Warren Ellis on violent fiction, death of the Western, Leatherface as model vegan
- Slate writer Forrest Wickman was recently shocked to discover that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre functions as pro-vegetarian propaganda. Wickman writes that Chainsaw Massacre is "the last movie you'd expect" to be pro-vegetarian, but I thought this had been the general reading of the movie for years. I recall a reviewer's blurb on my video copy of TCM saying the film "does for meat eating what Psycho did for taking showers". The article includes a short video analysis by the great and always interesting Rob Ager.
As we learn early on, the movie’s killers, the murderous Sawyer family (comprised of Leatherface, Grandpa, et al), used to run a slaughterhouse, and the means they use to slaughter their victims are the same as those used to slaughter cattle. They knock them over the head with sledgehammers, hang them on meat hooks, and stuff them into freezers. Often this takes place as the victims are surrounded by animal bones, a detail that could be explained away as the evidence of their former occupation—except that the cries of farm animals (there are none around) are played over the scenes.
- Back when people were sizing-up the Lone Ranger flop Michael Agresta wrote this Atlantic piece reflection on "how the Western was lost (and why it matters)":
Through the past century of Western movies, we can trace America's self-image as it evolved from a rough-and-tumble but morally confident outsider in world affairs to an all-powerful sheriff with a guilty conscience. After World War I and leading into World War II, Hollywood specialized in tales of heroes taking the good fight to savage enemies and saving defenseless settlements in the process. In the Great Depression especially, as capitalism and American exceptionalism came under question, the cowboy hero was often mistaken for a criminal and forced to prove his own worthiness--which he inevitably did. Over the '50s, '60s, and '70s however, as America enforced its dominion over half the planet with a long series of coups, assassinations, and increasingly dubious wars, the figure of the cowboy grew darker and more complicated. If you love Westerns, most of your favorites are probably from this era--Shane, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the spaghetti westerns, etc. By the height of the Vietnam protest era, cowboys were antiheroes as often as they were heroes.
The dawn of the 1980s brought the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the box-office debacle of the artsy, overblown Heaven's Gate. There's a sense of disappointment to the decade that followed, as if the era of revisionist Westerns had failed and a less nuanced patriotism would have to carry the day. Few memorable Westerns were made in the '80s, and Reagan himself proudly associated himself with an old-fashioned, pre-Vietnam cowboy image. But victory in the Cold War coincided with a revival of the genre, including the revisionist strain, exemplified in Clint Eastwood's career-topping Unforgiven. A new, gentler star emerged in Kevin Costner, who scored a post-colonial megahit with Dances With Wolves. Later, in the 2000s, George W. Bush reclaimed the image of the cowboy for a foreign policy far less successful than Reagan's, and the genre retreated to the art house again.
- Responding to the Atlantic article Metafilter user justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow offered this insight:
Westerns are fundamentally about political isolation. The government is far away and weak. Institutions are largely irrelevant in a somewhat isolated town of 100 people. The law is what the sheriff says it is, or what the marshall riding through town says, or the posse. At that scale, there may be no meaningful distinction between war and crime. A single individual's choices can tilt the balance of power. Samurai and Western stories cross-pollinated because when you strip away the surface detail the settings are surprisingly similar. The villagers in Seven Samurai and the women in Unforgiven are both buying justice/revenge because there is no one to appeal to from whom they could expect justice. Westerns are interesting in part because they are stories where individual moral judgment is almost totally unsupported by institutions.
Westerns clearly are not dying. We get a really great film in the genre once every few years. However, they've lost a lot of their place at the center of pop culture because the idea of an isolated community has grown increasingly implausible. In what has become a surveillance state, the idea of a place where the state has no authority does not resonate as relevant.
- In a piece for Vulture, Warren Ellis explains "why we need violent stories":
The function of fiction is being lost in the conversation on violence. My book editor, Sean McDonald, thinks of it as “radical empathy.” Fiction, like any other form of art, is there to consider aspects of the real world in the ways that simple objective views can’t — from the inside. We cannot Other characters when we are seeing the world from the inside of their skulls. This is the great success of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, both in print and as so richly embodied by Mads Mikkelsen in the Hannibal television series: For every three scary, strange things we discover about him, there is one thing that we can relate to. The Other is revealed as a damaged or alienated human, and we learn something about the roots of violence and the traps of horror.