Saturday, June 9, 2012

Homes on the Range

We have cancelled our Netflix subscription.  I got tired of those red packets, those movies that got old while waiting for me to have a chance to watch them.  I think my spouse finally watched every Western in their catalogue, and he was having trouble finding anything else to watch.

I miss it occasionally.  I don't often think ahead, and thus, sometimes we have a rainy afternoon where a movie would be nice.  Luckily, we have a fairly large collection of VHS tapes and DVDs.

That's how we came to be watching Open Range on Memorial Day week-end, even though we'd seen it before.  It started playing with the director's commentary on, and Kevin Costner was so fascinating that not only did we listen all the way through the commentary, we also watched a short documentary that came on the bonus DVD.

It's always interesting to hear how directors put together movies; I'm a sucker for those kind of insights.  Any creative process, even if it's one I'm unlikely to participate in, intrigues me.  But I found myself even more interested in the history behind the movie.

In an early shot of the cowboys crossing the river, Kevin Costner talked about all the people who likely drowned as they crossed similar rivers, people just swept away.  And we'll never know who they are.

He talked about the immigrants who came to settle the west.  He observed that they were thinking less about themselves and more about 4-5 generations out.  They knew that they were taking on a rough life, but they hoped it would pay off for their descendents.

He pointed out how often towns were built in inconvenient places.  They weren't well thought out.  One person put up a house, and then someone else settled nearby because there was safety in numbers, and pretty soon, you've got a town.  Often, you've got a town in a place that's susceptible to weather (floods, especially), because people weren't thinking about that.

He pointed out how heavily the white people lived on the land.  Along the way of his commentary, I was reminded of how much research Kevin Costner has done on the American west.  I've never seen Dances with Wolves.  Now I might be tempted.

There's more than one shot of white picket fence.  Costner points out that you fence something in when you're not really sure that you own it.  He pointed out how the white people moved west and began fencing everything in, and soon, a way of life, driving cattle from Canada to Mexico (or the reverse) was gone.

His commentary reminded me of Larry McMurtry, another master of the American west.  My spouse and I both LOVE Lonesome Dove.  In fact, we might have watched it instead of Open Range, if we had felt we had more time.

McMurtry has also devoted much of his nonfiction writing to exploring the American west.  One of my favorites is Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.  He reminds us:  "The myth of the American cowboy was born of a brief twenty years' activity just before railroads criss-crossed the continent north-south and east-west, making the slow movement of livestock impractical"  (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, page 50).  In just 20 years, a way of life came into being and passed away. 

We tend to think that we're the first generation to deal with a dizzying pace of change, but I suspect that most every generation would tell you that the change that they must deal with is more than any other generation has ever had to bear.  It's truly astonishing to think of how the land west of the Mississippi River changed from 1860 to 1900.  It both makes me sad and gives me hope for our own age.  Humans are tougher than we give ourselves credit for being.  If we could settle that land in 40 short years (and yes, I know that Native Americans would tell a different story), we can survive the hard times stalking our country now.

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