Monday, November 12, 2007

How The Western Was Won

Yesterday's NY Times magazine carried several articles about the western film. A.O. Scott has the most interesting take on the matter. I mention this here because over the past few months several non-western fiction blogs have carried debates about the western and what, if anything, it means to today's popular culture.

A.O. Scott:

"The movie western had retreated from its position as a quintessential and vital form of American storytelling, undone by the same cultural tumult that had put paid to other manifestations of midcentury consensus. The newer westerns, the ones made since Vietnam, were either revivalist or revisionist, seeking to bury the old myths or to exhume them.

"And yet the very content of those myths was always, to some degree, their own passing. From the beginning, the western has been saturated with nostalgia, mourning and the sorrowful reckoning of lost things and times past. The sun has been setting for as long as anyone can remember. The official death of the West, after all, was virtually synchronous with the birth of the movies.

"In 1890, the Office of the Census announced the closing of the American frontier, and three years later, in a paper presented at the World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner of the University of Wisconsin argued that the Westward push had provided a “safety valve” preventing social tension and class conflict from festering in the American body politic. Over the next century (and to this day), the frontier thesis, as it came to be known, has been debated, debunked, rehabilitated and refined by critics and historians. However dubious or simplistic Turner’s claims have come to seem — American history contains plenty of class struggle if you know where to look for it — he provided a template from which a thousand wagon-train spectacles and cowboy fables (to say nothing of Ph.D. dissertations) would be struck, a sketch of the democratic, individualistic, entrepreneurial ethos of the 19th-century frontier that would find its fullest elaboration in 20th-century Hollywood. The wagon train comes across the prairie, and a little town springs up with wooden sidewalks, hitching posts, swinging doors and plate-glass windows. The honest folk who shop at the general store and read the local newspaper are tough and self-reliant, but also vulnerable, easy prey for bandits and marauders. And then one day a stranger comes to town."

For the rest go here:

Ed here:

I don't know if he says anything new exactly but it's a good an overview of the western movie (and fiction) as I've seen in many years. Even non-western fans will enjoy it.

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