April 10, 2008

Drop Edge of Yonder

Screenwriter and novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, who cut a legendary swathe across Hollywood in the '70s and '80s with outsider classics like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Alex Cox's Walker, has written an exciting acid western epic.

The Drop Edge of Yonder (an archaic Texas phrase meaning “on the brink of death”) is a mystic western possessed of anarchic charms and incantatory beauty. It begins in the mountains of Colorado and ends in the far reaches of the Northwest, a journey that includes the beginnings of a Mexican revolution, a voyage across the Gulf of Mexico to Panama, and up the coast of California to San Francisco and the gold fields.

Mountain-man, trapper and opportunistic beast Zebulon Shook starts the tale by getting cursed from a mysterious Native American woman whose lover he inadvertently murdered. Doomed never to know whether he is in the spirit world, the real world or just dreaming, he departs from his homestead along the Gila River in New Mexico to sell pelts. After meeting up with his adopted brother, Hatchet Jack, and losing at cards to Delilah, a beautiful Abyssinian courtesan, Zebulon is shot during a barroom dustup and sets out for California, where the gold rush is gathering steam, bringing with it the law and order that threatens the “mountain doin's” that he loves so dearly. Zebulon is pulled ever deeper into the era's bizarre historical footnotes: immortalized as a notorious outlaw by a reporter; narrowly missing joining the Walker expedition to colonize Nicaragua; reconnecting with Delilah at a San Francisco opium den; and finding the law and order forces dogging his heels to the last. This furiously told legend weaves history and myth into a riotous tale.

In Drop Edge of Yonder, Zebulon confronts the age-old questions of life love, and death, before disappearing into a shadowy realm of myth and legend.

June 17, 2007

Blood Meridian: the movie

According to The Hollywood Reporter, a film will be made of Blood Meridian. A script has been adapted by William "The Departed" Monahan and the director could be Ridley "Gladiator" Scott. In the 1990s, Tommy Lee Jones was slated to direct the film version.

Who (if anybody) should direct the cinematic adaptation of McCarthy's masterpiece?

May 23, 2007

Tears of the Black Tiger

A delirious Pad Thai western with painted backdrops, flimsy sets and stunning real-life locations. Is this script Douglas Sirk's long-lost draft of Once Upon a Time in the West?

More importantly, is Tears of the Black Tiger (2000, released in 2006 in US) a parody or an homage of Bonanza? Either way, this movie is not to be missed.

May 18, 2007

The Twenty-One Lives of Billy the Kid

The Twenty-One Lives of Billy the Kid (2005) examines the mythology of the outlaw through re-enactments of the violent deaths of the 21 men that Billy the Kid is supposed to have killed.

Contemporary historians place the number of Billy's actual victims at four (two of whom were drunks in a saloon), but in the years since his murder, Billy the Kid has been cast as everything from rustler to demon to lover to vampire-killer; the lack of biographical information about his life has made Billy into a cipher for any given historical or cultural moment. In The Twenty-One Lives of Billy the Kid, it is the fact of death that matters most – equal parts truth and mythology, this film is ultimately an interrogation into violence and the minor characters of history; it takes a long look at the lives of the relative unknown to see if they can hold the weight of the makeshift legend that they died serving.

Experimental filmmaker Ben Russell says his hour-long movie "may very well be the only 16mm structuralist Western ever made."

May 11, 2007


Every once in a while, Hollywood burps out a film that gives new life to a tired old plot. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) is such a movie. Its familiar narrative – a retired gunslinger reluctantly takes on one last job – has been injected with noirish ambiguity and atmosphere like no western before it.

The film's opening image of Eastwood standing at the grave of his dead wife (an allusion to John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) perfectly articulates the movie’s gritty and realistic attitude towards violence and its heartbreaking consequences. The muscular cinematography and brilliant sound design complement the narrative which unfolds like Greek tragedy. Every frame of this elegiac film breathes maturity, not only for the actor/director Eastwood, but also for the Western genre.

Clint Eastwood made a name for himself in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns as the cigar-chomping Man with No Name, an anonymous stranger who wanders in to town and imparts his own brand of justice. Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven seems to be a man struggling to escape his past identity as the Man With No Name. The normally affable Gene Hackman plays the villain, a masochistic sheriff. Hackman has not brought this much intensity to the screen since his turn as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris are passable in the supporting roles, but their characters lack development.

Less of an "acid western" and more of a revisionist western, Unforgiven is a morally complex melodrama that subverts the usual mythology of the western genre. Eastwood casts a cold objective eye on the realities of the Old West after the gunsmoke from decades worth of Hollywood westerns has cleared. Violence is seen as both awful and unavoidable. The film shatters the clear-cut notions of heroism and villainy ingrained in almost every Hollywood movie; there’s good and bad evident in the best and the worst of the characters.

Few other filmmakers could have crafted such an intricate masterwork on the meanings of redemption and retribution so beautifully. The film won four Acadmy Awards, and was on the American Film Institute's list of top 100 films from cinema's first 100 years.

May 4, 2007

Blood Meridian

The quote on the cover of Cormac McCarthy's absolutely perfect Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West describes the book as "A classic American novel of regeneration through violence." Not only does this fever dream of a Western Gothic novel fulfill that promise, it does so with soaring and poetic language that almost seems like it was cut-and-paste ransom-note-style from Moby Dick and The Bible.

The novel depicts the brutal genocide committed against Apaches in the middle of the nineteenth-century by cramming so much lurid, rancid, and visionary prose into its blood-soaked pages that one can hardly tell the Americans from the Indians from the Mexicans. The story’s passive protagonist known simply as "the kid" heads west where he eventually joins the Glanton gang, a group of men who make their living from massacring Apaches and trading their scalps for a bounty along the United States–Mexico borderlands. It is in the company of these killers that the kid encounters Judge Holden, an amalgam of Herman Melville’s Ahab, Fyodor Dostoyvsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and Goethe's Mephistopheles. Soon, the Glanton gang begins harvesting and selling the scalps of nonthreatening Indians, unprotected Mexican villages, or anyone else who crosses their path. The solipsistic gang devolves, sweeping through the expansive and inhospitable desert borderland like destructive angels from the Old Testament, purifying the land with blood and fire in preparation for its sacrifice at the hands of America's endless imperial expansionism.

Some have described this frenzied novel as awash in extreme violence, a religious or existential allegory, or a re-revisionist Western that savagely explodes Manifest Destiny. Maybe McCarthy is expressing all these impassioned sentiments. But the Blood Meridian's biggest coup is its implicit critique of America's oppressive capitalist system. Violence becomes a commodity. Judge Holden explains to the kid and audience alike the fundamental economics of trading human scalps (i.e., lives) for money: "War endures. You may as well ask man what he thinks of stone. Before man was, war waited for him – the ultimate trade, awaiting the ultimate practitioner." Holden later states, "Everything is for sale."

John Sepich's hard-to-find Notes on Blood Meridian examines the dense novel's historical and mystical references. The Glanton Gang and their bloody escapades have historical roots in three primary sources: Samuel Chamberlain's memoirs, My Confessions: Recollections of a Rogue, gathered together as a manuscript in 1905 and published in book form in 1956; Audubon's Western Journal 1849-1850, (1906) by John Woodhouse Audubon, son of noted naturalist John James Audubon; and Mayne Reid's The Scalphunters (c. 1851). McCarthy faithfully casts this historically accurate nightmare into a bold narrative that reveals America's westward expansion to be rotten at it's core.

The novel could be considered an "acid western" because of it's hallucinogenic representation of events. It is also fits into the subgenre because Blood Meridian offers a a critique of capitalism as being unavoidably linked to war and violence, but McCarthy is wary of alternatives models. In the only interview that McCarthy has granted to date, he told the New York Times in 1992, “There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

Blood Meridian was recently hailed by the New York Times as one of the best American novels of the past 25 years. Critic Steven Shaviro notes, "the scariest thing about Blood Meridian is that it is a euphoric and exhilarating book, rather than a tragically alienated one." Critic Harold Bloom praised the novel as "clearly the major esthetic achievement of any living writer." This ultimate Western is fathomlessly violent, poetic, and strangely entertaining.

May 1, 2007

An Introduction

This is a place for me to write about movies I've seen and books I've read.

Why Acid Western? I first saw the phrase used by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. He described Jim Jarmusch's movie, "Dead Man" (1996) as an "acid western" because of the film's "inability to distinguish between inner consciousness and external reality," but also because the movie exhibits an artistic and political sensibility that took root in the 1960s and '70s which proposed "the replacement of capitalism with alternative models of social exchange."