In 1991, British public service station Channel Four and the Arts Council funded Phil Mulloy to produce six 35 mm animations. The result was his “Cowboy Series,” a batch of two and three-minute shorts that tackled the plight of cowboys about as directly as Fawlty Towers tackled hotel management. Americans can argue this British take on our beloved icons of independence is a bit of humor at our expense, but aren’t Cowboys also Western Civilization’s last flirtation with the primitive? The Wild West provided us our most recent opportunity to roam like cave dwellers, seeking protection from the elements and sustenance through traps and campfires—after that, we’d have town councils and tract homes. While the English and the East Coasters went to the butcher and cooked on potbelly stoves, cowboys got primal for western expansion. Yet, who’s to say the spirit of the homebody wasn’t alive in cowherds and pasture bandits as well? There had to be cowardly cowboys, too.
From Slim Pickin’s to Outrage!, Mulloy’s cowboy shorts repurpose the western hero for a more modern (arguably cynical) skew. While we expect big ideals from cowboys, like integrity and justice, Mulloy knows these expectations come independent of the cowboy’s loaded circumstances—as such they’re rather unfair expectations. The archetype lives in a fledgling civilization, and civilization is the thing Mulloy likes puncturing most. If the Wild West is in constant transformation—what philosophers call “becoming”—what can complacency-craving nomads do? Comfort is their favorite reward, and the first thing they’ll disrespect, but still they thirst for it; they are in the desert after all.
The keystones of Mulloy’s Cowboy series share names with two period pieces that gently rewrote our ideas of the past: High Noon and The Conformist. Fred Zinneman, director of 1952’s real-time western High Noon, defended his film saying it “did not diminish respect for the Western Hero.” That western followed a sheriff (Gary Cooper) recently given to pacifism by his new Quaker wife (Grace Kelly). Produced during the House on Un-American Activities Committee trials, Zinneman’s High Noon contained buried political messages about naming names, but the statement made by the film was overshadowed by responses from Western-heroes John Ford and John Wayne, who called the film “Un-American.” They made Rio Bravo as a face-saving response. These separately dueling films, both about the application of integrity to mixed conflicts, makes the cowboy look less like an icon and more like a tool, and a blunt, silly tool at that.
Mulloy’s High Noon posits another idea about the duel-or-be-dueled dichotomy of the Old West. In it, two men stand waiting for the sun to reach its zenith. They smack away the women who pray for their lives and beg them to reconsider. The townspeople herd to the standoff, luring predator birds behind them, and in the fever a baby yells, “Kill” from its stroller. The town feels the fever and tastes the blood lust, but the result most certainly “diminishes respect for the western hero.”
With its distilled theme, Murder! follows High Noon in spirit. In it, a man shoots a mother and her son, provoking a posse to give chase through the plains. The posse loses members and much body fluid to apprehend the killer and newspapers go wild with the story. The track-home community literally consumes the news and one family spearheads the lynching of a man whose criminality is unclear. Even the baby is in on it. Like a scraggly Rosemary’s Baby, the toothy, foul mini-monster rises from his coffin/crib to request more carnage. The point—if it isn’t self-evident—is that violence is an easily perpetuated brand of mass hysteria, and hype is the thing that proves people are lemmings, for better or worse.
In other shorts, Mulloy seems more interested in making the context clear. Why did the killer kill? Why does the town lynch? Who writes the newspapers? The answer to all questions appears to be: “it’s irrelevant.” Here, it’s as if just giving the characters Stetson hats is enough to prove they’re searching for their place in the land, and maybe it is. After all, cowboys find themselves at “home on the range”—are we then asked to ignore the momentary clue that the people ingesting news lived in tract house?
Early in Mulloy’s career, The British Film Institute awarded him a Grierson Award for a fifty-one-minute drama about a painter associated with the famous Bloomsbury Group. Mark Gertler: Fragments of a Biography reportedly picks at the titular painter and his glamorous social circle, but more than 40 years after most of those people passed on. (The Grierson Award is given to innovators in documentary form.) A portrait painter, Gertler left us much more than his art. He inspired D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Gilbert Cannan to write characters based on him. His personality must have been so stirring, so ebullient, so…malleable. It’s highly possible more people know the character Loerke in Women in Love than know the name Mark Gertler.
Similarly, cowboys have become a kind of malleable archetype, for use by anyone depicting the west between 1820 and 1900. Cowboys predate Western films, but the genre has largely defined our concept of them. The cowboy yearns for liberty but is chained to ideals; he’s lonesome among his neighbors; his horse is of greater value than his wife; his civilization lacks definition. Western films often parse through ideals like “civilization” or “justice” by demonstrating how determined and how stuck by determinism the lowly cowboy is; in ways it’s like the high school comedy but sadder because the cowboy’s survival depends on an intelligence few helped him develop. In high school, at least they have gym teachers. Who can he ask for advice? Where can he turn when doesn’t know what to do? How did everyone get into this mess?
Outrage! is the only cowboy short to address the subject of shame—a fairly acculturated emotion—prior to Outrage! cowboys didn’t need fig leaves, they could roam naked without embarrassment. Here, an audience of Stetsons watch a movie (the worst thing they could do). In it, they see a couple having sex on the plains. An onlooker spies them, horrified, and totes his hard-on to the neighborhood priest to fix the problem. The priest begins a campaign of genital mutilation that herds of cowboys and cowgirls sign on for willingly. One cowgirl, who sees this from the safe confines of her armchair, removes the pair of scissors she’s been praying to, but she can’t seem to disarticulate her appendage from her body. (Why she has a penis is anyone’s guess, but I’m going to say this is our only clue that the film is actually animated porn). The result of the outrage is a crowd of cowboys screwing in the movie theater. Taboo is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and so long as he condemns his desire, the hornball is free to enjoy it. (As I type this, I imagine Slavoj Žižek giggling.) The comparison to civilization seems set in stone.
Bernardo Bertolucci often explained his 1970 drama The Conformist was made by young men who never saw the 1930s themselves, but loved Weimar films. As a result his design heavy period piece smears its moral storyline into a surface judgment of the past: politics, it suggests, are also a form of aesthetics.
In Mulloy’s The Conformist, the old west is already confusing the visual for the moral. When one young cowhand finally earns a horse he sadly stumbles onto a crowd who demand he kneecap the animal and nail the poor beast’s nubs to a wheelie board. It’s a gruesome feat (or lack of feet) required to get us into the “in crowd” but we always think our survival demands it. Social pressure is a weapon as good as a gun.
In That’s Nothin’, cowboys carouse in their cantina and play the traditional game of one-up with increasingly horrible stories. As you might guess, their grody recollections go into rapey and orgiastic directions inspiring the entire town to race with pricks like cacti to relieve themselves with their wheelie horses. At once a sight gag on the old “why did the cowboys love their horses so much” line of hypothetical humor, That’s Nothin’ also reiterates the useless strain of competition that binds these men together. Women are immune to their games.
Complacency is obviously comical to Mulloy, but even funnier to him is the look of evil. Mulloy’s villains aren’t evil a la Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” because treachery to Mulloy always rides on the wings of hype. In Slim Pickin’s (named for the comedian who bronco-bucked a warhead in Dr. Strangelove), Slim campaigns on the platform “Grab All You Can” and the town does. With arm fulls of gold bullion and TVs they steal away to lie in their bathtubs covered with their money until the TV warns them to “Beware!” and for this they build cities. One cowboy loses his fortune and is alone, shamed and aware the thing that gave his life meaning was the faith he gave to one dude who said “Grab All You Can.”
Mulloy mostly ignores the budding civilization that serves as the backdrop of every cowboy in the western, but here, by losing what the cowboy seems to regard as his stake in the world, he’s a kind of “modern man.” When he was young (about two minutes ago) he had an opportunity to be somebody—not in the sense he could attain public importance, rather, in the sense he couldn’t.
Slim Pickin’s feels like Mulloy’s most trenchant comment on the West—not just because it’s about the damage caused by a railway baron looking for a train. If you look forward to Mulloy’s Ten Commandment shorts, he makes his view of human nature clear: humans, he postures, define everything by loss. We can’t be aware of the existence of a thing until we’re deprived of it, so the good stuff in life is designed to be missed, ignored or forgotten. Suffering is like a big inky pen that outlines every tangible object in our world. Maybe this is why Mulloy’s characters are big, inky messes themselves; they’re also primitive and in the process of “becoming.” They (we) created the world in our image—or something like that—and now that’s done, what do we do? Well…I got this horse.