“Westerns” go in and out of fashion. That’a a truism. They might go to outer space, or to cynicism, or to feminism, or to horror either in terms of history (where there is plenty of material) or the modern rip-and-thrill methods. Few go to the land itself, which cuts them off from the whole source of the concept.

North America is the strange result of the tearing apart of an earlier continent when the underlying plate tectonics ripped everything apart and then jammed parts back against each other. In addition, the edges were lifted up and then again submerged by changes in sea level due to climate, the top half of North American was raked and scraped by mega-glaciers, and several mountain ranges formed running north to south, the length of the continent. Thus Westerns echo geology.

Properly winnowed from frontier, forest primeval, and Mexican-inflected stories, the “West” comes down to the early years of wresting the prairie from the previous inhabitants by confining, starving, infecting, shooting and invading them. This Western evil matches and is related to the Southern evil of slavery. It is the story of one kind of creature overrunning another, which goes back through species to their development in the first place. Which is not to register approval or even to suggest remedies or compensations. Not even at today’s level of election results.

Somehow we have never been able to develop ideas about how to get along. This exists even in terms of the land. Everything is a resource to be converted to profit, whether cattle, wheat, coal, people, and now water. There is some thought that as the industrial revolution becomes more displaced by technology, our Eisenhower Era webworks of roads and rails are less crucial — wait, are they? The 18-wheeled trucks go plunging through town always.

We rarely want things that are local. Why is that? Some of it is obvious: we eat meat in Montana because that’s what survives here. Greens mean hot houses. Beans mean cans (wet) or sacks(dry). Milk might mean developing a taste for whiskey.

In the Sixties I was part of the development of Western art as a “made” resource. The movement began in the SW, partly coming out of the “oater” movies quickly made in the winters by rodeo hands with skills they used in summer for performance. It was all closely related to people who had enough money to need a place to put it that was socially respectable, like pretty pictures. It was helped on its way by the collapse of the slick magazines who used “American” sentimental art for illustrations. The artists discovered that “Western” easel paintings made money and they had the skills to produce them, if they would invest a bit in history and travel.

Two precursor artists who are invisible to most media know-nothings were divided by the Mississippi River. One side was Remington country, that fat sissy who was so fond of handsome cavalry boys (where are the short stories?), and the other side Russell, that easy-going underachiever with “Indians” for cousins and a determined wife intending social success. Ask someone in a bar for the name of the most famous Western artist and you’ll know which side of the Mississippi you’re on. There’s not much use in comparing the actual art. They come from different worlds.

Western art acted like the stock market. Rising prices was success. Content was irrelevant. Then the megamillionaires who profited from exploiting resources in the West discovered that they could launder money by founding respectable and aesthetically grand institutions with their own names on them. Maybe they were thinking of Carnegie libraries.

The merchandizers had a major boom when they figured out how to convert the rough sadism of spurs and guns into desirable aesthetic objects. Whole lines of clothing capitalized on chaps and wrist guards, neckerchiefs and gloves. What had been near desperate responses to the necessity of managing big animals in open country, now became little societies of magazine-based aficionadoes.

A more surprising development was that the “Indians” who had been framed in early Westerns as soul-less fiends now somehow — maybe because of the American Indian Art Institution or maybe because of a latent genetic component from Asia — developed a stunning “school” of art based on abstraction, primal indigenous symbolism, and unique emotional valence. The kind of high prices of versions achieved by sentimental cowboy “Westerns” as they pushed their European cows into the space they made by killing all the bison, now became characteristic of fine art by tribal people.

Last night I watched a new “Western” film that was driven by black gang assumptions, the Bloods and the Crips, if you will, whose color symbolism of red and blue has been adopted by the national political parties. “The Harder They Fall” is best approached according to your personal origins. If you are Black, emotionally invested, you will go from one visceral moment to another. If you are a vid freak, you will want to call up the IMDb.

“IMDb is an online database of information related to films, television programs, home videos, video games, and streaming content online — including cast, production crew and personal biographies, plot summaries, trivia, ratings, and fan and critical reviews.” Wikipedia

Every moment of this film is a reference to a moment in an earlier film. I’m not confident that the earlier films were Westerns or were even American, but I’m pretty sure few of them are black. The film claims entitlement to knowing and participating in the arcane and wide-spread knowledge at the same time that it is driven into some kind of coherence by the conventions of Westerns in the most absolute way: landscape being crossed on horses, false towns meant to recover the past, street shoot-outs, and so on. Some things are amusing: you’ll never see a whiter town than the white inhabited town, since every building is painted white inside and out. The “black” town is as elaborate and luxurious as a set for a BBC show.

Of course, Idris Elba is one of the least “cowboy” of actors, but a powerful man recognized by white people who has enough weight and gravitas to drive the story. Lots to think about. No Indians.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.