Writers and directors employ cliché genres in their art for a reason. They provide an instant framework for the expression of some other conflict. For example, science fiction often frames some conflict within a “David vs. Goliath” structure. Romantic comedies frame them around the “boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy wins girl back” structure. These basic thematic structures allow a gifted artist to embellish on a simple theme the way a great jazz musician can transform a cliché standard into a new work of art. Think John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things.
When I saw the extended footage of the September 30, 2012 pigeon shoot at Wing Pointe which was posted for the press without the usual over the top- if generally accurate- railings by the group which took the video, the two and a half minutes of quiet video nagged at me. Not just because of the clear, wanton cruelty shown on the video. There was something else, something familiar, about what I was watching.
Then it hit me. I’ve seen this footage before. I’ve seen it scores of times on TV and in movies. I was watching a cliché genre playing out right in front of my eyes. Chances are you’ve seen it, too. It’s a particular version of the Western genre cliché.
There is a standard form of it in which the town is run by a rich rancher with a son and his buddies who are a little bit wild. They tend to break the law in little ways. They get drunk and beat up the locals. They harass the local blacks or Native Americans. They use foul language in front of upstanding women-folk. And there is a town sheriff who, in the interests of keeping the peace, lets it slide and just tries to keep things from getting out of hand. When he does send the rich boy home to poppa with his friends, the boy usually turns and tell the sheriff that his daddy put that badge on him and his daddy can take that badge away. The sheriff inevitably says something like, “One day you boys will go too far and do something I can’t ignore,” and the boys ride away, laughing at him.
You know the boys will go one step too far. They’ll kill an innocent man or rape a good woman. This is the moment that a great story is made. The shorthand cliché that got us to this point is now blown wide open to storytelling. What will the sheriff do?
Will he put down that bottle of rye whiskey he’s been hiding his shame in or will he return to it? Will he make the quiet maiden’s heart swell with pride as he marches into the street to deal with the trouble maker and his father or will she hang it in shame as he hides in his jailhouse? Will he gather together the cowering townfolk into an outnumbered and outgunned posse? Will the mysterious stranger come in to town and help him rediscover his courage? Will he prevail or die trying? The story can go anywhere. Maybe even to Cowboys and Aliens.
When I watched the laughing, taunting shoot boys stomping pigeons to death, swinging them headfirst into their shoes, kicking them in a shower of feathers while they lay wounded on the ground, I think I had a feeling like what the piano player in a saloon fight has when the rich boy challenges the sheriff to a gun fight. Will he stand up to them or will he turn around to be taunted as he walks away through the swinging saloon doors? What will he do? I can’t stand the suspense!
The shoot boys did exactly that on September 30. The local sheriff who protected their right to a little clean fun to blow off some steam by blowing away thousands of pigeons, also made a stand. He said, for all the townfolk to hear, “Boys, you can have your fun, but don’t go too far. Don’t go beyond the confines of what Judge Lash,” – yes, this story even has a hanging judge- “said you could do. No stomping, no kicking, no swinging.” He made his line in the sand. The local press even reported it. Extra! Extra! Sheriff Puts Rancher’s Son on Notice!
Then the rancher’s son and his pals, in clear view of the cameras they knew were there filming them, video they knew would be shared with the world and the sheriff, stomped, kicked and swung those pigeons while laughing and taunting. Laughing at the cameras. Taunting the sheriff and his line in the sand.
In this case of life imitating art, I can’t stand the suspense. It’s high noon. What will the sheriff do?