Tag Archives: Westerns

The New Western

the-revenant-compA little over a week ago, I went to see The Revenant, the fictionalized version of the Hugh Glass story, starring Leonardo Dicaprio, and I have to say it was a great movie. Unlike most movies today, they eschewed the use of CGI, even when filming the bear attack that is the pivotal event of the story. And they filmed only in natural light, so the scenery is spectacular, and you can practically feel the cold seeping into your bones. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and correct that discrepancy.

The Revenant is among a crop of recent westerns, including the direct-to-DVD Bone Tomahawk, The Hateful Eight, and Jane Got a Gun, none of which I have seen. But I did read an article about how the newer westerns, while a welcome sight, were much more violent than westerns of yore.

Of course, one of them is a Quentin Tarantino movie, so you can expect it’ll be violent. A Tarantino movie without violence would be like Star Wars without spaceships: it just ain’t happenin. Obviously, not having seen any of these other movies, all I have to go on is what the article said, but I have to wonder about the author’s motivations (and I can’t seem to find the article now, or I’d link to it).

The west was a violent place, though that violence was probably not as prevalent as the movies would have us believe. After all, take people who really don’t fit in in the first place, put them in an area where the law doesn’t exist and there’s no one to curb their antisocial tendencies, and you’re gonna have violence. It’s just human nature.

However, I would guess that, based on what I’ve read, the violence was about like becoming a tornado victim in Tornado Alley: it’s very much a possibility, but if you look atThe-Hateful-Eight-banner-620x467 the statistics, actually not as likely as urban legend would have us believe. The period we call the Wild West didn’t last very long, in fact. The vast majority who traveled west were settlers, men with families in tow who were seeking a better life, something they simply couldn’t find in the stratified east. They were chasing a dream of having their own land. They formed towns and quickly hired law enforcement officers of various types. The Texas Rangers patrolled that huge area under the motto One riot, one Ranger. The US Marshals were also present throughout this period. And that doesn’t even include the town sheriffs and marshals populating the landscape.

That’s why there were places like Robber’s Roost and Hole-in-the-Wall. The bad guys needed places to hide out because, in all honesty, the vast majority of people in the west were against them. And they were armed.

What we read when we pick up a Dusty Richards or a Louis L’Amour novel is a romanticized version of the west, where the good guys were gooder and the bad guys were badder, and the honest citizens were often caught in between. Call it a nineteenth century version of The Avengers. Yes, there were the larger than life figures, some of which switched sides, like Bat Masterson.

When it comes to movies, the classics have actors like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Randolph Scott, and so on. More recent stars would include Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck, and Jeff Bridges. When we pick up a movie with one of these actors in it, we expect more or less classic western action, where the good guys win and the bad guys get their comeuppance.

High_Plains_Drifter_posterThe 1960s saw a different type of movie come along, though, the fabled spaghetti western. Made with low budgets, they generally featured up and coming actors such as Clint Eastwood (who has also starred in more classic western movies), strident music, and lots of close-ups of actors making various noises in reaction to horrible deeds and a more violent, less idealized version of the west.

And now we have the more modern, more violent western, where the characters aren’t so clean cut, and they get dirty, and tired, and the action is more in touch with reality—albeit still a somewhat romanticized reality—than the classic westerns. There’s more grit and fewer Guys in White Hats who always get the girl.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I can’t see how it would hurt to have a modern western made in the classic way. At the same time, I enjoy the grit and dirt I see, because, as much as we idealize those who settled the west, it wasn’t a clean or easy job. It was backbreaking labor, whether you were a cowboy or a sodbuster. Taming a frontier isn’t for the faint of heart or the spoiled. You gotta get your hands dirty to get anywhere.

And I’m sure the violent western is a reflection of our times, as so many movies are. It’s escapism, plain and simple. So while the author of the article I mentioned above seemed to deplore the violence in the new westerns, I’d say it’s here to stay, in all likelihood, and the best we can do is enjoy the stories. Or not. After all, no one is forcing you to go to these movies, or read the books.

Having grown up reading westerns, I think I’ll give them a chance. After all, the only constant we have in life is change, so this too shall pass.

Later,
Gil

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What Happened to Horror?

I used to like horror. Movies or books, it didn’t matter. Like Westerns, horror stories seem to fall into one of two extremes: excellent or horrible. Not much in the way of mediocre stories in either genre, though there seem to be more horrible horror than Westerns. For every Stephen King or Dean Koontz, there were dozens who maybe should never have seen print, at least in my opinion.

With the exception of crap like Longarm, Westerns have taken a nose dive in the last couple decades. That’s the nature of the business. Westerns wax and wane in popularity, though they seem to be on the rise again, and it’s good to see that. In the meantime, though, I fell off on reading them for whatever reason.

Horror has kept right on plugging along, though I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I’ll still pick up a Stephen King book and the occasional Dean Koontz—especially if it’s an Odd Thomas novel—but on the whole, I avoid horror like the plague. When it’s degenerated into sparkly vampires who have melodramatic love triangles with hunky werewolves, I’ll find my entertainment elsewhere, thank you very much.

The genre has also shown a tendency to stereotypes. I would imagine that, during the eighties, there were more fictional small towns destroyed by some horrible thing or another—most ending up being men or women who were really ancient demons of one kind or another—than probably exist in this country. Stephen King started this trend with novels like ’Salem’s Lot, where the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot became infested with vampires.

Small towns make good fodder for horror, because when you see neighbors you’ve known all your life all of a sudden start acting hinky, it makes the terror more personal. And since small town people tend to be friendly-but-private, that lets folks get away with all kinds of madness. Problem was, when you picked up a horror novel to read the back, the synopsis almost inevitable started out with something to the effect of In the small town of…

That got old. In a hurry. I decided if I read about one more small town getting wiped off the map by one Satanic force or another, I was gonna participate in some small town horror of my own.

And the movies? Please. Last thing I wanted to watched was the latest iteration of Jason/Freddie slashing up unfortunate people caught in some remote location. When Jason went into space, I swore off horror movies altogether.

But, I decided to try one this week, much to my regret. I guess the title, The House of the Devil, should have warned me off. Thing is, most horror stories have tacky titles like that. Again, it’s part of the business. Besides, the premise sounded good. To quote the opening of the synopsis on the back, During the 1980s, over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults. This film is based on true and unexplained events. It goes on to tell of how one Samantha Hughes, a broke college student, takes on a babysitting job in an isolated mansion. Of course, her best friend warns her off, but she needs the money, no matter how creepy the family is.

Long story short, the first hour and fifteen minutes or so of the 95-minute film are about as exciting as a travelogue of Outback, USA. The movie makes some attempts to build up tension with such tricks as having Samantha call the people from a payphone, leaving the number to her dorm room and yet getting a call back on the payphone before she can get more than fifty feet away. You have to remember that this movie takes place in the eighties, before the advent of things like caller ID so, okay, maybe that’s a tad spooky.

Problem is, they fail to follow it up with much of anything until things start going bump in the house very late in the movie. She ends up getting tied down in the middle of an inverted pentagram painted on the floor with what we assume is blood. The creepy family comes in, does some arcane ritual involving blood poured on her stomach and into her mouth from a weird skull, all timed to coincide with a lunar eclipse mentioned earlier in the film.

Samantha manages to break free and kill two of the family members on her way out—her white shift suitable soaked in blood, of course—and confronts the patriarch in the local graveyard. He informs here that it’s too late, that she can’t stop what’s happening inside her. She’s managed to pick up a pistol—looked to me like it was a .38, but it can be hard to tell on film—and she shoots herself in the head. We cut to news footage saying that astronomers the world over are confused at how fast the eclipse moved off the moon, then pan into a hospital room where Samantha is miraculously alive, her head in bandages. A nurse comes in, injects something into Samantha’s IV, then pats her on the stomach and says that everything will be fine for both of you. Fade to black.

What a major disappointment. 75 minutes of next to nothing happening, followed by 20 minutes of predictability. Spare me. I ended up fast-forwarding through much of it just to see if anything of note occurred.

Maybe it’s my changing tastes, but I really don’t think it’s just that. Horror has gone downhill in a major way in the last twenty years or so, maybe more. Maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with—with certain exceptions, of course—and I’m just now realizing it.

But in a world where we writers are constantly told to tighten up our stories and keep them moving, I fail to see how this piece of drek got filmed.

So, I guess I’ll go back to avoiding horror, just when I thought there might be some hope for it.

What do you think? Am I right? Has horror degenerated in recent years, or is it just me realizing what has been true all along? Let me know what you think.

Later,

Gil

Another “Stuff” Post

Okay, first of all, yes, I’ve changed my theme again. It’s not that I’m so much indecisive as I’m experimenting. I actually wanted to use this theme last time I switched but didn’t realize how versatile it is (for those of you who don’t use WordPress, you can sort of try on your themes before using them. Except they don’t always look like you can make ’em look when you activate them). Mostly I’m looking for something I can proof that’s easy on my eyes. I not only proof in my text box, I also proof after I publish the post because I sometimes spot mistakes there that I don’t see in the text box. My daughter liked the last theme I switched to, but it wasn’t my preferred one, so now I’ve switched to this one.

Besides, I’m kind of a gadget guy, so I like to change things up occasionally. I get bored leaving it one way. Heck, I tend to buy new watches (yes, I still wear one of those) just because I get bored with the one I’ve got.

Okay. Now that’s out of the way.

I just came from my writers’ group. I didn’t take anything to read tonight, which turned out to be just as well. This group has been around a long time, over twenty years, if I’m not mistaken. It’s run by Western author Dusty Richards and an old newspaper writer named Velda Brotherton. For those of you who read Westerns, as of this year Dusty has written 100 books. He has written some for the Ralph Compton estate as well as several under his own name. Considering that Westerns, as far as I can tell anyway, aren’t a real hot commodity in publishing right now (which is sad, in my opinion), I think that says something for him that he can get his stuff published.

Anyway, because our group is so old, attendance fluctuates. When I take reading material, I usually make twelve copies because that seems to be a happy medium. Some nights are like tonight in which I’d guess there were well over twenty people there, and others it’s more like ten or fifteen. You just never know from meeting to meeting. They’re a punctual group (they have to be), starting promptly at 6:30 P.M. and ending as close to 9:00 as possible. It rarely runs over that. Each participant can bring five pages of whatever work they want, and that includes poetry. We pass around copies, the author reads it aloud, and then everyone is free to comment on it. In other words, what we have is a critique group.

I like that. I mean, we joke and stuff, so it’s not 100% business 100% of the time, but we do keep our nose pretty close to the grindstone, simply because of time constraints. In order for everyone to read their material, it’s necessary.

We have a pretty diverse group, too. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I do sf/f and I’m starting to experiment with crime fiction. We have a couple of mystery writers, one other guy is doing a space opera, there are a couple of romance writers, and one who thought she was a romance writer but then evidently figured out she wrote chick lit. Nothing wrong with that. We have one woman named Jan Morril (I hope I spelled that name right) who’s writing what I guess you’d call a historical novel. If I understand her history correctly, she is originally from Hawaii and is at least part Japanese. Her book, which she’s calling Broken Dolls, is about a Japanese family from California interred in a camp in Arkansas during World War II and the people they meet. It’s excellent writing, and I don’t understand everything that’s happening because I’ve missed large chunks of it. But what I’ve read is impressive and I’d like to read the entire book. I hope she finds a publisher for it, because it deserves to be out there. Anyway, we also have  a couple of humor writers who tend to do sketches rather than full-blown novel-length pieces, but that’s okay, too. There’s room for all kinds.

The thing is, I thought that’s basically what all writers’ groups did: got together and critiqued one another’s work. It’s interesting to me because it lets me sample stuff I wouldn’t normally read (and some of it I never will), and it’s been interesting educating most of them in what goes and doesn’t in sf/f. They just weren’t that familiar with the genre.

It seems. though, that the group my daughter belongs to doesn’t do that. They do a prompt session where they spend five minutes writing some kind of little flash fiction thing, and they’re given five words to use in a story for the next meeting (please correct me if I’m wrong, Jesi). From what I understand, it’s a small group, about eight people if I remember right, and they meet once a week just like my group does.

Now, I’m not one to criticize another group. It’s not like I’ve got the ultimate wisdom on what a writers’ group should be and/or do. But, while I like the little prompts and such that my daughter’s group does, I have to wonder if they’d get more out of it if they did some critiquing. I say this because I have grown considerably as a writer since I started going to this group I’m in and, with the exception of sharing whatever good news there might be (I’m still waiting for someone to jump up and down screaming “I got an agent!” or something similar), critiquing one another’s work is all we do. Well, that and eat the wonderful desserts one of the women brings every week.

So is anyone out there reading this part of a writers’ group besides me, my daughter and Russell (I know he reads this because he’s commented a couple of times)? If you are, what does your group do? Do you think critiquing should be a vital part of what a group does, or are there other ways to help group members?

I ask these questions because, as I said, this is what I pictured writers’ groups doing before I joined this one, and I think  I would have been surprised if they’d done anything else. But maybe my exposure to such things is too limited or something, so it’s gotten me to wondering and I thought I’d ask.

Well, I believe that’s enough rambling this time around. Let me know what you think in the way of groups. Or my new theme. I want it to be different but easy to read at the same time.

Later,

Gil