Thursday, February 28, 2008


Finally this brings me to the two Westerns paired last Friday at the WHC: My Darling Clementine and Paris, Texas, films separated by more than 40 years of film-making, with a difference of style and substance obvious enough to make clear that the way in which they are comparable has to do with an almost archetypal sense of the hero as a figure committed to a change of the status quo. His is an intervention made necessary by circumstances; though how that intervention plays out has not much in common, there is a noticeable kinship in the films’ iconic structure: hero emerges from the wasteland, rights certain wrongs, rides off into the distance, in both cases leaving behind a woman.

In Clementine there is a promise to return; in Paris, no such expectation – and that can be said to be a major difference in the two men and their respective situations as heroes. Henry Fonda, as Wyatt Earp, gives us a tense, knowing hero, a man committed to his own vision of what is right – which means not only that he will avenge his brothers’ deaths, but will also do right by the town, Tombstone, to the best of his ability. He’s a lawman in that self-reliant and carefully modulated way that inspires respect. His courtship of Clementine (Cathy Downs), who comes to Tombstone in search of Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), boasts the kind of restraint generally found among knights enacting a code of chivalry as a self-effacing version of heroism – something almost wholly missing amidst the show-boating, wise-cracking heroes to which we’ve become accustomed, from Harrison Ford to Bruce Willis to the various Bonds and whoever else is generally cast as a good guy taking arms against a sea of troubles and threats.

What’s amusing is that Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis Henderson in Paris is cut from that same “strong, silent type” mold, only moreso. If Henry “yup” Fonda is laconic, Stanton is literally mute in the film’s early going. Even after he starts talking again, his voice is low, dispassionate, firm but not deep or assertive. In fact what most impresses as masculine in his character is his willingness to play the fool, if necessary, to get the attention, and eventually allegiance, of his estranged son, Hunter, a young boy who has grown to about 8 or 9 without knowing his father. Stanton manages something that most of our loner, badass heroes rarely manage: a camaraderie with a child. In the John Wayne Westerns I spoke of earlier, we see much of the generational clash – the older man’s testing of the younger man, the younger man’s bid for respect. But to see the father figure working for the son’s respect and acceptance is in many ways truer to the times we’ve lived through since, not simply in the proliferation of “dead beat dads,” but in the sense of an older generation that “went off the rails,” so to speak – if not literally wandering in the desert like Travis, then at least wandering spiritually away from the kind of fixity and secure fortunes that “the West” has always cast doubt upon, from the time of the settling of its wildness, to the Gold Rush, to the Siren Song of Hollywood (“any mechanic can be a panic”) to the era, perhaps still not wholly eclipsed, of its “get here and we’ll do the rest” come-on to the nomadic drop-out subculture of the 60s and 70s. To emerge from four years of wandering in a 1984 film is to say that the 70s are over . . .

But, to return to the topic I began this trilogy of comments with, what of the relation of these men, however heroic their status or mundane their comportment, to their women? Fonda’s Earp is a romantic hero in the sense of one who knows “the real thing” when he sees it: he never doubts his feelings for Clementine, even though she is at first fixated on the fickle and ailing Doc. But the book-ends of Earp’s revenge play against the callous rancher Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his courtship of Clementine is a period with his brothers in the wilderness as cattle-drivers, and a return to the wilderness to bear the tidings of the family’s loss to their father. In other words, his trajectory is a bit Biblical and, if God’s in his heaven, Earp’s path will lead him back to his true love. But it may be that untold adventures await and the settling down – the accepted union that is clearly prepared for Matt Garth in Red River or for Martin Pawley in The Searchers – could be denied indefinitely. Earp, in other words, is still a man with a mission, and “woman” is perhaps a prize at the end of one’s necessary tasks, a goal or object for the end of action, not a cause of action.

It’s hard to imagine what Travis’ mission is once he has brought his son and his missing former wife together again. There are ways, no doubt, to read him as a symbolic figure of fate, a way of saying that the time is up on this unnatural sundering of mother and child and only a dogged hero, obeying convictions born during his sojourn in the desert, can effect that change. But the film also gives us elements that work against this romantic heroism: the settled and unremarkable family life in which Hunter lives with Travis’ brother and his wife – the disruption of this world is clearly for the sake of something, but what that is the film doesn’t really help us recognize. It’s Travis’ conviction that his son and the boy’s mother should be reunited, but it was Jane (Natassia Kinski) who surrendered the boy to her in-laws, and, though she sends them money for Hunter, she keeps her distance (in Houston, while the boy lives in Los Angeles).

In other words, playwright Sam Shepard’s script gives us a situation where, for some reason never made clear, only a male, paternalistic solution is possible. And we also have no basis for understanding why Jane and Hunter can live together happily ever after now, but couldn’t before Travis returned, only to leave again. We have to accept, in old archetypal Western fashion, that women and children and ineffectual common folk (like Travis’ brother, played by Dean Stockwell) can’t overcome their own inertia and lack of grit. We can almost hear them mutter “who was that masked man” as Travis rides off in his beat-up truck-bed Caddy. Much as I admire the film and Travis’ long monologue to Jane on a phone, separated from her by a one-way glass, I’m always brought up short by the script’s inability or unwillingness (for it amounts to the same thing) to imagine a role for Kinski. She listens mutely and accepting to the version of their history that Travis describes, but what her life was or is now is left to hang as though, at some profound level, she needed only to be given meaning again by Travis’ intervention.

Which is to say that, in the 40 years between My Darling Clementine and Paris, Texas, the West can become a state of mind a man carries within him, but it borders on a self-fulfillment fantasy – one that Hollywood films will continue to try to sell in various forms and occasionally interrogate (Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven, 1992) – that leads, perhaps inevitably, to a “sins of the father” struggle in which the foundational crime – as Prof. Pippin emphasized in his discussion of Red River and Tom’s departure from the wagon train and the woman who loves him – is leaving the women out.

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