Thursday, May 05, 2005

Going to the picture show in The Newton Boys

As we know from the Nouvelle Vague, we should pay close attention when movie characters see movies or walk by movie theaters (remember to notice what the movie theater is playing!). This is particularly important within the movies of Jean-Luc Godard, a very major influence on Linklater.

Linklater’s Newton Boys gives us not one, but two movie-going scenes within the film, both of which are fundamental commentary upon Newton Boys itself. The first scene takes place during the courtship of Louise Brown (Julianna Margulies) by the film’s hero, Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey). Willis takes Louise and her young son to a selection of silent Western shorts (we do not see the actual films, but only the trio exiting the auditorium). Willis and the boy begin to debate the virtues of the leading Western stars of the day, Tom Mix and William S. Hart. The boy prefers Tom Mix, but Willis strongly argues for Bill Hart, saying that Tom Mix is a "bit fruity, with all those hats and costumes."

This conversation is more than a charming interlude - since The Newton Boys itself is a Western that reconsiders the Western genre, this conversation is a key both to The Newton Boys and to Richard Linklater’s understanding of the Western genre. Tom Mix and Bill Hart are the two polar opposites of the beginning of the Western. Mix wore highly elaborate Western-seeming costumes (which would have essentially been unknown in the actual historical West). Mix’s movies tended to be much more hackneyed and cliched than Hart’s, with melodramatic white hat / black hat plots, extravagant roping and horse-tricks and so on.

Conversely, Bill Hart was a much more serious actor. Eschewing Mix’s costumes and very conventional plots, Hart tried to create a more realistic, serious and harder-edged Western genre. Many of his characters prefigure those heralded many decades later in the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart cycle of Westerns - the "good bad man" archetype. Unfortunately, it was Tom Mix who proved significantly more popular and the Western genre followed Mix’s example for many decades, rather than Hart’s. The Newton Boys’ preference for Hart over Mix reflects the movie’s project to reconsider the origin of the Western and to try to recapture other potential courses for the Western that were not pursued, but could have been.


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