|1. There are, of course, exceptions within the genrejust as there are pure, schoolmarm types (who clearly fit Warshows depiction), there are also the women who frequent saloons. But these tend to be treated as exceptions even within the film itself: the hero rarely ends up with a prostitute or barroom entertainer, unless she too changes her ways and becomes a schoolmarm.||The Western|
the subculture genre has its most significant precursor in the Western genre.
As several critics have pointed out, the typical Western film sets up a
dilemma for the hero: he must choose between his own individuality and the
society with which he interacts. Will Wright identifies this distinction
as one of the most important featurespossibly the most importantof
the classical Western. All of the other oppositions which are common to
the genre (between good and bad, between weak and strong, and between civilization
and wilderness, for instance) turn on the division between society and individuality (49).
A very similar theme runs through the subculture genre, with the particular
subcultures substituting for the idea of individuality on which
the Western focuses. Membership in a subculture is represented in the genre
as being a kind of individuality; certainly, as I have noted, it
marks a rejection of the mainstream.
The individual/society dilemma has frequently been identified as a historically fundamental aspect of the American psyche. Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel, discovers this rift throughout American literaturegenerally manifesting itself, as it does in the Western, along the lines of gender and age. He thus finds it possible to regard the classic works [such as Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises, etc.] . . . as Westerns (355). Alexis de Tocqueville noted much earlier the American tendency toward individualism, which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows; . . . he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself (506). Such individualism was, then, always in conflict with the possibility of being part of that greater society.
In the classical Western, society is easily identified: it is exemplified by life in town, and by the presence of responsibilities such as children, church, and a steady job. But as Robert Warshow points out, the typical Western hero is par excellence a man of leisure. Even when he wears the badge of a marshal or, more rarely, owns a ranch, he appears to be unemployed (Westerner 138). He appears, in fact, to be disconnected entirelyhe has no children, he doesnt go to church. And he is not married. Very often, of course, society is most simply and directly represented in the figure of a woman. Warshow notes that in the American mind, refinement, virtue, civilization, Christianity itself, are seen as feminine (Westerner 137).1
Works Cited and
|2. The most notable exception, of course, is Shane. But Shanes decision to leave is a complicated one, and does not fundamentally contradict the pattern of the classical Western. Shanes departure signifies his acceptance of social morality (he leaves to avoid the love that has developed between him and his friends wife), and we are aware that with his departure he is relinquishing his status as a feared gunfighter.|| These
same qualities are common to the protagonists of the subculture genre. Rarely
do we see any evidence of familieseven parents or siblings, which
is significant given the protagonists young age in most of the movies.
The subculture heros job, of course, is generally the subculture itselfhe
is a fireman, a pilot, or even a professional hustler. In this way his job
does not tie him down or provide him with an anchor in mainstream society,
and often he is still able to maintain the image of a man of leisure.
There is an emblematic moment, I think, in The Color of Money when
Eddie tells Vincent that money won is twice as sweet as money earned.
Will Wright points out, however, a significant shift within the Western genre. The classical Western, which he calls the prototype of all Westerns, the one people think of when they say, All Westerns are alike (32), was the dominant form from 1930 to 1955. The classical plot is the one in which a stranger rides into town, resists society (and is resisted by them), but eventually ends up saving the good townsfolk from some villainous threatand subsequently accepts (and is accepted by) the society he has saved. Wright identifies variations on this theme as well. More significantly, however, he identifies a shift to an appreciably different form of the genre, which was dominant from 1958 to 1970. Wright calls this second form the Professional plot: it is the Western in which a group of heroesor anti-heroes(rather than an individual) who fight for money (rather than for justice or some other ideal), exemplified by films such as The Wild Bunch, The Professionals, and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
There are important distinctions between the classical Western and the Professional Western. Most significant to the subculture genre is the difference in the heros (or heroes) relationship to societyespecially the way the relationship ends up when the movie is finished. In the classical form, the hero almost invariably chooses to give up his freedom and settle down.2 In the Professional plot, on the other hand, the heroes have formed a bond among themselves throughout the course of the movie. This group of strong men, formed as a fighting unit, comes to exist independently of and apart from society (Wright 86). In a real sense, the professional plot is a compromise position: the heroes can choose to maintain their freedom by remaining separated from society, and at the same time they are able to experience the fulfillment of belonging.
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|3. There is an evident parallel with the subculture genre, of coursethe individual who cannot find happiness in the rigidity of institutionsbut under examination this connection doesnt hold up nearly as well as do the parallels with Western heroes.|| It
is the Professional plot, then, that most directly connects the Western
genre to the subculture genre. While the main character of the subculture
genre is an individual, rather than one of a group of protagonists, he nevertheless
finds himself choosing between mainstream society and the smaller society
of the subculture. And as with these later Westerns, we most often find
him choosing the latter. The compromise position of the Professional Western
is valorized throughout the subculture genre. Between the two genres, however,
there is a subtle but profound shift in the societal parallel to the protagonist
and storyline. I will examine this shift more fully in the section of this
essay on the Postmodern Condition.
It is also significant that the heroes of the Professional Western are more frequently outlaws than are those of the classical plot. The title characters in The Wild Bunch, for example, are a group of train/bank robbers, as are the title characters in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The values of society are rejected by the [Professional] heroes, who define themselves in opposition to them (Wright 87). Robert Ray also finds this distinction throughout the Western genre, and points out that in the Western, American cultures traditional dichotomy of individual and community . . . had generated the most significant pair of competing myths: the outlaw hero [of the Professional plot] and the official hero [of the classical plot] (58). The (anti-) heroes of the Professional plot dovetail with the (anti-) heroes of another genre, gangster films.
Thematically and stylistically, the subculture genre has its deepest roots in the gangster genre. As with the Western genre, however, there are significant shifts that have occurred within the gangster genre itself. Fredric Jameson points out the first of the two clear shifts in the genre, which took place near the end of World War II. In the movies up to that point, gangsters were anti-heroes, dramatized as psychopaths, sick loners striking out against a society essentially made up of wholesome people (31). Jameson suggestsconvincingly, I thinkthat the protagonist in these movies is, in fact, symbolic for the capitalist system.
indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which
reaches into every corner of our daily lives and our political structures
to exercise a wanton ecocidal and genocidal violence at the behest of distant
decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profitsurely
it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that
we are thinking, American capitalism in its most systematized and computerized,
dehumanized, multinational and corporate form. (31)
Warshow finds a similar symbolism in the genre, but hints at a less abstract
parallel for the classic gangster. He points out that the gangster films
put forward a peculiar definition of successit is defined not
as accomplishment of specific gain, but simply as the unlimited possibility
of aggression (Gangster 132), or as an increasing
power to work injury (Westerner 135). The gangster himself,
in these movies, is emblematic of upward mobility. The gangster movie is
the story of one mans career; we are always conscious that the
whole meaning of this career is a drive for success: the typical gangster
film presents a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall
(Warshow, Gangster 132). In the 1931 classic of the genre, Little
Caesar, for instance, Rico (Edward G. Robinson) moves to the city to
find success. The language of the traditional success story is used throughout
this filmRico talks about making it big, and is described by a police
detective as a young man on his way up. As he gets further and
further up, of course, his life is in greater and greater dangerand
he himself becomes a more dangerous person to be around. Fitting with both
Jamesons and Warshows definitions, successupward mobilityis
defined in the gangster movie as evil and dangerous (not to mention, as
Warshow points out, ultimately impossible).
During World War II, the gangster movie changed significantly, becoming more individualist and introverted. Throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, we rarely see a true Mafioso in a gangster film. I see a sort of split in the genre through this period. The films of the more common group focus on protagonists who are fighting against the gangsters. This group encompasses a broad range of filmstypical examples are Kiss of Death, The Big Heat, Key Largo, and even On the Waterfront. The other, less common group of films (such as High Sierra or Bonnie and Clyde) continue to focus on crime, and have criminals as protagonists. In both groups, as Jameson points out, the gangsters (and often those fighting them as well) are invested with tragic pathos in such a way as to express the confusion of veterans returning from World War II, struggling with the unsympathetic rigidity of institutions, and ultimately crushed by a petty and vindictive social order (31). In 1972, however, the powerful Mafioso protagonist would return.3
Godfather reinvigorated the gangster genre, transforming it completely
one more time. As with the Professional-plot Westerns, the traditional bad
guys are now the heroes. The Corleone family are notfor the most partpresented
as sociopaths who are doomed to death and failure for their transgressions
of middle-class morality. Rather, Michael (Al Pacino) is presented as a
sympathetic character, one with whom we are expected to identify. More importantly,
the family itself is presented as a kind of ideal in this film. The camera
is meticulous and caring, fetishizing the minute details of the Corleones
way of life. The Mafia itself is imbued with history (the Corleone name
comes from an ancient town in the old country), tradition (no Sicilian
can refuse a request on his daughters wedding day), honor (Michael
avenges the shooting of his father, at great peril and cost to himselfand
through this vengeance he is accepted as a Mafioso), wisdom (when Kaye (Diane
Keaton) tells Michael that congressmen dont kill people,
he quickly responds, Now whos being naïve, Kaye?),
even a kind of harsh beauty (as in the introductory shot of Don Corleone
sitting in a darkened room, stroking a cat as he receives requests to commit
murder). Such treatment has since become the norm for Mafia films, and for
gangster/crime films in general. By the 1990s, mafia films like Goodfellas
and Donnie Brasco are actually quite similar to the subculture films,
in their strong consistent focus on the culture at hand, and their juxtaposition
of that culture with the culture of the mainstream (and the fact that the
former generally comes out looking more attractive).
The protagonists of these gangster films have become more and more contemptuous of mainstream society. Enough so that in Goodfellas, we find Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) deriding those who dont live the life of a gangster:
Ironically, this description is meant to apply to virtually the entire audience of the movie itself. This disconnect between the audiences situational reality and their ability to identify with the protagonist is also prevalent in the subculture genre. In Point Break, for instance Bodhi refers to people in the mainstream as those dead souls inching along the freeway in their metal coffins. I hope to show later, in fact, that this disconnect is indicative of the postmodern condition in which we find ourselves.