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Movies, Dead or Alive

Movies, that is.
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I have tried to think of a way to summarize the experience of watching numerous westerns, then writing them up in the form of belated reviews. These films from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, along with others made later, created a genre that, as everyone knows, no longer attracts an audience. A while back, the mere mention of the movies as a generality of sorts evoked images of men and women in 19th century western-wear. In reality, there is probably nothing to say about westerns that has not already been said. Some of them were excellent, worth seeing again and again, depending upon one's personal inclination and amount of leisure time. But for the most part, these films, at best, sit on DVD shelves like museum pieces, not necessarily to marvel at, though certainly interesting enough to wonder about.

I think it is safe to assume that for a spell westerns fulfilled some kind of collective need. People really wanted to see them the opening week, like today, at first-run theaters, according to the system back then. There must have been a kind of give-and-take between audiences and movie-makers. Within this discarded genre many memorable stories were interwoven and iconic characters forged. To say that John Wayne, for instance, was, simply put, somebody who made a number of westerns, would not be a definition worth taking seriously. Maybe Americans needed to create in their movies fictional characters who summed up what they were made of inside and out. That there was a close identification with western characters is beyond dispute. But the country at large was too young to have had the amount of real-life characters Europe accumulated to look up to, having from before the fall of Rome changed their whole continent into a history-making stage. There was that and the fact that in modern times the future comes on stronger and faster than ever. The Age of Miracles has passed. The Age of Heroes is still extant. But for how long? It takes time to produce outstanding figures from whatever source.

Today's westerns are no longer mainly about the 19th century frontier, missionary work, and Indian Wars. They have to do with lives lived in the present in western states. Rather than cattle, sheep, and homesteading, probably the biggest event today has to do with the natural gas craze. A few deft documentaries have brought this environmentally unfriendly phenomenon to the attention of the handful of viewers who bother to watch them. Uranium mining is another like-minded subject. Thus far, these topics have managed to resist the enormous talents of the entertainment industry. To date, no one has written a script turned into a popular film about men in white hats and fast steeds blasting their way into a strip mine or disrupting a team of hardhats putting a pipeline into place. Or how about stockpiles of nuclear warheads? Just asking. It is a mystery as to what goes on. The mainstays of the western economic engine make some rich, others sick. Still, there are plenty of people in the west whose lives are compelling enough to be considered grist for the mill. Occasionally, filmmakers will produce a western, possibly only for old time's sake, or to acknowledge the fact that there are movie fans still passionate about westerns. By and large, however, westerns have no perceivable future.

But what a glorious past! Nobody, no nation, can touch this! All the same, what happened to the west in terms of what it might have meant to Frederick Jackson Turner, William S. Hart, and the rest of us? Why does it seem to the long distance driver that the west is, in addition to all else, a vast wasteland? Back east, so much earth does not lie fallow. Further, why has the west lost self-esteem? Where once there were dreams of perfected, bustling communities, there is now the systematic storage of harmful chemicals. Instead of gleaming citified lights (of which there are some), there are countless conduits to cancer. Miners turn natural beauty into ugliness for the sake of, admittedly, very valuable commodities. Precious rivers are pure poison. Instead of improving upon the flaws of the east and the mid-west, the west has achieved its own patented versions of failed visions. No, you won't see many westerns anymore. Nor will you cross the Mississippi toward the sunset and a new paradise.