Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Hidden in Plain View: Family, the Western, and the Syntax of Genre in A History of Violence

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Hidden in Plain View: Family, the Western, and the Syntax of Genre in A History of Violence

Article excerpt

At first glance, few would call David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) a Western, set as it is in small-town Indiana, with a lone horse viewed only briefly and explosive violence appearing more Mafioso than anything else, erupting in motels and diners, suburban front lawns, and Philadelphia mansions. Crime drama or thriller would seem the more appropriate category. Yet the focus on a singular theme of the Western does cause one to pause: its deep commitment to the dynamics of family life. Even in portraying men leaving home, riding the range, enjoying a homosocial experience with other men, the genre persists in focusing on domestic encounters: educating the young in gender roles; posing versions of manhood against one another; assaying conventional views of marriage and commitment; assessing simmering tensions in communities now hesitant about the very family values that first brought them together. Unlike screwball comedy, say, or melodrama, or sci fi and film noir, the Western clarifies familial conflict through the violence that invariably threatens. And so strong are such generic markers of character and plot that we increasingly have come to read some films as Western despite the absence of cowboys and horses, period costumes, and familiar historical crises between ranchers and farmers--in short, despite nothing else about the film suggesting it is a Western. (1) A History of Violence offers an exemplary instance of genre conventions succeeding despite ostensible materials. As well, however, in questioning the dynamics of social identity, of those hiding who they are from themselves or each other, it emerges surprisingly as a distinctive Western, even a profound reconsideration of values traditionally associated with the genre.

Consider the Western in its usual configuration: a test of masculine assumptions of identity in the contrast between bullied, nonviolent farmer and quick-drawing gunslinger. Scenes occur in rural communities, where law-abiding citizens helpless in the face of threats confer as families about appropriate responses. The emphasis rests squarely on teaching children gendered roles as well as testing marital unions, often posing an ethical feminine logic against violent resolutions. The classic exemplar is George Stevens's Shane (1953), in which farmer Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) defies brutal ranchers eager to drive him from his homestead. Shane (Alan Ladd) appears as a capable alternative to capitulation, someone who also "fathers" young Joey in stalwart masculine skills as well as offering a quietly adulterous fantasy to Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur). The informing premise of the film (as of the Western more generally) hinges on the contrast of Shane and Starrett, each of whom shares aspects of the other's personality, revealed in their vivid scene of removing a tree stump and their joint resistance to the villainous rancher Riker (Emile Meyer). Shane's reserved demeanor is matched by Starrett's voluble defense of the rule of law, with each embodying aspects of exemplary masculinity. The violence that threatens the Starretts finally seems less central to plot than the various interactions among the Starretts and Shane in negotiating a reasonable response to the chaos that threatens.

That pattern recurs in other films, which cumulatively establish a central strand in the genre's syntactic weave. John Ford, for instance, returned repeatedly to the intertwined aspects of various family dynamics: whether in My Darling Clementine (1946), with Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) as the elder sibling wisely guiding his brothers; or Fort Apache (1948), with Colonel Owen Thursday (Fonda) driven by blind ambition despite his daughter's domestic demands; or Rio Grande (1950), as Lieutenant Colonel KirbyYork (John Wayne) confronts ex-wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) over concerns about the manhood of their enlisted son. A half-dozen years later, The Searchers (1956) further unsettles family life, as Ethan Edwards (Wayne) tracks his niece's abductor out of obsession with Debbie's mother, his sister-in-law. …

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