50 Flix: Once Upon a Time In the West (1968)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: This is the second film in Raven Mack’s series. You can learn more about this work of art here or support the work of the artist at his Patreon.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a spaghetti western epic, the first big film done by Sergio Leone after his trilogy with Clint Eastwood featuring the man with no name, each of which ended up being a bigger box office success than the one before it. The film was a big budget Paramount Pictures fever dream about the American mythology of the west, and is an absolute beauty from a cinematographic perspective. It got released in December of 1968, a month after Richard Nixon got elected in a somewhat unsettled Presidential election cycle.

1968 was a time of plenty unrest in America, with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy getting assassinated that year, and riots spawning multiple times, both in African-American communities as well as among liberal college campus set. The Democratic Convention in Chicago was a huge mess, where thousands of activists showed up to disrupt the proceedings of status quo with antiwar protests. Police ran roughshod with tear gas and clubs, all of it on TV for the whole nation to see. Incumbent Lyndon Johnson had already pulled out of running after losing early primaries and with RFK in the race, long before it got to the convention. Hubert Humphrey came out of the convention as the nominee.

Richard Nixon’s launch into political success (he lost to JFK in 1960, so this was his second run at the big seat) was not without its own opposition, as the more racist South, who around this time were being rejected by the Democratic Party that had previously housed Southern Dixiecrats after the Civil War, wanted a pro-segregationist politician. The American Independent Party was founded via funding by Bill and Eileen Shearer, who positioned former Alabama governor George Wallace as an unflinching voice for law and order segregation. The whole thing has snippets and tinges of 2016-2020 politics, but even worse, which is a good reminder for this constant End Times vision we all seem to be instilled with in this great digital age of fear and self-loathing. Wallace actually won five deep south states in the election, with Nixon taking most everywhere else in the south and west, with Humphrey getting most of the northeast and notably Texas. Obviously, as history showed us in the years that followed, Nixon was absolutely not a unifying force with a grand vision for a better America, but instead a political bully who ended up being his own worst enemy. But when you have an outright racist like Wallace, and a status quo baby steps towards progressive visions establishment candidate like Humphrey, Richard Milhouse Nixon was the centrist, by default.

It’s also really strange to think about what’s historically painted as such a cataclysmic time in American history, with people literally setting shit on fire in the street demanding a better country. And the Democratic Party could only trot out a tired “old politics” safe bet (which sounds awfully familiar), and the Republicans brought out a longtime political snake who pretty much ran on blaming LBJ for Vietnam and civil unrest and everything else. That, combined with Wallace siphoning off the outright racists, allowed Nixon to win in an election more like that Three Stooges bit where two of them step backwards leaving Curly up front than any other.

In terms of my family, when this film dropped, my mom would’ve been 12, and my dad would’ve just turned 13 a couple days before. It was just his birthday this past Thanksgiving, and I miss him more now than ever, likely because familial relations are all fucked up, and I’m very alone in this world in terms of family, so I can romanticize my father (who died at 46, but would’ve turned 64 if he was still alive) and pretend he would’ve been a wonderful part of my life, instead of likely having fallen down all the wrong rabbitholes on a secondhand iPhone 6, and texting me links to youtube videos that were gonna wake me up to the reality going on. I am thankful for strained family relations so that I don’t have to tolerate proud pro-Trump voices who think they are incredibly smart for seeing through the Democrat’s bullshit. I also don’t understand that binary, because I could give a fuck less about the Democrats. Yeah, they’re hypocrites and the established portions of that party are likely corrupt as fuck. But you take that counter example away and have Trump standing there by himself without the comparison, and what you have is corrupt as fuck hypocrite.

Anyways, it’s good to look back briefly at a previous election and realize it’s always been fucked to one extent or another. The things we are experiencing in today’s America really aren’t that much of an anomaly. And it makes sense to go back to a western from that tumultuous 1968 year, because the American Dream, which has always been a myth and mythologized to a certain extent, was definitely kept alive by how we collectively imagined the old west. Early America was English colonies, where the fine English carved out the beginnings of a new world, and sent poor non-English people out into the Appalachian wilderness to settle and further colonize this already inhabited land. Once Thomas Jefferson (who lived in a nice house on the mountain overlooking my basement apartment I can barely afford) completed the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, doubling America’s claims to land in size, and the concept of Manifest Destiny was ingrained in our consciousness, the settler-colonist mindset spread further west until it hit the Pacific, with the notion that America was creating a New World, better than the old one, like a chance to redo what Europe had done, but bigger and better, acting as if it was all new and people didn’t already live here. “Go west, young man,” was the phrase attributed to newspaperman Horace Greeley, about how you could build a new life for yourself, even if you didn’t have a great one yet, because there was unlimited wealth to be found. Gold rushes, and speculation, and the expansion of the U.S. railroad system all fed this, sending poorer eastern whites west, in the hopes of becoming rich as fuck.

That is the foundational essence of the western genre, which reflects this mythologization of the American west during this period, and it’s the underlying theme of this particular Sergio Leone written and directed film as well. This Irish dude, McBain, has landed just outside a place called Flagstone, on a chunk of land he bought and named Sweetwater, as it was the only source of water in the area. McBain had secretly been planning on building a station, and making a brand new town out here in the desert, just by having the foresight to get the land and figure out where the railroad was gonna get built.

The film opens with magical imagery, as three dudes have congregated at a station, presumably to do some dastardly shit, as they’re bullying the station manager. One of those three is that crooked eyeball dude Jack Elam who played in a ton of old movies, and was an amazing character actor. He’s even in the credits in the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, but very little time passes before our antihero, the ghostly harmonica playing Charles Bronson, simply called “Harmonica”, shoots Elam and his compadres dead. That establishes our first character in the drama triangle.

The second is quickly established in elder Henry Fonda, who is part of a bad crew of dudes (some real bad hombres, as Trump would say) who end up murdering not only McBain and his teen children, not only the sweet teen daughter softly singing “Danny Boy” a few moments earlier, but even the young maybe 8-year-old child who was far too young to be murdered openly, even by old west standards where you lived by the gun for the most part. But Fonda’s character, called Frank, was named out loud by one of his fellow gunmen, so he had to shoot the boy so the boy didn’t talk about who killed his family. This obviously establishes Fonda as the hard evil on our drama triangle.

And finally Jason Robards wanders into a saloon, recruiting some sucker to shoot his hand shackles loose, and has a tense interaction with both Harmonica as well as McBain’s whore wife from New Orleans (she really is a sex worker, so I’m not projecting here), before wandering off as the third part of our drama triangle, all of which get involved with the widow McBain to one extent or another, with varying levels of mutual consent.

It should be made abundantly clear that the pacing of a Sergio Leone movie is absolutely amazing – a morphine dream of a slow boil, so unlike today’s marathon explosions and CGI-induced sensory shock and awes. So many close-ups on various white faces that have become dirt and sand and sweat and blood-stained to various degrees of non-whitening. There’s a long sequence of a sweaty ass Elam sitting in a squeaky chair fiddling with a fly on his face, slow thick drama like southern humidity.

The unwhitening is both an actual phenomenon and digital cultural posturing seen in actual life. I remember on a Greyhound layover one time, getting drunk with two dudes from California outside the Oklahoma City bus station, from a bottle of vodka stashed in the trash can, and both dudes were belligerently white, but their faces were that deep brown leathered, crackled broke ass for two generations, half that time stuck outside white faces. That same shade as seen on the face of the mother in that famous Dorothea Lange photo, of dust bowl family fleeing west. I think about those types of whitefaces a lot when I contemplate my internal philosophies of dirtgods juxtaposed with shinefaces. Shinefaces are always clean, perfectly manicured, no scars or cracks or deep brown effects of public poverty on their faces. Smooth silky handshakes, smooth silky clothes, and smooth silky faces. The wretched of the Earth white are not the equals to the fine whites, which is also why I get tripped out by poor people supporting Trump so nihilistically. I used to live across the road from a dude who was a shitty HVAC repair dude who worked on farms both days in the weekend, often times driving animals to the slaughterhouse at night too. He worked seven days a week, every week, and still ain’t have shit, yet had a Trump sign out front of his house. How does a guy like that, who can’t get ahead no matter how much he works, get behind a guy that literally had a gold-plated home? I don’t get it.

And then the other side of that unwhitening is what we see as a response to white fragility and guilt in digital culture, where every white person tries to distance themselves from the most oppressive versions of American whiteness, by being part Jewish or from a poor rural family, fetishizing Appalachian identity, even though that was the settler-colonizers who pushed the American Dream deeper into this continent, albeit less silky, less smooth handshakes and outfits. But just like Jason Robards or Henry Fonda, flashing blazing blue eyes behind that dirt-crusted face, it’s easy to still see what’s up.

As Harmonica and Jason Robards (called Cheyenne) are linked up as allies finally in this drama triangle, and realize McBain’s plans, and that Frank is a hired gun who’s come around to help some shithead on his own Trump-like train, complete with gaudy garnish galore, get ahold of McBain’s land and build the town at Sweetwater, they decide to work together to foil the plans, basically just to be dicks to be honest, but being dicks to the biggest dicks, so good, in relation, I guess using the same binary I said was stupid before with regards to two-party politics. The drama triangle at least gives us the illusion of more than one alternative, that sometimes even work together against the worst evil. We could use a drama triangle in American politics more, although I guess that’s also what George Wallace was in 1968. Fuck, are we just entirely doomed always?

But as Harmonica and Cheyenne talk, Cheyenne says the potential Sweetwater train town could be worth “thousands of thousands”. Harmonica answers, “They call that millions.” An unimaginable wealth, just there for the cultivating, if you’re willing to do the dirty work to make it happen. That old west mythology, of manifest destiny, which is also still the American Dream as it is written in the brochures, but not seen as often as maybe it once was.

I’d like to tangent here about the rich dude who had his own train, because THIS MOTHERFUCKER HAD HIS OWN TRAIN! Like, he was just riding around out west in this gilded ass fancy car, walking on crutches because he had polio or something, hiring these evil bastards to kill whoever he needed killed in order to make his destiny manifest, namely increasing his already exorbitant wealth even more. He was Trump, or Jeff Bezos, or Bloomberg, or whoever you feel best putting that role with your own personal biases, as the already wealthy asshole who is using his powerful wealth to make it even larger and more powerful. Of course, those who live by hired guns often die when they get turned on, and that’s exactly what happens to rich polio dude with his own fucking train, left to die in a mud puddle, ironically in a rare desert water source. Frank killed him.

This all leads up to the final showdown (as all westerns do), as the railroad is getting built closer and closer, and Cheyenne’s men are building the station to seal in McBain’s vision before the other bastards can steal the plan, and Harmonica Charles Bronson is just sitting there whittling a piece of wood. All this shit going on, and he’s just whittling with a knife. I briefly tried woodcarving, and found it highly enjoyable, but my 21st century mind is too ingrained with productivity and there being an end result to any effort made. I mean, fuck, this long ass pontification of a 1968 western is perfect example – I couldn’t just watch a bunch of old ass movies, one per year. I had to make a project of it, to share, and feel like I’ve produced something worthwhile instead of just slothing about on my secondhand Ikea futon couch in the purple Christmas lights watching an old Bronson flick. So woodcarving didn’t work out long term because I didn’t accomplish anything with it, other than whittling on some chunks of wood. Maybe I should give up all these stupid projects and just carve on some chunks of wood more. WHAT’S THE POINT OF ANY OF THIS SHIT?

Frank shows up finally, and Cheyenne is in the house with McBain’s widow (who I think would’ve slept with all three men in our triangle, except Harmonica was the hard good in the triangle, so didn’t reciprocate the advances). Harmonica lines up against Frank, and we get the flashbacks that show the childhood Harmonica being forced to stand with I guess his brother or father on his shoulders, in a noose, and a younger Frank (along with his bully buddies) is there, tormenting the young Harmonica, by putting a harmonica in his mouth as he struggled to stand upright to save his family member’s life for another few moments, before inevitably falling to the ground, thus being complicit in the death of his loved one. Frank’s just laughing in the flashback, but as we come back to current time, with bastardly Frank slumped to the ground, Harmonica pulls his namesake instrument out of his pocket and stuffs it into Frank’s mouth, coming full circle.

After that, Frank is dead, and Bronson splits, with no real point in life any more. Not everybody is bound to achieve great dreams of wealth and a wonderful destiny being manifested. Some of us are controlled by vengeance, and after he got his, he ain’t even need his harmonica no more. He just grabbed his satchel, and split. Cheyenne did too, catching up briefly to Harmonica, but he got clipped in the earlier shootout, so was dying too. Hard evil was shot dead, and indeterminate kinda evil but kinda good also got shot but bled slow. And hard good just disappeared into the distance, while the town got built and other people got rich and progress happened.

We ran out of land to head west on, but there’s still speculation galore. Our entire stock market is built on that. The rise of cryptocurrency is essentially that old west speculation, just in an even larger abstract realm, but it’s same damn shit as always. These imaginary entities get built, and fortunes get made, and a lot of people get fucked, and the only thing that undoes one of these super-evil super-wealthy assholes is them crossing the wrong person, who doesn’t give a fuck to be bought out, and just wants to gain revenge somehow, and plays that out slowly and quietly and with great attention to every nefarious detail. Within the grand abstraction of whiteness, the hardest evil point of that triangle always hopefully get undone by a vengeful spirit somewhere else on that confusing non-binary triangle. That’s our infamous antihero – too fucked up to actually succeed according to civilized standards, but amazingly beautiful in their ability to briefly light a better path for us all with their bridge arsonry.n

50 Flix: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: This is the first movie that Raven Mack is covering in his series of 50 Flix. You can learn more about this work of art here or support the work of the artist at his Patreon.

Cool Hand Luke got released in November of 1967. America was almost four years past Lyndon B. Johnson declaring a War on Poverty, which became such a thing it got capitalized like that. That initial movement tended to focus on poor mountain whites, but rural white people have always tended to have higher poverty rates than urban (and definitely suburban) whites, most likely because the economy doesn’t really tendril out to rural areas the same way it does more populated places. This has always been why poor folks are expected to uproot themselves and go elsewhere.

Early November of 1967, when this movie was released, my father would have been a few weeks away from his 12th birthday. I know for a big chunk of his teen years, my grandmother and that family lived in Cumberland, VA, right behind the Cumberland Restaurant. My grandmother had remarried by then, though my blood grandfather had passed yet. I don’t know the story there, other than it didn’t work out, and my grandfather was a PTSD mess after the Korean War, before PTSD was really something they said about people. At the time, I think he was just seen as more of an abusive drunk than anything else, but also a war hero. By age, my father would’ve been possibly a 7th grader, but on my birth certificate, his education level only says 7th grade, and I know he used to brag that he and two of his friends were in 5th grade three years in a row together, so I don’t know what actual grade he would’ve been at age 12. But he was a rough one, likely due in no large part to the father he had coming back from multiple wars messed up in the ways he was.
Patriarchal norms in our culture tend to have boys identifying and/or latching onto fathers. My dad always fetishized military shit, but in a weird guerrilla anti-government way. He was too young for the Vietnam War, which was the biggest shit in the news at this time, by far, with multiple giant protests happening the month before Cool Hand Luke’s release, including the one where Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman and them folks said they were gonna levitate the Pentagon.

My mom would’ve been 11 at the time, and I’m not sure where they lived. She was born outside Chicago, but her parents, and two older step-brothers had moved east to Maryland and Virginia, multiple places, early in her life. Again, I don’t know all the details, because at one point my maternal grandmother was either a widower or abandoned or something, living with two young boys in a car. My grandfather also had fallen in love with some women in New Orleans, and had been a natural born wanderlust, but somehow moved back to Chicago, married my grandmother, adopted her sons, and decided to just straight up settle down and take care of family business, no more fucking around, which he did until his death. In fact, with a certain amount of instability and addiction and inherited traumas on both sides of my family tree, I can say without a doubt the combination of my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were the two forces that made it as stable as it could be, and were the unseen forces that got me typing words into a computer screen right now instead of either being dead or lost in an opiate and/or alcoholic fog.

Luke, of Cool Hand Luke, is a veteran, and the very opening scene which establishes the context of our story is a perfectly appropriate illogical moment for anyone from fucked up environments full of traumas, addictions, chaos, that gives that accumulated version of PTSD, rather than the single event one, because the entirety of the universe’s work in just piling shit up on you reduces your coping window to nothing, and something happens which causes that Fuck It Moment to happen. The Fuck It Moment (such a thing among my people that it is capitalized like the War on Poverty) is when you might know better, you might not, but life is just such a constant shit storm you figure one big final momentary “fuck it”, and do whatever the fuck you’re tired of the motherfuckin’ bullshit mind decides to do. This could be murderous, it could be getting a Greyhound ticket to somewhere you ain’t told nobody, it could be that infamous metaphor of the dad going to the store for a pack of cigarettes and never coming back. But the Fuck It Moment happens every day for a lot of people. Sometimes, you disappear and never come back. Sometimes, there are no immediate consequences, and better sense returns, and you try to fix shit real quick. (In fact, the worst is being emotionally tied too closely to somebody with a lot of minor Fuck It Moments who knows they need to do better but can’t, and always has the heart that says “I’m gonna try to be better” but ain’t built mentally to make those changes. That’s some painful shit to be in, especially when addictions get tied up into that type of person, and they compound actual health problems they can’t control on top of all this other already existent shit.)

And then sometimes we have those stupid criminal Fuck It Moments that do get caught, punished, and change everything forever. That’s the opening scene in Cool Hand Luke, with Luke just cutting up parking meters for the fuck of it, while drunk, and the cops showing up, and he don’t give a fuck, because he’s still in the metaphysical euphoria of the Fuck It Moment. And that’s how Luke ends up in the state prison farm in Florida.

Immediately upon entry, the Captain goes through the line of newbs, explaining the situation to them. “You learn the rules. It’s all up to you.” No Fuck It Moments allowed. And this is the essence of the penal system, that you won’t be given any rehabilitation aid really, it’s up to you to figure it out, but you gotta stop having Fuck It Moments, or we’re gonna fuck you up more. Like when you type it out, it obviously makes no sense at all as a way of changing behavior patterns, but hey, we’re America, and prisons have become a booming industry in the decades since Cool Hand Luke.

One obvious culturally interesting note from this is the segregated society. This prison is all-white – no non-whites appear in this movie in any major roles, except people Luke interacts with while on the run. It’s a completely segregated world where racial relations plays no part at all, so it’s strictly a class system really, with the Captain at the top, the boss (as well as other prison guards, including this one creepy one with a rifle always wearing the standard mirrored sunglasses of a freedombeard type), or a prisoner. America, on top of the racial imbalances, has also always had economic inequality within white folks as well. There’s always been far more white people on welfare than non-white people on it. And I mean, I’m perfect example that even as a poor white originally, you can put on a button-up shirt and some khakis and go sit in a job interview and convince the systems of power that you’re one of them, so you can weasel your way out of it as a white person, so long as Fuck It Moments don’t consume your life in friendly fire from burning bridges. But there’s no shortage of white prisoners in America even today, even though it is disproportionately applied racially. I think sometimes folks forget that even in European history, it wasn’t like it was some great unified homeland of whiteness that then spread out across the planet. A lot of various indigenous European clans and groups got decimated and conquered over the course of what we now know as “Western Culture”.

The cast on Cool Hand Luke is pretty great, obviously with Paul Newman in there at the top, and Harry Dean Stanton as a prisoner, as well as the dad from The Waltons. And of course George Kennedy as the infamous bully turned Mice and Men self-snitching sidekick Dragline.

Early on when the crew is working, clearing the side of a road, there’s the scene of the hot woman washing the car, pushing her tits all over the glass, just generally tormenting these men. I had a job at one point renovating a giant warehouse for a guy named Tillie in Farmville, VA. It’s part of the Green Front complex now, but was just a fucked up warehouse when we fixed it up, which included jacking up the basement a quarter inch every Monday morning to fix a major support beam down there, but that’s all we could lift it without fucking the whole building up or something. Everybody else on Tillie’s crew was on work release from the private jail, all white guys, one of which I went to high school with. One guy on the crew, named Flip, got released during our time renovating it, and I remember him openly talking about the torment of lack of desired sex, how his ol’ lady was coming to pick him up in a borrowed van, and they were probably gonna have to pull over two or three times before he got back to Petersburg from Farmville. “I ain’t had pussy in five years, at least not no woman pussy,” he said at one point.

I mostly painted, with this other dude who went by Soupbone. We had a big ass cherry picker we operated, painting the big industrial windows of the warehouse. In fact, a dude died the previous time the building got painted, having fallen off a ladder, so Tillie made us wear safety harnesses on the cherry picker, “so don’t nobody else die.” Most days were just me and Soupbone, painting away, talking shit, him on the right side, me on the left, working our way through these giant windows with two 16 pane by 16 pane panels, side by side. When we were doing the front side on Main Street, we could see a nearby little grassy park area, and we weren’t far from Longwood University (then only a college), and I remember one day where I saw two young women walking by, beautiful sunny day, and Soupbone, being locked up, spent plenty of time looking down into cars trying to get glimpses of women’s legs and maybe more. I saw these women walking through, as did Soupbone, who was ogling them stealthily. “You know they’re probably going down there to lay in the sun, Soup?”

“Noooo.” He couldn’t believe it even possible. Sure enough, they went to the grassy park, spread out big towels, stripped down to bikinis, and stretched out. 16 x 16 panes, one over the other, side by side, meant we both had to paint 32 panes on the window before we moved. Needless to say, I couldn’t get Soupbone to stop gawking that day, and I remember I painted my 32, and half of his, and even when we finished that one, instead of moving down to the next one like we normally would’ve, Soup made us move further left on the top row to get an even better viewing spot.

Eventually in Cool Hand Luke, with Dragline being the main dude in the prisoner’s ranks, it was only a matter of time before Luke and him had their inevitable fight, which they did. This is the purity of the antihero, so against everything he’s even against the established order of the lowest class. And of course Luke couldn’t beat Dragline, not through physical fighting, so had to go to that metaphysical level of eternal stubborn goat-spirit- refusing to stay down even when whooped, to where onlookers, hoping for the satisfaction of a clear victory, were denied even that, and became uncomfortable, begging Luke to stay down. He never did, the purest form of loser, who loses so bad he can’t even lose right, thus nobody wins. Dragline eventually just walks off.

Luke repeats this losing harder than everybody else motif playing poker, where he bluffs a shitty hand into winning a big pot, saying “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.” If that’s not tattooed in cursive letters on somebody’s chest or upper back, then I’m highly disappointed in humanity. Shit, I might put it on my leg myself now that I think about it.

In another road work scene, Luke and Dragline get into a competition about who can work the fastest, preparing the road for paving. At first, Dragline’s bitching at Luke to slow it down, but then gets caught up in the competition of it. And at the end, they all realize it’s gonna take the paving crew a couple hours to catch up now, so they get to have two hours of nothing. That’s very much a metaphor for the working life promises of American society, where if you work yourself half to death, you’ll get to retire a little early. Not sure that one’s still there for most of us.

The classic scene from the movie is the egg eating contest, where Luke grossly consumes 50 eggs, gorging himself on fertility? I don’t know. It’s a somewhat disgusting scene to be honest, and whenever I watch it, I can’t eat eggs for like two weeks.

The Man with No Eyes though, is the true danger in this movie. Sure, the Captain wields the power, though he’s mostly unseen. And Dragline rules the pen, but lacks any real power outside of that microcosm. The Man with No Eyes is the enforcer, and oddly reminiscent of today’s actual cultural warriors, always present in the comments online, in their mirrored sunglasses profile pics, which I’ve come to call freedombeards. These are the enforcers of the police state, so the institutional Man with No Eyes from Cool Hand Luke has now become a cultural trend, rocking Punisher stickers on a shiny pick-up truck as a gateway marker before graduating to blue lives mattering and 3 percenter stickers and shittier paramilitary freedombeard police state co-signs. The mirrored sunglasses, both in the movie and with freedombeards, refuse to show the wearer’s own eyes, thus denying a read on their true intentions. It also then just reflects the world it is scanning back at itself, straight up refusing to take part in everything on an equal level. I firmly believe in seeing a person’s true intentions in their eyes, because even the best lying ass conmen got shaky sketchy gazes as they talk their shit. And yet, in the period where Luke is playing the good prisoner, to build up to an escape attempt, there’s a scene where he grabs a rattlesnake, holds it up, and the Man with No Eyes shoots it immediately. This signifies his great aim and ability in enforcing the police state, but also that Luke has no problem with handling snakes. And a dude who won’t ever show you his eyes is most definitely a fuckin’ snake.

After an early escape attempt, the Captain admonishes Luke with “you gonna get used to wearing those chains” right before the famous failure to communicate quote used by Guns-n-Roses in “Civil War”. That’s a pretty perfect white underclass swirl of cultural ephemera right there – Cool Hand Luke, GNR, the concept of the civil war. Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin were both southern Indiana boys, and there’s no stronger Fuck It Moment creating fucked up white underclass homeland than southern Indiana, because it’s not the South, and not Appalachia, and yet has all the metaphysical signs of hopelessness as if it was both. “Civil War” is off Use Your Illusion, which was GNR’s huge leap into releasing something after already being huge. In between Appetite for Destruction’s unexpected explosion, and Use Your Illusion, they released GNR Lies, which has the now abandoned song “One in a Million”. I still find that song intriguing at a cultural level, even as it has been scrubbed from new releases for the overtly racist and homophobic parts, which are of course inexcusable. But there’s also nuance within that, because the song’s not at all a mirrored sunglasses freedombeard mentality, as the voice of the song also hates the police, and that last verse feels more relevant than ever to a lot of white underclass folks who haven’t yet been co-opted politically into the spreading white nationalism:
“Radicals and racists, don’t point your finger at me
I’m a small town whiteboy, just tryna make ends meet
Don’t need your religion, don’t watch that much TV
Just making my living, baby, well that’s enough for me”

Politically this would be pointed at as centrism, not feeling particular affinity for either end, and that tends to seem what the Democratic Party likes to say is how you become successful. I don’t know though, I feel like there’s also this politically disenfranchised underclass that doesn’t really give a fuck. “Just leave me alone and let me survive this bullshit world” mentality. Sadly, I think digital algorithms have driven more and more people of this disenfranchised underclass into bad rabbitholes the past few years, where the “don’t watch that much TV” in the internet age has been weaponized into refusing to read “fake news” but also choosing to still read internet “news”. Not watching that much TV is a refusal of participation, whereas choosing to pick your own favorite sources is still being tricked by all the shit, you just think somehow you’ve made a better decision than the marks.

In Cool Hand Luke, as the threat of Luke running away again, black America is finally mentioned, and that variation on race even within the obvious class separations is mentioned literally, with the boss telling Luke he’d shot black folks plenty before, but never a white man, and didn’t want Luke to be his first. Of course Luke still runs off. A black lady is hanging up clothes in her back yard as Luke, still in prison clothes sneaks through, and she doesn’t even bat an eye, just goes back to hanging up clothes. Two young black boys talk to him on a bridge. “Ain’t you gonna take them stripes off your pants?” One of the kids actually gets Luke the axe he uses to break his chains, and escape to a new life in Atlanta seemingly. Drag and the boys back in jail live vicariously through Luke, and a picture in a magazine of him with two beautiful women. Luke had beaten the system.

But not forever. One night, the guards bring him back in, badly beaten, and all the boys in jail turn their back on Luke, their faint glimmer of hope against getting crushed by all this shit having been beaten. The police state is thick, and unrelenting, and as long as you still live here, the threat of it catching up to you is always there, even more in the digital age, with all the technological amplifications of authority’s ability to monitor and scan.

But then word came of Luke’s mother’s death, and everybody knew he was gonna try to escape again. The sacred bond of mother and son, despite the patriarchal norms, is one we’re supposed to honor. Kinda interesting in context of my own life actually, because I’ve had two levels of falling out with my own mother, to where I’m about 95% certain I’ll never see again until her funeral. I feel like I’m 100% on that, but one never knows what the fuck circumstances cause us to break the eternal grudges of interpersonal Fuck It Moments. I haven’t had notable contact with her in a few years, during some pretty bad times where the love and support of family would’ve been pretty goddamn helpful. I know I’m not alone, in having come to know many people with extremely dysfunctional family trees, where those relationships are broken permanently because they’re too fucking toxic to justify suffering. In 1967, that was not a culturally accepted thing, so Luke’s mother’s death was just without question reason enough for him to escape again. Those familial relationships are far more broken culturally fifty years later.

That last escape has Drag running away with Luke, but Luke splits up with him, and ends up in an old church for the final scenes. In his soliloquy with God, Luke asks, “You made me like I am… just where am I s’posed to fit in?” Out of place, to the end, even with the degenerates who don’t fit in. It’s the classic white underclass antihero I expect we’ll see a lot of throughout this project. It’s the non-English who became part of the Great Britain, the same assorted Celts who also became the outlying settlers in America manifesting destiny, because though they were white, they were expendable. They’ve always been culturally shown to be proud spirit warrior types, but who get crushed by the state in the end. Cool Hand Luke is no different, as cop cars surround the church, and in comes Drag, who had brought them there with his own foolishness. Stupid fucking Dragline, boss of the prisoners, and too goddamned clueless to not end up serving the police state. He promises Luke the guards won’t beat him, “if you give up peaceful.” Drag heads out, and Luke is still inside. Even at night, the Man with No Eyes is wearing his mirrored sunglasses, clean cut because we’re still forty years ahead of contracted private security police state freedombeard era politics.

Luke defiantly echoes the “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” line, with a final verbal middle finger to the captain and bosses outside, and The Man with No Eyes shoots him. It’s the tipping point for Dragline, who attacks No Eyes, knocking his glasses off, but our camera view never shows them, and he gets them back on, indignantly, still in proper obedient order to execute upon demand. Luke’s bluff finally got called, and he loses, like all underclass super antiheroes do in our cultural works. And shitty people like me become attuned to taking pride in that, to going out blasting middle fingers at authority, without ever envisioning actually winning. Thus we grow up either assimilating, and becoming a boss for the captain, or we embrace our Fuck It Moment mentality, and assume a destiny of knowing we’re a born loser, eventually, no matter what.

50 Flix: An Exploration of White Trash Identity in Film, Family Tree and America

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I’m so excited that Raven Mack is writing for our site. He’s one of my biggest influences, as his various zines and writing efforts have taught me so much about how to write and how to live life. This project that he is sharing with us has me totally fired up and I’m so happy he’s decided to share it here.

[This project originally posts at https://www.patreon.com/ravenmack – consider supporting Raven’s dumbass.]

There’s still a number of people who have followed my Raven Mack creative output over the years from back in the old Confederate Mack days, when I was younger, and still figuring out my place in American society as a white male from a somewhat fucked up background. I’ve seen a separation over the years in some of those old followers in that many have grown in ways related to how I’ve grown over the years, but others have not, and probably view me as some sort of softened asshole now who forgot his roots. This is also testament to how the digital algorithms channel us all as well, because many of us fall down the rabbit holes, and are never able to extract ourselves back out to the light, as well as just basic toxic masculinity. (Trust me, I’ve still got plenty of toxic masculinity in me, I just prefer to flaunt that chip on my shoulder in different ways.)

One of the main reasons behind referring to myself as a “dirtgod”, as I do now, is because it’s a signifier of growing from my white trash roots into something I see as greater than that, while also resisting the promises of being assimilated into the larger power structures of American society that is always specifically available to competent white males, even from fucked up backgrounds. For the most part for poor whites, this is done through the racial structures of whiteness, as well as the patriarchy, and has been an essential tool for those in power to somehow keep broke ass white people swearing allegiance to a power base that doesn’t serve their best interests for many decades. (Please note: this is not a blue/red binary argument, and I’m not suggesting switching between the two parties necessarily benefits anybody. But I know the wealthy powerful men who have maintained emotional sway over what’s often referred to as “the white working class” ain’t doing shit for poor people. Also, the concept of a hard-working “white working class” out here in factories or doing industrial jobs is misleading as well, because we live in a broken economy where you’ve got multiple hustles, and you’re more likely to be service industry than some sort of factory worker. Service is the new factory, and way harder to organize.)

I’ve often dabbled in what I call “trash cultural anthropology” over the years, because I was a first generation college student, so I’m college educated (and even gradumacated too, though I’m not sure where my physical degree is… I see people at work with their’s framed in their offices, and mine sat in a box for years on top of the freezer on the front porch, which is about as on-brand as a white trash to dirtgod story can get). But also coming from a more chaotic lower class environment, I have always recognized how the academic and upper class worlds tend to be full of shit as well. In fact, the main reason I had an old zine called “The Confederate Mack” was to piss off the openly hypocritical neoliberal punk college students I knew and hung around with at the time, who talked the talk of inclusion, but if I showed up with some mulleted redneck or crazy black dude I got high with to one of their functions, it was pretty obviously frowned upon. (To be honest, this is how Republicans appeal to poor whites for the most part, by pointing out how Democrats are obviously full of shit and judgmental, which is just as true as the fact Republicans don’t do shit for poor people.)

So I used to do Malt Liquor Movie Reviews in my old Confederate Mack zine and website, where I’d watch old ass movies and get drunk, babbling happily about whatever thoughts were triggered from my mind. Now I’m nine years sober, not nearly as self-destructive, but still pretty fucked up and jaded. And I’d been wanting to do some sort of movie exploration on the lifelong canon of “white trash superhero” movies I’ve maintained internally – guys like Philo Bedo and Gator McCluskey and Billy Jack, and how that white underclass antihero was such a common theme back in the day. Somewhere along the way, that character became a caricature of itself, and then got repackaged and demonized, and I really don’t understand how a shitty white dude from some crappy little town should be all that different than one from 30 years ago, but somehow it feels different culturally. This feeds the resentment that some white dudes feel, because of how culture is presented to them, and then it becomes this chicken and egg thing where you have fucked up racist white assholes everywhere. At least, that’s the theory I’m working with going into this thing, and ultimately the goal is to watch a bunch of movies, and try to not have so many fucked up racist white assholes everywhere.

So this is going to be 50 Flix, an exploration of white trash identity in film, family tree, and America, over the course of 50 years of film (and hopefully over the course of the next 50 weeks, though we all know dirtgods are pretty bad about keeping to a tight schedule… I’m on that honeysuckle time). Beginning with 1967, I’ll watch one movie from each year, specifically selected because of its relation to lesser whiteness, and basically do the same thing as those old Malt Liquor Movie Reviews where I drank malt liquor and streamed my consciousness at anyone who read it, except now I’ll more likely be drinking mineral water, and try to organize my thoughts a little, I guess, but probably not all that much more than I ever did.

I’ll also be talking about my own immediate family tree as it was in each of those years, when these movies got released, which means exploring my own growth from white trash to dirtgod. I’m not gonna dig super deep into that (I don’t think, but also I don’t know), because this ain’t about being a fuckin’ memoir so much as watching a bunch of movies to see how the pattern of representation of whiteness has morphed over the decades. But all culture is not only how it’s presented to us, but how it echoes our real lives, so it’s gonna be impossible to watch 50 years of lower class white people movies and not have to dig into my own personal history.

And finally, I’ll touch on the political state of America when each of these films was released as well, with the very conscious decision made to go from 1967, when Lyndon Johnson used scenes of rural whites from Appalachia (and not the inner-cities with people of color) to declare a War on Poverty, up through 2016, when Donald Trump was elected, as nihilistic world views became so ingrained so as to cause America to collectively decide “fuck it” somehow, even though everybody seems to act like they’re above what caused all that. The vague “white working class” has been vilified and embraced, and the battle for 2020’s election seems to involve how do you appeal to a nihilistic hopeless barely working class that knows they ain’t gonna have shit in this lifetime.

The plan is to post these every Monday, leading up to next November’s 2020 Presidential election, but y’all know how I am… the schedule might meander a bit. I’m a back roads type of dude, and straight lines with markers every mile like on the interstate just ain’t really my thing. But I’m gonna try to get there ( meaning November 2020) right on schedule. And there’s no plan to flyover any of it – one movie per year, where my family was at that point in time, and what was going on in America. So we’ll start this excursion next week, going back to 1967, with Cool Hand Luke. Holler at you then.