Saturday, December 18, 2010

Winchester ’73: Destiny or Contingency

“…the American cinema constantly shoots and re-shoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization…” –Gilles Deleuze

I have often thought that one could write something of an history of American ideology in the middle of the last century through the films of Jimmy Stewart. This is in part due to his casting as a sort of “everyman,” the generic subject of mass society, but, more importantly, it is the way in which this “everyman” was cast in very different light from the black and white morality of Capra to Hitchcock’s infinite shades of grey. The shift of directors is not just a shift of style, but a fundamental shift in the understanding of subjectivity and the world. The Capra, Ford, and Hitchcock films are well known. Perhaps less well known are the Westerns that Stewart made with Anthony Mann. Mann’s films are thematically and chronologically placed between the films of Capra and Hitchcock: Stewart plays the hero but one who is often driven by an obsession, conflicted beneath his generic exterior.

Stewart may seem like an unlikely western hero, especially to anyone who has seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Mann seemed to be aware of this, Jacques Rancière cites him as saying that he found it necessary to follow a “series of precautions” in order to make Stewart, who is not "the broad shouldered type," believable as a man who can take on the world, precautions that define the relationship between what one can do and what one must do within the film. These precautions define the relation between the character and action, a relation that breaks with almost organic connection with a mileu that Deleuze argues defines Ford’s and Hawk’s westerns. As Rancière writes, “It doesn’t much matter whether Mann’s hero is a man of justice or a reformed criminal, since that is not the source of his quality. His hero belongs to no place, has no social function and no typical Western role: he is not a sheriff, bandit, ranch owner, cowboy, or officer; he doesn’t defend or attack the established order, and he does not conquer or defend any land. He acts and that’s it, he does some things.”

In Winchester ’73 Stewart plays Lin McAdam a brother pitted against brother, seeking to avenge his father’s murder. Cain doesn’t so much slay Abel, but his father. This fact, this crucial motivation, is only alluded to in the opening of the film: it is finally explained  much latter, during the final shootout. Initially we only know that he is pursuing a man to Dodge City with determination that borders on the murderous. Narrative completion is only given retroactively in the closing scene. Up to that point we only have a quest, a conflict without a clear sense of its stakes. This quest, with its linear obsessive determination, is immediately displaced and deferred by the rifle of the film’s title. The rifle, which is introduced before any character, the subject of the first close up,  first appears as the prize in the fourth of July shooting contest organized by Wyatt Earp. The contest, and Dodge City in general, are presented as ordered and just: the story begins in place order and descends into lawlessness, a reversal of the traditional western narrative.

The contest pits Stewart against his brother, “Dutch Henry” (an alias) as two expert marksmen, both taught by the same man (their father). As Stewart says, hinting at the murder he is seeking to avenge, they were both taught how to shoot, but not why: equal in skill, but distinguished only by a slight moral difference. Just how slight this difference is made clear in the first scene where brother encounters brother. They both simultaneously reach for their guns. There is no difference of hero and villain at the level of basic actions: they are both prepared to shoot the other in (relative) cold blood. They would have shot each other, but there are no guns allowed in the oasis of order that is Dodge City, so all they can do is reach for their thighs, grasping at absent guns. As is so often the case in this film, intention exceeds action, the logic of the film restores one to the other.

Stewart wins the shooting contest, but is ambushed by his brother and the prize gun is stolen. This crime takes place within Dodge City, suggesting as the film does repeatedly that order and authority are only appearances. The plot of the film then follows three series of events. First, there is Stewart doggedly pursuing his brother from Dodge City across the west; then there is Dutch Henry, who isn’t so much fleeing pursuit as setting off on his own attempt to rob a bank; and finally there is the gun itself, which travels from the hands of Dutch, to the gun dealer who swindles him out of it, to a Native American chief (played by Rock Hudson), to the calvary, to “Waco Johnny Dean,” a member of Henry’s gang, eventually back to Henry for the final shootout. In the end Dutch Henry is defeated by Stewart and the gun is returned to its rightful owner.

This trajectory of the rifle’s movement, from hand to hand, could be understood as a kind of test, a quest with an object at its center. Criminals, corrupt gun dealers, "Indians," and cowards all try to possess the gun, only to be deemed unworthy in the moral (and racist) logic of the film. Read this way the trajectory of the rifle overlaps with that of the moral quest for vengeance and the restoration of order. It is logic of fate: the murdering brother will be killed, and the gun will return to its rightful owner. However, the gun’s trajectory is overdetermined by the events of history itself. The film makes constant reference to the Battle of Little Big Horn, and the role that the Native American’s Winchesters played in Custer’s last stand. The repeating Winchesters were able to outgun the calvary’s single shot rifles. Custer’s defeat is presented as a kind of trauma, of a reversal of the established order based on the slight difference of a faster rifle. In the final shootout Stewart is able to defeat his brother, despite his superior gun, by tossing pebbles, distracting him to waste ammunition shooting at rocks and shadows. Underneath the moral narrative in which the gun is restored to its proper owner, and justice is dealt, there is the contingency of history, of the slight differences of technology, speed, and skill that simultaneously realize and undermine any intention.

The rifle doesn't just move from hand to hand, passing from Dutch, to the gun dealer, to the chief, and so on, it also passes between two different ways of understanding events; it passes between the moral logic of destiny and the historical logic of contingency.

Mann is most well known for introducing a noir sensibility to the Western, of bringing the conflicted and ambiguous psyche of the postwar urban milieu into the open spaces of the West. However, what is interesting about Winchester ’73 is the way in which this interior space, Stewart’s drive for vengeance, a drive that borders on the obsessive, is displaced by the pure exteriority of history. History in this case is indicated by the gun itself: it is an object that is always out of place, despite being named and dated. There is nothing to keep this gun from falling into the wrong hands: materiality is defined as that which simultaneously enables and thwarts the intentions of individuals. The gun might have a rightful owner, and there might be a rightful order of justice, but a faster gun and the luck of finding it can set everything off kilter. In the end the only way to correct this, to right things, is to toss a few pebbles into the air. Slight differences of speed and timing ultimately matter more than official differences of law and order.

Perhaps when Althusser invoked the figure of the cowboy to sketch his portrait of a materialist philosopher, the philosopher of aleatory materialism who catches a moving train, he was thinking of Anthony Mann.

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