Thanks to me (and Shane), there are now ten Connecticut high school graduates who can tell you how to wear a holster to best draw and fire a six-shooter. And thanks to those kids, I now understand the real tragedy of Snooki and the Situation.
When I offered to teach a senior English class entitled “Printing the Legend: The American Western on Page and Screen” at my daughters’ school, I figured it was a cheap excuse to see the girls a little bit more each day. And it was a perfect rationalization for watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the 89th time. To be honest, I started the semester with not much of a plan beyond the reading list and a goofy lecture built around Bruce Springsteen’s eight-minute opus “Outlaw Pete.” Honestly, I had no real idea of how to get 17-year-olds interested in a genre that’s all but disappeared from Hollywood and the “featured” tables at Barnes & Noble.
Then a funny thing happened when I showed them Destry Rides Again. The kids were bored during the opening scenes, and I was certain I’d blown any chance at engaging them. Between the black-and-white film and the ham acting, Destry Rides Again must have seemed like proof that they’d never relate to Westerns. Even in the darkened classroom, I could see eyes glazing; I watched bodies slump ever lower in wooden chairs. But when Jimmy Stewart appeared on screen, I had them. If you’ve seen this movie, you know why. Stewart was a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him movie star, and his naturalistic acting stood in contrast to everyone around him. He commanded attention by just cocking his head.
My kids perked up. They wanted to find out how he planned to beat the bad guys without carrying a gun; they talked about the obvious sparks between straight arrow Thomas Jefferson Destry and bad-girl saloon singer Frenchy. And one of them asked my favorite question of the semester. When Marlene Dietrich, playing Frenchy, launched into her second song of the movie, a boy raised his hand, and before he could speak, I said, “I know. It sort of stops the plot. But in the days before television, one of the reasons people went to the movies was to see famous singers.”
“That’s not what I was going to ask,” he said. “I just wanted to know: Wasn’t she in Blazing Saddles?” Those kids had no idea why I laughed so hard. The next day, though, I showed them the clip of Madeline Kahn doing a dead-on impression of Dietrich in the Mel Brooks comedy, and they got it.
Reading and watching Westerns with people who had no sense of nostalgia for them was fascinating. My students found the action in Jack Schaefer’s novel Shane ho-hum, for instance, but they were riveted by farmer Joe Starrett’s calm reaction to his wife’s attraction to a mysterious boarder. And the kids understood right away that Unforgiven is a very violent movie that’s deeply ambivalent about violence.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about the fact that the guy who keeps saying ‘violence is bad’ ends up blowing away the bad guys,” said one of the boys in the class. “Exactly,” said one of the girls. And as much as they struggled with the pacing of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s the Ox-Bow Incident, they knew a great story about peer pressure when they read it.
When the semester started, my one hope was that they would understand why Westerns are so uniquely American. I wanted them to realize that in telling stories about cowboys, ranchers, and farmers, authors and screenwriters have really been telling the story of how we started out as Europeans in the East and became Americans along the way West. I wanted them to see the roots of our national sense of toughness and individualism. What I hadn’t bargained for, though, was that by the end of the semester, they’d be using the stuff we read and watched to examine and critique modern American culture.
Which brings us to Snooki and the Situation, those tanning-and-hair-gel-obsessed denizens of MTV’s the Jersey Shore. They came up during a discussion of the Shootist, Glendon Swarthout’s brilliant novel about a legendary gunfighter dying of prostate cancer. The title character, J.B. Books, is a practical man to the end, only too happy to be exploited by El Paso’s local businessmen as long as there’s money (up front, of course) for him. He lets a photographer take and sell his picture; he agrees to the undertaker’s plan to exhibit his body for 5¢ a head, once he’s dead. Books even allows the barber to save his hair cuttings for souvenirs.
“It’s just like reality TV, but it’s the opposite,” offered one of the girls.
I asked the young lady what she meant, and she replied: “When you talked about how Books was exploiting himself, I thought about Snooki and the Situation, and the Real Housewives, but then I realized they’re not like JB Books at all. You know the two people Books kicks out of his room? The reporter who wants to write some phony story about him, and the preacher who wants him to say that he repents. The two things Books won’t sell are his name and his soul!” That, she said, made him different from anyone on the Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, or just about anyone on reality television, most of whom seem only too happy to sell their names, their reputations, and maybe even their souls for their 15 minutes of fame.
Clearly, my fears that 17-year-olds wouldn’t relate to Westerns proved unfounded. In fact, the best thing about teaching is when students teach you something. Oh, and that young lady? She aced the class.
Philip Van Munching is the New York Times best-selling author of Boys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt): A Dad’s Advice for Daughters.