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Negotiating the loner: perhaps the basic paradox in American culture is the tension between its rhetoric of individualism and its practice of conformity.

MAURICE YACOWAR is the unarmed Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary.

THE paradox is most clearly caught in how America treats its favourite myth - the solitary hero. Across the American film landscape - in the Western, the musical, the gangster film, the political thriller, the comedy - the star is a loner trapped between conflicting necessities of individualism and community. In fact, that tension lies even at the core of Hollywood itself, given its historical basis on the star system. The American film industry - and hence its rhetoric - has paradoxically based this most collaborative of artforms upon the allure - and inflected signification - of an individual star. The "lone star" theme is so powerful and pervasive that it provides the cultural pulse at any point in time. You can read a period by the stars that emerge to emblematize it: resourceful tramps (Chaplin, Groucho) during the Depression; reticent, valorous soldiers (Van Johnson, John Wayne) during WWII; sombre or wisecracking gangsters (Robinson, Cagney) in the shadows of postwar reconstruction; affluent lovers (Cary Grant, Rock Hudson) in the somnolent '50s ... and so it goes. There's a lone star or two for every thesis.

Although the loner theme may vary with its genre, there is one constant: the tension between liberty and restraint. The comic film, for example, affirms the validity and fertility of an idiosyncratic hero's deviation from conventional forms and values. We license our clowns - like Lear's Fool - to violate decorum and to run athwart conventions, but we expect them to be reined back into conformism at the end. Hence the mock-heroic persona in Woody Allen's films (i.e., the early ones - you know, the funny ones), the anti-sentimentality from Where's Poppa? (1970) to There's Something About Mary (1998), the irreverent parodies of Mel Brooks and the Airplane! crew, and the sentimentalized mania of Jerry Lewis (and his spawn: Pee Wee Herman, John Candy, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, etc.). Deviators if not deviants all.

The comedy of unaccustomed candour provided two scathing political comedies this year: Dustin Hoffman's caricature of Washington/Hollywood hubris in the famously prophetic Wag the Dog and the exuberant but doomed liberation of Warren Beatty's politician by self-marginalization in his undervalued Bulworth. The comic genre flirts with chaos before re-establishing social order, classically in the form of a marriage but in these two films by the rather more drastic technique for subduing a disruptive energy: assassination.

Even as the classic musical typically celebrates the energy and egotism of an erupting individual talent, lip service is paid to the overriding values of the collective. It's not enough for Fred Astaire to dance alone: he must have a Ginger Rogers to validate his genius within the classical conventions of romance. (Of course, as Ms Rogers rightly has pointed out, she had to do everything he did - backwards and on high heels - but Astaire remains the senior partner, the founding owner, and the logo of the firm.) The team-player and selfless performer is valued over the selfish star. Hence the showgirl-next-door's (Debbie Reynolds') triumph over the shrill shrike (Jean Hagen) in Singin' in the Rain (1952) and the innumerable elevations of the stand-in or chorus-line hoofer to stardom. In the cognate melodrama All About Eve (1950) the glamorous star's attendant (Anne Baxter) stands in for the stand-in who steps forward into the limelight. Because Eve betrays an unrespectable ambition, the selfish new star's triumph is villainous. In contrast, in Singin' in the Rain Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor work together in their generous support of Debbie Reynolds and then reveal her selfless role as the voice behind the narcissistic shrike's success; their generosity excuses Reynolds' success. In the case of the current animated fable Antz, the whole film promotes individualism, in the nebbish-voiced hero's anti-conformity (the nebbish voice provided by Woody Allen), but at the end it reaffirms the community's well-being. Classically, individualism is allowed only insofar as it serves the interests of the community.

OBVIOUSLY, the genre that most clearly enunciates the loner theme is the Western. As that genre depicts America's transition from frontier to civilization, the lone hero stands in stark relief against the skeleton of the nascent modern society. The Western seems America's most telling myth and its most influential genre. Indeed, some historians contend that in the early years of this century, when America was isolationist in its external affairs, it was the popularity of the Western film that preserved the nation's potential for militarism. Of course, the cowboy fantasy of the Reagan presidency goes without saying. But the Western is not simply jingoistic. At the end of Stagecoach (1939) John Ford chooses to save his outcast-hero couple from "the blessings of civilization." In the Western myth, civilization is a mixed bag. The purity and integrity of an independent, self-sufficient champion give way to the hypocrisies and corruptions of the modern world, as embodied on the coach by the thieving banker, whose wife leads the pack that drives the good-hearted whore and the marinated medic out of town.

Indeed, the culture's ambivalent attitude toward the "progress" that now afflicts us extends the Western motifs into two new arenas of gunmanship. In the crime film, the outlaw builds a personal urban empire instead of settling an arid wildrness. But it's still an individual striving against his class or mob for his bad eminence of fame, fortune, and a stylish suit. In the historical epic views of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy (1971-90) and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1983), the criminal world is a microcosm of America itself, as normalized and self-respecting as corporate law. The other offshoot is the space film, where the cowboys ride the collaborative future sciences into a new frontier, against mutant savages. George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) is an avowed grandson of Ford's The Searchers (1956) - with Chewbacca as Gabby Hayes. Although the Western per se may by its numbers seem to have lost its hold on the imagination, its spirit rides new ranges in these later sagas. Sagebrush to the stars.
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Author:Yacowar, Maurice
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1998
Words:1006
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