Pulling Down the Veil: Myths, Illusions and the Taboo

The meme is as follows: ten books or bodies of research that either correct common myths or beliefs, engage taboo subjects, or illuminate the human condition in a surprising way. On my list the topics are drawn from the fields of biblical studies, rape fantasies, neuroscience, the crusades, lies and deceptions, drug addiction, and the wild west.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. 2016. The historical myth of our time is the medieval age of Islamic tolerance, especially in Spain where the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony. The question is why this myth persists even among experts if it’s so thoroughly false. Jews and Christians were anything but protected under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to a whole raft of degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. It was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. Perhaps, the author suggests, university presses don’t want to get in trouble by presenting an Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as anything but positive, and that ongoing fears of “Islamophobia” paralyze academic research. But seriously, to promote the idea that Christian dhimmis were content under Islamic rule is as preposterous as saying American blacks were content as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest and Visigoth Spain left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner. This is the book we’ve been waiting for, and that it came from a Harvard PhD is quite a surprise.

bivona2. Rape Fantasies, Jenny Bivona. 2008-2012. The data accumulated on rape fantasies since the ’70s has been considerable, but the subject is so taboo that you can’t find a professional book about it. Jenny Bivona should write one. Her research in the last decade has put to bed common theories about rape fantasies — that they are supposedly pathological and can be blamed on rape-culture conditioning or guilt-ridden sexual repression. In fact, she finds, women who fantasize about being raped often have more positive attitudes toward sex and high self esteem. Bivona has considered no less than nine theories which have tried explaining the puzzling phenomenon. Puzzling because it’s usually not pleasant to imagine being harmed. I.e. To imagine getting into a car accident, or suffering from cancer, isn’t pleasant. But many women (31-57% of them) enjoy rape fantasies that would be traumatic and repulsive if they happened as imagined in the real world. The most plausible theories seem to be those of sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from negative feelings), and adversary transformation (psychological excitement provided by negative feelings), which combine and cause negative feelings to co-occur with, or convert into, good ones. Bivona’s research hints at bio-psychological paradoxes that we’ve only begun to grasp.

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3. Waking Up, Sam Harris. 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing.

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4. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E.P. Sanders. 1977. I started reading this book for the fun of it (during a fateful ice storm in the winter of ’91), after a Christian relative told me, apropos Rom 7, why he thought the purpose of the law is to “break you and lead you to Christ”. I found that a curious explanation for moral regulations, but then I wasn’t raised Lutheran. Reading this book showed me what biblical scholars do when they’re at their best in understanding the ancients on their own terms. In the case of ancient Jews, what we think of as legalism was mostly alien to their way of thinking. In Paul’s case, he broke with Judaism by opposing the law and Israel’s special place in the divine cosmos, but not because of a supposed legalism or because Judaic religion was inherently problematic; and certainly not because Paul couldn’t keep the law himself (a practicing Pharisee he’d been perfectly righteous by the law). It was because Christ’s bizarre victory over evil made everything else so trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be — and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. This was the myth-breaker that hooked me in the field of biblical studies.

206285. Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith. 2004. That 60% of people tell 3 lies for every 10 minutes of conversation is sobering, and if you’re reading this right now, you probably think you’re among the 40% who lie less often. That’s what the people in controlled studies thought too, and when they watched their taped conversations played back at them, they were flabbergasted. Thus writes David Livingstone Smith: “Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It’s not reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Societies are networks of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty.” We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species. We have to fit into social systems and at the same time look out for ourselves above all others. Lying helps on both fronts. This has in view all kinds of lies: socially acceptable lies (normally not considered lies), blatant or bald-faced lies, lies of omission (silent lies), and other forms of deception, including self-deception. Since reading this book I’ve considered honesty the most overrated myth of our species.

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6. Gospel Hoax and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Stephen Carlson, 2005, and Peter Jeffery, 2006. For a real-life conspiracy thriller, the story behind the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is pretty good, but that hoax was obvious from the start. The “Secret Gospel of Mark”, while always obvious to some, took decades to debunk, and it still has defenders. The two detectives, Carlson and Jeffery, published within a year of each other and with no knowledge of what the other was doing. Neither was a biblical scholar: one was a patent attorney (who has since become a biblical scholar) and the other a musicologist, and each used the insight of forgery experts that texts reflect the personalities and time periods of the forger. Carlson spotted the anachronism of Clement’s salt metaphor (which assumes the 20th-century invention of free-flowing salt) and the homoeroticism between Jesus and the young man tied to Gethsemane (which evokes the mid-20th century oppression against gay men in public parks). Jeffery saw other give-aways, like the baptismal symbolism of mid-20th century Anglican Catholicism (Smith had been an Episcopal priest), and a hilarious allusion to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (Wilde was a gay martyr). Morton Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, he was probably gay, and he wrote on the subject in a time when the subject was rarely discussed.secret mark unveiled His “discovery” of Secret Mark allowed him to claim that Jesus was gay, specifically that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination and ascend into heaven, while their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. But there’s more. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), which of course is exactly what Secret Mark is about. Also, Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question: in the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. I’ve always admired Morton Smith for his brilliance and humor, perhaps less so for his arrogance, but there’s no question that all came together in one of the most successful academic fakes of all time. Carlson and Jeffery show the pitfalls of trust when experts ignore red flags and persist under illusions of academic integrity.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). 2015. For ambitious readers I recommend Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War (2006), which is the definitive treatment of the crusades replacing a dated classic of the ’50s. But Tyerman’s 1000+ page tome can be rough going. Here’s the substitute for less committed readers who still insist on professional, peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord authority of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, theologically problematic, and never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, with scholarly gusto, and people have thanked me for recommending it. My longer review is here.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari. 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed; it’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using.

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9. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler. 2013. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. (Is Judith a proto-Islamic jihadist?) The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force questions about our common humanity.

Bat10. Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, Robert DeArment. 1979. This one is a bit self-indulgent. Recently I was made aware that Bat Masterson (1853-1921) is a distant limb on my family tree, a cousin of my great-great grandmother, which my father never spoke of as he wasn’t pleased to be related to this “despicable” figure of the wild west. Bat’s notoriety, however, has been put to bed since the publication of DeArment’s research. This biography proves that Bat wasn’t the trigger-happy gunslinger of journalistic sensationalism, but rather the result of a joke played on a writer for the New York Sun in August 1881. The reporter was looking for tales of wild-west gunfighters to feed his readers in the east states, and Dr. W.S. Cockrell fed this reporter ridiculously wild fictions of Bat as a maniac who had killed 26 men, sometimes even cutting off their heads as trophies. The reporter wrote all this in the New York Sun, but it was printed in newspapers everywhere, and this “Bat Masterson legend” would persist for decades. Of the 26 people Bat supposedly killed, only two are factual, and they were justifiable homicides in self-defense and defending others. This is a riveting book that makes you live the danger of frontier towns like Dodge City in the 1870s, and I couldn’t put it down for that reason alone.

The Many Pranks of Bat Masterson

masterson_batRecently I have become aware that the famous Bat Masterson (1853-1921) is a distant limb on my family tree. He was apparently a cousin of my great-great grandmother, whose name was Rebecca Masterson before she married and became Rebecca Harscher. My father never spoke of this to me when he was alive, as he wasn’t pleased to be related to this “despicable” figure of wide renown. However, Bat’s notoriety has been put to bed, especially by the research of Robert DeArment. His 1979 biography proves that Bat was not the trigger-happy gunslinger of journalistic sensationalism, and this is now widely accepted. I’ll cover this in a later post.

On the other hand, Bat did enjoy outrageous pranks. If there was anything that made me believe I was related to this guy in reading DeArment’s biography, it was on this subject. Some of Bat’s pranks were quite dangerous. He would pull them on visitors to Dodge, in the years he served as the Sheriff of Ford County (1878-1879), with the help of accomplices like Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, Jack Bridges, and Dave Mather. Here are some notable examples:

  • Baby Contest. When Reverend O.W. Wright was in Dodge preaching the gospel, he announced a baby contest to raise a missionary fund. The contest raised $2000, but Bat pulled off a prank that ended in none of the mothers of the competing babies winning the prize. He arranged the winner to be the baby of a black woman from an African-American dancehall on the south-side of town. Bat and Wyatt Earp marched the black woman and her baby down to receive the prize, to the embarrassment of the black woman and the fury of competing mothers.
  • Science Lecture. Dr. Meredith, a phrenologist and venereal disease specialist, was in Dodge giving a lecture. Bat arranged for people in the audience to suddenly yell out insults at the doctor, as Bat pretended to be indignant and told the audience to keep quiet. Insults escalated, and Bat drew his pistol and threatened to shoot the offending audience members, terrifying the poor doctor.
  • Indian Act. This was Bat’s favorite prank, and a dangerous one that backfired on him in one instance. Whenever new arrivals in Dodge bragged too much about their Indian-fighting abilities, Bat and his accomplices would stage “Indian attacks” in the city, with a handful of people dressing up as Indians, war paint and all, and “killing” others in the streets, before screaming and charging the new arrival. At the last second, the “Indians” would stop the charade and reveal themselves. The time this prank backfired when they pulled it on a man named Harris. As a precautionary measure, the pranksters would always be sure the victim’s rifle was either unloaded or filled with blanks, and they did this with Harris’ rifle. But Harris also had a pistol that he kept concealed in his boot, and when the “Indians” attacked, he shot one of them.

As I was telling a friend tongue-in-cheek, I suspect that Bat’s gene pool is responsible for my own relentless pranks, which (like Bat) I pulled mostly when I was in my 20s.

The Western Film Renaissance

westernI had a love-hate relationship with Westerns growing up in the ’80s. My father loved the John Wayne classics, and geniuses like Tarantino still do, but for me the mythology was too much: untainted cowboy honor; ridiculously unbelievable gun fights; the implied theme of manifest destiny; the moral superiority of a rugged outdoor life; cookie-cutter good guys and bad guys. The genre was hyper-romanticized and understandably declined after the ’60s. But I did love the atmosphere of the 1800s American frontier — ranch houses, homesteads, and saloons; lawless towns growing at the edge of civilization; nearby Indian sites; hanging trees, lassos, bandannas, canteens, and stagecoaches; gamblers and whores living recklessly by the day. It summoned a turbulent world I wanted to visit, but did so in a way I could never take seriously.

That changed when Clint Eastwood single-handedly revised the genre in the ’90s. The movie, of course, was Unforgiven: a Western that shat on all the silly conventions and took itself seriously. Sheriffs and deputies were suddenly portrayed negatively, incompetent, and even sadistic. Gunfight scenarios became realistic, messy, sometimes embarrassingly so. In the film, one of the protagonists shoots a completely defenseless man taking a shit in an outhouse. These “heroes” are appalled by their own violence, to the extent that one of them quits the mission after they kill the first villain, and the other breaks down crying after he shoots the guy on the commode. As for the lead hero himself, Will Munny (played by Eastwood), he is a sociopath whose legendary gun-skills come mostly by getting drunk. At the blistering climax, he blows away an unarmed barkeep before tearing up the whole saloon in a mass killing spree. Unforgiven was unprecedented, an instant classic, and proved to me that the Western could survive in an age of realist cinema.

The idea was slow catching on. There were a few ’90s efforts like Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), and The Quick and the Dead (1995), but in my view hardly inspired. The efforts in the 21st century, on the other hand, have been remarkable. In what follows I assess fourteen “modern” Western films, starting with Unforgiven. The first seven go up to the year 2010, and fall under the umbrella of “Revising the Genre”. They are typically revenge or outlaw films. The other seven come from the past few years under “Indie-fying the Genre”, and their sub-genres cover a wide range — spaghetti, romance, horror, wilderness survival, mystery. I’m convinced that we’re in the middle of an Indie-Western renaissance, especially after the flood of impressive films last year alone.

Stage One: Revising the Genre

Unforgiven (1992). Clint Eastwood. 5 stars. I already discussed this one above, but it deserves the extra commentary. I’m not sure what the Western would look like today, or even if it would exist much at all, without Eastwood’s revisionist reboot. The best character is Gene Hackman’s sheriff, a sadist who over-punishes people but for all his nastiness is rather endearing. All the characters are great — Eastwood’s Will Munny, the reformed alcoholic who is less a legendary gunslinger and more a mass killer when he gets drunk; Morgan Freeman’s Ned, Will’s old friend who is in a relationship with an Indian woman (the first time a Western depicted an African American in such a relationship); and the Schofield Kid, full of bluster and so blind he can barely shoot a target. These three leave their Kansas homes in 1881 for a town in Wyoming, when they hear of a bounty being offered by a group of whores, one of whom was maimed by a customer. They run afoul the sheriff, who won’t tolerate vigilantes, and while they succeed in killing the two villains, it comes at the price of Ned’s life, the Kid’s innocence, and Munny’s soul. Unforgiven is a pure masterpiece.

open-range-2003-26-gOpen Range (2003). Kevin Costner. 4 stars. The last time Kevin Costner directed himself in a Western was in the horrible Dances With Wolves (1990) which inspired countless “white savior” offshoots. Costner was never really good, but he did surprisingly well by Open Range, which brings considerable depth to the Western, and delivers the best gun fight sequence I’ve seen in the genre. It’s set on the grazing plains of Montana in 1882, when times are changing, ranching has settled in, and town residents are becoming increasingly hostile to free-range cattle raising. A greedy rancher sets his men to raid the free-ranger camp, killing and injuring the young hands, prompting the lead characters (played by Costner and Robert Duvall) to wreak vengeance in the rancher’s town. That final gunfight is tense and brutal and long, and the film’s unquestionable selling point. The only weakness is the romance between Costner’s character and the town doctor’s sister. It’s not bad, but it is a bit contrived. On whole this is an overlooked film that deserves more attention; a scenic gem and character focus that builds to inevitable bloodshed.

missingThe Missing (2003). Ron Howard. 2 ½ stars. The most pedestrian entry on this list comes from the director who gave us putrid films like Willow and The DaVinici Code, but also gems like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. The Missing falls somewhere in between. It caters to mainstream audiences, offering some enjoyable sequences but never taking any real risks. The story starts on a prairie land in New Mexico (1885), where white settlers maintain an uneasy truce with the neighboring Indians. When the daughter of a local healer (played by Cate Blanchett) is abducted by Indians to be sold down in Mexico, she enlists the help of her estranged father (played by Tommy Lee Jones), and it becomes a rather predictable kidnapping plot that allows a flawed man to reconcile himself with his family. The problem is that Howard doesn’t want to risk offending anyone. The best and boldest scene involves the Indian baddie casting a hideous curse on the Cate Blanchett character from miles away using a voodoo doll.

3-10-to-Yuma-logan-lerman-movies-25616132-660-2703:10 to Yuma (2007). James Mangold. 4 ½ stars. Of all the oldies to remake, 3:10 to Yuma is an excellent choice. It’s an outlaw story and Russell Crowe plays the lead bastard with relish. The plot is lean and straightforward and so effective it doesn’t need any complex supplements. In the 1880s an Arizona rancher (played by Christian Bale) is about to lose his land to the railroad company, and so for a reward volunteers to escort Ben Wade (the outlaw played by Crowe) to the town of Contention, where a train will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma. Along the way, Wade is able to kill two of his escorts; another is lost to Indians; yet another falls to people who want to kill Wade out of revenge for past grievances. By the end of the road Wade and the rancher have formed a strange respect for each other. As the train is about to arrive, Wade’s outlaw group descend on the town to rescue their boss — the tension is as nail-biting as the streets of Contention become a gunslinging bloodbath — and even after many viewings I’m always shocked by Wade’s last-minute turn and slaughter of his own gang.

The Assassination of Jesse James_00000The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Andrew Dominik. 3 stars. This one aspires to greatness but is a chore to get through in some parts, or at least for me, mostly because I can’t stand Casey Afleck (he’s even worse than brother Ben). The story is set in Missouri and Kentucky and tracks the final years (1881-82) of train robber Jesse James, played competently enough by Brad Pitt as a charming psychopath. His sidekick sycophant Robert Ford (Affleck) had wormed his way into Jesse’s favor, having worshiped him since childhood, but eventually assassinates him for the law. It’s a well made film in terms of aesthetic — the influence of Terrence Malick is in evidence — but I felt much as I did watching Spielberg’s Lincoln: not always caring about what I was seeing. It’s good with gang dynamics, for example in the way Jesse sees threats under every rock and murders those he slightly suspects of being traitors and moles. Shades of The Departed, but unfortunately not half as engaging, which is doubly unfortunate since the film is so long. The last half hour goes out strong.

appaloosaAppaloosa (2008). Ed Harris. 3 ½ stars. I like this one more than it deserves, because Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson make such a good team. (As an aside, they also make great enemies: witness History of Violence.) It’s the most traditional-feeling Western on this list — the classic lawman story. Harris and Mortenson play marshals who are hired by the officials of a New Mexico town (in 1882) being terrorized by a renegade rancher. They are straight-up good guys, and so Appaloosa lacks the cutting cynicism of the other entries. But it works, because the marshals lose; their moral compasses can’t prevail against a tyrant who happens to be friends with the 21st U.S. President Chester Arthur, who pardons the rancher after being convicted in court to hang. It deteriorates to the point of tragedy when the rancher sets up business in town and actually becomes friends with the city officials who first hired the marshals to bring him to justice. It’s a solid enough story, and the gun fights are impressive.

true305True Grit (2010). The Coen Brothers. 5 stars. My absolute favorite Western (aside from Tarantino’s two, which don’t really count being Tarantino), and I was surprised to love it since I’ve never been a huge fan of the Coen brothers. But they remade this ’60s classic dark, in the same vein of Unforgiven. The character of Mattie Ross is the film; Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen (second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy). I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. She exudes a convincing steel for her age and a completely believable Presbyterian ethic. And Jeff Bridges, for my money, is far better than John Wayne (I know that doesn’t mean much since I hate the Duke). The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.

Stage Two: Indie-fying the Genre

Django-unchained-dicap-broomhildaDjango Unchained (2012). Quentin Tarantino. 5 stars. Tarantino was born to revive the spaghetti Western. I began this post by expressing my contempt for classic Westerns, but if I had seen more of the spaghetti breed, I might have watched more of them. The Italians who made spaghettis weren’t trying to glorify the American ethos, and so the civilizing forces were often portrayed as corrupt, and the American frontier a place of devastation and racism. Django Unchained harks back to this effort of destroying frontier myths, especially that of southern hospitality and the genteel antebellum. It’s set in the years of 1858-59, when Mississippi plantation owners never dreamed their world was about to end. Tarantino runs parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that he has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don’t know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom. Then there’s Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse.

crazy_womenThe Homesman (2014). Tommy Lee Jones. 4 ½ stars. This is a road journey and spiritual odyssey that ends with a resourcefully independent woman killing herself and a useless man getting his second wind in life. They are transporting three crazy women from Nebraska to Iowa (it’s set in the 1850s, when the former was a territory and the latter a state), but really everyone is a bit crazy, to the extent that the mythic West feels like an alternate world where nothing really clicks. By far the strangest scene is the stop-over at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by an eccentric Irishman played by James Spader. For whatever reason, the Irishman uses this bastion of emptiness on the plains as a base for attracting business investors. The hotel is empty and chock full of gourmet food and drink, but he adamantly denies room and board to Briggs and the three women who are now starving (even though Briggs can pay) by making bullshit excuses that every single room is reserved. This weird Lynchian scene defines The Homesman for me. The West is portrayed as an unforgiving place with rare epiphanies; a horrible place for humanity to flourish, yet with the power to fire the soul — for better or worse.

lead_960Slow West (2015). John Maclean. 3 ½ stars. Here’s the first of five Westerns from last year. It’s a road journey in 1870, taking a young man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his bandit protector (Michael Fassbender) through Colorado and Indian territory. The youth is looking for a fugitive woman who was his girlfriend in Scotland, and has paid the bandit to protect him, but it turns out this bandit it looking for the same woman to kill her for a bounty. The way things turn out isn’t predictable. It’s a romance, but also an examination of manifest destiny and the way the American legacy has impacted natives and immigrants. It hardly qualifies as a thriller, and yet the final shoot-out is exactly that — a prairie barrage so tightly edited and savagely orchestrated that you find yourself ducking for cover as the bullets fly. This one flew under the radar and while not excellent by any means, deserves more attention.

The-Keeping-Room-Featurette-1-SD-GoldPosterThe Keeping Room (2015). Daniel Barber. 4 stars. You could call this a frontier feminist piece, and a terrifying home invasion set on a South Carolina farmstead in the last days of the Civil War (1865). The bad guys are two northern deserters who besiege three women: two sisters played by Brit Marling and an older Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit; their slave is played by Muna Otaru, and for me she is the understated star of The Keeping Room. The farmstead exists in a quiet dreamy aesthetic until shattered by the arrival of the union men, and what follows is a Western version of Straw Dogs. The younger sister is raped in her bedroom; the older sister mistakenly shoots the slave’s brother returning in the night, thinking him to be one of the union men; she is appalled by her error, and her slave forgives her in an emotional scene. There is paradox too, in the way one of the union men, fatally wounded, begs for a sort of understanding before dying.

boneBone Tomahawk (2015). S. Craig Zahlern. 4 ½ stars. The horror Western had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. I imagine that S. Craig Zahlern was giving Ron Howard the finger, and saying this is what a film like The Missing should be like. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.

the-revenant-vfx-bear-1296x729The Revenant (2015). Alejandro G. Iñárritu. 4 stars. On Christmas Day of last year, two extraordinary westerns hit the theaters. Each was over 2 ½ hours in length, and as a New Yorker critic put it, they would have made a suitable double-feature of “malice and mistrust, in which characters are trapped in extreme winter-weather conditions and settle their differences with extreme violence”. In the case of The Revenant, I can hardly think of another film that has made me grateful for my comforts in life. And yes, it’s like The Hateful Eight in many ways, especially in terms of a director’s nostalgia for the pre-digital era and a return to old-school reality. And like the other indie films above, it fuses the Western with other genres to produce something new. Revenge is on the menu, but it’s a wilderness survival tale above all, and explores the theme of rebirth against the savage backdrop of nature. Every step of Hugh Glass’s 200-mile trek back from the dead — he really covered this distance across South Dakota in 1823 — assaults us with nature’s cold disregard for human life. Yet it’s beautiful every step of the way.

The Hateful Eight_00003The Hateful Eight (2015). Quentin Tarantino. 5 stars. It’s only fitting this comes last on the list, as it’s my #1 favorite. It’s a bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these eight angries will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a Wyoming roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s certainly not a political film, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War (it’s set in the 1870s), and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the word “nigger” to a vengeful use of the word “bitch”, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works completely for it, and brings a near perfect nihilistic artistry to the Western.

Appendix

Stage One: Revising the Genre

Unforgiven (1992). Revenge.
Open Range (2003). Revenge.
The Missing (2003). Rescue.
3:10 to Yuma (2007). Outlaw.
The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Outlaw.
Appaloosa (2008). Lawmen.
True Grit (2010). Revenge.

Stage Two: Indie-fying the Genre

Django Unchained (2012). Spaghetti.
The Homesman (2014). Odyssey.
Slow West (2015). Romance.
The Keeping Room (2015). Feminist/Home Invasion.
Bone Tomahawk (2015). Cannibalist/Horror.
The Revenant (2015). Wilderness Survival.
The Hateful Eight (2015). Murder Mystery.