Sunday, August 21, 2011

ANY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SIX-SHOOTER AND A PHASER? - A Belated Review of Dreamworks' Cowboys and Aliens

This is a review about Dreamworks' Cowboys and Aliens.

You may ask "why write a review that has not only opened weeks ago but has done so badly at the box office that it's on its way out?" Call it an apologetic caveat and a lesson in the dangers of dismissing a concept because of its unfamiliarity.

Earlier in the week I wrote a blog post regarding reboots and remakes and why the till of previously made films get dipped into time and again. When that happens the general outcry is Hollywood does not produce something original. Yet it does and many, unfortunately myself included, passed a quasi-original offering my regret. Because Cowboys and Aliens, a film based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, of the best films to come out this summer.

It may have been off putting that, from a marketing perspective, that it this cross-genre offering was difficult to pigeon-hole. Was it a western? A sci-fi film? A tongue in cheek comedy? A serious film? (The film was described by the producers as "A western...and then aliens show up"). Star Trek was known as "Wagon Train to the stars", but this film actually makes good on that description.  It is all that, ladies and gentlemen, and more because it shows that considerations of genre are secondary to the power of good storytelling.

The film stars Daniel Craig (Quantum of Solace, the forthcoming The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as an amnesiac cowboy in the mold of Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, who wakes up with no knowledge of who he is or what the mysterious metal bracelet attached to his left wrist has come from. Soon he runs afoul of the law and the local powerful cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (a very complex and powerful Harrison Ford) and then...aliens show up.  In any other film, the complete transition from one genre to another would seem discordantly jarring. Yet, under the tight direction of Jon Favreau (Iron Man and Iron Man 2), with an intelligent script by Star Trek (2009) screenwriters Roberto Orzi and Alex Kurtzman, among others, the transition flows organically. This transition is helped along by the scoring abilities of Harry Gregson-Williams, who manages to meld the usual lyrical genre tropes of both sci-fi and the western and create an energetic confluence of styles into one cohesive and satisfying whole.

The characters are many, each with their own subplots and conflicts. All too often in many other films the juggling of that many plots either end unsatisfactorily or are left dangling without resolution. One of the hallmarks of C&A is that these sub-plots and leitmotifs come at you out of nowhere yet make complete sense, due to both the power of the scripting and perhaps more importantly the performances.

The main irony is how easily British born Craig typifies the classic American western (anti) hero. He was reportedly chosen for this role due to his strong resemblance to the late Steven McQueen, yet the resemblance is secondary to the persona he portrays. For the two hours of this film, he makes you completely forget that he is the current holder of MI6's license to kill. He evinces the requisite stoicism inherent in such a character, but with enough vulnerability to make him relatable and even likable in his more unlikable moments.

Harrison Ford, despite second billing and transitioning to more character acting roles, shows that he can still hold the screen better than any of the current younger crop of leading men. At the beginning of the film, his character comes across as a complete...well, let's just say very unlikable. However, as the movie progresses, through his own actions and how he is perceived by those around him, the layers are peeled back, revealing one of the most complex characters Mr. Ford has allowed himself to play in years. Of all the character arcs, his is perhaps the most satisfying. However, the action ramps up when Craig and Ford share the screen, having a wonderful chemistry that crackles with energy, as it should be when James Bond teams up with Indiana Jones (complete with a completely metatextual line near the end of the film that acknowledges and pokes fun at their respective places in film history as iconic action heroes).

Olivia Wilde, in her role as Ella Swenson, makes for an exotic mysterious beauty and holds her own against the two leads. Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, Iron Man 2), Keith Carridane (Crash) and Clancy Brown (Highalnder, The Shawshank Redemption) bring their A game to this film, especially Brown who brings a human center to his role as the town's preacher. In fact, none of the performances play hollow. However, the standout performance comes from Adam Beach, who plays Dolarhyde's retainer and bodyguard. He gives an understated performance wherein even his body language speaks volumes and provides the emotional center to the film. Without spoiling, he has one moment in the film which hits like a punch to the gut, bringing certain relationships into crystal clear focus. Its a perfomance not to be missed.

But ultimately, this film is pure, escapist fun. It takes itself seriously but not too much so. It grabs your attention and does not relinquesh it. Even the quiet moments are filled with anticipation and the performances are electrifying to the point of riveting your attention to the screen.

The special effects are top notch and almost seemless. The cinematography is worthy of the cinemascope western productions of yesteryear. It almost feels like a true western...except it has aliens in it. And what aliens they are. A hodgepodge of elements of film aliens (I'm talking to you Alien and Predator) you've seen in the past, they are no less formidable than the characters that preceeded them, they are menacing and terrifying and give the protagonists a major challenge.

It is a shame that this film did not do as well at the box office but I suspect it will be a major cult hit; as it should be, as it is a fun, suspensful thrill ride that grabs one by the privates and doesn't let go until the final iconic image of Daniel Craig riding off into the sunset. If you haven't done so yet, check out Cowboys and Aliens in the theater before it's gone. Show Hollywood that there is some room for originality in the market least until the next James Bond or Indiana Jones offering.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


History may repeat itself.

When John Milius' 1982 Conan the Barbarian was first released it did not garner very positive reviews. It did modest box office in initial release but, mostly through the presence of pre-A-lister Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the years subsequent to its release has acheived cult, and in some circles revered, status.

Marcus Nipel's Conan the Barbarian will probably enjoy a good opening weekend but its hard to tell whether the film will continue to have legs beyond that. After all, most of the target audiences already have video games at home and may not want to see one unfold on the big screen.

This Conan does have a plot...somewhat. Conan, the last Cimmerian (Jason Momoa, Stargate Atlantis; Game of Thrones), seeks revenge against Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang, who seemed much more sadistic in Avatar) for murdering his father (the ever reliable Ron Perlman, who gives the material the necessary but right dose of gravitas to give the film some sort of weight). Ostensibly the "MacGuffin" of the piece is a bone mask with the power to restore the dead to life and bring immeasurable power, but it seems like less of an impetus to drive the story forward as it is an excuse to get from point "A" to point "B" and from CGI enhanced fight scene to CGI enhanced fight scene. And, unfortunately, this film follows the recent trend of Mtv style dizzying "quick cuts" and close up shots that obscure (or hide the lack of ) the fight choreography. Some scenes it seems as the film was sped up which leaves one confused as to what has just happened. One character in particular has a weapon with a very unique feature, but due to the manner in which the fight scene is shot that feature is almost lost even in the midst of its application in the fight. What those scenes lack in distinction are made up for in sheer brutality, and the sound master makes sure that every blow is audibly "felt", even if some of those sequences, despite the alacrity of execution, teeter on the edge of running too long.

The cinematography is servicable, if only to get a sense that this is in an era "out of time". The Lord of the Rings trilogy expertly showed how a sense of a sprawling epic can be established with just a few panoramic or aerial expansive shots. The cinematography here works in opposite, confining the action to a few set pieces which seem interchangeable with each other, making the world in question seem jarringly insular, which is an egregious failing for a film such as this, as the overall feel of the production makes it seem like it was produced for "Starz" or "HBO" (in fact, the latter's series Game of Thrones imbued more sense of the epic with far less).

And Tyler Bates' score doesn't help matters. While it does a fine job of underscoring what takes place on the screen, there is no sense of identity or differentiation. In fact, at times it seemed like he simply substituted his score for 300 and sent in the print. However, the pacing is fast and relentless, with very little "down time" between sequences. Perhaps Nipel's vision going in was to treat the audience as though it were afflicted with ADD. Unfortunately, the 3D only serves to enhance the films cinematic flaws, painfully accentuating the use and nature of minatures as set pieces, for example.

What saves this production are the performances, particularly star in the making Jason Momoa. A far cry from Schwarzenegger's recalcitrant, steamroll through enemies hulk, Momoa imbues the title character with a catlike litheness and ferocity, however all done with tongue firmly in cheek and with a twinkle in his eye. When Conan undertakes actions and attitidues that are anathema to our current PC and post-feminist culture, its endearing rather than offensible simply due to Momoa's charisma. While he never loses sight of the fact that his character has a burning thirst for revenge, Momoa is clearly having fun in playing the role and that sense is infectuous. Rachel Nichols (Star Trek, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) serves as human MacGuffin and love interest Tamara and, while the role does not call for much, she handles it adequately. However, both actors fall short in the "lust" department (this film does not call for much by way of romance) as they share little chemistry...thus the eventual coupling that takes place seems almost tacked on in a manner fairly reminiscent to Christopher Lambert's and Roxanne Hart's scene in the original Highlander. The surprising standout in the film is Leo Howard, who plays Conan as a boy. He brings even more ferocity and pathos than even Momoa. His performance is so compelling in the few scenes he has I could easily wait fifteen to twenty years or so to see a film with him playing the adult Conan, he's that good. Rose McGowan (Charmed), she who would have been Red Sonja, plays the main baddie's socerceress daughter Marique, imbuing a sensuality and wickedness that the production needs.  What passes for character development comes primarily from the actors performances and not inherent in the story itself. Missed opportunities abound. For example, Both Conan and Marique have parallel father figure conflicts, yet nieither the scriptwriters nor the director do develop those conflicts in any satsifactory manner, as if such deeper considerations have no place in a sword or sorcery least not in this one.

Conan the Barbarian is a popcorn movie, but a very likably fun one. I suspect anyone who has allegeance or fealty to the original film will not enjoy this one quite as much but where that previous production went for heavy-handedness, this one goes for Xbox thrills and pseudo flair. Its cheeky fun will practically ensure future cult status. One may not remember much of the plot much less the sequences, but the girls in the audience will remember Momoa flicking his hair. Sequels have been made on less.

Friday, August 19, 2011


This weekend marks the opening of remakes of two seminal 80s genre films: Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night; just the latest in a batch of re-makes and/or re-visitations of material that has flooded the multiplexes in recent years . There are more on the way, such as the recently announced Blade Runner (which as of this writing is still unclear whether it is a reboot, prequel or sequel), Evil Dead, The Crow, The Wild Bunch,[1] and the currently filming Superman: The Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-Man. Currently dead in the water considerations for remakes are Highlander and The Lone Ranger (though their status may be subject to change), 

The current spirit of the reboot is not confined to the big screen either: Wonder Woman  (pilot made, scrapped) , The Incredible Hulk (TV to TV moives to two big screen adaptation and now a TV series in planning stages), Dark Shadows (which not only got a small screen reboot in the early 90s but is up for a big screen remake), The A-Team (big screen treatment), Hawaii Five-O, Battlestar Galactica, Dallas (though more arguably continuation than remake) and Charlie’s Angels  (from small screen to big and back again)  are the small screen equivalents (though only two of those are actually in production as of this writing). And if that wasn’t enough, in the same manner as the highly successful Star Trek reboot of 2009 , at the end of this month DC Comics will reboot its entire comics line with new first issues and reinterpretations/altered histories of its characters (minor spoiler – a villain has radically altered the DC Universe timeline in the mini-series “Flashpoint”. At its conclusion the timeline is re-set again, with substantial alterations).

The reactions to reboots, both announced and executed, are diverse. For many, its proof positive of Hollywood’s dearth of originality; for purists, it’s tantamount to someone spitting on the Holy Bible. To a degree I must admit to having a bit of a bias there as well. The thought of a Superman film without the resounding John Williams score as accompaniment is anathema to me, as it is as intricately linked to the character to me as James Bond’s theme is to him, or the Star Wars fanfare that is emblematic to that series, but I will address that further below.

So why reboot, if it so controversial? Well, perhaps that is precisely the point. In his own review for the Fright Night remake, “Capone”, a critic for, had this to say: “…most [reboots] are made because a familiar title tends to bring in more box office dollars than an unfamiliar one”. Name brand recognition practically guarantees, to varying degrees, some sort of business. Despite the diminishing quality, Highlander’s subsequent sequels (save for the last) actually did some box office business. However, there’s only so long a franchise can ride on the coattails on the name or memory and good will towards the originating production (or else Star Trek: Enterprise would have lasted more than four seasons without dwindling ratings each season). So in that sense it’s almost easy money because chances are even those who are most offended at the idea of a remake will take a gander out of sheer curiosity.

One argument I’ve heard for reboots is that films would get remade for a new generation which may be too biased against watching or not having access to films made before they were born. True, but with the proliferation of cable, satellite and internet broadcasting, a portion of that argument is rendered moot. However, as in the case with the aforementioned Star Trek, or DC Comics, a reboot may be necessary for brand survival. According to DC Comics’ “The Source” blog, the reboot “[n]ot only will this initiative be compelling for existing readers, it’ll give new readers a precise entry point into our titles.” This move is not unsurprising as, due to various factors, including direct market distribution and proliferation of other, more interactive entertainment media, comic book sales have been dwindling. Something had to be done to shake up the status quo. Whether this is a momentary stunt or a committed for the long haul state of affairs remains to be seen. The point is that people are taking notice. Reboots in comics are nothing new. It seems to happen every ten to fifteen years. Noted comic book writer/artist John Byrne has asserted on his message board that there was a time when the turnaround for the departure of old readers and the influx of the new was five years. In recent decades, the readership has stayed far longer than the norm and that core base is aging (I should know. I’m one of them). The catch 22 here is that you have readers who are decrying the same old stories but by the same token cry foul when Superman’s spit curl is slicked back (and let’s not get started on the backlash regarding the comics and upcoming film’s doing away with the “super undies”).

“Change” is difficult in both life and in our beloved stories. However, “change” is the very nature of life. As I said before, I’m not sure I can sit in a movie theater to watch a Superman film without the anticipation of hearing Williams’ fanfare. But its easy to forget that before I sat in a darkened movie theater in December, 1978 an entire generation before me had its own defining Superman theme in the form of the George Reeves’ The Adventures of Superman. And before that there was the theme that was attached to the Max Fleischer cartoons of the 40s. Are any of those themes “not Superman”? The Star Trek series of films had not only the television fanfare but different main themes from Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and Cliff Edelman. Are any of those less Star Trek than Alexander Courage’s main theme? Does one obviate all the rest?

Reboots tend to incorporate the sensibilities of the generation it’s being made in, therefore giving the story a fresh spin, another perspective, a reexamination. After all, a diamond is not made up of one facet.  Like any other production in any artistic medium, it will have varying degrees of quality. However, there is nothing inherently wrong in re-visitation, especially if doing so imparts something new to say. The frame by frame minutia homage of Psycho is arguably an exercise in futility simply because, by telling the story in exactly the same way, it validated the source film’s “perfection”. Why remake something if the remake due to its very nature essentially reaffirms the sanctity of the original?

Finally, reboots are nothing new. I had an e-mail conversation with a good friend of mine, Dean Stevens (whose blog “Dean’s Lair” at I highly recommend), who has taught classical literature. In regards to fealty versus diversity in storytelling he made these observations:

“There are examples of oral tradition being unchanged for centuries.  It is not so much a problem of memorization, but in ancient Greece the mountains served to isolate Greeks and create more variance in stories…One good example…Dionysos was born out of Zeus’ thigh.   Dionysos was an older god, older than Zeus.  Both stories were known.  This would NOT be a problem for the ancient mind.  They were BOTH true…There were many religious festivals including the 4 Olympic games and other lesser games which allowed people to mingle and spin yarns.  The Olympics included a poetry/storytelling category….playwrights and poets made a living creating their own version of mythological tales, sometimes inventing new stories in the process… It is pretty much unacceptable to make major changes to canonized stories in our society.  Most people would hate to see another remake of The Wizard of Oz for just that reason…
We have the belief that the original was perfect so why would you make another version, for me I start thinking that about Conan…same with Star Trek…how long did fans resist a Shatner-less Kirk character….”[2]
His cogent analysis not only implies that a reboot is arguably a historical certainty, he also bring in a logical reason why reboots are anathema to most. To write something down is to codify it, set it in figurative stone and perhaps make it “fact”. Does the process of re-writing somehow invalidate the source material? Further, does it marginalize the version of the generation before, i.e. makes the previous version, and maybe by extension the generation that bore it, obsolete? That “our” beloved version no longer matters? If so, what does that say about the right of subsequent generations to embrace new interpretations of a particular story or franchise in its own way?

In any event, it is up to the individual viewer to decide whether to watch, much less accept, a re-interpretation of any artistic product. If such a re-make is to be judged, let it be judged on its own merits, like the predecessor that spawned it had been. No matter what your feelings are on the matter, the reboot has been here before the film industry was even a mote in Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince’s (the “director” of the first recorded celluloid film) eye and will be here so long as there are stories to be told and re-told. But there is an opportunity (if the artists don’t muck it up, that is) to see these stories with fresh eyes and perhaps learn or assimilate something new in that retelling.

[1] An analysis of the original film can also be found on this blog.
[2] Please note that Dean’s comments are statements of opinion made during an “off the cuff” conversation and are not meant to be construed as being meticulously scholarly. However, I felt that these statements were particularly pertinent to the subject matter at hand.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


What follows is a film analysis written for a “writing in film” course from Florida International University…it also served as a modest tribute to my father who had passed one year previous at the time of this paper’s submission. Heavy spoilers follow.

No matter what the medium, the best type of art is the one that becomes fresher when re-experienced.  Perhaps “fresher” is not the appropriate word to use.  After all, the painting does not change its landscape, the words on the printed page do not alter (unless edited), nor do the sequence of events in a film change.  It is not the art that has changed, but its perception.  It’s a transformative experience for it serves, if the viewer is honest, to realize how much they have changed; especially if the film in question failed to make an impression in the first place.  Such is the case with Sam Penkinpah’s The Wild Bunch.  My late father lived and breathed the western genre, and this film was his seminal favorite.  As a child I never understood why.  Unlike other films of the genre, all the characters were unlikeable to me and lacked the excitement and clear righteous lines of more accessible fare like The Searchers, The Mark of Zorro or The Lone Ranger on television.  My young eyes could not comprehend what so plainly resonated to my then near middle-aged progenitor.  What was played out in celluloid was not merely a morality tale with western trappings, but instead an internal conflict that resonates within the soul of every maturing man.  What must my father have thought when he watched “Pike Bishop”, “Dutch Engstrom”, and “Deke Thornton” as they went on their adventure looking for their particular brand of redemption and validation?   I do not know, for I never thought to ask.  However, as I watch with eyes as mature now as his were then, I can only speculate.  The film is exactly as it was when I saw it with him, but what was once boring now brims with tense electricity.  What seemed incomprehensible is now understood with a comprehension that only life experience can impart.  The appreciation of this work does not stem from its cinematography, its daring and at the time innovative use of camera angles, motion and technique, or even from its plot.  The appreciation stems from the film’s ability to transcend not only the genre that it was made, but also its ability to achieve a timelessness by touching upon universally cultural questions on the male psyche and the effects of his marginalization once he realizes that time leaves him adrift in favor of a younger generation and an uncertain future for which he may have no place.  It is a film that deconstructs more than a genre.  It deconstructs the male psyche and its preoccupation with its virility and relevance.

In The Wild Bunch, a bunch of outlaws seek to score on last heist while pursued by a band seeking to apprehend them.  As plots go, it seems as simplistic as any other western, but by no means does that imply that this film is simplistic.  Instead, it is an allegory for the plight of the aging as the world they once new transforms around them, threatening to leave them as nothing but dust.  It is about the eternal struggle between the old who have survived, if not tamed, the world and the youth that threatens to marginalize them to obscurity.  It is very much a post-modernist film in both approach and method.  This film was released in the turbulent year of 1969.  The country was in the midst of a highly contested, undeclared and unpopular war that caused a polarization between youth and authority.  The way of conservatism was losing ground against the growing liberalism, the civil rights movement and, most emasculating of all, feminism.  It is it any wonder, then, that The Wild Bunch resonates the way it does?  It is a product of its time, while at the same time rising above it.  The subject is the confidently resolute hero, and this film is for him an indictment, love letter, and farewell.

The strength in the film comes from Pekinpah’s ability to meld the conflicting viewpoints in a way that is both jarring yet dramatic.  His use of scoring is especially profound in this regard.  Jerry Fielding’s music is a discordant mix of the old western orchestrations and late ‘60s crime drama pop.  It’s a score that acknowledges to both while paying homage to neither but  when called for, it builds up a slow crescendo of tension that explodes when the gun fires and the blood is let.  Pekinpah eschews western romanticism for harsh reality, using quick cuts and slow motion filming techniques to emulate the responses that might occur for the viewer if he or she were actually there, presaging the MTV style of filmmaking by decades.  In moments as dire as those, time incongruously seems to slow down and move fast all at once.  There is no lyricism in the gun fights, no heroic moments.  There is only bloody finality, and it is neither sanitized nor glorified.

Technique, ultimately, must serve the master of character.  William Holden’s “Pike Bishop” and Robert Ryan’s “Deke Thorton” represent the “old” west; a time when men were men who, despite their illegal pursuits lived by their own code.  The irony of this film is that each of these men are now at odds, with Thorton working as a bounty hunter hired by the railroad to capture the gang dead.  Upon further scrutiny, the irony is sublimely rich.  In this film, both the railroad and the motorcar represent the ushering of the new age that eventually eradicates Pike and Deke’s way of life.  But by the same token, they are also symbols of the modernist industrialization that the post-modern counterculture rebelled against.  Another irony is found in the fact that this film’s eponymous bunch isn’t so wild.  Its membership is made up of grizzled, seasoned veterans and eagerly bloodthirsty youths.  What is fascinating is the scene that plays out at the films beginning.  As the bunch rides, the camera pans to a bunch of children who drop a couple of scorpions in a den of red ants, callously laughing as the ants overwhelm and devour the two scorpions.  These scorpions clearly represent Pike and Deke, two greater mature creatures overwhelmed by the passionate, mindless frenzy of a mob to which they share the most cursory of relation, the children a future indifferent to their plight.  As the kids burn the insects, it would not be a stretch to say that the flames are evocative of the power of time to eradicate all that is.  Perhaps this scene inspired the only memorable line “Time is the fire in which we burn, Captain.” From Star Trek: Generations (1994); coincidentally another film involving the themes of man’s mortality in the face of the next generation, if you will excuse the pun. 

Like William Shatner’s James T. Kirk acknowledging that there is a new captain of the Enterprise, so does Pike acknowledge that his time is slowly coming to a close:  “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns.  Those days are going fast.”   William Holden anchors this film with a weight and a gravitas that may have not have been wholly created out of the blue.  Holden was once a highly sought after matinee idol; a star.  As with all things, his looks, and his bankability, faded with time.  This adds an authenticity to not only the role but the proceedings as well.  One need only look at the scene where Pike rides over a hill after an embarrassing first attempt at saddling to note the brilliance of his performance.  He is slumped and hurt, but resolute in his convictions despite the lack of faith by his younger compatriots.  However, he is a man of his own warped convictions and a man who is no longer motivated by the passions of youth.  While the younger outlaws cavort with Mexican chiquitas, he hangs out in a sauna with his closer in age companion Dutch (Ernest Borgnine).  This is understandable given that other than a desire for profit, Pike has very little in common with Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Lyle Gorch (Warren Oats) or revolutionary wannabe Angel (Jaime Sánchez).  In fact, the film seems to be an indictment against youth, or perhaps it is a reflection of the establishment’s attitude towards the youth of the day.  The film is replete with images of children in the hundreds, their numbers a hovering reminder that Pike’s way of life is running out on him.  Young Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) can easily be an analogue for Charles Manson, who orchestrated the murders of Sharon Tate and others at the time of this film’s release.  The soldiers on the train are young with feminized faces, inexperienced and incompetent.  The young Gorch brothers’ ignorance is highlighted by their not knowing the meaning of “in tandem.”  The pair are also are content to leave old Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) behind, to which Pike disgustedly responds “We’re not getting’ rid of anybody.  We’re gonna stick together just like it used to be.  When you side with a man you stay with him.  You don’t do that you’re like some animal.  You’re finished.   We’re finished!  All of us!”  In Angel’s village, a wise man makes the observation that “we all dream of being a child again.  Even the worst of us.  Maybe especially the worst of us.”  It gets at the heart of the existential conflict of man wanting to return to the state that is ultimately destroying him.  It’s a marriage of conditions that seem to be doomed to divorce if not for the character of Angel.  He is the most marginalized and disrespected of the bunch.  However, for all of his passionate reactionism, he is respectful to Pike and everything he represents.  Angel wants vengeance on his woman for running off with the revolutionary Mapache, and no man could blame him for such emasculation, but at Pike’s order he temporarily abstains from the quest.

I must digress for a moment to call attention to the role of women in this film.  None of Pekinpah’s female characters are strong women, nor do they have much prominence.  In this film, they are objects of lust that bring men to ruin; especially to Pike.  His wound-induced limp is the result of an affair with a married woman.  It is further telling that, just before his final stand at Mapache’s village, Pike spends his last night with a whore and her child.  They not only represent the life that Pike could have had if he had settled down, but also that by engaging in a passionate role he is no longer suited for he rejects all that he was, which brings about his doom.  The female of any prominence is Angel’s woman who is portrayed as a cuckolding whore and pays the ultimate price for her effrontery.  Angel’s ruination is assured when the woman’s mother exposes his aiding the Mexican rebels.

For all his youth, Angel’s loyalty is solid.  Even when he is ultimately betrayed by Dutch and, by extension, the rest of the bunch, he holds his silence.  Unfortunately, Angel pays with his life by adhering to the ideals of the previous generation.

Betrayal is also an important theme that runs through this film.  In a man’s world, a man’s word is his bond.  Despite his assertions of living by a code, Pike betrays Deke by leaving him to the authorities.  As previously stated, Dutch betrays Angel; a man who saved his life earlier in the film’s train robbing sequence.  The old men have become the animals they decry against. Deke Thorton’s bounty hunters are also without scruples, robbing from the dead and wondering why that is such a problem.  Yet despite Pike’s betrayal, Deke still longs to ride with him again.  Circumstances may have put them at odds, but they are still united by a way of life. 

In any other western, Deke and Pike would be adversaries who would ultimately face each other in a shoot out.  In this film, however, they run a parallel course.  Yet Deke is allied with the railroad, the vehicle of the future.  In a very real sense, Deke is the ultimate survivor.  One whose passions to not rule him, yet sees the necessity in going along with the tide of time.  Despite his lapses, Pike finds redemption is standing for one of his own until his death.  Deke, by not accompanying the bodies of the bunch back, places him back to outlaw status.  He doesn’t much care.  Pike’s death is a redemptive moment for Deke, one of absolution.  He may have abandoned Deke, but by setting an example through death, Pike has balanced the scales by helping the other find himself.

Pekinpah presents these conflicts only to show at the end they do not matter.  Young or old, we all must meet the same fate.  The train robbing sequence forms a bond between the Wild Bunch that is further solidified when they take the famous “last walk” to save Angel.  The accord is unfortunately short lived, for they go out in a blaze of glory.  At the film’s conclusion, while trying to convince Deke to ride with his bunch, Sykes offers this bit of advice:  “Y’wanna come along?  It ain’t what it used t’be, but it’ll do.”  Such is the cyclical nature of life.  The more things change, the more they say the same.

I miss my father.  Like the characters of this film, the world he knew is gone.  The Cold War is a distant memory, as are the Duke, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and all cinematic bastions of male virility and manly fortitude. Yet what difference is there between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan?  The challenges my father’s time faced are not so different than the ones facing society now.  My father’s world may be gone, as my own will be one day, but hopefully they will still resonate for generations to come with the understanding that young or old, we’re not all that different.  With a reminder as powerful as The Wild Bunch, that reminder is all but assured.

Friday, August 12, 2011


A petition to have Sesame Street Muppets Ernie and Burt legally wed.


Some things are just mind-boggling. True, there have been jokes about the nature of those two characters for as long as I can remember (as far back as the early 80's in fact), which is a point I will get to in a minute. But why Burt and Ernie? Because they’re two men who live together and happen to, having an undefined relationship, co-habitate? But why stop there? After all, wouldn’t the more logical homosexual analogy be Big Bird and Mr. Snuffalopagus? After all, “Snuff” (a nickname which could carry its own disturbingly pornographic connotations) would “hang out” with Big Bird unless someone else would come near, and then he would conveniently “disappear” and hide (possibly back into his “closet”)? Or reading this further, is Oscar so grouchy because he hasn’t had any sexual intercourse? After all, what woman would want someone as dirty as him, wherein his only loved companion is “Slimy the Worm” (perhaps phallic symbolism regarding inadequate genitalia?); or how about Grover’s unrequited affections for Kermit the Frog? Kermit almost always seemed embarrassed whenever Grover showed up. No one addresses Cookie Monster’s obvious cookie addiction (possibly "Molly"-laced), or the fact that his eyes roll around as though in perpetual orgasm. Okay, to be fair Cookie nowadays does address the need of eating more wholesome foods, but it smacks of the type of speech given by a Betty Ford Clinic graduate, doesn't it?  How about the Count's counting fetish? Is he only laughing when he reaches his "climax" count number? These permutations are absurdist and plentiful, yet arguments can be made that the subtext is there if that is what you want to see.

That said, I want to ask those of you who read this to take a moment to follow this instruction:  Remember when you first encountered these characters as a child. When you were first exposed to E&B, did such considerations of sexuality cross your mind or did you accept the conceit as it was: two male puppets who shared an apartment and slept in separate beds? It's only after one gets an introduction and understanding of sexuality, with its requisite permutations that one starts to wonder/imagine as to the specificity of said relationship. We add on to our perception as our experience of the world grows. Hence, Ernie and Burt go from two guys who share a living space to [fill in the blank].

It isn’t mind-boggling that the producers of Sesame Street recently issued a statement definitively quelling any possibility of a marriage, much less a homosexual relationship, between Ernie and Burt. That it was brought to that point is. While it’s a show that can be enjoyed by all ages, at its heart Sesame Street is a show aimed at children; designed to stimulate not only a love for education and learning but also that of imagination…the latter of which obviously works if adults are engaging in tongue-in-cheek theories about the Muppets as evidenced above. But is it not selfishly self-serving to try to pigeon-hole these characters, who have gone for decades without such ultimately limiting labels, to one particular view point? After all, Ernie and Bert are, in a sense, the “Felix Unger" and "Oscar Madison” of the preschool world, but only in the sense that they bicker and share a living space. They're neither "Fred and Ethyl" nor are they a divorced couple (if they're even old enough to marry in-story, contextually).

The statement from the producers states: "Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves”. No more, no less. Anything further can be extrapolated by a preschooler’s, and even an adult's, imagination. Foundationally, they’re two males who have a close bond and share an apartment on Sesame Street. That’s it. It’s just as arguable to say that "they’re gay" to say "they’re just best friends" (or even brothers, before the statement was issued). Not one interpretation is “better” or more valid than the other. That’s the beauty of these characters. The vagueness of their relationship allows for the imagination to play, with each scenario as justifiable as the next. To classify theirs as LGBT is not wrong in a moral sense, mind you; however, it limits, and does a disservice to, the characters’ ability to reach all children across all genders and of nascent orientation.

If such representation is warranted and required of Sesame Street, there is no reason for the producers not to go the Archie Comics route, wherein a specifically gay character was introduced; one who has received overwhelming acceptance (try turning Betty and Veronica into lesbians or Archie and Reggie into a gay couple and see how well received that would have been…at least by the parents). But imagination is all about construction, not destruction. So the issue here really is not whether Burt and Ernie are gay (and the producers flat-out stated that, as puppets, they’re not real and, therefore, not sexually oriented) but that some want to push their own impression(s) or agenda(s) about such universal characters over that of others, is. Reverse discrimination? That’s too extreme of a statement and probably not what the petitioners intended, but in the final analysis that's the implication. Perhaps the producers of Sesame Street will see this as an opportunity to reflect the popular zeitgeist and create a LGBT character in much the same way as they created an HIV-infected character a few years ago. Or, they can go along as they always have, and hope that the culture-at-large will remember the fact that this is a children’s show wherein everyone, human and Muppet alike, get along and are accepted for who they are despite their differences (stated or otherwise), wherein those differences are not spoken of because, at the end of the day, in the context of friendship and good will, they’re immaterial.

The petition only shows that we’re still a long way from learning the lessons Sesame Street attempts to impart.