If I only read critics with whom I agreed, I’d have sold my copy of A Terry Teachout Reader long ago. Teachout has pissed me off more times than I can count, but he’s so tough-minded, funny, and smart that I can’t resist him. His pieces are good reading even after the art under discussion has been long forgotten. His interests are broad and his tastes tend to be more aesthetically conservative than mine, and it’s this sophisticated clash against my perspective that makes me love him so much.
Sometimes, though, he goes batshit crazy. In the new issue of American Cowboy, Teachout ostensibly writes a love letter to American Westerns. Fine. I haven’t seen any many Westerns as I’d like to, and haven’t liked most of the ones I’ve been told are classics. I could use a fresh perspective on what makes them tick and so beloved by generations of viewers.
Here, though, the Western is just a prop. My bullshit-o-meter started buzzing on the first sentence: “Watching Westerns can be a lonely business when you live, as I do, on the Upper West Side of New York City, the capital of Blue America.”
This is smug—the capitalization of “Blue America,” the quick-and-easy equation of Manhattan with liberalism, the sense of victimhood (“Why, oh why, am I the only one who likes this genre?”) I can deal with honest laments about the lack of Westerns in contemporary film, and maybe even a good, intelligent essay about what that says about American culture.
What I can’t stand is smugness or shrillness. Teachout’s essay has both in spades…
The second paragraph contains the following phrase: “Film Forum, the temple at which New York-based worshippers of the Movie of High Art gather regularly.” Worshippers? Do they wear tinfoil hats and drink Kool-Aid? Teachout rails that he knows no women who will admit to liking Westerns, except for his saintly mother. He quotes a professor who says that his students had never seen a John Wayne movie. He gets a lot of mileage out of the idea that classic Westerns are loved outside of that bastion of liberal sentiment known as New York City. The tagline for the essay, which he, admittedly, probably didn’t write, is “The classic shoot-’em-up—so readily embraced in the heartland—confronts a different crowd when it comes riding into the big city.” The message is clear: New York art-seekers, those raving liberals, are too sophisticated and too relativist to appreciate the strong moral sentiment present in the Western genre. He goes on:
“In the classic Western, anyone old enough to carry a gun is assumed to be a responsible being who understands that the inability of mere mortals to be wholly good doesn’t make right and wrong interchangeable. The existence of shades of gray does not presuppose the nonexistence of black and white.”
Fair enough, and a good point. But the next paragraph kills my goodwill:
“I can’t begin to tell you how unpopular this point of view is among those New York intellectuals who hold that nothing is anyone’s fault and nobody is expected to take the rap for anything (except perhaps admitting at a cocktail party to having voted for George W. Bush). If I had to sum up in a couplet the moral attitudes of most of my fellow Upper West Siders, it’d be this one, from West Side Story‘s “Gee, Officer Krupke”: “We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood/ Deep down inside us there is good!” Maybe so, but what matters in the Western is what you do, not what you say, and those who do bad things are bad guys, period.”
Oh dear. Just like those “worshippers” who apparently flock unquestioningly to Film Forum, “those New York intellectuals” are unnamed. Of course. It’s easier to cast a swath of aspersions on a group of people when you don’t have to actually identify them, or write about them as if they’re thinking, complex humans. I don’t live in New York, but I doubt anybody’s moral philosophy (well, anyone over sixteen) can be summed up by a line from a Broadway musical. Teachout probably understands this, so he makes up a few bad lines of his own: “[Westerns] remind us not merely that evil exists but that it can be overcome. In the concrete canyons of my adopted home range, by contrast, heroes are old-fashioned and evil a matter of opinion. How could anyone who feels that way possibly enjoy Rio Bravo?”
Two months ago, I spent a week in New York, walking in museums and in parks on the Upper East and West Sides. Here’s a quick sampling of what I heard: a fierce argument about the state of Israel in Central Park; a youth choir praising the love of Jesus in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; gasps in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as people were astonished by the inherent sweetness and light of Italian paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. In other parts of New York, I experienced kindness. At the Second Avenue Deli at 10th Street, a kindly waiter gave me a newspaper when he saw I was seated alone. Browsing through the comics at Jim Hanley’s Universe, I heard a couple heatedly arguing local politics and their intended effects on the city. I was a tourist, sure, but there didn’t seem to be a dearth of understanding about good and evil in New Yorkers.
Since Teachout invokes a parent to garner easy sympathy, I’ll do it, too. My father also has a strong, rigid sense of morality. He really believes that the Bush Administration is a force of evil in the world, that it’s rolling back the progress and racial reconciliation that have been made over the last 40 years. He’s no Marxist, but he’s left-of-center, and he’s certainly no relativist.
He also loves John Wayne. Half of his DVD collection is devoted to Westerns. Westerns, old war movies, and sports (in roughly that order) are basically all he watches on TV.
Another story: My brother L. is the product of an interracial union between my mother and my stepfather. So, he’s half-black, he’s urban (He grew up, as I did, in Dallas.), he’s pretty liberal, and he attends a small, elite liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas. He’s probably seen Lonesome Dove upwards of a dozen times, and he always, always, always cries at the end. L. wears cowboy boots and a $200 cowboy hat, rides horses, and spent last summer working on a ranch outside of Oxford, Mississippi. City boys—well, at least, one of ‘em—find their way to Westerns when they want to.
But it’s not easy. Despite that insipid tagline, Westerns aren’t readily embraced by the heartland. I was an active, adventurous filmgoer when I lived in Dallas, and I don’t remember hearing about a Western revival of any sort. That’s one thing in Manhattan; it’s another thing entirely in a city where many men wear cowboy hats un-ironically, and in a place that’s a 45-minute drive from a city (Fort Worth) where there are operating stockyards and slaughterhouses. The State Fair of Texas, held in Dallas, has a three-story-tall figure looming over the fairgrounds. His name is Big Tex, and he’s a smiling cowboy shining beatifically in the sun. Texas is a firm Red State, whatever that means. If Dallas won’t support a Western revival, no place will.
I now live in Jackson, Mississippi, also a Red State. Presumably, it’s a town sympathetic to the “conservative” moral base of Westerns, and to its physical milieu. But no Western fests here, either. There’s clearly something more going on than a slide to moral relativism. Something else is holding the Western back.
Part of it is just geographical shift. 60 years ago, half of America still lived in rural areas. The chances were pretty good that movie audiences knew intimately the rigors and black-and-white hardships of life on the farm. Or, at least, they knew someone who did. Teachout himself connects his mom’s love of the Western with the fact that she grew up in small-town Missouri, and saw her first movies on campgrounds. No matter how romanticized a Western was, its audiences could relate to it. That’s not true anymore. Whether Teachout likes it or not, more Americans now live in places akin to New York than in places closer to his mythical, unspecified heartland.
As living in the boondocks went out of fashion, so did Westerns. That doesn’t mean that American film now lacks a clear moral landscape, but merely that Westerns have been replaced by another genre: action films. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not nearly as charismatic as John Wayne, it’s true, but the moral universe in which his movies operate is clear-cut. Good and bad, black and white, are not interchangeable in Die Hard, Spider-Man II, or Jerry Bruckheimer productions. These movies often have rigorous moral codes, and almost always have bona fide heroes. Also, as special effects have gotten more advanced, Westerns have moved outward in range. The Star Wars may be a lot of things, but it’s first and foremost a Spaghetti Western in outer space. Sure, there’s plenty of pointless nihilism in the action genre, but it’s by and large concerned with the distinctions between right and wrong. Ten times out of ten, the good guys win.
With his snide slaps at people who dismiss the genre, Teachout sets them up as moral relativists. He’s the outsider, a rare conservative critic with rigorous moral concern alongside his firm aesthetic sensibility. He’s the rebel… and the victim. This flip-flop of imperatives has become increasingly common. David Horowitz wants to pass an “Academic Bill of Rights” so that conservative viewpoints and professors will become more prominent in the classroom by fiat. (I guess conservatives like affirmative action when it can help them.) Despite control of all branches of government, the conservative pundit line is still that the media and the academic establishment are gunning for Republicans. For victims, they seem to wield an awful lot of power. For rebels, they seem to move like synchronized swimmers.
Enough. Teachout’s essay ends with the poor, resigned critic curling up on his living room couch to watch a Western, taking solace from that wicked city in which he’s chosen to live and work for the last decades:
“In my Upper West Side living room, Joel McCrea is still noble, Randolph Scott stoic, John Wayne and Gary Cooper sexy—and right different from wrong. That’s the way I like it. So does my mother.”
Boo-fucking-hoo. Teachout’s “Ballad of Old Blather” might ring more true if he were less well-connected. He writes about drama for the Wall Street Journal, movies for Crisis, music for Commentary, and dance for whoever will let him. His blog reads like a running diary of the New York arts and culture establishment. It’s supposed to—with all of the periodicals that he writes for, he’s one of the establishment’s most active members. Hell, he was recently appointed to the National Council on the Arts.
This is a man who loves John Sayles—a filmmaker who’s probably never voted for the same president as Teachout—as much as I do. This is a critic who claims to loathe postmodernism, but whose favorite movies of 2004 included both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. (He’s right about both, by the way.) Comfort with contradictions, and an inherent understanding of moral and aesthetic complexity, are significant parts of Teachout’s charm.
But this essay simplifies a much-loved genre to score dubious political points and to take cheap shots at people who think differently from him. The Western, and Teachout’s readers, deserve better than that.