Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Preview: Eccentric Westerns

While I wouldn't imply that Westerns are inherently conservative by nature, there is a fairly rigid definition of what makes such a film. Obviously because they are set in a specific time period, the setting remains a constant. There is also an adherence to unspoken rules present. Typically in them, one can usually find clear-cut morality tales with clear dichotomies: Cowboys vs. Indians, Rustlers vs. Rangers, Lawmen vs. Outlaws or basically Good vs. Evil.

Although Westerns are a genre of its own, one can usually label them as either dramas or action movies. In fact, most examples over the past 20 years can be pigeonholed in these two subcategories. In short, you either get Wyatt Earp (1994) or Tombstone. And as a result, making Westerns can often be like a coloring book. Stay within the lines.

The best in the genre, however, do more than romanticize the Old West. In fact, those that excel have pushed boundaries and blurred lines. They go beyond the idealized mythos and say something more about ourselves and our society. Prime examples include: Unforgiven, True Grit (2010), Shane, The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Searchers. A common thread in these is that events and characters are a little less black & white, and dilemmas are much more ambiguous.

Sometimes to be better you have to break the mold. This week, the Paramount Theatre presents two films under the heading "Eccentric Westerns," featuring Old-West themed films that are, well... a little more maverick than their brethren.

Very few have ever rolled the dice on Westerns as comedies. For every Blazing Saddles there are dozens more like Wagons East! (ugh) or Lightning Jack (groan). Destry Rides Again is a 1939 Western that stars Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and is different for being comedic and lighter fare. A saloon owner and his sweetheart have a stranglehold over a cattle rancher town, and have the sheriff eliminated. A drunk is appointed as the new official, but this triggers the return of Tom Destry, legendary lawman and pacifist.

Destry has shown up in several incarnations over the years. Director George Marshall made a remake in 1954 starring Audie Murphy called, simply enough, Destry. A Broadway musical ran in 1959 featuring Andy Griffith. In addition, the 1939 Destry Rides Again is itself a remake of a more traditional Western, directed by Benjamin Stoloff and starring classic actor Tom Mix in 1933. Got it? Exhausting, I know.

Of course, a movie doesn't have to be a comedy to be an Eccentric Western. Sometimes, one need only look at the cast to make you say "whuuuuuuut?"

For instance take the other film in the Paramount double feature, Johnny Guitar. It's a story of a stubborn saloonkeeper who constantly clashes with the town of ranchers; so nothing seems overtly out of place for the genre. Well, the protagonist is a woman and for 1954, I guess that does raise an eyebrow. But wait, this lead character is played by... Joan Crawford?!? Yeah, that is what they call outside the box.

I must admit, the snarky side of me at first wondered if Crawford would have a wire hanger in her holster rather than a six-shooter. I just can't imagine a woman with such scary eyebrows in a Western. But then one thing quickly intrigued me when I glanced at the remaining cast and crew. That was the involvement of director Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night, In A Lonely Place and Rebel Without A Cause). Although often categorized as a "moody" filmmaker here in America, European viewers hold Ray in much higher esteem. One could say that he was an inspiration to the French New Wave of the late 1950s and 60s, since both Jean-Luc Godard and Fran├žois Truffaut are huge fans. In fact, of Johnny Guitar, Truffaut has said "It is dreamed, a fairy tale, a hallucinatory Western... Johnny Guitar is the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream."

Inclined to not take the word of highly influential filmmakers just because they're French? Well, then, let American auteur Martin Scorsese explain Johnny Guitar's significance.

Thanks, Marty. I'm sold now.

So this week, come and see two earlier Westerns that dared to break the mold. They colored outside the lines, and maybe even ran with scissors. You may consider them eccentric, refreshing, or just a little different, but at least you'll find more depth than you would in crap like Wild Wild West (easily the WORST WESTERN EVER). Heck, you even have some fun with the whiskey specials going on at the Theatre. Giddy up!

Showtimes for the films:

Destry Rides Again
Tuesday, Jun 14th
Wednesday, Jun 15th

Johnny Guitar
Tuesday, Jun 14th
Wednesday, jun 15th

Final Notes about the screening
Double Features:
"When two movies are grouped together under the same thematic heading, one ticket is good for both features when viewed back-to-back on the same day." (cha-ching!)

"Hassle-free downtown parking available for $6 at the One American Center for all summer films! Since you’re also supporting the theatre when you buy parking, they're giving you a free small soda each time you park there for a film. Buy online with your film tix and print out your confirmation e-mail or buy directly from the garage attendant (cash only). Attendant will have your soda ticket as well."

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