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Weird Westerns Part 2: Painting the Town Dead

‘I bring you a message. Exactly six miles north of Skagg Mountain in the Valley of Pain, there lives an evil devil-monster. His name is Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana. And he *loves* to hurt people. The last time I saw Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana, he told me what he wants to do. He wants to come down here and kill each and every one of you! But I said to him: “Bingo, wait a minute.” And the reason I said that is because I believe in you people. I believe you can do the job. I believe you can help each other. I believe you can make this world a better place to live in. That’s it.’

In modern cinema’s post-Western world, Robert Downey Sr.’s audacious, drug-fuelled Christ parable, Greaser’s Palace (1972) is not only ‘testament’ to the counterculture of the time (and unfiltered creativity) but also a prime example of the Acid Westernmost notably associated with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s midnight cult classic, El Topo (1970). As a crucial part of the revisionist movement — so intrinsically linked to the major developments of the Western genre — the term ‘Acid Western’ was a label given by film critic Pauline Kael when reviewing Jodorowsky’s head-trip. Downey Jr.’s film (lookout for a 6-year-old Downey Jr.) is less acid and more farcical; tapping more into the absurdist genre inspired by Dada and surrealist art movements of the early 20th century.

El Topo balances sleaze, art house and tradition embracing Jodorowsky’s mixed heritage and European influences. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s surreal short film, Un Chien Andalou (1929) is an obvious influence but Dali’s original paintings, along with the French New Wave, Christian symbolism and Eastern philosophy and enlightenment have shaped his unique vision and overwhelming ego. As with the majority of his films, once again we are witness to carnival freak show characters —the maimed and little people rolling around in the sand — while backdrops are constructed from animal carcasses and blasphemy. The film is a relentless and violent meditation of a man in black (Jodorowsky) as he travels with his naked son (Jodorowsky Jr.) through the desert with nothing but bullets and an umbrella.

As a comic book writer and frequent collaborator with the artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Jodorowsky’s vision on the page is just as (if not more) compelling and unrivalled in scope. Again, the comic book around this time was a crucial reference in terms of the ‘weird’ and the ‘Western’. DC Comics’ Weird Western Tales (1972-1980) acted as the perfect counter to Marvel’s supernatural foray into the West and as a comics anthology was more than a nod to EC Comics’ staple horror series of the 1950s. Most notably known for the scarred bounty hunter, Jonah Hex, the series arrived a year before the release of Clint Eastwood’s supernatural Western, High Plains Drifter (1973) that continued to define his nature of absent heroism.

Released the same year as Michal Crichton’s sci-fi Western Westworld, there are few examples that manage to balance weird elements as successfully as Clint Eastwood’s film. Following on from the thriller, Play Misty for Me (1971), Eastwood’s learning curve as a director was to hit the dirt running. Although Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay was inspired by a real-life murder during the 1960s, it is perhaps no coincidence that the film went into production the year Weird Western Tales first released its anthology of strange adventures. The ‘mean-spirited’ tale of High Plains Drifter is as economic as a comic book, still following the standard setup of the archetypal loner who literally ‘drifts’ into a town. However, its supernatural element that lies under its surface helps to distinguish the film from others within the genre.

In his first Western as director, Eastwood straddles his role as movie star alongside his thirst for direction; echoes of the masters he observed (Leone and Siegel) pervade and often invade the film but without ever feeling plagiarised. There is an eerie and leery atmosphere; idiosyncrasies that hint at something off kilter through high and low angle shots akin to the iconoclast King, Orson Welles. The Old West iconography is shrunk down to a single town, as it subverts the surrounding landscape and focuses on the tragedy of the central character and the horror it slowly reveals. Eastwood’s Stranger is almost satanic as he condemns the community by literally painting the town red.

It is less an historical depiction and more an allegory; the use of the classic archetype and myth becoming another fable as it plays more on early American ghost stories. Here the ‘high country’ in High Plains Drifter is almost as heavenly as it is spiritual; with its avenging drifting in and back out. Still to this day, High Plains Drifter remains an Eastwood oddity and is therefore all the more distinctive within his filmography. Whether the iconic movie star of the West or the ever efficient and economic director, Clint Eastwood has managed to deliver a number of Westerns that helped define every decade from the 1960s to the 1990s; his final entry, Unforgiven (1992) — an incredible bookend to his Western career — presents central character, Bill Munny, with a dark and mysterious past that could easily be any of the anti-heroes he has portrayed. We all know Eastwood doesn’t do weird — he’s more the straight talker and straight shooter — which is why, when he has chosen this material, we will watch it all the more.

Two films that become more of a meditative approach to the weird are Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue (1993, Sundance Film Festival) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996). The former — an often-overlooked gem — is more associated with being one of River Phoenix’s final performances. Originally filmed in 1992 the film was not released theatrically until 1994 in Germany and 1995 in the UK (literally placed in limbo) and still remains forgotten to this day. With an outstanding cast, and similar in tone to Jim Jarmusch’s work, Shepard’s script very much feels like his playwright origins as it tells the tale of an insane young man, Talbot Roe (Phoenix) who carries the body (and burden) of his dead, native wife, Awbonnie.

Understanding his son’s pain, Talbot’s father, Prescott (Richard Harris) merely wants him to move on and goes back to the place where he bought his son’s first wife, from the colourful character, Eamon McCree (Alan Bates). Conflict ensues Prescott offers to buy McCree’s half-breed daughter, an argument that is diffused once she takes the deal for gold. All the while, Talbot is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife who taunts him into destroying her own remains; all the while making us question how insane Talbot really is. Awbonnie’s wraithlike appearance is part early J-horror with more than a nod to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964); her face divided by white paint where one half is the remains of her beautiful native features, the other half wrath-like in appearance.

Dead Man also embraces the Native and in true Jarmusch fashion remains a perplexing piece of work, only heightened by the Cree and Blackfoot languages sans translation and subtitles. Shot in stark monochrome the film is as unconventional as they come in its commentary and treatment of violence, racism and the capitalism that America was founded on. Johnny Depp’s William Blake doesn’t work with words (as his namesake may suggest) but numbers; an uprooted accountant accompanied by an enigmatic Native American, named Nobody. The film is littered with iconic performances and cameos from Robert Mitchum, Lance Henriksen, John Hurt, and Iggy Pop, to name a few, with a superb score from Jarmusch favorite, Neil Young. 

Dead Man refuses to be defined. As a post-Western it still has elements of tradition and as an anti-Western bears closet resemblance to Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) where its ‘weird’ lies within its idiosyncrasies; the same quirks that can be traced back to Joseph H. Lewis’ Terror in a Texas Town. But, what defines the film is Jarmusch himself who makes every effort to create a unique piece of work that makes a conscious effort to strip away stereotypes and, in the process, an odd sense of authenticity and moral stance. Sullen and obscure, Dead Man feels like a late entry to the counterculture movement; meandering on marijuana rather than an hallucinogenic acid trip.

When East meets West, the genre not only feels revitalized once more, but a sense of coming full circle via the Kurosawa and Leone connection; reinvigorated (or bastardised and brutalized) through modern digital filmmaking and the wider acceptance of world cinema. Stir-fry horse opera, Tears of the Black Tiger (2001) from Thailand chops up the genre and tosses it around with villainous laughter. This is a high camp Tarantino affair; a ‘West Side Western Story’ spattered with blood-soaked shoot-outs saturated with brash acid drenched colours. Director Wisit Sartsanatieng’s film is (apparently) a pastiche of Thai western styles yet throws in audio and visual cues that resemble a Hovis ad. I shit you not. Its weird charisma is like an attention deficit kid bouncing off the walls. High energy and high impact — like hitting a Thai Elvis in the balls for 100 minutes.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) is another fast paced stray bullet of martial arts action; an adventure pastiche dressed in Leone framing and high octane thrill rides. Kim Jee-woon’s South Korean film balances action and comedy with panache making the most of the wide angles and close-ups on our Korean leads as they revisit the ‘60s ‘Manchurian Westerns’ set along the Chinese-Korean border in the 1930s where, as with a lot of Korean cinema, Japanese colonialism sets the perfect backdrop for a fistful of antagonists. The landscape delivers the archetypal Western plot of treasure, bounty hunters and railroads shot in China’s own Wild West, the Gobi Desert.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, Bunraku (2010) is a terrible film. They’re wrong, of course. Yes, it throws everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, but where Zack Snyder’s infantilised, (I’d go as far as poedo dream) Suckerpunch (2011) fails, Bunraku succeeds. On a quarter of the budget, director Guy Moshe manages to craft an ode to Japanese puppet theatre (hence the title), samurai epics, film noir and the Western. For those who comment on the film seeming fake and overly stylized, then look at the staging of classic 1960s Japanese films and their use of painted backgrounds and set pieces (Kwaidan, once again) and original Japanese theatre; skewing reality with shadow-play fantasy. With this in mind, there is a conscious balance and context to what the film is setting out to achieve with its style. Even though there is a sense of tradition to its intent, the film does tend to be overwhelmed by its mix of influences that has been criticised for desensitising its (small) audience with hyper-stylized video game direction and superficiality. Yes, it’s a pick ‘n’ mix of aesthetics — from German expressionism to pop art and comic books; gangster films to martial arts epics along with epic miscasting (Demi Moore as a kept concubine) — but the spine of the film rests on the shoulders of the weird West meets East. With that, Bunraku succeeds as a multicultural film with multiple ideas lost in its own weird noise.

In the final part of this series, ‘Lost Worlds and Final Frontiers’, we explore the lost tales of H. Rider Haggard, his influence on dinosaurs vs. cowboys and S. Craig Zahler’s striking debut, Bone Tomahawk (2015) along with ‘underground’ movies pitting cowboys against aliens.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Rich Johnson

Rich Johnson's baptism with celluloid was during the Golden Age of VHS. He is a lecturer in film studies and graphic design, hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. Writing credits include: Little White Lies, Hotdog, Network, Rebeller Media, Shots and Fangoria along with up-and-coming film commentary and boutique label essays. His Devil’s Advocates book on Bone Tomahawk is due out late 2020.

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