As previously mentioned, I’ve been asked quite a few times why I decided to write a western. Even old pals were left scratching their heads. Not only a western, a traditional western, featuring a gunslinger who might have been played by Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott.
As some of you know, I also keep a film blog. I spent most of the last couple of days composing a lengthy personal essay on my love of western movies. I think the piece perfectly sums up my attraction for the genre and I hope you’ll click on this link, pop over and give it a read. I don’t often write non-fiction of this length but I’m really pleased by how this piece came out.
Don’t be shy about contributing your thoughts, opinions and reminiscences, perhaps offer your own roster of all time faves.
Always looking for tips on great films…
Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant. These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades. Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them. Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit. Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody. Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter. Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?
Never in hell. I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid. A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.
This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.
“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”
“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”
“Only the chapter I had to.”
“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”
“That was half decent.”
“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”
And so on. Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.
What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store? Waiting for the rain to subside? I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?
* * * * *
I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles. It’s getting scary. We’re running out of space. Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand. I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles? How much can she get for all these fucking books?
And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans. If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.
Or perhaps not. It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore. I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch. Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…
Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that, well, nuts?
It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.
I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder. When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.
Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that. The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess. That’s it.
Pitiful, ain’t it?
But, of course, it isn’t just books. I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it. I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending. Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.
No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control. Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals. Thanks, kids!
We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling. The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down? That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational. It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity. The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.
I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old. Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days. I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist. Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.
I’ve been a reader all my life. Forty years with my nose in books. Books have always offered me comfort and consolation. In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality. As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today. I would be one of them: mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.
All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.
A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage. Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.
New and old enthusiasms: Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice. It goes on and on…
When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)? How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words? Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?
Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.
How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years? Two hundred? Three hundred? The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…
I’m a sick man. Addicted to the printed word. Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically. Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy. How could I have missed them? Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.
The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.
Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there. Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant. A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.
Photos by Sherron Burns
But here’s the thing: The Last Hunt is a western.
You heard me. I’m talking about hard-bitten gunslingers, tall, wide vistas, ornery horses, evil black hats, the whole bit.
Oh, sure, you say, but it’ll be like some kinda weird Cormac McCarthy hybrid, right? A whacked out, modernistic take on the Wild West, standing the entire genre on its head.
Nope, nope and…nope.
Y’see, I happen to love westerns. I don’t look down on the genre, relegate it to second-class status. I grew up watching Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies. I enjoy reading the novels of Elmer Kelton and Richard S. Wheeler. They’re superb writers, regardless of categories and classifications.
I’m saddened by the cinematic decline of the western—the last truly great cowboy flick I saw was “The Long Riders”, made back in 1980. “The Unforgiven” (1992) was a decent movie but far too earnest and over-long. “The Long Riders” was the shit.
And since then there’ve been remakes and abominations like “Young Guns”—westerns by people who’ve never been near a horse in their lives and whose knowledge of the Old West is, put kindly, superficial. Hollywood has tried to update westerns, reinvent them with big name stars and budgets that would make even Michael Cimino swoon…but they’ve lost the spirit. Sam Peckinpah and John Ford had a real grasp of those who pioneered the land west of the Mississippi, their contrary natures, the sort of valor and resolution Alan LeMay refers to in a quote that precedes his classic novel, The Searchers:
“These people had the kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.”
In the course of writing The Last Hunt, by pure chance I happened across a reproduction of a William R. Leigh painting called “The Warning Shadow”. It was another one of those too-amazing-to-be-a-coincidence moments (and I should know, I’d had a few of them). The image was perfect for my book—but I had a dickens of a time tracking down who owned the rights. Finally, I was put in touch with the Rockwell Museum of Western Art (in Corning, New York) and Bobby Rockwell helped me secure permission to use the painting. Mr. Leigh’s artworks are highly prized, very collectible and I’m honored to have “The Warning Shadow” on my cover.
The cover accompanying this post is, I hasten to say, a mere mockup…but it gives you a fair idea of what to expect. Once our designer, Chris Kent, has a crack at it, the cover will look even better.
As for plot details, er, I think I’ll keep that to myself for now. When it gets closer to publication date I’ll be more forthcoming. Hoping the novel will be popular with fans of the western genre as well as people who just love a fast, entertaining read. Like my last two novels, I think The Last Hunt has a lot of cross-over appeal, the potential to draw a wide variety of readers.
I’ve spent the past three weeks going through the second draft and I like what I’m seeing. It’s a short novel, around 50,000 words, and it moves along at an exciting clip. Good, solid protagonist and memorable supporting players. By the time this book is released in the late fall, it’s gonna hum.
So stay tuned, check in every once in awhile for updates and further developments. Maybe even an excerpt or two, just to whet your appetite.
Yeah, I know, a western. But, trust me, it’s a helluva tale…
Well, cinephiles, the news isn’t good. An article penned by Neil Smith for the BBC website previews some of the big releases and most-hyped films of 2010 and it’s enough to make any serious film-goer weep in despair.
“The prevailing trend, ” Mr. Smith concludes gloomily, “is towards established film titles from yesteryear given a hi-tech makeover.”
So we can expect more updates and reinventions, the character names familiar but the faces different, with a budget rumoured at around a hundred mill. Let’s see, just off the top of my head I recall movies based on “The Dukes of Hazzard”, “Get Smart”, “The Avengers”, “Miami Vice”, “Bewitched”, “Charlie’s Angels”, “Starsky & Hutch”; in terms of remakes there’s “War of the Worlds” and “Day the Earth Stood Still”, “3:10 to Yuma”, “The Pink Panther”, “The Longest Yard” and, coming soon to your theater, a nastier rebooting of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. We have sequels and prequels…and even the great Ray Harryhausen isn’t immune to pale imitation: the new “Clash of The Titans”, helmed by Luc Besson protege Louis Leterrier, premieres in Canada in March.
And it would be negligent of me not to mention the highly anticipated “A Team” movie, which promises to be even better than the original series.
I’ve written previously of my absolute loathing for JJ Abrams’ take on “Star Trek”. I thought it utterly vapid, not to mention incoherent. “Star Trek XI” barely bothered paying lip service to the original, JJ resorting to bottom-fishing Leonard Nimoy in a vain attempt to lend the abomination some small measure of legitimacy (he failed). The mega-success of that film bewilders me–is the government putting something in the drinking water to make us dumb? Was that crazy guy standing behind me at Tramp’s Records down in Regina right and the H1N1 vaccine is a plot by Barack Obama to enslave our minds?
Let us not forget (I certainly can’t), the top grossing film in 2009 was, wait for it…”The Transformers”.
And (the good news just keeps coming) if the present trend continues, Jimmy Cameron will easily top his “Titanic” tally, “Avatar” already pulling in over a billion bucks from people who like their movies big, loud, pretty and predictable.
I get a monstrous headache when I ponder what all of this bodes for the future of film. Have we reached the creosote at the bottom of the barrel or–
Holy fuck, the Rock as a hockey enforcer and (ulp) tooth fairy? You gotta wonder what the pitch was like for that one. And if the guy who gave it the green light was over-medicated that day. Maybe it was a total whim, a desperate writer, his ideas shot down one by one, goes for broke and tosses out the first stupid thing that comes to mind. “There’s a hockey goon, see, and he’s somehow cursed and has to take over as tooth fairy…”
But what’s a budding screen writer supposed to do? Nobody’s buying “high concept” these days and who wants to wait around three or five or ten years to get funding through some indie? Fuck that. Everyone knows a writer’s life blood is development dough. Milk that tit dry, baby! And all but the terminally moronic have heard the news: producers and film execs aren’t looking for anything original or different and any agent who wants to keep his “A List” contacts isn’t going to champion a script that’s literate, low-key, thoughtful and utterly lacking explosions and eye-catching CGI effects.
Not when there are old ideas still to be resurrected, a rich vein of nostalgia to be ruthlessly exploited. By wunderkinds like Abrams and Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. Comic book fans and video game junkies. They don’t read anything that doesn’t come with colour illustrations. Not the sort who are interested in niceties like character development and well-rendered, believable dialogue, silences that speak volumes.
And apparently neither are you.
You’ve seen many of the films I’ve just named, haven’t you? And when the end credits rolled, you didn’t feel the slightest bit enlightened or ennobled by anything you’d just seen in the preceding 104 minutes. You know what you’re doing, don’t you? You’re padding the box office receipts of garbage films, encouraging the Hollywood mill to churn out yet more garbage. Charmless, superficial, derivative drek. Berke Breathed, that old curmudgeon, wrote about the sensawunda that is missing from films these days and I couldn’t agree more. Two hundred million bucks worth of state of the art special effects don’t amount to a hill of horseshit if your story is thin, trite and cliched. Sorry, Mr. Cameron.
But most film-goers (apparently) couldn’t care less. So what if “Cloverfield” was just a tarted up “Godzilla” flick? Big deal if “300” is historically inaccurate. They lined up in the driving rain for an hour to see “Star Trek” and will happily, uncomplainingly plunk down forty or fifty bucks when the “special ultimate limited edition” of “Avatar” is released this summer, with hours of bonus footage and deleted scenes and alternate endings and–
Okay, sorry I’m coming across so smug and morally superior. After all, Mr. Trekkie here just had to see “XI”, didn’t he, even if it was only to confirm it was as bad as I feared (actually, it was far worse).
But that was an aberration. Something completely out of character for me. Usually I resist the blandishments of the ads and trailers and ignore the well-meaning twits who say “well, I thought it was different from the usual stuff”. People inured to the eye candy and mindless, adolescent shite that pollutes theatres and the “New release” section of local movie stores, reducing a once-great art form to utter pap.
The “Star Trek” movie was merely confirmation of what I already knew. I don’t fit the demographic of contemporary film-goers. I have pubic hair and a real job; a life. I left that movie feeling like I’d been swindled by a particularly graceless and inept con man. The plot was ridiculous, it made no sense and, again, it made gazillions. I just don’t get it. These films, the remakes and sequels that show up week after week, are completely devoid of personality and any nuances or dashes of fine detail are entirely computer generated. What’s the appeal, folks? Why are you so averse to films that make you think?
Fuck the new “Sherlock Holmes” film, even if Guy Ritchie is directing. Especially if Guy Ritchie is directing. Here’s a guy with some talent (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”), participating in the utter rubbishing of one of the great characters in English literature. I’m a fan of the stories, I’m a huge fan of Jeremy Brett’s sublime interpretation of the master detective and I will not be seeing this new version. Transforming the cerebral sleuth into an action hero is an act of artistic heresy. For his crimes against the canon, Ritchie should be burned atop a pile of Madonna albums.
Okay, Mr./Ms. Average film-goer, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to repeat after me:
I am hereby declaring myself immune to hype and vital marketing campaigns; I will sneer at the latest franchise film, scoff at the laughably glowing reviews it receives from idigdumbmovies.com or KCLR Radio Topeka.
“The #1 Movie of the Summer!”
“The motion picture event of the year!”
“The Best Movie Ever!”
Sorry, we’ve hear that before, haven’t we?
It’s been many years since I’ve been the slightest bit interested in partaking of the latest “must see” film. I avoid the new stuff, instead plunge into the stacks, the “catalogue” movies. Making forays into Saskatoon and pillaging their main library. Finding films and checking them off my list. Old noir, classics of every genre, every era. The kind of titles that are gradually being weeded out of local rental shops to make space for 50 copies of “Spiderman 6” or an entire wall devoted to the “Laverne & Shirley: The Movie”. And I use the wonders of technology, go on-line and track down the movies I’ve heard about, yearned to see for years, decades: Murnau and Fellini and Dreyer and Clouzot; foreign and silent films, cult curios, visual melodies and meditations assembled and spliced from the zeitgeist.
It’s hard to turn up Monte Hellman films these days (try it sometime)…good Lord, someone’s selling some old Herzog flicks on eBay…and here’s my hero, Orson Welles, snippets from “Filming Othello” broadcast on YouTube . I watch them all and then seek out the Micheál Macliammóir film diary Welles alludes too. It’s wonderful , as well.
Recently I secured a copy of the remastered Criterion edition of “M”. And it’s high time I watched my VHS copy of King Vidor’s “The Crowd” again…
There is more craft, thought and artfulness put into either of those efforts than any flick released in the past ten years. Maybe longer. Isn’t that something? And they’re both at least 80 years old.
The auteurs like Lang and Vidor have died off or grown old. That image I have of Kurosawa, lying in his coffin, one of his longtime collaborators putting flowers between his toes to hide the bits blackened by frostbite. From the years spent outside, stalking about cold sets, making sure everything was exactly right. Now that’s an artist.
The new kids have it easy. They don’t even have to go outside. Green screen the actors and add in the sets, backdrops post-production. Perk up the tits on the leading lady while you’re at it, will ya, boys? The present breed write with laptops, instead of their hearts and souls. One eye on the box office, ever eager to please their corporate masters. Up to and including shooting a new ending for their labour of love, should a test audience of retards grade it too low…