Thursday, May 09, 2013

A Matter of Conquest

"The idea of the American West was always more a matter of solitude and space and the balance between individualism and community than a matter of conquest." (Kent Jones)
It seems almost every cinephile I know has endorsed Jones' response to Quentin Tarantino's comments about John Ford. It's a well-written piece, and as a critical refutation of QT it's marvelous. But for me there was also a sticking point, and this problem is crystallized particularly in the above sentence. You can perhaps say that "the idea of the American West" indeed concerned solitude, etc. because you are concerned only with the stated ideology of white American men going West, of The Virginian and of the Rough Riders. But to relegate the issue of conquest to the sidelines seems a huge and wilful mistake. Try these on for size:
"The idea of the Spanish Inquisition was always more about the purification of the Catholic faith than a matter of social and religious oppression."
"The idea of Jim Crow laws were always more about respecting tradition and local proprieties than a matter of enforcing specifically racialized inequalities among the population." 
It's crucial not to ignore the link between "solitude and space and the balance between individualism and community" and the "matter of conquest." Jones addresses this, at least enough to indicate why he's bracketed off the conquest. "That the idea was built on the backs of indigenous Americans who were, in Ford’s own words, “cheated and robbed, killed, murdered, massacred and everything else,” was not exactly hidden from view, but relegated to the background of the story that the culture was telling itself through paintings and dime novels and traveling shows and, finally, movies—albeit never quite as comfortably as is now imagined." But my point isn't really to attack Kent Jones or to criticize his "implicit" politics or anything like that; I've no beef with him! I just want to tease out a thread in that sentence I've picked out to use as an epigraph. Because the ideas of solitude, space, individual/community, wide open spaces, new beginnings, and frontiers that the West connotes are difficult to separate from the conquest - including the massive labor of laying of railroad tracks across the country (the train was a major part of inaugurating a modern national space-time), but especially the destruction of many native civilizations, the mere husks of whose former selves were what white American settlers encountered in their Westward expansion.
What strikes me about John Ford's cinema is always how fragile and contingent "civilization" is, as if he doesn't even really believe in it outside the porch steps, the kitchen, the campfire (sites also of hospitality) ... and because of this I have felt that Ford (a man and filmmaker of his time with plenty of concomitant prejudices) nevertheless granted the same ontological basis for non-Europeans (or "people without history") as to the white settlers of America, whose manifest destiny - when mainlined - drove them insane, twisted them up, tore them also into husks of their former selves. This ontological basis for all people and cultures does not however translate into a political equality, as if Ford were trying to convey the message that all people suffer the same ways in the same amounts, as if to rationalize away native populations' decimation. The living's deeply felt memories of the dead commingle in the face of uncertain futures, without any destiny or guarantee. Just generations turning over, one to the next. And often whatever is built up is built upon lies.

* * * 
"Dead Man is one of the few westerns to see through the cheesy mythology that white people were the first North American settlers, but its approach is casual and poetic rather than preachy; the warm, comic friendship between Nobody and Blake, neither of whom entirely understands the other, is central to the film." (Jonathan Rosenbaum)

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