West of Woolwich: No manure in Hollywood

Posted Wednesday, October 24, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: No manure in Hollywood

...or yes, Martha, horses DO poop

by Fred Kahrl 

 I am the right age to have been a big Steve McQueen fan when he was at the peak of his movie acting career, so I was interested to find one of his last movies … one that I had not seen before … playing on cable the other night.

McQueen’s “Tom Horn” was a true story of a classic Old West cowboy that was having trouble adapting to the New West. Horn had “played” almost every conceivable “role” in the early cowboy West, on both sides of the Law, and was even on his way to fight in the Spanish-American War when he was struck down with malaria.

McQueen played the lead and was also the Executive Producer.

Despite being released in 1980, the film had the sort of creative realism that was largely missing in the steady diet of Westerns that I grew up with and which I came to actively seek in the medium as an adult.

I have been a movie enthusiast ever since I was old enough to ride my little bike downtown and push my two bits over the counter for the Saturday Matinee. That was in First Grade, and because there was not a TV in our household until after I was banished to boarding school, cinema became my best friend.

I have been a true friend in return, and ever since have savored the big screen over anything that video could pump onto the home screen. In those younger years I paid my dues not only with the blockbusters, but also with a steady stream of “B” movies … many in B&W and in the city’s most rundown theaters … especially as Science Fiction struggled to find its footing as a legitimate cinema genre.

In fact, most of those early SF matinees were probably more like a “C”.

I drank it all in, forgave dreadful production shortcuts and even worse special effects, didn’t flinch from infantile dialogue and melodramatic, unknown lead actors, and stayed awake for narcotic plots. With the low-budget Westerns, I began to tire of the hero’s pistols that never ran out of ammo and the California back-lot scenery that rarely reflected the true panorama of the real Old West.

In fact, I became a continuity freak. The more I soaked up the maturing cinema fare, the less patient I became with historical errors, with sets, costumes and narratives that were mismatched to expectable expressions of reality. Any detail that did not fit with the time, or style, or history of the story was like a hand grenade going off two rows down in front of me, preventing me from fully enjoying of the rest of the production.

After only five minutes of watching “Tom Horn” I found myself settling into a special enjoyment that could only come from an early promise of masterful attention to continuity … hard to do in a movie that had to quickly establish the new dominion of Eastern Ways upon the Old West.

The first clue that I was about to experience a “New Western” was seeing two piles of horse poop in the snow on the main street of Cheyenne, Wyoming … 1903. The streets were still dirt, but the architecture was ”new”, the townsmen wore real three-piece suits and the majority of hats were trending stylishly away from the traditional Stetson “cowboy hat”. Most of the townsmen, in fact, wore soft leather boots … not cowboy high-tops with high heels. Not a spur in sight.

But the manure was the best touch. Someone was at last willing to admit that even movie horses moved their bowels.

I must have watched more than a hundred westerns without seeing a single pee-puddle or poop-pile. We now care for four equines, and I am acutely aware that what goes in one end mostly comes out the other end. If you doubt this, I have a pile to show you.

But my generation grew up watching carefully sanitized Westerns. My son, who studied drama and cinema as an undergraduate at NYU/Tische, said that unpaid apprentices (“production assistants”) or the “wranglers” listed in the credit crawl were probably tasked with constantly purging the sets of excrement, preferably before the cameras rolled. Nonetheless, there were undoubtedly innumerable re-takes when the hero horse lifted his tail unexpectedly or … horror of horrors! … ran out his spout and settled the dust in a four-square-foot patch of sand.

Imagine the director’s anguish when, on take 19, one of these natural acts occurred while shooting on a sound stage rather than a California back lot. “Daddy … what is the horsey doing with that long thing?”

No, no, no … America was not ready for any of this, and it was carefully edited out so our sanitized cinema experience was protected.

Murder, rape, unholy war, addiction, perversion, gore, guts …. Oblivion.

But noooo horsepoop.

My dear departed much-older brother would not have been surprised … not because he was an Anglo-Saxon scholar … but because he once took his family on a trek across Norway. Every night they spread their sleeping bags in tidy little trail cabins, perfectly spaced along the upland reaches, and each served by a high-tech composting toilet … NOT an outside privy. The Norse were ahead of us in green tech, yes sir.

Brother comes home and announces he will install just such a contrivance in a primitive cabin he is fixing up for his kids. He orders … direct from Norway … the same super-potty he had test-ridden in the Norwegian Wild.

It arrived with an odd modification: by manipulating a lever on the side, you could close a “door” under the seat to conceal the result of your labors. Brother, being ever-curious and a researcher by trade, quizzed the American distributor.

“Oh,” said the thickly-accented voice on the phone, “ Vee haf found zat Americans prefer not to observe zee contents of zee toilet, so vee haf made ziss accommodation.” The accompanying thin smile could be sensed over the phone connection.

Nor am I surprised. It is an internationally recognized American trait: obsession with cleanliness, dread of natural processes and consequences. Our European cousins are vastly amused … our new Asian friends dismayed.

Despite the fact that many Americans stoically deal with the obvious consequences of owning pets, livestock, etc., a growing percentage of us are distancing ourselves more and more from the less pleasant aspects of our own natural processes. Despite the seemingly dominant use of bathroom material for mass market comedy, most Americans do not want to think what happens after they flush.

As a result, they become poor stewards of the still-imperfect science of owning and properly maintaining a septic system. As a Selectman for more than a decade in small coastal community with characteristically poor soils, I quickly learned how deeply “denial” had rural homeowners in its grip.

It is no wonder that it took the Maine DEP, the Dept. of Marine Resources, and a small army of volunteers nearly 20 years to chase down all the private overboard discharge sewers and failed shoreline septic systems that were poisoning the clam flats and robbing the diggers of their livelihood. Most polluters were too ashamed and too irresponsible to raise their hand to say, “It’s my shit.”

This reluctance to deal with the “yuckie” aspects of the byproducts of our American lifestyle is now affecting a key target area of our waste management planning. Our town waste committee is now searching for a method to convince the taxpayers that composting organic house-waste would save significant town tax dollars.

Trash removal and waste recycling is now the third largest item in the town budget, after schools and roads, in that order. And at least a third of the weight in our non-recycled trash is wet organics that we pay a premium to have buried or burned.

Those already composting accepted the gospel of the Green Revolution. Anecdotally, we know that the “Yuck” factor is a hurdle for many non-composting American households, even here in rural surburbia … a hurdle hard to overcome.

No wonder … I never saw single privy on “Gunsmoke”, though they were brave enough to write the privy in for a cameo appearance in “Lonesome Dove”, and with good result.

Reality TV hasn’t helped us with this problem so far … perhaps it’s time for Cinema Verité. 

I suggest the first step might be to let a few horses actually poop with the camera running … without a laugh track.







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