Category: Arts & Entertainment

Barbarian Book Club: Movie Edition, John Ford, John Wayne, and Classic Westerns.

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Here’s a colorful portrait of John Ford during the making of “Stagecoach,” one of his three classic films released in 1939 (along with “Young Mr. Lincoln” and “Drums along the Mohawk”).

With the country in quarantine and the world in a state of viral panic I’ve decided to spend nights with my wife enjoying movies, the traditional American form of escapism. Our current era of digital streaming is wonderful for the film lover, parents, and the disease weary shut-in. While unlike my wife, I often miss the magic of the movie theater, I have to say that being able to enjoy the latest movies on my couch, glass of wine in hand, and the ability to hit the bathroom without missing anything is fantastic.

First, the 2019 film season has been the best in over a decade. Outstanding movies like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ford vs Ferrari, and Parasite being my favorite, with runner-ups like Uncut Gems, The Lighthouse, and Joker. I can’t remember a year where I liked so many big movies.

But with all the recent movies exhausted and the increasing fear and depression in the world due to the virus, I’ve gravitated to watching classic Westerns on Amazon Prime, and nobody made classic westerns like John Ford with John Wayne.

The Western is the quintessential American genre. The Western is the chivalric romance updated to the 20th century. It’s the spiritual mythology of a country on the brink of cultural domination of the world. In the 19th century Americans conquered the Frontier with bullets and railroads and in the 20th century Americans culturally conquered the world with movies, blue jeans, and capitalistic dominance.

I find the Western attractive for the same reason I find pulp fiction and medieval fantasy attractive. Strong men, strict codes of honor, beautiful but deadly environments, individualism, and an overall aesthetic that matches my romantic conservatism. So these past few days I’ve gone through some of John Fords Western Masterpieces.

John Ford with Stagecoach, is credited with making what is the first Western considered to transcend the genre and also the movie that skyrocketed John Wayne’s career. 1939’s Stagecoach was a pleasure to watch. Based on one of my favorite short stories, Ernest Haycox’s The Stage to Lordsbourg, the movie follows a group of stagecoach travelers crossing dangerous Apache territory. You have a prostitute ran out of town, a banker carrying stolen money, a whiskey peddler, a suave gambler, a classy wife of an officer, the local sheriff, foolish driver, and John Wayne’s Ringo Kidd who is an escaped convict looking to settle scores. All of these characters are thrown together on a perilous journey.

Stagecoach is storytelling perfection. The movie is filled with tension. Class tension between the passengers, the constant danger of unseen Apaches, and finally the knowledge that Ringo, if he makes it to his destination faces death at the hands of his enemies. Excellent movie.

Next up was 1950’s Wagon Master starring Ben Johnson, Harry Cary, Ward Bond, and Joanne Dru. It’s the odd movie out because it doesn’t have John Wayne and because it is fundamentally a romantic comedy with a slightly pacifist theme focused on community.

Wagon Master is the story of a group of Mormon settlers expelled out of town heading west towards the San Juan River country in Utah. They hire the two main characters, horse traders, as wagon masters to take them to their destination safely. On the difficult journey they encounter a medicine show troupe of drunken degenerates, Indians, and finally a band of murderous outlaws.

Wagon Master is a great movie, a western where the focus is on finding community, the desire to go west for a better life, and the contrast between the outlaws and the Mormons. Ward Bond plays a hard scrapping, cussing, Mormon Elder, my favorite character in the movie.

Excellent movie worth watching for its rather unique plot format, more of a series of montages instead of a linear structure, and for the positive portrayal of religious people, something rare in today’s entertainment.

1956’s The Searchers starring John Wayne is considered a masterpiece and one of the most influential films ever made. John Wayne returns to his brothers Texas homestead after fighting in the Civil War. Shortly after Comanches raid killing the family and kidnapping the two daughters. John Wayne and his adopted nephew spend the next few years tracking the Indian band across Texas and the territories.

The Searchers is a surprisingly dark movie and Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards is compelling and highly nuanced, almost to the point of being unlikable to my 21st century sensibilities. Ethan is an Ahab character, obsessed with hurting the Comanche almost more than he is obsessed with finding his niece, who might actually be his daughter.

Racism and the disgust towards miscegenation, specifically the rape of white women by the Indians, but also in the disgust one of the characters shows towards a Indian female, is one of the central themes. The rape of captives is directly implied, and even the gentle female characters show disgust at the idea of a white woman returning or wanting to live after being taken captive.

Excellent movie filmed beautifully in Utah’s Monument Valley, but somewhat darker than the others. I think this one requires another viewing in order to catch the subtler themes.

Finally 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring James Stewart and John Wayne, my wife’s favorite movie out of the four.

Liberty Valance starts with a frame narrative, James Steward as Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife return to the small frontier town of Shinbone for the funeral of an unknown man. After the local newspaper presses him about the story, Senator Ransom tells the tale of his coming to Shinbone thirty years prior and is dealings with the dead man, Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne.

The young Ransom, a freshly minted lawyer, arrives in the western territories, head filled with ideas of justice and fairness, only to find Shinbone a cesspit of crime where the citizens are at the mercy of thugs like Liberty Valance and their rich rancher bosses. John Wayne, plays Doniphan, a tough alpha rancher in love with the local waitress and critical of Ransoms idealism.

Liberty Vance is a movie that wonderfully illustrates the concept of Law vs Chaos, wild vs civilization, and the power of law and justice vs rule by might and violence. It’s a idealistic movie, one that has faith in American government and law making it somewhat tough to swallow in our cynical 21st century, but the story and acting is overall excellent. Its one fault is that it continues past what I thought should have been its logical endpoint, dragging out the ending into an unnecessary diversion.

I’m going to continue watching older movies, I’m finding the writing, pacing, and feel of classics refreshing. Most of all I enjoy the lack of cynicism and snark found in modern movies.

I think I’m going to continue Westerns into the Eastwood Era or maybe some Bogart movies. Maybe I’ll do a round of Akira Kurosawa samurai flicks.

Disney Imagineering

During our trip to Disneyland my younger brother recommended the Imagineering Story on Disney+. I enjoy behind the scene documentaries and looking into the writing process, movie-making, and other creative endeavors, so I decided to give it a try and brush up on my Disney history.

My wife and I watched the first two episodes last night. It’s an excellent documentary that takes an in depth look at the creation of Disneyland and the small team of creative geniuses who came up with all of the magic. It’s really cool seeing the creative chaos and almost manic creation that went into opening the first park. How everything was made custom, decisions happened on the spot, and everything was improvised or created from scratch.

The first episode focused on Walt Disney coming up with the Disneyland idea, getting it funded, and building the theme park in the middle of nowhere at that time, Anaheim. Interesting to look back at Disney as a small company, Orange County as a backwoods, and every Walt Disney idea as a far-flung pipe dream.

While watching these guys improvise and build this park basically by hand I was struck with the realization that Disneyland could not be built today. 1950-60s U.S. was at its peak or creativity and innovation. If Walt Disney tried to build Disneyland today he would never get past the basic pitch. The amount of red-tape, insurance, government interference, regulation, inspection, and obscene taxation, is unbelievable and insurmountable by anyone but the biggest multi-billion corporations. Opening a small restaurant or bar in California is a nearly impossible endeavor, let alone trying something like Disneyland with its massive scale and quirky innovation.

It’s sad to reflect on the fact that we live in sclerotic time, buried in bureaucratic over-regulation and creative stagnation.

OUT TODAY: Neon Harvest by Jon Mollison

Good friend of mine and solid indy writer Jon Mollison has a brand new book out today. Neon Harvest is a retrowave techno-noir set in the 80s future that could have been.

Within shadows cast by the dayglo lights of a city where the party never stops, one man finds himself at the epicenter of the biggest financial deal in history.

With massive fortunes and control of powerful industries on the line, he plunges into the tangled weave where high-stakes finance, powerful politics, and grimy criminal syndicates vie for control of the seething masses of humanity. And cutting his way free of the ties that bind forces him to choose between escape from this sordid world, and saving the girl of his dreams.

It downloaded onto my kindle earlier today and I can’t wait to dig into it in the next few days. Jon writes some great scifi and fantasy stuff and cool action stories you can find in Storyhack. Give him a read and support the awesome indy scene.

Grab a copy on Amazon and make sure to write a review when you finish.

Star Wars: It’s for kids.

It’s December 10th in the Year of our Lord 2019. In ten days the last of the new Star Wars movies comes out in theaters. Between its upcoming release and The Mandalorian birthing a deluge of Baby Yoda posts social media is overrun with Star Wars conversations so I wanted to remind everyone that no matter what, the new Star Wars will be disappointing. Why? Because Star Wars is, and always was, for children, and as an adult it will never live up to your imagined expectations, because … say it with me, Star Wars is for children.

What made the original Star Wars great is also what keeps it from replicating that magic. There is nowhere to go with a property that is aimed at children.

Unlike a lot of science fiction fans Star Wars was never my favorite. I saw all the movies on VHS growing up, went to Disneyland and rode Star Tours, played all of those awesome SNES games, and even owned the TIE simulator PC game. I went to the theaters excited about Phantom Menace, came out disappointed, and moved on, that was the last SW I bothered with. I was never a hardcore fan. I never had action figures, lunchboxes, lightsabers, or any intense emotional connection to the franchise. I enjoyed it as a kid and always looked back fondly on the movies, but I never obsessed over it.

The other night my wife decided to give The Mandalorian a try. She’s the movie and television fan in our family, I usually sit around and read while she watches Netflix or Prime shows unless it’s something that really interests me. But, The Mandalorian caught my attention and we ended up watching all of the available episodes. It’s a fun, awkwardly paced, light science fiction adventure show. Most of all, it’s a kid show put out by Disney, a company whose primary market is children.

When we finished the last available episode we decided to watch Episode IV: A New Hope. I can’t remember the last time I took the time to watch it and my wife barely remembered the plot. Luckily Disney+ has all of the Star Wars movies. Unluckily it only has the edited versions with the garish CGI additions. But, nonetheless we started watching it and I was excited. I even decided to re-watch the whole series, maybe all of it, and try to write about them.

Sadly, like a lot of things from the past, I should have let this movie live fondly in my memories. It’s a good movie, if you ignore the CGI vandalism Lucas vomited onto his own work, but it’s a movie made for 12-year old boys and I’m a 36-year old father. The acting, the plot, it’s rather cringe.  In my mind’s eye I remember Vader and the Empire being menacing. On screen the acting is stilted and the whole thing comes off campy. Luke is dweeby, Han is campy, and Fisher is a poor actress. I got sleepy and sadly gave up a bit after they left on the Millennium Falcon and never had the urge to continue.

The detailed Star Wars sci-fi epic that I imagined doesn’t exist anywhere but in my memories.  But that’s ok. Star Wars was a kid’s movie, it’s a great kid’s movie, and will always be a great kid’s movie. I outgrew it not the other way around and I believe a lot of the anger, disappointment, and failed expectations of the new material comes from adults that have forgotten how campy, cheesy, and childish the original movies are.

Back in 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out I was in High School. I remember all of the hype, significantly heavy and impressive in an era before social media. Anyone else remember the Star Wars pogs at Taco Bell? Either way, we went to the theater as a family, and of course, like most people I was disappointed in it. It was childish, stupid, filled with dumb CGI characters like Jar Jar and those dumb droids. It felt like a kids movie and my snobby high school self was into serious stuff like punk rock and Tolstoy. My brother, who is 10 years younger than me absolutely loved it. Why? Because it was a movie made for him. Even the main character, Anakin, was his age. Because Star Wars is for kids.

So, if you go watch the new Star Wars in theaters, or bother with The Mandalorian, take a minute to remember that it’s not for you. It’s for children.

I Put the Book Down

I’m on vacation. A much needed vacation. Much needed for my wife who bared the brunt of the unpacking, decorating, and taking care of the baby, while I was in Malaysia.

Yesterday she went hiking with her friend, so me and the baby had the day to ourselves. I decided a trip to B&N followed by In’N’Out would keep us entertained. It doesn’t take much to keep her entertained.

I like B&N. I like all of the big corporate bookstores. I like them more than small, dirty, dusty, hipster bookstores filled with snobby douche bags who often have poor taste. It was after all a hipster chick employee that gushingly recommended The Name of the Wind, the shittiest fantasy novel I’ve ever forced myself to finish.

I like getting coffee, walking around a large clean store, looking at things, picking up books, thumbing through coffee table art and gardening magazines, buying cookbooks. It’s all pleasantly middle class.

When I was in high school and had a car I used to ditch school a lot. I would wake up in the morning, get dressed, say goodbye to my family, and drive towards school. A few blocks from school I would take a hard right and drive to the beautiful two storied Borders Books. I would get some coffee and spend the day on the second floor reading, sometimes for eight or nine hours straight. My senior year I must have read over one hundred books. I got a F in English.

So yesterday I was thumbing through the Literature section, on the second floor of B&N. My usual bookstore leisurely pace was somewhat hampered by having to entertain an inquisitive ten month old, but it was a good time.

One of the employees came by to meet my baby, young girl, really nice. She brought her a cute fox book and asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. I told her I was looking for short story collections. I just finished Airships and wanted more litfic shorts.

She brought me a book by a writer I haven’t heard of. The cover looked really interesting, I actually noticed it on the shelf myself and meant to take a look at it earlier but got distracted. I thanked her and threw the book on the pile of stuff I was planning on buying.

Because I’ve never heard of the author before I decided to look her up. I immediately made the mistake of searching her name and clicking on the Twitter link that popped up. Every one of her posts were deranged anti Trump nonsense. I put the book back on the shelf.

An author being liberal isn’t shocking, it’s actually about as original as putting ketchup on your hot dog. Completely bland. I read liberal writers, I read conservative ones, dead ones, living ones, and everything in between. But I’m so tired of the hysterical nonsense that I can’t take anyone who continues to rage serious. It’s 2019, Trump has been our president for almost three years. He will be re-elected and will run the country for another four. Grow the fuck up.

The liberal aesthetic has dominated the literary and art world so much that it’s become completely boring. It’s cliche. I want a different viewpoint, a different perspective. I’m sick of the same cliches over and over.