Ever since the silent era of cinema, American and international viewers alike have fallen in and out of love with the overly masculine, white male cowboy figure. You know the one; charming, gun slinging, riding in at the eleventh hour to save the day. We cheer him on, desperately wanting him to succeed, so that the world will go back to making sense once again. He soared to popularity in the late 1930s with John Wayne’s Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, found international influence with Clint Eastwood’s Blondie in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the mid 1960s, only to fall off the radar once critics pointed out his clear problems with women and people of colour. More recently, innovative artists such as Mitski, and Solange have explored the possibilities of what the cowboy figure can look like through both audio and visual media in a movement dubbed the “Yeehaw New Wave.”
With her short Skunk, which won the Cinefondation Jury Prize at Cannes in 2014, and feature Bull, which competed in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes this past summer, Austin filmmaker Annie Silverstein throws her hat in the ring. After teaching Native American youth how to make documentaries about their lives through her program Native Lens, she enrolled at the University of Texas and decided to become a director, inspired by the communities around her. Her use of non-traditional casting, themes of toxic masculinity and the degradation of the American landscape, as well as immersive cinematography, are reminiscent of an Annie Proulx story adapted for the screen by Andrea Arnold.
Skunk, available on the Criterion Channel, tells the story of 14-year-old Leila, who lives in poverty in rural Texas with her single mum and her closest friend, a rescue pit bull named Bubba. One day, Leila’s mum threatens to get rid of Bubba after he brings a dead skunk to their doorstep as a gift, and sends her to wash the dog in the river, where she sparks a relationship with a manipulative teenage dog fighter. In the traditional cowboy story, he would be the protagonist; charming, masculine, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, even if that means resorting to violence. However, Leila is the cowboy in Silverstein’s narrative, just in a new sense; whereas the dog fighter exploits Bubba and Leila for financial and sexual purposes, respectively, Leila is gentle and connected with nature. Her only goal is to survive and to take care of her dogs. She is also not a doormat. In one of the funniest, most satisfying cinematic moments in recent memory, Leila wordlessly learns to stand up for herself against the culture of toxic masculinity that threatens her; she realises doesn’t need anyone to do that for her. Just like with the traditional cowboy, we are rooting for Leila and want to see her succeed.
There certainly are no cowboys swooping in to ride in and save badly behaved 14-year-old Kris, the protagonist of Bull, nor are there any easy solutions for her. Kris lives in rural Texas with her depressed grandmother and younger sister after her single mother is imprisoned. Her mother promises that they will make enough money to move away and start fresh, but it seems unlikely. In a stunt meant to impress the other local teens, Kris breaks into her neighbour Abe’s house and raids his liquor cabinet. Eventually, Kris finds an unlikely friend and father figure in Abe, after he makes her clean the house that she trashed. He is an ageing alcoholic bull rider who does not want to accept that his body cannot quite go as far as it used to anymore; although he loves his job dearly, it becomes more and more clear that bull riding takes its physical and emotional toll. Together, Kris and Abe become unlikely cowboys as Abe brings her into his community and teaches her to ride bulls.
Much like any human being going through adolescence, especially when stuck in cyclical poverty so crushing it sometimes feels like there is no way out, Kris finds it difficult to connect with anything; she speaks in monotone, she gets in fights at school, she talks back to her grandmother. Bull riding becomes Kris’ only escape and a lifeline, despite the fact that it is incredibly dangerous and she can only make very little money from it. When she feels lost at sea, riding becomes her life raft. Like Leila, Kris finds a meaningful connection in nature. Becoming a bull rider is a crazy dream for Kris to have, but it is her dream, and it brings her glimpses of joy.
Instead of macho men slinging guns, Silverstein’s cowboys are working class Texas women who find their strength despite the painful trials it takes to get there, portrayed in a way that feels real instead of sentimental or cloying.
by Katarina Docalovich
Katarina Docalovich is a recent film school grad, freelance film writer, and filmmaker from Richmond, VA. She started an all women filmmaker’s film festival at her university called “For a Dollar Name a Woman.” Her favourite films include American Honey and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @pawsitivelykat
Categories: Women Film-makers