21 June 2006

How The West Was Won

Discussed in this essay:

The Searchers (1956), dir. John Ford
Dead Man (1996), dir. Jim Jarmusch
Deadwood - Season One (2004), cr. David Milch

John Wayne, Dead Poets & Whorehouses

The iconic final shot of John Ford's The Searchers frames John Wayne in a doorway against an infinite and Technicolor expanse of hard packed earth and bluing mountains, he and the mountains both a sliver of uncivilized trammel being swallowed up and rendered small by the encroaching darkness. The frame narrows Ford's saturated primary colors, his Monument Valley photography to an eclipsed pinprick. The Searchers itself is a kind of twilight over our popular image of the Western - cowboys fighting Indians with dry bloodless pops of toy guns, black & white morality, an uncomplaining heroism. It is too brutal, too ambivalent. Its hero is a ruthless and alienated man who spends years pursuing a white girl captured by Comanches, not to save her, but to kill her to avenge the threat of rape and miscegenation. (Cf. A.O. Scott's piece in the June 11 Sunday New York Times for a fuller retrospective.)

The Searchers sends us into the wilderness, but not into darkness; the darkness we bring along with us. Its final sliver of light amidst the enroaching frame is both the death and rebirth of the Western. With it rises the revisionist Western, the Western that eats its own tail in reimagining the past to mirror our compromised, fragmented, and brutal present. And eating its own tail - there are masterpieces, here, Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller being one of them - the Western lost its formerly wide and credulous public. So today, a hack over at Entertainment Weekly can mention offhandedly in an article that Westerns have been dead for years.

In that spirit, then - because God knows I play well with Entertainment Weekly - here are two dead Westerns from the modern era, with all the self-doubt, second-guessing, blurring ethics, slaughter and collapse that modernity has taught us to know so well.

Forty years after The Searchers, Jim Jarmusch, a Swede, will shoot another film that collapses into an untracked wilderness: a short, black & white film called Dead Man. If The Searchers signals somehow the twilight of the traditional Western then here and now it is midnight and a new moon. Words cannot quite capture what it feels like to watch the movie. The score, written and performed special by Neil Young, sounds like an old, old man dropping an electric guitar in shock over and over again while trapped in a coal-burning tube amplifier the size of a farmhouse. It circles itself like Borges in a bramble maze, comes back to the same modal phrase like a rosary rubbed, covered in dried blood. The theme never quite resolves. It approaches itself by halved steps. It grows, infernally, between the cracks of the movie.

Johnny Depp wanders in and out, dazed, devolving from an accountant's checked Cleveland suit into a Bowie glam-era fur coat, acquiring Amerindian ochre lighting bolts on his cheeks and dying by inches from a gut wound while you lose track of how many men he's poetically killed. Buildings gape with grotesque rot. Mud is everywhere, and skulls. A trading post preacher leers about smallpox blankets. Indians stare out from the corners of new towns, sap still bleeding from the cabin planks. A trainload of passengers - themselves slowly devolving into fur-decked barbarian hunters as the tracks continue west - acquire Winchesters and fire blindly out into an unseen herd of buffalo while a coal-faced engineer talks about Hell. There is a cannibal bounty hunter who wears black, and one of William Blake's infernal mills. The movie collapses in on itself like a burning building, but slowly. It's the damnedest thing to watch.

The Western, even in revising, embodies not historic specificity but - to use Jay Fred MacDonald's words - a 'memory and vision of the deepest meaning of America.' Dead Man is a fever dream, but the genre itself is a vision of the past in essence. Civilization is reduced to its bare particulars on the frontier, the edge of all things, so that each object that rises in the empty country acquires a weight in isolation verging on the symbolic.

The Western is a man standing framed in a doorway, alone looking out at desolate expanse; the line that separates the wilderness and the garden; the cost of violence; the moment at which society's foundations are laid over blood and sand.

A Western will be hailed from time to time as 'realistic' - Deadwood, discussed in a moment, is one of these. But Gunsmoke too was 'realistic' 50 years ago - Dodge City, circa 1875 a waypoint for boozing Texas drovers, was the 'Gommorah of the Plains' just as Deadwood was Sodom of the Black Hills, and Gunsmoke was considered notable for its hard-bitten fidelity.

Realism - to digress briefly - is just an aesthetic, and an unattainable one at that. All art is artiface. In claiming realism and, in their time, being hailed for historical truth, they speak volumes about their own times. History is a story we tell ourselves, and it is self-revealing. The Western does not just distill the American dream, it reflects on it: the racial terror underlying 1956's The Searchers, the progressive and scientific march against ignorance and 'medieval cruelty' that preocupies the civilizing sheriff of Gunsmoke, and, finally, Deadwood, inheritor of the revisionist Western and of all our modern discontents.


Neither as inscrutable, or as self-contained, as Jarmusch's concussed picaresque, Deadwood coils up and out from the same mulch, like a nightflower. Resolutely prosaic where Dead Man is dream-like and surreal, expansive and detailed where the other is compressed and poetic, Deadwood benefits from the unspooling and compounding incident afforded by its medium. In the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, in Sioux country, gold is discovered and illegal squatters flood mining camps outide United States jurisdiction and, consequently, without rule of law. There is no open range in the Black Hills, no Monument Valley photography; the action is set indoors or else in mud and piss and tumult of the thoroughfare. In 14 months, the camp - Deadwood - has telegraph service, beating out San Francisco. Chinese immigrants set up shop and pogrom is threatened. The dusty blue reach of the US Cavalry, Custer's avengers, arrives choking and heat-mad on the border to effect reprisal massacres against the 'dirt-worshipers,' the Sioux who loom invisibly over the camp like a shroud, unchristian, irrational, capable of anything.

Noting that the ecstatically profane dialogue unfurls, curls around itself in the Baroque with Shakesperean cadance is by now a cliche. 'Cocksucker' becomes punctuation; the dialogue is anarchic in its assault on the viewer. Motives are concealed, multifarious, oblique.

A.O. Scott - I referenced the article and now, in rereading it, have found a few unconscious apropriations - claims Deadwood as unremitting in its sordid violence, primarily as an aside to offer up Ford as a contrast, but to do so ignores the careful evolution of the town towards a civil society founded on a kind of gradual realization, colored and kept tamped down by blind rage and ten a.m. whiskeys, that random killings won't be good for business. Spontaneous order coalesces in the blood and shit and backrooms of society; it is opposed to the civilization brought as a beacon by Dodge City's sheriff, unquestioned in his righteousness. Gunsmoke circa 1956, whatever the hardscrabble realities of frontier life that it depicts, sees the past as ignorance and history as a march of progress. Society, it follows, is perfectible.

Deadwood is not unremittingly sordid; it is deeply suspicious of progress. The civilized commit the worst atrocities. In the pilot, our erudite newsman, A.W. Merrick, opines that the treaty with the Sioux will inevitably be ripped up as scrap paper, that it is America's manifest destiny to swell to encompass the land - the Sioux are an unlucky impediment.
A.O. Scott writes about an original sin at the foundation of civilization, a worm in the apple, a body in the concrete pilings. Conrad's Heart of Darkness ends with darkness rising, not over a ruined and enslaved graveyard in the Congo, but on the Thames. The unnamed Belgian city is a sugar-white masouleum. The heark of darkness is not in the wild but among us. Deadwood may be run by pimps, killers and thieves, but their operations are small-scale and benign compared to the civilized types that encroach - dusty, sun-mad cavalry units riding out for genocidal vengeance, mightily corrupt magistrates. The show gains a good deal of its power from the marriage of rhetoric and the spotless marble halls of culture to grit, blood, madness. They are locked in an embrace personified by Swearengen and Bullock, opposed sides of the same coin, necessary to one another.

If civilization is founded on an original sin or the necessary lie that births the tall buildings and the truth & beauty - and Deadwood can be read as the first half of a grand thesis and indictment of American institutions (cf. second half: The Wire) - then the Western takes us back to that moment of creation, breathes life into it, stands it up and makes everything that follows seem uncertain and transparent by comparison. You look at the buildings and they flicker. The present fades, and suddenly time is a line of arid brown hills, empty, and the empty vastness swallows up the lived-in specks, and you wonder at how brief they are.

The fate of the western proceeds from an uncomplicated myth of America to one that, in trying to account for the suppressed, the forgotten, and the distance between rhetoric and reality, confronts vast and insoluble contradictions played out in despairing violence. There is no solution; The Searchers, Deadwood and Dead Man are composed of endless questions, interrogations of our unspoken and unspeakable past.

1 comment:

Lori Witzel said...

Pardon me, I just felt part of my mind explode from the richness of content in this post.

Found you via HeavenTree, and scrolled back to this post since I've been a fan of Deadwood and many other things that fit the Western genre -- but then, I would.

Nothing more intelligent to say other than "wow, I want to come back."