Posts Tagged heroism
Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart.
How fitting that Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar should commence with an explosion in the Red Rocks of Sedona. After all, the director will come to show little regard for the codes and conventions that govern his mythological, Western setting – so indeed, why not launch a full-scale offensive against so beloved a terrain from the outset? (This won’t be the last such onslaught against the scenery either.) Already, Ray signals his subversive intents, whilst appropriately prefacing a film whose narrative will rest upon a fulcrum of emotions that are primal, piercing, passionate – and yes, explosive.
Into this paroxysm rides our eponymous cowboy: lonesome, remote, and not really a cowboy at all. Following the initial blasts, he sights upon a stagecoach robbery (certain conventions need to be upheld) and observes detachedly – the safety of distance cocooning him from his conscience. Heroism is an archaic, if not quite obsolete concept in our director’s universe, failing to sufficiently account for the bruises and scars that are etched upon the human psyche by experience. Johnny may not have said a word to this point, but a perception of him has already been cultivated: aloof, enigmatic and jaded. His is to be a journey from apathy to empathy, passivity to activity; his ongoing refusal to capitulate to valour – despite the numerous opportunities afforded to him – will backfire until there is no choice but to concede to a chivalric code (albeit a castrated one). And still he’ll do so only reluctantly, with his own vested interests in mind.
There is a woman. Yesterday’s love, still in bloom. Her name? Vienna. What a woman! More handsome than beautiful; the appearance apparently mirrored in her character: “Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” – The Great Emasculator. She is to play our protagonist (Johnny offers simple diversion), and her very presence causes archetypal gender roles to convulse into fits of confusion. We meet her from below, a dominatrix on a pedestal peering down at her male admirers (of which there are many, so captivating is her sexual ambiguity), completely in her element. This is her saloon, built from sweat and “exchanged confidences” – here, she will answer to no one and lord over everyone.
A man can lie, steal and even kill, but as long as he hangs on to his pride he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp. Must be a great comfort to you, to be a man.
Yet Vienna is full of contradictions and ensnared between gender roles. Her dilemma is the need to successfully negotiate a compromise between her conflicting identities. Following her emphatic introduction, we bear witness as she dines with a potential business partner – using her wiles to charm, maybe even seduce him if necessary. Alas, the scene swiftly dissipates as a hostile party from the local town arrives, thereby prompting the hostess to turn into a potential gunfighter as she whips out her holster and springs into action. This uneasy clash between coded femininity (sex) and masculinity (violence) finds itself amplified by Ray’s decision to borrow the ideal of ‘the domestic paradise’ – central to many a “woman’s picture” – and recast it as the key frontier of his unorthodox Western; the saloon-as-home-as-fortress thus becoming a natural extension of its mistress’s subconscious, with its red, sandstone walls suggesting an interiority that penetrates much deeper than mere shelter or warmth.
Moreover, Vienna displays a keen maternal instinct; a necessary antidote to the wounded machismo that surrounds her. Several times, we see her cradle a submissive manchild in her arms, at one point going so far as to feed a slain fugitive from a bottle (albeit a bottle of whisky – this is Nicholas Ray’s picture). Her compassion and desire contrast with the grit and resilience that define her entrepreneurship – which nevertheless smacks of displaced prostitution, as she and the business are inextricable to the point that the saloon wears her own name. Vienna’s defiance is borne from necessity, not choice (options are limited for spinsters-in-waiting), and her world is still a man’s world, even if it’s one whose patriarchy derives not just meaning but also authority from its women. This peculiar social order births consequences that are staunch in their disregard for tradition: men now become the sex objects, subservient to the whims of commanding proto-feminists. (“You remember, I don’t. That’s the way it goes.”) All the while, Ray slyly inverts Jungian psychology as his trouser-clad females repossess the anima, forcing unto men the animus, with the film itself actualising either type: it looks like a shoot-’em-up, but reads like a romantic melodrama (or vice-versa).
Naturally, boys will be boys, but their tendency to mindlessly brawl in the name of genre (the power of the Western compels them) is offset by their own increasing feminisation: in the midst of one such near-brawl, Johnny – donning a pink shirt and a patterned china teacup – strolls down between the opposing sides and casually declares that all a man really needs is “a smoke and a cup o’ coffee”, a distinct regression (progression) from the gun-crazy chauvinism towards which the scene was headed. With Johnny and his gender unable (or unwilling) to perform to expectation, even the sphere of violence now finds itself regulated by women. Vienna’s domination over the men is underscored by her ability to continually strip them of their guns, and in one instance she actually caresses an ex-flame’s pistol in order to pry it from his hands (she fails, but the subtext is glaringly obvious). In addition, almost the entirety of the film’s bloodlust stems from an indomitably feminine source: Emma, the obsessive arch-rival of our protagonist and Johnny Guitar‘s own Wicked Witch of the West, whose ruthless quest to obliterate her adversary will culminate with a historical, all-female duel.
Emma’s contempt for Vienna knows no bounds, though its roots remain intriguingly unclear. We hear that she’s in love with “The Dancin’ Kid” (a moniker commonly and appropriately shortened to “The Kid”, for he leads the film’s involuntary outlaws), an implication that would fit neatly into the torrid psychosexual planes of the drama: Emma wants The Kid who wants Vienna (thus driving Emma insane) who wants Johnny. In these entanglements of yearning, it’s the women-as-men who hesitate to express the depths of their feeling – their hunger expulsed into their surroundings, whose rich, near-decadent colour schemes lustrously articulate the magnitude of this unspoken longing. For Emma, dressed as if a wayward puritan, “hesitation” turns into outright repression, riddling her deceptively meagre frame with violent spasms of self-loathing, which in turn electrifies her relations with her foe. With her capacity for love stifled, this deranged villainess is left solely with hate – and so it is the object of that hate who must function as the object of desire; her confrontations with Vienna generating the bulk of the film’s awkward sexual energy. In a world dominated by forlorn characters she is its most pitiable, her anguish self-mutilated to the point of no return.
A posse isn’t people. I’ve ridden with ’em and I’ve ridden against ’em. A posse is an animal. It moves like one and thinks like one.
Pure hatred needs greater outlets than ineffectual stand-offs however, and Emma exploits the weaknesses of the male townsfolk to whip up a moral panic against Vienna and her perceived cohorts. Her savagery is astounding: where all others display an aversion to needless bloodshed, Emma remorselessly heads straight for the kill like a rampant berserker; her murderous hysteria insatiable (“HANG THEM!”). In moments of indecision, she takes on the role of a proselytising evangelist, lambasting any deviations from socially-sanctioned norms and preying on her audience’s innate fear of outsiders. It’s here that the film veers into the ethnographic; critically observing as an entire community is moulded into a lynch mob by a charismatic bigot, leading to an all too familiar scenario in which the majority attempts to expel and then exterminate the undesirable minority. Law and order is disregarded – the town’s Marshall is first ignored and then silenced – as the purported civilians attempt to pulverise the supposed outlaws (Ray asks: who is really who?). The inquisitions and coerced testimonies that occur as part of this strife invite comparisons with contemporaneous events in the US (which makes the film’s indictments of such acts all the more audacious), though as with so many texts set in a mythical past, Johnny Guitar‘s assertions tend to transcend time. When Emma damns the outsiders as a “filthy kind” and makes an inflammatory remark about “new people from the East”, she posits the film in a universal realm that mournfully reveals an acute understanding of human behaviour: just why are we so fearful of others? Fortunately, our director will display no such fear – on the contrary, he chooses to embrace those that are deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’, whilst wholeheartedly sympathising with the predicaments faced by the socially-ostracised: crucially, the outlaws’ only serious crime is viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy, occurring as a direct result of Emma’s own spite. Hate, in the end, will only breed more hate.
It’s just like it was five years ago. Nothing’s happened in between. Not a thing… You got nothin’ to tell me cos it’s not real. Only you and me – that’s real. We’re having a drink in the bar at the Aurora Hotel, the band is playing, we’re celebrating cos we’re gettin’ married and after the wedding we’re gettin’ outta this hotel and we’re goin’ away so laugh Vienna and be happy – it’s your wedding day…
Oh, to be happy. Of all the problems that afflict Nicholas Ray’s characters, the pursuit of this elusive state of mind is surely the greatest. The director’s undying love for his outsiders exists because he knows that life has inflicted pain and hardship that has left them in perpetual disrepair, ill-equipped to undergo such inevitably-futile voyages. The inhabitants of Johnny Guitar are haunted by this knowledge. Surely, one of the most poignant scenes in Ray’s entire oeuvre must be that in which Tom – Vienna’s quietly loyal right-hand man, who spends much of the film hiding in the background (“just part of the furniture”) – utters the following upon his deathbed: “Everybody’s lookin’ at me… it’s the first time I’ve ever felt important.” The moment’s incongruity merely amplifies its sorry power, exhibiting the director’s belief in the sincerity of the individual truth; his camera stringent in its commitment to allow chronic misfits the time to say their piece. Vienna, Johnny and even Emma are cut from this tradition of desperate romanticism, where sorrow is the deepest form of human expression and where suffering must be paramount. Why else would Vienna choose to live in so hostile an environment? Why else would Johnny stay behind and protect her? Neither is capable of taking the easy route out (both are probably unaware that an easier route exists), preferring instead to elevate plausible realities (love, safety, security) into intangible fantasies – kept at arm’s length, but nonetheless clung on to at all costs. (One notes that even the very notion of ‘Johnny Guitar’ is an artificial construct, conceived by its bearer as a means of escaping his violent past.) Unfortunately for them, theirs is not a world that takes kindly to such delusions. So it is that we experience the film as an operatic foray into melancholia; a chromatically-resplendent, generically-schizophrenic surge through a tempestuous wasteland in which our heroic anti-heroes suffer beyond even their own wildest dreams. At film’s end, Vienna will have lost her home, her finances, her friends and finally, her foes. What else is there to do at this point but kiss the lover that survives alongside her? Kiss as if there were no tomorrow… no yesterday… no today. Kiss – because when all else has been destroyed, the fantasy must live on.
Into the high country we ride. A lakeside idyll, sometime in the 19th(?) century. The picturesque scene exists in an achromatic epoch, though the attire of a delicate young maiden (possibly with child?) and the scurry of a man on horseback allows for an informed guess. No matter, the dissolution of this harmonious vision is merely around the corner: assertive stooges escort the damsel (yes, with child) to a solemn, possibly religious gathering where her father, “El Jefe”, awaits. His power: self-evident (henchmen everywhere, all others silent in deference); its nature: to be left unclear. Who impregnated his daughter? The girl in question admirably attempts defiance in response to her inquisition, but this is clearly a world with little to no room for such feeble feminist stances. A few seconds later, her arm now broken, she cries out: “Alfredo Garcia!” – and Fortune’s wheel can halt its turning. Destinies have now been determined: Sr. Garcia’s head is to be severed to appease this vengeful patriarch, and he who commits the deed will be rewarded substantially. For those that have it, money can buy anything. For those that don’t, it can buy a whole lot more.
But wait! This is not the 19th century. Cars pile out from El Jefe’s compound as his lackeys begin their hunt, and stock footage of aeroplanes suggest a temporal proximity that inverts our understanding to date. Furthermore, we soon learn that Alfredo Garcia is already dead – a fact that the lackeys remain oblivious to, but which certain others are only too happy to capitalise on; the task of severing the cursed man’s head now considerably alleviated. (Sanctity is a concept that went six feet under long before our ‘new’, contemporary setting.) One such other is Bennie, our irascible host for the remainder of this macabre adventure. A barfly-cum-pianist, he lives inside a permanent hangover; a gringo out of water, prowling the sleaze-dens of Mexico in search of lost time – not even a poor man’s hero. He barks and he snarls, primarily at women (male chauvinism is the prevalent order here), and he sniffs out the scent of a dollar like only a lamentably unlucky loser could. Still, a swipe of a blade and a theft of a head and the future shall be his. As he insists to the gay hitmen who hire him: “Nobody loses all the time!” (Oh yes they do, Bennie.) Is this what life has come to? Profiteering from death? Amorality colours the walls of every bar, every motel room, every heart. The shattered dreams of our exhausted troubadour have no place in the realm of social reality, and so they must be relocated – forced to lurk along the peripheries of plausibility. But surely, there must be something else… anything else…
Love! Elita. A battered siren, former flame of Alfredo Garcia himself; a woman so entrenched in resignation that she embraces a would-be rapist with a tenderness that betrays her history of heartache (worry not, for she “knows the way”). Is she Bennie’s saviour? Together, they enact a desperate, tequila-soaked romance invested with the transformative passion of fatalistic hope. Her conscience is yet to be savaged to the point of disrepair, so she attempts in vain (half-heartedness?) to save him from Fate. She: “Jesus, just being together is enough!”; He: “No it’s not, baby. It takes pan, bread, dinero.” Alas, salvation is not an option here, and so the pair must succumb to the capitalist vagary that’s orchestrated by an oversized bigwig whose name they’ll never know. Dinero, after all, will help them withstand the increasing desertification of their souls. No longer will the rivers of their miserable, septic little world flow with sorrow: a skull for deliverance equals an escape from perpetual mediocrity. Yes, it makes perfect sense. In pursuit of their happily ever after, Elita leads Bennie to Alfredo Garcia’s resting place – and, in an eerie twilight assailed by invisible ghosts, they unearth his casket. Its door – a portal into an alternate universe – is creaked open, and Bennie stares into the abyss. A momentary existential crisis is swiftly discarded, and a sword is finally raised.
There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that’s in it. Or you, or me.
Welcome to the death march! Was it not that all along? How misguided we were to believe otherwise. (Did we really believe?) The road to Hell is paved with bodies… carnage, everywhere. Beware the no-hoper armed with no hope; the loneliest man in the world. Heroism is dead. Machismo is dead. Love is dead. Somewhere, a headless corpse is filling the world with howls of laughter. Perhaps a coping mechanism? Futile and cruel. Horribly cruel. Even drink won’t solve this quandary – there will be no release from the charnel house of emotions that we’re in. What to do? Where to go? Gaze into a mirror (who’s the fairest of them all?)… no, it’s too much. Rambling soliloquies in the company of decaying flesh clearly make better sense. Alfredo Garcia turned out to be the perfect wife! Alas, Bennie is not the perfect husband. How pitiable this soul is. How despondent, how pathetic. Blistering sadness now overwhelms the universe alongside the irrational and the absurd. We must sink to the deepest depths of despair – to lose oneself is to find oneself. STOP! A revelation: this road trip must continue. Drive! Drive through the eschatological wilderness and towards the maker’s hacienda. Escape from the quagmire and persist in the quest for truth, a truth that’s ceased to exist… that may never have existed. (Cruel. Horribly cruel.) The impending victory will be pyrrhic, but fear not for at least we have the slaughter. Yes, slaughter: a bloody ballet; a mesmeric act of beauty that relieves us from a wretched, thankless existence. Surrender to it. Surrender to the slaughter, Bennie. Surrender to life.