Monday, December 19, 2011

Western State of Mind

Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes (mp3)
Wild West Hero - Electric Light Orchestra (mp3)
“He squatted before a slight body. ‘This one here can’t be more than sixteen, I’d say. Well, he should have known better than to travel with such hotheads.’” -- Charlie Sisters, commenting in the aftermath of killing a small group of riders.
Charlie and Eli Sisters are hired killers in the Wild West. They are the protagonists, or anti-heroes, or main characters, in Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers. The book follows these two men on a journey to their next deadly assignment, a road trip story with horses and pistols.

It is literally impossible to read this book and not think of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit, as both juggle the intermingling of the absurd and amusing with the harsh and unforgiving. Having just left the pseudo-medieval-fantasy realm of A Game of Thrones -- a gun-metal grey land wherein lies little hope, and wherein that smidgen of hope is doomed to be treated like a sissy in maximum security prison -- the Wild West feels technicolor giddy.

Name a Western-themed movie or TV show from the past decade, and odds are I've watched it, and odds are that I like it much more than the average viewer.

A frontier without laws. Normal people -- sometimes families, sometimes small groups of men -- venturing out into uncharted land, or into territory unfamiliar to them, hoping for the best or just desperate for better. A struggle for meaning and connection when nature, and often most of humanity, seems indifferent.

Everyone in these tales seems to posses a level of self-reliance we can’t even begin to grasp in our 21st-Century world. Their need for self-reliance is an assumption, because the ones who don’t fail to live very long. We think self-reliance is using Google Maps rather than stopping to ask for directions.

Above all, the lawlessness of the Wild West is ultimately what makes everything so compelling.

In the America of 2011, we are drowning in laws. This isn’t a judgment or a criticism. Beyond a minor neglect of our roadway’s speed limits, I am a staunchly and predictably law-abiding citizen who feels guilty even stealing music from the Internet. So I support our laws and sympathize with those charged with upholding and enforcing them.


Our every move and decision seems to be tracked or observed by someone, often by an authority figure. The actions that aren’t tracked, we record for ourselves and then post them to Facebook for everyone to see.

If, as the saying goes, “Character is what you do when no one is watching,” then modern Americans have ever-fewer opportunities to discover our character. The Wild West is the closest thing we get, as a backdrop, to a complete control of our character. Most of what happens in Westerns is witnessed only by one or two people, and often most of the witnesses wind up dead.

Us modern folk spend 90% of our lives being watched. If there’s a single way I believe teenagers of today “have it worse than we did,” it’s in this: they are infinitely more supervised, policed, guarded. Maybe that’s why so many of them fly off the deep end and go wild when they finally escape the imaginary camera eye, the judgmental supervision of their provincial existences.

And maybe many of us adults do the same stupid self-destructive things for the same reasons. Many of us feel like the overprotected preacher’s daughter whose life is so controlled and locked down that her only escape is through wildly irresponsible explosions. Rebellion as an almost instinctive Tourette's tic. (NOTE: If you think I’m projecting my own issues outward, so be it. I’d originally written this all in first-person but thought it too narcissistic.)

In the Wild West -- be it the fictional imagined version or the real one -- a man had time to think about shit. Time to decide what kind of character he wished to be, time to determine what kind of light or darkness he wished to project onto the world, time to reflect and mull by the fire on the open range, the soundtrack of coyotes and owls in the background.

Most people in Westerns are virtuous and good, even when no one is watching, even when they are not governed by The Laws Of (sexist) Man. Inevitably, however, even the good people encounter the bad ones, and the drama almost always involves how far good people can or will go when stuck in the path of evil.

Ultimately, more often than not, the best Westerns are about redemption. The greatest heroes almost always have dark secrets, checkered pasts, burdened souls and bear a compulsion to set things right, to make things better, to see justice done.

The freedom to form character, for better or worse, in an environment hungry for those desperate for redemption. This is why I love them.

Oh I wish I was a Wild West Hero...

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