Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

Another bad memory

I treated a friend to High Plains Drifter last night. She's a big fan of Nick Cave, and "Red Right Hand" has always reminded me of this film. It had occured to me that, as an activist, she would be a bit put out by the rape scene which casually shows up five minutes in, but it bothered her so much that it set me musing. I don't think she's going to get on with my arch-favourite genre in the long run.

Because as I attempted to defend the film, it occured to me that I can't think of a single rape-free western. Once Upon a Time in the West, For a Few Dollars More, Ballad of Cable Hogue, Sholay - even Paint your Wagon and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Unforgiven passes, but then it does cut a hooker to ribbons in scene one; Open Range also passes, but it's interminable so you still wouldn't want to watch it. Rio Bravo, I think, is OK. I don't recall anything in 3:10 to Yuma - but the threat is definitely there. Maybe Blazing Saddles.

But certainly violence against women is ever-pervasive in the genre. Why is it there? The Western works in tropes more than perhaps any other genre. All movies have their cliches - fat cops with donuts,the hardnosed detective with a drink addiction and rubber duck, the passionate journalist who just can't hold down a relationship. But these things are all modern - the writer can, if he likes, meet some journalists, detectives or cops and learn about the genuine professions. He can't meet a cowboy.

And while he could do some research - well, it's not like writing about the Infanta, or the Wars of the Roses. It's the Tarantino school of movie writing - the Western exists mostly through fiction. Very much like the way Jack the Ripper has come to stand for whole styles and ideas, despite the fact he was once a rather desperate human being in need of serious help.

The Wild West heroes are America's Arthurian knights - mythic and archetypal. Even revisionist westerns play against the idealised rendition. You know who they are: the lanky coffinmaker who can measure up a body as soon as it rides into town; the lone gunfighter; the profit-driven cowboss/ mining director/ railroad magnate; the honest homesteader; the whiskery beer-sot who periodically spits in the dust. Oh, and the sherrif. I'm sure essays have been written about how this represents aspects of the American psyche. And then for the girls, unsurprisingly enough, there are Madonnas and Whores: dumpy schoolmistresses or vicar's wives, and dancing girls, waitresses and hookers with a heart of gold.

It is a harsh and horrible world, westerns want to tell us, populated by fallen people of both genders. Rape is a mode of interaction justified by the setting and the style - because without exception, the world of the western is a very violent one. Shootings, floggings, abandonment in the desert without water, being dragged behind horses, hung, beaten to death with bricks, blown up, dropped down mine shafts, being fed to ants and live burial happen all the time - so does theft, extortion and crimes of all colours. So should we really be surprised that violence gets directed at women as well? Calypso herself admitted that her distaste was hypocritical, considering Clint had gunned down a room of fellows minutes earlier. And part of me wanted to say, "this movie has someone stabbed through the neck with a sharp stick then left to suffocate as blood gurgles up through his throat", but at the same time I do understand exactly what she meant - one was worse than the other. Maybe it's like why "positive discrimination" against whites is justifiable (sort of) because they are not a marginalised group - in other words, violence against women does seem worse because it's still horribly pervasive in the modern world and needs to be treated as sensitively as any other form of movie-hate.

Or maybe it doesn't bother me as much, becuase it's written into my book of wild west expectations? Because it's also a trope - like the Rush To The Airport or Climactic Gunfight.
Calypso expects westerns to feature fellows getting shot, but would be surprised if killer crabs demolished the one-horse-town in the second reel, or our hero suddenly developed superpowers. Because I have watched a lot of westerns, my definition of the genre is wider and more complex, so casual rape is something I do half expect of the genre.

Sergio Leone said "The west was made by violent, uncomplicated men", and the western is a violent, uncomplicated genre. The location is out in the wild, and as such is liberated from the ethics, the hypocritical etiquette and mores of civilised Victorian life. There is a focus on the natural world - sweeping mountains, deserts - suggesting humans who have gone "back to nature" - and as such, all the characters are operating on primal urges. Thus the fellows are all manly macho men - hard drinkers who live to shag and shoot. I can only name you a single Western in which the hero chooses to drink milk.

Maybe this is at the root of problem of depicting women. Something like the Ents and the Entwives. In The Two Towers, Treebeard explains that the Ents liked to wander the wilds, while the Entwives liked to stay in one place, to garden and to tame the wilderness. They fell out because the Entwives wanted to civilise while the Ents wished to roam free. And thus: the message of western seems to be that actually, men fare better like this - whether it be the romanticism of Johns Wayne and Ford or the loners at one with the land who populate Sergio Leone's output. The minority of male characters in a western will be dressed in ties and starched colllars - most will be dressed down, whether honest farmers or good fer'nothings. Whereas women wear proper Victorian dresses - wondering where Wild West women get their immaculate hairdos is the oldest joke in the film studies department.

So it's the same dichotomy of the Ents - while the Men are relishing this return to nature, Leone's "simplicity", Women want to civilise the West and make it more like home. Women are resisiting their location, while Men are fitting into it. Optimistic old-school Westerns paint a romantic image of a simpler, better age, when men were men, where you knew where you stood and so on. Pessimistic Westerns are more likely to tell you that this is the true face of humanity - but in both cases, Man is right in accepting this natural state. You don't get many westerns which end with the hero deciding it's not for him and that he'll return to the big city. Interesting dichotomy here too - many westerns are about progress, but the message seems to be one that simpler is best.

There's an inherent criticism, then, in the behavior of women in Westerns - all of whom are in denial about embracing the natural world. I seem to have accidentally argued around the other thing Calypso really objected to, and I do not suggest for a moment that she's wrong in objecting. It was the way the women, after some token resistance, melted onto Clint Eastwood. Because they "secretly wanted it". At the time I said "well it's Clint Eastwood for goodness sakes", but now I've had it out on paper I think I get it. Wild West Men are simple and honest, and as discussed above, have embraced their primal urges - want woman, have woman, have woman now. Wild West Women are rarely shown in this fashion. They are civilised, but the West is not. They are proud and cling onto their notions of dignity and society which Wild West Men know have no meaning "out here". So maybe the inference is that there is a primal Wild West Woman inside each of them, but one they are supressing under their manners and neat appearance. Or, indeed, in the context of his genre they do indeed secretly want it. Which yes, I would also find very objectionable - outside of my beloved westerns. Which just goes to show that academia can justify anything.

There's an essay in here somewhere. And I'm not sure it's as cleancut as all of this. The thing I hate most about academia is the way it has less and less relevance to the subject under discussion. Like the way, in spy movies, spies stop trying to beat the enemy and concentrate on beating the enemy spies instead. While this theory is a nice framework to watch and understand Westerns through, lets be clear about the intents of the filmmakers. Fairly sure, in many cases, the historical setting and genre precedents are justification to show something unpleasant - which we are secretly meant to enjoy watching.

And I think I will enjoy westerns less for having it. I don't mind it at all on a film-by-film basis, because all I can think of have a good in-world justifications aside from my highfalutin' ideas about humanity and violence expressed above. So, Butch Cassidy is parodying the trope. High Plains Drifter is about a man who intends to let a small town destroy itself, and what he does in the first ten minutes sets up ripples that influence the course of the film. Once Upon a Time in the West doesn't really have an excuse for everyone treating Jill like shit - but makes up for by making her a very strong woman, maybe one of my favourite film heroines. Incidentally, have you ever thought about the tagline to that film:

"There were three men in her life. One to take her, one to love her, and one to kill her."

Quite aside from the essay inherent in a tag which defines the female protagonist through the actions of the male characters, have you ever worked out which character is which?

Anyway. Tell me what you think.


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