Acid Westerns: Blueberry (2004)

The 2004 film adaptation of the longrunning comic book "Blueberry" by illustrator Moebius and writer Jean-Michel Charlier came to the United States under a more generalized name: Here it was released as "Renegade."

It's not a very good name, but probably better than "Blueberry," as this film adaptation by Jan Kounen has next to nothing to do with its source material, and is poorer for it. The comic book told of a Southern man, raised racist, who comes to reject his upbringing, fight for the North during the Civil War, and later head West, continuing his anti-racist story into the American frontier.

All that is gone. Instead, we have the story of a U.S. Marshal named Mike Donovan, played by the generally puckish Vincent Cassel, here glum. As he is a French actor, the film declares him a Cajun, despite the fact that there were far more French in the Southwest of the late 1800s than Cajuns.

Little of the the original character remains, because Kounen was less interested in Moebius and Charlier's story, and more interested in telling the story of ayahuasca rituals; in fact, the last 20 minutes or so of the film is one long hallucination, which is why I am classifying the film as an Acid Western.

Kounen, it turns out, has a bit of a taste for ayahuasca, the mind-altering brew made from South American yage. He has reportedly gone through shamanic ayahuasca rituals many times, perhaps a hundred. And, I guess, points for novelty, as this is a film that replaces the traditional climactic gun battle with an introspective trip in which two gunfighters explore a tragedy in their mutual past.

Now, I am going to discuss the representation of Native Americans in this film, and I must point out that I am not Native, and I am not an expert on the topic. But ayahuasca rituals are a South American shamanic tradition, and there is no evidence they were ever practiced in the American Southwest. In fact, when author William Burroughs wanted to experience the drug in 1953, he had to travel to the Amazon rainforest to do so.

Indians in "Blueberry" are barely characters. Instead, they are either savages (Chiricahua Apaches scalp a character, which I understand they rarely did; the Apaches were more often the victims of scalping) or as shamanic guides. Regarding the latter characterization, well, it's a problem when minority characters exist in films only to aid the main white character in his development. I don't know if there is a word for it when it's done to Native Americans, but when Black people serve the role, it's called the Magical Negro.

Besides which, these are invented Indians. There were no South American Indians who just happened to be in the Southwest at the time of this story to oversee and massage the experience of a troubled white cowboy. 

It's worth noting as well that there is something called "ayahuasca tourism," where a commercialized version of the ritual is sold to eager tourists, which has received a lot of criticism in the Amazon. At best, it's viewed as cultural appropriation. At worst, it may be responsible for disrupting indigenous communities in South America. I don't know what Kounen's experiences of ayahuasca were, but I feel strongly that, in the context of this film, it's impossible to avoid the sense of appropriation.

The non-Indian elements of the film are visually enjoyable, but rushed. The film takes place in a Western town so new that it still is mostly a tent city, and so neglected that its sheriff (Ernest Borgnine) is in a wheelchair and the local ranch boss is desperate for money. The rancher's daughter, in the meanwhile, has an unhidden crush on our hero. They are played by the father/daughter team of Geoffrey and Juliette Lewis, the former a longtime veteran of Westerns, the latter a very good actress who seems a little out of place here.

It didn't have to be. There is a moment when Juliette Lewis gets dressed up in cowboy hat and guns and seems like she might turn into the film' surprise hero, but instead she is brutalized and spends the rest of the film uselessly doting on our hero.

At least the film has a terrific villain, in the form of Michael Madsen, a tough, squinting character actor who is one of Quentin Tarantino's favorites. He has the mannerisms of a 1960s Method actor, and it's the only thing that makes this film feel like it is drawing from the legacy of the Acid Western. But he isn't in the film for long, and, when he is, is mostly there just to quietly bully the hero. In the end, he just fades away.

As for the film's long hallucination scene? It's fun to watch, seemingly built entirely out of computer generated images of snakes, millipedes, and abstract representations of Nahuatl writing. During the trip, the characters' skeletons shows through their skin, and they sort of tumble through the hallucination, it wrapping itself around them and then turning inside out, rushing across the screen, and depositing them somewhere else.

If you're a fan of this sort of thing, or if you have just taken some hallucinogens yourself, I can imagine this scene being pretty impressive to watch. But my experience of it is the same as my experience of the film, and it is the same as my own experience of hallucinogens: It offers what seems like profound insights, but, once the trip is over, they prove to be shallower and less life changing than was promised.


Popular Posts