by Janey Place
Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 26-28
Will Wright, Six-Guns and Society, Berkeley: U of California Press, 1975. $10.00.
Most criticism of the popular arts has had as its raison d'etre an assumption that these works have a particularly direct relation to our society and can tell us a great deal about our culture and ourselves. But the nature of that relation is so complex and little understood that much writing on popular culture degenerates into narrow analyses of a particular social phenomena, seen in a direct causal connection to a corresponding narrow aspect of movies, rock music, print media, or television. The result is seen in protests against violence in films, protests that assume movie violence causes violence in the streets, or "national character" portraits which find Americans to be violent because our films mirror this trait.
Obviously there is a reciprocal relation here, not a one-way, cause-effect one. Movies both reflect the values and ideology of the culture and are a means of reproduction of that ideology. The ability of popular culture to reflect and express a wide range of contradictions that arise from the tensions of our socio-economic structure is awesome. Thus, a writer with a foregone conclusion can assemble evidence for any position if his/her sample is "carefully" chosen.
If criticism is to reveal what popular culture expresses and reflects about ourselves and our society, we need a method which will allow us to interrogate this relationship. It must be capable of incorporating the mass economic base of the popular arts and the nature of the shared cultural experience, and it must not mystify its own assumptions and genesis. It must be able to find its structure in the works of popular culture themselves and not restructure or reduce their elements to "prove" an argument.
Structuralism is a method of analysis first developed to study the structure of language. It was then used to interrogate the relationship between a form of popular culture (mythology) and the culture that produced it. Anthropologists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Vladimir Propp believed that the structure of the narrative elements in basic myths could reveal the structure of the society itself. The social, political, economic and psychological organization of primitive societies could be "read" in their mythology. According to Lévi-Strauss, myths, like language, structure and communicate the world view and values of a culture through repeated patterns of narrative "functions."
Will Wright, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, takes structuralism as his methodology to examine the relation between Western movies and U.S. institutions and attitudes, drawing on the work by Lévi-Strauss in anthropology and on that of Kenneth Burke in literary criticism. The idea of treating Westerns as the mythology of our culture is not new: Peter Wollen (Signs and Meaning in the Cinema), Jim Kitses (Horizons West), and John Cawelti (The Six-Gun Mystique) have written books on the subject. In Six-Guns and Society, Wright takes far more of a socio-historical and less of a psychological approach than any of the previous books on the subject of myth.
While this is definitely a positive corrective to an ahistorical study, Wright errs in the opposite direction when he disregards and often denigrates the psychological dimension of the Western and of myth itself in nearly all his actual descriptive data and in his theoretical basis. Claiming that the psychological approach "either ignores or denies the fact that the Western, like other myths, is a social phenomenon," Wright goes on to describe psychological meaning as "universal, biological, and therefore static." (p. 8) While it is clear that Wright's argument is against those psychological studies of myth—and there are many—which ignore the historic context of their subject, his omission of the psychological (which is also a socially determined function) severely restricts his study.
In Six-Guns and Society, Wright's purpose is to show that Westerns function as myth for their culture and to analyze the dominant plots of the four basic periods he observes in the genre from 1930 to the present. Then, using the structural model of gathering all the "variants" of a myth to form the whole myth, he interprets the changing social meaning of the myth.
Wright uses his descriptions of selected films from each period to break down the structure of each of the four myths, with the individual films serving as variants. This reduces the central myth to a series of narrative units: both the narrative functions themselves (i.e., "The hero enters a social group," first requisite function for the classical plot) and their order form the structure of the myth.
Wright interprets the meaning of the four myths through the oppositions between the component parts of the myth: i.e., hero, villain, and society. The relations between the component parts of the myth change from the classical plot through the vengeance and transitional plots to the professional one, creating changes in values and producing different models and explanations for social interaction. (129)
He uses the system of binary oppositions developed in structuralism to determine relations and values: i.e., locating the narrative elements (such as women) on axes of "strong/weak," "inside society/outside society," "good/bad." Thus he forms a grid consisting of action units ("Equality, Acceptance, Safe, Fight") and position of these in the "value" oppositions. For example, "women" classically are situated on the "inside society," "weak," and "good" side of the grid. This sometimes changes with the "professional" plot to "outside society" and "strong" (with the hero). The view of women thus changes from "weak" to sometimes "strong."
Wright then analyzes the changing structures of U.S. institutions, using the economic and political theories of John Kenneth Galbraith, Karl Polaynic, and Jurgen Habermas. Wright uses "the formal analyses of structure to relate the structural meanings of each Western plot to the concepts and attitudes implicit in the structure of American institutions" and to their impact on American values. His analysis proposes that
In this ambitious undertaking, Wright offers sound theory for requiring film myths to tell us how our culture communicates value, behavior roles, and relations between social institutions and members of that culture. He gives an excellent critique of Lévi-Strauss, rejecting the anthropologist's psychological goal of using the study of myth to map the structure of the primitive mind. Wright does not attempt to demonstrate direct influence, i.e., that the values of individualism in movies created the market economy. Rather, his aim is to "reveal a significant structural and temporal correspondence between social institutions and the Western." (130) His is the most thorough application to date of structuralism to a film genre which is designed to ground its analysis in socio-economic history.
Wright's purpose is to reveal the meaning of the changing Western myth and its correspondence to the social/economic institutions of U.S. culture. The sheer ambitious scope of this effort makes it vulnerable to criticisms of reductionism: the relations between our culture and its mythology are necessarily complex and any attempt to locate the meaning of an entire basic myth may be naive, regardless of the theory and method used. And Wright's stated purpose in his introduction even broadens this goal: "The purpose of this book is to explain its (the Western's) popularity." (7) Wright's analysis thus hopes further to explain the appeal of Westerns to their audience, to analyze both their demonstrable ideological meaning and their artistic meaning.
In evaluating the success of his book in accomplishing these goals, we need to ask:
Precisely because Wright is such a knowledgeable theorist of his field—sociology, his study demonstrates how structuralism which is based entirely on an analysis of a narrative description of film is fundamentally inadequate as a system by which to interpret individual films' meaning for their culture.
My basic objection is to Wright's assertion that structuralism is totally adequate to deal with Western films though not with the traditional narrative arts. He differentiates between movies and literary arts on the basis of "levels of complexity." Primitive cultures generally do not have literary, much less film arts, so in anthropology structuralism does not have to deal with such art forms. This necessity to distinguish between art and myth points to a fundamental inability of Wright's use of structuralism to apprehend any meaning that is not simple and based on binary structure.
Because Wright ignores the entire psychological dimension of the films he analyzes, he does indeed find many of the central characters simple and uncomplex, but this is a suppression of complexity, not proof that it does not exist. Since complexity of characterization and motivation is suppressed in Wright's descriptions of films, from which his interpretations are made, this aspect of a film's meaning is also suppressed in his conclusions.
Nonetheless Wright is often put in the difficult position of acknowledging that a character is psychologically complex but asserting that this complexity is an exception. His study analyzes seventeen carefully chosen films and finds "exceptional" complexity in the characters of a significant number of these. He further suppresses complexity in the description of other important characters, making his method's inability to find or deal with this dimension of Westerns embarrassingly clear. In describing Hatfield (John Carradine) in STAGECOACH, Wright states in parentheses,
Actually, STAGECOACH has less depth than almost any of John Ford's other Westerns, precisely because what ambiguity does exist in STAGECOACH is at the level of the narrative action (where a structuralist analysis must deal with it) instead of being rooted in complex psychological characterization. The characters in STAGECOACH each neatly fit into the theatrical action of the film, forming a social microcosm in a crisis. Each has a function in this microcosm, and their character is structured by the action. In Ford's other Westerns, the dramatic action itself, as well as the visual style, is created and manipulated to express internal, psychological dimensions of the main characters: complexities which are greatly minimized in STAGECOACH. Again, Wright's description of Vic (Arthur Kennedy) in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE:
And in parentheses, he describes Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) in JOHNNY GUITAR,
Wright acknowledges that complexity of characterization does not fit into the binary structure by which he is describing the Westerns. To maintain the simple meaning of the oppositions, he is forced to distort his descriptions by ignoring the implications of the psychological complexity he finds exceptional. Describing the action of JOHNNY GUITAR, he states,
This not only ignores the sexual urgencies which are at the heart of the film, it implies motivation at a narrative action level where the motivation does not exist. Vienna (Joan Crawford) is a strong, independent woman who wields a man's power in the town. She refuses to sell the saloon she worked to build, knowing that the coming of the railroad will make her property enormously valuable. Her character is deepened and complicated by the implication that she accomplished her success at least partially through prostitution: both power and a dubious sexual past are atypical for a woman in the conventions of the Western genre. The other woman's, Emma's, psychotic hatred of the Dancing Kid grows from an earlier rejected love; she has a maniacal desire to destroy Vienna from sexual jealousy over both the Kid's friendship with Vienna and Vienna's personal, sexual, and economic strength. The action of the film is the result, not the cause, of the sexual dynamic. Wright's analysis cannot admit subtlety of dramatic movement (generated by internal psychological forces), complexity of characterization, or psychological motivation.
Structuralism cannot account for this ambiguity and multi-dimensional characterization in film. While this does not inevitably lead to incorrect conclusions about the superficial level of plot, it reduces and often obscures the most compelling dimension of the work, which is dominant in producing the meaning. The appeal of film is not in opposition to the appeal of literature as Wright asserts: The desire … for complex, realistic characters…" (23) is in movie-goers as well as in readers, and Westerns do not disappoint us.
His method's failure to find complexity or ambiguity is demonstrated in Wright's individual interpretations of films and in his formulations of general meanings. For example, Wright defines the "wilderness" as pure and noble, and association with it automatically identifies the hero as "good and strong." (57)
Later, in his interpretation, he uses his earlier "findings" as evidence.
The idea of the wilderness is a deeply ambiguous one in our cultural heritage, in Western movies, and particularly those which Wright has classified as "classical."[l] Wright ignores the antisocial aspect of the wilderness which implies the society of men is evil and corrupting. Significantly, Wright also ignores the role of Indians and their relation to the wilderness that pervades classical Westerns. Indians are generally portrayed as savages, signaling chaos, destruction, and evil, which is not only associated with the wilderness but which springs directly from it. The wilderness in these films (STAGECOACH and UNION PACIFIC to name two from Wright's list) is dangerous, something to be tamed before the "pure" elements of society (women, churches, schools, children) can exist within it.
The hero is indeed part of this wilderness. But his association also carries connotations of danger, wildness, and antisocial tendencies, which must be exorcized in order for him to join the community, or he himself must return to the wilderness. Thus the land and the hero, and their relations to the building of a community, do not form a simple binary dynamic. The relations among these elements of the narrative are rich with complexity and internal tension, which is the very reason it can express tensions of the modern culture. Wright's description and interpretation reduce the necessary ambiguity, and this renders the film impotent for its role as myth.
John Cawelti (The Six Gun Mystique, Bowling Green University Popular Press) describes the way myth acts to reconcile the tensions caused by modern society in a harmless, ritualized way. The potentially antisocial urges created by the culture are thus eased: Westerns express both the chaotic, dangerous impulses and the necessity of their suppression. Wright ignores this complex expression in favor of binary oppositions and their simple meanings, which lie on the surface of the narrative. He is, of course, not entirely wrong—often the land is purifying and is the hero's source of power—but this provides only one of many possible uses of this symbol in Westerns. The myth of the land is a complex element whose use can involve one or more of its associated meanings, as in most John Ford Westerns where the desert of Monument Valley functions as an enemy of the settlers and the natural home of the murderous Indians. It also represents the hope for the civilization of the future. Such a depth of meaning cannot be acknowledged in Wright's analysis.
So far structuralism has studied narrative, but it can do more. Wright mentions the awesome beauty of Western landscapes and speaks of the power of the language of film, but his method includes no analysis or even recognition of the form of the film beyond these passing comments. The effect of this omission is demonstrated in his distorted description of JOHNNY GUITAR. The structuralist method suits the oral mythic tradition Lévi-Strauss described. Myths are told and retold, with only their structural narrative elements remaining constant in all their variations. But film, like poetry, is also structured through its form, which does vary.
After arguing that movies function in our culture as myth, Wright ignores the enormous difference between mythology of oral tradition and film. The fundamental differences in their production and dissemination is staggering. Films are produced within an industrial context, have monetary exchange value, and are experienced in time and place, unlike the ceremonial myths of oral tradition. The effects of this difference in production and consumption are determining. They are necessary topics for any study which assumes that oral tradition and movies function so similarly in their cultures that success in a method of analysis for mythology insures its viability for movies. Wright does not address this issue.
More importantly, myth has no consistent stylistic component. With each telling, or performance of the myth, the form or style changes. While this style is important to the specific performance of the myth, it is ignored in the structural study of all the variants that compose a basic myth. Lévi-Strauss stresses this fact, as does Peter Wollen (Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, 1969) in his defense of an auteur theory based on narrative consistency. But a film does have a stylistic dimension. Here, style is not a neutral vehicle for the narrative but is a determining component in the formulation of meaning.
In his review of Wollen's Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Brian Henderson compares style in film to style in poetry:
While Henderson's comments in this review are confined to the films of "great directors" in his call for an auteur theory based on style as well as narrative consistency, even in the films of mediocre directors (as with mediocre poetry), the richness or shallowness of the work's meaning derives from its style or form to at least as great an extent as from its narrative elements. Films are not "told and retold" so that each specific expression fades into the background. A film is a rigid and carefully constructed visual/narrative work; its form is as individual as that of a painting or a novel. This individual expression is the syntax, the style of the work. In precise contradiction to Wright's position, we can no more ignore that style than we can usefully reduce great literature to a series of general plot lines.
Wright errs fundamentally in basing his differentiation between art and myth on narrative complexity, and indeed, in attempting to differentiate the two in the first place. This distinction is necessary to his underlying requirement that myth be accessible to his binary oppositions and simple meanings, which art obviously is not. This distinction is the basic failing of his method. He must then obscure the stylistic dimension of the film as well as its narrative complexity, both of which it shares with all literary narrative art.
Not only does Wright's method leave out altogether the expressive articulation of style, but also the process of description in his book leads to a further reduction of the films. These descriptions become unacknowledged interpretations upon which Wright then bases his further social interpretations. He refers to this relation:
Since oral myth of primitive culture has no consistent stylistic dimension, a retelling by an anthropologist, a description of the myth, provides a valid representation of it. The description includes the narrative units and the relations between them, which according to Lévi-Strauss, comprise the meaningful components of the myth. This is not the case with a film, or a poem, or a novel. "To translate modern art into its 'story' is to tell another story." In his review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Sam Rhodie characterizes structuralism's binary system:
As with Wollen's description of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE as an "uncomplicated passage from nature to culture," which distorts the rich depth of the film beyond recognition in order to fit it into Wollen's plan of Ford's movement from CLEMENTINE through THE SEARCHERS to THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, Wright's descriptions of the films he analyzes cannot help but relate to only a fraction of the whole work at best. When he then attempts to interpret the meaning of the film from this distorted fragment, his conclusions are inevitably inadequate. Wright foresees the problem of basing his interpretations on these lists of narrative functions and asks,
The internal logical contradictions of this statement are many. How can these unique elements "embody" the meaning and be necessary for its communication but be extraneous to it? Earlier Wright said "realism" resulted from complex characterization and did not apply to myth or Westerns. This statement—and the whole of structuralist theory in this kind of application—totally ignores that, in fact, units of "meaning" are not absolute, isolated, discreet elements. Meaning is determined by the form of the communication and the context of the message as well as by the informational units of the message. The word "nigger," for example, means very different things when used in different situations and among different people. Wright's position that his general narrative functions mean the same in each film is simply wrong and is the basis upon which he reduces films to a few descriptive sentences.
For example, to say that Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS "gives up his revenge" (a requisite function for the vengeance variation into which Wright puts this film) is an extremely flattened reading of the psychological dynamics of the film and an outright distortion of the plot itself. While Ethan returns Debbie to the white community of settlers instead of killing her as he once threatened, he does scalp Scar and bring a murderous cavalry attack on the sleeping Comanches. While Wright's description is not necessarily superficially incorrect, it is like describing ANNA KARINA as a soap opera of a wronged woman. Wright ignores the psychological dimension of all the films he analyzes. This is a minor but important omission in UNION PACIFIC, but in JOHNNY GUITAR and THE SEARCHERS it causes Wright to miss the meaning of the film.
Wright's use of the structuralist method of analysis itself is questionable. He abstracts general functions of the "basic myth" from his own descriptions, which he appears to have written to fit the basic myth. Thus the requisite narrative structure he "finds" is often tautological. A film is a classical Western because it adheres (at least in his description of it) to his structure of classical Westerns. For example,
(This is true of neither "classical" DUEL IN THE SUN or THE FAR COUNTRY without some distortion in the description.) This is then used as a criterion to determine if a film is a classical Western. In fitting STAGECOACH into the vengeance variation, Wright must state that it fulfills the requirement that the hero give up his vengeance.
Actually, Ringo (John Wayne) kills the men he set out to kill. Either Wright is simply mistaken about this one film, or we can see the very great extent to which he must go to make a film "fit." If Ringo "gives up" his vengeance only after he has achieved it, is this a useful way to describe the narrative action of this film? Ethan's "giving up" his vengeance in THE SEARCHERS, which could be argued either way based on both the narrative action and the psychological dynamic, is one of the many less extreme examples which fill the book.
These kinds of problems arise in any classification system, as one creates all such systems rather than "discover" them. For example, I could file my papers under "yellow," "blue," and "white," but it would not be as useful as "Westerns," "Musicals," "Detective films." Neither is wrong; both would provide appropriate systems. But one is useful to me. In this way, all classification schemes are to some extent self-serving. We choose our criteria by which to classify or differentiate raw data for the results they will produce. But even though no systems are neutral, Wright's is so circular, in the way that it requires him to produce the data he needs to demonstrate his categories, that the system becomes nearly useless. A better method for choosing a sample could minimize this distortion and make the sample more representative. Wright's limitations force his sample to exclude countless Westerns. The question is: How important are those excluded and how did he select those included?
Wright seems to follow Henderson's suggestion that one would need to analyze all the films of a given era or take "the most commercially successful movies." Following this second suggestion, Wright faces severe problems. Because of the realities of exhibition and distribution, the most commercially successful pictures do not necessarily "correspond most exactly to the expectations of the audience, to the meanings the viewers demand from the myth," as Wright states it (p. 13). While he concedes that stars have an effect on a film's popularity, and that publicity is important, he finds justification for ignoring these effects in two examples of big-star commercial failures, and conversely, a few "no-star" commercial successes. He correctly sees that
However, to dismiss these—and other facts of the film industry—because we cannot totally predict them is to side-step. Among the many reasons for a film's success or failure at the box office, how completely the film meets audience expectations certainly counts. But to use one of Wright's own examples, BILLY JACK is a no-star, small budget "modern" Western which he uses to illustrate the existence of no-star commercial successes. In fact, the film was a failure at the box office when first released by Warner Brothers with standard advertising. It became a commercial success only when director/ producer/ star Tom Laughlin designed an innovative, saturation advertising, four-walling exhibition plan for the picture. Wright implies that this picture succeeded because of its ability to fulfill audience expectations of a Western myth and uses this film to demonstrate that this criteria is the dominant, dependable reason for all commercial success. He must ignore and/or fail to acknowledge other factors in commercial success because of his claims for his chosen films' privileged status vis-à-vis the audience and our mythology.
But film is a commodity, and like kitchen cleanser, the most widely purchased one is not necessarily the one that best does the job. Advertising and distribution are complex, and people neither buy Comet nor BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID simply because each meets their expectations. Wright's naive assumptions of the validity of his selection of films jeopardizes his study, especially when he picks from the list of top box office films only seventeen to analyze in detail. If his method of choosing a sample does not substantiate the claims he makes for it, his conclusions are correspondingly implicated. Thus he acknowledges that the "pattern of change" in meaning he finds from the classical plot to the professional "is difficult to recognize without the restriction of success." (14) Wright's conclusions about the change in values required by the shift in U.S. institutions and ideology from the self-regulating market of Keynesian economics to a planned economy and the expression of this change in Westerns is fascinating but fanciful:
The very compact neatness and clear linearity of this summation are Wright's analysis' worst enemy. Neither our popular culture nor our economic base and their interaction produce values and national character which are this one-dimensional. Wright fails to allow the relation between a society and its popular culture the complexity which is necessary to its operation. Indeed, his analysis obscures this complexity through its insistence on dealing with the very most superficial issues in films: schematized narrative action units. This is the kind of analysis whose authority is dissipated when one or two exceptions are evident (and countless exceptions exist even in the films he mentions, not to mention those he leaves out), because his interpretation is so tight it can allow for no variation. To reduce the dimension of the interrelation between society and its art is not to understand or illuminate that relation.
But must a structuralist methodology limit its scope to narrative elements as Peter Wollen and Will Wright maintain? If so, then "Authorship and Genre" in Jim Kitses' Horizons West is a more useful model because it acknowledges the many levels and shifts between the binary oppositions that a film can simultaneously express. But structuralism need not limit itself to narrative analysis. Sam Rhodie, writing on the usefulness of this method for film, notes,
In both Wright's and Wollen's analysis, structuralism is based on linguistics. The appropriateness of a linguistic model for the development of a "language" of visual media merits lengthy discussion. But from that controversy we can borrow an idea that is extremely cogent to finding a better model for structuralism. Visual signs are more context-bound for their meaning than are linguistic signs—words. Meaning always depends on a combination of contextual usage and commonly shared assumptions about the definition of a linguistic sign, but words partake more than visual signs of fixed "dictionary meaning." Especially when the elements of visual language are as "dictionary-meaning" free as a camera movement, lighting, composition, etc., the methods of linguistic analysis become less and less appropriate.
We can say that a close-up involves the viewer with the subject, but we must recognize that the sign "close-up" can be used to disgust, to alienate, or to invade as well as to create involvement. The point-of-view shot is generally an equally involving one with a strong subjective element; it puts the viewer in the position of the subject. But it too can be used to create suspense, tension, and alienation when no subject is given. In other words, we can identify how visual signs create meaning, and we can define a category of possible meaning for a specific sign (i.e., low angle shots tend to give their subjects exaggerated power and dominance), but we cannot determine the exact meaning for each use of the sign.
This is precisely theorist Jonathan Culler's concept of the only legitimate use of the structural method in the analysis of art. Speaking primarily of poetry and literature, he claims that the goal (of poetics) should not be to find meaning but to "reconstruct the general rules which make a range of meaning possible." A work of art has a range of acceptable interpretations: no one "reading" will exhaust or duplicate the work. The goal of structuralism should be to reveal the structure of interpretation, not meaning itself. Meaning must be specific (i.e., Wright's tight analysis of national values, economy, and the Western), and to assert that any one meaning is adequate to a work of art is to reduce art.
This is not to say that all interpretations are equally meaningful: structuralism should be able to define a range of meanings and provide a method by which to evaluate any one interpretation. To claim to find the meaning through the analysis of repeated motifs through a wide range of cultural products is to reduce the depth and richness of the relation between the works of popular culture and our society. A structuralist analysis that explores how meaning is possible will make the range of interpretations accessible, not close off all but the most superficial, simple, narrative meaning. Within such an analysis, Wright's interpretation would offer a perfectly viable, fascinating possibility: but as an interpretation that claims to cover the full expression of Westerns and their meaning for the society which produced them, it is completely inadequate.
1. See Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Harvard University Press, 1960; and Jim Kitses, Horizons West, Indiana University Press, 1969, Chapter 1, "Authorship and Genre."
2. Film Comment, Summer, 1971, p. 76.
3. Henderson, ibid., p. 76.
4. New Left Review, #55, May/June 1969, pp. 66-70. Review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema.
5. Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Indiana University Press, 1969, p. 96.
6. Henderson, p. 76.
7. Culler, Jonathan, "The Linguistic Basis of Structuralism." Robey, David, Editor, Structuralism: An Introduction: Wolfson College Lectures, 1972. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. pp. 20-36.