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April 29th, 2011

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07:06 am - Westerns
I have come back to Felix Gilman's Magical Western The Half Made World, and I am liking it a lot more now, past the half-way point. It has become more of a Western, with a structure which reflects a traditional movie now: the gunman and the lady doctor going together into the wilderness, pursued by a (kind of) lawman. Like The City and The City it depends on an original and powerful conceptual model, and I was not engaged emotionally at first, because I needed to get my head round the model, an intellectual task. Some readers have said they were put off because they found the characters unsympathetic, and they are mostly quite bad people, but I like them.

I will post a long review when I have finished the book. For now I wanted to write something about the model of the Western itself, which is a genre I like, though I haven't read very much in it. It was declared a dead genre a while back - I remember it being used as a warning of what could happen to SF. However, recently it has found its feet, less cluttered by bulk commercial output, pared down to quality material.

I posted several times on True Grit when it came out - my favourite film this year - and it is a good illustration of an issue that generally comes up in modern Westerns (The Half Made World too) which is how they deal with violence and moral struggle. The very old model of the Western was a dramatisation of good vs evil ('black hat and white hat') but this started to break down way back, at least by the forties an alternative type of Western was being made. From the late fifties Westerns became all about moral ambiguity. I suppose most accurately Westerns are about what morality and love remain, among bad people, when social structures fail - and we see this model passed on to modern TV SF.

There are three different interpretations of the way True Grit deals with violence and evil, and these are also interpretations of the Western genre itself.

This discussion of True Grit (YouTube 6 minutes) by a feminist critic says that it (I massively simplify a reading which deserves better) glamourises an emotionless violent masculinity. Unusually for a YouTube presenting a feminist viewpoint the 70+ comments are literate and thoughtful (I suppose heavily moderated). I disagree with her reading but I respect what she is doing, it's an interesting discussion.

Amanda at Pandagon responds to this video by arguing that on the contrary the point of the film is to show the cost of brutalising yourself, which is to maim yourself, and even to destroy yourself. She makes a very good case, and my feeling is that this is the moral thrust which the Coen brothers intended the viewer to take from the film. For example, in extracting revenge Mattie throws herself into a pit where she is attacked by a snake. This is a fall from grace.

Although I think this is what the makers of the film 'meant' it is not what I take away from the film (that seems perverse of me). What I take from the film is that people who choose to live with great intensity and authenticity in the world pay a great price, and what they gain might seem worthless, but they are the vanguard of life. And at the end we all die, and you have either chosen to live with intensity or not.

This is why Westerns are like poetry. I am thinking of Yeats 'Among School Children'

O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise -
O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2011 08:53 am (UTC)
You can add a fourth interpretation! I thought True Grit was, among other things, very much about a woman (or at least a child on the verge of womanhood - the scene where LeBoeuf tells her he was thinking of stealing a kiss is rendered much more creepy-rapey keep-the-uppity-woman-down in the film by setting it in Mattie's bedroom) proving that she was the equal of the men, but being unable to fit into society as a result. I saw her missing arm not as her desire of revenge having maimed her, but more as a badge of honour - Rooster has his missing eye, LeBoeuf loses part of his tongue (which isn't in the book - and I'm not sure his shoulder wound is in the book either? At all events, the shooting competition in the film explicitly draws attention to the fact that they are both maimed in some way, and yet they're both amazing shots. By the end, Mattie has been accepted as their equal and, like them, she is marked out by injury as not being entirely fit for civilian society).

I am more convinced by your suggestion that moral of the film is that "people who choose to live with great intensity and authenticity in the world pay a great price" than that it is "revenge brutalises and degrades you". Mattie's dedication to revenge is certainly excessive (rightly or wrongly) but she lives in a world where no one would have lifted a finger to punish a murderer had she not intervened. Civil society is more comfortable than life across the border, but it doesn't seem to be more moral (another of the few changes the Coens make is to have the Indian being hanged cut off before he can make his speech). Justice has to be bought and paid for, and the man in a bear suit who trades in dead bodies merely makes explicit the economic foundation of "civilised" society.

Mattie doesn't fit in, right from the start. She's too brave, too strong-willed, too honest, too intelligent, too outspoken, and the fact that her first encounter with Rooster takes place while he's in the shithouse - unlike in the book - suggests to me that the Coens wanted to underline her refusal to be bound by social conventions. And she refuses to be kept in her place, even though people keep telling her she is behaving inappropriately for a woman. Her adventure out in the wilderness ensures that she will never fit in, but she never fits in because she's too strong to be broken down, not because she destroys part of herself with her desire for vengeance. At least, that's the way I see it. She's one of the heroes of the old west and, like Rooster Cogburn, by the end of the film there's no room for people like her any more.
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2011 09:15 am (UTC)
I think this is very close to the point I am making, expressed more fully and clearly. Partly why the Western is a good vehicle for this theme is that there is a conflict between social role and authentic self, particularly perhaps for women.

I think although the overt symbolism of the film (eating an apple, being bitten by a snake, the rebels becoming maimed) is critical of violence and rebellion, I can't help but feel as you do that the strongest impression is admiration of Mattie, and the men. A bit like Milton 'being of the Devil's party' without meaning to be.

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