The Western in Hawks functionalism

Finally, the Western poses the same problem in particularly fertile conditions. We have seen that the large 'respiration' form was not content with the epic but, throughout its varieties, sustained an encompassing milieu, a global situation, which would give rise to an action, capable in its turn of modifying the situation from within. I "his great organic representation - for example in Ford had precise characteristics: it comprised one or several fundamental groups, each well-defined, homogeneous, with its locations, its interiors, its customs (thus, the five groups in Wagonmaster); it also comprised a makeshift group, thrown together by chance or circumstance, more heterogeneous, incongruous, but functional. Finally, there was a big gap between the situation and the action to be undertaken, but this gap only existed to be filled. The hero had to actualise the power which made him equal to the situation, he had to become capable of the action, and became so gradually in so far as he represented the 'good' fundamental group and found the necessary support in the makeshift group (the alcoholic doctor, the whore with a heart of gold, etc. proved to be effective). And it is remarkable that Hawks subscribes to this organic representation, but subjects it to such a treatment that it emerges profoundly affected, deformed. In its full expression, as at the start of Red River, where the couple outlined against the sky is equal to the whole of Nature, the image is too strong to be able to last. And, when it does last, it is in another mode: the image needs to become fluid, the horizon joins with the river, as much in Red River as in The Big Sky. We might say that in Hawks the earthly organic representation tends to empty itself, leaving nothing but almost abstract fluid functions which come to the forefront.

First of all, the locations lose the organic life which encompassed them, traversed them and situated them in a set: the purely functional prison in Rio Bravo does not even need to show us its prisoner; the church in El Dorado no longer bears witness to anything but an abandoned function; the town of Rio Lobo is reduced to 'a diagram, now only showing functions, a bloodless town condemned by the weight of a past'. At the same time, the fundamental group becomes very vague, and the only community which is still well-defined is the incongruous makeshift group (an alcoholic, an old man, a young boy . . .); it is a functional group which no longer has its foundation in the organic. It finds its motivations in a debt to be discharged, a mistake to be redeemed, a downhill slope into degradation to be climbed again, and its forces or means in the invention of an ingenious machine, rather than in the representation of a collectivity (the catapult-tree in The Big Sky, the final fireworks in Rio Bravo and, leaving Westerns, from the scientists' machine in Ball of Fire to the great invention in Land of the Pharaohs).4 In Hawks, pure functionalism tends to replace the structure of the encompasser. The claustrophiiia of certain of I lawks' films has often been noticed: notably Land of the Pharaohs, where the invention consists in locking the funeral chamber from the inside, but also in Rio Bravo, which could be called a 'chamber Western'. This is because in the obliteration of the encompasscr, there is no longer (as in Ford) communication between an organically situated interior and an outside which surrounds it, giving it a living milieu which is a source of assistance as much as aggression. Here, on the contrary, the unexpected, the violent, the event, come from the interior whilst the exterior is rather the location of the customary or premeditated action, in a curious reversal of the outside and the inside.5 Everyone enters and passes through the room where the sheriff is having a bath, as though it were a public place (El Dorado). The external milieu loses its curvature and assumes the figure of a tangent from a point, or from a segment which functions as interiority. The outside and the inside thus become external to one another, they enter into a purely linear relationship, which makes possible a functional permutation of the opposites. Hence the constant mechanism of reversals in Hawks which operates quite openly, independently of a symbolic background, even when they do not just relate to the outside and the inside but, as in the comedies, conccrn all the binary relations. If the outside and the inside are pure functions the inside can assume the function of the outside. But the woman can also assume the function of the man in the relationship of seduction, and the man that of the woman (Bringing up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, and the female roles in Hawks' Westerns). The adults or old people have the functions of children, and the child a monstrous function of the mature adult (Ball of Fire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). The same mechanism can come into play between love and money, noble language and slang. As we shall see, these reversals, as functional permutations, form veritable Figures ensuring a transformation of the form.

Hawks surrenders himself to a topological deformation of the large form. This is why Hawks' films preserve a great 'respiration' (as Rivette calls it), although it has become fluid, expressing the continuity and permutation of functions more than the unity of an organic form.6 But, despite its debt to Hawks, the neo-Western takes another direction: it borrows the 'small form' directly, even on the big screen. The ellipse reigns and replaces the spiral and its projections. It is no longer a matter of the global or integral law SA (a big gap which only exists to be filled), but a differential law AS: the smallest distance, which exists only to be increased, to give rise to very distant or opposable situations. In the first place, the Indians no longer appear at the top of the hill outlined against the sky, but spring up from the tall grass, from which they were indistinguishable. T~he Indian almost blends into the rock behind which he waits (Martin Ritt's Hombre), and the cowboy has something mineral about him which makes him blend into the landscape (Anthony Mann's Man of the Hest).7 Violence bccomcs the principal impetus, and gains from this as much in intensity as in unexpectedness. In Boetticher's Seminole, people die from the blows of an invisible adversary hidden in the swamps. Not only has the fundamental group disappeared in favour of increasingly incongruous and mixed makeshift groups but the latter, in proliferating, have lost the clear distinction which they still had in Hawks: there are so many relations and such complex alliances between men in the same group and those in different groups that they are scarcely distinguishable and their oppositions constantly shift (Peckinpah's Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch). The difference between the hunter and the hunted, but also between White Man and Indian, becomes smaller and smaller: in Mann's The Naked Spur, the bounty-hunter and his prey do not seem very different; and in Penn's Little Big Man, the hero is constantly white with the White Men, Indian with the Indians, crossing a minuscule frontier in both directions, at the prompting of actions which are barely distinguishable from one another. This is because the action can never be determined by and in a preceding situation - it is, on the contrary, the situation which flows progressively from the action -Boetticher used to say that his characters are not defined by a 'cause', but by what they do to defend it. And, when Godard analysed form in Anthony Mann, he extracted a formula ASA', which he opposed to the large form SAS': the mise-en-scene 'consisted in discovering at the same time as specifying, while, in a classical Western, the mise-en-scene consists in discovering, then in specifying'. But, if the situation itself depends on the action in this way, the action in its turn must necessarily be related to the moment of its birth, to the instant, the second, the smallest interval as the differential which serves as its impetus.

In the second place, this law of the slight difference is only valid in so far as it produces situations which are logically very distant. The situation of Little Big Man really changes entirely depending on whether it is impelled by the Indians or the White Man. And, if the instant is the differential of the action, at each of these instants the action can swing into a completely different or opposed situation. Nothing is ever won. T hus, failings, doubts, fear no longer have the same sense as they do in the organic representation: they are no longer the steps even painful ones - which fill the gap, through which the hero rises to the demands of the global situation, actualises his own power and becomes capable of such a great action. For there is no longer any grandiose action at all, even if the hero has retained extraordinary technical qualities. At the limit, he is one of the 'losers', as Peckinpah presents them: 'they have no fa├žade, they have not a single illusion left: thus they represent disinterested adventure, from which no advantage is to be gained except the pure satisfaction of remaining alive.' They have kept nothing of the American dream, they have only kept their lives, but at each critical instant, the situation to which their action gives rise can rebound against them, making them lose the one thing they have left. In short, the action-image has signs as indices, which are both indices of lack - illustrated by the brutal ellipses in the story - and indices of distance or equivocity - illustrated by the possibility and reality of sudden reversals of the situation.

It is not merely a case of hesitation between two situations which are distant or opposed, but simultaneous. The successive situations, each of which is already equivocal in itself, will form in turn with one another, and with the critical instants which give rise to them, a broken line whose path is unpredictable, although necessary and rigorous. This is as true of locations as of events. In Peckinpah, there is no longer a milieu, a West, but Wests: including Wests with camels, Wests with Chinamen, that is, totalities |ensembles] of locations, men and manners which 'change and are eliminated' in the same film.8 In Mann and also in Daves, there is a 'shorter route', which is not the straight line, but which brings together actions or parts, A and A', each one of which retains its independence, each one of which is a heterogeneous critical instant, 'a present sharpened to its own extreme point'.9 It is like a knotted rope, twisting itself at each take, at each action, at each event. Thus contrary to the respiration-space of the organic form, a quite different space is formed: a skeleton-space, with missing intermediaries, heterogeneous elements which jump from one to the other, or which interconnect directly. It is no longer an ambient space, but a vectorial space, a vector-space, with temporal distances. It is no longer the encompassing stroke of a great contour, but the broken stroke of a line of the universe, across the holes. The vector is the sign of such a line. It is the genetic sign of the new action-image, whilst the index was the sign of its composition.

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