HOW TO SEE Westerns: Is the Genre Dead?

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“Cinema has been organized by genres nreally since its very beginnings. It was a way way of establishing a bond with the naudience a certain set of expectations certain set familiar characters today. We re going to look at what makes na genre film and more specifically take a look at the western and the questions. We ll be asking are what nexactly is a western who were the key directors and stars of this ngenre we ll be looking at filmmakers like john ford sergio leone and clint eastwood and ultimately we re going to explore a nquestion that s nagged me since the 1980s when i first began to write is the western dead probably the first thing that people expect nfrom.

A western is the western landscape. And it is a bit of blank page. The blank empty desert waiting to be written on an empty stage in na lot of ways and onto that stage. We can project many different nkinds of stories genres create a way of communicating in a nkind of shorthand through clusters of meaning that had gathered around these various stock ncharacters and plot devices and themes and images a way of expressing pretty substantial sets nof values and associations with minimal means at their most profound westerns deal with nthe intersection of the individual and society.

You have a sense of what is gained and what nis lost by belonging to a community as opposed to living in the wilderness. Where as an individual nyou re completely free. It s the arrival of civilization in the form nof those ranchers and farms and small towns that means that the hero is going to have nto sacrifice some of that freedom alive or dead. It s your choice.

The classical western is fundamentally concerned with the coming of law. That defines a new society. The central irony of the classical western nis that the law has to be established through exactly the kind of personal force strength nviolence that the law is meant to suppress. So the hero is the perennial outsider.

Who nhas to use the methods of the outlaw to fight the outlaw tell me isn t. The sheriff supposed to nbe courageous. Loyal and above all honest yeah that he is and he s too much of an outlaw ultimately nbecause. He has killed because he has seen this other side of life to ever be fully naccepted by the townspeople.

He s been defending so the hero sacrifices himself for the sake nof. The law. I think you people need a new sheriff and he in a way wills his own extinction nin. The name of civilization.

The outlaw played by john wayne uses his skills and violence to protect the people around him. He becomes the savior of this little symbolic nsociety inside the stagecoach because he is outside of the social norms. Nbecause. He is able to use violence.

Because he is a man who has killed and will kill again nhe s rejected by the uptight bourgeois characters and at the end..


He can go off and found a nnew world with another moral outcast. Which is the saloon girl prostitute played by claire trevor. Two rejects who go off and found what seems nto be an entirely new dynasty in some magical place across the border. Which is of course nthe great immigrant story to america stagecoach back up out of those saturday morning matinees nand made it a more respectable genre by the time john ford makes privileged status in american film.

It s seen as the most american of genres. It s seen as the genre that most closely reflects npeople s experience of the recent war. It s about universal sacrifice in pursuit nof. A common goal.

And you see the emergence particularly in nthose films of this alienated hero who s experienced violence who s been traumatized nby the exposure to violence. But amazed to discover the reserves of anger that he contains nwithin himself and as a result is having trouble reintegrating nhimself into society. Which is exactly the position that hundreds of thousands of people nhave found themselves in returning from world war ii. In an immediate sense.

It was very hard for na lot of those returning. War vets. Who d seen things that they could not possibly describe nto just walk back into a normal life and pick up where they left off genre. Gives you a way of stepping back from nthat.

Immediate emotional trauma and stylizing it and putting it in the past and giving it na. You know structure in which it can be contained and kind of analyzed and understood nand then ultimately overcome well then you have sergio leone. Coming along nin the early 60s and realizing that things have changed that this kind of self sacrificing altruistic. Nhero is not quite as plausible.

Quite as relevant society is not worth saving society is hopelessly corrupt. There s not much he can do about it it s bigger than he is all you can do is try to take care of your nown interests very different perspective. I would say more cynical. But more in tune nwith.

What was happening in the 60s in terms of social alienation. All the nonconformist nimpulses people needing to reject the dominant culture. You have hippies on the one hand and you have n the man with no name on the other and both trying to find a place for themselves you know in escaping from society. Rather than protecting it.

It s the great opera western..


It s grand. It s full of big gestures. It s full of kind of hypertrophied sequences nthat seem to go on forever and ignore any kind of narrative drive the way it opens with n20 minutes. People waiting for a train to show up brilliant manipulation of time and space.

It came at a time. When suspicion nabout. The genre mainly associated with vietnam american cowboyism adventurism was politically nbringing down the genre. What s fascinating to me about that film is nthat.

It has both the cynicism of the spaghetti westerns and the lyricism of the classical nwesterns able to exist side by side most beautifully in that final shot. Where you just have marvelous npanorama of the city under construction and walking through it deep in the background nis. The horse carrying the dead body of the protagonist. Almost imperceptible beautiful beautiful image and just full of nsuch.

You know rich ambiguity. You can measure the distance between the classical nwestern and the italian western spaghetti. Western of the 60s. Just by looking nat.

The way john ford treats henry fonda and the way sergio leone. Treats henry fonda same actor same technique and yet radically ndifferent characters leone cast henry fonda in that part as a direct nconnection to john ford s films and of course. He cast him as the villain. So it s an inversion of what he was playing nin.

The ford movies. There s a great story that fonda tells in nhis autobiography. He shows up on the set. And he s got himself nsome brown contact lenses.

He says for this part and leone says. I hired you because of your blue eyes. You know take out those contact lenses. He wanted that you know full force of fonda ness.

And he also finds something in fonda that nis a bit cold..


You know a bit angry and remote. This has been part of his personality from nthe beginning and that kind of folksy ah shucks stuff. It s over a certain arrogance and i think leone really finds that it seemed like nthe kind of film that would just infuse energy into this dying form and yet. It was almost ntoo much there was no way to follow that in a way.

It was the end of the conversation. The world was just too big and too evil for nus ever to do anything about which i think became more and more the sense of the american npublic as the 70s wore on and is certainly the case today when the american cinema was turning toward nfantasy and science fiction. In the 1970s filmmakers like george lucas and steven spielberg ndrew on that classical western imagery. Plot patterns characters.

When they created films nlike moments. In and yet those western themes are not easily njust transplantable. There was a film called set at a space station. And it was just nonsense.

It really felt arbitrary didn t work as much as filmmakers have tried to refashion nscience fiction or the superhero movie into the heroic mythos of the western. It has never nreally taken. I don t think it s possible to make a classic nwestern today. We re just not organically related to the ngenre in the way american culture.

Was at some point in the 70s movies stopped nbeing about life and started being about other movies and western certainly figured in there. And you would see more kind of artistic decorative dilettantish kind of westerns like and less well defined characters you had clint eastwood. Who had come out of nthe italian westerns making contemporary westerns like classic western and contemporary society and noften to you know comic end because the old fashioned hero was seen as being you nknow out of place out of time. And then just a lot of just flat out parody nwesterns.

Because like any genre is open to parody. Because that language is so familiar of which nmel brooks and those films were contemporary with the nfinal embers of the classical genre. What s your name well my name is jim. But most people call me jim there s never been a star after eastwood who nhas embodied the genre that way i suppose jeff bridges.

Who is constantly nbeing cast in well literally old john wayne parts as in the case of the coen brothers nremake of certainly tarantino s films embody that some of nthe later clint eastwood films like he s not working from inside the genre so nmuch as using the genre to make a point about changing notions of heroism. It s almost like he s borrowing something nthat. He was once part of and he isn t really anymore. It s self conscious.

I could see him kind of reaching for an oscar nin that one he wanted approval for criticizing the genre..


A fascinating hybrid western a film. I really nlike called a very respectfully treated classical western nframework with a horror movie with a really startling effect. We ve had we ve had i think in both of those cases they depart nso much from the classical western deadwood. This was an invented world that had very little nhistorical basis.

And when you say you re going to provide the nhistorical corrector to that you know to me. It s just you know that s something nelse for better or for worse. The audience has njust departed from that little cluster of moral and social values. This is now a beautiful self contained thing nthat we can approach with some historical distance.

We can identify what s rich and wonderful nabout it we can identify what s reactionary and unfortunate nabout it as well. But it s just not something that s going to ngrow and change substantially from now on it s like you know looking at frescoes or nsomething. It s a beautiful thing. That is now pretty nmuch over i grew up in the 50s and early 60s when nwesterns were everywhere.

It becomes a very personal thing and of course. I m attached to the things nthat. I loved when i was a child you re always gonna have special feelings nfor. The things that first made you fall in love with movies.

Those were the westerns for me. So those are some of my thoughts on genre nfilmmaking and specifically on the western and i d love to know what your thoughts are do you think the western is dead. Do you think. There s any chance of bringing nit back did it mean anything particular to you does it mean anything today.

Please leave your thoughts in the comment nsection below and please subscribe for more videos from the museum of modern art. My name is dave kehr. I m a curator in the department of film. ” .

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