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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/30/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 9
Table of Contents
Some Observations on the Western Film (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Usually in this notice if we talk about any genre of film we talk about science fiction, horror, or fantasy films. But I recently was traveling in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, and it was an opportunity to give some thought to another genre, albeit one that is currently in decline in the US. That is a pity because it is a genre that has done a lot to define for Americans and the world what they think of the United States. I am referring, of course, to the Western.
Americans make and watch films in many genres. But none has done so much to define Americans to themselves or to the rest of the world as the Western film. The Western, while it has been imitated all over the world, is really a purely American genre. The setting is the United States for the vast majority and North America for nearly all. Yet it is a genre that has become part of world culture. In the 1970s a major movement in European film- making was the Western. Westerns were made by France, Spain, Germany, and particularly Italy. One rarely sees any number of one country's films set in some other country's history. The US does not make many films about French or Canadian or Italian history. English history and maybe Roman history may be exceptions. Those have really become world culture like some American history has. The Western has become part of world culture. It even influences how some countries, like Japan, make films for themselves. Akira Kurosawa freely admitted that his samurai films were strongly influenced by Westerns. His SEVEN SAMURAI, RASHOMON, and YOJIMBO were easily remade as the Westerns THE MAGNIFIENT SEVEN, THE OUTRAGE, and A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, but Kurosawa freely admitted that it was because his films were really Westerns already. They were just set in historic Japan.
The genre of the Western has its roots in popular written fiction. Most likely the genre evolved from the heroic novels of James Fenimore Cooper. But the largest influence would probably have to be the popular action dime novels that began as contemporaneous stories. As the West was developed a popular fiction arose that told, usually inaccurately, the supposed exploits of real people like Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and many more. And purely fictional characters like Deadwood Dick were also created. These pulpish writings were popular not just in the United States but in translation in many parts of Europe.
What are the characteristics of this genre of story telling? There are many elements that show up, but one strongly outweighs the rest. These are stories in which the outdoors plays a major part. The outdoors is usually as beautiful as it is hostile. And the hostility of that young, unspoiled environment forges the people. In a few towns the law has a hard time competing with rowdies. On the homesteads and everywhere between the rowdies and outlaws have the upper hand, because help is far away. Distance is a common foe to all. As a result it is expected that all, but especially men, be self-reliant. The Western hero is likely someone who grew up on a homestead and had to be able to defend it from nature and from the lawless. This makes a strong division between those who strictly follow the rules, and those who break them. Westerns had a strong sense of there being a right side and wrong side to every conflict. Frequently like chess pieces the people on the good side wore white hats, the people on the bad side wear black hats. Actually the extent to which this convention was followed is somewhat exaggerated today. A few heroes like Hopalong Cassidy wore black hats. I have not verified this but I think it was generally the cheaper "Poverty Row" Westerns that used such conventions.
I will have more observations on the Western film next week. [-mrl]
DVD Commentary Tracks (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In talking about DVDs, I've had several people say either they never listen to the commentary tracks or that they have listened to a couple but found them boring.
Well, yes, a lot of them *are* boring. They consist of "That's Sandy Starlet. She was really wonderful to work with," or "It was so cold that day, but look how well Jim covers it up." In other words, love fests of the sort we see on the talk shows when people are hyping their movie. Or what's being said is interesting, but has no relation to what is happening on-screen and could better have been done as a straight interview. I know, because I listen to all the commentary tracks on all the DVDs we get.
But there are some commentary tracks that are excellent, often excellent enough that I actually want to listen to the commentary track more than once. So in the interests of introducing you to the better side of commentary tracks. here are my recommendations (in alphabetical order):
"Apollo 13": *Two* excellent commentary tracks, one by director Ron Howard and one by Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell and his wife Marilyn. For people who care about how accurate a movie is, Lovell's commentary is obviously a must, but Howard also delivers.
"Citizen Kane": The commentary track by Roger Ebert describing the scenes, the camera angles, the dialogue, and all the other techniques used is very informative, even if you know a lot about the movie already. (The commentary by Orson Welles biographer Peter Bogdanovich is only average.)
"Dark City": The first of the great DVD commentary tracks, again a scene-by-scene analysis by Roger Ebert.
"El Mariachi" and "Desperado": The two-sided DVD has a commentary track by Robert Rodriguez that is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to make low-budget films. (Example: Use the tail ends of the film reels to do random establishing shots.) I don't know if these are on the DVDs that have only one of the films.
"Gettysburg": The commentary track includes comments from by director/screenwriter Ronald F. Maxwell, cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum, author James M. McPherson and military historian Craig Symonds. The only down-side is that it is not a continuous commentary, but for selected scenes only. (I find for these it's worth noting which chapters have commentary on a piece of paper and sticking that in the case. Then next time you want to hear the commentary only, you know which tracks you can skip to.)
"The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May": The commentary tracks by director John Frankenheimer for these are both very scene-specific description of what he was doing when he made the films. These are tracks I have listened to more than once.
"Thirteen Days": In addition to the two commentary tracks, this DVd had a sort of hyperlink features, where at various times during the film you can click on an icon on the screen for more information about that particular scene. One of the commentators is Sergei Krushchev, Nikita Krushchev's son. 'Nuff said. (The only problem is that with the two commentary tracks and the hyperlinks, you need a *lot* of time to watch it all. This is *not* an overnight rental item!)
"Titus": In her commentary track, director Julie Taymor gives a detailed explanation of her concept of the film and what she was trying to do with each scene. The actor's commentary track is also pretty good, but for a few scenes only.
After seeing these, you might want to try the following as well:
"Contact': Two good commentary tracks, one by Jodie Foster and one by director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey. The third commentary track, by production team Ken Ralston and Steven Rosenbaum, is just average.
"Dogma": The commentary track by director Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier and "View Askew" historian Vincent Pereira talks about the theology behind the film as well as the usual production details. The other commentary track, with Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, is just average.
"The Lion in Winter": Good commentary track by director Franklin Schaffner.
"Moulin Rouge": Production commentary track by director Baz Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin, and cinematographer Don McAlpine, and a writing commentary writers by writers Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.
"The Ninth Gate": Great non-stop commentary by Roman Polanski. I had always assumed that commentaries were recorded a bit at a time and edited together, but if they are, Polanski does a great job of making it seem non-stop.
"Pi": Two good commentary tracks, one by director Darren Aronofsky and one by the actors.
"Three Kings": Commentary tracks by director David O. Russell and by producers Chuck Roven and Ed McDonnell explain what exactly they were trying to do with the film, and how they accomplished it.
There are other good commentary tracks out there. Some may be of interest only to real fans of the specific movie. The commentary tracks for the James Bond films are good individually, but if you watch several of them, a certain sameness becomes apparent. (These are, by the way, edited together from comments made by various people at various times.)
One more suggestion: Since the commentary track drowns out the dialogue, we usually turn on the subtitles when running them. There are some commentary tracks that *are* the subtitles--"The Abyss" has a "subscripture" commentary track about how the special effects were created, which lets them pack more information in.
(While I was writing this, Bill Thacker posted the following to a mailing list I'm on: "What I love about DVDs is that with the director's commentary and deleted scenes/alternate endings, you haven't really seen the movie until you've watched it three or four times. That's what I hate about DVDs." That about sums it up.)
So what are your favorite commentary tracks? [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Enlightened people seldom or never possess a sense of responsibility. -- George Orwell
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