Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Back in the saddle

At the risk of beating a dead horse (so to speak), I’m going to keep this monolog on Brokeback Mountain going for one more week. Certainly, the gay love theme touches a lot of nerves, but I suspect that so many people have strong feelings about the movie less because of this and more because of what it does with the hoary American cowboy myth.

The obvious way to see the film is simply as a love story between two people. But few people who pontificate publicly (including me, apparently) are content to merely do the obvious thing. Some want to see the film primarily as a social and political statement. And at least some of us (including New York Times critic Stephen Holden, whom I discussed last week) are fascinated by what it does to the well-established western genre.

Brokeback came along at the right time for me, since there has been a significant cowboy component to my life for the past three months. And, no, I don’t mean that. Faithful readers will still recall the chronicles of my pilgrimage to Almería, Spain, filming site of hundreds of spaghetti and paella westerns. Naturally enough, the visit rekindled in me an old interest in cowboy movies, but it had an even stranger effect on the Little Munchkin. After seeing the gunfight in the saloon at Texas Hollywood, she became obsessed with gunslingers. Up to that point, I had lulled her to sleep nightly with my own concocted stories about princesses. I recycled every fairy tale I knew (plus more than a couple fantasy movies) into stories about princesses. Now, these weren’t princesses that needed rescuing by princes, mind you. I made a point that the princesses in these stories would have all the adventures, fight all the dragons and defeat all the evil wizards. If a prince appeared in a story, it was only so that he could be rescued by one or more warrior princesses. The Munchkin loved it, and I felt satisfied that I was well on the way to raising a woman unencumbered by eons of gender stereotyping.

But after Almería, she started asking for cowboy stories. So I began concocting stories about cowgirls riding the range and having adventures. But she would have none of it. Like the fellas in Brokeback Mountain, women folk were a lower priority than men on the range. The heroes, she insisted, had to be cowboys, with the emphasis on boys. So much for fighting historical gender role programming. So I began recycling every storyline that I could remember from every Hollywood western. When I ran out of those, our nightly story sessions turned to plots lifted from Leone westerns and old episodes of Bonanza and Gunsmoke. When I ran out of those, I dug out old videotapes I had made of one of the greatest TV shows of the 1990s, the sadly underappreciated Adventures of Brisco County Jr., so I could recall those stories, replete with cartoonish villains and strangely intertwined science fiction elements. (Note: sadly this one-season Fox series is not yet on DVD, but there are rumors that it will be later this year. Everyone owes it to him- or herself to buy it, if and when it becomes available.)

Anyway, so Brokeback Mountain came along at a time when I was doing a lot of revisiting of western movie and TV themes and conventions. As a literary figure, the cowboy or gunslinger is basically a mythic warrior and is iconic for America in the same way that knights are for Europe or samurai are for Japan. (It is no coincidence that American remake of Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai was done as a western, The Magnificent Seven.) Way back when I came of age politically, however, my friends and I tended to see westerns, especially the ones with John Wayne (together with his war movies), more or less as conservative propaganda. When I look at them now, I see this is only half true. Sure, western heroes were many times authority figures, defending the status quo, à la Gary Cooper in High Noon. But the western hero that really resonated was the solitary gunslinger (e.g. Alan Ladd in Shane or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name), who was never quite right with the law, mistrusted and resented by respectable folks and law enforcement officials alike. Even John Wayne, in movies like The Sons of Katie Elder, had problems with the law. In terms of domestic policy, westerns were quite often preaching a “question authority” philosophy.

It is in terms of foreign policy where the gunslinger’s outlook maps well to what amounts to conservative philosophy. The gunslinger lived in a world where law enforcement was non-existent and/or ineffective. To survive he had to make his own law and back it up with his prowess with firearms. This is the image that Europeans have in mind when they use the term “cowboy” as an epithet to describe Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In western terms, these leaders have seen the United Nations as the sheriff who is too weak or too compromised to see justice done. If he’s going to survive, the hero has to face down the bad guy himself and he had better be packing enough bullets to do the job. The main divergence in this comparison, as far as the current president is concerned, is that the movie western hero had a strict code of not firing the first shot. He always let the fellow in the black hat draw first but usually still managed to get the better of him in the shootout. While this would amount to suicide in real life, in the movies it provided moral clarity because, by letting the other guy draw first, the guy in the white hat was clearly acting in self-defense. In the case of Iraq, W. drew first. Instead of waiting for Saddam Hussein to help any terrorists pull another 9/11, W. invaded. This may or may not have been the most prudent course, and it will always leave us wondering whether, absent the U.S. invasion, Saddam would actually have drawn. Especially since his biggest bullets were never found.

The cowboys in Brokeback Mountain are, of course, light years away from the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood figure of the silver screen. Whereas the classic cowboy took charge of events and opted for action, the cowpokes in Brokeback are passive victims. They follow the social conventions of their time and place and don’t dare find out what would happen if they followed their hearts. In shootout parlance, they didn’t draw first or second. Their metaphorical gun rusts in the holster.

As noted last time, Brokeback Mountain has entered the popular culture and has become the stuff of parody, satire and jokes (as well as serious discussion). Interestingly, two days before I published my thoughts, the Associated Press released a report (datelined New York, of course) that surveyed how Brokeback had become fodder for humorists. It quoted a spokesperson of the Human Rights Campaign as saying that this was generally a positive thing, but it quoted the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as seeing it as a negative thing. The interesting thing is that those who are parodying the movie for political purposes seem to be, if not on the political left, then certainly those critical of Republicans. The article links to a poster parody called Kickback Mountain, with Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay’s faces superimposed over those of the two gay cowboys. And a paper I used to have delivered to my doorstop, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ran a cartoon titled “Brokebudget Mountain” with President Bush and the Republican elephant standing next to a tent labeled “Deficit Spending,” with the prez saying, “We cain’t tell nobody what we bin doin’!” Make no mistake, both of these are funny. But, after a bit of thought, the humor feels uncomfortable. It is reminiscent of male playground banter that has gone on for ages. As a child or adolescent, the worst insult you could hurl at another guy was to call him “gay” or some other less polite synonym. At the end of the day, how are these cartoons any different? And the weird thing is that it’s not the allegedly homophobic right wing doing it.

But let’s not go all politically correct here. I may have reservations about some of the ways fun is made with this movie but, as a believer in freedom of speech, I will defend every last taunt and jibe, even if it gets cruel and hurts people’s feelings. After all, if we took cartoons and jokes too seriously, things could get out of hand. You might start getting mobs on the street, staging protests that get violent. Heck, they might even start burning down buildings or something. Now, wouldn’t that be silly, because of someone simply expressing ideas or having a laugh?

-S.L., 16 February 2006


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