Monday, January 24, 2011

Kevin Costner on the Dilemma of the Western Movie

Kevin Costner was interviewed in the Sunday L.A. Times yesterday and he had some memorable comments about why it's been so difficult to make Western movies nowadays. The discussion began with his comments on making Dances with Wolves (1993) for $16 million. Can you imagine making Dances with Wolves today and what it would cost? The shot below, by the way, is the only scene in the movie that was made with CGI, according to Costner.

Anyway, here is the question and his answer on the Western movie:

And this year "True Grit" is considered one of the year's best films. Why do you think Americans seem to be so ambivalent about the genre?

Because mostly they're not done well. It was a very complicated time, and filmmakers tend to simplify them with the black hat, white hat. When they were enjoying their largest acceptance back in the '50s and '60s, [filmmakers] just got lazier and lazier. When they're done really well, there's a lot of dilemma because the way you and I live, if someone threatens us, there are three or four different layers that we can go to — the police, our politics, our PR person, our agent, our lawyer — to arbitrate our problems. Back then you had nobody to arbitrate your problems, and very often you found yourself even against the law because it's not a cliché for the lawman to have been bought back then. If somebody came and wanted your property, you had to make up your mind quickly. Very few of us have those instincts now about how we would behave. And so if you can create those in your story — the dilemma that men and women faced — then they can be incredibly entertaining.

Your thoughts, please. I tend to agree with him.

You can read the entire interview here.

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Travis Erwin said...

Add me to the agreement list.

Cap'n Bob said...

Mike Nevins observed that the Western is not about the Old West but about modern times told in Western costumes. I agree.

Ron Scheer said...

Frank Rich has a good essay on the new TRUE GRIT vs THE SOCIAL NETWORK in the NY Times. He makes similar observations.

The frontier was for a period of time a place where despite the code of the west, people had to make do without (uncorrupted) law enforcement. The individual had to look out for himself and his own interests. Access to firearms was regarded as a necessity.

Despite how things have changed, as Costner points out, there are many who still have that Old West mentality and feel vulnerable without having guns handy. Some things don't change.

Deka Black said...

Add to me with Travis

Ed Hulse said...

I think the movie Western -- if well done -- is on the cusp of a real revival. Not the periodic blip in interest generated by the occasional TOMBSTONE or OPEN RANGE, but a bonafide, sustained resurgence of interest.

We can argue about whether it's a good idea for Arizonians to be packing heat these days, but the reality is that many Americans feel -- however amorphously or indefinably -- that we're losing that part of our essential character typically if not always overtly celebrated in Westerns: rugged individualism. We see this discontent at least partially in the inchoate opposition to statist policies that seek to remake America's image in the likeness of Western Europe. More and more people are coming to believe that our national identity is eroding by a tiny, almost imperceptible measure with each passing day. The current zeitgeist reveals -- at least to me -- an unsettled populace that, on a subconscious level, is struggling to remain upright in the face of hurricane-force winds of change. (Some folk might call this tilting at windmills.) The mythological Old West lost much of its cultural cachet decades ago, but it has never entirely vanished from the American psyche; it has merely receded into the background only to emerge periodically.

Many if not most Americans feel powerless before these winds of change, so it's to be expected that some will take comfort in the enduring myths of the Old West: the fundamentally optimistic pioneer spirit, the deeply ingrained belief in self-reliance, and the concept that following the law to the letter does not always put one on the path to justice.

The movie business is cyclical, and I suspect the critical and commercial success of TRUE GRIT will generate another wave of Western movies, some likely built around grizzled but fiercely independent protagonists of dubious character. The wave's size, strength, and longevity will depend upon how well made those movies are, and how closely they track the nation's current mood.

Barry Traylor said...

An interesting article (thanks for the link) which I will read tomorrow when I have time. As much as I enjoyed Dances With Wolves I'm still trying to forgive him for what he did to The Postman, which is one of my favorite David Brin SF novels.

Laurie Powers said...

I tend to agree with Ed for the most part. But if movies are cyclical, then why did we not get a wave of Westerns after UNFORGIVEN won Best Picture? Or were there a wave of movies that I just didn't notice?

While I hope that TRUE GRIT will be influential in that way, I'm thinking that studios are still going to be cagey about committing to Westerns. It's going to take several TRUE GRITs, I think, to get them back on the bandwagon. The fact that TRUE GRIT has already made $133 million is astounding. Like I've been trying to tell everyone since this movie came out, it's NOT about whether the movie is as good as the original. THAT'S NOT THE POINT. THE POINT IS TO GET PEOPLE TO START WATCHING WESTERNS AGAIN and this one is a good place to get people engaged again. And thank God the Coen brothers stepped up to the plate because people will go see a Coen brothers movie. Let's all hope the momentum continues.

Ed Hulse said...

To Laurie's question: I'm guessing we didn't see a wave of Westerns after UNFORGIVEN because the zeitgeist was different. While it's true that genre movies run in cycles, conditions in the culture have to be favorable to revivals. For example, the transatlantic flights of Charles Lindbergh (in 1927) and Amelia Earhart (1928) were instrumental in launching a wave of aviation movies in the late '20s. There had been movies about aviation and aviators before, but headline-grabbing feats such as Lindbergh's captured the public's imagination. That, in turn, persuaded Hollywood that films about flyers would be good box office.

It remains to be seen if TRUE GRIT is an anomaly like UNFORGIVEN or the beginning of a new cycle. I happen to think the latter is true. I also agree that the quality of the new Westerns will be, you should pardon the expression, paramount in determining how large the wave grows and how far it sweeps across the pop-culture mainland. New Westerns have been made all along, but most are shoddy productions that go straight to video. To this day many film buffs remain unaware that Chris Coppola (Nic Cage's brother and Francis Ford Coppola's nephew) made a Hopalong Cassidy film in 1999. The picture was such a low-budget piece of crap that uncle Francis was asked to help make it even remotely marketable. (I'm told that, among other things, he called in a favor and got Martin Sheen, who appears with Robert Carradine in wraparound footage that frames the main story.) It was released on video as GUNFIGHTER. And that's just one example. I've seen and reviewed other recently made Westerns that, swear to God, looked like home movies or student films.

Walker Martin said...

I see that TRUE GRIT has received 10 Oscar nominations, second behind only THE KING'S SPEECH 12 nominations. Only good can come from all this attention to a western film(I hope).