"Acid Western" was coined by Jonathan Rosenbaum in a review of Jim Jarmusch's film, Dead Man, published in the Chicago Reader in June 1996. Rosenbaum expanded upon the idea in a subsequent interview with Jarmusch for Cineaste and later in the book, Dead Man from BFI Modern Classics.
In the book, Rosenbaum illuminates several aspects of this re-revisionist Western: from Neil Young's haunting score, to the role of tobacco, to Johnny Depp's performance, to the film's place in the Acid Western genre. In the chapter "On the Acid Western," Rosenbaum addresses not only the hallucinogenic quality of the film's pace and its representation of "reality," but also argues that the film inherits an artistic and political sensibility derived from the 1960s counterculture which has sought to critique and replace capitalism with alternative models of exchange.
In the traditional Western, the journey west is seen as a road to liberation and improvement, but in the Acid Western, it is the reverse, a journey towards death; society becomes nightmarish.
Rosenbaum used the term Acid Western to describe a "cherished counterculture dream" from the Sixties and Seventies "associated with people like Monte Hellman, Dennis Hopper, Jim McBride, and Rudy Wurlitzer, as well as movies like Greaser's Palace; Alex Cox tapped into something similar in the Eighties with Walker."
Monte Hellman's cult film, The Shooting (1966) could be considered the first Acid Western. The film stars Will Hutchins, Warren Oates and a young Jack Nicholson, and was anonymously financed by Roger Corman. The Shooting subverts the usual priorities of the Western to capture a sense of dread and uncertainty that characterized the counterculture of the late 1960s. Hellman quickly followed up with Ride in the Whirlwind. Early 1970s films such as Robert Downey Sr.'s Greaser's Palace, George Englund's Zachariah, and Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (The Mole) blends religious allegory, John Fordian Americana, Thomas Pynchonesque satire, and counter-cultural fantasy. Luc Moullet directed A Girl is a Gun (Une Aventure de Billy le Kid) featuring French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy the Kid. The film swings wildly between slapstick insanity and delirious experimentationin set in a bizarre, elemental wilderness.
The acid Western reached its zenith in the 1970s, depicting the Old West as an imaginary, post-apocalyptic wilderness populated by degenerate hippies and loners. Grim Viet-era acid Westerns include Robert Benton's Bad Company, James Frawley's Kid Blue (staring Dennis Hopper), Stan Dragoti's Dirty Little Billy, Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand, and Sydney Pollack's Jeremiah Johnson.
Rosenbaum calls Dead Man a "much-delayed fulfillment" of the Acid Western, "formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda."
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