Contrary to what my online resume indicates, I have a love-hate relationship with Westerns. I live on the high plains, and rode the train to my downtown campus alongside businessmen in cowboy hats and boots. I hated the trappings of our American mythology. This was partly because I was enamored with the Old World and its Vikings, knights, and siege engines. That was real, John Wayne was fake and representative of everything that I disdained politically. Even a stint as volunteering at one of Colorado's Old West landmarks didn't do much to change my opinion. Instead, I spent my tours trying to illustrate how Western history had things in common with Pirates of the Caribbean. (We had a corset demonstration. The fact that I chose to use Keira Knightley as my example is probably a big sign that I wasn't really meant to be a history teacher.)
But then I grew up, started up a relationship with Clint Eastwood, and started seeing Westerns for what they were -- good, old fashioned entertainment. I have bored people with how The Outlaw Josey Wales is an American version of Beowulf, and I have meant it seriously. There was a light bulb moment when I realized 95% of the comics I read were thinly veiled ripoffs of Western movies -- especially every other issue of Wolverine -- and I felt both enlightened, impressed, and ashamed that I had never realized geekdom's dusty roots were basically in my own backyard.
This year -- and possibly this very weekend -- I suspect many punks (and I use that term in the most curmudgeonly of ways) will come to the exact same realization.
I don't know if Westerns are cool again. Personally (and I suspect many film fans would agree), I don't think they ever went out. But they seem to be on the verge of a generational rediscovery, helped out by posh Blu-Ray releases for Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. Quentin Tarantino's liberal use of imagery and Ennio Morricone has also helped films like Death Rides A Horse find their way into Netflix queues. Korea seems to be doing what Italy did a few decades ago, and helping Americans remember just how fun it can be to play with horse operas again.
And of course, there are video games. If you dabble in gaming at all, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing muffled shrieks about Red Dead Redemption. For weeks, six-shooters, lassos, and horses have been the height of cool. Twitter is full of references to Mexico and exclamations over unlocking John Marston's poncho. For Western fans, the game is a dream come true. For young gamers, it seems to be a revelation -- the dirty, violent, nasty West they've never associated with John Wayne. It's no end of amusing to me that a "classic" Western movie allegedly won't sell at the multiplexes, but you have the most tried and true version causing midnight lines around a block. Of course, one could explain this as breathless blog hype, a fondness for Grand Theft Auto, and the fact that it's a fresh and modern format. But cool games come out every day. This was a Western.
I really hope that Redemption enthusiasm spills over to Jonah Hex this weekend. I haven't seen the film, but I love the character, and the ongoing DC series has done some fresh things with an old genre. Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti deserve major props for mixing grindhouse and horror into Hex, and making it seem to fit as well as a pair of beat-up boots. I sincerely hope the movie captures a lot of their enthusiasm, and helps ensure a long life for the book. (Word has it by way of Comic Book Resources that buying a ticket alongside your trades is a good way to keep Hex shooting straight.)
But I also hope that it inspires a whole new generation of film, comic, and game fans to discover the origins of their favorite characters and stories. I know fanboys and girls, and there's nothing they love more than a good origin story. And they're going to find an awful lot of them since Boba Fett (and his father, Jango), Mos Eisley, Preacher, Wolverine, Priest, Firefly, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Outland, steampunk, The Book of Eli and gosh knows what else all draw inspiration from the stuff their grandparents watched. Believe me, I love Firefly, but it just doesn't seem as original when contrasted with an entire subset of undefeated Confederates.
There can be a lot of disdain for those who come late to this knowledge, or come to it by way of something else in pop culture. I don't like that attitude. If someone comes to The Searchers only by way of Inglourious Basterds, it's damning to our whole filmfaniverse to roll our eyes at them. We need to be glad that they see The Searchers at all. Good films lead to a more discerning audience; audiences who realize they once made them like that, and could make them again. Likewise, I don't care if the first exposure a 13 year old has to Unforgiven is Mark Millar's Old Man Logan, because there's just no shame in working backwards from the stuff you know and already geek out about. Exploration and education is the whole point of enjoying film. It doesn't matter how you get there.
We've all made a lot of jokes (especially here at Cinematical) about this being the summer of 1984 instead of 2010. Starting this month though, I kind of hope it goes back to the summer of 1884, at least fantastically. I hope moviegoers young and old (but especially young) will be hungry for the open range, and line up to see Clint Eastwood by way of 2010 this weekend. That will lead them, I hope, to Amazon and a collection of trades. From there, I hope they start digging into history books and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But I'll settle for a ready knowledge of Italy, serapes, and John Ford.