Winter in the Blood Update

The production of the motion picture based on James Welch’s novel Winter in the Blood continues to move forward. The official Winter in the Blood website recently made several casting announcements. Chaske Spencer has been cast as Virgil First Raise, David Morse as Airplane Man, Gary Farmer as Lame Bull, and Julia Jones as Agnes. The Winter in the Blood website includes details about each of the actors, but it’s especially good to see Gary Farmer (who played Nobody in the film Dead Man and Arnold Joseph in Smoke Signals) in the cast. Sherman Alexie has also signed on as an Associate Producer. And David Morse, who is a very visible actor in everything from House, M. D. to Treme, will be familiar to fans of contemporary westerns for his role in Down in the Valley. Chaske Spencer and Julia Jones have both appeared in an obscure and little-known series of films known collectively as the Twilight Saga.

Watching Westworld (1973)

Reporting from the “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier” Conference in Carefree, Arizona: at the end of two days of activities, we finished the day off with a “Dive In Movie” poolside. A big projection screen was set up at the end of the pool, and to the accompaniment of the occasional shadowy figure passing across the screen (as children loved to run between the screen and the projector on their way from one side of the pool to the other), we watched the1973  film Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton.

Westworld is a western sci-fi thriller. The premise is that via android technology, a somewhat nefarious corporation offers customers the thrill of full immersion into a world of their choice—like Avatar without the avatars. Rather than virtual reality, humans physically enter a medieval castle adventure or an Old West town. The saloon girls, bank robbers, and gunslingers they encounter are all robots (or androids), indistinguishable from humans (except for the palms of their hands), but programmed to respond to the fantasy scenarios of the guests. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin star as two buddies who decide to spend a few days in Westworld enjoying saloon brawls and shootouts. Yul Brynner plays an android gunslinger, dressed in black and looking quite deadly.

If you know Michael Crichton’s work, Westworld is a kind of precursor to Jurassic Park, with androids rather than dinosaurs, and like Jurassic Park, Westworld is an amusement park where things go terribly wrong, and the guests become the prey of the creatures designed to amuse them. Brynner’s gunslinger goes after Benjamin and Brolin with deadly intent.  It’s interesting to see this film again, as I hadn’t realized how much it has influenced later SF films, especially The Terminator series. In one scene, Brynner’s Gunslinger follows Benjamin down an access tunnel. Filmed slightly from above, the shots of the Gunslinger walking steadily through the tunnel are repeated almost exactly in the second Terminator movie. Westworld is also a precursor to the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse, with scenes of technicians repairing/operating on the androids repeated in Dollhouse episodes. The difference is that where Westworld programs androids, Dollhouse programs actual people.

One of the things that has struck me during this conference is how close together the science fiction and western genres are. In part, that’s because science fiction, especially film and television, has consciously (and perhaps unconsciously) borrowed from the western, recasting its conventions in futuristic terms or resetting its encounters of self and other, cowboy and indian, in terms of spaceman and alien. However, it also strikes me that the genres are congruent because the western is already science fiction, already providing a narrative means of investigating the dangers and possibilities of new technologies (trains, guns, etc.). In the genre western, the landscape is often as fantastic and alien and harsh as, say, a Martian landscape. Also, a central figure in science fiction, the cyborg, part human and part machine, is already present in the western in the form of the gunslinger, whose connection to his weapon is often described as an extension of his body, as if man and gun are both part of the same being—a cyborg, in other words. Westworld‘s android Gunslinger makes that connection apparent, but Westworld only makes explicit what is already implicit in hundreds of descriptions of western gunslingers—that the machine and the man are already as one.

Science Fiction and the Frontier (June 25)

The first day of the “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier” Conference has concluded, with two more days of panels, presentations, and films to go. I will occasionally report to the blog on topics of interest to Western literature and culture.

In the context of the American West and the frontier, the most interesting presentation I attended was by guest scholar Margaret Weitekamp, who is a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and who has the enviable position of being in charge of the cultural elements of space travel (which also means that she’s in charge of the space toy collection). Her presentation, “What Space Toys Say About the Frontier,” provided an overview of a recent exhibition of toys produced in conjunction with various science fiction franchises over the past 80 years or so, from comic book and movie serial characters Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the 1930s up to more recent movie and television series such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon Five, all of which included toy production and marketing as part of the franchise.

One purpose of the exhibit was to look at the connections between the western and the space adventure and to see how the borrowing of western motifs by the space adventure stories was then reflected in the toys. Along the way, Dr. Weitekamp looked at the evolution of the idea of the frontier (from the Turnerian meeting point of civilization and savagery to a more revisionist idea of the frontier as a place where different cultures meet, interact, and influence one another) affected the type of stories told in space narratives.

In terms of the toys, the key point of continuity between the western and the space story was the focus on the gun as the central object designed for play, whether it be a ray gun or a six-shooter. Stills from Flash Gordon films, for example, clearly show him in a gunslinger’s crouch with his weapon drawn.

I’m intrigued by the way Flash Gordon’s image is drawn onto the handle of the gun in this toy. Would that have been typical of western toy guns as well?

In a distant outpost in a lawless land, whether that be Dodge City or a Mars moon, the hero’s weapon is the way of bringing law and order to that land. In the early science fiction stories, there’s almost always an “enemy other” modeled on the Native American enemies of western films. For example, in a play set produced in conjunction with the television series Space Patrol, the outpost, supposedly a space station, was immediately recognizable as being based on the template of a toy western fort. The cast plastic figures that came with the set simply took the cowboys and indians of the western set and recast them as spacemen and aliens.

The conference is off to a good start, and Dr. Weitekamp’s presentation provided a lot of interesting material to think about in terms of the intersections of the horse opera and the space opera.

The narration seems familiarly western here, promising “high adventure in the wild vast region of space.”  Even the pronunciation of the phrase “wild vast” makes it sound a lot like “wild west.”

And, as far as toys go, you’ll find it hard to resist rushing out to purchase your very own “Cosmic Smoke Gun” after you see this commercial.

New Design for WLA Website

The Western Literature Association website has been re-designed and looks quite nice. Check it out Western Literature Association http://www.usu.edu/westlit/

Postcard from Carefree

I’m currently in Carefree, Arizona, home of the world’s “second largest” sundial (see above), and the site of the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association Conference “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier,” which begins next week (on June 24). When the conference begins, I’ll post some reports on panels, etc.

Oscar Micheaux Stamp Unveiling

The United States Postal Service is issuing a new stamp honoring novelist and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux as part of its Black Heritage Series. For followers of western literature, Micheaux is best known for his autobiographical novels The Conquest and The Homesteader, which tell of his homesteading experiences in early-twentieth century South Dakota. In silent films such as The Symbol of the Unconquered and talkies such as The Exile, Micheaux returned to his South Dakota experiences as the basis for these pioneering independent films by a highly independent African American filmmaker. The Micheaux stamp will be the 33rd stamp released in the Black Heritage series. For earlier WLA posts about Oscar Micheaux, see Oscar Micheaux Conference and New Oscar Micheaux-Themed Album.

The first day of issue will be June 22, 2010. There will be a ceremony at Columbia University (events listed below via the Columbia University website’s calendar):

FIRST-DAY-OF-ISSUE CEREMONY

Columbia University School of the Arts

Miller Theatre

2960 Broadway & 116th Street

New York, New York

June 22, 2010

11 a.m.

Master of Ceremonies

Voza Rivers

Chairman, Harlem Arts Alliance

Executive Producer

New Heritage Films

Welcome

Claude M. Steele

Provost

Columbia University

Introduction to Musical Group Impact

Jamal Joseph

Chair, Film Program

Columbia University School of the Arts

National Anthem

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Impact Repertory Theatre

Harlem, New York

Official Stamp Dedication

Delores J. Killette

Vice President and Consumer Advocate

United States Postal Service

Musical Tribute

Wycliffe Gordon Quartet

Remarks

Geoffrey Fletcher

Adjunct Faculty of Film, Columbia University School of the Arts

Melvin van Peebles

Independent Filmmaker and Author

Movie Trailer Presentation:

Oscar’s Comeback (work-in-progress)

Lisa Collins

Director/Producer, Columbia University School of the Arts (MFA ’98)

MarkSchwarzburt

Co-Director/Producer

ClosingRemarks

Voza Rivers

Honored Guests

Pearl Bowser

Filmmaker (“Midnight Ramble”) Author and Micheaux Scholar

Jaine Gaines

Professor of Film, Columbia University School of the Arts

Jerry Wilske

Director, Oscar Micheaux Center

Gregory, SD

John Wayne and Baby Face

This summer I’ve been watching pre-production code movies made between 1930-1934. The movies show women engaging in socially illicit behavior: sex outside of marriage, divorce, drinking, and not taking care of their children. In Baby Face (1933) Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a woman who grows up in a speakeasy and in Scarlett O’Hara fashion vows never to be poor or hungry again. She goes to New York and literally sleeps her way to the top. The camera depicts her horizontal movements upward by showing the different levels of the skyscrapers. One of her thwarted conquests is John Wayne. She rejects him after he’s recommended her for a promotion. Lily already has her sight set on bigger bosses. Wayne’s distinctive voice, the hallmark of countless westerns, is filled with disappointment. He will have to wait until later in his career to get the girl.