Danny Leigh on the new wave of Westerns

Director David Mackenzie talks about his new film and the life of a classic ‘truly American art form’

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in ‘Hell or High Water’ (2016)

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in ‘Hell or High Water’ (2016)

Those with an eye for the little print of US president­ial elections took note this year that Donald Trump’s favourite film, apparently, is Citizen Kane — cinema’s grandest portrait of doomed wealth. Much less discussed was yet another of his selections: The Good, the Poor and the Ugly, the 1966 spaghetti western in which Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name wreaks havoc among bandits and mercenaries. As an example of American greatness, it was flawed — directed by Rome’s Sergio Leone, the film was largely shot in Spain with an Italian crew. Still, Trump enthused: “It’s difficult. It’s actual. No weak points here.”

When Leone began filming in Might 1966, David Mackenzie was a newborn baby, the son of Scottish parents in the Northumberland village of Corbridge. Now, half a century later, Mackenzie himself is the director of a Western, Hell or High Water. Its planet is modern but filled with Old West echoes: in rural Texas, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) embark on a bankrobbing spree, pursued by a sheriff (Jeff Bridges) on the cusp of retirement. The movie is violent, beautifully written and deeply melancholy, staged in a landscape where functioning cowboys are down to their last generation.

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But the Western itself rolls on at a frantic pace. Mackenzie’s film is excellent, but only a single among a glut. The acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is now working on The Sisters Brothers, an adaptation of the novel of Gold Rush assassins by Patrick DeWitt, and an imminent remake of The Magnificent Seven is due to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

These are only the newest examples. In the final year alone there have been grimly macho Oscar-winning Westerns (The Revenant), eye-popping cannibal horror Westerns (Bone Tomahawk), Westerns primarily based on the box workplace appeal of the sons of genre titans (Diablo, starring Scott Eastwood). No Western is a secure commercial bet — let us take a moment to keep in mind 2013’s luckless The Lone Ranger, involving Johnny Depp as Tonto — but the films keep coming. Substantial rewards await those that get it correct. Showered with crucial praise because its premiere at this year’s Cannes festival, Hell or High Water has spent the past three weeks becoming a low-important triumph at the US box office.

Which almost certainly accounts for the all’s-proper-with-the-globe mood of the genial, slightly bookish Mackenzie. We meet in London’s Soho Hotel, its sensible surroundings offset by his wearing the beard of a castaway. His father spent 40 years in the navy: leaving Corbridge as an infant, the young Mackenzie’s Scottish identity was confused by lengthy spells at naval bases in the south of England.

Professionally, his breakthrough came in 2003 with Young Adam, a vivid take on the 1950s beat novel by Glasgow writer Alexander Trocchi his last film prior to Hell or Higher Water was the properly-regarded British prison drama Starred Up. In the course of a busy career producing eclectic films that didn’t often locate their audience, Mackenzie had worked in the US prior to, but not with significant stars. His shoot was arranged about Pine’s commitments to the Star Trek franchise. “I had to get Chris accomplished in two and a half weeks, but that was fine. It was nice. Useful for the outlaw power the brothers have.”

The 1966 classic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly©Alamy

The 1966 classic ‘The Good, the Undesirable and the Ugly

Coming to the Western with the eye of an outsider is not unusual: given that John Maclean directed the significantly-admired Slow West, Mackenzie isn’t even the only Scot to make one in the last year. Nevertheless, the genre has a certain location in the American psyche (Clint Eastwood once known as it a “truly American art form”).

“I wanted to embrace America,” Mackenzie says. “To assimilate, not just get wide-eyed about the landscape.”

The America of Hell or High Water is a spot in trouble, embittered by the Iraq war and the bailouts of 2008, strewn with rusting machines. The political anger is as loud as the gunplay. “The whole film is about loss of faith in institutions,” Mackenzie says — and of course, it arrives at a moment when Donald Trump has been attractive to American voters on specifically that basis. “The timing is accidental, but yes, that is crossed my mind a lot. But I think the film plays to the left and proper.”

The remake of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (2016)©Sony Photos

The remake of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (2016)

For all the camp of early Westerns, with their pristine stetsons and painted sagebrush, the genre often had deep currents. The frontier drama was an origin story for white American audiences — and it is telling how fondly those origins have been presented. With apparently straightforward stories of anarchic menace foiled by the forces of order (a steadfast sheriff or lone gunslinger), the outcome was films that ceaselessly reflected their instances. In the 1950s there was the genius of directors such as John Ford and Anthony Mann, and often painful attitudes to Native Americans in the 1960s Leone and Sam Peckinpah cranked up the bloodshed the 1970s was the era of the politically charged, woozily rueful “revisionist Western”.

David Mackenzie, director of ‘Hell or High Water’©Getty

David Mackenzie, director of ‘Hell or Higher Water’

And now the genre acts as counter programming to a Hollywood fixated with the bright colours and clean moral lines of superhero motion pictures. It may possibly be helpful here to believe of the relative personalities of Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story trilogy. Where superheroes gleam, the Western is dusty where they take off, the Western is human. At one particular end of issues this meant Quentin Tarantino rolling in the mire of his giggly shoot-em-up The Hateful Eight. At the other, a slew of modern Westerns have lionised the women of the Old West: the explicitly feminist The Maintaining Area, the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, the ill-fated Jane Got A Gun and The Homesman, starring Hilary Swank as a stoic pioneer, a brilliantly rambunctious sprawl that hinted at anything askew from the commence in the American Way.

Offered also that the most celebrated Western of the century remains 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, the story of a gay enjoy affair amongst a rodeo cowboy and a ranch hand, you could take Trump’s fondness for The Good, The Poor and The Ugly as a pointed salute to a less diverse previous. It was almost certainly inevitable that the Western would be brought into this specific election, just as it was that Clint Eastwood would be asked his thoughts, providing a tirade on political correctness. But Eastwood’s films have frequently been much more nuanced than his interviews: his 1992 western Unforgiven is one of the most deeply sceptical films about guns and manhood ever made.

‘The Keeping Room’ (2014)©Lionsgate

‘The Maintaining Room’ (2014)

Mackenzie and I finish up swapping examples of modern Westerns that may possibly not appear like Westerns. I mention American Sniper, Eastwood’s combustible biography of the Navy Seal Chris Kyle he brings up American Honey, the electric new road movie by British director Andrea Arnold. But the Western is at the moment so in vogue, it can mainly just be itself.

“It’s cyclical,” Mackenzie says. “Ten years ago I attempted to get a Western produced and was told that no a single went to see them. Now everyone desires them. In fact, while it is still attainable, I want to do an additional.”

‘Hell or Higher Water’ is released in the UK on September 9

Photographs: Alamy Sony Images Getty images Lionsgate

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Section: Arts


Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, Whitney Museum, New York — overview

Danny Lyon's ‘Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville’ (1966). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York©Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon’s ‘Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville’ (1966). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

“You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to men and women,” the photographer Danny Lyon once stated. “Not just physically close, emotionally close all of it.” Perhaps that yearning for intimacy explains why New York’s Whitney Museum chose the 74-year-old as the topic of its 1st photography show. If so, the curators fell for the very same romance of roughness that seduced him in the 1960s, when he shot calendar-prepared photos of sullen bikers and sinewy Texas convicts. If he ever got actually close to a subject it was only to find out there was nothing at all significantly there, aside from an attitude, a rap sheet and a properly-honed set of muscles.

In the Whitney’s incoherently hung retrospective, Danny Lyon: Message to the Future, Lyon comes off as a workmanlike documentarian who spent his greatest years mimicking Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus ahead of entering a steep inventive decline. But those photographers took deprivation and the men and women who suffered it seriously Lyon sentimentalised poverty, eccentricity and defeat.

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Born in 1942, the son of a New York doctor, he grew up in an affluent section of Queens, and graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in history. Lyon shucked off his privileged surroundings as soon as he had the chance, poking his lens into shabby neighbourhoods and campus protests. (He not too long ago enjoyed a small spurt of political fame when a 1962 photograph he took of Bernie Sanders addressing a student sit-in came to light, affirming the candidate’s civil rights bona fides.) Lyon went on to become an official photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. You get the feeling in these early protest photographs that violence and confrontation thrilled him even more than the pursuit of social justice.

But what he actually relished was an air of proud seediness. In Uptown Chicago, he shot hillbilly migrants like rockers posing for an album cover, their sneers, slumps and hair radiating casual glamour. In 1967, he road-tripped to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he ogled barefoot and bare-chested unfortunates in their Ford convertibles and tumbledown habitats.

Lyon made his Knoxville pilgrimage in honour of native son and fellow celebrant of the downtrodden James Agee. The author of “Let Us Now Praise Well-known Men” exhorted photographers “not to alter the world as the eye sees it into a planet of aesthetic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality inside the actual world”. Lyon answered the get in touch with. He was after the holiness he saw incarnated in regular folk and their automobiles. “I am left feeling the folks I photograph are the best individuals in America,” he wrote. In Lyon’s populist exuberance, which is as significantly literary as visual, we hear echoes not just of Agee, but also of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac.

Lyon’s fondness for pariahs drove him to join the Outlaws, a famously antisocial biker gang, whose members, the smitten photographer enthused, were “probably the only thing like cowboys left in America”. They definitely had fantastic outfits. Lyon lingers over their regalia — leather jackets, tight T-shirts, iron-cross pendants, tattoos, patches and berets — and the burnished gleam of their bikes. He had vowed to get behind the bandit pose and portray their lives and libertinage from the inside out, but for the Outlaws, image was a weapon they seldom holstered. As they rode dead-eyed by means of Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, they seem never ever to have forgotten that Lyon’s sidearm was his camera, and they treated it with respect.

The gang got a volunteer propagandist, the photographer got access to a renegade legend. He made a suite of flattering symbols, such as “Crossing the Ohio River, Louisville, 1966”. A slender rider’s physique types a 3-slash rune (torso, thighs, calves) against a lushly detailed bike. His hair trails out behind him like comic-book speed whooshes.

His relationship with these males was “tactical however genuine”, in the words of curator Julian Cox (but can each words actually apply at the exact same time?). Lyon’s corps of hog-riding primitives aligns perfectly with Kerouac’s portrait of Dean Moriarty in On the Road: “His ‘criminality’ was not one thing that sulked and sneered it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, some thing new, extended prophesied, extended a-coming (he only stole cars for joyrides).”

The bikers led him toward the Texas penal technique. He hauled his camera to six prisons over 14 months, ingratiating himself with prisoners and guards alike. Lyon had just read Jean Genet’s penal-colony memoir, The Miracle of the Rose, and he responded to the dreamy eroticism of the prose: “I was certain that someplace inside those golden-necked brutes, maybe in between their shoulder blades, was a hidden rift of tenderness.” Genet transformed the murderer Harcamone into a practically godlike figure Lyon found his personal Harcamone in Billy McCune, a charismatic rapist on death row. “I believe Billy McCune is the identical as me,” he wrote — an ordinary man trapped in a pitiless system. Lyon believed that McCune required his story told, and he was the man to do it.

'Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas' (1968). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York©Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

‘Weight lifters, Ramsey Unit, Texas’ (1968). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Whatever closeness Lyon established with McCune, or with any of the other Texas inmates, should have vanished in the darkroom. Alternatively, the men who populate his scenes of hard labour flaunt blank faces and buff bodies, some nude, some in jumpsuits like flashes against the dark land. This is the segregated southern prison culture of Cool Hand Luke, and more than a couple of of the convicts seem to have modelled themselves on Paul Newman. Not even the recordings he produced of his subjects’ voices (which play on a loop at a listening station) can genuinely bring them alive.

Later, he tried a distinct tack: maintaining a film camera educated on his subjects lengthy adequate to get to know them. But here, also, he plays the part of a slumming voyeur, fascinated with weird, provincial varieties. In his 21-minute film “Soc. Sci. 127” (1969), Lyon hangs around a Houston tattoo artist, Bill Sanders, who drawls and drones endlessly, whilst adorning a woman’s nipples with flowers or a man’s backside with an eagle. It’s tough to see what Lyon wanted us to see in this sweaty, talkative codger: an artist, a blowhard or a loveable eccentric?

The Whitney scrambles the photographer’s work so badly that it is easy to lose track of him. The show shuffles chronological order and geographic unity, occasionally scattering random photos across a gallery wall. Maybe this arrangement was meant to evoke his appetite for chaos and danger as an alternative it sows confusion and muffles Lyon’s quiet achievements.

To September 25, whitney.org

'Occupy Oakland, City Hall, Oakland' (2011). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York©Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

‘Occupy Oakland, City Hall, Oakland’ (2011). Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

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Section: Arts