When the movie Open Range came to my western Colorado town, my sweetie and I made a beeline for the theater. We waited in line for popcorn with a good number of other folks: old-timers and Forest Service employees and their spouses. They apparently hadn’t had enough open range by the end of the long summer, either.
The movie was directed, produced
and starred in by Kevin Costner, who is of the “if it
ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of
movie-making. So there were lots of cows, a clutch of beautiful
horses running through meadows in slow motion, good guys (handsome,
taciturn and armed to the teeth), bad guys (sneering, ugly and
armed to the teeth) Annette Bening in a pinafore, looking stunned
to find herself in such a glacially paced movie, and a fluffy dog
wagging his tail at everything he saw.
We had a great
time, snickering away at the movie’s cheesiness and enjoying
both the tremendous scenery and the noble intentions of the good
guys. We giggled and whispered, while the rest of the audience sat
as silent as stones.
But when the inevitable gunfight
began, a swift role reversal occurred. We got quiet, and the rest
of the audience came to life. All of them — especially the
women — laughed when one bad guy got not only shot, but
slammed bloodily against the side of a building before dying. They
hooted when a henchman crawled desperately through the grass, only
to be shot repeatedly by a mob of townsfolk.
noticed the commotion from the audience way before I did. You see,
he is Sensitive. Although he does Colorado things like kayak, ski
and work as a carpenter, he also teaches meditation, refuses to eat
meat, drives the only hybrid electric car in town, and wears
wire-rimmed glasses and a complicated goatee. I think he’s
fantastic. He models male behavior that the Rocky Mountain West
could use. And it is no coincidence that he arrived only 18 months
ago from Vermont, a state with no cowboys, but with thousands of
dairy farmers — people who almost never solve their problems
with gunfights. This might be due to the physical impossibility of
locating a firearm in the pocket of a pair of farm overalls, but I
think it’s also a question of temperament.
issue of cattle trespass, a topic that made the guys in Open Range
murderous. On a visit to Vermont, I witnessed the following
exchange between two dairy farmers waiting in line at a bank:
Farmer 1: “Pretty sure your cows come into my
meadow last night.”
“Pretty sure it was them, though.”
“They was in the barn.”
“Pretty sure they wasn’t there all night long,
Farmer 2: “I
This isn’t exactly Hollywood
dialogue. Once again, it’s a question of temperament —
regional temperament. Vermont doesn’t kill its cows; it milks
them. Needless to say, Vermont produces a higher proportion of
Sensitive Males than Colorado does. Which brings me back to my
sweetie, who tapped me on the arm with the Raisinets box:
“The people laughing are women,” he said.
“Huh?” I said, watching a
guy die twitchily.
I don’t know why the women in the
theater were enjoying the carnage so loudly, and I don’t know
why my sweetie turned out the way he did. But I think it might have
something to do with New Englanders having wrested their land from
the Indians almost 400 years ago, nearly 200 years before we
Westerners followed suit. Academics have attributed that
region’s peaceable nature to its social stability and
political unity, two things the West has done perfectly well
without in the short time since the pioneers got here.
While modern rural Westerners may spend their days bartering real
estate, selling photographs of digitally enhanced aspen forests or
rounding up cattle, they are certainly entitled to slap down $6 and
spend two evening hours watching their alter egos doing what they
please against a gorgeous mountain vista. It’s a matter of
nostalgia for the simple, if violent, youth of our region’s
culture. The West reminds me of a young married man, looking
wistfully over his newly delivered kitchenette and out the window,
longing for his days in the Army or the frat house, back when he
could really express himself.
A good number of my friends
in Colorado went to see Open Range. A survey of friends in Vermont
indicated that they would rather put pins in their eyes than see
such shameless schlock. They are not nostalgic for any frontier.
They prefer European movies.