Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) was criticized by the powers that be at MosFilm that the film’s opening sequence on Earth was not science fiction enough. In fact these scenes are not even in Lem’s novel from which the film is based. I will argue the evidence presented in the film that the opening sequence on Earth is more science fiction than we think. I will also discuss the incredible mise-en-scene used throughout the film in conjunction with framing, camera movements and how these elements inter-tie with Tarkovsky’s theory on montage.
Opening Shots on Earth Not Science Fiction… Think again…
One of the first props that we see on Earth at the dacha that will re-occur at the Solaris space station is the floating balloon above the pond. This balloon will re-appear at the space station in the corridor near Sartorius’ laboratory. To me this is the first sign that the beginning scenes on Earth are not really Earth. The whole film is taking place on Solaris, as can be interpreted by the end shot of the dacha surrounded by the Solaris ocean. The Solaris ocean is a living thinking matter that reaches into the depths of the characters’ memory and re-creates the characters most re-pressed thoughts. The ocean is conducting experiments on the humans that are in turn conducting their own experiments on it.
A sequence that seems quite odd in logical terms is when Chris’ father is talking with Burton. They are both looking out the window, then Chris’ father walks out of frame left; two seconds later he is already outside walking in front of the window in front of Burton at the same speed as when he left the frame. There were no cuts, this is all one shot. To emphasize the impossibility of him getting there that fast Burton then walks to frame left as if to go outside as well and we see the somewhat long wall that he walks by until he gets to the door where Chris’ father is. This to me is a clue that they are on Solaris. There is no indication or sound that he decided to run outside quickly. How can he disappear and re-appear? It is not possible… unless they are on Solaris. I will later give another example of this disappearing act that Tarkovsky likes to use in his films. This device is always combined within a long take.
There are a few characters on Earth that are never identified who they are. Anna, who we later know is not Chris’ mother, but is maybe his father’s new wife? Or is she a Solaris sent illusion for the father to live with, similar to what Hari is for Chris?
When Chris arrives back on what we first think is Earth, he is walking towards the dacha and we notice the fire he set before leaving for space still burning with papers scattered around it. This clue tells us that time might pass by differently on the space station, than on Earth, or that he was never on Earth. This might be another scene that Chris has been inserted into by the ocean. He has made peace with Hari, now he might have to make peace with his father. As he approaches the house there are more clues that he is still on Solaris. The camera observes him approaching the dacha from inside the house. Here on the window ledge is the metal box that he had left on the ledge of the portal on the space station. Why is it here now? It is also raining inside the house, like in Chris’ room on the space station after the scene where Hari and Chris were looking in the mirror. When Chris’ father notices him we have a real eyeline match between two of the film’s character’s. However, the window separates this connection. Chris is outside and the father is inside with the rain. The opposite of what we saw at the beginning of the film where Chris was outside in the rain and the father inside. Tarkovsky is showing us that although their issues are not resolved, it means that there is hope that they can be. This is reinforced with the last image of Chris kneeling down in front of his father; similar to the way he was kneeling in front of Hari in the library.
“I didn’t want to see outsiders any more than you did” Chris’ father
Mise-en-Scene / Camera Movement
Characters in Solaris often never looked at one another while speaking. One of the first examples in the film is when Burton and Chris are discussing Solaris. This back-to-back conversation occurs frequently throughout the film and is a device used to show man’s inability to communicate with eachother. What is interesting in this sequence is Chris standing against a tree house painted in a light blue. This color often comes back in the film representing hostility.
Later when Chris arrives on Solaris and visit’s Snaut for the first time we see a glimpse of Snaut’s visitor in a blue hammock. This scene is filled with hostility as we first see Snaut bandaging his hand (as he is often doing in the film) presumably from an injury incurred by his visitor. When Chris approaches the blue hammock Snaut tries to get him away from discovering it. Snaut’s room is also representational of his state of mind. It is highly unorganized and messy. He is a tortured soul at this point in the film and his surrounding supports this.
Chris at this point in the film has a level head, sure of himself and the mission he is on. The room that he picks is a copasetic and clean; white is the pre-dominant color. At the very center of the frame is the portal to look out onto the ocean. It is nighttime so the portal is shown as black. What is interesting is that Chris is also in black. One cannot help but draw a parallel between the two. Does the ocean already know that Chris is there? Has it already started reading his mind? His room will gradually become messy and disorganized like Snaut’s as the film progresses matching his state of mind. The room also has a circular theme. The room is a circle, the table, the portal; even something that is square like the bed has a circled feature to it. The little cubes on the wall makes us think of the square electronic devices that filled the wall in Snaut’s room, drawing a connection between the two.
The color blue comes up again as Chris meets Dr. Satorius for the first time. When the scientist comes out of his laboratory after Chris threatens to break down the door they begin to talk but they hardly make eye contact with one another. The glass door to his laboratory is covered by a blue blanket to hide its contents. Satorius seems ashamed of the visitor Solaris had sent him. It is the same color that is used to hide Snaut’s visitor.
Hari’s introduction is a highly stylized sequence. The shot before we first see her live (and not in a picture) Chris is lying down in an unmade made covered in plastic. The shot is in black and white; perhaps an indication that it is night. The camera slowly tracks over his body to end in a medium close up of his face. During this, the sound of the Solaris ocean is slowly intensifying, suggesting that it is delving into Chris’ subconscious, looking for a memory to reincarnate. We cut from Chris’ face to an extreme close up of Hari’s face. The camera then tracks out of this extreme close up to reveal Hari sitting watching Chris sleeping. This track out is the opposite of the previous track in shot onto Chris. As she walks by the portal we notice that it is white, suggesting to us that the ocean’s intentions are good ones, not evil. It also gives her an angelic glow, as if telling us that she is Chris’ angel or savior. If the portal were to still be black one might think that the ocean’s intentions were not pure.
The mise-en-scene is quite unique when Hari is looking at herself in the mirror for the first time. We have three Hari’s represented, foreshadowing the three Hari’s that will appear in the film: The one presently looking in the mirror, the one that comes after Chris sends the first one off in the rocket, and the resurrected Hari that comes back after killing herself. We immediately know that she is an out of this world visitor. How did she get in the room when Chris barricaded the door to his room with large metal chests? She is also wearing exactly what she is wearing in the photo she finds of herself, playing on the fact that she is created from that memory.
“We don’t want any new worlds, only a mirror to see our own in” - Snaut
The second Hari again comes while Chris is sleeping. The camera movement’s almost identical to the first time Hari comes. It slowly tracks over his body, indicating a repeat of history, like a mirror. This time the image of Chris is not in black and white it is in an orange sepia tone; similar to the tint or lighting that was shining on Hari extreme close up when she was first introduced. This time we have the sound of wind that sounds like a burning fire. This color tint and sound gives us the impression that Chris is in his own personal hell.
The mise-en-scene when Chris wakes in a room of mirrors from being sick is an odd combination of the space station and the dacha. The items from the dacha are covered in plastic. We have the mannequin with the cowboy hat on, and the window from the dacha seen at the beginning of the film is now the window of the space station with vases filled with water and plant life coming from them. At this scene’s opening the camera turns around the room in a long take revealing many Hari’s, his mother and his childhood dog. We see the mother still uninterested in Chris’ life and is more pre-occupied with setting the clock to the right time than speaking with her son. She does however perform a loving motherly duty when she sees Chris arm either injured or dirty. She washes it in a basin similar to the basin in The Mirror when the mother is washing her hair. The cleaning of Chris arm draws a parallel to when Chris cleans Hari’s arm after her injury of breaking through a metal door.
The indifferent mother is a familiar theme in Tarkovsky’s work and we see it particularly in The Mirror. The mother at one point walks many miles with her son to go see the doctor’s wife to get an abortion. This mother not wanting another child is represented in two beautifully symbolic shots with the son outside. The first is him subjective POV staring at spilled milk on the table dripping on the floor. Milk is a symbol of motherhood, so it being discarded on the floor is a sign of rejected motherhood. Then the light in the room flickers on and off here symbolizing the loss of life that is taking place in the adjacent room. Perhaps Tarkovsky felt some resentment towards his mother for her treatment towards him? The film’s opening shots can be sees as Tarkovsky’s adoration of his mother, I believe the film’s opening is a cry for his father’s love. The narrator says “If he turns towards the house its father. If not, it isn’t him” possibly suggesting that the narrator is the child playing a little game with himself as he sees a man approaching in the distance. He is hopeful that it is his father. It is plainly obvious that he deeply misses him. What is odd in this sequence however is that we don’t see the child until the mother looks back at him sleeping in the hammock. Vlada Petric In Tarkovsky’s Dream Logic describes the opening shot of the field as a point of view from the female protagonist. I would say the opening shot can be described as a displaced subjective point of view shot from the child’s POV; further justified because of the narrator’s voice over. Later after the burning barn we see a young Tarkovsky at first awake in bed. He is looking out the window at the forest beside the house. At first it is still, then the camera tracks left and then the wind starts to blow through the trees. It cuts back to the child now in black and white and the sound of the wind carries over into this shot. The wind represents the boy’s father. The child whisper’s “papa.” The boy then gets up to see his father pouring water on his mother’s head as if baptizing her. She then gets up in a monster like way keeping her hair in front of her face. The camera tracks out to include more of the room, with walls covered in mildew and a little fire on the stove. Then in an almost invisible cut the ceiling starts falling down where his mother was standing. Is this the boy wishing his mother dead in his dream? The next cut shows her walking towards the left with water and plaster falling all around her. The camera continues to track left as she stops and we see her reflection in the mirror. The camera continues tracking left still on a piece of dark wall with water dripping along it. The track shot stops when all of a sudden the mother is no longer beside the mirror she is magically in another part of the room. The camera pans to a mirror where we now have the mother’s reflection but as an older woman. You can feel that Tarkovsky was sympathetic to his mother’s problems. Her husband was never home and this seemed to deeply depress her. After the abortion sequence she beheads a hen (a male chicken) and is looking directly at the camera. The camera then cuts to a shot of her husband in an eyeline match. But what is odd is that this eyeline match is impossible because they are not in the same room and not even in the same time (indicated by one shot being in color the other in black and white) but the intensity of her stare you can feel that she is looking right at him, wherever he is.
The Long Take & Tarkovsky’s theory on montage
Tarkovsky point of view concerning the art of montage was quite the opposite of his Russian counterpoint Eisenstein. Like Antonioni, he proposed a cinema based on the rapt observation of the present moment as opposed to a plot-driven preoccupation with what will happen next.1 Eisenstein changed cinema and gave it new tools to work with. He invented associative montage (juxtaposing two images after one another to create meaning.) Tarkovsky liked to let the camera linger to let the viewer come up with their own hypothesis, and not have it forced onto the viewer with unnecessary cuts. In his book Sculpting in Time Tarkovsky writes: “The idea of montage cinema – that editing brings together two concepts and thus engenders a new, third one-again seems to me be incompatible with the nature of cinema. Art can never have the interplay of concepts as its ultimate goal. The image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit…”
This rebel against the use of cutting made Tarkovsky employ the use of the long take. The long take for Andre Bazin a way of “presenting a segment of life, of laying life bare before the camera.”2 Bazin compared it to a suspect under police interrogation: “eventually the suspect will crack and reveal the truth if questioned long enough. Likewise, if the camera is left running long enough, eventually reality will crack and surrender itself to the camera.”3
In Nostalghia our main character at the end of the film tries to walk across a pool of water with a lit candle. Every time the candle burns out he goes back to his starting point to re-lights it and start his journey again. The camera here does not cut, it follows his slow actions with a slow track into his face for a final close up as he reaches his destination without the candle burning out and dies. Why keep this as one shot? It is a “meditative, perhaps hallucinatory, swell of mobile imagery”4 Tarkovsky wants the viewer’s eyes to roam the screen and discover the minor details in the mise-en-scene without having to cut to it. For example in Solaris while Tarkovsky is panning around the room in which Chris encounters Snaut for a second time we notice a butterfly collection hanging on the wall. This is the same butterfly collection in Chris’ father’s dacha. At the end of this same long take lasting over two and a half minutes we have the famous character disappearing and reappearing act as described like so: The camera is panning and tracking around the room in a circular motion, following Chris and Snaut as they talk about things the strange happenings on the space station.
1. The camera is still as Snaut and Chris talk about sanity.
2. Snaut walks away towards the left and the camera follows him. Snaut stops.
3. The camera continues to pan over objects in Snaut’s room, Chris in the viewers mind is to the screen right; right behind Snaut which we just panned over.
4. Behold! Chris is now beside this vase as the camera continues to sweep over the room. How did he magically appear there? How is this humanly possible unless he ran, but there is no idication that he did so.
5. Chris walks towards screen left to exit Snaut’s room and passes by Snaut who we thought was to Chris’ right, but he is now to his left.
Tarkovsky could have easily cut back and forth between the two characters, but here the use of the long take intensifies the characters disappearing act. The viewer is allowed the freedom to browse the room similar to what the camera is doing. Tarkovsky’s idea of sculpting in time proposes cinema as the representation of distinctive currents or waves of time, conveyed in the shot by its internal rhythm. Paul Virilio in his article The Aesthetics of Disappearance describes a condition called picnolepsy. It is defined as “a lapse or a glitch in consciousness, perhaps lasting no more than a few seconds… This state, although of the same order, retains nothing of deja-vu’s elusive suggestiveness and illusory connection with the past.” He goes on to describe the deformation of temporality as follows:
The return being just as sudden as the departure, the arrested word and actions are picked up again where they have been interrupted. Conscious time comes together again automatically, forming a continuous time without apparent breaks… At each crisis, without realizing it, a little of his life simply escaped.5
The theory of picnolepsy can be applied to the character’s state of minds and Tarkovsky’s method of using a long take with disappearing / re-appearing characters in Solaris. The previous scene discussed is an example. Virilio says that time comes together with no breaks; a break in filmic terms can be a cut. This scene is all one take with no cuts. The glitch in consciousness lasting a few seconds happens here as well as we see in the fourth photo. When the camera pans on him he is staring blankly into space as if unaware of where he is and why. He then quickly snaps out of it as if nothing happened and continues the conversation with Snaut. Picnolepsy to me is a perfect diagnosis for the outlandish behavior we see on Solaris.
After the library scene Chris realizes that Hari is now alone in the library. Remembering the previous time she was left alone he rushes back to her. When he arrives back at the library she has her back to him (she is also smoking!) She is caught up in the winter scene painting on the library wall. In a scene similar to the prologue of Andrei Rublev, the camera pans along selected parts of a winter scene painting, eerily similar to the short film Chris showed Hari earlier. Perhaps this is why Hari is so enthralled looking at it. Perhaps this scene is some sort of nostalgia for the earth. Tarkovsky contradicts his theory of the long take in this sequence as he cuts on many occasions, telling the viewer what to look at in the painting instead of us roaming it with our eyes at our free will, like one of his long nature shots.
Tarkovsky’s idea of rhythm is not that of Eisenstein, instead he envisioned cinematic rhythm as some kind of movement within the frame, and not as a sequence of shots in time. Hence, the main characteristic of poetic film is the process of sculpting in time as opposed to Eisenstein montage of attractions. For Eisenstein, the concept dictated the cut; but for Tarkovsky, it is time that rules, dictating the editing techniques. Therefore, time within the frame expresses something significant and truthful that goes beyond the events on the screen and those in the frame; this poetic expression of the material world may go beyond the artist’s intention and be received differently by each viewer. In the Tarkovskian School of film poetics, the filmmaker expresses his philosophy of life as opposed to creating a new perception of a social reality.6
Tarkovsky does get into some rhythmic montage in Solaris. “Matching shots of differing rhythms can be done without destroying this organic process if it grows out of an inner necessity...” An example of this is the highway scene with Burton in the car with his son. “ …Through camera movement, sound and consistent forward direction the shots in this sequence share the same rhythm. The montage heightens to a frenzied single-frame fusion of overlapping highways, lights, skyscrapers and cars.” What follows is a cut of the pond beside the dacha; quiet and placid. “The time pressure in this shot is opposite from that in the previous shot”7 These two shots following eachother is a symbol to one of the film’s themes of man versus nature and old versus new.
Tarkovsky says that he “rejects the principles of montage cinema because they do not allow the film to continue beyond they edges of the screen: they do not allow the audience to bring personal experience to bear what is in front of them.” I would tend to disagree with this statement. Eisenstein by putting together two shots to create a symbolic third to me is something that is happening beyond the edges of the frame. This third image is created in the mind of the viewer; the audience is psychologically taking part in editing the film’s meaning. So to say that “Eisenstein prevents the audience from letting their feelings be influenced by their own reaction to what they see”8 and “an inexact rhythm in film destroys the veracity of the work”9 is false.
Immortality / Life / Death / Rebirth
The issue of immortality / mortality comes up a few times in Solaris as well. The first instance is when Burton is watching his younger self on the film. Later in the film Chris and Hari watch an old film on the space station. Chris gets to see his younger self, his dead mother, and Hari gets a small glimpse of her past. They are all looking into the mirror of the past. Ironically what immediately follows this scene is Chris and Hari looking into a mirror. Here they question who they really are. At first there is a duality created by the characters, plus their reflections in the mirror, but then the camera zooms in to only their reflections. Hari’s is distorted by specs of water on the mirror showing us that she still does not completely know who she is.
Just before Chris arrives at the Solaris space station there is a blinding flashing light coming from it. This light is representational of death; of the light we all see and walk to as we are dying. This light also comes back towards the end of Chris’ stay on Solaris. He is walking down the hallway with the aid of Hari and Snaut. There is a bright light at the end of the hallway. Again suggesting a death and perhaps a rebirth and new understanding at this point of what Hari had meant to him. Coming back to Chris’ arrival on Solaris, one of the first things he does is fall down. Tarkovsky often uses this device of a character symbolically falling to show that the character is entering a new phase in his life. This action of falling also happens to the young bell-maker in Andrei Rublev, just before he discovers the right kind of clay to make his bell. In Stalker the main male character trips just before entering a pub after he has committed himself to visiting “the zone”. In The Sacrifice Alexander falls on three different occasions, each at a different stage of his inner crisis.10
At the end of the library scene there is a moment of weightlessness, where we see Chris and Hari lovingly in each other’s arms floating around the library. This could mean that Chris has resolved his inner issue and feelings for Hari and that his spirit is re-born.
Levitation is a reoccurring theme is Tarkovsky’s films. In Ivan’s Childhood at the very beginning Ivan floats in the air while playing near his mom symbolizing a care free spirit not yet devastated by the effects of the war. In The Mirror the young Tarkovsky walks into his mother’s room and sees his mother levitating over her bed. We accept this imagery as “the young protagonist’s inner world and above all, love for his mother”
Solaris is a film that asks many questions and does not give any answers. Here I have skipped a stone on the ocean of what the film Solaris actually is and have touched on his other filmic themes that are equally in Solaris as his other features. Jean Renoir said that “a director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” This might not be true for all directors but for Tarkovsky it certainly is.
1 LeCain, Maximilian Andrei Tarkovsky http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/tarkovsky.html Feb 03, ‘06
2 Bazin, Andre What is Cinema Vol. 1 University of California Press, Berkley, London 1967
4 Halligan, Benjamin The Long Take That Kills – Tarkovsky’s rejection of montage http://www.ce-review.org/00/39/kinoeye39_halligan.html February 15, 2006
5 Virilio, Paul The Aesthetics of Disappearance Trans. Philip Beitchman, (New York: Semiotext(e) 1991 page 69
6 Menard, David George Film Theory Meets Physics. A Deleuzian Analysis of Tarkovsky’s Theory of Time Pressure. http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/deleuzian_pressure.html August 31 2003
7 Totaro, Donato Time and Film Aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky
8 Tarkovsky, Andrei Sculpting in Time
10 Vlada Petric & Graham Petrie in audio commentary on Criterion Collection DVD of Solaris also from Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue
Bazin, Andre “What is Cinema?: Vol. 1” University of California Press, Berkley, London 1967
Johnson, Vida T. and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual
Fugue (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting in Time. Translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair.
London: The Bodley Head, 1986.
Atwell, Lee “Solaris: A Soviet Science-Fiction Masterpiece.” In The Film Journal 6.
Cahiers du Cinema no. 386 “Le Cinéma de Tarkovski.” 12-26.
Chion, Michel. “La Maison où il Pleut.” Cahiers du Cinema no. 358
Halligan, Benjamin “The Long Take that Kills – Tarkovsky’s Rejection of Montage” 13 November 2000 http://www.ce-review.org
Hoberman, Jim. “Tarkovsky Arrives.” Vulgar Modernism. 1991, 89-100.
Marshall, Herbert, “Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.” Sight & Sound (Spring,
Montagu, Ivor, “Man and Experience: Tarkovsky’s World.” Sight & Sound.
Petric, Vlada, “Tarkovsky's Dream Imagery.” Film Quarterly 43/2 (Winter 1989-
Petrie, Graham & Ruth Dwyer, eds. “Session Five: Soviet Cinema (Andrei
Tarkovsky).” Before the Wall Came Down: Soviet and East European
Filmmakers Working in the West. Indiana: Indiana University Press. 1990,
Salvestroni, Simonetta, “The Science-Fiction Films of Andrei Tarkovsky.” Science-
Fiction Studies 14 (1987): 294-305.
Tarkovsky, Andrei, “Against Interpretation.” Framework 14
Totaro, Donato. “Time and the Film Aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky.” Canadian
Journal of Film Studies. 2.1 (1992): pp. 21-30.
Totaro, Donato. [Review Essay] “The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue,”
by V.T. Johnson & G. Petrie, Canadian Journal Of Film Studies 4/2 (Fall 1995): 51-59.
Truppin, Andrea, “And Then There Was Sound: The Films of Andrei
Tarkovsky.” Sound Theory, Sound Practice ed. R. Altman. New York:
Routledge. 1992, 235-248.
Wright, Alan, “A Wrinkle in Time: The Child, Memory, and The Mirror.” Wide Angle 18/1, 47-67.
“Solaris” – DVD; The Criterion Colletion
“Solaris” – DVD; Russico edition
“The Mirror” – DVD
“Stalker” – DVD; Russico edition
“Andrei Rublev” – DVD; The Criterion Collection
Bazin defines the superwestern as a “western that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for additional interests to justify its existence – an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political, or erotic interest, in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.” 1 Here we will compare some “classic westerns” to the superwestern. What are their differences and similarities? Is the superwestern following the formula of the western but just adding some ingredients, or is it just the natural evolution of the genre?
The western genre has a particular formula that has been followed for many years and has proven quite successful. The superwestern film such as the ones discussed in this paper being: Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, (1952) King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun, (1946) George Stevens’ Shane, (1953) Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) & Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) do not steer off path of the classic western as much as Bazin would say. They contain all the classic ingredients such as its location. They are all shot in the wide-open American west. However these do have something different in terms of its location. For example we are often treated to magnificent scenery in Shane, but the beautiful scenery here is metaphorical and is used as a location for the “good” characters. They are in lush green surroundings. We often see snow covered mountaintops which is vastly different from the classic western scenery of the desert dry Monument Valley. The “bad” characters in Shane are shot in the nearby town and here the absence of bright color is apparent and looks more like a typical western town.
The presence of water around Joe’s ranch and the other rancher’s is not something we often see in a western. The lack of water is usually a problem. Usually having to travel quite a ways to get it such as in Broken Arrow (a superwestern in its own right but this being a classic Western theme within the film.) In Duel in the Sun Pearl and her horse stop to drink out of a muddy puddle of water on her way to kill Lewt. Water is often something the cowboy will camp near after a day of traveling the open land such as in Red River (again another superwestern containing a classic element of the genre). However in Shane the horses are often seen running through the shallow streams.
Further on location High Noon differs from the classic western location as it all takes place in a town. The location here acts as a metaphorical character preventing Will Kane from leaving the town until he puts everything right. Even at the end of the film he is not seen riding on horseback with his bride in the wide-open country, free at last which is what would be typical of a western. He is just seen leaving town with the embarrassed town people surrounding his horse and carriage.
After the war (1945) many changes started happening to the western. The world conflict was influencing the themes in western cinema. Bazin says that history, which was formally only the material of the western, will now often become its subject. For example, the treatment of Indians such as in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow. Indians used to be the “bad guy” in the western. The enemy that had to be conquered or they were merely a bump in the road on the way to their desired location such as in John Ford’s Stagecoach. (1939) In Broken Arrow they are the entire story. James Stewart’s character Tom Jefford’s even weds the chief Cochise’s daughter.
The idea that a woman is the star of a western is different as well. Jennifer Jones gets the first credit as a star in Duel in the Sun. More due to her about to become Selznick’s future wife but nevertheless Hollywood would not give top billing in a western to a woman. In High Noon Helen Ramirez owned a fair share of the businesses in the town, not something you would typically see in a classic western. But the superwestern makes this little fact known. Helen Ramirez is also an immigrant to the country as well, so the fact that she is a prominent businesswoman and not a worker in the brothel is different. She also displays a great deal of power over Lloyd Bridges character Harvey. Harvey forces himself upon her and she slaps him. In a traditional western a woman would be afraid of being shot if she slapped a cowboy.
Bazin says “Love is to all intents and purposes foreign to the western” and that “eroticism may be seen to be at least an indirect consequence of the war, so far that it derives from the triumph of the pin-up girl.”2 Duel in the Sun may be seen as a superwestern as it heavily incorporates the element of eroticism. Pearl bounces back and forth between two men, professing her love for both of them, yet trying to put up a front of a proper lady.
Although we might see love as part of a story such as in John Ford’s Stagecoach where the lovers ride off into the sunset together, Bazin is right in saying that love is often absent from the classic western. Yet these superwesterns all include love as the driving force of the main characters. Love motivates Tom Dunsun to go make a cattle ranch in Red River (although this motivation is taken away early in the film). Love motivates Tom Jeffords in Broken Arrow to bring peace between Cochise and his people and the cowboys. Duel in the Sun revolves around the concept of love and lust. We actually hear a Gregory Peck’s character Lewt utter the words “I love you” to Pearl at the end when he is in danger of loosing her. Not something a man would say in a classic Western script.
The influence of a woman is not often the driving force behind a man’s decision to act in a certain way in a classic Western. Pride and ego are the main motives behind a man’s decisions. However Joe’s wife Marian in Shane plays a big part in the decision making process of this cowboy. Love is a conflict in this film as to whether Joe will go into town and kill Wilson & the overbearing cattle farmers who want to overtake the valley. Shane later fights Joe for the right to accomplish this task. Shane then again becomes the cowboy on the move, not being able to settle like he may have wanted. He did what he did for the greater good. A typical western attribute.
Love sets the tone for Red River right at the beginning when John Wayne’s character leaves his love behind to be killed by Indians. It sets the nature for his tortured soul.
The conflict of love is apparent early in High Noon. Gary cooper’s character must decide whether he leaves town with his new bride knowing a criminal is coming to kill him or go back to uphold the law. Here love does not win out, it is his conscious that tells him he must do the lesser of the two goods.
Religion is often brought up in the superwestern. Duel in the Sun mixed it with eroticism as well. When Pearl comes to meet the priest in the middle of the night she is naked covered with her sleeping blanket, which for the time would be very controversial. A woman’s uncontrollable lust is rarely the centerpiece of a western film.
Red River was a pioneering western in terms of its main character feeling remorse after killing someone. John Wayne would always say after killing a man “bury him and I’ll read over him in the morning.”
High Noon would revolve around the idea of what is right and wrong. Should Will Kane stay and save the town he is leaving anyway from some outlaws? His new bride thinks so and does not understand the concept that he is willing to take the lives of other men for the sake of good. Yet the religious / Quaker character of Grace Kelly kills in the name of love at the end of the movie as well.
Something else that seemed out of the ordinary for these Westerns is their acceptance of the North. In Duel in the Sun Jesse was for the idea of having the train expand further into the south. It was only the father who objected to these new ideas of having folk from the north settling in the south. The father was the traditional racist Western character. Forbidding his son from marrying a “half-breed”.
In High Noon Gary Cooper gives a speech in the church to the villagers that people from the north are looking at this town and might set up factories to bring jobs to them.
Normally in a traditional western there would not be much reference to the country as a whole. The country was divided by East, West, North, and South, even going as far as to label each other as a “Texan” or a “Virginian”, never an American. I would not single out a western film as being a superwestern for this attribute alone. This is a sign of the changing times, civil wars had ended and the concept of history follows the development of cinema.
The shootout which is classic in westerns seems to be lacking in these superwesterns. At least they are not in their classical tension building forms. In Red River Tom Dunsun walks over to Matthew in what looks like might be a dramatic moment. Half of the movie has been building up on the promise that Tom is going to kill Matthew. Yet the shootout breaks into a fist fight only to be broken up by a woman who gives them a tongue lashing; which would seem out of place in any western, it would normally be the other way around.
Duel in the Sun has quite a disappointing shootout sequence between the two brothers as well. Lewt says that he is going to walk over to the hitching post, turn around and shoot him. In a classic western this would not happen, it might be the opposite. Yet he does exactly as he says. No tension building classic shootout. There is usually a clear winner at the end of a classic western as well. Duel in the Sun does not give us a winner. Pearl shoots Lewt to soon crawl over to him and die along with him in his arms. No happy ending.
Bazin states that the Western “has been and will be again subjected to influences from the outside – for instance the crime novel, the detective story or the social problems of the day – and its simplicity and strict form have suffered as a result.”3 High Noon would be the perfect example of what Bazin is saying, although I would not agree that the film has suffered as a result. Fred Zinneman brings in the notion of McCarthyism into the story (this being Bazin’s social problem of the day). The ending of High Noon is shot more like a gangster film than a western. Gary Cooper is running around the town taking cover behind building shooting at the villains. (This is Bazin’s idea of the crime novel’s influence)
The classic western has faithfulness to history, although they are not concerned with historical accuracy they still tell a story, sometimes being of the classic Western Villain such as Billy the Kidd, Jesse James or Wyatt Earp. Bazin states that “High Noon – have only a tenuous relation to historical fact. They are primarily works of imagination.”4 This is true for all of the superwesterns discussed in this paper. Duel in the Sun, Red River, Shane and Broken Arrow are all based on fictitious characters and have fictitious stories. These films do not give a history lesson to its viewers like many classic Westerns do.
Many thought that the superwestern was the beginning of the end for the genre. The Village Voice states “the filmmakers were not so much rethinking Western conventions as streamlining the format in order to point it in self-destructive directions"5 Maybe these westerns were developing a sense of their own rituals, and knew what made a classic western. The genre has a need to outstrip itself, as all classicisms must to finally dissolve itself. The fact that High Noon brings in the concept of realism in time is not something that has been done in a Western before. ‘The amount of time that expires in the movie is identical with the film’s literal duration”6 The fact that its action takes place within a delineated period of time, and that the film quite carefully observes this dramatic unity, is its defining feature.
The superwestern contains many elements of the classic western and we can conclude that bringing in outside elements such as eroticism, social allegory and alien themes are just the natural evolution of the genre. This is why it has been able to last so long and continues to be respected as one of the longest lasting genres in American cinema.
1 Bazin, Andre; The Evolution of the Western; What is Cinema Vol II; 1955
2 Bazin, Andre; “The Evolution of the Western” ” from What is Cinema Vol II essays translated by Hugh Gray University of California Press London 1971
3 Bazin, Andre; “The Western: Or the American Film par Excellence” from What is Cinema Vol II essays translated by Hugh Gray University of California Press London 1971
4 Bazin, Andre; “The Western: Or the American Film par Excellence” from What is Cinema Vol. II essays translated by Hugh Gray University of California Press London 1971
5 Kitses, Jim Rickman, Gregg “The Western Reader” -Limelight Editions New York 1998
6 Film Criticism, Winter 1976/77
Hillier, Jim; Wollen, Peter. “Howard Hawks, American Artist” BFI, London 1996
Bush, Niven. “Duel in the Sun” White Lion Publishing, London 1971
Drummond, Phillip. “High Noon” British Film Institute, London 1997
Countryman, Edward. “Shane” British Film Institute, London 1999
Bazin, Andre. “What is Cinema? Vol. II” University of California Press, London 1971
Kitses, Jim; Rickman, Gregg “The Western Reader” Limelight Editions, New York 1998
French, Philip. “Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre” BFI, London, 1977
Simmon, Scott. “The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century” Cambridge University Press, New York 2003
Dirks, Tim “The Western Film” http://www.filmsite.org/westernfilms.html 2005 (Feb 2005)