In the midst of Brokeback Mountain's titanic buzz, I flipped the radio to Terry Gross. She was interviewing a scratchy-voiced, ornery Tommy Lee Jones about his directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. They talked about ranching, the West, and the western, and suddenly there it was two of the season's most talked about American films were, well, westerns.
Given the myth that the genre died in a furious post-Vietnam flash (mostly courtesy of Sam Peckinpah), the current adulation is curious. The western, of course, has never disappeared, with Dance of the Wolves nabbing all sorts of awards and art-house directors like Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) taking the genre to new poetic heights, but there's something different about Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Part of this has to do with the films' naturalism they're not obsessively self-referential, weighed down by the genre's crushing tropes and history. More obvious, but no less significant, is the social-problem angle. Both Ang Lee and Tommy Lee Jones entangle their westerns with contentious social matters homosexuality and immigration and, in doing this, they preserve a long-standing tradition. With a generic landscape so rich in myth and symbols, studio filmmakers turn to the western to trace America's evolving character, and, indeed, Lee and Jones do it the right way, situating their stories around knife-sharp dualities between wilderness and civilization, individual and community.
This isn't the first time there's been a buzz about a genre's resurgence, and the conglomerate organization of the movie business doesn't need genre the way the studio system of old did, but it seems reasonable to hope that Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada at least make the western a viable option. It only takes a presidential address, after all, to realize how relevant the cowboy mythos is.