To round out WESTERN WEEK, here’s a quick round-up of some of our favorite Westerns — none too unconventional to mention!
DUDES (1988) [collector’s edition blu-ray via shout factory]
If we’ve learned anything from young cinematic punks, a quarter-life existential crisis is inevitable. And perhaps no one captures the genuine spirit of outcast kids trying to make their way in the world better than Penelope Spheeris. Known in popular media primarily for helming the film adaptation of SNL’s “Wayne’s World,” Spheeris has decades of edgy filmmaking not-so-hidden up her sleeve, including probably her most sincere picture, the wacky neo-Western Dudes. Where most punk pictures try to emulate the worst characteristics of anti-establishment ethos, Dudes stands out as a foray into what makes punks people. Each of the three main characters has their own distinct vulnerabilities; especially real is the tender optimism put forth by Flea in his short time onscreen as the wavy-haired punk Milo that spills out into the entire picture. If there’s something better than the crusty NYC punk lifestyle out West, then these dudes are ready to find it. However, tragedy strikes along the way when they’re bushwhacked by a gnarly gang of racist outlaws and vow revenge. Led by a “spirit of the West,” the punks are also helped through their journey by a few fellow outcasted characters: an Elvis impersonating rodeo clown named Daredelvis and a smart, quick-drawing divorcee played by Catherine Mary Stewart. Dudes is a road movie, a punk movie, a revenge movie, and a Western movie, all of which make it difficult to categorize and therefore difficult to market. But when we accept genre-blending as an art form, it becomes clear this film is more special than any of those categories by themselves. Even Spheeris has gone on record saying Dudes was ahead of its time.
CHERRY 2000 (1988) [on blu-ray via kino lorber]
This Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic Western reminds us of how complicated sex and relationships are. This is a world in which men regularly ditch the concept of taking a wife in favor of purchasing an ultra-realistic idealized robotic version to fill their domestic and sexual needs. When one man’s machine is unable to be repaired after an adorable accident involving an overloaded dishwasher, he turns his nose up at the newer models available and embarks on a quest through the wasteland in search of another of his beloved vintage model, Cherry. At first glance, one might think of Cherry 2000 as an anti-feminist movie (one audience review simply says “Don’t waste your time. All for a sex robot”), but there’s more going on here than it may look. Our protagonist Sam hires a rough female bounty hunter to help him traverse the more dangerous zones in his journey; she’s a no-nonsense smart aleck who ups the sexual tension of the story, but don’t mistake her for a manic pixie dream girl. She’s got far more agency than that. In fact, if we’re speaking about tropes, she’s more akin to the “magical peyote spirit guide” who leads our protagonist into his journey of self-discovery– wise, but much more hands-off than an MPDG. In the end, Sam realizes that the culture’s fascination with and insistence upon sex robots are frivolous, and for the majority of his journey he’s had what he’s always wanted right in front of his face.
FROM CARL JENNINGS:
SERENITY (2005) [NOW STREAMING ON PEACOCK]
Talk to book nerds and you’ll find that their biggest lament is the burning of the library at Alexandria. Talk to any sci-fi nerd, and you’ll find that their biggest lament is the canceling of Firefly after the first season. Since it has been more than two thousand years since the library burned, I’m sure we’re going to hear about Firefly for quite some time to come. That’s not bad for a show that is, in both subtle and overt ways, a box standard western show, albeit set in space.
The advantage that fans of Firefly have over fans of ancient literature is the movie Serenity.
Set after the events of the show, Serenity follows the exploits of the outlaws crewing the ship of the same name: Captain Malcom Reynolds, Zoë Washburne, Hoban Washburne, Kaylee Frye, Jayne Cobb, and Inara Serra. These players are joined by Dr. Simon Tam and his sister, River Tam. River was taken as a child by the Alliance, the sinister governing force in the galaxy. She was subjected to an unknown number of henous experiments, leaving her with psionic powers and a decided lack of people skills.
While a large part of the show, the Alliance’s attempts to reclaim River makes up the driving force of the movie. For the crew of the Serenity it leads to pursuit, loss, pain, and a grand revelation that will shake the foundation of the Alliance’s power.
Fans of the show will, and do, flock to this movie, and it’s no wonder. There is an improvement in nearly every aspect of the show: writing, direction, cinematography, and special effects. Note how I didn’t say “characters,” but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The main improvement is that the movie utilized the futuristic space setting to a greater extent. The show, more or less, translated western tropes into a space setting. The movie was able to keep the western feel to it, while also feeling like science fiction. This was achieved, mainly, by focusing on River’s storyline—something that couldn’t be done in a traditional western.
The downside is that the movie was forced to keep the characters consistent with how they were in the show. This might get a Twitter mob after me, but the unavoidable fact is that most of the main cast is exactly the same character.
Superficially they have unique elements, but that’s as far as it goes. They can carry a movie, but not a whole franchise. At their core, all of them are quirky, quipping, outcast types. You can buy a pack of different colored t-shirts, and you might like all of the shirts, but they’re still the same design and made of cotton.
Does that mean Serenity is bad? No. It makes welcome improvements to the show. There was a lot of potential in Firefly, as Serenity shows. It’s too bad that it’s never going to be realized, and fans will have to content themselves on the nearly unlimited number of other quality programming. What a dark time indeed.
FROM BRIAN MILLER:
Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989) [on Blu-Ray via Umbrella Entertainment]
This ’80s art-house homesteader tale is most notable for its visual style that would go on to help define the aesthetic of indie filmmaking. As a Western, it’s a tricky side step of what the genre usually relies upon. The protagonist dresses the part of a cowboy and is gruff enough, but mostly is just a cool-looking goth dude. He wants to fly away, literally, from his problems rather than face them in a violent conflict. Those pursuing him are spirits blowing in the breeze, shadows we never get to know. They are there to offer the threat of bandits or bounty hunters of some sort; not as actual characters but simply to put this otherwise slow as death narrative on a ticking clock. In true opposition to our goth cowboy is the sister of the homesteader clan. She also occupies a goth-type role, one again that would rise in popularity come the ’90s: the insane baby doll. She actively and franticly wants her brother to stop helping this goth cowboy from flying to safety in an anachronistic flying machine (well, this all takes place in a primitive post-apocalypse future). Ultimately it is goth vs goth, and science vs religion. But these themes are just about as shallow as teen poetry, so everything here is for style. It is a genuinely important style, given how influential it would become with the director’s following films, The Crow and Dark City ~ but style alone nonetheless. In this sense, it is only a Western in the way that a hipster wearing western wear is a true cowboy. Nonetheless, there is nothing preventing a fake cowboy hipster from being a totally awesome person. Sometimes you just got to appreciate the kitsch absurdity of what is.
FROM JAY ALARY:
MAVERICK (1957) [all 5 seasons available on dvd]
When Maverick premiered in 1957, Westerns were not yet the dominant genre found on television. In a medium dominated by live studio dramas, sitcoms, and variety shows, a scripted, filmed Western series had only started to take off in 1955 with the premiere of Gunsmoke (the start of a twenty-year run, a record for an American scripted TV series that would not be eclipsed until The Simpsons did it in 2011). James Garner impressed audiences with his ability to play both drama and comedy deftly as poker player Bret Maverick, a roguish, teetotalling character who eschews gunfights and whiskey for a good card game or a brief dalliance with a woman. Production delays necessitated the inclusion of Jack Kelly, as Bret’s brother Bart, a fellow poker player, to alternate episodes with Garner as the lead, which infuriated the latter. The behind-the-scenes chaos never affected the series’ popularity or quality (at least not until after Garner left midway through the third season in dispute), inspiring other film studios to start up TV productions, particularly with westerns, making it the dominant genre in the medium for over a decade.
Future TV western star and film icon Clint Eastwood guest stars in “Duel at Sundown,” a second-season Maverick episode in which the two actors tussle verbally and physically in memorable fashion. An old friend, Judge Jed Christianson (Edgar Buchanan), has invited Bret to town for a visit, even agreeing to stake him in a poker game, but his real motivation is to have Bret lure his daughter, Carrie (Abby Dalton), away from scheming gunslinger Red Hardigan (Eastwood). A fistfight doesn’t convince Red to back off, and Carrie herself is none too pleased, but Bret has real concerns for his mortality when he sees Red show off his marksmanship, after having told Maverick to leave town. Only a fake shootout with notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin (in reality Bret’s brother, Bart) convinces Red to leave town himself!
The episode demonstrates why Maverick was a popular series and worthy of a big-screen adaptation by Richard Donner in 1994 (co-starring Garner essentially in the same role). Unlike James Arness’ hardened, humorless Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, Garner’s Maverick is a handsome nomad who helps his friends or strangers in need, but is very reluctant to get into a gunfight to solve a problem. He’s a far better card player than he is a gunfighter and besides, he hates getting his expensive suits (with a $1000 bill pinned to the inside of his jacket for emergencies) dirty. More bon vivant than grueling mercenary, Maverick tries reasoning with Red repeatedly, but it’s those interactions that increase the episode’s tension incrementally. Eastwood is entertaining as a young gunslinger with nefarious ambitions (he only wants to marry Carrie to seize her ailing father’s land while he keeps his affair with another woman)—even at age 29, he’s mastered his piercing stare. He also shows off his comedic skills, mispronouncing Maverick’s name intentionally as “Maver-ACK” repeatedly, irritating his newfound nemesis. Based on his performance here, it’s no surprise that he landed a starring role the following season in the long-running western series Rawhide (1959-1965).
Garner demonstrates why he was able to slide back and forth effortlessly between TV and film during his entire career, creating a western character who is very different from the clichéd protagonists of countless TV westerns; if not for his role of Bret Maverick, the world would have been deprived of one of TV’s greatest characters, taco-loving, trailer-park-dwelling private investigator, Jim Rockford. If Quentin Tarantino’s rapturous look at classic TV westerns in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood inspires people to sample the genre, they ought to start with the best and embrace Maverick.
That’s the end of WESTERN WEEK, but be sure to take a look at our column HI-HO SILVER SCREEN for more love for the genre!