Excerpt: Late Westerns

The following is an excerpt from Late Westerns: The Persistence of a Genre (December 2018) by Lee Clark Mitchell.

From the Introduction

Consider a handful of scenarios recently set in the American West: a corpse repeatedly buried and disinterred on its journey south from Texas; two cowboys entangled in an explosive romance in northern Wyoming; an Anglo half brother and Hispanic American half sister in love (Texans again), no longer willing to ignore their incestuous desires; an Indiana businessman discovering, as if astonished, that his long-buried identity has erupted in the midst of small-town family life; a famous Western actor walking away from a film set to reassess his wastrel past in urban Montana; a wannabe cowboy in modern Los Angeles disrupting a broken family with his slightly demented six-gun aspirations. Each of these films was a critical as well as box-office success over the past two decades, and each (with perhaps the Indiana exception) was immediately labeled a Western. Still, despite recognizable venues, despite tall hats and high heels, despite even a shared fascination with masculine prerogatives and family roles, all of which has typified the genre from the beginning, these seem a far cry from films made famous by John Ford and Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah. They are so different, in fact, that some scholars have argued not only that the genre has been altered decisively but that it has been transformed into something else entirely.

Of course, for more than a century the Western has perpetually teetered on the verge of exhaustion, only to revive in new forms. Almost as soon as it first appeared, viewers heralded its demise and ever since have applauded the passing of a genre that keeps rising from the dead. The dramatic resuscitations supposedly performed by Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), then later by Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), then again by Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), followed by the unnamed films listed above: each offered heroic CPR to hackneyed materials, breathing life once again into an all-but-dead popular form. The question that keeps reemerging, then, is why this narrowly based vehicle—with among the most limited historical setting of any familiar genre—should continue to win over audiences more than a century after the lone cowboy had faded from view, appealing to ticket holders hooked by Hollywood’s latest incarnation of America’s foremost costume drama.

Why the regular turn again, even in modest new guises, back to quarter horses and small towns, to lone gunslingers and the curse of civic complacency? Why the resurrection of the Western as popular entertainment and, more compellingly, as a narrative means of addressing insistent social quandaries and cultural dilemmas? Why does the genre persist in winning our attention as successfully as action-adventure plots and spy films, space odysseys and zombie invasions, horror films and urban romances, murder mysteries and musicals? Jean-Luc Godard once pronounced the Western as “the most cinematic of cinematic genres,” but that hardly forms a convincing claim even on its face, much less as an explanation for the genre’s unusual staying power (O’Brien 1992, 38). For while the imperatives of the Western have altered over a century, they are still recognizably the same, or at least more or less similar in various configurations. Moreover (and this is a point worth conjuring), changes in the genre have been no more dramatic in the past two decades than they were in those preceding. When we pause to consider, it becomes clear that the question is larger than the Hollywood Western itself and encompasses why and how it is that genres persist, somehow hybridize, and otherwise evolve into new variations—but variations that are always recognizable.

In an earlier book, I addressed the appeal of certain Westerns at critical historical moments to explain how popular culture apparently helps resolve social crises. Chapters on films (as well as novels) spread over a century focused on what I argued were the deep if unspoken agendas driving these narratives: education and parenting, manhood and female liberation, among other topics. The present book offers a similar close reading of popular films from the past half century. But I no longer aspire to delve into contested political terrains or the cultural anxieties of first-time viewers, which draws them together even when plot resolutions seem indeterminate. Instead, I want to turn from divided social contexts to focus more intently on idiosyncratic aesthetic decisions and in the process address a fundamental question of genre itself: why do so many accomplished writers and directors (and importantly, Hollywood producers) choose to return to the Western if only to transfigure it and alter its trajectory? And how do their choices in plot, character development, cinematography, narrative sequence (among other features) reshape a genre that nonetheless remains recognizable as a genre. Of course, that inquiry could just as easily be extended to other popular forms (melodrama, say, or noir and war films, romances and fight movies), which have likewise been adapted cinematically, aesthetically, narratively over time without losing their generic identity.

For various reasons soon to become apparent, the Western best clarifies how fully genres change yet endure—indeed, how they must change to endure—and solicit our interest by confirming expectations while nonetheless diverging from them, inventively, entertainingly. That process, once understood, helps explain our routinely renewed interest in a supposedly identifiable genre regularly viewed as on its way out. The examples with which I opened differ little from countless others in the past in dramatically deviating from what is taken as a generic model even as they bear a “family resemblance” (in Wittgenstein’s formulation) to their predecessors. If these and other films are sometimes set on a long-ago frontier, just as often they abandon small, nineteenth-century towns for contemporary suburban, even urban locales; if they sometimes involve men on horseback, just as often characters speed by in cars or SUVs; if plots sometimes erupt out of violent confrontations, just as often they are driven by convoluted histories and tortured psychologies. The point is that whether or not familiar materials are immediately discernible, the genre persists, and does so in more or less recognizable forms. Even when major films deliberately defy these patterns, they still end up appealing on the basis of our cumulative understanding of prior Westerns, our appreciation for their variable materials and flexible structures. It is as if a fixed generic understanding were imprinted on our consciousnesses, with recent versions of the Western (like improvisations on jazz standards) compelling our admiration by their skill at revising underlying expectations, confirming how little we can escape a deep recognition of the genre that has always been there, fully itself. Like Justice Potter Stewart’s notorious threshold test for obscenity (“I know it when I see it”), we (critics and viewers alike) spot familiar generic constructions, which most simply begin in beginnings themselves with opening lines like “Once upon a time” or “In a galaxy far, far away” or “Theona, the hot-blooded lady-in-waiting at Elizabeth’s court,” or “The sky was the color of watered-down whiskey when Melba stumbled into my office.” Whatever ensues may not be either fairy tale or sci-fi, historical romance or noir fiction, but setting, characters, diction, and narrative style all establish expectations for these modes, expectations that over time need to be stymied, encouraged, and playfully altered if they are to persevere.

The paradox of genres is that the longer they survive, the more they fool us into thinking they have always had a single “classic” form, which may explain why critics are sometimes inclined to affix a hyphenated “post- ” to later examples. That prefix signals something distinctly belated in subject matter or cinematic style, something that emerged after the genre’s initial structure was supposedly settled and by which it would ever after be sanctioned. No one denies that genres are malleable, changing while remaining recognizable, yet the very attachment of “post- ” to a genre confirms how unwilling critics are to treat them as fundamentally shape-shifting for each new generation, if only to stay current and sell tickets. Accompanying that unwillingness is a misconception about how genres first emerge, which is never immediate or self-contained and usually depends on a generous backward glance—thus imposing a retrospective coherence on examples based on factors selected well after the fact. Critics and viewers tend to impute similarities to these examples, granting a structural kinship to them that at the time may rarely have been acknowledged. Still, to agree that some examples are not obvious, or that genres regularly reshape themselves so long as they satisfy audiences, is not to deny that we nonetheless at any given historical moment refer to them as if more or less comparable, more or less fixed, distinguishable from competing genres with which they borrow and share. And the tautology underlying this interpretive confidence dictates that any genre’s perceived structure remains contingent on the examples we choose to define it. After all, examples from any period in the past are as incompatible, sometimes even irreconcilable and chaotic, as more recent examples brought together to justify a presumed generic claim. To repeat, no stable version of a genre transcends a particular moment, since genres are always being reshaped by each new potential member. But that hardly denies how fully expectations are aroused when people break into song or dance, or space ships loom on the horizon, or cowboy hats and chaps appear on full display.

In short, the assumption informing this book is that the Western has been effectively “post- ” all along, which is to say, from its very beginning. Consider that Owen Wister and Zane Gray were initially considered writers of “romance” when The Virginian (1902) and Riders of the Purple Sage (1915) appeared, both of which were first marketed as such. The Western novel still had to await its appearance as an identifiable genre, only gradually coming to be seen as sharing features with other instances of a category yet to be named. Genres are, that is, as much historical categorizations as theoretical constructs, posited retrospectively by critics, but also by film-makers and filmgoers at the time of a film’s production and consumption. Even if film noir and melodrama were labeled by critics well after the fact, viewers and producers didn’t need a label to know what they wanted to see, which was simply “more of that!” And even genres that seem obvious to us, like musicals and Westerns, had to wait for expectations to settle into a pattern. As Andrew Patrick Nelson has observed:

The films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made at RKO in the mid-1930s were not marketed as “musicals,” because audiences at the time understood that term to mean something rather different, namely the films being made at Warner Bros. and choreographed by Busby Berkeley. As with its literary counterparts, Western, as a “noun,” was not widely used to describe a class of film until the 1920s, meaning that the viewer of The Great Train Robbery (1903) or Hell’s Hinges (1916) did not know they were watching a Western. Even Stagecoach (1939) wasn’t promoted as a Western, as the genre in the 1930s was associated with low-budget pictures. (pers. comm.)

That process, moreover, continues today in the blending, pilfering, and crossbreeding that happily keeps generic strains ever impure.

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