Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society: A Structuralist Approach to the Western

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 43-51.

Structural anthropology + the formalist analysis

An attempt to find a more method for looking at the relationship between a popular film genre and social changes; he aims to avoid the woolly-mindedness which has plagued studies of the relationship between popular artifact and history and ended with recycling such terms as reflection, analogy, correspondence, parallel, symptom, allegorization, and so on.

Wright’s fusion of structural anthropology and the formalist analysis of narrative is concerned to analyze the relationship of the American Western to American society (47).

Will Wright’s ambition → exploring the ‘deep structure’ of the Western and at the same time engaging in a formal analysis, for which he radically modify the concept of the formula: the formula is a mediation between the structure of a text and its public.  In other words, his fight takes place on two fronts: while he tries to rescue formal analysis from the accusation that it detaches film texts from their historical contexts, he also hopes to analyze the Western in a rigorously structural way to veer away from the archetype study cut off from the question of the audience.

The question of spectatorship and production: The consumer (or spectator) sovereignty thesis

Wright’s emphasis on the active audience (the so-called consumer sovereignty thesis): The audience is not simply a passive receptacle of a given set of dominant ideologies. Instead, the audience is an active participant in choosing, with regard to its own needs, which types of stories it will watch and enjoy. Of course, this choice is not exactly based on rational, conscious judgement and often appears to be circumscribed by epistemological, ethical and aesthetic establishments. Still the issue of reception urges us to incorporate the sociocultural development at a certain historical juncture into a study of an art genre.

What is problematic in Wight’s analysis, however, is that the consumer sovereignty thesis leads him to rely on a cluster of popular, commercially successful Westerns (those that earned more than $4 million in the U.S. and Canada) and their plot structures (Wright, Sixguns and Society, 13 and 29). Then he distills a few prominent tendencies from the examples, which is followed by entertaining a story of structural progression in the genre. The questions to be raised here are: What about low-budget films that become unexpected hits?; What about big-budget films that become box-office disasters?; and What about a small film that, unknown to many audiences, has a great influence over following films? The box-office record is not always the best and most reliable index that reveals what the audience at a specific historical juncture expects or desires to see and how they perceive and react to the surrounding world.

See also p. 62.

Wright’s reactions to established modes of interpretation

Against the mythic approach → tends to fall back on mystification or ethical criticism as a substitute for historical or structural analysis, which cannot provide an account for the popularity of the Western: whereas Northrop Frye’s archetypal approach to genre attempts to reach some ‘deep structure’ and expand on divers variations (or permutations), others often remain satisfied with identifying some formulas and classifying individual texts according to those formulas, which frequently causes a detachment of a body of films from its historical context and its reception by the spectator.

Against the psychoanalytical approach → tends to resort to fuzzy conjectures about human nature, the unconscious, or the desire, as ignoring the fact that the Western, like all other myths, is a social phenomenon.

Against the application of literary criticism → tends to focus too much on textual analysis and also involves assimilating popular texts to high culture as is often the case in the auteur theory.

Against the sociological approach such as the Frankfrut School model of culture industry → A big-budget film often becomes a box-office disaster, while there are many low-budget films that turn into a stunning success.

Against the ideology theory → ideology is not simply false consciousness; it is rather the representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence (as Althusser defined).

Four types derived from two major narrative components, the solitary hero and the community in struggle or crisis.

The classical plot: begins with the hero outside society and shows his progressive integration into society.

The vengeance variation: begins with the hero inside society and shows him going outside society for a job and then returning to society.

The transition theme: begins with the hero inside society and shows his gradual disillusionment with society.

The professional plot: begins with the hero outside society and shows him remaining outsider whether his reluctance or failure to be integral to society.

This structural progression in the Western corresponds to the change in America from the ideology of a market economy to that of a corporate economy (from the gunfighter as a modern pioneer to the gunfighter as the technocrat of capitalist system). It is suggestive of the change that the small town of early pioneers is replaced by a highly institutionalized one dominated by professionals and their ideologies.

Critical views on Wright’s typology (schematization of narrative structures)

His emphasis on plot (narrative sequence) still sees a text as an inert object with a fixed structure to be identified, which leads him to fail to discuss the malleable and ever-evolving aspect of cultural production and pay due attention to related (extra-textual and intertextual) issues such production, reception, stylistic evolution, technical development, and so on. “[Most of the narrative types] he schematizes have been around for a very long time–at least since the days of Achilles and Perseus. Wright sometimes loses sight of the fact that it is the redefinition, or ‘transformation,’ of those plots…rather than their creation, that he is studying [or concerned to study]” (47).

When unduly inattentive of the fact that a genre never ceases to be in the process of communication, (re)negotiation, and transformation at various levels of its development such as production, reception, technical development, a study of the Western could hardly get over the Hollywood-centered perspective; it would remain ignorant of, or uninterested in, what the Western has to do with other societies than America: e.g., film scholars’ lack of interest in international Westerns such as the spaghetti Western and the Asian Western. Indeed, Wight’s analysis of the Western only refers to two of Sergio Leone’s films, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly–which, very successful in the U.S., fall well within his $4 million bracket–as “just fill-ins” before the emergence of a new type, that is, the professional plot (47-48; Wright, Sixguns, 14). But it is quite doubtful whether the formula of the professional Western is applicable to, for instance, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. While the heros in Wright’s professional Western are gunfighters in profession, one of the heros in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Tuco) is not a professional. If the heros in Wight’s professional Western share respect, affection and loyalty as a group, the central characters in Leone’s films show little loyalty to each other. If Leone’s films foreground a sense of professionalism, it is a very different kind of professionalism than that adumbrated by Wright’s analysis (48).

Of course, Wright’s approach is not that simplistic, for which Fredric Jameson’s reading of Wright is worth our attention. In his view, while the analytical impetus to identify archetypal narrative structures often encourages a primarily typological or classificatory activity, Wright “has used the concept of a sequence of functions to propose four fundamental variants…: the classical, the revenge, the transition, and the professional plots…For him, therefore, deviation from a given sequence is meaningful and can only lead to further analytical activity, [whereas in the simplistic classificatory analysis] it is simply…an aberration” (48). That is, Wright is discussing a series of permutations and his scheme can cope with conformity and variation alike; in contrast, the simplistic classificatory analysis focus on a mode of classification and important variations are taken fatal to the scheme. In the former case, deviations will prove productive; in the latter, they will be destructive (48).

Still the problem with this approach is that “exceptions can always be ‘explained away’ by the simple expedient of adapting Wright’s major variants ad infinitum: in this way, his schema can always be made impervious to factual criticisms–in theory, at least” (49). That is, it can hardly be more than reducing all deviations to the difference of degree, which inevitably fails to address the question of radical difference or change, in other words, the difference of kind or order. This becomes clear when we face some questions with which Wright’s method doesn’t have to grapple, but that are crucial for analyzing various deviations: How did the emergence of, to say, the spaghetti Western happen?; Why did it only last eight or nine years?–it captivated mass audiences not only in Italy but around the world as well in the early 1960s, but its worldwide popularity ended in less than ten years; How were they sustained during these years?; Why was a genre of American origins so successful in other countries at that time? The mode of analysis contained in Sixguns and Society in fact provides a useful means of categorizing the main developments in the Italian Western genre. [When attempting to] relate these developments to Italian society, we are to confront many questions that Wright does not need to ask, but must at some stage of analysis be posed (53).

From the formal perspective, those questions are related to, for instance, “the oppositions which form the basis for the analysis of American Westerns in Sixguns and Society” [e.g., wilderness and civilization or the individual and the communal], but “do not work for Spaghettis”: even in the earliest successful Italian Westerns, “society is virtually non-existent, all the protagonists are ‘strong,’ the distinction between ‘good’ [and] ‘bad’ [or…’ugly’] has been redefined, and the tension between ‘wilderness’ and ‘civilization’ plays no part at all” (51). Another notable characteristic in Spaghettis is the substantial weight given to anti-heroic figures: the central motivation of action in the Italian Western is either cash or revenge, but rarely a heroic goal. The protagonist in the spaghetti Western is in essence less a hero than a cynic in despair (55).

In terms of the implications of the West, there is a significant difference between the American and the international Westerns. What is worth close attention here is the notion of the West as a mythic space, more specifically, the distinction the stances of the American and the international Westerns toward the West as a mythic space: the American Western, whether classical or revisionist, drawing upon or circumscribed by an empirical sense of history (geared toward the notion of the empirically authentic West) ↔ the international Western built upon the West as an imaginative space of origins, a space devoid of any empirical historical connection, a radically mythicized space, a space of nostalgia without experienced memories.

The differences can be considered in association with contextual differences. What one should remember here, however, is that we should not expect that contextual research will provide a final account for how to make sense of a (re)surge and development of a certain genre. Such an approach often leaves unexplored questions like why the Western instead of other genres which, in theory, can equally or similarly be reflective, symptomatic, or allegorical, of sociocultural contexts. The Western is not simply interchangeable with other genres; it interacts with sociocultural contexts in a singular way and thereby touches upon distinctive aspects or issues of sociocultural contexts. Therefore, one should not ignore questions like What distinct pleasure can the Western a genre of American origins provide to societies outside America at certain moments of their developments?; What unique appeal can the Western have for non-American societies at a specific historical juncture, the one that other genres cannot provide?; Does the unique charm of the Western invites us to some specific issues that other genres cannot raise as effectively as the Western does?; Then, what are they?

A genre can be an effect of social change; on the other hand, one should remember that it can serve as a prism which makes legible certain aspects of a society at a specific historical conjuncture, namely a distinctive problematic that incites or allows us to interrogate, come to terms with, and/or react to the sociocultural milieu differently than other genres do. While a genre can be read as reflective, symptomatic, or allegorical of society, this generalized notion should not lead us to a hasty conclusion that it is exchangeable with others.

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