The Acid Western is a sub-genre which was only really formulated in retrospect; prior to this, the films which constitute its corpus were merely considered as the farthest tip of the revisionist trend. The Acid Western was a critical creation (the concept was coined by Pauline Kael and expanded upon by Jonathan Rosenbaum), and is bookended by two films: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s hallucinatory El Topo (1970) and Jim Jarmusch’s Kafkaesque Dead Man (1995). In both works, the traditions of the West become oppressive, its liberties curdling into nightmarish uncertainty. Jodorowsky and Jarmusch mutate the traditional Western landscape, rendering it unnervingly absurd. Western myths are distorted, creating a psychological hall of mirrors in which the picaresque and symbolic carry equal significance.
Monte Hellman is another central figure in the development of the Acid Western. Hellman’s existential westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both 1966) are almost Beckettian in their emphasis on the interplay between the banal and the catastrophic. Hellman’s West is rife with deadly missteps, prolonged ennui and sudden disruptions; characters are drawn into an uneasy proximity; inertia is punctuated by sudden bursts of brutality. In the Acid West, the cowboy is not free, he is lost. He will become trapped in his assigned role if he doesn’t make the decision to break out. (Prior to his work on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), writer Rudy Wurlitzer collaborated with Hellman on his cult road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Wurltizer’s other major writing credit is Alex Cox’s Walker (1987), which extended the surrealist spirit of the Acid Western into a third decade.)
The heyday of the Acid Western was the early 70s, a time when the counterculture stormed the citadel and briefly ran wild before normal order was restored. The Acid Western is a relic of the license that was fleetingly available within a system floundering for solutions. The state of higher consciousness, the obliteration of the self which acid facilitates placed it at odds with the founding myths of the Western: the notion of the lone, heroic cowboy who is pitted against an external foe he must master. As the distinction between interior and exterior begins to erode, these myths becomes increasingly open to question, the dissonant self drowns out an entirely contingent idea of heroism. Two of the central figures in kicking down these doors were Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider (1969) became a cultural landmark by daring to question what it meant to be an American as the 60s ideal receded. These were questions which Fonda and Hopper would return to in their subsequent work.
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The Last Movie (1971) has long been infamous as one of the most egregious examples of New Hollywood hubris (it is only in recent years that its reputation has been rehabilitated). It is ironic that the film has come to be regarded in those terms, as few other films have done a better job of dismantling the mythology of the auteur (Hopper was channelling his own experiences working as an actor in the 50s for Old Hollywood martinet Henry Hathaway). It was convenient on the part of many in the industry to dismiss The Last Movie, as it took a hatchet to sacred cows on both sides of the cultural divide. Hopper lays bare the colonialist tendencies of the Hollywood machine, its incorporation of cultural specificity into an all-encompassing “movie” experience, with the director as potentate. Yet he is equally critical of the counterculture’s absorption into the machine it set out to dismantle.
Hopper plays Kansas, a stuntman on a Western shooting in a remote Peruvian village, helmed by the irascible Sam (Samuel Fuller). When the production wraps, Kansas stays behind with his Peruvian girlfriend, Maria (Stella Garcia). Maria yearns for a swimming pool and “a General Electric refrigerator,” while Kansas has a vision of turning the village into a tourist trap and film production hotspot, speculating that “you could buy this land dirt cheap… probably get it for around a dollar an acre.” Kansas and Maria play out the master/subject dynamic that finds its expression in the wider society; the promise of material advancement is always underscored by the threat of violence. Kansas bemoans the lack of other productions arriving, asserting that “you can’t duplicate this anywhere.” As a representative of Hollywood, Kansas places the appearance of authenticity over all else; as a stuntman, it is his job to replicate peril, to present the impression of pain onscreen. It is only when the villagers begin to recreate the scenes they have witnessed that Kansas must confront his role in the artifice.
Hopper conflates the essence of cinema with religious ritual. When Sam sets up the movie’s climactic scene, the shooting of Billy the Kid (Dean Stockwell), he instructs his crew: “I want it legitimate and different and better than it’s ever been done.” Everyone involved understands that they are playing out a mythic narrative, no different from the Christian procession which begins the film; the actors are merely effigies invested with the cultural weight of these figures from the Old West. Just as the Padre (Tomas Milian) struggles to bridge the divide between “the real church” and “the movie church,” it is often difficult to distinguish where their “movie” ends and the “film” begins. The process of “shooting” becomes its own kind of death, invested with ceremony. The camera takes on a totemic dimension; the act of dying is merely the conclusion of a scene. The West has been hollowed out by Hollywood convention, reduced to a series of intricately staged stunts. Without a cultural frame of reference, these stunts become pernicious. The villagers are not inured to this cultural context. They reject the audiences’s compact to maintain the fourth wall; they accept the authenticity of the act. For the villagers, cinema is a ritual they cannot fathom.
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Kansas is left behind to see the insufficiency of these rituals. He is a figure perpetually on the periphery, equally bewildered by the new age pretensions of Hollywood players as the customs of the Peruvian villagers. When the Padre urges Kansas to quell the violence the movies have brought to the village, he tells the Padre he is “just a hired hand.” It is not difficult to detect in this statement a reflection of Hopper’s own feelings regarding the way he had shaped the zeitgeist. For all his cultural cachet coming out of Easy Rider, Hopper was still at the mercy of market forces (he wouldn’t direct another film until 1980’s Out of the Blue). As he watches the villagers recreate the movie set with the resources they have to hand — wooden mics and cameras, scenes lit by fire — and have real fistfights, Kansas grasps his complicity in corrupting the ideals of the village. The old structures have been undermined, the possibility of change has presented itself, but with it comes violence, and the original intent is lost.
In the economy of the spectacle, experience is the most prized commodity. Hopper introduces viewers to the Andersons, a family for whom “money is no object.” The Andersons embody the worst excesses of the Ugly American; lusting after the accumulation of experience, the acquisition of sensation, and using native bodies to extract them. The Anderson patriarch is a hunter who “kills everything,” filling their house with furs and pelts. Having succumbed to the logic of spectacle, the villagers enact the “movie fiesta,” a celebration for which Kansas is both the star and the sacrificial lamb. The camera becomes the fulcrum of a new faith, an icon which galvanizes their collective energy. The fictitious West becomes the focus of their idolatry. “We brought the movies,” Kansas says ruefully after being dragged through town. The movie-inflected experience hinges on a cultural context, a shared set of assumptions. The Last Movie dramatises what happens when the movies are placed outside their original context, when Hollywood spectacle comes into contact with the vicissitudes of the real.
Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971) is best remembered for its stunning photography from Vilmos Zsigmond, which utilizes beautiful slow-motion dissolves and superimpositions to engender a sense of concurrent timelines coalescing. These techniques allow multiple selves to overlap and interact; stasis and motion is created in a single frame; figures are dwarfed and inflated in the vast expanses they confront. Such lush visuals serve to shed light on the state of transition through which Fonda and his character, Harry Collings, are passing. Collings has spent the last seven years prospecting with his friend, Arch Harris (Warren Oates). Harry and Arch are joined by Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt), a youngster who is eager to make it to California — the latest frontier, abundant with gold, oranges and women, where the ocean is “a great blue prairie.” Griffen urges his older comrades to seek their fortunes in California.
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Harry is immediately established as a character who refuses to be cast along by the tide. He stands separate from worldly concerns; a stance symbolised by his decision to cut the line which has snagged the body of a young girl floating in the stream where they are fishing. By cutting the line, Harry divests himself of any connection to the girl’s suffering, allowing the body to meet its fate. When they reach the dying town of Del Norte, Harry informs his fellow travellers that “I ain’t going to the coast,” that he intends to go home, where he had abandoned his wife and child. Arch decided to go with Harry. The night before their return, Dan is killed by McVey (Severn Darden), after allegedly being caught in bed with McVey’s wife. Harry and Arch get their revenge the next morning, attacking McVey’s house and shooting the corrupt boss of Del Norte through both of his feet. Vengeance exacted, Harry and Arch travel to Harry’s home. Harry’s wife, Hannah (Verna Bloom), refuses to allow Harry inside the house, but accepts the offer for he and Arch to sleep in the shed and remain as hired hands.
Like The Last Movie, there is much in The Hired Hand which mirrors Fonda’s own preoccupations. Though it is less stylistically daring than Hopper’s work, it is nonetheless a radical work in its use of the Western setting to address personal concerns and challenge orthodoxy. But while Hopper galloped to the hinterlands, Fonda crept tentatively away from the centre. Much of Harry’s struggle to reconcile his competing impulses mirrors Fonda’s ambivalence towards his status as a member of Hollywood royalty. Harry’s position is that of the ultimate outsider; he is neither free to pursue his independence, nor able to entirely settle within the traditional structures of the family. His return home is conditional, and he understands that he has much work to do if he is to be accepted again. For the time being, he must experience his old life from a distance, with Arch there to remind him of the ocean’s excitement and possibility. As Arch speculates: “Home. Maybe there ain’t no such colour.”
Much of The Hired Hand’s radicalism is engendered in its approach to character. Hannah is another character who has bucked traditional mores. In many respects, she is the film’s most heroic figure, affirming her own identity within the social space afforded her. Hannah is set apart from the townsfolk, and she readily admits her casual affairs with previous hired hands. By denying Harry admittance into the house, Hannah asserts her own independence, steeling herself for the time when Harry will desert her in service to the restless spirit that guides him. When Hannah tells Harry that Arch has “had more of you than I’ve ever known,” that Arch is “what you went looking for,” it lends the men’s attachment a homoerotic charge. The scene in which Arch departs for a solo trek to California has a barely disguised romantic tenor. Hannah grasps that Harry’s ties to Arch are stronger, just as Fonda’s sympathies lie with the cinematic outlaws. Harry cannot be contained by the family, just as Fonda was not content to be a famous son. But character and actor must carry the wounds of their allegiance, cast into the unregulated space where the reverberations of their decisions will be felt.
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In Bad Company (1972), director Robert Benton and writer David Newman found common cause with a previous generation of outsiders who rejected the prevailing values of their own paradigm and set forth on their own course. Benton and Newman were on the ground floor of the New Hollywood, writing the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a film which did for the crime film what The Wild Bunch (1969) did for the Western. Bad Company may be the most explicitly political film of the initial Acid Western cycle. In drawing a parallel between those who refused to fight in the Civil War and those who refused to go to Vietnam, Benton and Newman used the Western as a rhetorical device, countering the genre’s historical conservatism. (The establishment Westerns released in the same year have a valedictory flavour: there is the last of the seven sequels, The Magnificent Seven Ride; and The Cowboys, which is notable for being a rare film in which John Wayne’s character is killed.)
Bad Company emulates the bleak farce of M*A*S*H (1970); its story of a devout Methodist, Drew (Barry Brown), who evades conscription in the Union Army and falls in with streetwise hustler, Jake (Jeff Bridges), brims with dark-edged levity. The scenes of comically botched robberies and chicken rustling are punctuated by emotional jolts which crack the romantic patina of the West. Visually, the prairie is a subdued landscape; its autumnal browns and greens are captured to lugubrious perfection by legendary DP Gordon Willis. It is a far cry from the grandeur of Monument Valley, a barren terrain traversed by the defeated and dejected. Drew dreams of reaching the silver mines of Virginia City, “where I can find my fortune and make my parents proud.” But his illusions are disabused on the journey west. Drew is the model for Johnny Depp’s William Blake in Dead Man, he struggles to maintain the social values and virtues that will make him such easy prey on the merciless prairies.
Jake’s gang of waifs and strays encounter a farmer and his wife on the trail; they are returning from the West financially ruined, and urge the boys to “turn around and go back.” The scene ends with the farmer pimping out his wife to the boys. Drew is derided for being the only one to refuse. This interaction crystallizes the film’s gallows humour; on the surface, it is played for laughs, but there is an underlying rage at the predacious logic which the founding principles of the West are designed to inculcate. The West is characterised as a swindle, luring in the credulous and covetous. Bandit Big Joe (David Huddleston) complains that “I’d like to get my hands on the son of a bitch who told me to go west.” Bad Company explodes the myth of a historical consensus which was fatally compromised by the divisions of the 1960s, illustrating that opposition to war is nothing new, that iconoclasm is central to the American experiment. In fleeing one war, the boys find another; a war that is constantly being waged, pitting all against all. Drew flourishes in the West, but not in the way he’d envisaged. He comes to learn that the story he tells the world can be continually rewritten.
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The Acid Western has produced its fair share of oddities and provocations. George Englund’s Zachariah (1971) dubbed itself “the first electric Western,” a consciously “far out” hippie musical starring a young Don Johnson and featuring performances from acid rock luminaries Country Joe and the Fish. Stan Dragoti’s Dirty Little Billy (1972) proclaimed that “the real Billy the Kid wasn’t big or tough or brave, he was a punk,” and “the real William H. Bonney was a loser,” with the elfin Michael J. Pollard as a stumbling, gun-shy rendering of the Kid. The apogee of all provocations is Robert Downey Sr.’s Greaser’s Palace (1972), which took the idea of the heretical Western to new heights (or depths, depending on your viewpoint).
Downey Sr. interlaces Western and biblical motifs to tell the story of Jesse (Allan Arbus), who parachutes into a New Mexico town; the fiefdom of Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson), whose constipation cannot be cured by the mariachi band which is commanded to play whenever he visits the outhouse. Clad in a zoot suit, Jesse performs a series of miracles for the awestruck locals, but incurs the wrath of Seaweedhead when he repeatedly resurrects his son, Lamy (Micheal Sullivan), whom Seaweedhead keeps killing. Greaser’s Palace exists on its own terms, adheres to its own logic; it is arguably the purest expression of the Acid Western sensibility, locating a sweet spot between the profane and the profound. It prefigures the Monty Python team’s similar such absurdist riffs on history and mythology, and its influence is clear on Alex Cox’s postmodern Western Straight to Hell (1987), refracting John Ford’s epic panoramas through the blasphemous satire of Luis Buñuel.
The West in which Greaser’s Palace takes place is one where any certainty has been erased; it speaks in a purely cinematic vernacular; it uses the Western milieu as an inflection, a distortion of a misunderstood heritage. The Christ-like Jesse is “on his way to Jerusalem to be an actor/singer/dancer,” where he will meet with “the Agent Morris.” For Jesse, the miracles become less important than his desire to entertain, performance becomes the purest expression of selfhood. Jesse’s miracles degenerate into a tawdry vaudeville routine, calculated to mollify the audience. In this climate, it is the Agent Morris, the tastemaker, who is the true deity. Downey Sr. speaks to the elevation of cultural identity over the consolation of faith, leading to a cultural tribalism in which we define ourselves in relation to what we consume. It is a notion which came to prominence in the early 70s, following a wave of assassinations and the failure of new youth movements to instigate social change. Cultural belonging became a fallback for the politically dispossessed. With the Acid Western, the genre had once again proven itself capable of assimilating new grievances and anxieties.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.