Odious and Peculiar

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Friday, November 12, 2010
 
Jonah Goldberg receives an interesting question:
I have a co-worker who is a 38-year-old Muslim from Niger... He is here on a permanent visa and plans on eventually becoming a citizen.... With some prodding from him, I have taken upon myself the task of assigning him a list of movies he needs to see in order to explain America and its myriad cultures to him... I’d love it if you could ask your readers…are there some movies that perhaps wouldn’t make a Best Movie list that I should include anyway? My only criterion is that the film has to delve into a different subculture of American life, either past or present. Whether or not you like a movie is not relevant.
In accordance with the interests of this blog, let's narrow the scope a little. What movies would you recommend to an outsider to understand the people and lifestyles of the modern American West?

My thoughts:
  • Lonely Are the Brave: Just saw this for the first time a few months ago, and it's damn good. Old western love of freedom and wildness collides with modernity and development in Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains.
  • Into the Wild: An extreme manifestation of the love of solitude, nature and adventure that draws people to the West.
  • The Milagro Beanfield War: Has its detractors, but northern New Mexico village life has never really made it on film anywhere else. Also shows the role water plays around here,something which folks from elsewhere have an awfully hard time grasping.
  • The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: For such politically charged material, this one does pretty well in wrestling with the world of the border. Excellent dark humor on display.
  • Rancho Deluxe: I hesitate to list this one, since I'm not at all sure what a foreigner would take away from it; but it's a lot of fun despite some mannerisms, and the dope-smoking rustler je ne sais quoi is unique and appealing. Would that Montana were remained thus. Plus, it's got Slim Pickens.
  • Smoke Signals: Most interesting Indian movie I could think of, not romanticized, but not too squalid either, and has a sense of humor. I'd love to hear other suggestions, though. My only other vaguely satisfactory idea is Thunderheart.
Some vaguely related thoughts:
  • All of the above get their landscapes right, which is pretty rare for filmmakers. Note to Hollywood: more and more people know and care about this issue, we find it distracting, and it makes you look like idiots. Please film your next Geronimo movie in southern Arizona, not in Utah.
  • Many aspects of the West simply haven't made it to the screen. Mormonism, for instance: September Dawn was apparently a bit of a flop. Anyone actually seen it?
  • The Monkey Wrench Gang movie doesn't look promising. Release date has been pushed back from 2008 to 2010 to 2013. Last I heard they were going to film in New Mexico for tax purposes. I love NM, but that's not going to cut it landscape-wise (see above).
Lastly, since suitable movies are in somewhat short supply, what book would you like to see on film to exemplify the modern West (assuming it would be done well)? My first impulse is Peter Bowen's Wolf, No Wolf.

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Comments:
It might be argued that a product of both the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy is far too allegorical to present a clear portrait of a particular place, but I think that No Country for Old Men is a fairly accurate depiction of West Texas landscape and culture (the outdoor scenes were filmed in Big Bend, although the in-town and studio scenes were done in New Mexico). Also, I believe it presents a modern manifestation of an aesthetic that is most frequently seen in traditional westerns: the image of men attempting to survive in a harsh landscape by means only of their wits, toughness and propensity for violence. While this idea is obviously not of much practical import in the modern world, I feel it still has a significant effect on the imagination of the inhabitants of the Southwest, and can be seen in the regional weltanschauung.
 
That one crossed my mind, Proclus. i didn't list it because I still haven't seen it. One of these days.
 
The ones I know are good choices. I haven't seen Lonely are the brave in years but always loved it––amazing how well it adapted Abbey particularly considering its age.

Rancho deluxe––well you know, I was one of a bunch of New England kids who memorized the dialogue the way others did with the Rocky horror picture show, although I was the only one who ended up in the West. Again it stands up; the cameo of “Squire Tom” in his Captain Berserko period still gives your mother hysterics.

I agree on No country for old men too. I don't know about Cormac McCarthy's other novels as adapted to screen. Sadly, violence is a fact of life on the border, still. As border balladeer Tom Russell sings, “narcotaficante boys they own the borderline." One of the more recent victims, Rob Krentz, was a friend of friends.

Please forgive any wonky capitalization. I'm using new dictation software as an experiment, and I don't quite have the hang of it yet!
 
More...

Proper places: Tombstone though hardly perfect is the best traditional Earp movie. Place is perfect, with real historical buildings and signs as well as the Chiricahuas. Val Kilmer as Doc ("I'm your huckleberry") ahistorical but immortal.

Movie of Monkey Wrench: BAD idea. Peacock will like it anyway. "Print the legend" (Liberty Valence).

Movie of WNW: GREAT idea. Nobody out there to do it though.
 
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