Monday, January 31, 2011

Coming out of the closet...

Like Wittgenstein I have a confession - not that I once struck the pupil at a village school for being incurably stupid at mathematics nor that in a moment of Tolstoyan inspiration did I give my wealth away not to the poor but to my equally wealthy family members - but that I have a fondness for Westerns.

In Wittgenstein's case, he enjoyed the simple morality of good vanquishing evil without shade of moral ambiguity or ersatz sophistication. The man in the white hat defeated (after suitable trial) the man in the black hat and the world was restored (temporarily) to harmony (and got his gal in the process but I expect he found that altogether less interesting).

There are various reasons why the simplicity of this picture is false. It is a harmony restored by 'redemptive violence' of which I, if not Wittgenstein, disapproves. When native Americans, better known as 'injuns', appear it is usually as the dangerous other, whose primitiveness must be corralled at best, exterminated at worst (whose only virtue is that it does reflect reality as it appallingly does so often unthinkingly). And if my heart was always with the oppressed, my enthusiastic watching as a child onward can only have an element of condoning.

More practically on the only two occasions when I have mounted a horse (at suitably lengthy intervals) I have fallen off - most spectacularly into a stream in Colombia's First National Park. Thus my likelihood of employment as a cowboy would be nil (or as an 'Indian' for that matter).

It is perhaps the attraction of the wholly other but as a child I simply enjoyed the familiar dynamic to which Wittgenstein so obviously responded but, like Wittgenstein, I have not put aside childish things and the pleasure continues unalloyed!

I do wish to find a film of 'the West' that does genuinely portray a Native American vision of the onrushing catastrophe and has, as central characters, Native Americans (so I am afraid 'Dances with Wolves' for all its best liberal intentions manifestly fails).

But in the meantime I will continue to enjoy my guilty no longer secret. 

Unlike Wittgenstein, I can enjoy the genre when it has tried to inject a degree of ambiguity - I mean the hero in the Magnificent Seven wears black (and indeed all bar one are hired guns, a somewhat different category from Kurosawa's Samurai on which they are modeled). While in John Ford's extraordinary film, 'The Searchers' has as its central character 'Uncle Ethan' (played by John Wayne) who has a period of 'missing years' of which dark things are hinted and who spends most of the film searching for his niece, abducted by Indians, only in order to kill her to protect despoiled 'honour' and in the belief that she can never be returned to 'civilization' having being contaminated by the said Indians.

But my favourite Western remains, 'Ride the High Country', Sam Peckinpah's elegiac final work, that has two great 'B' movie actors, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, as fading guns, and erstwhile friends, for hire on one last job to escort gold dust back down a mountain. In the course of their journey, Scott is tempted to make play for what would be his pension, leaving McCrea to defend a code of honour (and morals) that is everywhere under test and in sacrificing his life in the process communicate a hopeful modeling of right action to the young couple traveling with them (the man of which has been equally tempted by Scott's low course, a course both he and Scott comes to abjure).

Apart from the universally fine performances (both older actors themselves delivering a virtual swansong) what makes it so moving is how McCrea's character persists in his character against all utilitarian objection and the disintegration of all that he has held to. Character is not surrendered lightly and the intimation is that 'personhood' is all that one ultimately can possess - and whether judged in time or in eternity, its standing is the only status that truly matters.

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