Yosemite and the West in L.A.


I've seen two terrific revisions of myths of the American West recently--the Yosemite exhibit at the Autry Museum, and the film Seraphim Falls at the Arclight. I urge you to see the art exhibit before it closes April 22, though sadly the film came and went like the rain this winter.

Granted, this may be less "LA Observed" than "Observed in LA." Still, I'd argue that the obsessive mythmaking about L.A.--about L.A. being the American Dream, the American Nightmare, yada yada--is a kind of a deviant warmer-climate outgrowth of the obsessive mythmaking about forging the American character yada yada in the rest of the American West.

And if you want to comment on these myths, you couldn't pick a more perfect place than Yosemite, where photographers and painters--from Albert Bierstadt to Ansel Adams--depicted the sublime western landscape first as the wide-open wilderness where Americans became Americans, and then as the wide-open wilderness where twee citified modern Americans could recover their true nature.

The Autry has assembled a superb collection of more recent photography and painting, which comments ingeniously on this icon of wilderness--intentionally, in most cases, though any image of Half Dome plugs into a universe of meanings. Here's the least subtle piece, which I admit I love: J. Michael Walker's "The Removal of the Miwok from Yosemite" reprints the classic late-1800s photo of a tourist gleefully kicking her leg out over the vastness atop Glacier point, but adds a Miwok Indian falling through the air below her.

There are photos of parking lots full of cars, and of campgrounds packed with trailers and lawn chairs. Of a Park-Service trash can shaped uncannily like Half Dome, with Half Dome in the distance. Of a woman looking at Yosemite Falls, wearing a souvenir scarf with a picture of Yosemite Falls. Of Half Dome with Ansel Adams's face eerily inscribed in it. A cubist-ish photo collage of Yosemite Valley from David Hockney is wonderful. And my favorite: Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe's spellbinding photo that connects the landscape between a famed 1936 photo by Edward Weston and an 1872 photo by the noted photographer Eadward Muybridge.

All of which comments on how art has shaped the landscape and myths and experiences of Yosemite, and which asks us to ask questions. Think this was an uninhabited or even lightly inhabited wilderness? That Yosemite is an unchanging landscape with timeless meaning? That the contemporary wildernesses of the West, and how we experience them, are not powerfully shaped by myth, art, commerce, the Park Service (thankfully), cars, and a wide range of modern citified desires?

Think again.

Still, what I like just as much about the exhibit is the affection and awe that these artists so obviously maintain for the place. Yosemite may be as much meaning as place--and the meanings are up for grabs--but so what? The meanings of this place may not be timeless, and the myths may be questionable, but it's still gorgeous. And it's an ecological and cultural necessity in a highly urbanized 2007.

I won't say as much about Seraphim Falls, except that the director David Von Ancken has clearly seen a lot of westerns. And that this movie, in which a Confederate officer chases a Union officer through the West after the Civil War, joins a long line of revisionist westerns--Little Big Man, Unforgiven, Lone Star among my own favorites--that confirm that though the western may be proclaimed dead on a regular basis, it remains a powerful genre for commenting on, oh, you know, American race, imperialism, desire, redemption, alienation, violence. And that the film got middling reviews, so I entered the Arclight with middling expectations, but left thinking that, like Unforgiven, this beautiful twist of a western is an exceptionally knowing and topical commentary on the wages of American violence.

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