Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Art, Genre and Cowboys

“Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos 5:24

Hello Reader,
Got art showing life?

Strange how sometimes genre, for prose and television, can be such a powerful metaphor for real life, just as “real literature” is. To me, there’s no point in being a literature snob looking down on genre. 

“Genre” means “category” where the audience arrives with certain expectations: A “cowboy” story, we think, must include a gunfight, and the plot should be like straight yarn, no tangled flashbacks. In contrast literature, or art, is beyond glib category. If it isn’t genre, then the audience is expected to release expectations, and just “be present” for the art. 

A splendid movie—five stars out of five in the Roger Ebert review—by Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, was Art— And that’s why, in regular cinemas across America, people who insisted on their regular Hollywood fare walked out… A  simple genre movie, or a genre novel, is something I can recommend to any stranger, using a star rating. But for an “art movie,” unlike a western, I need to first know the person I would recommend it to, or, if not, I need to spend a lot of time explaining not just what it’s about, but as Roger would say, how it’s about. 

Of course even genre for a mass audience may still sneak in some artsy metaphor. Back in the days of black and white TV Rod Serling, despite his surrounding culture of the 1950’s, managed in The Twilight Zone to sneak in some anti-conformity and anti-racism. I’ve mentioned Serling and Malick. Put it this way: Genre might be made by a committee, but art, as Rita Mae Brown once noted, must be made by a single unified consciousness. 

My favorite western novel to make use of artistic metaphor was by war veteran (European theatre) Louis L’Amour, entitled The Kiowa Trail. L’Amour’s novel starts off with a typical trail herd headed north to the rails. But then members of the dusty cattle drive ride into a town for drink. After, say, (I forget) a cowboy gets shot in the back, the town denies justice.  The townsmen take their rifles to the rooftops to defy the cowboys, to keep them from entering the town for any arrest or trial. 

Obviously this is a metaphor: The “townsmen” are the folks of Nazi Germany defending their choice to deny human rights. Is it proper then for the ranchers to blame the whole town? Surely there are still a few “good townsmen,” even if they are keeping totally invisible. Must they be judged too? 

Yes. The angry cattlemen proceed to act against the whole town. I forget how, but I think they blockade the town. In those days they would have known their biblical judgement: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.” 

Today judging may be controversial, but maybe not in the cowboy days. You see, the entire civil population of the CSA, Confederate States of America, had recently been subjected to starvation by blockade, and then further exposed to the horror of General Sherman’s army with their controversial “marching through Georgia.” No doubt, to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the marching troops sang, “We shall hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” Then came peace, with blessed sanity. Then, of course, veterans of both sides would work on cattle ranches together. Just as in the next century fighter pilots of West Germany and Britain flew together in South Korea as part of the United Nations force. (Canadian forces were in Korea as part of the Commonwealth Division) 

When my father’s generation bombed the civilian factories of the Rhine and Berlin, while the London blitz must have somewhat eased their conscience, part of the formal reasoning was “people get the government they deserve.” (Are best fitted for) At the same time, I suppose the allies used the infamy of Pearl Harbor to somewhat ease their conscience as they used U.S. submarines to blockade the nation that deserved Prime Minister General Tojo—again, just as with the blockade of Europe, innocent fascists starved… 

How strange that I could conjure up all these memories of history by reading a book in the western genre. While art and genre are at two separate poles, truly genre meets art at the equator. Metaphors are world-wide.

Sean Crawford
Under the big sky of Alberta

~As for The Tree of Life, as I see it: The movie is about how a shocked family has their faith shaken, and so they question and ponder God’s creation and God’s very existence. Maybe I would question too, were I in such grief. Here’s a link to Roger Ebert’s review.

~Both a movie about Korean jet fighter pilots, and a Reader’s Digest condensed novel about a trail herd, North to Abilene by Zachary Ball, include a scene where a freckle faced boy, too young to have fought, folds his arms and refuses to drink with a former enemy. The older men, veterans of both sides, teach him he is mistaken.

~I heard in a tavern that Muslims in certain countries are taught while still children, by their parents, to have hatred. If true, then a simple peace treaty would not restore them to sanity. How sad.


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