Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was, said Rich Hall, “a PowerPoint
demonstration”. “This is film history.” Nor was he joking, although
initially Saturday's How the West Was Lostlooked as if it
would be about the jokes. In a B&B in the Wild West theme town of
Tombstone, Hall, all narrowed eyes, stubble and multi-gallon stetson,
roughed up a young movie nerd who had irritated him by dismissing westerns
as “empty elliptical cornball shit”. Cue clip of Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven
teasing his young cohort about shooting a non-existent hawk out of the sky.
“You were the kind of short-sighted twenty-something that Clint Eastwood was
addressing in that film,” Hall said, before dumping him among the cacti.
But that was a skit. Hall was never less than witty, but in an epigrammatic
Alexander Pope way rather than a comical stand-up Alexei Sayle way. For
those who regard Hall, with his irritatingly high-pitched rasp, as a
mediocre comedy panellist and second-ranking stand-up, this programme was a
revelation. Hall produced the sprightliest 90 minutes of cultural criticism
I have seen in years, with ideas bowling out at the rate of at least one a
minute, and no concessions to his less intellectual viewers.
Here he is on Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which
employed Bob Dylan as an actor and to provide the score: “Peckinpah used
Dylan to create a self-distancing effect in the movie to show how the
iconography of all the characters replaces any true function.” You don't get
“iconography” on Newsnight Review. This was as far from a
typical Channel 4 clip show as you could find. Indeed, Hall preferred to use
movie trailers than excerpts to extract the essence of the films he was
Hall's defence of the western was twofold. You could not appreciate modern
movies if you did not know that the westerns had been there first. Taxi
Driver was doubly sourced to Shane (“You speaking to me?” asked Alan
Ladd) and to The Searchers (John Wayne's racist, incestuous-minded
antihero Ethan Edwards was, Hall claimed, a proto-Travis Bickle).
More crucially, you could not understand America if you did not see that the
western's values of individualism and self-reliance informed the country
still. The settlers were not obsessed with guns but with protection. Their
descendants, he said neatly, “are happy because they own guns and it is
important to keep them happy - because they own guns”.
Reading across all eras, Hall made brilliant links. A bar-room brawl in a
western is a platonic ideal of the sort of altercation your local probably
sees most Friday nights; Peckinpah transferred the same operatic approach to
gun fights. In fact, he pointed out, the east had higher rates of violent
death than the west, but the myth of gun law and the need for climactic
massacre had become indelible. Ford tried to atone for the violence of his
earlier movies in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), but his overriding
political message was that violence and the suppression of violence were
crucial to nation-building.
You can guess what thought flowed from that: “We are at war with Iraq because
some sort of Bible-thumping, tongue-tied, pretzel-choking, f***wit of a
President actually convinced enough people he was some sort of laconic, Gary
Cooper hero come to bring justice against the evil folks.” By the end, the
title How the West Was Lost had gained geopolitical meaning. “The western is
like America itself. It endures, it no longer prevails.” I said this was a
defence of the western. It was, artistically. In a court of morals, it was a
coruscating case for the prosecution.
Earlier on Saturday, Doctor Who's retiring big chief, Russell T.
Davies, decided to show us what he could do without special effects or
chases but with sheet upon sheet of dialogue. It was a story of possession
and featured something inside Lesley Sharp (one of his favourite actors)
repeating what everyone else said. The episode was largely confined to the
four walls of a planetary sight-seeing tour. Think Stagecoach and Huis
Humanity did not come out of it very well, although personally I could not
blame his fellow passengers for turning on David Tennant's increasingly
irritating (“I'm clever, I am!”) Doctor. Midnight felt
too much of a writing exercise to be really scary, but once again it showed
that even if it fails as often as it succeeds, this series is not afraid of
variety. Like the passengers aboard the charabanc, Doctor Who is dead
scared of repetition.