Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

What the Quiet Man Said: Shifting Contexts and the Polysemy of the Text

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

What the Quiet Man Said: Shifting Contexts and the Polysemy of the Text

Article excerpt

From Romanticism to Complexity

in 1952, the quiet man was the top-grossing film of John Ford's career. It was nominated for best picture, supporting actor, screenplay, art direction, set design, and sound recording and went on to win Oscars for direction and color cinematography (Gallagher 278-79). The film continues to enjoy broad popularity. It is a perennial favorite on American television around St. Patrick's Day and on Irish television at Christmas. Released on video in 1985, it sold more than 200,000 copies within the first four years in Britain. In 1996, a readers' poll in The Irish Times, published in Dublin, proclaimed it to be the best Irish film ever made (Gibbons 4).

Despite its popularity, from the time of Its premiere through the end of the twentieth century, The Quiet Man faced criticism as the essence of the "emerald-green romanticism" (H. Kennedy 24). The film was derided as "one of the plagues of March, right up there with green beer, plastic leprechauns, and Brendan Behan anecdotes" (MacKillop 169). Like many Hollywood films set in Ireland, The Quiet Man was criticized for presenting a simplistic, romantic image of a country as seen through the eyes of a nostalgic outsider. These critics viewed The Quiet Man simply as an image encoded by director John Ford, the son of Irish immigrants, to be decoded by a theorized authence of Irish immigrants and their Irish American children. Discussions of the film were mostly limited to this nostalgic preferred reading that relied on romantic agrarian visions of Ireland and broad stereotypes of the Irish people, often referred to as "stage lrishness" due to the theatrical roots of this performative style (Lourdeauxio9; Rockett, Gibbons, and Hill 196; Slide 82-83).

Faced with The Quiet Man's continued broad popularity over the past fifty years, some scholars have begun to reevaluate the film. The aspects earlier described as stereotype have become "comic excesses" that articulate the sense of loss felt by Irish emigrants (Pettitt 64). Dismissing Ford's film as a romantic bit of "émigré nostalgia" is now viewed as "missing the point," for the film contains contradictions and excesses that ask viewers to question the nostalgic picture postcard narrative that is placed before them (65-66). The film now offers a new complexity as Ford departs from his normal rigid structure and narrative coherence to instead engage in a "dialogue with his narrative structures- a contrast between illusion and reality and a discourse on the illusion of illusion" (McLoone 52-53). After noting that critic Richard Schickel once called the film "among the most witless and vulgar movies ever made by a supposed major director," Gibbons proceeds to devote a 120-page monograph to situating the film as a critical turn in Ford's work (18-19). The Quiet Man's inclusion of Irish myths and stereotypes enables the director to question the dynamics by which they operate and the realities they purport to reflect. Ford's lrishness became central to his later task of "retriev(ing) the American dream by transferring its sympathies from White European legacies of colonial expansion to the rights of other cultures and indigenous peoples" (Gibbons 104).

In light of these recent révaluations of The Quiet Man, this article examines the film as a polysémie text in which a nostalgic preferred reading might coexist with more recently theorized dialogic readings that call the preferred reading into question. This polysémie complexity is the key to understanding the broad popularity of Ford's film with a variety of authences.

Intertextuality and the Viewing Experience as Mosaic

According to Fiske, any meaning, including the preferred reading, occurs when the text is activated or made meaningful by the social and intertextual relations that surround the viewer's experience with the text (3). Fiske sees a text's popularity as linked to the text's openness or the extent to which the text exists as a site of struggle that invites challenges to a dominant or preferred meaning (5). …

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