Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Western In American Life (A True West Filmography) by Phillip Breen

Hang onto your six gallon hats for this whistle-stop tour of influential Western films from My Darling Clementine to Brokeback Mountain by True West director Phillip Breen:

The Western In American Life (A True West Filmography)
Phillip Breen

American social life is drenched in imagery from the Western. The term "rugged individualism" evoked by Herbert Hoover was straight out of the lexicon of the cowboy and served to justify the lack of state intervention in the economy that led to the Wall Street crash and the great depression of 1929. The gun is still an emotive symbol of American Freedom. President Bush's talk of "a coalition of the willing", and his desire to "root out evil doers" comes straight out of a Hopalong Cassidy comic. President Truman's favourite film was John Ford's My Darling Clementine a soothing and sentimental depiction of the life of lawman Wyatt Earp. It played at the White House several times in 1946, the year after America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the year in which America rattled sabres with the Soviet Union by carrying out a series of further nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert.  
My Darling Clementine
America's anxiety about its role on the world stage was dramatised in Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952) (a favourite film of Eisenhower's), while the Korean War was in full swing and America was trying (often alone) to stop communist expansion in Asia. In this film the pacifist marshall played by Gary Cooper fails to gather a posse to face down the evil Colby brothers, and he must face them alone at high noon. America's racial tensions in the 50s were played out in films like John Ford's The Searchers (1956), where the "Indians" clearly represented African Americans as seen through the lens of white middle America, they were close by, savage, sexually rapacious and a threat to the American way of life. In this film John Wayne would rather kill his niece than let her live married to an Indian. America's unease with the pace of modernity was explored in David Miller's 1962 film Lonely Are The Brave where in the opening frames a sleeping cowboy (played by Kirk Douglas) and his horse are woken by the scream of a pair of jet-fighters soaring through the sky. 
Lonely Are The Brave
John Ford's 50 year career which saw him make 140 films, most of them Westerns, lasted twice as long as the frontier period itself. However toward the end of his movie-making career in the mid- sixties he was making films like Cheyenne Autumn a sympathetic portrait of Native American life and culture. This film was seemingly dramatising his own guilt about the senseless slaughter of Native Americans in his films. And perhaps reflecting America's own guilt about its own deep seated racial prejudice. It was made in 1963 the same year that Martin Luther King was making his famous 'I have a dream' speech. 
Cheyenne Autumn
Soon the Western was being colonised by a counter-culture as a way of criticising American life. Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1968) became a hit among hipsters, this film accompanied his iconoclastic pop-art renderings of John Wayne and Geronimo. Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) offered up a western with the backdrop of an urban dystopia* and even the spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood took the overtly moral core out of the Western genre and left us with an inscrutable anti-hero "the man with no name" who metes out bloody violence to anyone who stands in his way. Instead of justice, just a dark unknowable heart - and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys. 
Geronimo by Andy Warhol

The Western also reflected the increasingly violent character of American society in the early to mid 1970's. Audiences flocked to the extreme, nihilistic violence of the films of Sam Peckinpah The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and BIlly the Kid (1973). Peckinpah was the ultimate ersatz cowboy, whilst ragingly drunk one night he caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to a Texas hotel when he tried to take his horse up to his suite in the elevator. The horse died when it was cut out of the lift shaft. 
The Wild Bunch
Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) had an explicit conversation with the Western genre. The film offers us a complicated urban morality tale, in which the damsel in distress was a child prostitute and the hero takes his date to a porn movie rather than a barn dance but still, at the film’s bloody conclusion, he massacres the baddies in a hail of bullets. Here Scorsese offers a reducto ad absurdum of tenets of the western, the film’s anti-hero, the wanderer Travis Bickle offers simplistic western-style individualist solutions to highly complex social problems. Even his name ‘Travis’ linked him to the defender of the Alamo. Crucially Travis is a disaffected young Vietnam veteran who, because he cannot express himself economically, finds himself alienated from mainstream American life, he can't find himself so he assembles an identity from an external menu of traits from the western; the macho individualist, the gunslinger and the western lawman. Far from being lionised, the gunslinging American male was being scrutinised - America was being asked to countenance whether it was themselves who were the bad guys.
Taxi Driver
However it took until 2005 for the final myth of the main stream Western to be exploded. Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain was one of the first mainstream American films to offer up not only a gay love story, but a romantic gay love scene (Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) and Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978) even gave us explicitly violent scenes of male rape in mainstream cinema); but somehow it seemed apt that to was through the lens of the Western that mainstream American cinema saw its first achingly romantic gay love story.    
Brokeback Mountain

Citizens Theatre | 29 Oct - 16 Nov 2013

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Authentic West by Phillip Breen

Director of True West, Phillip Breen shares his insights on Sam Shepard, a Cowboy President and the writing of Paris, Texas in his latest blog on True West

Saul: It has the ring of truth Austin.
Austin: (Laughs) Truth?
Saul: Something about the real West.
Austin: Why? Because its got horses? Because its got grown men acting like little boys?
Saul: Nobody's interested in love these days, Austin. Let's face it.
Director Phillip Breen In Rehearsal for True West Photo: Tim Morozzo
True West was written by Sam Shepard in 1980. That year America was going through an identity crisis. Despite its position as a military super-power America seemed for the first time impotent, cautious, inhibited on the world stage. America was in the process of questioning its moral authority to act. It seemed somehow appropriate that in 1980 America turned to a President, Ronald Reagan who used to pretend to be a cowboy for a living (he even referred to the job as "the role of a lifetime"). This President self-consciously used the image of the Wild West in his election campaign in an attempt to restore America's optimism and its self-confidence. 
Ronald Reagan 1980 Presidential Campaign Poster

The Western has long been America’s mode of collective self expression - its the story it likes to tell of itself. The western hero is the apogee of American manliness. In a tough, hostile territory, the American male is self-reliant, macho, heterosexual, plain speaking, he works hard for his family and protects them from mortal danger with deadly force, he's courteous but tough, he's just, and won't rest until justice is served. This is a world of good guys and bad guys, a world where good men sometimes have to do bad things to stop the bad guys – morality is simple. In the Western we see a singular vision of American freedom, free from the oppression of the state, free from kings and despots in old Europe. This was the story America liked to tell itself, and the Western film the forum in which America explored its deepest wishes and fears.  
             By the late 1970s a new generation of artists weaned on the Western were starting to question their role in airbrushing a history which to their mind had seen the genocide of the native people of America, which had seen American consumerism lay waste to the environment, and its militarism kill the flower of its youth in its macho assertion of American power in the world. It saw the absurdity of the American depiction of heroism in the western, the lionising of the individualistic, simple minded killer. This generation of artists had seen how the fictions of 'The West' had allowed America to sleepwalk to the creation of a society of exploitative individualism, it encouraged America to perceive threat in every human interaction, and to live in fear of its neighbours. To artists such as Sam Shepard, by 1980 the gap between the myth and the 'reality' of America was a subject of profound importance.
Sam Shepard - incredibly handsome

Shepard himself had begun to sketch out an idea for a film script which was to become his and Wim Wenders 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas. In his vision of the West a vagrant wearing a tattered business suit wanders aimlessly through a landscape of desert junkyards, of barbed wire fences and rotting advertising hoardings. This was a subtle but brilliant inversion of the classic opening of the Western, where a lone hero strides purposefully through majestic landscape, knowing his destination, in order to save a life. Harry Dean Stanton's Travis does save a life, but the moral impact of the act is ambiguous. But most crucially Shepard's American wilderness rather than being physical is spiritual, internal; psychological. 
Paris, Texas poster 

          In the film's brilliant conclusion Travis says that "he wished he were far away lost in a deep vast country where no-one knew him somewhere without language, streets and he dreamed about this place without knowing its name". He went there in search of himself. For Shepard the vast mysterious plains of the American West were far from the hostile terrain of the earlier Westerns, but the place where America might once more get back in touch with its essential self. Perhaps by reconnecting with the land, and its ancient history and indigenous culture, America could once more find out who it really was. Shepard had perceived that Americans had retreated from their majestic surroundings in to small houses, in to offices, in front of type writers - staring in to television sets. As Austin says in scene 7 of True West "You're right about the lights Lee, everybody is living the life. Indoors. Safe. This is a paradise down here. You know that? We're living in a paradise down here. We've forgotten about that". It's an impulse that wouldn't have been unfamiliar to Wordsworth, Coleridge and Eliot as they watched the straight lines of fences and ownership scar the rugged beauty of the English countryside in the early 19th century.
Eugene O' Hare (Austin) in rehearsal Photo: Tim Morozzo
But Shepard doubted his film. He was being paid a great deal of money to write it, but he couldn't***. This writer's block, this conflict between his imagination and his craft, between the natural man and the social man, this desire to reconnect with the land, this portrait of lost American men searching for their fathers, became the core dramatic tensions of a theatre script that became True West. One can just hear the conversations with potential producers of Paris, Texas and Shepard's own self doubt in some of True West's most blistering dialogue: "No-one's interested in love these days", "Two lame brains chasin' each other across Texas! Are you kidding? Who do you think's going to see a film like that?", "In this business we make movies. American Movies. Leave the films to the French".

There are many motifs of the classic western contained within the action of True West. The standoffs, the loneliness of life on the road, the showdown at dawn, the double cross, the mindless violence and destruction; and the saving of a life. It is in the struggle of the composition of his own unique meditation on the Western film that Shepard wrote his most searching theatrical account of the interior wilderness of the American soul.
But as we will explore in future posts we will see how this play has much to say to an age where the authorship of the self is the most lucrative business on the planet, an age in which we are almost pathologically obsessed with authenticity.

I'm now off to eat my maldon sea salt and balsamic vinegar crisps and drink my latte made with organic milk and fair trade Peruvian coffee. Real coffee. From the bean.

Eugene O'Hare, Barbara Rafferty, Alex Ferns in rehearsal Photo: Tim Morozzo

True West plays at the Citizens Theatre Tue 29 Oct – Sat 16 Nov

Friday, 18 October 2013

A True "True West" by Phillip Breen

Director Phillip Breen has been telling us about how he prepares for a production like True West. In this first post, Phillip explains the importance of considering the time when the play was written, and what's going on in the world today.

Austin: Now that's a real story. True to life.

On the surface of things nothing much happens in True West. Two brothers meet in their mum's house 40 miles east of Los Angeles. One is a relatively successful writer, one's a drifter and petty criminal who has spent (conservatively) three months wandering in the Mojave desert.

The characters, such as they are, are contradictory, they might not even be real, the story, such as it is, makes little sense, there's no real beginning, middle or end, no-one appears to learn anything. And the whole thing feels like a mad dream.
Phillip Breen in rehearsals. Photo by Tim Morozzo.
But it is one of the best plays I have ever read.

How is this the case?

What has obsessed actors, directors and designers about this play? How does one go about starting to make a production of this astonishing play?

I start from a feeling in the pit of my stomach, that this play is astonishing because it’s true.
True to life.

Plays reveal things about ourselves that are difficult to express in any other way; revealing fears, dreams, anxieties about the writer and the writer's first audience. So to make a play live in 2013 I try to understand as much as I can of the culture that surrounded the play and that gave birth to it in order to translate it to now. Some of you will recall my production of The Shadow of A Gunman by Sean O'Casey - the setting for this was an Imperial power on its last legs, trapped in an unwinnable war, a place where young men leapt out of doorways to murder soldiers, and those soldiers met these acts of "terrorism" with savage reprisals, which inspired more desperate young men to kill. The story was set in Ireland in 1921, but one can see how this became a play about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the psychology of occupation.

The Shadow Of A Gunman 2006 - Michael Glenn Murphy, Terri Chandler Photo: Richard Campbell
There are three things that I try and get my head around when I start work on a play. Those things form a little triangle, and if those three things are working hand in hand in your thinking then you have a chance of giving a full and rounded account of a classic play and recreating its meaning and its shock for a contemporary audience.

1) The time in which the play was written - what was going on in the world when the play was being written. What was the writer reacting against? What made the play shocking to an (in the case of True West) a 1980 audience? What did the first audience think they were going to see? What did people think was going to happen? So many of the plays of the mid-20th century are written under the shadow of the atomic bomb and the very real possibility of a nuclear holocaust.

2) What was going on in the writer’s personal life? - Why did this writer need to write this play at this point in history? Which artists did he admire? Paul McCartney wanted to be Buddy Holly for example. What personal experiences did he bring to bear on the writing of this play? How does it relate to other of his works?  

3) What's going on now? - Why is this play relevant now? Why should we do it now? What's it got to say to a Scottish audience in 2013? What expectations are contemporary audiences going to bring to the play? How do we translate some things implicit in the play that might be difficult to understand for a modern audience?

True West was written by Sam Shepard in 1980. That year America was going through an identity crisis: defeat in Vietnam, the impeachment of Nixon after the Watergate scandal and a decline in American industrial power. The promise and optimism of post-war America had given way to cynicism and pessimism about the future. The Cold war was still at its height, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and there was an ongoing hostage crisis in Iran (detailed in Ben Affleck’s 2012 film Argo) where several American diplomats were held hostage in Tehran by revolutionary students.
Sam Shepard
It seemed somehow appropriate that in 1980, America turned to a President who used to pretend to be a cowboy for a living (he even referred to the job as "the role of a lifetime"). This President [Ronald Reagan] self-consciously used the image of the Wild West in his election campaign in an attempt to restore America's optimism and its self-confidence. For many Americans it worked, but for others the gap between the mythology of the old west and the reality it was enlisted to represent had never been greater.
To artists such as Sam Shepard, by 1980, the gap between the myth and the 'reality' of America was a subject of profound importance.
In the next post, we’ll explore 1980, America’s relationship with the Western, and its influence on the play.

Alex Ferns in True West Rehearsals Photo: Tim Morozzo

True West plays at the Citizens Theatre Tue 29 Oct – Sat 16 Nov

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Dragon Blogger Event

Thursday 10 October 2013 11am - 12pm

Fancy getting a sneaky peek at the beautiful Dragon set and grabbing a free ticket to the show? 

National Theatre of Scotland are holding an informal event at the Citizens this Thursday where you can preview scenes from the spectacular new show, meet the cast and creative team behind the production and grab exclusive content for your blogs, Twitter or Instagram profiles.  

View of Dragon set from backstage

Blogger event attendees will also receive a pair of tickets to enjoy the extraordinary visual story in full during the Glasgow run.
Dragon features puppetry, illusion and original music. It draws on the imagery of cinema, graphic novels and the history and culture of Eastern dragons to create a theatrical event.
Dragon is a National Theatre of Scotland, Vox Motus and Tianjin People’s Art Theatre (China) co-production. The production is directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, Artistic Co-Directors of Vox Motus. Jamie is the Puppet and Illusion Designer for the highly successful West End musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Scott Miller as Tommy in Dragon. Image by Pete Dibdin
Full Cast:  Martin McCormick, Joanne McGuinness, Scott Miller, Adura Onashile, Gavin Jon Wright, Zhang Kai and Tao Yan.
Space at the event is limited. If you'd like to come along, please send an email to National Theatre of Scotland Digital Associate, Eve for more info eve.nicol@nationaltheatrescotland.com
Dragon is at the Citizens Theatre from 11 - 19 October. Visit citz.co.uk for interviews, trailers, press articles and more info or BOOK NOW
For full details of Dragon performances at Eden Court, Inverness; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh; and The Lowry, Salford Quays visit National Theatre Scotland website