An Interview with Dr. Blanford Parker
November 2, 2010 § 1 Comment
The following is an interview with Dr. Blanford Parker, Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University, conducted in his home on the afternoon of November 1, 2010. Dr. Parker gave the interview concerning Westerns as a preview of the film screening of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and following lecture, titled: “We All Have It Coming, Kid”.
Steffen: My first question is why is the western genre important for American film?
Dr. Parker: Well, I suppose more than any other genre it’s a native concoction that helps to explain some of our myths, like rugged individualism; what degree we’re civilized and what degree we’re wild, how the frontier worked… It was answering those questions when they were still being thought seriously about in the 1920s that grew to be a kind of an important film paradigm for American culture in general, in its various transmutations. The Western was always about the relationship of individuals to society, government to the individual; what constituted the values of farming and labor as opposed to those of heroic action, like the gunfighter. Those are questions that are universal but they’re also very important to American culture. The Western epitomized those even though it borrowed, interestingly in a circular way from Japanese cinema, because Japanese and American cinema have had a very similar set of developments, and so the Western is not totally autonomous, it’s partly related to samurai films and the Japanese also use western motifs, and I don’t want it to sound like it’s a unique American, but I think it’s the most defining cultural genre particularly for American audiences. And it was very important when the Western declined in the 60s and early 70s, it seemed to indicate certain questions about culture were no longer being asked and that was an important moment of American culture
Steffen: Why did it decline in that period?
Parker: I think people became skeptical about the noble use of force because of the Vietnam War and also because by that time the culture had been so perfectly urbanized that it no longer had a memory of an agrarian life and struggles which that life came with, which the people of the depression still had, they could use Westerns as a metaphor for survival on the prairie. I think that it had no intimate feeling for American viewers during that era and then Vietnam called into question the gunslinger, the undeniable use of force and intervention as a way of producing justice, and I think that became questionable, and Westerns took up the question of whether that was questionable in like The Professionals or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it became a question in Westerns…
Steffen: Now how does Unforgiven compare to past Westerns?
Parker: This is a big question and something I’ll say more about on Thursday, but I think that, if you leave aside “Singing Westerns,” you know Roy Rogers and that tradition, which is big and there were hundreds of singing westerns; the main themes of the Westerns, beginning with Raoul Walsh’s westerns in the late 20s and 30s, has been civilizing the prairie and the various interests competing in this act of civilization. In other words, the cattlemen are somehow opposed to the sheepherders and the townsfolk have different values than the ranchers and the cavalry was there to defend but was also interested and made problems and the American Indian was present in all these scene, somehow noble but also evil, and all these ambiguities were being worked out since the late 20s in the Western. There’s a set of themes that arose out of that; choices inside the Western.
I think that Clint Eastwood, became the last great Western star, after John Wayne’s death. Eastwood took his place. These two figures constitute the central two living images of the Western in its whole tradition. There’s a lot of other people, Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann made five or six great Westerns, Shane was great Western that didn’t have the presence of those two, so you can name a separate tradition, but those two really dominate the genre and John Wayne generally represented, with the exception of Howard Hawks’ film Red River, quiet, peace loving, innocent men of power, who when forced into issue of injustice like in Rio Bravo or Rio Grande or Yellow River, would use their skills of violence to produce order. They were men of quiet, mysterious, smoldering virtue, and they had an ambiguous relationship to women; they were boy-like in their relationship with women. John Wayne was the great model of that. He was always admired by women in the movies but it was never beyond that; it’s a very particular development of an idea of a hero. When Clint Eastwood came in, in The Man With No Name and the hero of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, he was not noble and he had a relationship with women that was aggressive and amoral.
In A Fistful of Dollars or For A Few Dollars More, there’s no question of justice involved, Eastwood gets what he can and he’s neutral about the various interests of the families in the town, he considers them all, rightly, immoral and violent and so he can fit into the scene without any moral ambiguity. Suddenly you have this odd antihero; a very limited number of lines in the script, there’s only about 6 pages of Eastwood in a two-hour film of Sergio Leone; most of it is the whole thing with his eyes, his serenely quiet gaze over the people of the town, his dangerously quiet actions, and his unique handsomeness. It was a complete reworking he wasn’t satisfied with Leone’s portrait, although he greatly benefitted by it and it made him a star along with the Inspector Callahan character in Dirty Harry. Basically Siegel and Leone, those two directors, made his career, they got him out of bad television parts and they made his career; made him an icon of vengeful power and returned him to a world of male strength and indifference to all this namby-pamby, 60s era moralism…you know, that’s what Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name were all about, a kind of anti-sensitive human being.
But Eastwood wasn’t satisfied with that in his own mind and so the rest of his career, and you can see it too in his directorial career, which began with several westerns like Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter, you can see is him working out what he thinks is the real set of solutions that aren’t really answered by him playing that character when he was young. Unforgiven, I think, is the end of a series to make a more definitive, Eastwood answer to the tradition of the Western, and I think Unforgiven is the most interesting and strangest possible conclusion to that long history…
Steffen: Well, you’ve kind of already answered my next question, which was: what does Eastwood bring to the genre…but I guess could you talk a little bit about, as a director, what he brings?
Parker: Well I think, in my opinion, in his early attempt at Westerns, he didn’t direct those ones in the middle period like Hang ‘Em High, but he took on the directorial style of those pictures, which was a lot like American television shooting; which partly he learned being trained by Siegel, who was both a television and a movie director, but that’s one of reasons why, I think, High Plains Drifter has a weird, artificial camera quality and it wasn’t until Outlaw Josey Wales, actually beyond that, towards the period of Unforgiven, the late 80s, early 90s, that he really tried to use a more cinematic, grand effect going back to Ford. I think that he was learning by degrees the craft of being a director but he was also answering questions, and one of them was: could Eastwood accept this character that he himself had created.
That was a question Wayne couldn’t answer for himself because Ford and Hawks dominated his career and they answered it for him, but Eastwood became independent so he could try and answer problems of his own character. It’s an interesting situation and he becomes a different person in those westerns, first in Bronco Billy, in which he tries to make fun of and humanize the cowboy and say that it’s really for boys. It’s a myth, a fiction, something admired by boys and it should be given to them as a gift because it’s not a fully developed thing, it’s comical and that was a very radical moment and he wasn’t satisfied with that and Unforgiven takes the kind of more serious turn to go back and think about what it meant about violence and the west and the frontier and masculinity.
Steffen: So then how does a film like Unforgiven differ from something like Shane?
Parker: Those are two great, oppositional films. Anthony Mann’s films like Naked Spur and Winchester ’73 brought realism into the Western, as did Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller later. There had already been a tradition of realism, sprinkled mildly through the idealized John Wayne films that were sort of like on the outside. Leaving aside those odd centric moments, the prevailing idea is in Shane. Shane is a perfect realization of 50 other films, which are not made as well. Stevens, the director, was one of those grandiose directors of the 50s who shot a million feet of film to make a two hour movie and had total leisure and wealth to just diddle around with landscape and the early era graphic effects, and maybe it’s not unique, because Ford had already done it, but Stevens brought in real Hollywood quality and a good script. His is the archetype of the following story: a man wants to give up his gunslinging ways and enter the world of agriculture and buy a farm and settle down and live on the edge of civilization, on the edge of doom, which is his earlier life and he’s got to save himself from the moral ambiguities of being a paid killer and a bad guy, even if he was supposedly doing good. There’s ambiguity there, the gunslinger is only really ambiguously a good person.
That’s the most dominant theme of the Western: a man gives up violence to enter civilization but in the plot, invariably, whether it’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Shane or Hondo, you have to go back because things get too disordered and the farm owners have been taken advantage of by cattle ranchers and gunslingers, men of violence, and when that happens you have to return to your original status as the heroic protector and you’re forced into an act of saving justice against men of your own class. What’s interesting about Shane is that once he’s saved the homesteaders and the town of the evil presence, he leaves. He’s a distortion now and he can’t join the community because he’s shown the face of violence to the boy and he leaves so that the boy won’t believe in him but he’ll go back to his parents, who are really superior people. It’s a whole melancholy thing about boyhood in the Western; that’s the plot of the Western that’s most dominant: the necessity of violence to retain justice in a world that’s become disordered. It’s an American theme present throughout American history, that we do as a country acts of violence in a country like the Middle East or Vietnam, and that we’re good people but there’s a time to put on your guns, whether this is true or false, everybody has to decide for themselves. This is allegorized in the Western constantly: the price of civilization is violence. That’s the theme of Westerns like Liberty Valance and Shane.
That is not the theme of Unforgiven and that is taken up as if it’s going to be, you feel that Eastwood is coming, to get a fee yes, but really to produce justice and that’s the plot you understand, you see it coming…But at the end it doesn’t come; a new thing is revealed, something unique in the world of Unforgiven, the idea that if you give yourself over to violence, you will go back to a maniacal and vengeful, crude violent character and you won’t be able to control it. Nobody can successfully fight violence with violence and produce order, and the people who try to do it are in reality people with psychological imbalances who only try to do courageous acts with guns and weapons. Eastwood realizes that those characters he had been in earlier films would not have done those things unless they had severely disordered mental problems, people who could live happy in a world of fast fire violence when other people can’t and he decided it was pathology. This is the radical moment of his career: his greatest film makes the vengeful character of his earlier career into pathology! That’s the great, 11th hour, unexpected reversal in Clint Eastwood’s career: it comes down to pathology and an addiction to violence, masked in language of justice. This is one of the most radical moments in film.
Steffen: And now to try and tie everything together, how do you see the Western genre especially what Eastwood comes up with in Unforgiven, about violence being a pathology, how does that relate to the superhero genre and, more specifically, The Dark Knight, which Dr. McCullough spoke on and seems to argue the opposite?
Parker: Well, I think the Batman series has made ambiguous the kind of morality that was in Superman, the new thing in the 90s was having ambiguity and superheroes that were divided, weird people who weren’t quite sure …so it’s already gone through a change, not as fully realized as Unforgiven, concerning the superheroes morality and there’s ambiguity in The Dark Knight, but there again, it’s easier and more in the convention of the superhero, a close analogue to the Western morality, to co-op the character by:
a) sentimental populism, like the goodness of the citizens on the ferry
b) by saying “it has to be done, there has to be a hero who does justice and is an image of
Actually that part of the ending of the film is a step back towards the conventional, more so than Unforgiven. In Unforgiven they go through all the things that could make someone do the things they’ve done and they can’t come up with a good reason and in the last scenes, you realize and the character realizes that there is no other reason. It’s nothing heroic, not a code and it’s kind of a terrifying realization, that not too far underneath the surface of this “reformed” character is this abysmal murderer who’s frightening to the people whom he’s known for many years because they know what he’s capable of. Morgan Freeman’s role in the movie is to remind the younger man that this is not a man that they will ever understand and if you doubt what he’s done in the past, that he can do it again, you’re in denial and you’ll find out that he can do it again and you slowly realize that you’re in the presence of a kind of vengeful monster…
Steffen: So then is the Clint Eastwood character of Unforgiven more synonymous with say, the Joker character in The Dark Knight, who seems to operate under the same mindset?
Parker: It might be so in the sense that both are addicted to violence but I think that the Joker represents a kind of satanic, Nietzschean violence of irrationality whereas the Unforgiven character represents a real form of mental addiction, a weakness in a regular human being, who’s been habituated in certain kinds of activities, analogous to an alcoholic. I think the Joker is more pure, ungrounded evil who just wants to make disorder. That implies a kind of purposeless purpose and I don’t think Clint Eastwood has that. He’s not that self conscious; he simply falls back into himself as the film goes on. It’s a higher form of realism in Unforgiven because it’s a kind of addiction, like alcohol, drugs and sex. I don’t think it’s a perfect analogy to the Joker, the Joker is more a kind of cartoon of Satanism but they’re both forms of evil, they share that.
Steffen: As a final question, what’s your favorite Western?
Parker: I think Unforgiven is the greatest western film. I think there are 3 or 4 others that are comparable to it, of different types. Of the “Friendship Westerns,” based on a type of brotherhood between a few heroic individuals, The Magnificent Seven or Tombstone, and that’s really the last remaining theme that works in the Western, the friendship theme. The best of those is Rio Bravo. For the “Justice Western,” I think Liberty Valance and Shane are the two great, perfect representations of that. For the “Scenic,” and the problem of the frontier and civilization, then John Ford’s The Searchers is, without a doubt, and many other Ford films take up that same theme. There’s a new thing, which is this sympathetic-with-the-Native-American and is a revisionist Western-style, like Little Big Man and Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Eastwood doesn’t do revisionist, he always returns to the conventions of the town and characters who are in traditional Westerns. His change of the Western is inside the Western, whereas with those revisionists it’s outside the boundaries of the old Western… And you know, Stagecoach is a very successful and unusual Western and I also rate McCabe & Mrs. Miller as one of the most perfectly realized Westerns ever. Unforgiven owes a lot to McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Please join us this Thursday, November 4, 2010, for the film screening of Unforgiven and Dr. Parker’s discussion to follow at the Bean.