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New book looks at contemporary western films

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New book on contemporary westerns

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The western genre is central to the development of cinema, as westerns were among the first narrative films (notably Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903), and offered some of the earliest movie stars (Broncho Bill Anderson, Tom Mix, William S. Hart, etc.).

Western films have peaks and valleys. Sometimes there is a plethora of western films permeating the movie screens, other times the genre seems dormant with very few produced.

In his book "Contemporary Westerns: Film and Television Since 1990," film professor and essayist Andrew Patrick Nelson has collected several essays examining the western films produced since 1990, covering a period that is represented by few studies. Usually books on western cinema concentrate on the work of such directors as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, or Sergio Leone, none of whom were active during this period. However, the filmmakers cited here learned a great deal from the techniques of the past masters, and it is the more contemporary vision that is examined in Nelson's book.

Nelson's own essay on Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" points out the revisionism of contemporary western film, Eastwood drawing from having been directed by Leone in the classic "dollars" trilogy during the 1960s. What is especially interesting about this chapter is that essayists have covered “Unforgiven” extensively. Thus, Nelson draws conclusions not only from past writings but also realizing that Eastwood's self-directed westerns are a response to the revisionism offered by Leone's work. The chapter also examines the films "Posse" (Mario Van Peebles, 1993) and "Bad Girls" (Jonathan Kaplan, 1994) as a continuing revisionism in their depiction of blacks and women in the west -- two groups the genre has consistently ignored.

Gareth James checks in with an essay on the brutal HBO western series "Deadwood" (2004-2006), which, he states, "has been celebrated as HBO's version of a revisionist western, breathing new life into a genre that had been in decline on television." James examines television's move toward greater sophistication in the 70s, and HBO's taking over with this method after the commercial networks eschewed headier programming in favor of marketable reality shows. James discusses HBO's evolution in the area of sophisticated television drama and comedy ("The Larry Sanders Show," "The Sopranos," et. al.) leading to their redefining the western genre on television, originally represented by the likes of "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke." A program like "Deadwood," with fewer restrictions on a pay-cable network, could be more violent, more profane, and more cinematically rewarding.

Other chapters look at the Cohen Brothers remake of True Grit, tangential westers like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, and other such topics representing the contemporary approach to western cinema.

The only drawback is that lack of photos, other than a sharp color shot of Clint Eastwood on the cover of this hardbound book. Photo illustrations of what the chapters are discussing would have been beneficial. But this does not negate the importance of the well-written chapters or the significance of this study.

Highly recommended for libraries, universities, research centers, and those interested in western cinema.

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