“Westerns are difficult to sell to modern audiences. ‘The Long Ranger,’ directed by Gore Verbinski, follows ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ and ‘Jonah Hex’ as recent Old West flops.” — Brooks Barnes, “Masked Lawman Stumbles at the Gate,” New York Times, July 8, 2013
Westerns are difficult to sell to the most sought-after marketing demographic — young people. The American frontier, historically a relatively short period of time, held the American imagination, filling it with “those thrilling days of yesteryear.” It did so until science and technology, first with space flights and a Moon landing, and then with cybertech that could enter the living room as easily as a radio and TV set had, made both the present and the future more thrilling than an “unmodern” past that had none of this. The future is now redefined as an 18-month advance into new hi-tech innovations, new astounding hi-tech products that at once make obsolete the previous generation of innovations.
A new film about the Lone Ranger, a mythical Texas Ranger who first showed up on the radio in 1933, riding again is boldly confronting Millennials who do not ride at all; they text, tweet, cell, email, skype, and so on. The movie didn’t sell; it bombed. It had two audiences: the first, the Millennials who need an “interactive past” they can “refresh,” and the second, the Baby Boomers who need the Lone Ranger to be as they nostalgically remember him. And Tonto. Neither audience was satisfied. The bold confrontation itself, however, is interesting because what is being confronted is our sly detachment not only from the past, from any form of history, but from any notion of society that distinguishes the “social” from the “personal.”
The Millennial part of our “modern” audience, if asked how thrilling is the “thrilling return to yesteryear,” might take the line of the old Comanche chief: “Not so much,” which we soon discover means “Not at all.” It’s possible that when the past, regardless of how “thrilling” it is advertised, no longer captures your attention, you begin to live in a detached present where everything said and done and seen has a very short life span. All at once we are on the thin edge of a quickly collapsing present, a place where the only thing that you can be sure of as really being in the moving present are your own words and actions. Everyone else, their words and actions, are vacuumed into this Black Hole of the past.
The reduction of the world to the dimensions of one’s own mind, though there are many venues to broadcast that mind, creates the paradox of a “mass solipsism.” The deeper we get into our solipsism, the less anxious are we to hear the voice of anyone else. This is a new form of audience cut off from all but their own minds and therefore circling in an ever-more confined space.
If you survey the hit movies since the Millennium, you find a devolution to a kind of primordial appetite, a descent into elemental desires, rather like the way babies prefer sugary stuff to anything profoundly complex. Comics and cartoons, superheroes and fantasy figures, zombies and vampires, dystopias, raptures and apocalypse, along with an endless number of youthful jackass narcissists who reach into the comfort zone of other jackass narcissists, have managed to reach this “mass solipsist” audience. Boredom has always resulted not only from what is mindless and repetitive but also from what lies outside one’s interests. But if one’s interests are entrapped within a vicious circle, a sort of mental inbreeding, an increasing amount of the world will lie outside one’s interests. You can foresee that one’s capacity to enjoy the mindless and repetitive suits a mind that is becoming less expansive as it dwells in its own comforting repetitiousness. The goal of the box-office blockbuster is to diminish what is outside popular interests. It takes real genius, however, to capture the attention of a “mass solipsist” audience that is steadily adding to what is abandoned in this outside domain.
The past, not of our own making, lies in this outside domain of the abandoned. The Lone Ranger is itself not mindless of its outside domain status. It makes an effort to get inside a personal space that we now share with our hi-tech Tontos. The Millennials’ sidekick is a Smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S IV. Johnny Depp’s Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, has a dead raven as headgear as his companion. There is clearly an incommensurable distance between what I call “sidekick” domains, a distance this film tries to bridge. You have to appreciate the effort. There’s much at stake, and not simply the Western movie but all returns to a past that has never before been buried so quickly and so totally as algorithms and cybertech have accomplished.
You, in fact, I believe, have to be liminal, which means you have to be on the threshold of both worlds, both reality regimes, one that is extinct and just about unimaginable, and one that is ready-to-hand and all that you can imagine. If you’re liminal, the idea of living not in one fixed reality sealed with truth certainties and universal agreement but in multiple worlds we culturally construct, has prepared you for the almost sudden collapse and disappearance of the reality frame within which you grew up.
Johnny Depp’s Tonto also straddles the two worlds, and he makes that known by playing the sort of part Crow T. Robot, Gypsy, and Tom Servo played on the TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Gen-Xers will recall these three cracking wise while watching an old B movie. If you had seen the B bomb before and loved it, the three smart alecks would puncture your devotion, make you laugh and round off your square edges. They would loosen your frame, your way of attaching yourself to the world. By doing this same thing, Depp’s Tonto is a surrogate for the Millennial who happens to wander into this movie. He beats them to the mocking punch. At the same time, such irreverence for this legendary trope of popular culture rattles and disrupts that return to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” that part of the “modern” audience wants to make.
If you are on the threshold of both worlds, you are enjoying the effort the film is making in both directions. The effort to deal with the digital/analog divide, a historical/ahistorical divide, rather than declare victory to the Newest New is, to repeat, significant and of interest in itself. In fact, compared to the box-office efforts to reach a “mass solipsist” audience, this effort to reintroduce the past as distinct from one’s “self-designing” of the world is healthy, therapeutic. The film is on a quest, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Justice is being given to the past, or, more precisely, an attempt is being made.
Both the radio and the TV Lone Ranger had very personal reasons for going after “the bad guys.” There’s no social staging for the legendary hero’s battle against evil. But that is supplied now in the 2013 film: the Union and Central Pacific railroads are about to meet at Promontory Point. This is a celebrated, historical moment that, for its time, represented the forward progress of capitalist endeavor. It’s comparable to the moment when Page and Brin joined old computers and created Google, or when Steve Jobs in 2007 joined Internet with cell phone. It’s difficult now when a Wall Street financial sector and hedge fund managers, hi-tech innovators and cyberspace entrepreneurs represent the forward progress of capitalism to believe the real “players” were all about rails and railroads.
This historical moment of joining the two railroads is not without blemish in this not uncritical return to those “thrilling days of yesteryear.” There’s greed and chicanery behind the scenes as a board member steals a silver fortune in order to buy a controlling share of the railroad. We witness the most hostile and bloody of corporate boardroom takeovers. The Lone Ranger and Tonto to the rescue. As long as there is this sort of corruption, the Lone Ranger will keep his mask on. When the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride off at movie’s end, they promise to be more than regulators of financial corruption; they won’t even be Liberals acting after the damage is done and offering bandages. They will be outlaws, radical dissidents, robbing a bank so they can get the nitro to blow up a bridge.
Tonto is along for the ride not because he is a “faithful scout and friend” to the Lone Ranger, who Tonto sees as a naïve, inept dupe loaded with a “false consciousness,” but because as a boy Tonto made a trade — the location of a silver mine for a pocket watch — that led to the slaughter of his village. Depp’s Tonto has spent his life pursuing an evil he refers to the way psychotics refer to something they cannot quite grasp that threatens them. Tonto’s barter now is always one where sand or feathers have worth. In this way, he undermines by mockery all economic exchange, the medium chosen by the corrupt. And this evil cannot be brought to justice in the courts the way the Lone Ranger initially believes. It must be pursued outside the law because it is a force that already owns the law.
Because Mystery Science Theatre 3000 mockery extends to this view that economic corruption and its players cannot be brought to justice within the law but only outside the law, the thrust of this rebellion is lost. It seems as if our heroes are winking at the real evil of a thief and his murderous brother, as if these legendary Western heroes had no role to play except one of self-mockery. You could say that the film has lost its critical force by its very attempt to attract Millennials by mocking the Western itself. And in this manner, the already existing disposition to eject the Western as well as predigital history itself is confirmed. The West has no hold on a growing Millennial American imaginary other than as one those who have already dismissed it as extinct are able to give it.
Following through in a mockery-free manner on that attack on capitalist progress would also not have served those who wish to return to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” without smearing the sanctity of American progress, or worse, embroiling an escape to a thrilling past with the divisive hostilities of the present political scene, especially in the U.S. Those who glory in a romanticized version of the American past do not flock to films that puncture such visions, or films that make a political dissident, call him a terrorist, out of the legendary Lone Ranger. It is true that Depp’s Tonto gets a pass on “radicalizing” the Lone Ranger, but the film makes no effort to do the same to or for its audience.
Deflating mockery gives Millennials something to hold onto but turns off the Boomers. The Millennials don’t show up anyway because there are no Smartphones on the frontier. And if they did show up, texting and tweeting has made vestigial the capacity to grasp any level of mockery, satire, parody, or irony itself. A more primitive and mindless nastiness, 140 characters worth, too often replaces a revealing irony. This effort at reaching across the Grand Canyon of incommensurable realities makes no one happy. And history remains a tar baby: you’re doomed if you touch it beyond the musical multitasking of Les Miz. It seems as if Johnny Depp’s Tonto is pitching hard for us “to just enjoy it” and not take the past or film itself too seriously. Unfortunately, both dispositions are already present in our Millennial audience that “enjoys” on a basic instinctual level while looking for the past in a convenient app.