The White Cowboys

The iconic buttes of Monument Valley, AZ have been pictured in many western movies.

Non Stop Western Movies

A few months ago, back in the dead of winter, I found myself holed up in Southern Utah taking public assistance for a couple of weeks. As a result I had no control over what I watched on TV.  This wasn’t a bad thing really, for I got a chance to watch a whole bunch of western movies, mostly from the 50s. Not only did I enjoy viewing the films, but also, I learned something about moviemaking and storytelling.

The Movies

The movies I watched were Gun Glory (1957), The Last Wagon(1956), The Cattle King(1963), Fort Dobbs(1958), The Jayhawkers(1959), The Marauders(1955), The Sheepman(1958) and McLintock(1963). All except McLintock and the Cattle King  were made in the 50s and McLintock differed significantly from the rest because it was a comedy, even though John Wayne starred as George Washington McLintock, the eccentric cattle baron. More about that particular film later.

A Common Theme?

What struck me most about the 50s Westerns was how quickly and easily the main characters changed partners. Even death of a spouse was often the catalyst for these changes. For example in the Jayhawkers, Fess Parker plays a man, just escaped from prison, who is headed home. Only problem is the woman in the house is not his wife, as she is buried nearby. No problem, for the moviemakers, because the homesteader, Nicole Maurey, ends of spending the entire film with Fess, as they try to find justice against the gangs of marauding men that are terrorizing the Kansas territory.

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara  during the filming of McLintock.

John Wayne In a Comedy

For the 50s movies, this seems to be a common theme among these Westerns, at least the ones reviewed in this article. Only with the sixties films of McLintock and The Cattle King, did I detect a more normal relationship between man and woman. The story of McLintock revolves around a powerful western couple, played by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and their humorous escapades, as they try to reconcile their differences.

What’s Going On Here

The rugged reality of life in the Old West is definitely at work in a lot of these Westerns. The dangers were real, life was hard, and men and women could die suddenly for no logical reason. When tragic events like this did occur, survival may have quickly necessitated the relocation with a new partner of the opposite sex.

The Wars of the 40s and 50s

From 1942 till 1953, the U.S. went through two costly military conflicts. World War II was by the far the most deadly, but we should not forget the 50,000 soldiers, who perished in the Korean Conflict. Perhaps, some of the resulting turmoil on the home front is reflected in the Western movies that were being made in Hollywood.

Tom Mix was one of the first Hollywood cowboys

The White Cowboy

For just about all of our cinematic history, the Cowboy has been white. Mel Brooks put a crack in this myth with his landmark satire, Blazing Saddles, but even today, the hero of the Western tends to a white male mounted on horseback. Basically, the conquest of the West was told by the victor. Many good movies have been made using these parameters, but there still remains other stories out there that could be successfully brought to the silver screen, both real and fictional, or somewhere in between.

 

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A Rocky Mountain Oscars: Al Sharpton Is At It Again

The Grand Tetons in winter make for a majestic skyline, photo by NPS
The Grand Tetons in winter make for a majestic skyline, photo by NPS

“Hollywood is like the Rocky Mountains, the higher up you get the whiter it gets and this year’s Academy Awards will be yet another Rocky Mountain Oscar,” said Sharpton.

State of Affairs In Tinseltown

Even though Al Sharpton let loose with this zinger over a month ago, the sentiments in this sentence have taken on a life of their own and now with the Oscars just around the corner, (tomorrow night to be exact) many folks are talking about the “whiteness of the upcoming Oscars”.  In fact, as things stand now, this presentation of awards, could be greatly overshadowed by the lack of minority participation. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised if most major news outlets, cover the 2016 Oscar Awards from Sharpton’s viewpoint. Since the real-life event is just over 24 hours away, not only will we soon be aware of the new winners, but also we will know just how this whole scene plays out in the eyes of the national press.

Several years ago, Al Sharpton appeared on SNL in a short skit satirizing lack of racial diversity on the popular TV program.
Several years ago, Al Sharpton appeared on SNL in a short skit satirizing lack of racial diversity on the popular TV program.

Al Sharpton’s Wit

“Bush said after Sept. we have to go and get bin Laden. Yet he can’t find bin Laden. He can’t find bin Laden, he can’t find the weapons. Now we’ve got to take pride that Saddam Hussein is still alive; we can’t find him.  Now I promise you that if I am elected, President Bush will not be in charge of the bureau of missing persons.” Al Sharpton 2003

With many Movie and TV appearances, plus numerous involvements in various political events, Al Sharpton has been in the public eye for a long time. Over the course of time, what stands out is his lucid and biting wit. Perhaps, one of the most vivid examples of Sharpton’s skill at satire, comes from his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2003, when he lauded George W.’s inability to locate bin Laden and even though his run for the White House did not go very far, he did gain an appearance on SNL. In fact, looking back over the years, it may be that Al Sharpton’s innate gift for ridicule and satire is his most popular attribute. Certainly, his recent comment on the Oscars emphasizes this skill.

The 2016 Oscars

By chance, two of the major 2016 films competing for awards, are set in the snow-covered Rocky Mountains of the western USA. Though I have not actually seen The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, I do know that both films are stories from the 19th century high mountain West and do contain many snowy scenes, shot at higher altitudes. In fact, these two snowy Westerns may be competing for Best Picture and various other awards. By the secondhand accounts that I have read, The Revenant, which is based on a gruesome true story, may win out, but we won’t know for sure until Monday night. Personally, having worked in High Rockies, as a ski lift operator, I am intrigued by this outcome and I do hope to see both these movies sometime soon. Please keep in mind that this year’s criticism is not necessarily misplaced….as it is also possible that one or even both of these films could turn out to be epic and iconic films of the 21st century.

Russell Means playing Chingachgook in the Last of the Mahicans
Russell Means playing Chingachgook in the Last of the Mahicans

The Sad State of the Native America Cinema

It is also important to note that the above criticism does not solely apply to the African-American community, as there are similar situations throughout the Non-white population, especially among Native Americans. At least Chinese, Asian Indian and Hispanic people have films originating in respective home countries, though having more American representation would be a good thing. For American Indians, a host of cinema releases (Pow Wow Highway, Smoke Signals, Skins (2002), Thunderheart etc.)  in the latter years of the twentieth century, seem to suffice as the latest cultural import to mainstream America. And most of these films seem centered around the Sioux nations which gave rise to the late firebrand and actor, Russell Means.

What Needs To Happen

“How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White?”  Writer/director Spike Lee

A short scene in the movie, Boyz In the Hood, may provide the positive direction in which this discussion has to go. In this 1991 hood classic, the father of the main character, has a brief discussion with some associates about the economic success of their nearby Korean residents. A the same time, he bemoans the fact that his own black community has a much tougher time with this most basic challenge of producing successful start-up businesses. Though hood dramas may be an overused cliche that current Hollywood minority actors may what to avoid, there is a lot to be said for, not only building strong financial backing, but also a network of screenwriterswriters, directors and authors that can hone raw experience into a viable entertainment product.

 

 

Tarantino’s New Movie

Quentin Tarantino's new Movie is a post Civil War Western entitled, The Hateful Eight, image from wikipedia
Quentin Tarantino’s new Movie is a post Civil War Western entitled, The Hateful Eight, image from wikipedia

The Hateful Eight

Due out next month, The Hateful Eight (sometimes printed as the H8ful Eight or The Hateful 8) is about eight persons, who take shelter in a Wyoming stagecoach stop during a raging snowstorm. Tarantino, the writer-director, claims he was influenced by such western TV programs, as Bonanza, The Virginian and The High Chaparral. This may be true, but after watching the trailer and reading a brief write-up, I can’t help but think that the 50s cinema classic, The Bus Stop, (which starred Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray) also shows some resemblance to this new release. By the way, the release date for this movie is Christmas Day, 2015.

The Controversy

The controversy that has arisen just recently, is not so much about the movie itself’, but instead, it revolves around some remarks that Tarantino made while participating in a NYC protest march concerning Police Brutality in Greenwich Village in late October. The march was organized by Black Lives Matter. It was during this march that Tarantino made the following comment to reporters; “I’m a human being with a conscience, And if you believe there’s murder going on then you need to rise up and stand up against it. I’m here to say I’m on the side of the murdered.” Since these remarks, police organizations have responded by demanding a boycott to The Hateful Eight and even promising a vague sort of unnamed surprise for Mr. Tarantino before the movie opens up in December.

Generalities Are Dangerous

My first reaction was that Mr. Tarantino should be a little bit more specific about where and when the police were accused of being involved in murder. Today, there are over 320 million American citizens and according to answers.com, over 1 million are involved in some sort of paid police work. With these kind of numbers there are bound to be some deaths, as a result of police actions…and as more recent events in Louisiana have so sadly proven, American police officers are not immune to being charged with murder. So in reality, Quentin is correct in his statement, just maybe not very tactful.

The Police Response

When I first heard about the police response on the news, I thought the organizations involved were responding to the nature of the movie. Only later did I learn that The Hateful Eight was a Western set in the late 1800s. Still, the police have every right to promote a boycott. However, the story does not stop here, for they also promised a little surprise for the Hateful Eight writer/director before the Christmas Day opening………Maybe the police organizations also need to be a little bit more specific about what their surprise might entail. Some how I don’t think it was egg nog or bread pudding.

The Biggest Irony of All

The biggest irony of all is that The Hateful Eight is a big budget movie made in one of America’s most popular film genres, the Western. I would not be at all surprised that once this movie is released, Americans from all walks of life will find their way into the theater to enjoy the film. This might even include a few police officers.

Telluride, CO is an old mining town now converted to a major ski area and tourist destination, photo from wikipedia
Telluride, CO is an old mining town now converted to a major ski area and tourist destination. It is also where The Hateful Eight was filmed., photo from wikipedia

 

The Zen of Short Scripts

The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia
The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia

Writing Features

I began writing scripts for feature length film not because I thought that it would be a good idea, but because someone else thought I had a great story for a movie. Unfortunately (or fortunately) whatever the case may be, my friend just happened to be an agent for screenplays and TV pilots. As luck would have it, he was not very successful at negotiating sales, even though he had one of his own scripts optioned and turned into a pilot. Nonetheless, I finished my first script and seeing how relatively straightforward the process was, I went ahead and put together two more. Presently, these screenplays sit in a drawer. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Some things To Consider

Will your screenplay be economical to shoot. That means no fancy special effects, no foreign locations, and the fewer scenes you have the better off you will be if and when a Hollywood executive gets to take a real look at the script. Also a smaller cast might be an advantage also. Does anyone remember The Blair Witch Project? Your concept does not have to be that bare bones, but still the remarkable and unpredictable success of this film should be noted.

Why Make A Short Film

Overall, there are many reasons why you might want to make a short film. First of all it’s cheaper. That kind of goes without saying, for making a five minute short will be a lot easier on the old budget that a feature length. On a similar note a short film does not take a lot of time to edit and involves a smaller cast and production crew. Furthermore, the short will give the director and writer more artistic freedom, so that they might undertake riskier work. Also of note, is the improving market for short films, especially with the advent of such online markets as Vevo and Youtube. And finally, if you short takes off, it could still get previewed at a high-profile film festival or even receive an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film.

The Short Film Script

Now comes the challenge of actually sitting down and writing the short script. When you do you might want to keep some of these ideas in mind. Don’t forget that a short film is usually really short, less than ten minutes with the 2 to 5 minute range being very popular, especially if are planning to put your finished product up online. Just think of a short film as the equivalent of flash fiction….that is small bite of reality that might go over well in our contemporary world of digital communications and the 30-second sound bite. And just because your little episode is short, remember that it must tell a story. This means a beginning, middle and good ending.

Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film
Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film, from wikipedia

 

 

Why Do Fairy Tales Have So Many Strong Female Leads?

Image of Cinderella from the upcoming movie
Image of Cinderella from the upcoming movie

Woman’s History Month

The month of March is Woman’s History Month. Usually, this is an event that I completely ignore, but this year due to a series of interesting blog posts around the web, I have become intrigued with the subject of not only women in filmmaking, but also the study of stories with strong female leads. As a result my blogs for the rest of this month will revolve around this emerging topic.

The Situation Today

There is a fascinating blog post over at blcklst.com (Blacklist), where the author, Terry Huang, does a comparison of movies made with female leads to those made with male leads. What is most revealing about this undertaking is that Terry does this at different budget levels and the result is not really very surprising. As the budget for a film increases so does the likelihood that the film will revolve around a central male protagonist. What is surprising here, is how this comparison falls into an almost predictable mathematical curve. For example, at the one million dollar budget level, male films outscore female films by a two-to-one ratio. However, by time one reaches the 200 million dollar budget, this ratio has increased to a 10 to 1 margin.

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time, there were many stories with strong female leads. In that bygone era, the art of storytelling was dominated by the likes of Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Gretel. And as in the case of Gretel, not all these characters liked to play nice. Take Gretel for example, who outsmarts the wicked witch that has imprisoned her and her brother and gains freedom for both herself and her less inventive brother, Hansel.

Nowadays, it seems that most of our big budget movies are not made unless there is a storyline that revolves around a strong, male protagonist. Incidentally, some recent movies have returned to the days of the Grimm Brothers to come up with a cinema feature with a strong female lead. If not for the recent releases of Snow White and the Huntsman, Frozen, Hansel and Gretel (Witchhunters) and soon-to-be-seen Cinderella, this picture would be a bit darker.

Still, 50 Shades of Gray leads the 2015 releases with the most sales. With over nine months left in the calendar year, it remains to be seen, if this will still be the case.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf as pictured in an ad by HADD (Hispanics Against Drunk Driving)
Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf as pictured in an ad by HADD (Hispanics Against Drunk Driving)

 

The Day After the Oscars

A Collage of Gowns from 2015
A Collage of Gowns from 2015

The Morning After

I woke up this morning and was surprised to learn that last night was Oscar night. I don’t think I missed very much and it came as no surprise that this years awards had the least number viewers in six years. The 2015 awards have also been criticized as the “whitest” group of nominees since 1998. Also by the looks of things, the array of colorful gowns were probably the most conservative in quite a while. A sign of the changing times……..or perhaps just coincidence. My thoughts are that one year does not make a trend. Over the past decade black actors and actresses have been fairly well represented at the podium, while their Hispanic and Asian counterparts have been much less conspicuous. And Native American participants have been almost non-existent. It’s too soon to tell if this is a trend, but if this continues over the next few years, the people who put on the show may have to do some re-thinking.

Highlights

Just from looking around the web on the morning after, the highlights can be described in one short sentence. Birdman won best picture and screenwriter, Graham Moore, gave an impassioned speech about his main subject, Alan Turing and the screenplay he wrote for the Imitation Game. Other than that the Oscars may have been more routine than usual.

Is There More Competition Out There

Naturally, the question arose in my mind about whether the increased presence of Indie films and online venues such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu is taking its toll on our much-cherished national institution. Just from what I’ve seen of Amazon Prime, I would say that there may be something to this argument. Especially, Amazon, which seems to be gearing up in a big way to possibly challenge the dominance of Hollywood……or at the very least providing a viable alternative in the way we are entertained.

Two Questionable Films

Fifty Shades of Grey is tearing up box office sales at the theater almost in the same that the story did, when it was first released in book form. However, at the Oscars, the film was kind of snubbed (though Dakota Johnson did get to present an award). Besides being snubbed the film has been attacked as being misogynistic and misguided. There have even been boycott efforts, but these appear to have little effect, as the film is still the number one grossing film in its second week at the box office. However, 50 Shades did receive support from one star, Julie Andrews, who said she didn’t mind a red room of pain. (really)

And the other source of controversy is the recently released action/thriller called The Kingsman, in which there is a scene, where the head of a black president explodes. Critics here point out that the resemblance to our current Commander-in-Chief is way too close even if it is, just a movie.

It seems to be that a close look at these two questionable films may be symptomatic as to why Hollywood may have a problem with the content and overall caliber of its product. Only time will tell.

 

M104: The Sombrero Galaxy  Image Data: NASA, ESO , NAOJ, Giovanni Paglioli - Processing: R. Colombari
M104: The Sombrero Galaxy
Image Data: NASA, ESO , NAOJ, Giovanni Paglioli – Processing: R. Colombari

 

 

Two Offbeat American Holidays…..Back To Back

A Super Bowl stadium collaged with two images depicting Groundhog Day
A Super Bowl stadium collaged with two images depicting Groundhog Day

Winter

Winter is 13 weeks long….and depending where you live – this can be a short 13 weeks or a very long thirteen weeks. Also part of the equation is whether you enjoy outdoor winter sports……or not. For an avid skier, a warm winter with no snow can make for a very long winter and an economically bad season, as well, especially…. if he or she happens to be employed with the ski industry. However, for the most of the rest of us, it is a long ways from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. Perhaps, this explains why there are so many joyous holiday within this time period. Without Christmas, New Years Day, Valentines Day and St. Patrick’s Day, this quarter of the year would be a whole lot, less bearable.

Midwinter

Strangely enough,  two of our most offbeat holidays occur right at the midwinter mark. In fact, this year they fall on consecutive days. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m talking about Super Bowl Sunday and Groundhogs Day, which just happen to respectively occur on the first and second day of February. The combination of the two just might maks for a great way to revel in the fact that winter is half over.

Bad Year For the NFL

A recent news story about the jurors in the Aaron Hernandez trial illustrates just how low the NFL has fallen during the current season. Judy Garsh, judge for the Hernandez trial, has ruled that the jurors can watch the Super Bowl, only if the name of Aaron Hernandez is not mentioned. And, if one of the newscasters has a slip of the tongue, then the unlucky viewers will  have to turn the game off. Now that’s bizarre. Combine this situation with all the sex abuse allegations and the recent deflate-gate controversy surrounding the Patriots victory over the Colts and it becomes quite clear that the NFL commissioners (and many fans as well) with have very good reason to celebrate Groundhogs Day on Monday. Yeah!!!! the season’s finally over.

A Cult Movie Accents an Offbeat Holiday

Look through the comedy section of any movie DVD store (or online site) and you will see hundreds of listings with catchy titles that fail to deliver. Strangely enough, one of the perennial favorites is Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. When first released in 19992, the movie was well received and got favorable reviews. Since then the film has grown in stature, so that nowadays, the popular fantasy fare is consistently listed as one of the top ten comedies and sometimes even included as one of the ten best films ever. So if you have yet to see this film, you might want to give it a viewing. And if one of the announcers slips up and mentions Aaron Hernandez’s name, you can show solidarity with the 18 jurors and turn off the sports contest and put on the groundhog movie.