Culture shock on the Range

  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.

My sweetie noticed this commotion 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.

Take the 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."

Farmer 2: "Couldn'ta been."

Farmer 1: "Pretty sure it was them, though."

Farmer 2: "They was in the barn."

Farmer 1: "Pretty sure they wasn't there all night long, though."

Farmer 2: "I s'pose."

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. "Women!"

"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.

Lisa Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Paonia, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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