I’m often asked how I got into westerns–sometimes with a tone of disbelief, as in how could one possibly like this hoary, cardboard cutout genre??
I barely know myself: I was always the one who insisted on playing the Indian in Cowboys and Indians because cowboys were just so not interesting to me. And watching movies where every plot turn was telegraphed several scenes in advance? Ho hum. Those silly western shirts? Ugh. And cowboy boots? Way too two-step.
So I sat down to trace this insane western-loving development–and found the most surprising source.
I am too young to have experienced the heroes of the early oaters, although a good cliffhanger now and then does my heart good. But even if I had seen those magical maestros of the early twentieth century, I’m not anything like the buckos who coldly dismiss post-Roy Rogers cowboy heroes or anyone who wears a flamboyant western shirt, saying, “They’re not Tom Mix.” [insert spitting of tobacco juice here]
I completely missed out on the classics–it took me forever to connect to the strong, silent macho types and the women who loved them. Although now I have several pinups of James Stewart and Gary Cooper and have a sincere respect for the Duke, their films didn’t spark the interest first.
And it wasn’t the Viet Nam-era films either, although I squint my eyes like Clint Eastwood when faced with a dumbass (pre-empty-chair-at-convention Eastwood, I mean) and I used to so totally sneer at the crisp good/bad morality of the golden age of John Wayne, etc.
My western birth can be traced to decidedly alternate takes on the genre.
The strange, Martian landscape of the Southwest first became familiar to me through the antics of these frenemies. These vistas were imprinted on my retinas from an early age–if Looney Tunes showed it, it was true. And what the episodes taught me has since been both confirmed and debunked.
Fact–what experience has confirmed: There are coyotes out West. (Actually, in NYC, too. OK, every freaking where in North America.)
Ditto: Those unearthly rock bridges and spires exist–in their purple, maroon, yellow, and blue glory, depending on the light and the time of day.
Amazingly ditto: Roadrunners absolutely have jerky, goofy kinds of gestures.
Total fiction: Roadrunners do not go “beep beep.” They make a clicking sound.
The number one rule of a showdown was made clear to me at an early age: If you have a bigger gun, use it. Bugs’s loping grace and quick wits were a natural match for the savvy western gunslinger. Even now, when I see James Stewart standing up to the blustering bad guy, I know what will happen, because if Bugs Bunny won, so will the hero.
Fact: Big hats were worn out West. They still are necessary to keep the sun off tender skin. Also, holsters are important for ease of gun use.
Ditto: Thin, rangy gunslingers look better in a holster than overweight ones. Even if the gunslinger is a rabbit. (see James Stewart, Gary Cooper, et al)
Fiction: Do not go barefoot in the West. Fuzzy chollo spines are hurt like Hades. Scorpions abound. There be rattlesnakes.
Fiction: A real showdown between enemies would not have had the carefully choreographed moves of a ballet. Fuhgeddabout the “middle of the street,” “whoever is fastest wins” joust. Many gunfighters weren’t averse to bushwhacking their enemy if it meant they would live a little longer. And faster wasn’t necessarily better.
And then it hit me. This was the moment. Star Trek. “Spectre of the Gun.” When history, legend, violence, and fantasy collided in a glory of western weirdness.
I had the kid version of a WTF moment when I first saw these stylized villains striding across the TV screen. The skies–so stark yet the bright color of jujubes. The spare sets that indicated “western” with signposts of “tree” and “corral” and “weathered sign.” I knew these items, put together with the spare garb of the bad guys meant something significant…something crucial…something…
…inexplicably awesome. It was the big-bang moment for me–my universe had just expanded.
Fact-what experience and much viewing of westerns has shown: All it takes–truly–is a tree, a corral, and a weathered sign, and you’re in the West.
Ditto: Believe deeply in your reality–alternate or otherwise–and it can become true. (To understand this requires a viewing of the episode. If you haven’t ever seen it. Do so now!!
Fiction: The Clanton/Earp fight was less a tale of good vs. evil than politics between the business elites and the populist ranchers. The West is way more complex than the simplistic legends would suggest.
Fact: I heart those simplistic legends, even with their white hat / black hat morals. And I very much wish to play Cowboy now.
Spock: Captain, since we have seen that death is the one reality in this situation, I seriously suggest that you reseat yourself immediately, without moving a muscle of either hand. If I remember correctly, that would involve you in what was called the Fast Draw. It initiated unfortunate events.