Around the West in 40 films
The best way in to Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938, a new DVD set from Image Entertainment and the National Film Preservation Foundation, is patiently. Forty years are a lot, and so are 40 films, even if you can get through them all in only 10 hours (by foregoing the scholarly audio commentary via 23 experts). The vastness of this West is geographical, too: a huge swath of the young United States, plus bits of Canada and Mexico. It’s a trove, all right, of obvious interest to history buffs, movie buffs and, of course, movie-history buffs.
Which is to say it’s fair enough to expect thick cobwebs here, the half-remembered stuff of some unventilated, dimly flickering elective class that you either dozed through or simply regret having elected. But the material, curated by UC Davis English department Chair Scott Simmon, is too blissfully meandering to qualify as parochial, and too formally varied. Newly restored oldies nest among promotional travelogues, proto-westerns, docudramas, newsreels and other motion-picture ephemera of such poise and vitality that in retrospect, it hardly seems ephemeral at all. Retrospect is the point, of course, and the privilege: to glimpse the medium, like the landscape itself, not yet codified according to our contemporary understanding.
But for all the staged fakery and promotionalism on display in these presumably quaint little time capsules, there is also a lasting authenticity. Go out and see any movie playing in a theater right now, then come home and pop in one of the Treasures DVDs; you might rethink what it means for cinema to be in touch with social reality.
“It was a time,” Simmon writes in his introduction, “when Native American tribes could play Indian roles, and real-life sheriffs—and bad men—reenacted history that they had made themselves. These matter-of-fact, gender-bending, time-traveling, ethnically diverse movies explored the West as a concept, a landscape, a borderland, a burgeoning economy, and an arena for clashing cultures.”
Any preservation of place-specific old movies implies a basic question: “How did it look back then?” This collection’s answer is both ethnographic and aesthetic: It looked like American modernism as a function of frontier expansion.
There are a few films of broadly local interest, like the fiction feature Salomy Jane (1914), whose setting, “Hangtown,” would eventually become Placerville, and whose star, Beatriz Michelena, would become America’s first Latina screen celebrity; Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) is an inviting six-minute spur to day-trip tourism there, and We Can Take It (1935) is a promotion of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (also known as the “Tree Army”), whose industrious days included, among many other projects, building the Ponderosa Way firebreak near Grass Valley. Their common theme should interest not merely buffs but any citizen of any City of Trees: the moving pictorial conflict between wilderness and civilization.