The resurgence of the Western
After a full year spent writing and producing our urban Western, The West Side, Zack and I finally premiered the first episode of the serialized feature in July. Now, months later, Western films are dotting the Hollywood landscape like so many buffalo on a windswept plain. I've been joking with friends that, similarly to Justin Timberlake and Sexy, I brought the Western back. But Sexy never left; the Western's been gone awhile.
Regardless, the truth is, I didn't bring Westerns back. George W. Bush did.
The release of 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford--along with There Will be Blood and even No Country for Old Men--would be enough to justify the statement that Westerns are currently enjoying a revival in this country. The fact that the first two films (the only ones I've seen to date) rank as some of the genre's finest, however, indicates Something Is Going On Here.
What makes the Western more relevant today than it was ten years ago? I can't speak to the other filmmakers' thought processes, but regarding The West Side, the idea for it dates back to 2001.
In American hearts, minds, and most importantly, media, the year 2001 connotates one thing. Not since communism has there been a struggle portrayed in oversimplified "good vs. evil" terms as is the war on terrorism. The Western, with its traditional focus on cowboys and Indians, fits perfectly into the democracy-versus-terrorism, us-versus-them model that our administration would have us buy into. It's not a stretch to see how a violent, gung-ho American culture begets the resurgence of a violent, gung-ho American genre.
Our so-called commander-in-chief poses as a cowboy on his Texas ranch, posts "Most Wanted" lists, constructs a wall on the Mexican border (remember the Alamo!), and generally extols frontier-style justice. Whether Americans are conscious of it or not, Bush has given them a new framing device for Western imagery. Movie trailers featuring men in hats and gunbelts feel more relevant than they did before he took office. Western-style commercials are increasingly common, with Coors selling beer, Chevy selling trucks, and Wrangler selling jeans--all in the same weathered, big-sky, tough-guy image he cultivates:
What an asshole.
One could argue that the Western has also always been tied to war, but I'm not enough of a historian to back up the point. Cursorily, it would seem that the Western's previous heydays have all coincided with, or followed, America at war. The John Ford pictures of the late 40s and early 50s followed World War II (Ford himself served in the Navy), Sergio Leone brought back the genre (albeit from an Italian perspective) during the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s, and now we're seeing a resurgence during the Iraq War (ahem, "occupation"). It'd be sickening to think that our taste for fictional shootouts increases during the times our actual citizens are fighting and dying; but it may just be we're a nation frequently at war, and it's impossible to tie the Western's ebb and flow to that of our warmongering.
It's possible James Mangold, Andrew Dominik, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen brothers would all deny that they are responding to Bush or the Iraq War (although Anderson's There Will be Blood is based on a book originally titled Oil!). But one doesn't have to set out to respond to specific current events to be a participant in a larger cultural shift. Also, keep in mind that all of these films are based on books: with the exception of the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, each film is based on a source text that has been around for many, many years. So why are they all being simultaneously adapted into films? Perhaps it has less to do with the director's own whims, and more with the out-of-touch studio executives who green-light the projects--they are almost certainly relying on cultural artifacts like Coors commercials for their understanding of the zeitgeist.
But several films merely coming out at the same time is not enough to read into the cultural tea leaves. The fact that these films are some of the best of the year, however, is indicative of import. No Country for Old Men is getting terrific advance reviews. 3:10 To Yuma is a tightly-crafted crowd-pleaser, a film doggedly determined to single-handedly bring back the genre. When I saw it last month, I ate it up; the surrounding audience applauded when the credits rolled. Its better-than-expected box-office performance--the film made back its production budget during the domestic theatrical run alone--will ensure a slew of revivalist Westerns in the coming years.
But The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, at its finest moments, is one of the richest Westerns ever made. The film is inconsistent (especially at the end), but that's like criticizing a runner trying to set the world record for having imperfect form (especially at the end). Director Andrew Dominick set out to make a contemplative, atmospheric film in the mold of Terrence Malick; unfortunately, he succeeded in more ways than one.
Malick's The Thin Red Line, one of my favorite films, didn't start as a screenplay full of commercial conceits, but rather as a project made in the white space of the page. Studios should be applauded when they fund such risky projects--albeit rarely--but in the case of both The Thin Red Line and Jesse James, the director's original vision was compromised during the editing process. Rumors have circulated about Malick's original cut running six hours; according to Wikipedia, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, and Viggo Mortensen all acted in the film, but none of them appear in the cut released by Fox. Clearly, the meditative epic suffers in the editing phase, when executives are more focused on the project meeting certain revenue figures (and running times) than they are with catering to the director's vision.
Dominick's Jesse James suffered a similar fate (though perhaps the studio-director relationship was not as contentious), as it's just now being released, two full years after shooting wrapped. As with The Thin Red Line, there were reportedly numerous re-edits, but the fact that the film still runs two hours and forty minutes is likely a testament to the presence of Ridley Scott and Brad Pitt as supportive producers, more so than Dominick's cache with the studio (as it's only his second feature).
In the case of both films, I would love to see a Director's Cut released on DVD; with DVD being a firmly-entrenched format, directors should put in their contracts the rights to an alternate DVD release in case of intractable disagreements with the studio.
Blame for the fate of such ambitious films does not lie solely with the studios, however. If the best films of the 70s were shown to test-audiences today, they would certainly receive unfavorable ratings. How and why audiences have changed is a subject for another time or another person, as I wasn't even alive in the 70s. But Rocky won the Best Picture Oscar over Taxi Driver in '76, so maybe audiences haven't changed all that much.
So who's left to blame? Critics.
Film critics reviewing movies are like schoolteachers grading papers; they often hand out better grades to projects that do the expected very well, instead of rewarding those that push the boundaries. Risk-taking films (like so many 70s pictures) might be a bit rough around the edges, but the most polished movies rarely advance the art form; critics tend to forget that when they point out a movie's faults. And plenty of them have jumped at the chance: Jesse James is receiving somewhat mixed reviews, with a current score of 72% at Rotten Tomatoes. Compare this with last year's critic's darling, The Queen--holding steady at 97%--and you have a prime example of critics rewarding spit-shined blandness over more erratic, edgy fare. Also, I love Pixar as much as the next moviegoer, but the uniformly glowing reviews their movies receive are starting to rub me the wrong way; while it's true the folks at Pixar make movies that everyone can agree on--and do a wonderful job of it--a Ratatouille at its best is not nearly as valuable to the art form as is a Jesse James at its best.
Not that Jesse James is rough around the edges; indeed, it's such a gorgeously crafted film that I hope one day we see a version of it without the explicit narration. The story, acting, production design, music, sound design, and especially cinematography flesh out the film's themes so effectively that I found the narration detracting and redundant at times.
As an industry outsider, it's not often I see a film before it goes into wide release, although living in New York does help. But, despite my opinion on embracing small screens, Jesse James is truly a picture that needs to be seen in a good theater. If you find the film uneven, take heed: as a still-young art form, films should be judged on reach rather than grasp. And The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has not only the longest title, but also the longest reach, of any film I've seen this year.