26 November 2012

Unforgiven and its audience

A few days ago I watched for the fourth or fifth time one of my favourite films: Unforgiven.

It is one of the very few films that I do not mind watching from time to time because, in my view,the film is a masterpiece.I have written a bit about it, paying special attention to the relation between the film in itself and its audience.

The French cinema critic André Bazin wrote in his book What is cinema? that “The Western is the only genre whose origins are almost identical with those of the cinema itself and which is alive as ever after almost half a century of uninterrupted success.” (Bazin 140). As Bazin died in 1950s, today one may say that Bazin´s words are not up to date as the number of Western films produced in the last years is very small. Besides, to a certain degree, the genre has lost the strength it used to have in the 50s. Like Bazin, other cinema critics have defined Western films in similar ways: “a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier, the borderline between civilization and the wilderness. They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins. Their most prolific era was in the 1930s to the 1960s, and most recently in the 90s, there was a resurgence of the genre.” (“Filmsite”, italics added).
In my view, one of the most important Western films that appeared in the 90s and helped resurge the genre was definitely Unforgiven. Easwood´s film is one of the very few examples of the “American genre for excellence” (Heide 36) that succeeded among the vast majority of the public produced in the 90s. Before Eastwood´s hit, people had lost interest in Western films as they did not feel related to the values they transmitted. The ideal life of the colonizers and the idealization of the American myth were not in vogue anymore. Besides, directors such as John Ford or Anthony Mann did not direct anymore and John Wayne, the symbol and key figure of American Western films had died long time ago. Unforgiven appears as a great example of what we might call a second generation of Western films. Besides, one element that makes this film more appealing to its audience is its specific relationship with the public. Let us see how.
The film opens up with a long shot of a man digging his wife’s grave, who has just died of smallpox. Later, in a city named Big Whiskey, Wyoming, two men destroy a prostitute’s face. Little Bill, the sheriff, forces them to pay a fine but the prostitutes do not seem to accept such a petty punishment because Delilah, the hurt prostitute, may not be able to work anymore as a pretty prostitute. The prostitutes decide to collect money and hire a killer to do justice.
            Clint Eastwood, in the role of Munny, is a very unsuccessful farmer who looks after pigs in order to feed his children. One day he accepts The Kid’s offer and decides to convince his long time friend Ned Logan in such an adventure. Munny and Ned join The Kid, a young myopic shooter willing to revive the western shooting myth. It is at this point when Unforgiven becomes more than a Western film as it develops a direct and intimate relationship with its audience. Surprisingly for a Western film, things get ethically complicated for the moral implications of killing people. It is an interesting paradox that a Western film questions the act of killing others and examines the moral consequences of the killers. Perhaps it is because the identification with traditional American values has changed: if there were times when those films referred to freedom, land conquering, independence and even faith, the only factors that remain of this mythical process are negative elements such as the consequence of killing others.
Besides, Unforgiven provokes its audience as far a women is concerned. For example, one can notice classic features in the character of Ned’s wife. She is an Indian, an Indian who does not even say a word and observes stoically how her husband leaves her. In her face one can easily read that she knows her husband will not come back. Moreover, we also see how the role of the prostitutes changes in Unforgiven: they represent strong women who behave like men, hiring killers and fighting against unfairness, which is not a specific element of classic Western films.
Unforgiven also inherits certain features of classical Western films and other features of the ultra violent Western films of the 60s. In the film, the audience is forced to take sides on questions such as who writes the law, who is good and who is bad. According to some critics, these topics are paramount to the understanding of Unforgiven. (Rickman 85-92).  
The structure of the film appears like in a circle: the prologue and the epilogue are similar. All the events in these two points are a flashback in which Munny goes back in time when he left his job as a gunman. Moreover, even though he does not stop repeating all over the film: “I ain´t like that anymore”, the circumstances force him to join a team of unprepared killers in order to get some money. And secure the future of his kids. This factor seems to be strong enough for the audience to believe that he is taking the right decision. It seems to be his only way out to give his children a better life.
Besides, Munny has got problems with women. This is perhaps a constant feature that goes with Eastwood in most of his films, from Pale Rider (1985) to In the Line of Fire (1993) and any of the Western films he takes part in. In Unforgiven he marries a woman who dies soon and then, he develops a short and strange relationship with the beaten prostitute in a sort of father-daughter relationship, an impossible relationship provoked by the constant presence of the ghost of Munny´s wife. In this context, the audience can easily understand Munny´s reluctance to accept the prostitute’s offer to have her services for free. Besides, the audience is invited to perceive Unforgiven as a compilation of stories inside the main story, which contributes to its reflexivity. Munny´s story is a sad one and gets intertwined with that of the prostitutes, Ned’s, Little Bill and The Kid. The same events occur under the same circumstances but different points of view can be observed, which allows the spectator to analyze the characters under different viewpoints.
Moreover, another character that deserves attention is Beauchamp, a weird reporter who writes about the killer English Bob. Myth and reality mix up in Beauchamp’s biography of English Bob to distort true facts and to show his character as a true Western hero.
Besides, Unforgiven´s relationship with its audience becomes even closer when one takes a look at the way ethnic minorities are shown. The film presents minorities as an excellent argument to develop a story: the prostitutes fight against the unfairness of the totalitarian sheriff, represented by Little Bill. Afro-Americans are represented by Ned, Munny´s best friend. Native Americans are of course represented by Ned’s wife, who appears very little as Clint Eastwood main aim, according to some authors, is not that of talking about the injustice they suffered (Beard 46) but to ensure a brighter future for his children. The relationship of a Western film like this one with its specific audience becomes richer that ever when fiction and reality intertwine and become a negotiation of signifiers depending on the point of view of each character. For example, Munny´s memories of a harsh society do not coincide with The Kid’s desires to live a typical Western killer story. This element is very well represented by The Kid’s myopic vision as he is unable to see the reality to the full and gets only a limited version of what happens around him. Another limited version of reality is that of the sheriff, who hires the journalist to alter his own reality, which will fall down like his own house. Also, it is ironic that the village where all the events take place is Big Whiskey, the typical drink of Western films when the main character is in the bar.
Irony also plays a major role in the film. For example, when English Bob and Little Bill talk about an event that occurred long time ago, the terms “The Duke of Death” and “The Duck of Death” get confused. Also, the joke about “Two gun Corcoran”, which does not refer precisely to fire guns. Besides, the character of Beauchamp is, by far, the more reflexive character of the film. He may well represent those who built the Western myth and whose days are coming to an end.
Given the factors above, some authors consider important to raise certain questions such as: who is the hero, Munny or Little Bill? Who imposes law? Does Munny decide to finish the job for money to feed his sons or to revenge his friend? (Rickman 1998, 85-92) and those are questions that the audience is invited to wonder.
Moreover, Unforgiven has, at least, two different readings: on the one hand one can notice the classic Eastwood in the photograph, the countryside, the general views and the lineal narration of its integral part. On the other, one can also notice that there is a different Eastwood who reinterprets all the features of the traditional hero, depicting him like an old man who shoots a bottle unsuccessfully to end up with a shooting scene that may bring us to memory the best John Wayne’s shooting abilities.
Besides, even the title may disguise as its audience. Should we forgive Munny and justify his acts? Should we condemn him for risking his children’s future without a father? It is ironic that Easwood´s reflexion on violence and its consequences are analyzed through a Western film, a violent genre by definition. Either way, Unforgiven is more than a typical Western film because of its relationship with its audience and the way it is encouraged to shake its conscience.

                                     WORKS CITED
Bazin, Andre. What is Cinema? London: University of California Ltd. 2005.
Beard, William. Persistence of Double Vision. Essays on Clint Eastwood. Alberta, Canada: The Universe of Alberta Press. 2000.
“Filmsite”. 25 November 2012. <http://www.filmsite.org/westernfilms.html>.
Heide, William. Border Crossings and National Cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 2002.
Rickman, Gregg. The Western Reader. Limelight Editions (1998): 85-92, New York.

3 November 2012

Chaplin, Dickens and Cervantes: plenty in common

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy when seen in long shot”, used to say Chaplin (Internet Source 1). More than thirty years after his death he still remains one of the most important cinema icons of all times. His biographers say that when Chaplin was a little boy he decided to be a comic after observing his mother representing theatre scenes while he was sick in bed. In 1912 he went to the USA and became the first actor to appear in Time magazine (1925) becoming the biggest cinema icon in the world. His political inclinations crashed against the Committee of Anti-American Activities, that saw in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940) communist content. In addition, his marriages to very young women caused him much trouble against the establishment. His life always had a tragicomic misfortune even after his death.  On 3rd March, 1978 his body was taken from the local cemetery and found two months later.

Chaplin´s career and films have been analysed in many different ways and this longish entry will be just a humble attempt to explore, to a certain degree, the comic element in Chaplin´s films as far as serious matters is concerned. However, as the topic is too broad, I will stick to certain elements that Chaplin shares with Dickens and Cervantes. Certainly, Chaplin´s childhood very well may contain features of Charles Dickens´ portrayals of a hopeless and poor England where kids had nothing to eat spiced up with elements that could have been easily taken from Cervantes´s Don Quixote. This link between Chaplin, Cervantes and Dickens is not new and many cinema critics have long reached the conclusion that “Chaplin´s slapstick is rooted in a venerable tradition, of the sort that appeared in Aristophanes, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Goethe” (Maland 59, italics added). Besides, other critics believe that “Chaplin’s Dickens was the Dickens of Oliver Twist which he read and re-read constantly”, the “grotesque and emotional parable of institutional oppression, childish vulnerability, urban crime, maternal yearning, and hunger” symbolized in the well-known utterance: ´Please, sir, I want some more´”. (Internet Source 2). 

This double influence to deal with serious matters such as poverty, sickness and orphanhood can be well represented in Chaplin´s The Kid (1922), a mixture of drama, melodrama or both genres mixed together. According to its etymology, the word melodrama comes from the Greek words, melos (song with music accompaniment) and drama. Some dictionaries define melodrama as a “drama represented with music instruments” and “A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.”(Internet Source 3). In Chaplin´s depiction of serious matters, melodramatic music certainly has a great deal of importance.

Like Chaplin, Dickens was very popular in his time, and perhaps cinema would have treated Dickens the way it treated Chaplin. Indeed, both masterminds share certain features in this respect. For a start, many see in Chaplin´s films a way to denounce the social situation of his country. Likewise, Dickens’s denouncing words against the harsh life conditions of the poor in the Victorian times was his constant motto. (Usandizaga 586). Also, Chaplin´s silent films, ironically, were a perfect way to communicate with his audience with the same strength Dickens wrote his stories, who “never doubted that fiction above all things involved communication” (Sucksmith 15). Besides, both Chaplin and Dickens give special importance to the characters of their works. In Dickens´ books, one notices that his characters have got strong features defining either virtuous characters or very perverse ones; this is perhaps a necessary melodramatic element with much sentimentalism; however, in Dickens, this element is paramount to reach the reader. Hence, “characters must make an impact on the reader, an impact which narrows down to a specific emotional effect.” (Sucksmith 15). In the case of Oliver Twist, his character comes from the allegorical tradition of medieval drama with simple features that provoke in the reader either hatred or love, a creation of characters, environments and situations more allegorical that realists, more dramatic that taken from the novels.

Besides, melodrama becomes a paramount feature to the treatment of serious matters. Dickens himself mentions in Oliver Twist chapter 17 how to create a good melodrama: “It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon.” (Internet Source 4). This is precisely the same strategy Chaplin uses to show that his character is poor, sick, lonely or in real trouble. He alternates comic scenes with tragic ones to attract the audience´s attention. Besides, it is important to remember that the melodramatic aspect has been especially related to Western literature since the 18th century and with the advent of novel. Dickens denounces the unfairness of the Victorian times at a time when the British Empire ruled the world but its inhabitants did not have much to eat. His novels show the contrasts between the reality of his society and the imperialism. He had regular readers who followed his work because he knew how to reach their hearts with the use of a good plot. “Plot exists for the sake of the effect it produces” (Sucksmith 19). In Dickens, we perceive plots related to childhood, social Darwinism, London mafia and urban life, always to denounce the social reality of his times. In Chaplin, we notice that his plots very often deal with the same motifs: disgraceful childhood, harsh social conditions and urban life. In his case, his work caused him trouble while living in America and he decided to leave the USA in 1952 after being persecuted by the Commission of Anti-American Activities promoted by Senator Mc Carthy. Once in Europe, he sent a telegram to the president of the Commission stating: “I am just a freedom fighter” (Gubern 303). Certainly, he showed his interest for freedom while directing films such as The Kid (1921), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), all examples of his profound humanism while being very critical with his own society.

Besides, both Dickens and Chaplin share the same ability to develop their plots from a childish and spontaneous ability, to tell stories in order to take the childish feelings of their audiences. The Kid may be a direct referent to Oliver Twist in the plot, the features of the characters and the way they deal with serious matters. Both authors manage to reach their audiences from melodrama through the use of irony.

Moreover, not only can we find similarities of Chaplin´s work in Dickens´ books. We can also notice how the most well-known scenes of Cervantes´ Don Quixote can easily remind us of Chaplin´s films. For example, in chapter 8 of Don Quixote (Internet Source 5) we read about the story of Don Quixote fighting with the mills as if they were giants. This is a real Chaplinesque scene in its entirety. Well, or rather the other way round: it is a fantastic Quixotic scene.The narrator describes perfectly the landscape, the situation and the plot using visual metaphors so that anybody, even children, can perfectly visualize the battle against the mills. This scene, extremely funny for the superficial reader, is very sad as it shows the weird behaviour of an old anti-hero dressed in his heavy armour fighting against huge mills that he has taken for giant foes. One can easily imagine Chaplin with his big shoes, his cane, his moustache, dressed in black and riding a thin white horse while galloping towards the huge mills that he has mistaken for giants who want to take away his son from him (like the scene of The Kid when the social workers arrive in Chaplin´s flat to take the boy away from him).

Moreover, we can notice another Chaplinesque scene in chapter 16 of Don Quixote. The event takes place in La Venta or a big restaurant surrounded by huge mills. Here, Don Quixote thinks the restaurant is a castle. Suddenly, a pretty young lady (like the one who appears in Chaplin´s films) comes out to greet him and he takes her for a princess in trouble. Don Quixote enters the castle, eats and goes to sleep. That night, in complete darkness, the young lady tries to find her bed but, by mistake, goes directly to Don Quixote´s. The situation becomes even more Chaplinesque when he believes the girl is the lady of the castle who has fallen in love with him! An entire succession of misunderstandings goes on until the girl shouts, her father comes in and Don Quixote is badly beaten. Then, when he falls asleep, he dreams of the days he was younger and unbeatable. This dream may well resemble any of Chaplin´s scenes where he dreams of past or future events, such as the heaven scene in The Kid. Here Chaplin is taken into another world were he can fly and is happy. Somehow, both cases depict a story inside the main story and the main characters are transported to different worlds as an escape of their own troublesome reality.

In conclusion, apart from the melodramatic music Chaplin uses to accompany sad scenes, in his films we see how he deals with serious matters using some of the strategies Dickens and Cervantes used in their books, which makes his work more universal and loved by almost everybody. Besides, they also make good use of picaresque elements in their works, they communicate perfectly with their audiences, they pay special attention to their main characters, they use other melodramatic features to enrich other scenes / chapters spiced up with a great dose of irony, they alternate comic elements with sad ones and finally, they use visual metaphors to deal with complicated and serious social issues.

                                     LIST OF WORKS CITED

Primary Sources:
Maland, J. Charles. Chaplin and American Culture. Princeton: New Jersey, 1989.

Secondary Sources:
Gubern, Roman. Historia del Cine. Barcelona: Editorial Lumen. 1995.
Sucksmith, Harvey Peter. The Narrative Arts of Charles Dickens. The Rhetoric of Sympathy an Irony in his Novels. London: Oxford University Press.1970.
Usandizaga, Aranzazu. Dickens en Lecciones de Literatura Universal. Siglos XII a XX, edición de Jordi Llovet, Madrid. Cátedra, 1996: 583-596.

Internet Sources:
  1. http://www.charliechaplin.com/. 28 Oct. 2012
  2. http://chaplin.bfi.org.uk/programme/conference/pdf/chaplin-abstracts.pdf. 30 Oct. 2012
  3. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/melodrama. 27 Oct. 2012.
  4. http://www.literaturecollection.com/a/dickens/oliver-twist/17/. 28 Oct. 2012
  5. http://www.elmundo.es/quijote/capitulo.html?cual=8. 25 Oct. 2012
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