Self-Reflexivity, Stylization, Details in the Western

Self-Reflexivity → Cinema about cinema

Some tendencies of the self-reflexive cinema

* The Brechtian project (verfremdung): Apparatus, Ideology, Godard, and Colin MacCabe (“Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses”).

* Stylization (not thoroughly analytical, but at once critically detached and affectively attached): the spaghetti Western (e.g., Once Upon a Time in the West and My Name Is Nobody), Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson and The Player)…

What is considered meaningless can be tasteful; what is tasteful can be a significant criticism to a society where ‘what it means?’ becomes the final inquiry of ruling groups. The question to be posed, then, is ‘when’ and ‘how’ the search for meaning turns suppressive.

The Western is a last snapshot of the vanishing culture of honor: “The Westerner is the last gentleman [the American version of the last Nietzachean noble man with aristocratic quality], and the movies which over and over again tell his story are probably the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength…[H]onor is more than virtue, justice and courage; it is a style, concerned with harmonious appearances as much as with desirable consequences, and tending therefore toward the denial of life in favor of art.”

“A hero is one who looks like a hero. Whatever the limitations of such an idea in experience, it has…some special validity in an art where appearances are everything. The Western hero…is there to remind us of the possibility of style in an age which has put on itself the burden of pretending that style has no meaning, and, in the midst of our anxieties over the problem of violence, to suggest that even in killing or being killed we are not freed from the necessity of establishing satisfactory modes of behavior.

Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner” in The Western Reader ed. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (New York: Limelight Editions, 1998), 38 and 47.

The aestheticization of the American Western in the 1950s and 1960s

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992).

A stylization of the Western heroes, which has a particular kind of ideological significance under the context of the postwar and Cold War anxieties (379).

Postwar Western makers had a highly developed sense of the genre as genre–a self-reflexive awareness of the conventionality of their working language. Psychological depth added to postwar Western characters (a more complex engagement with characterization) allowed the mature genre to be a vehicle to touch on some serious issues appealing to upscale spectatorship. The common denominator in their Westerns is “a particular kind of abstraction and stylization,” where “[a] single element of the Western is isolated from its original context and made the subject of exaggerated attention and concern, even to the point of fetishization”: hence, a fetishization of particular kinds of weapon, legendary gunfighter with extraordinary skills, Western tropes reconfigured through camp sensibilities, etc. (380)

Fetishization of violence → Hannah Arendt, On Violence → The rise of the violence question as a symptom of the social condition (the 1960s) where the faculty of action is deeply frustrated.

Susan Sontag → The Camp essay → The primacy of form over content.

The emphasis on psychology was accompanied by the de-emphasis of social/historical contexts, that is, “the dismissal of politics, social criticism and the idea of revolution from the film of mythological play,” which was in a way “a self-proctetive gesture at a time when the postwar ‘Red Scare’ in Hollywood made political statements of any kind potentially dangerous.” More importantly, however, the shift from history to myth-historical narratives was an outcome of the changing milieu where radical forms of social analysis was losing their momentums and the end of ideology was proclaimed (381). One notable trend in the psychological Western is the revenger Western (e.g., Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, 1950), where “the West is abstracted even further from the historical frame than was the west in the psychologized outlaw film…The revenger Western isolates [the passionate anger and desire to avenge] and privatizes it…The revenger always faces a world in which social authority and community support are lacking; he must rely on himself, and perhaps one other person, for the fulfillment of his obsessional quest and/or redemption. Thus the revenger Western also fetishized ‘psychology,’ isolating the private dimension of the original story and replacing social with exclusively personal motives, insisting (in effect) that the private dimension determines the whole significance of the story” (382).

Another noteworthy strand in the postwar psychological Western is the gunfighter Western which adopts the noir sensibility of the revenger Western and its concern with character.  Distinctive in the gunfighter Western is that the gunfighter is invariably a killer by profession, a professional of violence (e.g., Henry King’s The Gunfighter, 1950). The existence of his profession is in itself an implicitly hard-bioled commentary on the nature of American society and the gunfighter embodies the central paradox of America’s self-image in an era of Cold War: “a sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of crucial events” (383).

In a highly stylized form, gunfighting becomes a game where there can be two suns at once, where one should always and forever confront challengers and reputation is only achieved and retained by defeating those challengers, and where the gunslinger becomes akin to the star, the person entrapped in a game in which he or she can never stop seeking a higher point → “The mood of entrapment was to shape the narrative and the landscape through which the gunfighter would move, seeking refuge or escape from his special history and failing to find it” (385). In this sense, the gunfighter Western is a self-reflexion on postwar America and also a movie about movie. As with America that had risen as the world power after the victory in WWII, the lone gunfighter is “at once the most powerful and the most vulnerable man in the world” (390). Gunfighting is also comparable to gambling which initially does not have any value except its function as a means of having fun or killing time, but becomes the end.

The gunfighter is always to be watchful. His peripheral vision misses nothing. He always sits in the corner, never with his back exposed, never with anything left behind. He lives according to a discipline of watchfulness, preparedness, and restraint–the marks of his professionalism and signs of his isolation (387).

George Steven’s Shane (1953) as an exemplary case of the aesthetically oriented gunfighter Western:

The historical and naturalistic references are offset by a perspective (identified with Joey’s point of view) that insists on abstracting and stylizing every person and action and looking through history to find a mythic archetype, which is given force by Steven’s alternation of naturalistic and folkloric elements in scenes where elements are exaggerated and distorted to achieve an ‘epic’ effect (e.g., an heroic action coupled with responsive Nature as in the Homeric world–a duel with lightning) (397).

“Shane arrives from outside, and his past is concealed…But because Shane’s motives for helping the farmers are unique and arise from no visible history or social background, they appear to be expressions of his nature, signs of a nobility which is independent of history, like the attributes of a ‘higher race,’ Shane is never part of the community, and his superior values are not seen as belonging to the community. He is an aristocrat of violence, an alien from a more glamorous world, who is better than those he helps and is finally not accountable to those for whom he sacrifices himself” (400).

The baroque exuberance in the Spaghetti Western

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006)

Leone’s penchant for the rhetorical use of traditional Western codes (173, 180).

Leone’s concern with the minutest details of dress, firearms, décor, personal mannerisms, and so on → “Leone seems to be concerned more with the ‘look’ of such details than with their function” (198); it appeals to emotion rather than to reason.

Leone’s attitude toward details and décors can be taken to be neo-realist in a way. Yet, he is not a neo-realist director. The general atmosphere of authenticity evoked by details and décors should not be confused with the authenticity in its empirical sense. Emphasis on details is not the same at all as that on their factuality. For Leone, the use of details and décors is rather a strategy to deconstruct one mythology and reconstruct another: “to demythologize, rather than to demythicise” (126, 170-71).  For instance, in Leone’s films, a firearm is as much aesthetic as–or much so than–historical or technical: it is not accidental that Eastwood’s .45 Colt in A Few Dollars More, for instance, is embellished with snake embroidery. For Leone, the detail of the gun is important not because it is a means of killing but because it is a device for externalizing something unspeakable or being external (170). Leone’s critical cinema (a critique of the American Western operating within and with its conventional tropes, in other words, a mythicization or a radicalization–a restoration of disqualified and forgotten dimensions to the sanctified myth–of the frontier myth, through demythologization) has little interest in the ‘inner man’ or examining a subtle psychological motivation of action; it is pretty much about the external, that is, bringing everything to the surface and making everything expressed in one form or another even when the externalization does not fit its milieu and thus becomes quite offbeat, untimely, or grotesque (180).

Note: For more about de-/re-mythologization, see also Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 141-42.

“In general, as Sylvie Pierre concludes (1970), Leone seems to be less interested in history or ideology per se than in a cinematic rhetoric which is a product of them both” (215). His indulgence in extreme stylistic formalism is tied to a realization that “in his terms, the melodramatic gestures or poses (visual and verbal, in a word rhetorical) are inseparable from the relationships (mythic and historical) he wishes to explore. Leone’s treatment of these relationships is intended both to help elucidate the meaning of the West, and to reappraise its trace–the Hollywood Western, a global text…Once Upon a Time in the West reveals Leone’s inevitable realization that the historical bases of the genre must, at some level, be confronted…[Still, the film] views the American frontier myth from an Old World, European cultural perspective [as is evidenced in the fact that to make a Western about the Western, he turns to various European sources such as Sicilian puppet plays, Catholic iconography, traditions of European music (both classic and folk), baroque taste, the pessimism of the Old World, and so on]…Certainly, Leone’s contribution to the Western both elucidates and challenges André Bazin’s famous assessment of the genre: “The Western is American cinema par excellence” (214-15).

The heroes and villains of Spaghetti Westerns are almost invariably obsessed by style, image, and ritual → the protracted duel sequence as a trademark of the Spaghetti Western or a collection of unique gestures, stylish costumes, idiosyncratic voice tones, offbeat soundtracks that render characters sensuously striking and imposing. When we see some cigar smoke puffed into the frame, or when a pair of suede boots appears in the foreground (photographed from ground level), we know that Clint Eastwood is about to do something. They are little to do with the internal (61).

Leone’s close-up is about emotion: “I reacted against [all the rules such as a close-up to show that the character is about to say something important] and so the close-ups in my films are always the expression of an emotion…I am not doing it to make it pretty; I’m seeking, first and foremost, the relevant emotion. You have to frame with the emotion and the rhythm of the film in mind” (100); the use of extreme close-ups of eyes was intended to “show that the eyes are the most important feature. Everything can be read in the eyes: courage, menace, fear, uncertainty, death.” In Once Upon a Time, for instance, Morton’s eyes in close-up at the moment of his staring at a painting of the see reveal him as the visionary, the dreamer, and the idealist and also serve as the most compelling part that registers the profound frustration arising from his crippled and paralyzed body (203).

No less important in Leone’s critical approach to the American West is the laughter, that is, the use of various gags: a gunslinger bursts into a hotel room and discovers a naked woman in a bath (For a Few and Once Upon a Time); guns are fired from unexpected places: up a sleeve, over a shoulder, in the bath, in a boot, from a banjo (Sabata), from a church organ (Sartana’s Coming), from a cripple’s crutch (The Price of Power); humor of the Canterbury Tales style such as pissing (the opening of Duck, You Sucker), belching, close-ups of people massively eating, blatant jokes about bodily appearances, and so on. Perhaps the most successful gags involve Ennio Morricone’s caricatural and often exaggerated soundtracks which complement actions and dialogues with guitar, jew’s harp (trill), panpipes, drum, electronic whirr, whipping sound, whine, whistle, human voices, animal sounds (a crowing cock, a mewing cat, and a howling coyote, a barking dog, and so on) and various sounds from objects such as gunshots, guns being cocked, church bells. One of the effects ensuing from the expressionistic way of appropriating sound is obviously laughter (165-68). It also leads to the development of a symmetry between sound and image (203).

Note: For Leone’s affinity with Bakhtinian attention to the rich world of laughter in the carnivalesque tradition, see  Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 127, 188, 201.

“Leone’s Westerns constitute a form of cinema about cinema: it seems churlish to complain that [Leone’s rhetorical figurations of the West] do not make very profound points about the human condition, just as it may seem trivial to complain that his emphasis on detail is no substitute for getting these details right” (181).

“When Leone decided to produce ‘a fresco on the birth of a great nation’ [Once Upon a Time in the West], he did not base the film on historical incidents or folk-heroes–attempting to reinterpret the ‘great moments’ to which the Hollywood genre had often returned. Rather, he chose to ‘portray America’s first frontier using the most worn-out of sterotypes: the pushy whore [Jill McBain], the romantic bandit [Cheyenne], the avenger [Harmonica], the killer who is about to become a businessman [Frank], the industrialist who uses the methods of a bandit [Morton].’ These stereotypes, which, in Leone’s and Bertolucci’s hands, become fictional ’emblems’ of a sort, are taken from the dime novel, the Wild West show, the Hollywood film, the pulp magazine, the comic-strip, rather than from American history…’To narrate great events, as Chaplin has taught us, it is always necessary to take as subjects humble, insignificant characters. For example, it is extremely difficult faithfully to re-create the great Napoleon on the screen. But the little character always becomes more human and more real, because he is anonymous’…Leone’s masterpiece is intended to ‘recount, through small characters, usual characters, taken from American traditions of fiction, the birth of a nation’…” (194).

According to Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, who called himself a pupil of American Westerns, particularly John Ford’s, once defined his own works as “fairy tales for grown-ups.” (Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy(London: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 15; Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 10)

Objections to the stylization or aestheticization of the Western: Warshow, Bazin, and Godard.

“[In Robert Warshow’s 1954 essay] The Gunfighter (1950) and High Noon (1952) are accused of distracting us from the central figure of the hero by their insistence on detailing (in what Warshow regards as a fairly humdrum way) the social fabric of the towns where the action happens. Warshow is also suspicious of what he sees as a tendency towards aestheticism in such films as Shane (1953). A similar voice is detected in the objection by André Bazin, writing just a year after Warshow in 1955. Bazin identifies something he calls the ‘sur-Western,’ which is ‘a Western that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence–an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political or erotic interest, in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.’ As an example he too gives Shane, which he feels is too self-consciously at work on the creation of a myth and which he sees as a possible indication of decadence.”

Edward Buscombe, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 45.

“André Bazin and Robert Warshow, [the two earliest and most distinguished theorists of the Western,] both lamented the tendency they saw in 1950s films like Shane (1953) and High Noon (1952) to justify the genre either by bringing to bear content that lay outside traditional themes or an unnecessary aestheticizing. [Now, however, not a few would agree on the claim that all of Eastwood’s films are essentially Westerns, which is indicative of] how far the pendulum has not swung in the opposite direction.”

Jim Kitses, Horizons West (London: BFI Publishing, 2004 ), 3.

Gordard’s accusation of the Spaghetti Western as apolitical → Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 61-62, 228-30, 243.

On the formalism in Once Upon a Time in the West → Was Leone too conscious of making a Western for art? Did what started as cinema about cinema end up trying to take refuge in art, a highly self-indulgent cinema about cinema, a cinematic narcissism without an effective critical point, a classic excuse for impotence in the face of anything real? (Frayling 212)

This entry was posted in European Cinemas, Film History, Film Noir, Film Theory, N. American Cinema, Stylization, The Western and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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