November 06, 2009

Johnny Guitar: An Immigrant's Tale

Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray's bizarre and operatic Western, can be read in many different way- as a feminist struggle between two women, as a freudian film about the paradoxes of sexual desire, as an attack on McCarthyism or as a discussion of art and masculinity. Watching it last night though one thing struck me more than anything. For those who do not know Johnny Guitar is the hero of a film in which he has very little to do. The film concentrates on the rivalry between two women- Vienna who owns a saloon bar on the outskirts of town, a bar which sits on the site of a future railway depot and Emma a local cattle rancher. Vienna represents an economic threat to Emma but also a sexual threat as she shares her beer and her bed with the Dancing Kid, a local man whom Emma desires. As a response to these threats Emma leads a posse to kill both Vienna and the kid- I will not go further without getting into the guts of the plot but it revolves around that hatred of Emma for Vienna. Rather than analysing the plot though, I think its worth digging into the nature of that hatred a bit: what Emma expresses in that hatred is the classic hatred of the native born for the immigrant. What Ray does is makes us identify with the immigrant in a classic piece of American cinema- cinema which celebrates the free movement of capital and labour.

Emma's argument against Vienna is an argument against immigration. Imagine, she tells McIvers who leads the posse, imagine if Vienna is allowed to do what she wants the railroad will pass through the town and eventually the life of the cattleranchers will be destroyed. The power of the cowboys will be unmade for they will be unable to stop the 'easterners', the 'farmers' becoming prominent. The story is the same as told in other Westerns about the progress of civilisation and resistance to it- but here that resistance is resistance from the native born, from those who live in the West to those that come there. Its the same song as many sing today about immigration into their communities. Emma's imagination is of women and children fenced in by barbed wire, of dreams of the tyranny of law and agriculture- those dreams impact on family structure, they segment it and destroy it in a tyranny of corn and gold. She makes this case hysterically and it is a case often made hysterically: but it can also be seen in the iconography of the film. Emma has a straightforward Anglo-Saxon name, Vienna's name is anything but. Emma's posse are the gathered democratic forces of the local town, populist and conservative to a man, Vienna dresses oppulently and her saloon is elegantly decorated. Populism confronts capitalism and doesn't like what it sees.

You can pursue this further as well and see the sexual rivalry running through the film between the two women in the light of the agonies of immigration. The terrifying imagery of losing sexual prominence in your community is what Emma is most threatened by. Vienna can 'have' and discard the Dancing Kid, for Emma an infatuation has turned into an obsession and she desires a male honour killing to vindicate her position. Sex is consciously at the forefront of Emma's mind as she attacks the immigrant, but subconsciously some urge, sexual or not, drives her to desire the immigrant's destruction. In moments of destruction, Mercedes McCambridge's face (playing Emma) is almost orgasmic in its pleasure, clenching her fist and her eye shining as she contemplates the ruin of her rival. Again one senses the fact that it is fun to hate the immigrant: it is fun to hate, much more enjoyable to hate than to consider. Emma is able to seduce the posse to hunt down Vienna because she can feed them on her diet of hate: as McIvers at one point discloses when men are hungry and wet, hate can both feed and heat them.

Seeing the film work on the level of immigration allows us one final interesting reflection I think about the film's characters. The final reflection is not about Emma but about Vienna and about Johnny Guitar. Both of these characters are ambivalent about the townspeople- and their ambivalence grows bitter as the film proceeds. Hate feeds on hate. They begin to desire the cultural transformation which will wipe away Emma, not merely because it will be good for them and theirs but because it will wipe away the old community. It is clear that this is the consequence of Emma's hate- but Ray's film is a realist one, immigrants to the old West were hard and tough individuals, meet them with hatred and the same coin is likely to be repaid. The same could be true of immigrants in general: when they are met by hate they are hated in return. A related point is that Ray's film shows the state to be utterly impotent before the power of the self righteous mob, he shows that the veils of democracy are never powerful enough to restrain prejudice. His marshall is impotent, evidence is influenced by Emma's wild anti-foreign imagination and deaths proceed without consequence. In the America that gave birth to the KKK and James Gang, that is unsurprising.

I do not think that Johnny Guitar has to be read in this way, but it is another way to add to the interpretations I noted above. Vienna's story can be interpreted in many different ways- but I think one of the points that Ray makes through his story is about the fragility of community faced with immigration and the way that so easily it can break down, with a Cleon to lead, the mob can rage without check and a legacy of bitterness and hatred bequeathed for the future.