Published: July 11, 2017
For our cover story on the much anticipated new exhibition “The Western: An Epic in Art and Film,” we turned to the uniquely qualified writer James D. Balestrieri. A critic for this and several other arts publications, Balestrieri is also director of the oldest specialist in masterworks of American Western art, J.N. Bartfield Galleries in New York City, and a playwright who trained at Carnegie Mellon University and the American Film Institute. Mythmaking — and busting — are at the heart of his satirical 2013 book The Ballad of Ethan Burns. As Balestrieri proves, the West is as wild as ever.
What elements in the traditional Western most intrigued you as you were writing The Ballad of Ethan Burns?
The Western arises out of conflicts: Native American versus white, the individual versus society, wild versus tamed. In Hollywood, this translates as artistic versus commercial. Enter Ethan Burns, hapless son of a Western movie icon, the Lone Gunman no one takes seriously – Dude in Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo. Like Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, he has to go it alone to fund the film and assemble a ragtag team – which turns out to be exactly what he needs, a kind of Magnificent Seven. At the end – showdowns. Several. These beats have to be fresh: inevitable, not predictable. I hope they are. I also wanted Western tropes in the details. The book opens in a modern-day downtown saloon with battered, swinging doors – the reader should hear the tense whop-whop they make and remember the great Western bar fights. I even included some Easter eggs for true lovers of Westerns. Some of the characters are named after characters in classic Westerns.
You write, “The Wild West is pure Hollywood and Hollywood is one hundred percent Wild West.” You had fun with the mash-up, didn’t you?
Hollywood and the Wild West are no mash-up – they are perfectly congruent.
Coen Brothers, Joan Didion, both or neither?
Both the Coen Brothers’ brutal West and Didion’s real West. But for me, Sam Shepard is essential. See True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind.
Who would be the dream team for a film version of The Ballad of Ethan Burns?
Kevin Costner or Hugh Jackman for Ethan Burns. Gillian Anderson or Rachel Weisz for Gillian (you see what I did there). Lawrence Kasdan or John Sayles to direct. Wes Anderson’s art director, Adam Stockhausen – who was, long ago, a student of mine at Marquette University – would lend wonderful style to the film. Like Ethan Burns, I am in no position to be choosy, but I can dream.
Why is the German-born painter of frontier scenes Richard Lorenz (1858-1915) a favorite of yours?
Lorenz worked on tremendous panorama paintings – movies before movies. He taught – Frank Tenney Johnson and Edward Steichen were among his students – and spent summers in the West. His travels, apart from his paintings, are a mystery. He may have ridden with the Texas Rangers. He’s also a character in an overlooked novel, The Autocrats. But it’s his vision of a wilder, more unlikely West that I like.
Best Western ever?
John Ford’s classics. The Big Country. Dances With Wolves. Silverado. But when Rio Bravo is on, it’s on. It’s a wonderful film, not only about redemption, but also about friendship. The quick Howard Hawks dialogue gives real shape to the characters. And the score is perfect.
Besides our three children and a house with an endless appetite for paychecks? Let’s see. Pilot, a short play of mine, was chosen to be part of a festival in September. I finished a graphic noir narrative, Knickerbocker Blake and the Beamsplitter Matter, and a pilot for a television series about an ordinary soldier in the American Revolution. My newest play is a desert noir called Hassayampa. It’s about a woman – half Apache, half white – who is kidnapped by a fanatical painter as she is driving to Scottsdale to sell a valuable Maynard Dixon painting that she inherited from her father. Living in Tarrytown, N.Y., in Washington Irving’s shadow, I’ve been scribbling down some lesser known and original Sleepy Hollow tales, and I’m digging into a remark my father once made about an incident of espionage he witnessed while working in an aircraft factory during World War II. I have lots to do. And I just turned 55. Tempus fugit.
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