Women of the Western

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 16, 2009 06:48pm | Post a Comment

Ever since the dawn of film theory, film critics have loved the Western; probably because its engagement with formula and its psychological subtext are so obvious, so close to the surface, that theorizing about westerns is a bit like kicking gravel and striking oil. The genre bears a similarity to tales of knights errant, who similarly were bound by codes of honor and used strength and wit to defeat malevolence, &c &c &c... Part of what makes the Western attractive for film theorists is the way it shifts and evolves too -- spiraling off subgenres like Curry Westerns, Northerns, Oesterns, Red Westerns ands Spaghetti Westerns -- and engages other genres like samurai films and noir. But whereas a little bit of research turns up several scholarly works addressing women's place in the Western, I haven't been able to find any that focus on female-centric Westerns, nor been able to uncover a clever or cutesy name for the subgenre. When I started this blog, I thought I'd come up with a tiny handful, but was quickly surprised at how many Westerns feature females in roles of central importance.

Real women of the west. washing clothes (left), famous madame Chicago Joe (center), bandit Belle Starr (right)

The Wild West was, to be sure, a male-dominated place. Of course, there were women too who, just like their male counterparts, were probably more likely to run a ranch or work in town than to find work as gunslingers, bandits and bounty hunters... although there were those too. The National Cowgirl Museum Hall of Fame has, since its founding, sought to better document the contributions of women in the west. Although women in Westerns generally seem to symbolize civilization/the east, making cowboys uneasy with their use of risque talk and their attempts to transport urban conventions to an untamed land, in real life, that role would've been impractical and probably abandoned pretty quickly. When there's work to be done, propriety and traditional societal constructions would just get in the way. In fact, in Wyoming, for example, women gained the right to vote in 1869, over 40 years before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. The photographs of Evelyn Cameron depict no-nonsense women who have little in common with the dippy, ditzy cowgirls of Gil Elvgren's art or Hollywood cowgirls. Of course, I'm not suggesting that Hollywood is in the business of portraying reality, but it's interesting to look at the decisions they make when constructing mythology.

Cowgirl pin-up art

For one, as I mentioned earlier, though set in the west, many of these films aren't primarily thought of as Westerns, but rather Western-spoofs or just musicals set in the west. But taken as part of the Western tradition and accepting that hybridization is par for the course, someone could probably make some interesting points. As with more commonly accepted Westerns, these women occupy many of the same roles: homesteaders, romantic prizes, saloon girls and prostitutes. But, as with their male counterparts, highly fictionalized accounts of lead slingers are popular (e.g. Buckeye Annie Oakley and Missourians Belle Starr and Calamity Jane). And, although prostitutes appear in many of these films, usually they're sanitized to great degree and I couldn't find any films that focus, even in fictionalized accounts, on real life famous madams and prostitutes of the west such as Squirrel Toothed Alice, Dora Dufran, Eleanora "Madam Mustache" Dumont or "Chicago Joe" Hensley... unless you count Calamity Jane and Belle Starr's daughter, who did engage in prostitution, although I don't think that's ever acknowledged in any films about them.

The 1930s


I couldn't find any silent Westerns centered on women, unless you count The Perils of Pauline, which famously served primarily to place the heroine in harm's way with Natives, Pirates and other dastards, to invariably be saved in the nick of time by a gentleman. Annie Oakley (1935), as far as I know, has never received any recognition for being the first Western to star a woman. In fact, it doesn't seem to be a widely discussed or seen film, although Barbara Stanwyck makes anything worth a go.

The 1940s


In the 1940s, Lady Westerns became a lot more common, with most of their stock roles represented, including hard-working pioneers, [Arizona (1940)], gunslingers [Belle Starr (1941)], Pistol Packin' Mama (1943), Belle Starr's Daughter (1947), Montana Belle (1948), Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949)), saloon girls [Belle of the Yukon (1944)] and mail order brides, [The Harvey Girls (1946)].

The 1950s


As the so-called Golen Age of the Western came to a close, several of the most enjoyable female-centered Westerns appeared. Musicals, at the same time, were in the middle of their so-called Golden Age (often having been said to have begun on stage with the Western-Musical hybrid, Oklahoma!), so perhaps the amount of crossover shouldn't be surprising, including Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Calamity Jane (1953), Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), Red Garters (1954) and Oklahoma! (1955). But several of the most bizarre/enjoyable Westerns were also made in this period, including the underappreciated Rancho Notorious (1952) of Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray's classic Johnny Guitar (1954), Roger Corman's Gunslinger (1956) and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957). There was also Reginald Le Borg's fair to middling film, The Dalton Girls (1957), which is almost only interesting because it concerns a gang of cowgirls.

The 1960s

Westerns, on the whole, declined in popularity in the 1960s. Those that were made, by and large, often used the form to challenge conventions and reflected a more complicated morality, with the evil, bestial Natives' role reconsidered and the efficacy and appropriateness of violence called into question. However, the Lady Western seems to have carried on pretty much the same, with silly and sexy women dominating Heller in Pink Tights (1960), McClintock! (1963), Cat Ballou (1965) and 100 Rifles (1969) -- although the latter looks a little more serious in tone. But the drop-off in numbers matches the wider decline of the genre.
The 1970s


In the 1970s, the cynical, pessimistic, revisionist Western really came into being. The light and fluffy-looking Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976) look distinctly antiquated next to McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Awakening Land (1978) -- the latter an epic tale of frontier life that's technically a Midwestern.

The 1980s

The movie poster (left) and the real life Kansan bandits (right)

Cattle Annie & Little Britches (1981) seems to be the only example of the genre made in the '80s. It was a fallow period for Westerns on the whole and Cattle Annie & Little Britches has hardly been seen by anyone. Pulled from theaters after a week and never released on DVD or VHS, it nonetheless has a fervant cult following.

The 1990s

The '90s saw a real resurgence of the genre and when people think of Westerns starring women, other than Johnny Guitar, the Young Guns-esque Bad Girls (1994) and Sam Raimi's cult film The Quick and the Dead (1995) are probably the first ones that come to mind. The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) is a sadly underviewed, well-told, sedate and realistic Western. Frankly, despite possible intentions, Buffalo Girls (1995), the Kelly LeBrock vehicle Hard Bounty (1995) and The Wicked Wicked West (1998) look pretty suspect. On the other hand, The Rowdy Girls (1999), with a cast of playboy bunnies, and Petticoat Planet (1996), directed by the homoerotic eye-candy auteur David DeCoteau, probably harbor no pretensions.

The 2000s


Gang of Roses (2003), I assume, is a sci-fi western. How else to explain the silicon cyborg Lil Kim's appearance? The cast look more like Coyote Ugly waitresses than believable cowgirls, with hideously misguided wardrobes. An online description of Bandidas (2006) described it as one of but a handful of female-centered Westerns, and noteworthy for injecting humor into the genre. When one considers the three dozen examples in this blog, with more than half making attempts at humor, the description of Bandidas doesn't seem so much a function of dishonesty or braggadocio; rather, it just reflects the understandably widespread ignorance of the subgenre.


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Delia Derbyshire - electronic music pioneer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 6, 2009 07:33pm | Post a Comment

The Guardian once described Delia Derbyshire as “The unsung heroine of British electronic music,” seemingly implying that there are other heroines of British electronic music that are more widely… sung. I suppose there is Daphne Oram but the English never use less than three adjectives when one will suffice, so let’s just say that Delia Derbyshire is an unsung heroine of music. That she happens to have worked primarily in electronic music is secondary and that she was British shouldn't be held against her. She was a wizard and pioneer who, instead of guarding her magical abililties, eagerly shared her techniques and discoveries, but was stifled by the BBC’s draconian demands that their artists work and die in anonymity.

Delia was born in Coventry on May 5th, 1937. As a girl, she learned piano and violin and attended Barr's Hill School. She later attended college at Girton in Cambridge. After initially pursuing studies in math, she switched courses to music before graduation. After graduation, she began to look for work in the music field, quickly butting up against the deeply entrenched sexism of the field. In fact, in 1959, upon applying for a job at Decca, she was flatly told that their policy was to not hire women to work in the studios. The United Nations proved more diplomatic than the folks at Decca, and she worked there for a short while. Then she returned to England and found employment at the London-based music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. She didn’t stay long.
In 1960, she was hired as a trainee studio manager at the BBC, working with the Radiophonic Workshop, then just a few years old. It was an organization charged with producing experimental incidental music and sound effects for the BBC Third Programme’s radio plays in cases where the normal orchestral score was deemed inappropriate. Her predecessors had included Harry Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram, two noted pioneers of electronic music and musique concrète.
Derbyshire came on board following Oram’s departure, as part of a group of young artists that also included Brian Hodgson and John Baker. Many of her initial pieces were collaborations with artist/playwright Barry Bermange. One such piece was 1964’s The Dreams, a sound collage of people describing their dreams with Derbyshire's electronic sounds.

Gradually, the Radiophonic Workshop began producing more music and sound effects for television than radio. One year earlier, in 1963, Derbyshire performed her mostly widely-heard work when given the score for Ron Grainer’s theme to a new science-fiction series, Doctor Who. Incorporating filters, tape loops and valve oscillators, she fashioned one of the most memorable pieces of electronic music ever, and one that's especially dear to Whovians. Grainer was so impressed he sought to give Derbyshire co-author credit but the BBC prevented it. Although officially uncredited, the popularity of the theme resulted in her employers giving her many other assignments and she ultimately produced over 200 pieces including noteworthy scores for Great Zoos of the World and Cyprian Queen. The BBC was, however, by no means entirely supportive of her work, rejecting many of her compositions, claiming they were too bizarre, “too lascivious for 11 year olds” and “too sophisticated for the BBC2 audience.”

As a result of the BBC’s restrictions, Derbyshire began to work outside their confines in 1965. Her initial collaborations included working with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Roberto Gerhard (on Anger of Achilles) and Ianni Christou. In 1966, her music was combined with light shows at a festival at Bagnor’s Watermill Theater, perhaps the earliest electronic show even in England. She also recorded a demo, “Moogies Bloogies” with the under-appreciated Anthony Newley, although it was never released. Derbyshire, Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff formed Unit Delta Plus, later exhibiting their music at Zinovieff's Putney townhouse. One such exhibition, The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, (at The Roadhouse in Chalk Farm) included the only public performance of The Beatles' "Carnival of Light.” Derbyshire also provided music for Yoko Ono's "Wrapping Event," in which Ono tied herself to the lion statues (which she’d wrapped in white cloth) on Trafalgar Square.

Unit Delta Plus proved short-lived and broke up after a performance at the Royal College of Art in 1967. Derbyshire next worked with Guy Woolfenden, contributing to the score for Peter Hall's production of Macbeth and, in 1968, his film, Work is a Four Letter Word. Derbyshire again worked with Hodgson in setting up the Kaleidophon studio in Camden Town with fellow electronic musician, David Vorhaus. Along with Vorhaus and Hodgson she formed White Noise and released, through Island, An Electric Storm. When Hodgson and Derbyshire left, White Noise became a solo venture for Vorhaus. Meanwhile, Derbyshire and Hodgson (using the pseudonyms “Li De la Russe,” and “Nikki St. George,” respectively) provided music for The Tomorrow People and Timeslip over at the BBC’s rivals, ITV. If you're like me, you loved The Tomorrow People and it's great theme. On the other hand, if you're like my stepbrother, David, you claimed the sight of a melting, alien Adolf Hitler was the stuff of nightmares and were a big wuss.

In 1973, Hodgson left the BBC and created Electophon with John Lewis. They were later joined by Derbyshire and recorded several albums, as well as the soundtrack to The Legend of Hell House. In 1974, she composed the music for Anthony Roland's award-winning film of Pamela Boone's photography, Circle of Light and the Dutch short, Een van die Dagen. Derbyshire’s complete discography has yet to be fully compiled, but her credits also include the music for the Brighton Festival, the City of London Festival, the RSC Stratford, Greenwich Theatre, Hampstead Theatre and an ICI-sponsored fashion show.

By the early ‘70s, frustrated with music and battling alcoholism and depression, Derbyshire retired from composition and instead found work in art galleries, bookstores, museums and as a radio operator. After many years, she re-entered the music world in 2001, working with Spaceman 3’s Sonic Boom on MESMA (Multisensory Electronic Sounds Music & Art), an organization aimed at advancing electronic music. At the time she said, "Working with people like Sonic Boom on pure electronic music has re-invigorated me. He is from a later generation but has always had an affinity with the music of the ‘60s. One of our first points of contact -- the visionary work of Peter Zinovieff, has touched us both, and has been an inspiration. Now without the constraints of doing 'applied music', my mind can fly free and pick-up where I left off."

Unfortunately for fans, no long after enthusiastically returning to music, Delia Derbyshire died on July 3rd, 2001, in Northampton. Her private collection was bequeathed to Mark Ayres who, in collaboration with Manchester University, is working on fully digitizing her entire catalog of work. As of now, it appears here and there, on Doctor Who, Vol. 1: The Early Years, Doctor Who, Vol. 2: New Beginnings and BBC Radiophonic Music. In 2002, a play about her, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, aired on Radio 4. Two years later, at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, another play about her, Standing Wave -- Delia Derbyshire in the '60s, proved that this unsung heroine still has her fans, and may someday soon find adequate recognition for her pioneering work.

Love Story - The Band Love and Arthur Lee's Skewed Genius

Posted by Miss Ess, February 17, 2009 10:45am | Post a Comment

One of my favorite bands from the 60s has to be Love. Their music is so unexpected and so unconventional, both lyrically and sonically. I give Arthur Lee the lion's share of credit for this (sorry Bryan MacLean). Lee was truly one of a kind.

I've just watched the recent documentary about Love, Love Story.

Lee formed the band under various names in Los Angeles in the early 60s. It was one of the very first integrated rock bands to hit the scene and gain popularity -- something that is discussed in the film quite a bit, as band members feel they were represented to the press/public early on by colorful psychedelic drawings as a way for the record company to avoid presenting the potentially "risky" fact that the band was made up of both black and white musicians. 

Love was one of the first rock bands to sign to Jac Holzman's Elektra Records and it was not to be a simple relationship between the band and their label. The band members spend a great deal of time in Love Story accusing Holzman of not promoting their work enough. Holzman counters this by pointing out Lee's aversion to touring outside of California. Regardless, the band made three brilliant albums within a span of a year and a half (!) -- Love, Da Capo and Forever Changes -- and increasingly, Lee's moments of brilliance were aggravated by longer and longer durations of virtual insanity because of his drug use.

Due to the fact that he was a young African American man in Los Angeles in the 60s and also because of Lee's skewed view of the world and his paranoid and idiosyncratic thoughts, Love's music portrays the world from an outsider's perspective. This lyrical innovation is just one part of what marks the band's music as distinctive and even refreshing; while Love's albums have some of the hallmarks of the psychedelic era, if you listen to the lyrics, they are highly critical of hippies and their "peace and love" stance. (Yes, ironic considering the band is named Love.) The lyrics are dark and question the way the world works.

Sonically, each album grows more multi dimensional; from Love, which is garage-y and poppy, with sudden time changes and inventive drumming; to Da Capo with its flute accents and experimental full-side-love-it-or-hate-it jam; to Forever Changes which takes the listener on an uncomperable trip through Lee and MacLean's brains with flamenco guitar, strings, Latin-flavored horns, etc. Although the documentary Love Story ends its story after the release of Forever Changes, when the original band broke up, I highly recommend the next album Arthur Lee released under the Love banner: Four Sail, in addition to the first three albums. Four Sail has some of my favorite Love songs ever, and Lee forges a solid comeback in all his quirky glory.

Love Story is a great documentary. Arthur Lee is such a character that it is fun to watch and listen to him. Although his diction is sometimes difficult to understand (and the film's sound is amature), he still presents an ever-strong point of view. There are so many great bits of footage and the interviews, particularly an interview with Bryan MacLean, who died in 1998 and several with Lee, who died in 2005, are precious. Guitarist Johnny Echols is also extensively interviewed and he seems to be the band member who has done the best job of keeping his head together, post drug addiction and fame. Echols adds astute comments to the unfortunately short story of the band Love. Their music is singular, electrifying and resonant; there will never be another group like Love.

Because Love never had a legit radio hit, there is almost no footage of them performing. It's a bummer, but here is the closest they ever came to a hit, a cover of Burt Bacharach's "Little Red Book."

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