Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

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?
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