Monday, May 20, 2013

Science Fiction & Westerns: Genre Analysis

The original Lone Ranger and Silver, 1965. With TVs becoming more affordable so that every home could have one, Westerns soon dominated the medium, peaking in 1959 with 26 weekly shows being Western/Western themed. As color television became more popular, production companies had to trade-off the expensive action sequences essential to Westerns in favor of spending money on color productions instead, leading to the dramatic decrease in weekly Western series.
Sometimes, stepping back to get a macro picture is the best thing we can do. At different periods in history, different types of films and books, art and music, have been popular, and one of the reasons why criticism (interpretation and decoding) is important is because it reveals what drives the demand for certain art forms: specifically, what are the fears and hopes, ambitions and inhibitions of a culture at various times, how historical events are shaping and re-shaping the norms of a society at different points in history. Art is, in its own way, an archaeological record of the psyche of humanity. Why should we take a moment to examine this? Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger (still to be released) are trying to help Westerns make a comeback, but it's the dominance of films like Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus, After Earth, Thor the Dark World, Oblivion, Ender's Game, Men In Black III, Gravity, Europa Report and Pacific Rim(not to mention the resurrecting of the new Star Wars series beginning 2015) which are gaining dominance and--in our day and culture--there is a reason for it.
It's not the best Western ever made by any means, however, it is the best example of a Western, for the simple reason that it contains all the elements essential to a film being "Western." There are many reasons why Westerns were so popular in the 1950-s1960s, and one reason might be that it showed regular men keeping order, usually through killing another man/men with a gun; what was the biggest historical event that would have caused this? World War II. Men of all ages faced the horrors and tragedies of mass killing and chaos, witnessing what others had done and perhaps what they themselves had done; Westerns were one means of slowly and carefully offering a psychological release, "artistic therapy" so to speak, of validating what American men had to do and why they did it and the guilt they experienced for it; Sci-Fi, on the other hand, could offer the same safe, slow release of catharsis with--usually--being threatened and in a foreign land (Europe or the islands of the Pacific).  By slowly offering cathartic release to veterans and their families, it helped to heal bonds: men came to have some relief from the pain of their experiences (although that cannot be an across-the-board statement) and families came to have some idea, unconsciously, of how their fathers, husbands, brothers and neighbors felt and why, which healed their personal bonds and brought families together around the TV. Again, this is a simple approach to what was happening, but it's also valid, and offers a starting point for going into the phenomena at greater depth and detail.
One of the most important lessons I learned in my first film criticism class was that Westerns and Sci-Fi films are essentially the same, just with aesthetic differences. Both genres rely upon vast, open landscapes wherein their action and adventure take place, the wild west for Westerns or outer space for Sci-Fi, and often, the landscape/galaxy becomes a character in the story because it helps to form the character of the characters, asserting themselves against the "blankness" of the un-settled wild west or the unexplored depths of outer space. One on level, we can say the Western was comforting because it reminded us of what we had all ready accomplished (this can be clearly seen in the ending of How the West Was Won with the clip of contemporary highway systems which replaced the old horse and buggy days) whereas Sci-Fi provided a sense of adventure and platform for ambition with what there was still to achieve. (I have done much more analysis on Sci-Fi than Westerns: please see both The Second Original Sin: Art In the Atomic Age and The Decade Of Turmoil: Film In the 1950s for more details on this genre). 
From 1956, Forbidden Planet, based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest and modernized with a substantial dose of Freudian psychoanalysis and is, like Shane, one of the typical films analyzed in introductions to film criticism courses. Like Shane, it's not the best Sci-Fi film ever made, but Forbidden Planet contains all the essential elements of a great Sci-Fi. Forbidden Planet was made in 1956 while The Lone Ranger ran from 1949-1957; how could two such dramatically different art forms co-exist and be so successful simultaneously, unless, they aren't so different?
Many might say, okay, I see how the empty wild west landscape can be compared to the emptiness of space, but I don't understand how you can call outlaws from Westerns aliens in Sci-Fi films? A somewhat recent film combining the two genres is Cowboys and Aliens (Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig; please see Cowboys and Aliens: the US-British Alliance) and there is a reason why a film like that could be made today. To begin with, aliens are not always outlaws, but outlaws are always bad guys who have to make the choice to either reform or face the dictates of justice. If we examine Cowboys and Aliens, we actually see two types of aliens: the aliens who have come from outer-space and the aliens who have come from Mexico, because anyone living in a land not where they were born or that is not their "homeland" can--since Biblical times--be considered an "alien in an alien land." 
Performing at the box office below expectations, Cowboys and Aliens was considered the "death of the Western" in Hollywood after its lack-luster release and was the primary reason for The Lone Ranger (Johnny Depp) being shelved for fear no one would go see it (it just takes a bit of star power to get things going) which might have had more to do with the bizarre trailer rather than the film itself, however, at least some in the film industry seem to be crediting Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained with resurrecting the Western. If The Lone Ranger doesn't do well, Hollywood will certainly site the genre as the cause, rather than the film's message as being the turn-off for audience members (but, if The Great Gatsby did so well, I don't doubt The Lone Ranger will do well also). In some ways, The Host is similar to Cowboys and Aliens because it primarily takes place in the desert and there are definitely aliens. We can also put forth that films taking place on the ocean resemble Westerns and Sci-Fi because there is a general lack of law (think of Pirates of the Caribbean and the upcoming Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks) because one can travel to "distant lands," like distant planets, and encounter aliens (either in people not resembling yourself or the animals underneath the surface of the water).
In Cowboys and Aliens, the outer-space aliens symbolize the Nazis because what they did was "alien" to the way of life for Americans (I demonstrate this in the post because the aliens had extracted the teeth of the humans like the Nazis did in the concentration camp); the Mexicans in the film are not aliens because their hard work and loyalty was "at home" in America. In earlier Sci-Fi, aliens could refer to anyone who was different than a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Irish Catholics, Chinese, Latinos, Mexicans, Russians, Asians, Middle Easterners, etc.) because their ways (religion, food, dress, customs, etc.) appeared "alien" to the WASP families settling the Old West (as in Shane). As stated at the start of this post, there are far more space films coming out than Westerns (the only one I know of is The Lone Ranger and The GallowWalkers with Wesley Snipes, but that one might go straight to DVD/Blu-Ray) and the question is, what does it reflect that--in these box-office record-setting years for profits--there are more Sci-Fi films being made than Westerns?
I don't think things have changed much.
Also starring Harrison Ford is Enger's Game due out in November. The official synopsis runs: After an alien race called the Formics (also known as the "Buggers") attacks Earth, the International Fleet prepare for the next invasion by training the best young children to find the future leader to lead the International Military. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his Earth school to join International Fleet and attend the legendary Battle School in Space. After easily mastering the increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect among his peers, Ender is soon ordained by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) as the military's next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he's trained by Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) himself to lead the military into a war that will determine the future of Earth and the human race.
Americans are proud of our technology for one, so "going back in time" isn't necessarily a chance to show off technological advances; we kind of consider space "ours," because of the landing on the moon--and I think Obama recognizes this which is why he intentionally cut the space program, to cut our pride in that area--even though we don't have dominance in space. "Being in space" unconsciously communicates to the audience that technology and space exploration are linked because technology aides us in meeting the challenges of exploring space. But--like Westerns--the vast region of space is "a clean slate," and I think this might be the "main thrust" for pro-capitalists making space films, that order doesn't exist in space, and so, when we see Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) capturing outlaws instead of letting them hide in remote outposts, it reaffirms that the ways and rules of Americans are inherently right, that we have adopted our codes of conduct because of "rightness" and moral alignment, not because of expediency or tyranny. In other words, space is a chance to "make America all over again," and to chose to make it the same country this time as our forefathers did in the past.
The official synopsis for George Clooney's and Sandra Bullock's Gravity is: Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first Space Shuttle mission and is accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney), who is in command of the shuttle flight, due to be his last. During a spacewalk, the space shuttle is destroyed, and Stone and Kowalsky are stranded in space with no communications with Earth. I could be wrong, but I think this is a statement about Obama's administration, that we are "drifting out in space," but we need to go further into space (socialism) because the "crash" (of 2008) destroyed the space shuttle (the vehicle of the economy, capitalism, which created the shuttle) and it just isn't viable anymore; this would reflect another George Clooney film, The Descendants, where his wife (America) was in a boat race (capitalism because it's competitive) and crashed (the 2008 economic crash) and landed in a coma which required her to be moved from life support (cutting off capitalism and going to socialism, like being cut off from the space shuttle in Gravity). Of course, I could be wrong, I admit that. Men In Black III, on the other hand, was about the socialist figure in Boris trying to stop K (Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones) from having the space shuttle launched because the shuttle put up the barrier protecting us from alien attack (America getting to space first insured the victory of capitalism over socialism and keeping the alien communists out of the country).
There is a lot more to say about the genres, but I think it best to say it in the individual posts about the films; having this in mind, however, will help us when we are thinking about the narrative of Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor the Dark World and this new film coming out that reminds me of Prometheus, the Europa Report about six astronauts who go to the sixth moon of Jupiter, Europa, to look for life:
What do you notice about this trailer?
First, probably, that it's quite like the trailer for Gravity with Clooney and Bullock we saw last week (the link will take you to YouTube). It might also remind you of Prometheus in two ways: first, because something that we set ourselves to go after, ended up being a bad idea (this is exactly what happens in Battleship, if you recall, NASA set up a beacon which attracted the aliens to earth). Secondly, there was a lot of "noise" in the Prometheus trailer, and there is plenty of noise and static in Europa Report as well; why? Noise and static lets us know that we aren't "hearing everything" or "seeing everything," we are, like Happy Hogan in Iron Man 3, in a coma, asleep, like Dr. Banner listening to Tony Stark. In other words, something is going on but we are not "picking up" the signal being sent to us by the film. There is another message, one I think will prove more problematic,....
See, there is even "static" and "noise" in the poster; please note the "bars" of color that don't belong as well as the white lines of static across the picture. Something I haven't been too sure of, and so haven't ventured forth an explanation, is why the moon in Oblivion was destroyed, and then humanity re-settled on another moon, Titan? (Of course, humanity was wiped out, not re-settled on Titan). Now, it's another moon being explored, Europa. Generally, moons symbolize our emotions because our emotions change like the different stages of the moon and--as the moon controls tides and exercises its influence on earth with the changing phase--so our emotions influence our comings and goings, all our dealings with other people. This is something to keep simmering on the back burner. It's tempting to suggest that "European socialism" has been awakened when we went looking for it (after 2008) and now it's a horror being unleashed. Interesting, Europa Report will be available on Video On Demand June 27, and in theaters August 2.
Why Jupiter?
We know, in Oblivion, that the remainder of humanity settled on Jupiter's moon Titan after the Tet wiped out humanity on earth to drain the planet of its resources. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan sends Kirk (who sends Scottie) to Jupiter, where the Hex is being worked on secretly for a war. Generally speaking, Jupiter--like the Romans' equivalent father of the gods of Greek mythology Zeus--is the ruler, because Jupiter is the biggest planet and the god Jupiter was the most powerful of the (Roman) gods (and there is quite a number of films based on mythology and ancient Greco-Roman culture being released, so we can't forget that link); Jupiter the planet usually symbolizes rulers/kings, which is why Dante, in Paridiso, places the Just Rulers in the realm of Jupiter. We could say, that Jupiter might be symbolic of America because we are (or, were, rather) a super-power and the most powerful country in the world the way Jupiter is the biggest planet. My point is, we are seeing a pattern established with Jupiter, so we should take note and keep track.
Will and Jaden Smith star in After Earth, which--in some ways--might be like Cowboys and Aliens and The Host in combining elements of Westerns (the uncharted expanse of the wild Earth) and outer space (they reside on a planet light years away from Earth). We might also see the same with Riddick (Vin Diesel).
This dialogue is in no way concluded, but I felt we needed to have a moment to converse about this as it will be imperative to understanding films being released in the very near future, and our immediate conversation on Star Trek Into Darkness.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner