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William S. Hart's Hell's Hinges: AnIdeological Approach to the EarlyWestern R. Barton Palmer Forthe last decade an allegoresis that reads both character and story as expressions of psychic or social conflicts has dominated the contextual criticismof the film Western. One of the central assumptions of this approach is that popular narratives, because they are products of so-called mass culture, are escapist in the sense that their various discourses are largely esthetic (i.e., symbolically significant) rather than mimetic. 1 Speaking of formulaicstory types like the Western, John Cawelti, for example, observes thattheir "purpose is not to make me confront motives and experiences in myself that I might prefer to ignore but to take me out of myself by confirming anidealized self image." While Cawelti concedes that such patterns do exist "ina complex dialectic with other aspects of human life," he maintains that theescapist functions of popular story are indeed dominant, effective only whenpresented, of course, "within a framework that the audience can still acceptas having some connection with reality." 2 In The SLr:-Gun Mystique, hisinfluential study of the genre, Cawelti therefore emphasizes that the continuingappeal of the Western lies less in its evocation of certain aspects ofhistorical discourse about the West and the frontier than in its various psychological dynamics: ''the Western's capacity to accommodate many different kinds of meaning-the archetypal pattern of heroic myth, the artisticimperatives of dramatic clarity and unity, the influence of media, the tendency of popular forms to assume a game-like structure, the need for CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 1985,255-270 256 R. Barton Palmer social ritual and for the disguised expression of latent motives and tensions-as well as its ability to respond to changing cultural themes and concernshave made the formula successful as popular art and entertainment over many generations. "3 For Cawelti the Western isreally about "the conflict between the adolescent's desire to be an adult and his fear and hesitation about the nature of adulthood" (p. 82). Social scientist Will Wright rejects this kind of functional analysis because "it either ignores or denies the fact that the Western, like other myths, is a social phenomenon." Wright argues that popular story forms like the Western find their appeal less in the expression of "specific and assumed tensions" (like the Oedipal difficulties in Cawelti's view) than in the communication of social meanings. Thus the Western embodies a social myth, which is itself a construction of "the classifications, interpretations, and inconsistencies that a particular society imposes on the individual's understanding of the world." 4 Discussing the Western, Wright and Cawelti disagree about the nature of its narrative signifieds (psychological or social); but they each understand the signifiers (those elements of plot, setting and character) as primarily esthetic structures. Because, especially as practiced by Wright, this approach is grounded in the cultural assumptions of Levi-Strauss and the narratology of Vladimir Propp, it is well-suited to the re-writing of individual Westerns according to an inductively derivable master narrative. Such a master narrative can then be historicized through a symbolic reading that understands it as both an expression and transcendence of contradiction. As Fredric Jameson observes, this double movement of affirmation and denial characterizes all popular narrative: "Both modernism and mass culture entertain relations of repression with the fundamental social anxieties and concerns, hopes and blind spots. ideological antinomies and fantasies of disaster, which are their raw material: only where modernism tends to handle this material by producing compensatory structures of various kinds, mass culture represses them by the narrative construction of imaginary resolutions and by the projection of an optical illusion of social harmony." 5 Wright's and Cawelti's symbolic reading of the Western narrative reveals much about the form as a collective ideological act, as an instrument of culture which "works" toward the social and psychological ends Jameson describes. Wright's dependence on Proppian methodology and Cawelti's use of formulaic analysis, however, inevitably lead them away from any consideration of the individual film text as a particular historical construction, as both a moment in the history of the genre and asa unique embodiment of its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 255-270
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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