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Cowboy culture shock

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Back in the good ol' days, men in leather chaps with husky voices were cause for admiration, every child would emulate them, playing with plastic guns just like their idols,' and willingly dress in fringed vests. Nowadays, even in Calgary, cowboys have lost the once-inherent respect of the populace: university students are more likely to think of the nightclub than the rodeo-goers, and parents are skittish about giving toy guns to children who might grow up to shoot a classmate.

"There's definitely a generation gap," explains English professor, author and buckle-bunny Dr. Rod McGillis. "In '59 there were 60 primetime western shows on maybe four or five channels. It was part of the air you breathed."

Fifty years later, reality TV has infected the airwaves and the image of the horse wrangler has been tainted by conservatism and mockery. While the cowboy used to be the pinnacle of masculinity, his role has expanded, now including the country bumpkin cowpoke or, more recently, the very un-Wyatt Earp Brokeback Mountain star.

"Look at George Bush and all the jokes about Bush as the mad cowboy president," McGillis says of the brush-clearing, denim-wearing politico. "But at the same time, there's a general conservative push to make it seem he's the hero we need to save the world."

Despite its current use as public relations ploy and late night monologue fodder, the concept of the cool-and-classic cowboy is coming back. At least according to the Calgary International Film Festival, which is hosting the Sat., Sept. 30 "Cowboy Cool" Film Talks, where, alongside veteran horse wrangler and stunt man John Scott, McGillis will lead the discussion. Taking a page out of his own soon-to-be book, McGillis will address--among other things--the clothes inspired by cowboys.

"I'm not talking about Wranglers," he says. "I mean like Gregg Allmann style cowboy shirts. When the film fest sent over their program, the western section was called 'Cowboy Camp.' Whether they knew it or not, they gave me my topic."

McGillis' talk is sure to be as varied as the movies the film fest is screening in their "Into The Western: Eclectic Westerns" series, which include Johnny Guitar, Dead Man and Westworld. He's sure to cover everything from fringe to dusty denim to satin shirts. The movies and the discussion will span more than half a century of western culture, hopefully returning to Calgarians the sense of pride a muddy pair of cowboy boots and a gun holster ought to.

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