Friday, September 02, 2016

The Western In Reverse: On Hell or High Water

Gilles Deleuze writes of the western “…the American cinema constantly shoots and re-shoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization…” Placed in the terminology of a different philosopher, we could say that this "birth" is the moment where the Repressive State Apparatus, or violence, is supplemented and supplanted by the order of ideology, by the Ideological State Apparatuses. Such philosophical embellishments do not tell us anything new. That the Western is about the transformation from violence to order is on the same interpretive register as the common wisdom that the monster of the horror film stands in for some actually existing horror; it is so integral to the genre it is barely an interpretation at all. Everyone knows that "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" and that the gunslinger must, at the end ride off into the sunset, because the world he has created, a world of law and order, has no place for the violence that is its midwife. 

The merit of such philosophical musings is that they offer us some specificity, some precision, to address the mutations and transformations of these genre conventions, transformations that are signs and symptoms of larger transformations of ideology (and its material conditions). At first glance Hell or High Water appears to be another addition to the neo-western sub-genre, pick-ups replace horses and AR-15s replace Winchesters, but the basic narrative remains unchanged, a lawman pursues a group of bank robbers. However, it occurs to me that Hell or High Water is best understood as a reversal of the fundamental problem of the Western, as charting the descent from law and order to the emergence of violence and brutality.

Hell or High Water is a post-2008 film. It shows us a Texas midlands ravaged by not only the recent recession, but by decades of dispossession, of layers of poverty caked over like dust and sand. Like many parts of the rural US, the money and jobs are gone, but the people remain, are left to fend for themselves. Its most interesting scenes show us how the collapse of certain economic conditions, the loss of ranching and other jobs, directly undermines the ideological conditions of law and order. The central narrative of Hell or High Water concerns two brothers who are robbing banks to get enough money to buyback the family ranch, a ranch that is discovered to be sitting on oil. Their crime spree, especially as planned by the younger brother, is a kind of primitive accumulation from below, a brief foray of violence and lawlessness, that will make it possible for dispossessed and unemployed workers to become capitalists. Although little about their plan is known to the world, and even to the Texas Rangers pursuing them, robbing banks is enough to make them folk heroes of a sort. When the Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) traces the bank robbers to a diner, he finds the hostility towards banks far exceeds any ideology of law abiding citizen. A new wild west emerges, not from some supposed frontier, but in the interstices of an empire that is collapsing as base and superstructure. The "incredulity" towards the institutions of banks and law is augmented by a proliferation of guns. Just like the wild west of old, everyone is packing heat.

The film's reversal of the Western, flipping the narrative of civilization on its head, must confront what used functioned as the figure of civilization's outside, the "indian." The film does so twice. First, in the character of Alberto Parker, the half Comanche half Mexican partner of Hamilton. Alberto is regularly assailed with "good natured" racist barbs by his partner, the kind that Zizek often says are the foundation of an ethic of ethnic diversity. He also gets to offer the films founding meta-narrative, cited briefly in the trailer above, in which the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of displacement and dispossession; first the whites displace the indigenous americans, and then the ranchers and farmers are displaced once again by the banks, by a force without arms. As Foucault noted, there is a a fundamental ambiguity to history understood as the struggle of different groups, it is always poised between class and race. This can be seen in the film's second native american character, a Comanche gambler encountered at a Reservation Casino. (The casino, the only clean and orderly space in the entire film, functions less as some kind of idealized space than one more chapter in a universal history of theft and scam). The gambler's encounter with the older brother hinges on the latter's fundamental fantasy, that of the Comanche as "lord of the plains," of a primitive supremacy asserted by pure violence. When told that Comanche means "enemies all around," the older brother, who has spent his time in and out of jail, claims that name for himself. The dispossessed whites imagine themselves, or at least their vengeance in the image of those they dispossessed.

In the end, however, the film reveals how impotent myths are in the current economic order. The brothers not only rob the very bank that is repossessing their family ranch, they make that bank the executer and holder of the trust that manages the new wealth produced by oil. It becomes complicit in their crime, or perhaps they become complicit in its swindle. Brecht's line about robbing a bank and founding a big become almost indistinguishable. Ultimately, the bank has no financial incentive to prosecute the brothers, profiting from their scheme instead. Thus when Hamilton (Bridges) tracks down the remaining brother, and it looks as if the film is heading towards one final shootout, a duel at high noon between outlaw and lawman, the encounter is deferred, left to take place (or not) after the credits roll. It ultimately does not matter, the codes of justice are themselves impotent in the face of the axioms of profit. The new west is not lawless, just indifferent to the ideologies that sustain laws. The new motto of the west is"When legends are no longer profitable, who cares about legends?"

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