Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Revisionist Western and the loss of the father: Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, among others
I’ve been swimming in manly media lately – I’ve read two Cormac McCarthy novels almost consecutively, and I’ve watched an old Sam Peckinpah operetta called Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Peckinpah also directed one of my favorite Westerns, The Wild Bunch. I also read Native Son, the Richard Wright novel about being a black youth in America. It’s been a streak of manhood-themed narratives, and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a bad time to write something on the topic.
Reading McCarthy’s novels (in my case, No Country for Old Men and The Road) is an experience to be had. I was severely skeptical going in… I read a little critique of his writing some time ago called A Readers’ Manifesto, and it primed me to expect his writing to be rather gimmicky and contrived. This would almost be a valid criticism, as he writes with a conspicuously “muscular” prose that comes across as trying very hard sometimes. However, the pace and rhythm of his narratives carry the reader along with them, so you don’t have to think too hard about individual passages… as it turns out, you hardly have time to linger over them. Finally, what gives his novels the compelling personality that has made him famous is the combination of brutality and sentimentality woven into his writing. I think he’s perfected a certain style of sensitivity-by-counterpoint, writing stories where themes of love and nostalgia are made more poignant by the hostility of the foreground events.
McCarthy and Sam Packinpah share a lot in this regard. Both work with themes of the loss of the old world (the old world of the American West, in particular) and seem to mourn the mechanization and specialization of death. Anton Chigurh and the dope-runners (No Country) are analogues to the gattling gun, the motor car, and the Mexican army (The Wild Bunch). There’s a haunting resonance between Pike Bishop and Tom Bell, both of whom are old-world patriarchs taking up the task of fatherhood for somebody who’s destined to get themselves into trouble. Angel and Llewellyn are strikingly similar, as well… violent, young, sharply instinctive but reckless and doomed young heroes who love too hard to keep themselves safe.
And so, we see the old west becoming a metaphor for the father figure, majestic but ineffective, shuffling into its twilight. The old west is changing into a hostile new war zone driven by crime and accelerating ruthlessness, no place for honor or dignity (or Old Men), and with this death of an old world comes the death of the idealistic father, serving his principles until his last breath. In this new world, the son is on his own to bear the stings of cruelty and hopelessness.
If No Country for Old Men and The Wild Bunch overlap so precisely, The Road and Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia are thematically adjacent, offset in either direction. In The Road, a novel which embodies Sheriff Bell’s final dream of his father, we see the final struggles of the true father figure in a hopeless world, and we come to respect him, even in defeat (this is actually notably similar to 3:10 to Yuma, another revisionist Western). Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia sits on the opposite side of death: Alfredo Garcia himself was the father figure, albeit a young, dashing example, the first and truest object of the female’s affection; unfortunately, the movie finds him already dead. In the wake of his demise, which is essentially meaningless, Bennie takes on the role of the upstart son. He hijacks the mother’s love, as a son is wont to do (both in the Oedipal and the basic familial sense). He confronts the world that destroyed his father, and in so doing, he takes up the father’s cause. And as in all the other works referenced above, he is facing a ruthless, nihilistic world where raw power and violence trump those fallen ideals of virtue and heroism. So, finally, his only choice is to rage against this world, and essentially self-destruct in its face. This resonated even more with me because I read Native Son, which is about a similar effect... the self-destruction of black youth upon being deprived of a father figure, both literal and sociocultural.
If you want a study of the loss of the father figure, I’d recommend adding one more to the list: Michael Douglass’s Falling Down, which is a sad, hopeless, and fantastic movie, one of the most compelling depictions of claustrophobic modern rage that you’ll ever see. If it’s comparable to any of the films discussed above, it’s most analogous to The Road – these are both stories of the father’s journey and his struggle with hope in a hopeless world, and with the need to take on the role of the father in a world where the father is an outdated mode. They’re very different takes on the theme… for instance, where The Road is very introspective, Falling Down is explosively hostile. However, it’s a worthy final edition to the realm of study hinted at above.