“One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”


Westerns are out of favour, supposedly because the international market isn’t interested in films of the American West but you don’t have to go transatlantic to find Millennials who have little interest in Westerns.

Not much interest in “Swashbuckling,” “Sword-and-Sandal” epics and sagas, or any “costume” period pieces. The classical world can show up in a computer enhanced, graphic novel style as in the movie 300 (Zack Snyder, 2006). History has to be re-introduced through some present-day mediation as in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies (The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Dead Man’s Chest (2006), At World’s End (2007), Gore Verbinski) which rely on a Disney world adventure ride as a contemporary identifier. We’re supposedly “post-ideological” now, although something painfully like ideology seems to be igniting our political cross fires. What’s more certain is that we are “post-history” now, or, not even that for that presupposes some recognition of history. “A-historical” is more fitting. We’re “whatever” about history.

Everyone who fought in any war since WWII right up till today’s long war in Afghanistan may want to be “a-historical”, but memory won’t let them. They’re hopelessly tied to an “analog” consciousness. Those birthed in a new “cyberspace” world follow the lead of a market driven culture that reads the past as yesterday’s Dow Jones numbers and therefore “dead and gone,” is twittering the evanescent present moment? Yesterday’s tweet or yesterday’s Facebook update are “old, over and adios.”

So it’s not just the Western movie or all those “back in the day” analog lifestyle movies that are too “lame” for words, but the “past” itself. Google, Twitter, Facebook and Smartphones not only keep us “updating” a present moment but they do so without the need of any narrative continuity, any need to relate today with yesterday or consider tomorrow as a possible consequence of today. But consider how impossible that task of meaningful connectedness would be to the new Millennial digitized consciousness which parries attention deficit disorder with “multi-tasking,” confines historical people, places and events within a “friendship locale,” and parries interpretation and understanding with one criterion alone – personal interest.

Because history is a “back in the day” personal interest of the analog generation and therefore will continue as a “personal choice” until the last analog bites the dust, all history in the digerati consciousness is a jumble of choices, yours to make and yours to make of as you choose. A high school teacher friend of mine relates how a student said it made more sense to think of the “War Between the States” (the American Civil War) as coming after Viet-nam. Historical chronology is a matter of personal choice.

The field is somewhat limited, however, because the past must meet certain necessary requirements to enter the Millennial digerati field of vision. A “willing suspension of disbelief” must be strenuously exercised:

When no form of hand held device appears in a movie;
Or, when an actor uses an archaic mobile phone device;
Or, when the absence of a public phone is pivotal in the plot;
Or, when one character can’t update another by running a video or showing photos on their cell phone;
Or, when characters lost in the wilderness don’t use GPS;
Or, when no one for the whole length of the movies goes on Facebook;
Or, when, indeed, a suspenseful plot can be unraveled easily if a Smartphone was available.

The fact then that people have no digital device on their person is an insurmountable obstacle to any serious consideration of what is being presented. If plot depends upon the possession of crucial information or quick communication and no character in the movie googles because Google has not yet been invented, any hoped for “eternal verity” revealed by the movie seems more silly than significant.

Violence portrayed in a historically realistic manner (which of course Hollywood has rarely offered) can never meet the hyped up level of violence of computer “gaming.” Six guns held in a waist sash by Wild Bill Hickok are lame compared to 9 mm semi-automatic Glocks with thirty round magazines, but especially lame when compared to the munitions launched in a gaming super hit like World of Warcraft. The High Noon fast draw encounter is to the Millennial digerati about as fast, exhilarating and suspenseful as watching paint dry.

The classic Hollywood Western is modulated at the speed of drying paint interspersed with a horseback chase, slowly developed, end of the movie shoot outs, laconic good guy/bad guy dialogue (“Smile when you call me that”), a stoic “Aw, shucks Ma’am, I’d rather kiss my hoss” type of romancing, frequent worshipful pan shots of the Western scenery before the Interstate highways, and an untrustworthy or revisionist recording of what the West “was really like.” All of this is modulated to a sound track which keys the audience to the actions, or, in the case of the Millennials, gets them to look up from their BlackBerries which light the theatre up sporadically like blinking lights on a Christmas tree.

Movie theatres in the future need to accommodate the Millennial fractal attentiveness either by computer animating what’s up on the screen to the hi-tech speed of computer gaming, or, offering “multi-tasking” seating, seating that will enable a viewer to watch the film, talk on the phone, update Facebook, read an e-Book selection, play a video game, surf the Net, and, of course, eat pop corn and drink Coke. Perhaps this already exists. That fact is inconsequential because it seems clear the “public” nature of movie going is quickly being replaced by seven foot by seven foot home-viewing flat screen TV and Netflix. It’s easier to multi-task at home. Movie theatres are after all public places and nothing “public” presently has allure.

History has always been greeted with a smidgeon of boredom because it’s never about us. When you create a cultural clime in which everything has to be about us – my face, all about me, iPod and YouTube (“You” is YOU not me) so on – any representation of what is not about us is boring. A book now needs a face: your face.

It’s ironic than Millennial multi-tasking has not remedied Millennial boredom and that may be because the nature of multi-tasking with restricted attentiveness, instilled short term memory (marketers don’t like long term memories), and obsessive compulsive proclivities (marketers’ need for consuming compulsions) is not as rich and vibrant as it sounds. Millennial multi-tasking is more of a “I’m bored with this so give me that” kind of thing than, say, a Leonardo da Vinci style multi-tasking in which many things are done but all done well. You get tired of reading Descartes Meditations or Tolstoy’s War and Peace or viewing Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) or Ivan the Terrible (Sergei Eisenstein, 1942) because the thread of your attentiveness runs out. There are no distracting narrative or visual changes occurring at computer mouse click speed. A fractured attentiveness is not fed continuous jump cutting, cutaways, cutting rhythms or split screens. Digerati multi-tasking doesn’t choose to turn to something else. It needs to. Perhaps you can turn to something else. And then something else alongside that . . .

I’m aware of all this and you are now –if you haven’t already been–aware of this. So let’s watch the Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010) with the split consciousness of Analog and Digital, “Back in the Day” and Digerati.

The Dude abides in Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. It’s hard to think of the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) as a U.S. Marshall and not a bowler but not to fear. He’s a lounger first and foremost. We first find him in an outhouse which he won’t come out of to speak to young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), who isn’t a lounger but all business. Mattie tracks Rooster to his digs in the storeroom of a Chinese grocer, where he drinks, sleeps and lounges under hanging boiled ducks and dried sausages. This is the extent of a “loser’s” multi-tasking. Rooster doesn’t innovate, pitch entrepreneurship or project his will into the universe. He’s an analog Dude, like Lebowski. Six guns instead of 8-tracks.

Mattie, on the other hand, is on a mission; she’s single minded and savvy in her dealings with everyone, persistent and threatening as needed. She has all the traits of the totally dedicated “winner” who will succeed through determination and personal will. She’s like the Reagan `80s all over again. She’s an Oprah devotee of “If you will it, it will come.” In fact, she’s a progenitor of the “new global elite” whose wealth Chrystia Freeland describes as “the fruit of hustle and intelligence . . . preoccupied not merely with consuming wealth but with creating it.” (1) Mattie’s preoccupation is not with creating wealth but in avenging her father’s murder but she runs over every obstacle in her way, including people, in Mark Zuckerberg – as portrayed in the film The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) – fashion. Mattie doesn’t have an iPhone or a BlackBerry but it doesn’t take much to imagine her with one.

Confronting Mattie with Rooster is like confronting a hedge fund “Quant” with an underwater homeowner.

The difficulties Mattie faces with Rooster and the anarchic ways and violence of the West are paralleled by the Millennial digerati difficulty with a movie in which what has become foundational in their lives, the very sine qua non of existence – online reality – has no place. There’s a pivotal and suspenseful scene in which Mattie and Rooster watch LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), the Texas Ranger, place himself in a dangerous spot. He only needs to be cell-phoned and alerted but that can’t happen. We watch as Mattie and Rooster watch as LaBoeuf comes out of the outlaw shack, stands before the outlaw riders, talks but we can’t hear what is said, and then gets surrounded and lassoed. It’s a silent movie scene and for that reason is more powerfully effective in displaying the archaic nature of what we are viewing as well as the archaic nature of the viewing itself in which hi-speed personal transmission and reception seem to be overlooked. Think of watching Neanderthals sitting around a fire eating raw meat.

YOU cannot summon enough “willing suspension of disbelief” to project yourself, to imagine yourself in such a reality. And the reason you cannot do this is because reality now runs at a different speed and is so individually malleable online, and so generously fills the present moment as you design the present moment that the past dwindles into private memory, loses every aspect of what was commonly held to be recorded history. You might say that the public recollection of the past – history – is neither recognisable because it has been privatised nor of any interest to any “private Decider” in the present.

What we have in Mattie is a young Millennial who intrudes into a history she doesn’t know and doesn’t care to know and who is reproving but not interested in amending but only using to suit her purpose, which is to find and kill Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. Let’s say the Millennial digital consciousness finds something compatible in her, something they can identify, someone they can ride into the movie with. Rooster is slow and ponderous, a kind of dead weight like the very past itself. He needs to be revived, sobered up, make aware of an urgency, of a mission, of a quest, of something beyond chasing the dragon, sleeping, pulling a cork, filling his hands with six guns and getting old. Think of it this way: if Mattie can revive him, she can revive the Western, the genre of movie they are both in. She can revive a dead past and bring it into a digital present.

That’s not a mission she has but the mind wanders to such a meaning. She collides with the West, loses an arm and many years later goes back, discovers Rooster has died, and calls a lounging Westerner—because he failed to stand in her presence– “trash”. Nothing has changed in her view of the past, of the West, of the Westerner. The Mattie in Charles Portis’ novel True Grit winds up owning a bank. Rooster winds up on hard times and performing in a travelling Wild West show. Nothing is reconciled here; Rooster will never be a part of the present. Mattie has no need of the past. The past is more surely dead than it has ever been. The Enlightenment looked back and saw nothing but darkness which reason had thankfully replaced. The past we see now is a “whatever” matter, “flattened,” to misappropriate Thomas Friedman’s image, to nothing more than a long road to digital enlightenment, nothing more than “offline” happenings of less mater than darkness itself.


  1. Chrystia Freeland, “The Rise of the New Global Elite”, The Atlantic (Jan/Feb 2011).

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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