Back at the Ranch
Ryland Walker Knight on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
You know the image of Uma Thurman’s Sissy Hankshaw from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues well: a roadside model-beauty, covered in leather and suede fringe, jutting her obscenely oversized thumbs out to snare a ride. The film may not have been a success upon its premiere in 1993, and it may not be a success now, but, like any Gus Van Sant film, its visual sense is keen. As an unofficial bookend to a road-trip trilogy that included Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Cowgirls, stunted as it is, isn’t much of a road movie at all, but it does inherit the patina of its predecessors (if not their soul). The film is ostensibly about a place where the marginalized find solace, but it has more to do with earthbound stasis than transition or transcendence. And yet, for a film so stuck in a rut, it’s full of offshoot tangents that don’t add up. It may be the exact opposite of Last Days (maybe Van Sant’s best film) in that Cowgirls’ exploration finds a safe, pat resolution and pumps it up as profound instead of playing it deadpan.
Punctuated by the movements of the sky (clouds, stars, the moon), like so many Van Sant films, Cowgirls is a restless piece, eager to desert comfort. But everything in the picture points towards an idyllic endgame, as even fatality is tidy here. The search for one’s space on the map here is similar to any of Van Sant’s films (which consistently examine how we find grace in our lives, or fail at such adventures), yet its view of the world is more enclosed than open, more limited than liminal. The clouds pass over; we stay situated in place beneath them. Accepted notions of love and attraction are skewered only to be reified by the filmmaking (as a story focusing on marginalized lesbian lovers, the film means to celebrate the outsider, but its camera only ever films them as oddities). And, for a black comedy, a stab at satire, it’s not that funny.
Perhaps best recognized as Edward Scissorhands’ feminist mirror, complete with fake fingers as metaphors for fucked-up phalluses, Van Sant’s film fails its characters by setting up each one as a grotesque object of ridicule. While the parody of a lesbian love interest named Bonanza Jellybean may tickle the ribs on the printed page (the film is based on Tom Robbins’s 1973 novel of the same name), the character onscreen (as played by the blank-slate, would-be-actress Rain Phoenix) is nothing but a bad joke at the mercy of a lame performance.
Yet the worst joke is the most persistent—Van Sant, for the most part, replicates the structure of Robbins's novel instead of adapting it, or reworking it, for film: beautiful young Uma Thurman's Sissy is caricatured, instead of characterized by her assigned attributes (thumbs and social insecurities alike). Her thumbs are her, as well as the film’s, defining image, but instead of Sissy becoming thumb (“God made me to hitchhike”), the film rids her of such a special stature—by the end, she has abandoned the road and the itch to keep moving. Sissy merely becomes cowgirl: a comment on an existing archetype, but with nothing new to offer. Nobody in the film is out for a real difference. The image of cowgirls is simply shoe-horning "girl" into the role of cowboy, re-appropriating the dominant vocabulary instead of moving outside the obviously problematic discourse society has established for this subset of women. For example, when Sissy gets one thumb surgically resized, she is doubly denied her uniqueness, her difference: her oddity is further perverted, hemmed in by what’s “normal,” unable to hitch a ride where she was once so capable, so proficient, so legendary. Now, I understand that some of Sissy’s failure is part of the point of Robbins’s tale, but it plays as a minor fall because its consequences are hardly felt (she still has another huge thumb to hitch with; she is still accepted by the cowgirls) and it’s a lame non-comment on the desire for normality. However, this is more a problem with the story than with the film, and, unfortunately, the film has plenty of other problems.
For starters, the story lends itself to the cinema but the visual language here is basic at best. Sissy Hankshaw is a former model enlisted by her former employee, the almost transgendered, pale-faced John Hurt hamming it up as the Countess, to peddle female deodorant (as she did in her heyday), by appearing in a television spot envisioned around the rare sight of the endangered whooping crane. (Instant alarm: instead of showing Sissy modeling, all we get are old magazine spreads pinned to a wall; the whooping cranes look like stock footage, which could be played for a laugh, but the materiality just seems wrong in comparison to the picture’s overall sheen.) The cranes happen to stop along their migratory path at the Countess’s Rubber Rose Ranch, (named after his famous douche bag product) in a tidy plot device which mirrors Sissy’s eventual stasis therein. The Ranch is a nexus for all the competing forces—the cowgirls interrupting the bird’s narrative, the law attempting to fence in and demolish the outlaw cowgirls, the cowgirls rebelling against the Countess’s attempts to squash female odors—but none of it is exciting. It’s a place where women go either to clean up or to dirty up, but everything, despite the hot color palette, looks like dull variations of the same. The cowgirls are just different versions of the Ranch's guests; the Countess an inversion of the lawmen, who are, in turn, an inversion of cowboys. It’s a swirl of nothing. All the arch postures and wild mugging suffocate any momentum the picture carried into the Ranch, where most of the film’s action is set.
Perhaps the wettest blanket is Rain Phoenix’s incarnation of Bonanza Jellybean: as soon as she appears onscreen (on a toilet!), her flat line recitations and awkward movements sap all energy from the film. Her first scene with Sissy is a poorly delivered breakfast monologue about “what it is to be a cowgirl,” and each line drives another nail in Phoenix’s coffin. Jellybean, like Sissy, is supposed to be a spectacle unto herself, but Van Sant rarely breathes visual life, or tenderness, into either character. They remain, to the end, cardboard cutouts that cannot stand on their own. For even if Gus Van Sant has a sharp understanding of color, Cowgirls’ gloss turns garish in its arbitrary compositions. Unlike Burton’s rigid, pastel suburban nightmare in Edward Scissorhands (ahem, Avon beauty products equals soul-crushing), where right angles abound, Van Sant’s Western-parodying satire of femininity (ahem, cowboys equal male order dominance) is shot in a kind of lazy, slack-jawed intimacy that lingers on faces and bodies more than locales.
It appears that over time Van Sant has turned this uneasy, distant gaze into an asset—each of his last four pictures are about isolation in space and time, and character becomes spectacle. Funny that Van Sant figured out how to invert that only when he gave up the road and began to cut up a specifically delimited space and time (Last Days: a cubist relationship to time and space built around a faux-Cobain’s woodsy compound where events replay and overlap from all angles, refusing a single external perspective). It’s curious that Cowgirls came before the Hollywood detour in his filmography and after a movie (My Own Private Idaho) that does exactly what this one should have done. Idaho meanders all the way to Italy and back without losing footing, the delirium of the junkie-hustler life a dizzy miasma of affect, not story. Cowgirls would appear to cut a wide swath across America, but all its energy is localized in the Rubber Rose Ranch. So instead of a picture about greater movement, which would be an intriguing reason to adapt a novel about hitchhiking (and in line with Idaho’s ethos), it fences itself in: rather than give us Sissy traversing America’s vastness, and the silence of the open road, her hitchhiking is shown Indiana Jones style, with a red line tracing a map. Space is fixed, determined, instead of teeming with possibility. And all the while you have to listen to Tom Robbins drawl on while k.d. lang whines in tune. It’s not only not that funny, or alive, it’s not that much fun.