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Introduction

Introduction
Taïna Tuhkunen

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1Like the classic movies on the Far West, the quintessential film narratives of the Deep South have greatly impacted the viewers’ understanding of American history and American values. While the canonized Western has relentlessly foregrounded the idea of individual freedom and the conquest of the wilderness, the more elusive and controversial Southern bears the persistent ideological traces of slavery and segregation. However, as demonstrated by this Revue LISA/LISA e-journal issue “When the West/ern meets the South/ern,” on the jarring and often unexpected contacts between the two generic categories, well before the 2012 release of Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s provocatively Westernized Southern (or Southernized Western), many earlier films had already played with the distinctive codes and conventions of the Western and the Southern. They crossed and blended, more or less overtly, the two mythic American topoi.

  • 1 “The art of cinema, because it was born from various and heterogeneous sources (science, phot (...)

2The many films examined here reveal a need to unshackle simple, strict classifications, not only to foreground cinema’s continuous “taste for blending,”1 but to recall that despite their differences, Western and Southern spaces and their emblematic characters (namely Western frontiersmen, cowboys, ranchers, sheriffs, lawmen, bounty hunters, saloon girls, school marms and Calamity Janes vs. Southern plantation masters and Belles, rednecks, hillbillies, and “poor white trash”) remain problematically intertwined, particularly when engaged in scenarios that ponder over the glories and stigmas of the past.

3The contributors discuss this tension and a number of other related questions regarding the codes, motifs and underlying myths and subtexts. Insisting on encounters and continuities, rather than on definite splits, the volume seeks to map the still relatively unknown critical area beyond the West-South binaries, to identify some of the most frequent forms of “illegitimate” crossings and hybridizations at work beneath the classical and the increasingly heterogeneous later movies and TV-series. While investigating the “genre trouble” entailed by merged narrative schemes, visual rhetorics and dominant tropes through 20th and 21st century Westerns as well as the unsuitable national metanarrative proposed by Southerns, it is interesting to follow the different stages of the gradual shaping of a non-canonical, impure “bigger picture” of America proposed by these opposing yet at the same time complementary “grand narratives.”

4As recalled here, the history of the Western and of the Southern as generic categories started well before the advent of the cinema. It is, indeed, important to keep in mind that the contrasting cinematographic worlds of the pastoral South and of the wild West – the dubiously idealized and civilized, ostentatiously fairytalish white “Southland” and the yet-to-be civilized Western territories – were rooted in myths and literary texts. And, although the articles pay relatively little attention to the North-South and the East-West connections, it is evident that they connect with our main theme, extending the already dense network towards potential later studies.

  • 2 Larry Langman, David Ebner, Hollywood’s Image of the South: A Century of Southern Films (...)

5Because of its treatment of Western motifs and types that were to reappear in later movies, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) is generally presented as the very first Western. Conversely, Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also made in 1903, constructed an ostensibly Southern atmosphere on screen and is generally “forgotten” from Porter’s filmography. Nevertheless, this first film on the American South, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous pre-Civil War novel, already introduces several fundamental narrative and typological features captured by the “Southern,” a term proposed by Larry Langman and David Ebner in Hollywood’s Image of the South: A Century of Southern Films.2

6The Southern lacked general recognition as genre because of its ambiguous treatment of the “peculiar institutions”; however, there are other reasons for the preeminence of the Western. Resonating with the rhetorics of discovery, the genre looks ahead, while the Southern obsessively contemplates the always already lost past. It was only in the mid-20th century that the latter started showing signs of liberation from its structuring types and persistent narrative patterns.

7While it would be difficult to analyze the movies on the American West and South without considering their respective and in many ways intertwined genealogical roots, one cannot overlook the questions raised by these clashing and interactive films which oscillate between real and symbolic regions, between material and imaginary spaces.

8Similarly to the American West, the referential space named “South” has been recreated countless times on screen with its own symptomatic aesthetics. In 1915, with D. W. Griffith’s technically dazzling, yet ideologically intolerable Southern film, The Birth of a Nation proved its potential as a true “action movie,” on a par with the Western. A quarter of a century later, Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) – another crucial moving picture marked by historical and cultural distortions and obliterations – confirmed the power of melodrama over the Southern during the reconstructions of a civilized yet savage world “gone with the wind”.

9As highlighted in this issue, since the Second World War, the oppositional logics of the filmic West and the cinematographic South have gradually foregrounded wide-ranging questions concerning the nation and its very diverse regions, as well as a renewed film aesthetic. Today, the thematic constant of the active conqueror may still contrast with the static bliss of the early Southern plantation films, but the emphasis no longer lies on nostalgia for a lost “paradise.” For just as the legendary Western Eldorado, the mythically tranquil and insular Southern Dixieland has turned into a strikingly porous space of intense reconsiderations where preconceived plots, generic types and other genre indicators overlap, intersect and “un-chain” in an attempt to provide a renewed cultural mirror of the paradoxes and frontiers of the “New World.”

10In his inspiring preamble, “Nothing but Wind beyond the Door: Southerns and Westerns, from Disenchantment into the Twilight”, Christian Viviani underlines the ongoing interrelations between the Southern melodrama and the Western. Not only does the Southern resonate with the settings, characters, codes and rites of the Western, but the so-called “twilight Westerns” which emerged in the 1960s also point to the presence of an undercurrent of self-delusion and disenchantment shared by both cinematic genres.

11Lauric Guillaud’s article on the literary origins of Southern Westerns recalls that the Western did not emerge ex nihilo, but was generated and enriched by literary texts. Starting out with a reference to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), Guillaud invites us on a thrilling journey back to some of the classic (Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, St. John De Crevecoeur, etc.) as well as lesser-known texts of American authors (Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Robert Montgomery Bird, John Pendleton Kennedy, etc.) that affected what was to become the Western film genre. In the course of this audacious speculative journey, Guillaud shows that the official definition of the Western, generally set up in terms of a delineated geography and a definite historical period, proves far more complex when reexamined in the light of the works by authors such as the “Southern James Fenimore Cooper,” William Gilmore Simms.

12Extending Lauric Guillaud’s article on the literature roots of the Southern Western, Julie Assouly examines the recurrent figure of the Gothic motif of the wanderer in the Coen brothers’ films, which frequently explore the American South and West. According to Assouly, the Coenian wanderer exemplifies the hybridization between the Southern Gothic and the Western motifs present in the literary tradition. As a messenger both challenging and mocking the stereotyped representations of the West (the lonesome cowboy, the bounty hunter, etc.) and the South (dishonest preachers, traveling salesmen, runaway prisoners, etc.), the mysterious, often grotesque wanderer transferred from European literature to American Western and to Southern literature and popular culture roams through the American South and West becomes, in a sense, the film directors’ mouthpiece.

13Juliette Bourdin’s article “The West and the Western as Grounds for Reconciliation in the American Civil War” focuses on Civil War films which, interestingly enough, moved towards more Western settings between the early 1940s and the late 1960s. Bourdin’s analysis also shows how the Western genre was used to sustain the tale of national reconciliation after the American Civil War. According to her reading, the genre drew on preexisting codes to represent the Civil War and the Southerners in such as way as to reinforce the idea of a national reunification.

14Gilles Menegaldo analyses a Western by the horror specialist Jacques Tourneur, a filmmaker whose interest in marginal characters introduces ambiguity in a genre generally defined by its strong male heroes. Great Day in the Morning (1956) undermines the generic identity of the Western by introducing explicitly Southern elements, to propose a critical look at American myths. The French director foregrounds the figure of Owen Pentecost, whose sophistication is intimately associated with his Southern origins, to taint the Western with satire. In the process, the chivalric values of the Southern gentlemen are undermined by a series of cross-generic ambiguities.

15In “The South in between Two Frontiers: Confederate Cowboys and Savage Rednecks”, Hervé Mayer recalls how the national myth of the Frontier which locates the birth of the American nation in its confrontation with a bordering savagery branded the Western films until the 1960s. Mayer claims that, during the cultural crisis of the 1960s, the American South became home for savages of a new kind, such as the degenerate redneck, inseparable from the failure of the national myth conveyed by the classic Westerns. According to Mayer, while the Western has attracted numerous ex-Confederate characters in search of political legitimacy, presenting the Western Frontier as a place of national rehabilitation, the filmic South tends to waver between the idea of a regenerative Frontier and that of a more menacing, inner frontier.

16In “Racial Violence at the Crossroads of West/ern and South/ern in Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997)”, Claire Dutriaux analyses a film based on one of the most violent acts against African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. In January 1923, a number of black residents were literally massacred by Whites in the small and fairly prosperous, predominately black Southern town named Rosewood in Florida. Dutriaux shows how the African-American film director’s cinematographic retelling of the brutal event relies on a combination of Western-style narrative and a black cowboy hero. Exploiting the West-South interplay, she draws attention to Singleton’s borrowings from the Western genre to reassess, in more general terms, some of the American South’s racial history. The film sets up a racial Frontier that questions the role of white Americans in American History as well as in Hollywood films.

17In “‘I think it was in poor taste that you were doing Murtaugh in whiteface’: Blackface goes West (and White) in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX, 2005- ?),” Sébastien Lefait highlights a certain number of recent attempts to apply the tradition of blackface minstrelsy not only to recognizably Western characters, but to other, more contemporary filmic figures. He argues that within the series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the blackface tradition serves to demystify or debunk other racial stereotypes. Lefait’s main claim is that the Southern-Northern blackface trope “goes West” to reveal tenacious Western-related clichés, and to expose derivatives such as “whiteface,” “redface,” “bimboface,” or even “gayface,” allowing them to be read as a form of contemporary reaction to the current rise of white supremacy.

  • 3 Susan Courtney, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, Oxford Uni (...)

18This series of articles on the South-West dynamic in film closes on Susan Courtney’s article: “Split Screen Nation: Vernacular Film Forms of the U.S.A.” which leads us beyond Hollywood and mainstream cinema and television, into the field of vernacular film forms such as mid-19th century corporate (for instance, Greyhound and Chevrolet), as well as amateur films. The author of Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South3 argues that the “Hollywood West” and the “Hollywood South” have also circulated through a variety of other screen forms – including such understudied postwar practices as “home movies” which underwent major changes after the Second World War. Courtney demonstrates that the expansions proposed by these other screen forms challenge some of the major splits and oppositions between the screen West and the screen South.

19Echoing with the speculations of other contributors to this issue, Courtney’s article is inspired by the eclectic history of popular film and confirms the overall impression that while the American West often seems readable in terms of a “national promise” offering a “moving image solution”, the American South, on the contrary, takes the form of a “moving image problem.” Ultimately, however, rather than merely mulling over persistent splits, it is the on-going tensions and interactions between the two mythic American scenes with two constantly reimagined territories that give rise to the powerful, changeable story of a complex nation.

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Bibliographie

Courtney Susan, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Langman Larry and David Ebner, Hollywood’s Image of the South: A Century of Southern Films, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Lefait Sébastien, Philippe Ortoli (eds.), In Praise of Cinematic Bastardy, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

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Notes

1 “The art of cinema, because it was born from various and heterogeneous sources (science, photography, popular entertainment, etc.) has constantly tried to preserve that taste for blending.” Sébastien Lefait, Philippe Ortoli (eds.), Introduction to In Praise of Cinematic Bastardy, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, 1.

2 Larry Langman, David Ebner, Hollywood’s Image of the South: A Century of Southern Films (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001).

3 Susan Courtney, Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South, Oxford University Press, 2017.

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Taïna Tuhkunen, « Introduction », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVI-n°1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2018, consulté le 20 novembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/9208

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Auteur

Taïna Tuhkunen

Taïna Tuhkunen is a Professor of American literature and cinema at the University of Angers. Her published work includes a thesis on Sylvia Plath’s poetry and prose, Sylvia Plath: Une écriture embryonnaire (Paris : L’Harmattan, 2002), a coedited study of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (with Didier Machu, Paris: Ellipses, 2009) and Le Sud au Cinéma : de The Birth of a Nation à Cold Mountain (with Marie Liénard-Yétérian, Palaiseau : Editions de l’Ecole Polytechnique, 2009). Tuhkunen has published a number of articles on literature, cinema and film adaptation. Her most recent book Demain sera un autre jour: Le Sud et ses héroïnes à l’écran (Tomorrow Is Another Day: The South and its Heroines on Screen, Pertuis : Rouge Profond, 2013) deals with the representations of female figures in the American South on screen since the early years of film history.

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