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The Decline Of America In The Western Imagination

The Decline Of America In The Western Imagination image
Parent Issue
Month
April
Year
1993
Copyright
Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
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Agenda Publications
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1992. Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris. A Warner Bros. release. As ñlm genres go, most critlcs wlll teil you, the Western is just about shot. Some would insist it's been dead for twenty years. Yet as Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" demonstra tes, the saga of the West is still potent, the closest thing to a founding myth we share, with meanings worth taking out of mothballs and flghting over. Eastwood's film tums the tropes of the traditional Western on their ear, and in doing so shows how many old ways of picturing America are worn out, grown all but laughable in 1992. Piety and patriotism, the film suggests - in both film and history- have too often masked just uncertainty, greed, and violence. The story itself isn't new. The aging warrior Eastwood plays, drawn back to duty for an ostensibly just cause, is one of the stock figures of Western drama. Characters like Munny - rough-hewn, at odds with new values - are a staple of many frontier fictions, in which the old days and wild places are continually being lamented, and the gentier, symbolically feminine influences of culture ridiculed. Like lts counterparts in contemporary film, in which greedy business-types - today's cowboys - must overeóme their antisocial tendencies and win a way back to family and community through good deeds and repentance ("Hook," "Regarding Henry," "Rain Man," "Doe Hollywood," and "Other People's Money," to name a recent few), the Western is about how men leam to harness competiüve "natures" for grea ter good. The subtextof the taming of the West was, is, and shall forever remain how we tame ourselves. But in "Unforgiven" it's also money that draws Eastwood's hard-bitten character (hls name is Munny, after all), down on his luck with two young mouths to feed, back to the killing he once gloried in. A prostitute's face has been slashed, and her fellow hookers are offering $ 1 ,000 to whoever will kill her attacker. Munny was once the baddest dude of all, but under a good woman's influence got reformed. Unfortunately, she's gone "to her reward." Munny clings to the hope of eventual redemption too, but the difflculties he suffers staying clean make his ambivalence clear. Time in virtue's harness has laid waste his masculine skills - his inability to mount a horse is the film's running joke, and his aim has slipped bad ly . Salvaging his lost pride soon comes to rival both philanthropy and poverty among the reasons Munny doggedly continúes gunning for the whore's attacker. There's a wealth of uneasy - and quite interesting- humor 'about threatened male pride in "Unforgiven." The cowboy slashed the prostitute when she laughed at his miniscule pecker; the fllm's writer historian character pees in his pants when guns are cocked near him: and one hapless cowboy gets killed while hes taking a squat. Guns (the film waves lts phallic subtext around a bit) are outlawed in Little Whiskey, home to the film's main events. To become citified, itseems, is togetyourself unmanned. Yet infantile town deputies - the only people with legal approval to carry guns - messobsessively wlth theirs. And Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman) , another legendary figure who civilization has reduced to little more than caricature, takes vlcious pleasure disarming the manliest men. Real cowboys don't articúlate all these tensions, of course: they act them out with their manly ways and Instruments. Honey-tongued eloquence has always been scarce in Westerns, and guys wlth command of the language are viewed skeptically. The first sweet-talker into town, in fact, (Richard Harris as "English Bob") gets the stuffing knocked out of him. But the man with him, a writer, the author of a "penny-dreadful" novel about Bob's exploits, gets better treatment. It's taken for granted he's a wuss- intellectuals are. Still he's grudgingly respected. At once an assertton of history's uneasily passive position and the fïlm's authentlcity, the author gets passed from bad man to bad man - absorbing their boastful stories of the West- until Eastwood flnally disabuses him of any romantic misconceptions forever. One story we 're denied, though, is Munny's Black sidekick's - Ned Logan's. Morgan Freeman filis the Sancho Panza role here, playing another in a long line of Nigger Jims and Tontos who take the kicks aimed at White héroes. Logan's Naüve American wife has no voice whatsoever - she's literally mute. Her pairing with Logan suggests how easily the traditionally voiceless - savages, Blacks, women, whatever - get lumped togetherin the Westofourimaginations. When Logan admits missing her favors, Eastwood remarks thatit's "nothing," a remark of the sortHamlet's forever making about the pesky Ophelia. Women are zeros, nulliües, such quips suggest - forget about em. Women are something, of course, a source of confusión and emotion, of silentaccusation: saints, like Munny'swife, or saintly whores. The temptation to shut them up for good - even in name of their honor - Is always strong. Complete silence walts for the softspoken Logan too. Whatever ugly behavior he may once have engaged in all those years back as Munny's In -terror gets completely ellded by the film so that he can be caught, tortured, and delivered into saintly martyrdom by Little Bill (reprising in passing the whipping Hollywood loves to administer to muscular Black torsoes, from " 1 00 Rifles "James Brown to "Glory's" Denzel Washington). A newly-enlightened Eastwood can then avenge the whores and - in the big finale - a Black man, scoring the somewhat dubious twin blows for feminism and race relations that will allow him to reen ter Hollywood's liberal fold, and also (as it happens), perfunctorily reenacting the Bloody Golden Rule that brings most Westerns to bad ends. But ifs an especially hollow denouement. Everyone's made nothing, this nihilistic turn suggests. We're all góing to heil in a handcart; life makes right bastards, death "nothings" of us aL In the end, it seems, only the meanest mofos get to identify with the flag (look closely or you may not see it, waving gloriously and more-or-less semiotically behind Munny as he blazes his way out of town), and justice. "Fuck the fine points," Munny seems to say, "I can out-tough all you mofos." Subtext - flag and all- being what they are, it's hard not to read this irruption of the heavily symbolic into the film: We may not ever have been on the side of the angels, but it's hard-asses who make history- and whatever "truth" about it is - well, terttary at best. Munny, we learn, has gone (o San Francisco with his kids and the reward, and is rumored to have begun a drygoods emporium. If it were an enplre- like so many corporations begun under similarly questionable circumstances- that might be more fitting. "Fil- IVI I

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