got into an earthshaking beat and stayed there for what seemed like hours, jangling and strumming and thumping and howling and crying. Everyone in the bar was too cool by far, but these two guys had something pretty real going on. They strummed one last rousing chord, their voices raised high in a plaintive wail, and then it was over. They packed up, walked out the door, and I never saw or heard them again.

I search for those two titans when I can, and while I haven’t found them, I did find a place to sit back and listen to other like-minded bands and musicians. The Postmodern Sounds of Country and Western Music not only has a cozy old-time wallpaper background, but also a kickass selection of description, music files, and videos. When the range gets rough, it’s nice to come home and know that someone else is searching, like me, for good music. Corb Lund’s “I Wanna be in the Cavalry” video does a heart good–especially if you like your men in uniform.

Check it out soon and often; the site’s music and video files are here today and gone tomorrow, but for a good cause–the artists’ copyright.

As for Bobby Cash, he’s got a pleasant, light voice, a smooth band accompanying him, and I plan on standing in line with a billion people if he ever comes to the States. Have a listen, and Happy Virtual Trails!