Thursday, February 21, 2013

Frontier Justice Space!

A lone law-man is stationed in a rowdy mining town on outskirts of civilization. He’s the only person brave enough to uphold justice in the face of danger and corruption, the only one who can stop those dastardly villains. It sounds like a pure, classic Western— except for the fact that it’s set in outer space. Outland (1981) blends elements of the Western and science fiction genres to tell a story about right and wrong, justice, bravery, and people’s heads exploding from exposure to the vacuum of space.

There are many identifiable characteristics of the Western throughout Outland. The Western’s most defining feature is it’s setting (the Old West), and though it may seem like a futuristic space colony is about as different as it could be, the setting in Outland in fact has significant similarities to that of a Western. The industrial mining settlement on the frontier of space is strongly reminiscent of the kind of Wild West town that sprang up as settlers rushed west looking for gold and silver. It even has a revamped saloon, where the final confrontation and shoot-out takes place. Unlike in a Western (where a cowboy can ride out of town at any time), everyone in Outland is trapped within the mining facility, dependent on its pressurization and breathable air, and yet even the natural environment plays a similar role as that of a Western—space could be compared to a harsh inhospitable desert. One article we’ve read stated how in Westerns, the railroad has consistent meaning—representing the taming of the West and the link back to civilization—whereas a space ship in a science fiction story can be assigned any number of meanings. In Outland we see the shuttle back to the space station (and subsequently Earth) function much like a railroad in a Western, as the single tie to civilization. Western character types can also be identified in Outland; there is the idealistic sheriff (Sean Connery’s chief of security character, “O’Neil”), the frontier doctor (gruff company doctor, “Lazarus”), the corrupt moneybags (chief administrator “Shepard”), and the hero’s devoted wife and child (who are less important to the hero than his ideals). Though the iconography and setting associated with the Western are absent, characters and themes make Outland very much a Western in spirit, if not technically a pure Western.

As one article stated, a key aspect of a science-fiction world is that it strives to make the viewers really believe, rather than asking them to suspend their disbelief (as with fantasy), and this requires a blend of the familiar and the alien. Outland manages this balance skillfully, limiting the futuristic (“alien”) technology to advanced computers, interplanetary travel, synthetic drugs, and a light-up racquet-ball court, leaving it with a strong basis in reality. A theme common to many sci-fi stories is technology as the downfall of humanity, which I definitely see reflected in Outland. Technology’s negative connotations are clearly apparent from the detrimental side-effects of a synthetic drug, which are central to the story. We also see that space travel has allowed a world where corrupt industry rules, and a boy can grow up never having set foot on Earth. The mining facility itself is an example of the negative power of technology. As mentioned earlier, a space ship (or in this case, a space station) can be presented as positive, negative, or neutral, and in Outland it is definitely negative. Both visually (with long dark corridors and claustrophobic spaces) and in terms of story (trapping O’Neil as assassins close in on him, the space colony is an ominous force. This feeling of being trapped (one of the film’s biggest narrative departures from the Western) is a major source of suspense. In the tradition of sci-fi thrillers, O’Neil is trapped with his attackers, searching and hiding in the dark, labyrinthine space station, creating a kind of suspense very different from the Western-style standoff suspense of who will shoot first?

Outland is a true blend of genres, uniting disparate traditions of storytelling to create a film that is intriguing and compelling.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Showdown: Ethan Edwards vs. Josey Wales

Ethan Edwards and Josey Wales: two rugged heroes seeking vengeance in the vast, untamed landscape of the Hollywood Western. One a grief-stricken family-man, the other a racist, sexist pig. 

The Searchers (1956)—following the story of Ethan Edwards’s quest for vengeance—is considered one of John Ford’s finest films, an idol of the Western Genre. Twenty years later marked the release of Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), a film which follows a remarkably similar plot, but which is significantly different in theme and cultural outlook. In an essay about America’s changing social views as seen through the lens of the Western genre in film, Robert C. Sickles compares these two films, drawing parallels between plot elements and contrasting protagonist and treatment of race and gender to illustrate the major shift in ideology in America between the 1950s and '70s. In my opinion, Sickles’s conclusion is very astute, especially with regards to Ethan’s (and the film’s) racism—a topic not really addressed by the other reading we did. The 70s’ more liberal zeitgeist is clearly apparent in Josey Wales, with sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (an extended monologue about the injustice of the Trail of Tears, as well as multiple sympathetic, realistic Indian characters) and the founding of a multicultural family at the end, rising above the various characters’ biases. 

Comedy in The Searchers is very insensitive and mean-spirited. On the few occasions when Ethan shows any emotion other than anger and actually laughs, it’s always at somebody else’s expense. The socially unaware 1950s audience is meant to laugh along with Ethan at the humiliation of Martin and Look (a grotesque, clownish caricature of a Native American woman). As Sickles notes, Look’s Josey-Wales counterpart is not a source for cheap laughs, but a real, active character—a capable young Navajo woman who becomes a valuable member of Josey’s band of travelers, without whom he would have died. Filling the role of clown in Josey Wales is not a buffoonish Indian, but a white sham-elixir salesman; the film mocks American consumerism and foolishness, not the culture of a colonized and exploited people. The two films' comedic elements support Sickles's thesis about changing cultural values.

One convention of the Western that sets these films apart is the white villain figure. In The Searchers, Ethan and Martin run into a few white robbers, but they are dispensed with quite easily, and the true villain  Our reading and discussion of the Western have identified the theme of wildness vs. civilization as one common to many Westerns, but I didn’t see it in either of these two films, at least not in the context of settling the wild west. Though it begins and ends with the motif of looking out a door, highlighting the division between domesticity and wildness, The Searchers is much more focused on revenge than it is on the civilizing influence of the railroad, for example, as the previous reading discussed. In Josey Wales, I see this dichotomy, but reframed in a more personal way—instead of being split between the free, solitary life of a cowboy and the more proper life in town, Josey is pulled between angry revenge and the true happiness of family.