Monday, 2 March 2009

Two Westerns

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the United States to the thematic of the century is to have placed at the heart of its cinema the question of the genealogy of courage and of the intimate struggle against cowardice. This is what makes the western – in which this struggle is permanent – a solid, modern genre, and what has enabled it to yield an inordinate number of masterpieces.
Alain Badiou, The Century

Courage, in the sense in which I understand it, has its origin in a heroic conversion, and is oriented towards a point that was not there, a Real woven out of the impossible.
Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy

Valdez is Coming (1971) is an almost perfect example of the Western as a discourse on courage, a Lacano-Badouian exemplification of persistence as orientation toward the Real qua antagonism. Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is a Mexican lawman, who unwittingly kills a man accused of murder by the racist local arms dealer Frank Tanner. The man, who was both innocent and black, had an apache wife. Valdez tries to get compensation for the wife, not the niggardly sums offered of a few dollars, but a decent $200. The real is racism, in which the black ex-soldier, his wife, and Bob (referred to as a 'greaser' by Tanner and his men) do not count. Valdez's courage is the simple insistence on the generic worth of all.
Abused by Tanner's men, treated as a parodic Christ, Valdez simply and constantly pursues getting $100 dollars from Frank Tanner (his part of the compensation). That is why 'Valdez is coming'; not for revenge, or to settle his own suffering, but from this simple insistence. The film ends ambiguously on the final showdown in which Frank Tanner is told he will have to do his own dirty work and kill Bob himself, which he is incapable of doing. It is Bob's courage that turns Tanner's wife (whom Bob has been forced to kidnap) to his side, and which eventually leads Tanner's gang, especially its Mexican leader, to refuse to do Tanner's bidding. Here courage is not only an individual but also a potentially collective subjectivation, a rupturing with the casual racism - whether violent and direct (as with Tanner), or dressed up in more polite terms (as with the other white town bigwigs, who initially offer a couple of dollars and set Valdez on his impossible mission). Courage here is also the courage that the impossible can be done.

Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) is, as usual with Miike, a hyper self-conscious play with genre: a kind of meta-meta-meta Western. If we consider the 1950s meta-Western in the US as already a reflexive and elegiac meditation of the impossibility of the Western, then (which Badiou does not discuss) we have the spaghetti Western as first 'postmodern' moment, most perfectly in the work of Sergio Leone, and then this post-postmodern Western. With his Japanese actors speaking every cliche of the Western, a hyper-stylised staging (think Lars Von Trier remaking Leone), and deliberate anachronism, the film is, for me, a slightly wearying terminal summary of the Western. Should you be teaching intertextuality this is the film for you.

Of course this is further complicated by the series of overlappings which would make an excellent film book in itself. First we have Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), a samurai film derived from the Western, but also inspired by the 1942 film noir The Glass Key, derived from Dashiell Hammett's 1931 novel of the same name. The film has a lone ronin playing off two warring clans against each other and was, of course, remade by Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), thereby returning to its 'natural' generic home (Leone also claims inspiration from Hammett's The Red Harvest). Leaving aside Miller's Crossing (1990), which I dislike, Miike's film of warring gangs and a lone samurai gunman is obviously another stage in this already deeply complex series of exchanges.

It would obviously be foolish to expect a discourse on courage from Miike's film, rather like the (to my mind excellent) The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), what appears crucial is the generic 'play'. Unlike that film, Sukiyaki Western Django does not seem as successful in this generic play, perhaps because the spaghetti Western was already the perfect 'play' that remained absolutely serious.


ECW said...

Just got a copy of Valdez is Coming. It looks incredible. I'll write a proper response when I get around to watching it.

Benjamin said...

Well, most of the critic regard it as terrible - I paid £3 for it so perhaps my comments are biased by that, although I think it's a pretty good Western and currently going in my book on the negative.