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Wednesday, January 27, 2010
The Story Behind the Myth
Do the gaffer a favor and leave the hat at home...
I caught an excellent show Monday night on “American Experience,” the long-running PBS documentary series. “A.E.” documentaries are usually interesting and informative, and this one – about legendary lawman Wyatt Earp – was no exception, shining a hard light on the dusty half-truths, myths, and typical Hollywood distortions surrounding this icon of the Old West. I never knew there were actual photographs of Earp, his brothers, and their equally legendary nemesis Ike Clanton – but although photography was still in it’s infancy, some very crisp images of these people were recorded on film. For a kid who grew up watching black-and-white western movies and TV shows, this was a fascinating program.
I’m not sure the current generation -- brought up on “Star Wars,” “Survivor,” and “Jerry Springer” -- would share my interest. By the time my family finally got a TV (when I was 8 years old...), it seemed there was a western on every night of the week -- shows like “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Gunsmoke,” “Sugarfoot,” “The Rifleman,” “The Rebel,” “Maverick,” “Rawhide,” “Wagon Train,” “Tombstone Territory”, and “Bonanza.” There were cop shows, war shows, doctor shows, comedies, and variety shows too, but on television and movie screens, the western was the primal stage upon which the classic American themes of individuality, self-reliance, and personal honor (laced with lots of gunfire) played out.
Two of those movies were “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, among many others), and “My Darling Clementine” (Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, and a spectacularly vile Walter Brennan), both of which spun their own Hollywood myths around the lethal showdown between the Earp brothers, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons.
Having grown up steeped in these myths, I assumed they were essentially true -- but myths have a way of leaving out any inconvenient or messy facts that might smudge the nice clean Hollywood version. Personally, I find it oddly reassuring to learn that people in the Old West were much like they are today. Technology evolves with stunning speed, but we humans are very slow to change in all the ways that really matter. Now as then, we’re the same haunted, deeply conflicted, utterly flawed and occasionally magnificent creatures as always.
So even if you didn't grow up on a steady diet of westerns, check this show out when you have a chance. It never hurts to learn a little of our shared history, and the story is a good one.
Just one thing irked me about the show. There were lots of wonderful old photos woven into the narrative and inter-cut with talking-head interviews featuring several Western Historians, all of whom seemed to know and revere their subject. At least two of them, however, wore cowboy hats during their interviews. Perhaps they thought this would somehow add to their authenticity, but to me it was ludicrous on a couple of levels. It’s one thing for a cowboy poet to wear a hat while performing, since spoken word poetry (regardless of how silly it might be*) is still theater, and costumes are the norm in the course of a theatrical performance. But an interview for a serious historical documentary? I don’t think so. It just made these guys look silly.
No wonder “Western Historians” aren’t taken seriously – if Doris Kearns Goodwin strapped on a stovepipe hat and phony black beard every time she sat down to discuss the life and times of Abe Lincoln on camera, nobody would take her seriously either.
The other historians in this show – those with the good sense to leave their cowboy hats outside with their horses and six guns, I suppose – came across as serious people telling a serious story.
The DP and gaffer on this show deserve a little sympathy and respect. Depending on the nature of the project, there are lots of ways to light a talking head, but a subject who insists on wearing a broad-brimmed cowboy hat (typically pulled low over the forehead) presents a major problem. The eyes are crucial in a talking-head shot – they have to shine to connect with the audience – and when the subject wears a cowboy hat, the key and fill lights must physically drop much lower than normal to dig in under the brim and illuminate those eyes. In addition to making it impossible to acheive the classic Rembrandt Triangle** portrait look, such low lighting often creates problems with nose shadows. These can be solved by adding an obie light or bumping up the fill enough to minimize the shadow, but that can result in a relatively flat, boring look – and if the subject wears glasses (as one of these Western Historians did), then all these low lights can cause reflection problems.
So many problems, and all because the "talent" just had to wear a stupid hat...
The lighting crew did a good job solving all the problems in these interviews – I doubt any civilians watching this show noticed what was going on in those talking head shots -- but their job was made a lot harder by these knucklehead historians couldn't resist playing cowboy for the camera.
So the next time you get called in to do an on-camera interview, leave the cowboy hat at home. Believe me, the gaffer and DP will thank you.
* I realize some people love the stuff, but you’d have to pay me good money -- and lots of it -- to sit through an evening of “cowboy poetry”...
** For another example of the Rembrandt Triangle in action, click here.