The Western and Its Narrative and Visual Conventions (Parameters)

Space:

A large part of the Western’s appeal derives from the spectacular and exotic scenography of the Frontier, the wide open spaces such as the plains, prairies, deserts, and mountains. The evocation of the spirit of such spaces can scarcely overestimated as an attraction of Western films. Allusions to real locations at specific historical moments, what is evoked is an imaginative rather than an actual geography. This is particularly true of the B-Western where subordinated to plot and action, the setting becomes more or less a fantasy no-man’s-land. Still Westerns must be set in the “West” and the geographical allusion constitutes one of the parameters of the genre.

* Monument Valley, Ford’s country, where 7 of John Ford’s 14 sound Westerns were shot: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

From Edward Buscombe, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 17.

– “Why ‘place’? Because, as Aristotle says, to remember things all we need is to recognize the places where they are to be found…Hence every image brings together the idea of a space, a storehouse, a localization and an extraction…Thus places form…a corpus of forms devoid of meaning in themselves, but converging on meaning by selection, organization, actualization.”

Roland Barthes, “L’ancienne rhétorique,’ Communications, no. 16, p. 206; qtd. in Jean-Louis Leutrat and Suzanne Liandrat-Guigues, “John Ford and Monument Valley” in Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, ed. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western (London: BFI Publishing, 1998), 165.

– Monument Valley was invented rather than discovered: it is certainly a real space, but “it is Ford that has progressively constructed this space as a topos” (Leutrat and Liandrat-Guigues 165); he “saw in it a place of memory, or more exactly a theatre of memory, an assembly of monuments intended to facilitate remembrance of something” (Leutrat and Liandrat-Guigues 167). 

– A mythic borderland for an allegorical journey between civilization and wilderness that “cuts all human beings into two” and makes the divisions of the American experience more somatic and legible (Leutrat and Liandrat-Guigues 167).

– For more about the Western topography, see John E. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel(Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1999), 24-27.

History and historicity:

Historically, the Frontier as the fundamental in the Western refers back to an early stage in the development of American civilization, namely at the point when savagery and lawlessness are in decline before the advancing of law and order, but are still enough to pose a local and momentarily significant challenge (Buscombe 18-9).

“At every juncture, the recourse to costume realism had enabled a new version of the ‘truth’ about the way it was on the frontier. And we are reminded once again that popular culture is never about genuine knowledge of our historical past. The way it was always underwrites the way things are. In the lapse of our historical memory, familiarity gets overcoded as verisimilitude.

Jean Marie Gaines and Charlotte Cornelia Herzog, “The Fantasy of Authenticity in Western,” in Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western (London: BFI Publishing, 1998), 174.

Mise-en-scène

The Western is so tied to such specific tropes that a little change or a small deviation from them can have quite a provocative impact on the genre: e.g., a camel race and the motorcycle in Ride the High Country (Buscombe 16).

  • Highly codified costumes: “In American Western, costume is the place where nature flows into culture…From the heel of his spurred boot [to the six-gun in his holster and the wide-brimmed hat], the cowboy is a creature of the desert and the plains, a creature whose biological evolution and genetic adaptation historically ensured his day-to-day survival…The cowboy is one of those places in mass culture where common sense always wants to see the mythic as estranged from the authentic…[: hence,] the interdependence of the mythic and the authentic [or] the inextricability of the myth and the reality [the fantasy of the authenticity]” Jean Marie Gaines and Charlotte Cornelia Herzog 172-73). For more about costumes, see Cawelti, 27-29.
  • Horse riding → To go on foot is an unthinkable humiliation; when horse begins to give way to the train, the West is changing. See also Cawelti, 38.
  • Guns → Cawelti, 38-41.
  • Language of its own style → specific tastes inscribed in the idiosyncratic language of the Western; “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Narrative:

The captivity/rescue story, the town-taming story, the cavalry story, the cult of the outlaw, the revenge story, the epic drama (the railway building and portraits of legendary heroes), the motif of the counterculture sensibility etc. → all operating within the clashes between the West and the East, agrarianism and industrialism, wilderness (nature) and civilization (culture), adventure and home, individual freedom and communal values, the relish for unrestrained action and the imperative of judicial order, etc. (Buscombe 18-9).

– The tripartite structure: townsmen, savages/outlaws, and intermediate hero (Cawelti 29-37).

– Hero’s taciturnity (reluctance with words): Cawelti, 42.

– Hero’s misogyny → an implicit attack on middle class ideals of gentility and domesticity that represses aristocratic values or impulses (Cawelti 42-3)  

 

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