I think we agree, the past is over.
-George W. Bush

In The New York Times review (July 29, 2011) of Cowboys & Aliens, Manohla Dargis points out the direction of a Millennial response: it take a long time for director Jon Favreau “to wake up his movie” because he has to go through all the “western clichés”, about a half hour wait before the Aliens kick in, a long time for young viewers “who don’t watch westerns” and were puzzled about why this isn’t called “Cowboys vs. Aliens’. What to make of all this?

Because Dargis believes the movie has to be “woken up” from its western clichés, her reaction to the western stuff is like the reaction of her friend’s niece and nephew. When the Aliens appear, the movie “finally!” wakes up. What exactly is it in the movie that “wakes” up Dargis and “young viewers”?

Daniel Craig, who plays Jake Lonergan, wakes up as if from a really horrifying bad dream in a desert, wounded, without his memory but a very hip looking metallic bracelet on one wrist. Call it a “wrist wrapped device,” one that he can’t remove, rather like a hand held electronic device – which this Alien device proves to be but so hi-tech that its possibilities, well, wake us up. Craig discovers and we along with him that this strange attachment reads his mind and responds with deadly force when he wills it to, rather like the way a cowboy analogue mind would come into play at fast draw time. So time-wise, the Alien hi-tech device enters the movie at the same time that the cowboy does. The Wild West is from the get go here being supplemented – because of it’s time worn “western clichés” – or displaced really by this very 21st, New Millennial device. Hi-tech not only saves the day by blowing away Aliens the way you would on an Xbox game but it saves the film, at least in the eyes of Dargis and “young viewers.” It’s Cowboys AND Aliens because there would be no interest in just Cowboys. John Wayne did that one “back in the day” but it’s exhausted now. Time-worn clichés.

We could blame this on what Hollywood has done to those frontier days, how it has transformed the “reality” of the Wild West – maybe more the Hungry, Dangerous Hardship Western – into endless “Oaters”, “Horse Operas” in which there’s a saloon Kitty with a heart of gold (director Favreau missed this one), a white hatted hero and a black hatted villain, a high noon shoot out and a ride into the sunset. And so on. I don’t believe the present dismissal of “Cowboys & Indians” has anything to do with historical inaccuracy or the poetic license of Hollywood. It’s not simply the Western that’s exhausted in the eyes of the young viewers but history itself. You need to put some sort of hand held or wrist wrapped hi-tech device into the historical scene in order to “wake it up.”

This may be why President Obama fought hard to keep his Blackberry: he knew that in the eyes of the new voters he would look like just another politician in a suit. Sarah Palin prefers to tweet her political platform, such as it is, in order to detach herself from the “lamestream media.” She is not alone; political campaigners along with political issues are moving online. Political debates are moving ever closer to interactive Tweet fests and political platforms are scaling to Tweet size. The presence of hi-tech and the surround of cyberspace make no compromise with history as well as politics: to remain in view both must attach themselves to hi-tech devices and devising. The Alien in the room, or, to follow through, on the set, is a revival of history in the only way to which we can attend, a waking up of “old, over and adios.” Of course, it’s more of a “Grand Delete” of history and its replacement with an instant messaging of the present moment, a digital hi-speed screening and then next day archiving of what is easily crowded out of an over-stimulated, multi-tasking present moment.

You can resurrect wars, say, the Civil War or Viet-nam, that undeclared war with “Red Badge of Courage & Aliens,” “Apocalypse Now & Aliens,” and expect that it will not be Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010), In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007), or The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) but “Iraq and Aliens” which will capture the “reality” of that enterprise. “Inside Job & Aliens” may finally draw Americans to a proper view of the Great Recession of 2008. As we now live in a hi-speed sense of time, 2008 is of course “back in the day,” as is Obama’s 2008 presidential candidate’s promise to bring “change” to American politics. The effective mantra of a 2012 campaign will of course be “Change & Aliens”.

Throughout history there have been repeated “revivifying presences” that the present provides so that history is re-viewed from a different perspective, say, a woman’s or a racial minority’s. Or, some previously hidden cabal of power is exposed, some manufacturer’s concealment, some presumptions of science, some abuse by the military and so on. The present may bring an enlightening new theoretical perspective or not. History is revived by a continuance of “doing history”, that is referring to what went before as a necessary prelude to an understanding as to how to proceed in the present. “History & Aliens”, however, drops all history as an Analogue obsolescence in the fashion of ending the manufacture of Remington Selectric typewriters. We are waking up to the sort of technological future that ironically the Aliens in Cowboys & Aliens already possess. They’re here for the gold and for our watches (a strange close up of a horde of gold pocket watches in the Alien stronghold) and to destroy us, and presumably when we go, so too does our history.

This film, however, refreshes, so to speak, the Wild West by introducing not only the alien Aliens but the beautiful Alien who saves us all in the end by dying and rising like the Phoenix from the ashes. That’s what the Alien presence does for us in the movie, what it does for history. The Analogue past goes up in ashes and a digital new age replaces it. When the last of the Analogue generation passes on, the ampersand can be dropped as any memory of Cowboys, Paul Revere’s ride, the “shot heard round the world,” whether or not the separation of church and state appears in the U.S. Constitution or not, and other assorted campaign re-writes, fade like yesterday’s tweets.

So history is not so much revived in this movie as pronounced dead, yet again. What is revived are the illusions of self-empowered individualism and that is accomplished by rekindling the memory of a never-say-die Frontier American spirit. In other words, a U.S. faced with a diminished presence in the 21st century, needs a shot of pick-me-up to meet the Alien challenge. Here we can define the Alien challenge broadly as anything from the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks to the economic assault on American economic hegemony launched by China, India, and all the Asian tigers to the growing population of Hispanics who will soon outnumber whites. Why not replay the indomitable spirit of the rugged frontier and that unconquerable frontier hero? Harrison Ford’s time weathered “I-fought-the-Indians-and-turned-a-wilderness- into-a cattle-empire” true hero leads the charge here. Even though the Apaches are launching Analogue arrows and the cowboys are firing Analogue six guns and the Aliens are throttling them at will, there is no giving up, no retreat on the part of the Cowboys or the Indians. They display an “exceptional” spirit, a will to win, a never say die attitude.

Regardless of that rugged frontier spirit, it is the Alien “wrist wrapped hi-tech device” –and not the “Old School” stuff – in the hands of the beautiful Alien that wins the day. The scales are heavily tilted toward hi-tech and not the “Old School” past, the Alien future and not the past. Nevertheless, history must be sampled in order to confirm the notion that a self-designed present, a self-empowered will to win can overwrite and override not only history but all surrounding constraints. The spirit of a “brave new world” which overwrites and overrides Old Europe, an attitude reappearing when “Old Europe” declines to join in a preemptive strike against Iraq, is a part of American legendary history. A self-proclaimed American Frontier Spirit, another part of American legendary history, which brooks no challenge and accepts no defeat is rekindled in this movie, as is, paradoxically, a turn away from history as having any use in a hi-tech age, an age alien to history itself.

History is thrown on the funeral pyre but illusions of history survive, rising up like the Phoenix, or, more appropriate to Cowboys & Aliens, firing six guns as threats arise. There is no doubt that the U.S. needs to fire up its economic engines as well as its esprit decorp, a spirit that resides now – if we accept the direction of Cowboys & Indians –both in an exhausted history and a re-genesis of illusions.

About The Author

Joseph Natoli is the author of numerous books, the more recent of which are This is a Picture, and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America (Suny Press, 2007), Memory’s Orbit: Film & Culture 1999-2000, (Suny Press, 2003) and Postmodernism: The Key Figures (eds. Hans Bertens & Joseph Natoli, Blackwell, 2002).

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