Monday, October 31, 2011


I wanted to like this movie, and for much of it, I did. Then it seemed to run out of ideas and lose its way. When it was over, I wondered how it might have saved itself. I’m no screenwriter, so I have no answers.

At some stage of script development, the film seems to have been about friendship. It’s the 1920s and Butch Cassidy (AKA Blackthorn) has been living peacefully alone in Bolivia on a little spread raising horses. Deciding it’s time to return home, he is joined by a young thief (Eduardo Noriega) who is on the run from a bunch of vigilantes.

An uneasy friendship grows between the two men, and Butch is visited by memories of his years of camaraderie with Sundance and Etta. Butch and his new companion each save the life of the other and eventually come to call each other friend. The movie sets up an expectation that Butch will have one last escapade with a partner in crime and pass on some kind of legacy to his young companion.

The friendship even drifts toward Brokeback Mountain territory, as Butch rubs chewing tobacco into the saddle sores on his partner’s bare backside. But as the two men separate and agree to meet later, the film puts more effort than needed into insisting it’s not gay.

About two-thirds into the story, a former Pinkerton agent (Steven Rea) learns of Butch’s continued existence and in a scene between them, the plot starts going off the rails. Rea’s character delivers a long monologue that might have been OK in a Tennessee Williams play but comes across here as a writer’s confused search for clarity.

The movie then veers away from the kind of ending it once promised, which would be OK if it came up with something better. Alas, it turns into what it hopes is a dark, ironic vision of loss and betrayal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t fit with what’s gone before. So it’s both disappointing and bewildering.

The photography and music in the film are quite good. Sam Shepard and Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega are fine, and it’s good to see Stephen Rea again. Filmed in both English and Spanish, the movie was shot on location in Bolivia. Not exactly a waste of show fare, Blackthorn has no trouble persuading us that Butch survived his apparent demise. But what it wants to do with that premise ends up being more than it’s able to deliver.

Coming up: Buster Keaton’s Go West (1925)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Western writer inspiration, no. 9

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Cattle drive, Deep Springs College, Big Pine, Californa
Loops and Horses are Surer Than Lead. Charles Russell, 1916
Crowley P. Dake, U.S Marshal, Arizona Territory (1878-1882)
Calgary Stampede parade, 1923
Throwing a cow. Palo Duro, Texas
Cowboys around the chuck wagon, Belle Fourche, Dakota Territory, 1887
The original Hopalong Cassidy, Frank Earle Schoonover, 1905

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Buster Keaton's Go West (1925)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

There's a big dance club with a Spanish-speaking clientele in my neighborhood. Out front is this sign listing the house rules in Spanish, with an English translation. For fiction writers with a ready imagination, they offer a wide variety of plot possibilities.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas, over at The Goat's Lunchpail.

Coming up: Buster Keaton's Go West (1925)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tom McNeal, Goodnight, Nebraska (1998)

In observance of turning 70 today, I'm reviewing a book from my home state, Nebraska, set in my favorite part of it, the treeless, rolling terrain of the Panhandle. The Goodnight of the title is a small town, surrounded by the uncompromising harsh beauty of the landscape, where the characters' lives depend much on the ability to withstand solitude and isolation.

Randall, the young protagonist, contracts into a self-protective stoniness as he fetches up here on his own like a shipwreck victim. Marcy, the girl who becomes his sweetheart, strives for a hard-won personal independence from her hard-working farmer parents. The teenage couple's late-night lovemaking and eventual marriage are an against-all-odds attempt to keep from being swallowed up by the indifference of the natural world and the conventional expectations of their small-town world.

 Given the explosiveness of young Randall's character, his insensitiviy, and his distrust of others, it's a welcome surprise when he grows to steady and responsible manhood. So is his loyalty to Marcy and his willingness to regard her as an equal in love and marriage. He even agrees to her leaving him for an adventure of her own in California. Her discovery of him asleep in his pickup, parked in the driveway at her apartment house, the smell of rural Nebraska still filling the cab, is a wonderful portrayal of the bond that holds them together.

Another long sequence in the novel describes a hunting party that grows progressively unnerving, as the more trigger-happy in the group get steadily drunker and more frustrated at the lack of game. There is an ominous threat of trouble as you follow them, page after page, and eventually learn of the dark deeds of the day.

Tom McNeal's Goodnight, Nebraska is currently available at amazon, AbeBooks, alibris, and Powell's Books, and for kindle and the nook. Friday's Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase. 

Coming up: Buster Keaton's Go West (1925)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Many will say this is an American story, and that’s partly true, but if it were completely true, you or I would know someone like Buck Brannaman. Chances are good we don’t. He’s the exception to most of the rules. An abused child, he didn’t grow up to be an abusive and bullying adult. A cowboy, he doesn’t subscribe to the rough ideals of cowboy manhood celebrated in most westerns.

Known for his skill as a horse gentler and trainer, he does his work in a way that’s the direct opposite of the traditional “bronc buster.” Instead of overpowering and subduing a horse, he gently but firmly wins its willing trust—assuming the horse has not already been ruined by another human. He doesn’t even wear a cowboy hat. Instead he wears the flat-brimmed vaquero-style hat of the western buckaroo.

The patience and empathy required for his kind of work is not really “American.” Americans are, as a rule, in a big hurry. We want results now, and when it comes to animals, we prefer to dominate them as superior beings. Brannaman’s way with horses will strike many as “touchy-feely” and suspiciously unmanly.

If you can get over that, this film about his life and work will be illuminating. For the many men in our culture who were badly or indifferently fathered, Buck’s story must connect with a deeply buried and denied complex of emotions. As portrayed in the film, he commands respect with a hard-won understanding of how to be strong, independent, and in full possession of oneself, despite one's origins.

Buck Brannaman
This is the ideal of the American cowboy that has long inspired the national imagination. But it is played out here in an unfamiliar way. Buck pursues the humbler path of harmony with the other creatures of God’s creation rather than the more familiar one of domination. And he takes some getting used to.

For anyone not yet hardened to suffering in the world, the film will touch a chord. There’s a long sequence involving a horse so damaged by its owner that Buck is unable to gentle it. Instead of giving a false sense of a man with miraculous powers, the film’s lesson is clear that some damage is irreversible, in humans as well as horses.

You are left to marvel that Brannaman, with luck and something inborn, chanced to overcome his brutal childhood. And it’s interesting that the film says nothing about what became of his older brother, raised by the same abusive father.

For me, the irony of this film is that it represents values that are at the bedrock of Americans today who are otherwise fiercely polarized over nearly every issue. With its portrayal of both quiet self-reliance and willing cooperation, it represents the broad middle ground of national character. It speaks to a consensus that lies between those on the right who would suspect it of bleeding heart liberalism (it even has an interview of Robert Redford!) and those on the left who associate cowboy hats with John Wayne-style conservatism.

Alas, it’s a rare movie that actually brings people together, and this is probably not one of them. All the same, I recommend it as a vision of how we could be as human beings. In a cynical age such as we live in, it’s not easy to find a movie that comes even close to being inspirational. Anyway, the getting of wisdom, as the film shows, is an individual journey, not a collective one.

Buck is currently available at netflix, amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Photo credit:
Coming up: Tom McNeal, Goodnight, Nebraska

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace (2000)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is one of those rare people for me. His life and early death have been a subject of interest for most of the decades of my life. As I have changed over the years, his story seems always to be there as a touchstone.

Religion and religious people generally get my back up. I have come to see “true believers” as major obstacles to human progress, doing more harm than good. Yet this German theologian, who resisted the Nazi government, has always commanded my respect.

I spent months with his book Letters and Papers From Prison, immersing myself in the last two years of his life. I tried writing it as a play, about a man whose faith is put to the test as he takes a stand against the Gestapo. His was a struggle that took immense courage, and he did not win. In the final days of the War, he was executed for treason.

So he’s a puzzle. Remembered as a deeply decent and caring man, he was neither pious nor puritanical. He loved life and literature, traveled, played the piano, wrote poetry. A gifted scholar, he also had a faith that did not ignore the realities of a world overcome by an evil beyond imagination. From his letters, we know that he had many doubts, and yet they only seemed to strengthen him.

Bonhoeffer had already published an important book, The Cost of Discipleship. In it he argued against spiritual beliefs that require little effort to uphold and knuckle under easily to any kind of adverse pressure. The German Lutheran Church had done just that in allowing itself to become a state church under Hitler.

Demanding as the cost of discipleship might be, the paradox of the man was that his religious faith supported his humanism. The silence of God during the Nazi nightmare didn’t cause him to despair. He came to believe in a God who, despite all evidence to the contrary, had not lost faith in mankind. Religious extremists today could take a lesson from that.
The film. From having written a play that tried to remain truthful to the man, I know his story is hard to dramatize. The screenwriters have chosen to focus on the cat-and-mouse game between Bonhoeffer and his prison interrogator, Roeder. For a subplot, they include the young Maria von Wedemeyer, who fell in love with Dietrich and was permitted prison visits as his fiancée.

Much of the real story has been excluded for the sake of the film’s 90-minute running time. A major omission is Bonhoeffer’s long friendship with Eberhard Bethge, a fellow seminarian. The most revealing and heartfelt of Bonhoeffer’s letters smuggled from prison were to this dear friend, whose absence was like the loss of a brother.

The film, in fact, seems edited down from a much longer version. We get glimpses of several named characters, like Bethge, whose identity would be understood only by someone familiar with the details of Bonhoeffer’s family and acquaintances. Still, much of interest is included, like the system of smuggling coded messages to Bonhoeffer by marking the text of books.

Though made little of, there is also the opportunity of escape arranged for Bonhoeffer. Dressed in a plumber’s outfit, he was to be swept away by night in a waiting car. But knowing an escape would jeopardize other prisoners, some of whom were members of his family, he decides at the last moment not to go. It was a futile choice, as those he meant to save were also eventually executed.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This is a film worth seeing for the simple reason that no two people are likely to take away the same view of it. Like many stories of its kind, it’s a hard one to dismiss. 

We know that Bonhoeffer during his time in prison was working on a new book of theology. It seems likely to have been his attempt to come to terms with the horror he’d been witness to. Today, it would surely offer an understanding of what gives every appearance of being a godless world. That manuscript was, of course, lost to us as well. 

Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace is an English-language film with a German cast. It is available at netflix and from amazon. Overlooked Movies is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit:

Coming up: Buck

Monday, October 24, 2011

Montana: bars and bison

Missoula Club, home of the Mo-burger
As promised, here are more pics from my visit to Missoula, Montana, a while ago. Missoula is a university town, which means there have to be enough bars to go around for everyone who wants their own. I'm starting off today with a selection of them. I'll get the rest of them on my next visit.

After that are photos taken during a Sunday morning visit to the National Bison Range, which is some 40 miles north of Missoula. The buffalo were out grazing that day by the hundreds.

Friendly bartender at the Missoula Club
The Old Post - pressed tin ceilings inside
Fishing conditions for Sep. 1 inside The Old Post
Every western town's got to have a Stockmans Bar
Red's Bar

The Iron Horse Pub and Grill
Saturday night crowd at the Iron Horse
Now for the bison:

Friend and driver Chris with the camera
Four buffalo with calf
Rolling rangeland
Grass and grazer
Snow-capped Mission Mountains in the distance
Processed grass
Fellow photographer, Chris, with Mission Valley beyond

Coming up: Bonhoeffer - Agent of Grace (2000)

Magazine illustrations, 1902-1906

F.E.Schoonover, Outing Magazine, Dec. 1905

When I was a kid on the farm in Nebraska, I wanted to be a magazine illustrator. I loved the colorful, action-filled or mood-inspiring pictures that came with the stories in Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. I thought that would have been the coolest job, getting to see the work of your own pens and brushes on those slick pages. Alas, the magazines didn't last long enough for that to ever happen.

With public domain publications online now, I can look back at the work of illustrators from 100 years ago. At odd hours you can find me searching through old issues of magazines for illustrations by graphic artists like J. N. Marchand and Frederick Schoonover. The picture above is one of Schoonover's illustrations for Clarence E. Mulford's story "The Fight at Buckskin."

Below are illustrations for articles about wildlife, trappers, prospectors, overland freighters, the capture of outlaws, the use of "human bloodhounds," and stories by Emerson Hough, Ben Blow, and M. Pollough-Pogue [click to enlarge].

The Dalton Gang, J.N.Marchand, Munsey's, Feb. 1902

J.N.Marchand, Outing Magazine, Dec. 1905
J.N.Marchand, Outing Magazine, Jan. 1903
J.N.Marchand, Outing Magazine, Feb. 1906
J.N.Marchand, Outing Magazine, Dec. 1902
Paul R. Goodwin, Outing Magazine, Nov. 1902
Allen True, Outing Magazine, Jan. 1906
Philip R. Goodwin, Outing Magazine, Feb. 1903
J.N.Marchand, Munsey's, Feb. 1902
Allen True, Outing Magazine, Jan. 1906

Finally, here's a great photo I found of bronco busting in a 1902 issue of The Outing Magazine.

I love the composition, the figures in the lower corners, including a dog, the rider pitched upward over the bucking horse, the dust, and most of all the throw of the shadows, putting the time as late in the afternoon. The crowd along the fence makes a diagonal across the top of the photo, and in the far distance, the horizon of distant hills. [Click to enlarge for an even better look.]

Coming up: More pictures of Montana

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Western writer inspiration, no. 8

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Roundup on the Cimarron, 1898
Red Slate Mountain, California, 1963

Shepherd with horse and dog, Montana, 1942
Buccaroos. Charles Russell, 1902
Lassoing a Steer. Charles Russell, 1897

Cattle roundup, New Mexico
Defending the Stagecoach. Henry F. Farny, 1900

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Magazine illustrations, 1902-1906

Friday, October 21, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

As promised last week, here at the same corner, Vermont and 23rd, is another wall mural. This one is as dramatic as the one across the street from it is tranquil (see here). Jimi Hendix and Che Guevara, bathed in bright, hot colors, separated by an urgent appeal for a hate-free community.

It's early morning and stores are just opening in this Spanish-speaking neighborhood. You can see a shopkeeper raising a shutter to the left of the stop sign.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Magazine illustrations, 1902-1906