Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bar shots similar to Kosner's Wyatt Earp

These back lighted shots through the swinging doors are very similar to the opening shots of the Kosner western.

Cowboys & Aliens shots dublicate John Wayne films

These are shots that are largely taken straight from the concluding scnes of The Sons of Katie Elder.

We don't just get allusion in plot, but also in images.

Lost women in Cowboys and Aliens

With the exception of the good alien, who came to assist humanity in ridding itself of the bad aliens, women don’t play a large role in Cowboys & Aliens except as victims of abduction, or by their absence.
The most obvious of these is Jake, who fell in love with the prostitute, Alice, and lost her when he brought home the blood money, the bad aliens abducting her, the gold and Jake himself, for evil, inhuman experiments that eventually kills her and leaves Jake wounded and at lost for a memory of who he is and where he’s been.
Sadly for Jake, he loses the female alien, too, forcing him to wander the world at the end alone.
The minister seems without a significant other and so gets stuck with Jake and the doctor to say words of comfort over his grave.
Clearly, there is no woman in the military man’s – Dollarhide – life, otherwise, she might have pinned back the ears of his gun toting spoiled brat of a son, he is forced to leave in the care of male hired hands, who do a piss poor job of keeping him under control and out of trouble.
The sheriff takes care of his grandson because his daughter died and was buried near the town, while the father is off somewhere promising to return at some point.
Even the doctor, who starts out with a good wife, loses her along the way and has to go and retrieve her.
The cowboy world was largely a male dominated world, but you would think that with all of those people being lassoed by alien craft and dragged away, some women would want to join the posse to get one back.
But there is clearly something being said here, about men and their children, about fatherhood and husbandhood, which having a woman around would somehow negate.
Even the outlaws seem more than a little perturbed by the fact that Jake gave them up in order to take up with a whore – a separate issue from the fact that he made off with the gold to do it.
This film is about becoming a man and what it takes, as clearly defined by Dollarhide’s relationship to the sheriff’s grandson.
Mothers seem in short supply, even the Indian boy Dollarhide more or less adopted, but is somewhat shamed of.
Dollarhide himself went with his father before the war to become a man.
What it takes depends on the person. Jake is supposedly a man, and yet has a lot to learn about what it means to find and keep love.
The doctor has similar issues, somewhat whinny when it comes to his dream, and not very appreciative of his wife’s sacrifices.
Dollarhide – who has his share of wisdom – fails to appreciate what he has before him, not in cattle or power, but in human wealth. While he is clearly blind to the virtues of his adopted Indian son, he is even more out of touch with his real son. Dollarhide’s relationship to the sheriff’s grandson provides him with a strong tie to his own passed, and what it took for him to become a man at that age. Somewhere in this mix, in the telling of stories to the younger boy and in his losing his Indian son and saving of his real son, Dollarhide rediscovers a fundamental truth about his own life.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens meets The Searchers

Some critics call Cowboys & Aliens a mash up between SF and Western, when in reality, it is mash up between a Clint Eastwood movie, and those made by John Wayne.
With Jake depicted as a Clint Eastwood character and the military man dawn out of John Wayne movies such as The Searchers and Red River.
You can easily imagine the pre-filming meetings with the actors advising them on how to portray these.
While the opening scene of Jake lying on the ground appears to have been lifted from Wild Wild West after Jim West falls from the villain’s mechanical spider, I’m pretty sure both images were lifted from a Clint Eastwood Italian western, just as some of the other scenes of Jake were.
The Harrison Ford character transitions from Red River into The Searchers with several other John Wayne films tossed in, perhaps even The Horse Soldiers.
In the Searchers, John Wayne travels with a son who is partially Indian, a fact which he cannot forget as he pursues the woman he loves. Harrison Ford’s character hates Indians, including the Indian boy that most loves him like a father.
In Red River, we get a John Wayne that is a ruthless cattle baron and his adopted son. His wife was killed by Indians before the story starts. In Cowboys & Aliens, we have Ford as a ruthless cattle baron with a spoiled son, who has left much of the raising of his son to hired hands. As in the Red River, Ford’s men abandoned him half way through his pursuit of town’s people abducted by the aliens.
This pursuit seems to echo The Searchers in that the Ford character is a veteran of the Civil War that has a personal gripe with Indians – and pushes away the boy who is more like his son than his real son because he is an Indian.
In some ways, the aliens are really just another Indian tribe, the stereotype of the bad Indian vs. the good Indians the searchers in this film eventually find.
As in The Searchers, the aliens have abducted loved ones – including the military man’s real son – and the group must get them back.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The upside down ship in Cowboys and Aliens

Anybody who knows anything about Steven Spielberg has to have recognized the symbolism of the upside down paddle wheeler 500 miles from any river big enough to handle it.
In many films that a produced or director by Steven Spielberg, we get these kind of images, alluding often to other films or pieces of fiction to build a kind of subtext that is not overly obvious.
This is different from some of the short cuts Spielberg and his cronies sometimes take – such as the recent car chase in Transformers and The Island, or many of the other less obvious tricks Spielberg sometimes plays such as the blow pipe trick that appears in both Young Sherlock Holmes and later in Crystal Skull, or the temple scene Spielberg lifted wholesale to use again in Temple of Doom.
At their best, films associated with Spielberg are layered, and these have symbolic keys that allow us to unlock deeper layers of meaning in each film.
The upside down paddle boat appears to be one of these, a reference back to one of Spielberg’s classic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where we encounter a finishing trawler grounded in the middle of the Gobi Desert, a thousand miles from the nearest sea.
Close Encounters is – among other things -- a kind of retelling of the Biblical account of Moses and his call to the mountain to collect the Ten Commandments. And with Cowboys and Aliens literally drenched in religious dogma, you have to wonder if this symbol of Spielberg’s past serves as a key to unlock some religious subtext here in this film.
In Close Encounters, the stranded ship is one of a series of events that indicate alien presence, foreshadowing of later more direct contact, including abductions and eventually, the musical dialogue between human and alien.
It is here that the wounded evil alien takes refuge against the rain and pursuit, and it is here that it lays in wait, eventually making its move against the sheriff’s grandson, and it is here that the minister is slain.
The minister has already given his words of wisdom to each of the pilgrims, who are making their way through the Bad Lands towards a fate none of them yet know, each seeking “absolution.”
But like Moses after delivering the tablets and law of this new faith, the minister cannot go on to the promise land, instead remaining behind, with a few words spoken over his grave before the others continue on.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Unforgiven’s influence on Cowboys & Aliens

No one can possibly make a modern western without paying tribute to what many consider a masterpiece of western fiction: The Unforgiven.
Cowboys & Aliens is no exception.
In some ways, The Unforgiven ripples through nearly every scene in this film, filling it with allusions and echoes of the earlier film.
In The Unforgiven, we have a notorious gunman, who is trying to forget his past, trying to live up to his wife’s expectations of a decent man.
In Cowboys, we have an outlaw who has been granted a gift of forgetfulness, a chance to find absolution by fighting on the right side – largely because he can’t remember who he was, but who has already taken the first step towards salvation when he fell in love with a prostitute named Alice.
In The Unforgiven, the outlaw, whose wife has died, gets an offer to avenge the wrong done to a prostitute named Alice, by taking up the bounty to kill them.
We get repeated images and situations in Cowboys that we saw in the Unforgiven, including a spectacular shoot out in the beginning, the hero being beaten up by bad guys, even a similar scene of the hero being stitched up.

We even see him looking at a photograph of his dead wife in the Unforgiven, the way the hero in Cowboys does.
There are a number of repeated images, comic elements such as attempts to learn or relearn how to shoot, and other sequences that are clearly drawn from the earlier film as a tribute.
Cowboy’s hero even wears the same hat at the hero in The Unforgiven, and we get a similar scene of law men coming into the bar in both films.
But the essence of the character is the same: both outlaws have to live with their notorious pasts and must somehow make things right so that they can move on into the future.
While the Cowboys hero steals blood money from fellow crooks, the Unforgiven hero earns his blood money.
Both heroes struggle with memory, although in the Unforgiven, the hero can’t remember because he was mostly drunk when he committed his felonies.
There is even a similar theme about death and afterlife in both films, as The Unforgiven hero mistakes Alice the prostitute for an angel. In Cowboys, we get the alien woman who pretty much is an angel. In both films, the heroes are well aware of good and evil, heaven and hell, as the Cowboy hero tells the villain to collect his gold in hell, while the villain in the Unforgiven tells the hero, he’ll see him in hell. Since in both films, it is clear that while they might be able to make amends, they are doomed to eternal punishment.

Shane and Cowboys & Aliens

It is nearly impossible to say just how much of Shane was taken to make up Cowboys & Aliens since both films make so much use of the same basic elements of the western.
Geography of Shane is much more limited since nearly all of the action takes place within view of the town, where as Cowboys & Aliens provides us with a wider range.
The cattle baron as the dark character may possibly be attributed to Shane, but modified to become one of the heroes.
In Shane, farmer and cattleman represent two great ways of life clashing. In this film, the cattle baron – the former military man – dominates a town that was once thought to be a mining town. While he and his son lord over the locals, it is not with the same clash of cultures.
Three elements are likely taken from Shane, however, the funeral scene, the Jake riding off into the blue horizon, and, of course, the dog.
In both films, the funeral becomes hugely symbolic in the need to pay respects to the dead. While in Shane, it becomes the focus of resistance, much in the way Irish funerals did in the feud against British oppression, in Cowboys & Aliens, the scene is used to continue the duality of mortal and immortal life that makes up the continuing religious theme.
The dog in this film looks very much like the dog that plays an important role in Shane, one of the beasts which lends realism to the western scene, and provides a kind of witness to the events. The dog plays a similar role in this film.
And, of course, the ride off at the end of both films is nearly identical. Strangely enough, it has a similar meaning. In Shane, the hero cannot escape his past as a violent gunfighter, telling the boy that it is impossible to live in peace with the killing he needed to do. We get a similar allusion in Cowboys & Aliens. In both films, the hero is denied the woman he loves. In Shane, he leaves because the woman he loves is married to another man, in Cowboys & Aliens, the woman he loves is dead.

Western film structure in Cowboys & Aliens

What really annoys me about some critics’ reaction to this film is their lack of knowledge about western literature tradition.
Some keep calling it a mash up of Sci-fi and Western genres, when the film – like Wild, Wild West – is a tribute to the late Penny western novels in which space ships and other oddities were common features.
A TV series – I think the name was Briscoe County – was typical of the late western fiction that was published at the Turn of the Century, influenced sharply by the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Like all films executive produced, produced or directed by Steven Spielberg, Cowboys & Aliens is an homage to other films. For instance, the rolling ball from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was hardly an original idea, taken literally from the 1959 film, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
This is particularly true in Cowboys & Aliens. Although I haven’t yet been able to find it, the opening scene comes almost directly from another classic film, as do several other critical scenes in the film – especially those dealing with pumping up the western aspects of the film.
More importantly, the film falls back on classic Hollywood structure to give it bones.
The fundamental element of this film like most classic westerns is why violence is necessary to preserve civilization.
We get this in nearly all of the main characters.
While Jake has become a champion for preserving civilization, he is a late comer to the cause, lured over to the good side by his love for a prostitute (something of an homage to Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven.”
But each character is brought to the edge of violence for the same reason – the military man, frustrated with bureaucracy, is taught finally why the civil war was necessary and why the loss of his men over a corn field mattered – when the other option is total lack of civilization.
The minister gave sage “friendly” advice to the doctor, telling him to get a gun and learn how to shoot, then proceeds to teach him.
Even the grandson to the sheriff learns that he has to hold onto the knife and use it to preserve good.
This film also holds true to the linked pattern of open space imagery that is so essential to western.
Classic films have a strange riding in from the wilderness – such as in Shane – and we get that in this film, too. As in Shane, Jake rides back out into the wilderness, again at the end.
All classic westerns require a brawl in a saloon, and this film does not disappoint us, and like in classic films, we get something of a gun fight against the aliens at the end, with images of the exploding Columbia shuttle too boot.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

It’s not what you were – Cowboys & Aliens

All of the principal characters in this film are struggling with identity, coming from one life with clearly defined role, and stumbling into the unknown.
The most obvious of these characters is Jake, who is struggling to find his lost memory, and finding at first that he was a really bad character, but someone who wanted to reform – but needed some dramatic moment to jolt him out of his old life into a new way of thinking.
The minister points out that he has seen good men do bad, and bad men do good, but it’s up to each person to decide which he is going to end up doing.
With faith as a central theme in this film, the minister points out that a man must make himself worthy of the lord, to recognize salvation and to embrace it.
Although Jake is the principle sinner that these lessons seem to touch upon – a man who needs to set things right after a life time of misdeeds, all of the characters are suffering similar need of faith.
The doctor comes to believe that he is responsible for his wife’s abduction because he chose to follow his dream by coming to the small mining down.
The military man is living in a past drenched with blood and betrayal, a survivor of the Civil War, who needs a new approach to the world. The woman/angel/alien needs to make the future better by making sure the evil aliens/demons do not get back with word about this planet.
The military man’s son is a spoiled brat who also needs a jolt to become a new man.
Even the boy – the grandson of the sheriff – is searching for identity.
This is why the minister’s dying words are so important, when he tells the doctor, it’s not what you were, but what you are – or perhaps what you will become.
All people are capable of change, and those who recognize it and embrace it, can be reborn into someone better – as each of the main character in this film have.
The more positive military man in the last scene tells Jake “We could use a good man,” in hoping to convince Jake to stay, ironically, Jake says – just before he rides off – “Yes, you can.”
While Jake has reformed, he must leave, perhaps part of the penance he must pay for his previous life, and there is this lingering question as to whether he will or not find salvation in the future.

Friday, August 26, 2011

tough guys of Cowboys and Aliens

Ritual in Cowboys & Aliens

The importance of ritual can not be overstated in this movie, since we get again and again that there is a proper way for nearly everything, and that in most cases, those who abide by the rules of the world get what they need or want.
Again, the minister plays a clear role in establishing these rules, outlining at various points for each of the main characters how they might reach their personal salvation.
Each character faces choices between going the right way or the wrong way, and generally, each must come back to the proper path in order to get what they need most.
Then, when the minister dies, and is buried, the characters are left to follow this or not.
When the military man urges the doctor and Jake to hurry, he says, "The only man who knew the right words to say is buried in the ground, isn't it enough that we took time to put him there."
Both Jake and the doctor say it is not, and concoct their own ritual to send the man on to the next world.
Getting to the next world is key.
It is through Indian ritual that Jake recovers his memory in order to bring the others to where the alien death camp is.
The military man’s son’s violation of basic rules is what leads him down the road to his own abduction. While some were willing to tolerate his spoiled acts, the sheriff is required to act when the boy goes too far.
And thus we get the ritual of sending him off to be tried.
But underlying all of this is the code of the west that says that each man must learn to fend for himself.
The military man when a boy was required to perform an act of mercy killing, part of his own becoming a man. The boy who is the grandson of the sheriff must go through a similar rite of passage to become a man.
This much the military man says to him when he hands him the knife, “Be a man.”
While one of the other characters says, “That’s hard,” another character says the military man means well.
But in the scope of things, this is how it must be done.

Old West heroes, Cowboys & Aliens

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Clint Eastwood anybody: Cowboys & Aliens

out in the open: cowboys and aliens

Forgive me father: Cowboys & Aliens

With the exception of the minister, all of the good characters in this film are seeking contrition. They have done something wrong or think they have something they have to make up for.
This best represented in one of the conversations between the doctor and the minister when the doctor says he should never have brought his wife to the town, and the minister comforts him and says he can still make things right.
Those who do not seek to make things right, who refuse to seek contrition are doomed – such as the villain who beats up Jake seeking to locate the gold Jake stole.
“The demons took it, and when you get to hell, you can get it back,” Jack tells him.
The minister, who is the moral center of this film, gives each instruction on how to be saved: first you have to recognize what you did, and then not let God do all the work in making it right.
The price of redemption is often high. In most cases, it is losing that person most dear to them – such as the old military man who didn’t appreciate the boy who was most like a son to him until that son died.
Even the sheriff has to make something right, making up for the death of his daughter by trying to raise his grandson.
In some cases, the character’s crime against society is marginal and they see their loved on restored, as in the case of the doctor. The military man loses an Indian son to get back a son he largely neglected.
But for Jake, his crimes against society were far too great for him to see his lost loved on returned, while he ends up on the right moral side, he must suffer the same loss twice, and must wander the world alone – even though he has done what was necessary to make things right.

Jake as Jesus Christ -- Cowboys & Aliens

Any film that starts out with a character saying, “I’m looking for absolution,” tells you right away what the film is about.
This is especially true when the main character has a spear-like wound on his side and wakes up with his arms outstretched as if he is lying on a cross.
Why a good Jew like Steven Spielberg insists on being the executive producer, producer or the director of so many films about Christ is a mystery beyond human comprehension.
Jake – the Christ-like outlaw – wakes up with no memory of his past, but with a strange alien bracelet on his wrist that is mistaken at first for maniacal – indeed, the bracelet even looks like something ancient Romans might have created, although at it turns out, it is the weapon of space aliens that some men mistake for demons.
After the near naked Jake dresses in the clothing of the four villains he gave absolution to with their own guns, he rides into town – while not on a donkey, it is the symbolic equivalent of Christ’s arrival in Jereuelum. He comes into the house of the minister – perhaps John the Baptist figure – washes his face in a kind of baptism at which point the minister points a rifle to him and says “Palms to Heaven, stranger.”
If you remember your Bible stories, Christ was greeted with palms on the first day of Passover.
Although the town has a doctor, it is the minister that treats Jake’s wounded side, making a point to say this is not a gunshot wound. Christ was stabbed in the side by a Roman solider when hanging on the cross.
The minister asks Jake about himself, and comments that Jake can’t get forgiven for sins if he can’t remember what they were.
In many ways, the good and bad aliens in this film are too much like angels and devils for there to be any mistaking them – although we don’t realize who the good angel is until late in the film. Early on, the bad aliens – who grab up people for experiments in much the same way as the Nazis did – are mistaken for demons.
Jake, of course, must go through a kind of personal hell to make up for his sins.
The minister points out, “I’ve seen good men do bad and bad men do good,” but is uncertain which of these Jake will turn out to be.
Jake’s reformation, however, started earlier when he mistakenly believed that he could use stolen money to save the prostitute he loved.
Her name is Mary – just as was the prostitute in the New Testament and while it was pieces of gold, not pieces of silver, that led to her abduction and eventual death, the point is well taken.
“You have to take that back,” Mary tells Jake in one of the flash backs, “that’s blood money.”
The demons grab her, Jake and the gold, and proceed to experiment on Jake and Mary, and in a significant moment, manage to turn Mary to dust – with a shot of the accumulated belongings of others who had been turned to dust in a similar fashion. Jake accidentally acquires one of their weapons and flees, and wakes up later in the desert which begins the film.
Like Christ – Jake is betrayed and arrested, and put into jail. The good angel – who is the guise of a woman – clocks him on the back of the head just as the sheriff tries to arrest him. He wakes up to having a rich man’s son spitting on his face.
Like Christ, Jake is being sent to the authorities for trial – at which point, the rich man – played by Harrison Ford – arrives, and right behind him, the demon aliens.
The rest of the film is largely a chase film as a wounded demon flees and Jake, the rich man, the minister and others follow with the hopes of getting back loved on snatched by the other evil aliens.
The minister is killed by the wounded alien while trying to save a local boy – just as John the Baptist dies early on in the Biblical tale. The New Testament didn’t have Indians, of course, but it had a lot of bad guys, and in this tale Jake’s former gang beats him up for stealing the gold they stole, mocking him for using it to save the whore.
While this tale is largely about rebirth – especially for Jake – who must be reborn in order to be saved, we get the symbolic and literal death of the angel, who Jake tries to save from the aliens, but cannot, but who rises out of the flames at the Indian camp to help bring white man and red man together to oppose a common enemy. She becomes Jake’s guide into the underworld, a travel down into the darkness where they rescue those who were abducted – allowing them to be reborn, in particular, the rich man’s son, but at the cost of the angel, who must die so that other might live.

what have you done? Cowboys and Aliens

Wonderful west -- cowboys and aliens

what's in a memory? cowboys and aliens

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Street fight from Cowboys and Aliens

Outlaw scene shots from Cowboys & Aliens

Yet more openning shots from Cowboys & Aliens

More opening shots from Cowboys & Aliens

opening shots from Cowboys & Aliens