Synopsis: Cowboy, Amen is a visual portrait of the Cowboy Church.  The film is a meditation on what Roland Barthes called mythology.  Humans are myth-making creatures, we create narratives to explain away the intricacies of reality. In this film we see the intersection of two of America’s great myths: cowboys and religion.


Director’s Statement:

As stated in the synopsis of this film its concept was largely inspired by rhetorician Roland Barthes’ text Mythologies.  In this collection of essays he discusses man as a myth-making creature.  He explains that myths or narratives are created in order to iron out social inequities or unexplainable elements of the real world in which we live.  With this conceptual basis I approached the world of Cowboy Church as an interesting convergence of two of the predominate examples of myth making in American history—religion and cowboy culture.  The style is less explanatory and more representative with the intention being to make a film in which the film form is informed by the content.  In other words, rather than create a myth or narrative for my viewer I sought to present the reality as unmediated as possible in an effort to deconstruct the myth-making process.         


Reviews: 

                                                 Jason M. Robinson (Virginia Commonwealth University)

                                                                      UFVA Screening Response

 

Cagney Gentry’s “Cowboy, Amen” is a visual poem of Americana, a quiet portrait of life and worship in the South, and a meditation on two classic American mythologies--the cowboy and religion. Inspired by Mythologies, Roland Barthes 1957 collection of essays that examined the creation of modern myths in contemporary societies, Gentry focuses his camera on the pastors and parishioners of two North Carolina Cowboy Churches.  Cowboy Churches are non-denominational Christian churches known as much for their short and simple sermons as for their unique sanctuaries. Typically held in barns, auction halls, rodeo arenas and other havens of blue collar work ethic and Southern pride, these services favor a more casual and direct conversation with and about God.  They cater to ranchers, farm hands, rodeo riders, and all kinds of other folks that prefer to receive the Gospel in Wranglers and a Stetson.  


At this intersection of two of our greatest and richest myths, cowboys and Christianity, Gentry was reminded of Barthes’s famous texts.  In Mythologies, Barthes explores man’s tendency to explain the mysteries and the intricacies of modern life through the development of myth. Using Barthes as a conceptual framework Gentry documented his subjects with an unobtrusive presence and a delicate eye for detail. His editing is a fragmented yet linear collection of moments, concerned more with communicating a feeling and a spirit than creating a narrative. This technique recalls both the pioneers of Direct Cinema and makers of early experimental montage.  In his notes on the film, Gentry states that these stylistic decisions were made in order to avoid creating a myth of his own and to instead work toward deconstructing the myth-making process.   


In the opening shot of the film when an off-camera pastor asks his bleacher based congregation to be bold and “cowboy up” he is acting as an unknowing narrator, indirectly addressing the viewers and welcoming them to their first glimpse of the world of cowboy churches.  For the next seven and a half minutes we are embedded directly into the middle of these services silently observing, watching how they work. Gentry uses no camera movement preferring to stick to a series of static tripod shots that recall event photography more than documentary.  It is unclear exactly how many churches we are visiting as our perspective shifts around the room from the top of the bleachers to the back of the building and then on to other locations like a livestock arena, a coffee shop and the Tokota horse stables.  Dates and times are not important here. This is not about data or facts.  Sermons bleed in and out of each other, preachers change and topics shift as volume fluctuates until the words, though still intelligible become impossible to process.  Fragments of a larger story float before us, dreamlike, disconnected from any context that would allow us to assemble them into a coherent narrative.


In addition to the preaching and the praying inside the church we are also given access to quieter yet incredibly insightful moments of life outside the sanctuary. A horse traversing his pen stops and appears to stare directly into the camera while two more horses patiently waiting for their people stand next to unattended trailers. In these scenes, Gentry shows us a close up shot of the world the cowboy has temporarily left behind in order to worship. This is the cowboy life interrupted, a portrait defined by the absence of its subject.

There are big moments on display as well, that help to define this world. Several men are shown being baptized in a horse tank.  This large metal container typically used for holding horses drinking water is the official vessel of baptisms throughout the network of cowboy churches.  We also see a wedding at a stable complete with a bride and groom in matching denim and a singing cowboy preacher.  


But there are also smaller easier missed moments of beauty and grace that are no less important in defining these myths. A young mother attempts to stay focused on the preacher’s message but is unable to contain her amusement as her daughter, no older than three years old and dressed for a blizzard waddles in and out of the edge of the frame.  And after the horse stable wedding the camera stays put as the guests mill about chatting until a man recognizes us, the audience looking through the lens of the camera and temporarily turns the tables taking a photograph of us.

Gentry documents the exciting and the mundane while staying still and unobtrusive and always on the periphery of the action.  He presents a world unbiased, making very few decisions for the viewer so when he does show his hand as a filmmaker he does so with a purpose. When the teenagers on horses trot by carrying flags in the pre-service ritual and the sound cuts abruptly to silence or when the baptism is shown in slow motion we are reminded that this is not Verite. We are not viewing these events first hand but through a medium, the eyes of an observer, the prism of human memory.


In Cowboy, Amen S. Cagney Gentry deftly presents a unique convergence of our American mythology.  He captures the intricacies of ritual and the spectrum of human emotions with a determined focus and a careful sense of detachment and respect.  


Screenings:   Athens Film and Video Festival. Athens, OH, 2010.

                         University Film and Video Association Annual Conference. Burlington, VT, 2010.

                        Big Muddy Film Festival. Carbondale, IL. 2011.