”The American West was not only a land of new beginnings, it was also one of bad endings.”
— Albert Castel, historian
People talk about the ”Myth of the West,” yet there are really two myths.
The old Western myth was that of the cowboys and Indians. It was the myth of Manifest Destiny, of expansion, growth and nation building.
The old myth was optimistic. It gave us wide-open spaces in which anything was possible and in which a civilization could be created. It was a myth in which a single determined man could make a difference.
It is the myth represented in Randolph Scott Westerns, Frederic Remington paintings — and all its sad modern-day imitators — and even the common rhetoric of patriotic politicians.
But there has grown a second myth, a yin to the former yang: the modern myth of the Great Plains as an existential hell where the flatness of the wide-open spaces closes in on you, offering no options. It is dry, dusty, vacant and soulless. In it, no one has a future and there is no escape.
Neither of these myths is necessarily true, but each has developed an aesthetic tradition around it. The new myth became dominant after the Second World War: In mass culture it gave us spaghetti Westerns, TV’s adult Westerns and Sam Peckinpah.
On a higher aesthetic plane it is the raw emptiness of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the Kansas of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It is the theme of the Bruce Springsteen album, Nebraska, and the place where Larry Clark took the photos in his legendary book Tulsa, with its drug addicts and domestic violence.
In this pessimistic West, we want redemption, and there is none to be had.
”Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” Springsteen sings.
It is a landscape populated by incipient Charles Starkweathers and Richard Hickockses, people who work in dead-end mill jobs and meet each night after work in filthy dives for beer and fistfights.
They are a generation with no purpose in life, no reason for living past the next cigarette and Budweiser, drunk from a quart bottle with the screw-top thrown on the floor.
It is a world of incredible sensory deprivation. The houses they occupy — for they cannot be said to be living in them — have no pictures on the walls. The furniture is from Goodwill and the blank eye of the television is the center of the room.
Their eyes are as dead as ball bearings.
They have no inner lives, and the only way they can express themselves is with a knife or a penis.
The Old West was a landscape in which all things were possible; the new, affectless West is where all things are permitted.
You can see the new mythology building in the Eisenhower years. All the optimism of the new suburbs was subverted in the photographs of Robert Frank, whose book The Americans was published in 1958.
In that book, a disturbing underside of American chamber-of-commerce idealism was pictured. Frank’s photographs are populated with poverty, desperation, brutishness and lonesome highways leading nowhere.
In the book, the only divinity is the glare from the jukebox.
Frank’s off-the-cuff style was a revelation in the stylized, artificial ’50s of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
Avedon himself later used this second Western myth in his powerful book The American West. It was roundly criticized when it came out for its alleged ”West bashing,” but the photographs were as honest and direct as they could be. You can see any of the people in them walking the streets of Phoenix or Albuquerque on any given day.
The old myth shines from the images of Ansel Adams; the new, bleaker myth informs the photos of Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, Lewis Baltz and Richard Misrach.
Those who have a romantic notion of America’s Beat generation have not really paid attention to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for it is a book about this second Western myth. Instead of a panegyric to youth and poetry, it is really an elegy to spiritual emptiness and hunger.
The book is the prose equivalent of Frank’s pictures. Indeed, Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans when it was published.
Clark’s Tulsa fills out the image with dirty heroin needles and pregnant girlfriends with black eyes.
Malick made the landscape beautiful in his film Badlands, but he filled the film with senseless, ugly violence.
It is a Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and short.
It’s there in director Kimberly Peirce’s desolate film, Boys Don’t Cry.
Yet, the film does imply an answer. And it is found in the landscape itself.
Peirce periodically interrupts the action with stop-motion footage of the Nebraska sky both day and night. In the day, the clouds speed across the face of the blankness; at night, the cars speeding down the highways make smears of light along the bottom of the picture while the stars spiral across the blue-blackness.
The lives portrayed in Boys Don’t Cry are squalid at best, but your heart breaks to see such smallness lived out in a landscape so sublimely vast.
So many scenes in the film are shot at night, where the tiny area of land illuminated by a car’s headlights is a metaphor for the limited vision of the landscape’s inhabitants.
Ultimately, the new Western myth is one of disappointment, that, as the gnostic gospel of Thomas says: ”The kingdom of God is spread out before us, and yet men do not see it.”