TWO MEN, A grizzled sheriff and a gunslinging vigilante, confront each other in a dusty saloon town. It’s a scene familiar from countless western films, but in Pedro Almodóvar’s new short, “Strange Way of Life,” in theaters next month, only a few minutes elapse before the two characters end up in bed together. When Silva (Pedro Pascal) visits his former lover Jake (Ethan Hawke), he rekindles their romance before revealing less amorous intentions. Intrigue ensues, and the shock of two gay cowboys gives way to what we might expect from a classic western: shootouts, horseback chases, fugitive justice. Almodóvar’s second film in English forgoes the melodrama for which he is best known, adhering instead to genre traditions, so “the interrupted and then resumed love story between these two men will be taken more seriously,” the 73-year-old Spanish director says.
In America, as Almodóvar knows, cowboys are serious business. They might be our national paragon of masculinity: Generations of American boys were taught that real men should have the swagger of the Marlboro Man and the gruff voice of John Wayne. But like so many aspects of gender, those were just performances. This is partly why over the decades many queer artists have made winking references to cowboy culture. By homing in on make-believe and dress up, they’ve deflated some of its homophobia-tinged machismo — and even sometimes turned it into an object of horny fun. Campy versions of the Lone Ranger’s costume appear in explicit photographs by Bob Mizer from the 1950s that were distributed in physique pictorials, a forerunner of gay porn magazines. In 1965, Andy Warhol directed some friends in a western-themed striptease for his film “Horse”; three years later, he released “Lonesome Cowboys,” a drunken romp among five gay gauchos, a madam and a cross-dressing sheriff. Then there was the gay disco troupe the Village People’s dime-store cowboy, Randy Jones, who was meant to be read as a tongue-in-cheek archetype (one since referenced by musicians like Lil Nas X and Orville Peck).
As lone riders in a land characterized as empty and lawless, cowboys were also a perfect symbol for queers seeking to liberate and reinvent themselves. Such is the fragile hope of “Brokeback Mountain,” the 2005 blockbuster (which Almodóvar turned down an offer to direct) that was adapted into a West End play earlier this year. Its portrayal of a doomed love affair between two male shepherds was groundbreaking in many ways, but its presentation of the West as somewhere white, masculine men might be safe to explore their desires for each other without ever having to run into anyone else — including a person of color — mostly followed conventional tropes.
The dreamy scenes in the Austin, Texas-based 34-year-old artist RF. Alvarez’s paintings, which were on view at Alanna Miller Gallery in Manhattan through June, on the other hand, are mostly imagined. White and Latino men dine outdoors and lie naked in bed together. Cowboy hats abound: in a self-portrait of the artist wearing nothing but white briefs and in a still life hanging above a wardrobe beside a silhouetted portrait of a gay male couple. The paintings are a kind of reclamation — of history, but also of space. “There is no place for me in the West,” Alvarez says. “But multitudes can exist.”
The work is “about the American cult of masculinity and rugged individualism … conquering the ‘uncivilized West’ — and how this gender ideology dovetails with American expansionism,” says yi Hou. The raw sexual power of his subjects refutes stereotypes of Asian masculinity while offering a fantasy about how the Chinese men who literally built the West might have explored their own desires. In challenging the outdated image of the cowboy as a white, cisgender macho man, clearing the land in the name of racial purity, they suggest that America’s national mythology can be made to speak for everyone in it — that the West is more expansive after all.
Hair by Olga Holovanova at Another Agency using GHD. Makeup by Lucas Margarit at Another Agency using Dior Beauty. Set design by Cito Ballesta. Photo assistant: Guillermo Tejedor. Stylist’s assistant: Irene Monje. Produced by Alana Productions SL
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