Monday, February 4, 2013

The cool guy who debunked the myth of Liberty Hipster

This is where I bore you by talking about historiography.

No, not really but I do want to talk about mythology and how it is often precisely when we think we are debunking myths that we are actually erecting them.

So bear with me (or don't, it's a big Internet if you don't want to) for a moment while I talk about the curious case of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That's a movie, in case you don't know, and it's a western that shamelessly indulges every cliché of the western genre in a way that ought to have driven people from the theatres in disgust.

It didn't though. It succeeded by pretending to demythologize while it was, in fact, pushing the same lame old mythology.

Here is the story in rough. Jimmy Stewart, playing an aging senator and his wife, go to the funeral of an obscure rancher played by John Wayne. Why? So we can get a whole lot of flashbacks. The flashbacks tell us that Stewart's character once moved to this frontier town and set up shop as a lawyer. This gets him to fall in love with a lovely woman who is attracted to him because he can teach her how to read. It also put him in conflict with the outlaw Liberty Valance* who was working in concert with the ranchmen to defy the advance of civilization and keep the frontier open so that the way of life the ranchers loved would continue unchanged.

You need to stop right away and see that this is the classic western myth only with the lawyer standing in for the pig farmer. Now what happens next in the classic myth? Well, two things. There is a woman who loves the pig farmer, in this case, the lawyer, and there are two outlaws, one who also loves her, and, by loving her comes to love the civilized new west which is the only kind of west where women like her can thrive, and another who works for the ranchers to kill all the pig farmers/lawyers. At some point, the first outlaw sees that his kind has to disappear for that civilization to be possible. But the other outlaw (Liberty Valence!) stands in the way of happiness for the woman and her pig farmer and so a  showdown happens between the outlaw who can see the future and the one who cannot. The pro-civilization outlaw wins and then, realizing there is no place for him in the new civilized west, he rides off into the sunset leaving the pig farmer to enjoy the civilization and, not incidentally, the woman.

It's important to the myth that the big show down is not an act of justice. When Shane guns down Jack Wilson, he does so by provoking a duel that is just an excuse for cold blooded murder. That is why the good outlaw realizes there is no place for him in the civilization that he, in the myth anyway, makes possible. The myth tells us that civilization is wonderful but it takes a big, authentic man who is himself not part of civilization to get it going and he does this in a not terribly civilized way.

So what happens in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Well, initially, we think Jimmy Stewart's character is the one who shot Liberty Valance. He is a guy who forced into a duel with the dangerous outlaw, a duel that he wins , much to his own and everyone else's surprise. As the movie goes along, we learn that this isn't true. We learn at the end of the movie that John Wayne's character was standing by and saved the life of Jimmy Stewart's character by gunning down an unsuspecting Valance before he could kill Stewart's character**. So the myth is restored.

But the movie pretends otherwise through a complicated double shuffle. It pretends to lift the veil to show you the secret only to show you a hoary myth underneath.

But ask yourself a question: How many of the myths of the wild west center around mild-mannered and meek lawyers who gun down mighty gunfighters? Because, if we take the movie at it's word, that is the "myth" it is debunking. And this in order to restore the "authentic truth" that John Wayne killed the bad guy!

There are a couple of things I think worth taking from this. The central notion behind this myth is that our culture depends on the heroic self-sacrificing of some outlaw-type. The role of others is to honour his sacrifice by maintaining the culture he made possible.

This is particularly interesting when we think of hipness because a racial twist gets thrown in then. The mythological version of any kind of hipness will attribute it's origins to brave, authentic blacks and make whites to be, at best, respectful posers who can never really do the thing quite right or, at worst, evil thieves who profit at the expense of the unrecognized creators of hipness. And there will be no approach to hipness wherein whites can be authentic or guilt free.

A similar problem applies to contemporary hipsters. The mythmakers aren't going to let them get away with it.  For the mythmaker, the real story is always about some more authentic type the hipster has stolen their stuff from.

The second aspect of the wild-west mythology is how it plays against male sexuality. There are two types here: outlaw and husband. And it is one of the odd quirks of the genre that the woman unfailingly chooses the reliable husband character over the outlaw with the big gun, which, as you may have noticed, is not what she unfailingly does in real life. But even if there is only one guy in the story, he has mixed feelings about things. Sometimes he looks at the woman he loves and thinks ... well, let's just say he thinks like a gun-slinging outlaw and less like a reliable husband.

And, if he is honest, he'll admit that he is unlikely to have ever fallen in love in the first place if the outlaw aspect weren't there. That's a pretty banal observation but here is the question: How would this mythology have changed if women had had more input? It's not that men don't recognize about the attraction the outlaw type has for women—if anything, we obsess about it. As I've said before, there is lovely moment in dramatic irony at the end of Shane when the innocent little boy wanting Shane to stay yells, "And Mama wants you too." What's missing from the story is an outlaw type for the woman herself to play at being the way any boy can play at being a gunslinger.

I'm sure you've guessed where that is going and it will continue to go there ...

* Whose name literally means a curtain or veil hiding liberty from us by the way.

**By the way, it's an odd quirk of the western myth that Stewart's character would have to follow the rules of an illegal and immoral gunfight to be morally justified.

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