So why aren't more critics talking about politics? Gunfight movies have nothing to with life in the West, now or in the 1880s. These movies operate in a "mythic space" -- as Richard Slotkin noted in "Gunfighter Nation" -- where they can ask what American values mean in the face of new political challenges. "High Noon" is an allegory of McCarthyism; "Fort Apache" and "Rio Grande" debated anticommunism and the Korean War.
Westerns have fallen out of favor in part because our society has become more willing to discuss such questions openly. In the 1990s, if we wanted to ask what the Internet meant to American values, we just debated it, without having to hide in allegorical mythic spaces. But in this new century, the challenges may be mounting.
In "Open Range," a wealthy land baron insists that only he has the right to make money off government land. The heroes counter that in America, public resources are for the public, not just the rich. Is it only coincidence that such a movie is coming out during controversies about drilling for oil in environmentally sensitive areas, privatizing the National Park Service rangers, and awarding nation-building contracts to politically connected companies?
Costner's "Dances with Wolves" captured a public sentiment for racial healing, and propelled it through the 1990s. While its ambitions are less obvious, I hope "Open Range" can do the same now.
Rember's previous book was the short story collection "Cheerleaders from Gomorrah," and to be honest, I enjoyed that book more than this one. Cheerleaders is an often-humorous, often-accurate portrait of life in Western resort towns, what Rember calls the "Lycra Archipelago." It's similar to Pam Houston's "Cowboys are my Weakness," and a comparison of the titles (and sales figures) is instructive: Americans seem to prefer reading about cowboys than cheerleaders.
Why? We still think of ourselves as cowboys. The cowboy myth still rules America -- even for those of us who do more writin' than ridin'. "Traplines" is illustrated with dozens of old photos, but the one I really wanted to see was the 17-year-old Rember working at a Stanley gas station, dressed as follows: olive-drab Texaco shirt, black and green tie-dyed bellbottoms, aviator-style mirror shades, and a black felt cowboy hat with a hatband made out of aluminum pop-tops. Hippie? Cowboy? What's the difference!
1. I pulled down my SECOND Nahum Tate Cup! This is a feat unprecedented in Montana literary history: there have only been four "Happy Tales Contests," and now I've won two of them. Sorry to be tooting my own horn so much here, but it IS pretty much a career objective -- achieved! The idea of the contest is to rewrite a classic work of literature with a happier ending. In 2001 I took on Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," and this year's victim -- I mean, honoree -- was Larry Watson's "Montana 1948." I didn't know I'd won until the very last day of the Festival, a wonderful cap to the event.
2. A panel that I moderated, on Writing for Magazines, went surprisingly well. It also included Gary Ferguson, Peter Stark, and Bill Vaughn. I'd never met the last two, but their stories, advice and humor dovetailed well with Gary's and mine. Actually the panel as a whole gave all sorts of conflicting advice to aspiring magazine writers -- but hey, isn't that what life's about? (The festival may have CD's available in a few months -- check their website.)
3. I arrived in town, picked up the Missoula Independent, and was surprised to find my own article, "Fit to be T'd," featured in that week's edition. Like several of my essays, it had been syndicated by Writers on the Range -- and I never know where those are going to show up!
Check out the festival next year. And enter the contest to be named what I like to think of as Montana's "wiseass laureate"... if you dare take me on while I gun for the hat trick!