This evening it will be movie/tv night, as it is most Mondays. Our regular crew has just finished watching the BBC miniseries Jekyll (my assessment in brief: many lovely moments, and is good watching up till the last episode, when a number of things come apart. Oh, and don’t watch the last five minutes at all: if you are anything like me they will only serve to annoy you. On the other hand, James Nesbitt is delightful. Might be worth picking it up just to watch him cavort about the screen.)
Tonight, we begin our next project, a sort of exploration of movie Westerns. This delights my husband hugely, since he is all about Westerns and has recently come off a bender of Red Dead Redemption. There is at least one other big fan of the genre in the group, too, so good times are anticipated.
True confession: I am not that much of a Westerns kind of girl. Considering that I’ll be seeing a lot of them in the next little while, I’ve been thinking today about why this might be.
Westerns, as most genre works, tend to share some common features (apologies for my wild paraphrasing to Diana Tixier Herald, from whose excellent reference Genreflecting I learned most of this):
- They take place primarily somewhere in the American West, usually in the last half of the nineteenth century (the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption is an exception, set as it is in the decade just prior to World War I.)
- Heroes tend to be strong-willed, individualistic characters, often in opposition to social or political realities of the time. The rugged frontier individualist vs. the artifice of city life, and so on.
- That said, the real star of a Western is often…the West. The landscape, the natural environment, the huge, sweeping forces with which the hero must contend…
- Themes include: clashes between chaos and order; the struggle to survive in harsh surroundings (both natural and social); justice and redemption. (Herald, 2006)
Morality in a western tends to be fairly black and white – we do, after all, get our very literal concepts of who is “white hat” and who is “black hat” from the genre. The good guys may not win, though it is no less clear that they are the good guys. And there is a kind of nostalgic haze over the entirety of the goings-on, or so it seems to me – but perhaps that is simply my status as a modern reader/viewer looking in.
I get why my husband loves Westerns so. He fancies stories with heroic! men of action! who sally forth and overcome mighty challenges – or don’t – while adhering to a strict moral code. (It is not unlike what you see in heroes of noir stories, really – in both genres you get many protagonists who are essentially chivalrous white knights displaced in time and space to a land or society where the things they value are in conflict with reality. This probably tells you a lot about my husband, too. ;))
What is a little more strange to me is why I am not correspondingly into them. I have read several, watched quite a few, and often enjoy them – but I almost never pick up a book or film of this type when I’m out looking for media to consume. It isn’t the type of protagonist. I enjoy noir (generally.) It isn’t the landscape: I have been to the American West on several occasions and find it very lovely and mysterious in that rather terrifying way that deserts are beautiful.
Perhaps it is simply that I am not much of a rugged frontier individualist myself – I’m a geek, a big one, and enjoy city living. And, while I do enjoy solitude as much as the next introverted person, there is to me something stimulating about having lots of people out there even if I’m not interacting directly with them. Ah-ha, perhaps that is it: the vasty wilderness of New Mexico is less populated with characters for me to latch onto than Los Angeles circa 1935, hence the greater appeal for me of noir’s streets of intrigue.
Well, that and that most westerns I’ve encountered tend to be…shall we say…testosterone-heavy. This is in part just a factor of when and where the stories tend to be set: the frontier is classically a man’s world, and there’s not really anything wrong with that. Wouldn’t it be fun to have some more action girls in the Old West though? (That said, I did recently read Sandra Dallas’s Spur-award-winning The Chili Queen, which was great fun and features some entertaining female characters.)
I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to explore the Weird West a bit more, since that subgenre intersects very nicely with my fondness for fantasy and science fiction. I’ve already read Midori Snyder’s interesting western/fantasy fusion The Flight of Michael McBride, and enjoyed it quite a bit – there is something endlessly entertaining in the way that combining unlikely things produces quirky results. Recommendations for Western + supernatural hybrids, anyone?
We’ll see how I do.
Herald, D. (2006). Genreflecting: A guide to popular reading interests. (6th ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.