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Volume 54, Number 1, 2018

Special Issue: The Visual Language of Gender and Family in the Western

Guest Editors: Matthew Carter and Marek Paryz


MATTHEW CARTER, “‘I’ve Been Looking for You’: Reconfiguring Race, Gender, and the Family through the Female Agency of The Keeping Room'

ABSTRACT: This paper places director Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room (2015) in the context of the so-called “post-Western.” It considers how the film deploys an intriguing mélange of genre elements and tropes to develop a counter-narrative to the traditional Western’s engagement with the cultural politics of Hollywood’s classical narrative paradigm. It argues that the film, scripted by first-time screenwriter Julia Hart, should be regarded as a woman’s Western that rethinks US national commitments to a frontier mythos celebrating Anglo-male power, racial violence, and misogyny. Furthermore, in its taking on the ideologies of the patriarchal, heteronormative family as a social ideal, the film challenges the dominant fictions of the US and the West, addressing issues of gender, race, and male sexual violence from an avowedly female perspective and using the interracial composition of its trio of female characters to engage with intersectional feminist concerns. Ultimately, it is argued here that The Keeping Room’s deconstruction of the cultural narratives of the family and of the socio-symbolic role of gender and race hierarchies within this most sacred of American institutions offers a tentative glimpse of a world beyond racial and patriarchal hierarchies, beyond the family.

LEE CLARK MITCHELL, “Hidden in Plain View: Family, the Western, and the Syntax of Genre in A History of Violence

ABSTRACT: Few other recent films have focused so intently on domestic tensions and dimensions as A History of Violence, and a large part of the film’s appeal (both critical and popular) owes to David Cronenberg’s deft invocation of generic conventions—of thriller, crime film, Western, and melodrama. There is no need to flatten out these interpretive strategies by aligning the film with a single genre more than another. But what merits attention is the distance between the film’s ostensible materials and its syntactic structure, with the latter repeatedly confirming how fully questions of what it means to be a man, a father, a citizen, become central. Those are in fact questions notably central to the Western, which helps explain why the genre perseveres, given a syntax that embraces questions of gender construction, of parental uncertainty, of civic responsibility, of the need for justice despite legal niceties that might forestall that possibility. These all seem syntactic girders to a genre that persists in other semantic forms. Our inability to avoid expectations aroused by such narrative pressures means that even in an era in which the Western no longer is a dominant form, even when a younger generation is unfamiliar with the genre itself, generic interpretations still suasively dictate terms.

MAREK PARYZ, “Urban Milieu, Domesticity, and Fatherhood in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

ABSTRACT: The paper discusses Andrew Dominik’s film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) as an attempt to critically redefine masculinity in the Western genre through the depiction of its vulnerable features as reflected in the eponymous outlaw’s performance of the roles of a husband and a father. It offers an analysis of three closely related themes of the film—urban life, domesticity, and family—so as to explore the historical and cultural contexts for as well as the symbolic significance of its presentation of vulnerable masculinity. Although the action oscillates between urban and rural settings, Assassination foregrounds urban life as an existential standard. It further shows the protagonist’s inability to live up to such a standard and to ensure at least a basic stability of life for his wife and children. In Assassination, the domestic space is primarily a space of transition. The few glimpses of marital tenderness between Jesse James and his wife Zee suggest that they have based their family life on the illusion of normality. All the socially accepted roles that Jesse assumes are appearances, including the roles in the family he has tried to perform with utmost sincerity and dedication. His portrayal as a father is highly ambivalent, combining notions of actual and symbolic fatherhood: the division between these two spheres of fatherly influence reveals the processual nature of fatherhood and points to the contingencies on which the imaginings about and the enactments of fatherhood inevitably depend.

JORDAN SAVAGE, “There was a veil upon you, Pocahontas”: The Pocahontas Story as a Myth of American Heterogeneity in the Liberal Western”   

ABSTRACT: In his epic poem The Bridge, Hart Crane codified the Algonquin “princess” Pocahontas as the mythical mother of America. By devising a crypto-Catholic ritual for the purification of the soul, Crane attempts to absolve white America of what he himself characterizes as the rape and forced marriage of an indigenous woman. Crane’s end-game is the establishment of a racially integrated continent that has been absolved of the sins of its founding. This article will begin by setting up exactly how Crane formulates his apology for U.S. colonialism. This “Pocahontas Theory” of appropriation will then be used to explore interracial marriage in the “liberal western” (Edward Buscombe, 2006), beginning with the representation of Pocahontas herself and moving on to an understanding of Pocahotas as archetype. The New World (dir. Terrence Malick, 2005) and The Revenant (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) will be tested against three different criteria: their appeal to history or to realism as the grounds for their representation of aboriginal women; their response to traditional tropes in the representation of aboriginal people in general, and women in particular; and, finally, the extent to which they, like Hart Crane, use the forced submission of indigenous women as a means to establish a liberal, multi-cultural milieu. 

JOHN WHITE, “Defending Home, Defending Homeland, Post 9/11: Jane Got a Gun”

ABSTRACT: Starting from the premise that films exist within the context of the period in which they are made and that they can be seen to have some (complex) relationship to the historical moment, this essay considers one recent western, Jane Got a Gun (Gavin O’Connor, 2016) in relation to the American experience post-9/11. The film is viewed as a contemporary expression of the classic western theme of the necessity of safeguarding the home. This is seen as relating to the protection of the dominant American ideology but also, within the current context, as defense of the homeland. Comparisons are made with, for example, Shane (George Stevens, 1953) and The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). The essay moves on to consider what is seen as a rupture within the central character of Jane. On the one hand, she is the image of the strong, independent woman, and, on the other, she is (necessarily perhaps within the context of the genre) a weak woman who needs to be brought to an understanding of the true nature of the world. In her embodiment of this weakness she is also seen as that “soft” liberal sector of the American public that needs to be educated about the reality of the presence of evil in the world.

Book Reviews

NEIL CAMPBELL reviews Westerns: A Women’s History by Victoria Lamont

MARTIN HOLTZ reviews Masculinities in American Western Films: A Hyper-Linear History by Emma Hamilton

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