"It was Chico Marx, of all people, who uttered one of my favorite lines, 'I'd like the West better if it was in the East,'" says Kevin Stoehr, a professor of humanities at Boston University. It's an hour into our interview and we're finally back on topic. After all, the whole reason I made the long journey to Stoehr's seaside condo in Portland, Maine was to discuss his acclaimed new book, Ride, Boldly, Ride: The Evolution of the American Western, which he co-authored with Mary Lea Bandy. But the professor, a conversationalist without equal, has been on a roll.
In the past half hour, this master of the non sequitur has discussed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the hidden homoeroticism in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the origins of kick boxing, Rod Steiger's unforgettable performance as Mr. Joyboy in The Loved One, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And if all that weren't enough, he's treated me to a killer imitation of Truman Capote in Murder by Death.
Now it's back to cowboys. "This project has been a genuine labor of love for me on so many different levels," Stoehr says of his comprehensive study, which has been earning rave reviews. Dave Kehr of the New York Times calls Ride, Boldly, Ride, "a sweeping, insightful account of this most rich and resilient of movie genres." In celebration of the book's publication, the Museum of Modern Art recently held a month-long film series and invited Stoehr to introduce screenings of two rarely seen silent westerns, D.W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford's Straight Shooting.
"There are things about the western that I think can get lost when you you're being overly philosophical or overly analytical," says Stoehr. "In this book, we tried to balance the need for analysis with a kind of deep appreciation for those themes and aspects of western cinema that are difficult to express in language." While Stoehr uses a few big, scary words in the book like "post-revisionist" and "nihilistic," the writing style is consistently lucid and engaging, which is quite fitting for a genre that often expresses the yearning for a simpler, more straightforward way of life. "In today's hi-tech universe, I think that what makes the western particularly appealing is its return to basic values, its sense of adventure, and the stunning beauty of the natural landscape," Stoehr says. "In a western, the hero jumps on a horse and gallops across wide stretches of desert to face down the enemy. He doesn't stop to tweet his intentions or post an ultimatum on the villain's Facebook page."
A quick glance around Stoehr's cozy homestead reveals that his interest in westerns isn't merely some passing fancy. It's a full-blown obsession. Hanging on one wall of his living room is a large, framed poster celebrating the centennial anniversary of master director John Ford's birth. The professor's impressive video collection, which claims the better part of two rooms, is well stocked with Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, which turned their poncho-sporting star, Clint Eastwood, into an international icon. "I think that Eastwood's work in the western genre is fascinating," Stoehr says. "The films he made are important because he found ways of subverting the traditions and conventions of the classical western while simultaneously paying reverence to earlier movies."
A self-described "down-east liberal," Stoehr is all too aware of the irony that the foreword to Ride, Boldly, Ride was written by Eastwood, this past year's GOP poster boy, who made his now notorious "empty chair" speech at the Republican National Convention only days before Stoehr's book hit the shelves. "Eastwood is one of our great American filmmakers," says Stoehr. "So, we'll just have to forgive him for this lapse in political judgment. Just as we had to forgive him for Pink Cadillac."
Stoehr manages to keep up a lively discourse on several aspects of the western even as he summons me to follow him into the kitchen and observe as he begins unloading his dishwasher: "I see many of the films released after World War II as becoming increasingly psychological in terms of their focus on the inner life of the western hero." This observation soon morphs into a fascinating tangent on Freud and Jung and then leapfrogs into a discussion of the virtues of Cascade dish-washing detergent.
When I inquire about recent spins on the genre, Stoehr pauses between piling plates: "I'm very excited about the upcoming Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained, which is a kind of western set in the South. Tarantino is very good at fusing genres and engaging in a fair degree of boundary crossing. His Kill Bill movies managed to mix the western, samurai, and gangster genres. To my mind, this is like eating barbecued beef, sushi, and lasagna in the same sitting. If you're hungry enough, such an experience can be genuinely enlightening rather than merely gross."
Eventually, we return to the living room and Stoehr motions me toward the door. "There's something that you need to see," he says. We spend the next few minutes tearing along the cobblestones of downtown Portland and only stopping to rest when we come face to face with an impressive statue of John Ford reclining in his director's chair. It wouldn't have surprised me if Stoehr had whispered "Rosebud" at precisely this moment. "I didn't become a full-fledged fan of the western until I really began to appreciate Ford's films," says Stoehr. "His remarkable journey started right here in Portland—his hometown and my hometown—and knowing that gave me a burst of pride somehow."
Before parting and while still standing before Ford's imposing gaze, I couldn't help but ask what it was that brought Ford, the Oscar-winning master of the American western, to Hollywood, especially given his humble origins in this small coastal town in Maine. Stoehr told me that this very question had been previously posed to Ford in an interview. Ford had replied, quite clearly and succinctly: "What brought me to Hollywood? A train."
Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr's Ride, Boldly, Ride: The Evolution of the American Western was released on October 1 by University of California Press. To purchase it, click here.