Dad and I used to watch old movies together. Memories from my childhood include the movie theater, the cable channels American Movie Classics (AMC) and Turner Broadcasting System (TBS), and lots of black and white movies. Dad woke me up in the middle of the night once to watch the original of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I remember that as he shook me awake he told me then that it was the original with Lon Chaney. Why he didn’t just record it, I’ll never know, but I was seven or eight, it was 3am and the memory has always stayed with me. (The original Hunchback features Charles Laughton. Dad got it wrong.)
This week I went to see the new version of The Magnificent Seven. I don’t think that Dad and I ever saw the 1960s version, and I’m sure that we never saw the original Kurosawa version. But as I watched the film, my mind was suddenly flooded with memories of watching westerns with my dad. The one I remember that we watched a few times was Once Upon a Time in the West, with Henry Fonda as a villain and Charles Bronson as a man seeking justice (or vengeance?).
Once Upon a Time in the West trailer
The day after the election, the Cinemateque was playing A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. This Sergio Leone spaghetti western was a scene by scene homage to another Kurosawa film, but to me it was another way to connect with my dad, so I went. It was especially poignant to me that this film was played after the election because in one of the last conversations I had with Dad, he told me that he regretted that he wouldn’t be able to live until November. He wanted to know how this crazy election would turn out. Honestly, I don’t know what he would have thought about the results. But one thing is for sure, he would have had a lot to say about it.
A Fistful of Dollars trailer
Watching old westerns stirs up American pride in me. It occurs to me that the stories we tell ourselves are the mythologies of our culture. Instead of stories told around the fire, passed down verbally from generation to generation, we have books and movies. These characters speak to us in a deep and profound way. For me, westerns are infused with individualism, self-reliance, pride in making a life on the frontier, a spirit of adventure, and courage. This is what I feel is good about America.
The hero tends to be a man from nowhere, maybe without a name. He blows into town and shakes up the status quo, which is exactly what the townspeople need, but are afraid of. He’s cool. He says what needs to be said. He doesn’t care who he offends. He operates with his own set of morals and principles. But in order to get the change they desire, the townspeople need him and want him to do what they can’t do.
But the hero isn’t the guy you take home to meet your parents. He doesn’t stay around and take on the job of sheriff. He doesn’t get elected mayor. He does what has to be done and then he leaves.
Hollywood is trying to change this hero myth by making movies about teamwork (The Avengers, X-Men) and responsible leadership (“with great power comes great responsibility”), but the hero in the western is larger than life and America still admires him.
Trump is president-elect. Leonard Cohen died. We are in a cycle of supermoons. We definitely live in interesting times.
A strange thing happened today. I looked out my door and a pink balloon landed on my balcony. The wind blew it around a bit and it hesitantly approached my door. The next thing I know, it’s bouncing into my house. Nothing is certain, but maybe, just maybe, it will all be ok.