Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa

It begins with a windmill, a train station, and three gunmen. The windmill turns and creaks without ceasing, as if the wind has at last found its voice after a long search and is reluctant to give it up.

The men await their prey and the train that will bring him. They do not know that he will be their death, nor that these last minutes during which they contend with the elements, and their own boredom, will be their last. They know only that they are at the station to do a job, the kind of job that men like them get sent for: hard men who've lived hard lives in a hard land. They don't know that their quarry, haunted by an encounter with a brutal villainy, is harder still.

At the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West, the audience knows none of these things, either; but as the opening credits unfurl with a languid intensity, surely they must feel they are in the hands of a master.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a big movie, maybe even a great movie. Directed with conviction by Sergio Leone, king of the spaghetti Westerns, it is one for the big screen. I have a copy on DVD, currently in storage somewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania, but I've never seen the 1968 film in a theater. Fortunately, the New Zealand International Film Festival, a yearly roadshow affair traveling through the country's major cities, was in town in recent weeks and screening the film at the Embassy Theatre.

The timing couldn't have been better. In recent weeks, preparing for an upcoming project, I had watched Leone's classic Man With No Name trilogy, as well as Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (the basis for A Fistful of Dollars). Now, with Once Upon a Time in the West, I would get to return, if only briefly, to American soil, even if in some ways Leone's vision of America never quite existed.

Moving to another country has a way of messing with your head. It's hard not to constantly compare your new experience with your vast repertoire of facts, expectations, routines. I'm told you tend to spend the better part of your first year abroad looking back on the world you knew.

This process has been incredibly fruitful. While my travels in northern Europe certainly reframed for me questions of identity, ethnicity, and politics, living here in New Zealand has helped me see more clearly those aspects of America I never realized I appreciated. I've never felt stereotypically American--which, for argument's sake, we'll define as "entranced by consumerism"--but now, after engaging in the classic American behavior of taking over a business, I see more clearly than ever the value of vision and the ambition to see it through.

If Americans are brash, impulsive, loud, then New Zealanders tend to be less outspoken about their achievements, credentials, ambition. Subject to a cultural phenomenon known as tall poppy syndrome, which dictates that one not toot one's horn too loudly, they can be downright tightlipped when asked to promote themselves. Such a reticence is tantamount to heresy to American notions of marketing.

I don't know if Kiwis lack ambition. It may simply be that their focus is elsewhere. They are a mobile people, given in many cases to traveling and working and living abroad for at least a year, and this is understandable given their geographic isolation and numbers (4.2 million as compared to the 5.8 million of the greater Philadelphia region). Where America remains a place where much of the world seeks to live, New Zealand is a land whose people yearn to see, if only for a time, the rest of the world.

New Zealand is not a land of Opportunity, perhaps, as America may still be, but one of opportunities for those who are looking. New Zealand is also very young, and perhaps it more closely resembles an earlier postcolonial America, where the influence of its mother country was still strongly felt and the transformation into something other than a pioneering Wild West had yet to fully manifest.

Of course, I could be wrong about all this. After all, I've been here a scant six months.

Towards the end of Leone's epic Western, the mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson) enjoins Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his men to build a train station at Sweetwater, the remote homestead of the late Irishman Brett McBain. Cheyenne figures that McBain had been counting on selling his property, but Harmonica, whose own journey has "something to do with death," corrects him: "You don't sell the dream of a lifetime!" Sweetwater, Harmonica explains, was sitting on the only water in the region, and thus the westward-reaching railroad would have to pass through it, and McBain, or his heirs, would hold the golden key. And so a new station is built, and an outlander's ambition finally realized.

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Blogger Jack M. said...

"New Zealand is not a land of Opportunity"....??

Wow, really? You and I seriously need to have lunch! I'd love to know where that statement came from!

- Jack

6:34 AM  
Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

Great little reflection essay, R. It's been a while and I'm glad to see it.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

Jack - It's all about that capital "O"! Looking forward to breaking it down for you! :-)

E - Thanks, it feels good to get another one out. If I could find a way to outsource my to-do list, I'd be churning these out on a more regular basis!

1:21 AM  

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