Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cowboys, Aliens and Enormous Centipedes: An In-depth Comparison of New Mexico to the Movies

(Settin' in a rocker the porch: Chomp! Chaw, chaw, chaw. HhhhhhhHHHHK! Pa-TOOEY! Dinnnng!) Wellsir? KathyB wrote me: “We went to see Cowboys and Aliens yesterday. That is some impressive terrain out there where you all live. Movie wasn't too bad either.”

@sallynorris tweets: “Finally got to see Cowboys&Aliens. What scenery lucky you! Masterful horsemanship and wrangling. Would watch again just for that.”

Longtime readers will remember two things: last year I was sitting outside the local general store on a rough-hewn bench, eating and quietly farting on the ghost of Georgia O’Keefe I bet, when a young feller sat down next to me and revealed that he was a crew member for the upcoming big-budget extraterrestrial Western, “Cowboys and Aliens.” Being a stranger in these parts, I couldn’t quite remember who the big-budget Harrison Ford was, but he was to be in this picture, trademark crooked smile and all -- which he delivered, somewhere toward the end of the movie.

The other thing is that, of all God’s skittering creatures, I object mostly to politicians and big centipedes. Both have too many arms for grabbing goodies and too many legs for skittering away with 'em. Both give you the willies when they doodle-oodle-oodle onto a TV interview or through a crack in your kitchen floor. I’m confident I can work one of these entities into this article. Probably centipedes.

Let’s see... I’d been sitting on the porch, brooding. Just as I got up to go investigate what Roger Ebert had told me in an e-mail, one of these New Mexico Tiger Centipedes doodle-oodle-oodled up from under the porch and charged hell and high water for the door into the house. It meant to trundle across the living room floor and into the wild canyons of our couch cushions. There it would bivouac and await orders from the Mothership to doodle-oodle into my mother-in-law’s underwear while she was eating and watching a movie. She has not been certain she loves New Mexico. The Law of Attraction also works in reverse.

There would be an odd sensation at first, perhaps a... does something tickle? A vague feeling of horror. Then all hell would break loose. Yes those things are poisonous. No don’t panic. It would make an historical family memory.

Centipedes are indestructible. My own family history contribution, suitable for grandchildren ages three to five, tells of the night two years ago when I watched a centipede I thought I’d killed a week before doodle-oodle under the door with my seven-day-old bootprint still on its back. I was horrified.

When terrified, you can still run. When horrified, you can only watch paralyzed as your predator devours your toes a sixteenth gram at a time.

Isn’t it ludicrous to pretend that Man dominates the Earth? We exist at the pleasure of these bugs. Even if we nuke ourselves, which we are currently doing, they’ll doodle-oodle around gleaning our radioactive bones as though our unimportant bootprints never happened.

They can grow to enormous size. That’s one reason I hope they’re not vengeful and I’m forgiven for stomping on one. The other reason has to do with my being from a planet orbiting Antares, I think. On Antares we regret killing anything. You’d find our movies tiresome. We find yours somewhat biased when it comes to extraterrestrials.

Fig. A: Aerial view of enormous New Mexico Tiger Centipede doodle-oodle-oodling into peaceful desert valley where helpless townsfolk feel odd chills of horror before being surprised, then eaten while screaming:

Fig. B: Predatory presidential candidate caught in casual pose in natural habitat:

Although I still feel cheated that Werner Herzog didn’t let us hear the sound of two people being eaten alive by a bear, I probably wouldn’t want him playing a recording of the sound giant centipede mandibles munching crunchy poisoned humans might make.

I’d felt a similar chagrin reading the e-mail Roger had sent me. He’d just seen “Cowboys and Aliens” and reported that he hadn’t seen me anywhere in the movie. “I am greatly disappointed not to have spotted you,” he wrote, “I mean, there aren't a whole lot of people out there...”

A desolate feeling whooshed through my soul. I replied bravely with a lame joke, but Roger is no passerby pal of flighty cinematic opinions. He is a man with a purpose. A grave purpose. I myself am a grave man of purpose. I’d better go review that movie with my own eyes.

Longtime faithful fans and any extraterrestrials studying my fiery political invectives with anticipation know that I can’t go to the movies these days. That theater smells bad. But something was wrong. I had to do it for Roger. We’d find out what had happened to me.

Emergency Cineplex!

Hair plastered back by the surging wind (I like sticking my head out the car window), I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker. He was doodle-oodling his way to a local bar, you know, the kind with corrugated aluminum walls and roof. He had six kids from two marriages and loved them all, he said. He already smelt of beer, I think it was. Drunk or sober, a man's 14-year-old daughter mooning for hours in the bathroom mirror imagining mesmerizing boys with mascara’d eyes can be safely ignored by bar-hopping less than just once. This is a land where many grandpas are under forty. “Abuelo” is what they’re called.

Screeech! Halt. Slam. I park next to a brand new Lexus in the lot of the Dreamcatcher Cineplex in the Middle of Nowhere. I figure those seedy-looking teens would be less likely to trash my old Explorer if it were parked next to some prominent local drug dealer’s.

“I’m here to see ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’” I announce, Joe Friday inflection.

“Ten dollars.”

“I’m an officer from EbertClub.”


“Not Perry Como club. EbertClub. You know, Roger Ebert. The guy from television.”

“Rigoberto? De ‘Sabado Gigante’? Mi amor!”

“No, Roger Ebert. El criteeko del movie-o famoso? He says he didn’t spot me in this movie. I’m here to investigate.”

“Ten dollars.”

Hmm. Well, it’s a good thing I’ve fictionalized this account. Anyway the place was nearly empty and it didn’t smell that bad this time. I suffered through some unappealing previews, then watched it.

We Begin the Movie Proper

“Cowboys and Aliens” is a hum-dang-dinger. Even if it weren’t, the plethoric sounds of leather-swashing, gun-cocking, pistol-clicking and boot heels thunking across wooden sidewalks are plenty to satisfy any cowboyphile. Not to mention the sight of horses carrying human trouble slouching sullenly toward a clapboard town in the Middle of Nowhere. Plus, how about the gratifying meat-slap whaps of rock-hard knuckles doing justice to bad men’s grizzled faces? And those great hats.

Hombre, aren’t cowboy hats muy bonito? I don’t want one, but they’re still too fun. Third-way through the movie I stopped myself from counting how often our protagonist, the Man with the Negligible Name, played by Daniel Craig, slid his hat off and on again in dead-eyed deliberation. Was the director calling “take your hat off” and “put your hat back on”?

Horse-clopped desert wastelands or not, nobody wears cowboy hats around here, except maybe to show off at the rodeo. I missed the rodeo they had down the street last week, so I don’t know. But it may be decades before movie cowboys start wearing ballcaps like here in reality. That’s right, visor to the side or behind like the little bastards in big-city flash mobs.

Movie cowboy hats have changed again and again over the decades. Balloony with prim piping in Tom Mix’s day, cutesie and small in the sixties, big and dirty and sort of floppy mickey-mouse-ear-like for the past few decades. What did they really wear? I visited a Wild West museum in Tucson once and saw a hat worn by a sheriff dead an hundred-odd years ago. It was light grey, round crown, flat brim. I did want it.

Those comforting Wild West stereotypes. The one hatless actor was Doc, a character somewhere between doctor and saloon keeper. Good, because the only medicine cowboys ever need is whiskey. It’s for bullet wounds and unrequited love. As I’ve indicated in other essays, that tradition continues here to this day, like when you have a 14 year old daughter to worry about. I wonder if it could keep centipedes away. Nah.

Doc was the reason for the Mandatory Mexican Cutie, who played his wife. Then there was a good-hearted gun-totin’ preacher, a boy with funny round Tom Sawyer fishin’ hat, a gold-hearted abused Apache, a gold-hearted abusive cattle baron and his little bastard of a son... plus drunks who needed baths, town shooter-uppers, bean-cookers, innocent bystanders in derbies and bonnets... wasn’t there also some man with a British accent? They covered everything and everybody you’d find in “Blazing Saddles” or “Rustler’s Rhapsody” only serious. A true lover of Western films wouldn’t need pesky extraterrestrials at all. In fact, it doesn’t even need a plot, which is probably why this one was so skimpy.

The cinematography! All these Wild West icons look like they’re fresh out of a Frank Frazetti comic. Darkly illuminated, stark staring eyes, grim visages... when Harrison Ford, playing the gold-hearted abusive cattle baron, finally flashes that trademark crooked smile in the cathartic sunshine after the final shoot-out with those Giant Squishy Bug Beings from Outer Space, the contrast with his heretofore abusive, darkly illuminated character is nigh breathtaking and meant to be.

We don’t crook our smiles much hereabouts. No reason to.

Cinema Verite

With a few exceptions, “Cowboys and Aliens” contains accurate depictions of the reality of northern New Mexico nagual territory. I’d allow it contains more accuracies than “The Milagro Beanfield War,” which, for some unfathomable reason, features Peruvian folk music. I’ve been to Milagro, incidentally. There isn’t any little old crazy lady tossing pebbles at anybody. There isn't anything and hasn't been since ever.

Some of you may not have been cursed with the curiosities of soul that have garnered me stiff silences since, for example, when a boy, I demanded of my parents repeatedly and loud to know what “oral sodomy” was. They haven’t answered to this day. One of them has gone to grave still reticent. You may therefore not be curious about what all the sniffing is about in cowboy movies, barring horse ad libs. The actors are always sniffing like Bruce Willis.

It goes “I reckon it’s a two-day ride from here (sniff).” Or, “You’d best watch your step in this town, Mister (sniff).” “Awful good cereal flakes, Miz McDonough (sniff).”

As it turns out, this sniffing is an accurate rendering of Southwestern behavior. It may or may not be in the script, but the air here dries out the nostrils just awful crusty (sniff). S’cuse me.

This wasn’t in the movie, but I may never have the chance to reveal this discovery elsewhere, as my writings usually tend to the metaphysical: did you ever wonder why, in a cowboy movie, whenever an actress has an emergency baby, someone always calls for boiling water? Coffee. They’ll all want lots of coffee.

Eerie Similarities

Many years ago I hitchhiked to Hollywood just in time to watch “Blazing Saddles” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was fun being seated where the big chase scene took place. Now, I sat watching a movie whose setting I happened to drive through to get here. As one drives north from Santa Fe, the first sight of that panorama can be dizzying. Try it some time. It is awestriking. It’s breathtaking. Humbling. Bring money. Watch out for big centipedes.

The scenery played itself nearly perfectly, except for that one big unnecessary cactus they’d trucked in as part of the scene for the clapboard town. It looked like an amateur version of a cactus from Southern Arizona. Gratefully, it was that brief shot only. They’d trucked in a lot more of that stuff when they started shooting, you may recall. The arm-looking prickly cactus with the purple flowers are the real ones here. They’re nothing to fool around with (see fig. C).

Fig. C: Unhappy but handsome desert creature poses with genuine New Mexico cactus stuck on his nose:

The scene of an idiot, the abusive cattle baron’s spoiled little bastard, shooting up the town, compared to here, is understated. I’ve told about the first news item I read when I first got here: six whole shirtless idiots caroused the clapboard village of Espanola (plus McDonald’s, gas stations, somewhat Chinese food, etc.). All were drunk, shooting up the town in the middle of a freezing February. I don’t think any of them had cattle baron dads.

Since then, three idiots killed and buried one of their own in a tiff over borrowing a dilapidated truck to go on a date with a girl, probably a 14-year-old with a lot of mascara. Three killed for reasons unknown down the road, one of them a mentally disabled boy. A cop killed in a shootout with some idiot hiding out in some gringo’s vacation home. The idiot also got killed. Two others killed somewhere else, I forget why.

The other day I struck up a conversation with a fellow at the general store and it turned out we weren’t even talking about the same triple homicide. If it isn’t you, you’ll lose track of who’s shooting who.

The other morning I was munching a breakfast burrito (eggs, bacon, red chili) next to a table full of Sheriff Deputies. They wear comfy t-shirts, not fluted cowboy shirts or flappy felt hats. They were talking shop when two others came in and announced somebody else was ready to confess to a murder that hadn’t got to the papers yet.

Oh. Yeh. And nobody seems to know nor care about the EPA officer who mysteriously disappeared after shutting down the only gas station/general store in El Rito, an old silver mining town down the road. El Rito has its own boot hill cemetery; God knows what shootin’ they did before the silver was mined out.

Now, if you’re an FBI agent moseying by to look into that one, be sure to eat at Farolito’s, the best darn Mexican cooking in the Southwest. It's right across the wagon-narrow street from the town's now defunct and only other place of employment. I know it looks like an abandoned adobe outhouse. That’s part of why it’s so good. You know how in cowboy movies all they ever seem to eat is this... red stuff? Farolito’s serves the best red stuff I’ve ever had, and I’ve rambled all over this Cowboy Movie territory.

The red stuff, I learned upon moving to the Southwest years ago, is refried beans. There are beans in Cowboys and Aliens and there are beans all over New Mexico. You’ll notice when cowboy movies mention dinner, including this one, beans are what they talk about. It’s because that’s what’s here. I bought a couple large, dirty bags of beans last winter from a truck sitting by the roadside. Once you boil ‘em up, they’re pretty good. Then you can re-fry them but I never get that far.

This brings up a scientific question. All those beans make cowboys pretty much vegetarians. You’d think it was only meat-eaters who go around shooting each other up, but it’s not so. This proves out hereabouts as well. Idiots fired up on just beans and drugs do a lot of killing out here. Maybe they’re looking for meat.

Hummingbirds. Yes, there are hummingbirds all over this great looming terrain. The one hired for the movie to provide questionably relevant symbolism has visited our feeder periodically, but since the movie came out, he’s gotten kind of uppity so I haven’t seen him lately. His name is very tough for humans to pronounce, as our vocal chords aren’t made to sound like a metal peg being twisted in a wooden hole, so I nicknamed him Squeechy.

Before he was a big uppity star, Squeechy would visit with about 13 other hummingbirds (try counting them when they’re squeeching and squabbling around your feeder. I think the sugar water makes them drunk, like drunken little flying cowboys). They didn’t give a damn for that centipede under the porch, but that’s because they don’t have to walk. They prefer to visit just after sunrise, us with our coffee, them with their sugar water, all of us smacking our lips or beaks. They return around dusk as well.

The more you feed them, the more show up, buzzing and humming and squeeching and cavorting. Friends I knew used five pounds of sugar a week, but having come from an overpopulated family myself, a dozen buzzing squeechers on the porch per day is plenty for me, at about a half-pound of sugar a week.

If they like you they’ll buzz your hair. A few of them try to butt in while I’m refilling the feeder. Now, I haven’t got a photo of this, but perhaps this facsimile dramatization will do. That’s a Say’s Phoebe, not a hummingbird:

Fig. D: Author slips in shot communing with wild bird to hint of his natural saintliness:

What About Pizza?

What about pizza? There isn’t any pizza visible in “Cowboys and Aliens,” but it’s just off scene playing an essential role. The wranglers for this movie ate pizza every night. Wranglers are genuine in-fact cowboys. They may or may not sing, but they do enjoy campfires under a starry sky. They ride horses and take care of them and stuff.

I know they eat pizza because Marta, proprietor of Mamacita’s, the finest pizza joint in these United States as I have known them from one corner to the other and in the middle too thus far, told me so. She kept running out of ingredients because the wranglers kept ordering all her pizzas. There’s room for only one in Mamacita’s kitchen, plus an automatic pistol, don’t MESS with her – and she can spin thirty-eight pizzas in one order.

“They were real wranglers,” she said, “they were all ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am’ and ‘thank you, ma’am.’”

How could a descendant of conquistadors know how to make a great pizza? Columbus brought syphilis to America, but Marta brought real pizza to New Mexico from when she worked as a banker in New York. Plus an automatic pistol.

You may think this is far afield from the movie, but humans are entitled to think wrong.

Area Fifty-Two and a Half

A half-hour’s ride from Mamacita’s and about the same distance from our spread, the big finale of “Cowboys and Aliens” takes place (sniff). Those big, mysterious white cliffs? They’re real.

Yes they’re real. They jut out of the ground in geological mystery (and since I don’t believe in plate tectonic theory I’d as soon leave it mysterious); they were formed by an All Knowing, All Powerful God, who, early one morning in October 4,232 B.C. or whenever that was, knew that the sons of Men would require them for a big wagonload of cowboy movies.

Well, okay. Geologically this area is at the edge of an enormous volcanic caldera that blew its many tops all at once, they say ten thousand years ago. I believe that. I’m also leaning toward the Indian legend that says it blew a perfectly good advanced civilization up with it. A lot of these ancient formations look like the ruins of a vast city, especially at dusk.

What th’? I hear an Indian wooden flute playing outside this moment. It sounds mournful and authentic. It’s supplying haunting music to this paragraph. I didn’t mean to get that ancient. Ghosts? Wait a sec. It’s my sister in law, down from Colorado. She’s got an art show to set up tomorrow. Play that flute among those cliffs and it’ll echo.

Have I mentioned how I met a lady the other week who had met grandsons of Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and the Wounded Knee guy all in the same week, all around here, all by coincidence? Yup. The movie’s right. The native children are all still here. To them, not unfairly, we’re brief guests at best. To the centipedes, they too are brief guests.

Ordinarily, and by that I mean it’s the most ordinary thing in the world to spot these same alabaster cliffs in almost any cowboy movie where the shoot-out isn’t downtown, the shoot-outs shot here don’t involve squishy-looking razor toothed aliens from outer space here to steal our gold.

Anyhow it’s silver around here, not gold, or at one time it was. This negligible faux pas aside, “Cowboys and Aliens” broaches a daring secret: they’re here.

If the legendary Bill Cooper hadn’t himself been shot in a shoot-out with the IRS some years back, he could confirm it. They’re cute little humanoid buggers with big eyes and they’ve got a vast underground extraterrestrial civilization throughout the Great Southwest. Here’s some footage of a dead one:

Fig. E: Generally friendly extraterrestrials visiting the planet are filmed dead before being eaten at a covert trophy dinner:

Sorry it’s so grainy, but you know how our underfunded U.S. Military has never had enough money for good cameras. That would take more bake sales than they have time for, defending our freedoms and all. Still, s/he is/was a cute little pooper, more like the hairless superior intelligences that lived in Whitley Streiber’s closet than what the movie depicted. Still, they’re here. I hear they run people for President, too.

A woman who lives just two miles from here says the local extraterrestrials are purple. She has seen them with her own eyes... blurred by a little medicinal whiskey, perhaps, but she had every reason to call her tenant around 3 a.m. the other morning and warn her that one of them was outside peeking into her bedroom window. I’ve only heard this, I don’t know. But the muffled booming sounds we hear from deep underground in the dead of night around here could be more proof.

There are two things in this movie I can’t explain. I don’t know where the big upside-down paddlewheel riverboat would be around here, and I don’t know why there’s an ice wagon in the final shot. Ice wouldn’t slow a big centipede down for a second. They’d gobble right through it.

Sorry, three things. After all that investigating I still don’t know why I’m not in that movie. Nobody called. They did forget to throw a comical sidekick in there, I could have done that. Maybe they thought I was too sarcastic, but they’re wrong, I’m sardonic. Some people do have trouble recognizing when I’m joking. But I do know a fun movie when I see one and good pizza when I taste it.


Anonymous Bill Farr said...

Holy shit! This is the longest in-depth comparison of New Mexico and the movies I've ever seen! Funny, though.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Pure joy. Although I won't be able to close my eyes for a week. Damn centipedes.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Randy Masters said...

I swear I enjoyed that blog post about twice as much as I enjoyed the movie itself. A sheer pleasure.

They should have had you in it. Definitely. What were they thinking?

6:07 PM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

I coulda wheedled my way into being an extra, I'm sure. Didn't wanna. Stay tuned, they shot yet another one here, "Bless Me Ultima." I woulda been an extra but they needed local brown people for the church scene.

10:02 PM  
Blogger KathyB said...

Glad you finally went to see it. My mother was an extra in The Great Race. The part of French countryside was played by central Kentucky long ago. Cowboys and Aliens much better movie than that.

But I did get Peter Falk to autograph my arm and saw Jack Lemmon from a distance of maybe five feet.

Excellent post. Love the sniffs.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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5:26 PM  

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