Clint Eastwood has entered into the pantheon of great American directors, a director of Westerns and thrillers, though not only of them. The reputation for Westerns derives, of course, from his collaboration with Sergio Leone, for thrillers from his work with Don Siegel. Eastwood also has a reputation that is well established in the university. A significant number of books on him have emerged over the last few years, considering variously his role as a Hollywood author, his place in the history of the Western and the significance for gender and identity politics of the image of masculinity evident in his films. There is, however, another aspect to his work which, to my knowledge at least, has not been much commented on, and that is the importance to certain of his films of a motif more usually to be found in the cinema of horror. The motif I am referring to has to do with the un-dead, those who are between death and life, who are neither living nor dead: vampires, zombies, the resuscitated. There is an interval beyond or outside the normal world, the world of ‘reality’. It is an interval between life and death, in which the living are not the living, and the dead not the dead. This interval is an imaginative in-between, a space constitutive of the fictional worlds of many of the greatest works of horror, whether in literature or film. I want to say, not that Eastwood is making a surreptitious kind of horror film, unrecognised by his devotees, but that to see certain of his films in relation to this kind of interval is to bring out something of great pertinence to them.
What I have in mind is borne out by one of his more schematic films, High Plains Drifter (1973). The opening of the film is a very long shot of mountains and desert, both shimmering in a heat haze. A figure appears out of the wavering and uncertain outlines of the haze, until a man in a dark hat and a long brown duster becomes clearly visible, riding towards the camera. This figure, played by Eastwood, is that of The Stranger, and as he enters the small lakeside town of Lago the camera remains with him.
There follows in the next ten to fifteen minutes a true carnival of violence, in which he guns down three of the town’s thugs, and rapes a woman who dares to challenge him and his methods. Following this, it gradually becomes clear during the next half-hour or so of the film that the stranger was once marshall of Lago and that he was bull-whipped to death by three killers, led by the brutal and sadistic Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis). The killing took place on the orders of the town council, who wished to hide the fact that their gold-mining operation was sited illegally on government land, a fact the marshall, Joe Duncan, was ready to report to the authorities.
After the killing, the council had the killers arrested and confined to the State Penitentiary. The stranger’s return coincides with the killers’ release from prison. They have vowed to take their revenge on the good people of Lago. The council members hire the stranger to defend the town, which he agrees to do. The result is a total upsetting of the town’s civic, financial and legal structure. In the outcome, having had the town painted red and its name altered from Lago to ‘Hell’, the stranger appears to abandon the place and its inhabitants to the mercies of the vengeful killers who are about to descend upon it. Ultimately, the stranger does indeed kill the three men who killed him, and as he kills Stacey the killer looks at him in bewilderment: ‘who are you?’, he asks, a refrain taken over from the Leone Westerns. The stranger leaves the town, his name now inscribed by his one friend, Mordecai, on his tombstone. He rides off into the haze from which he came. The stranger’s identity has been established, and yet the means by which this has come about call into question the very notion of identity.
It is here that a comparison with the horror film is pertinent. The stranger has returned from the dead. Although he is not a vampire, he shares with the vampire one fundamental characteristic: he is one of the un-dead, an impossible figure, whom none of the townspeople recognise, and yet he walks among them and they knew him well during his life. The stranger is beyond death, in that he has risen again, and he is at the same time not yet dead, in that his ultimate death will come only after his name has been written on his tombstone. He is, one might say, between two deaths. He is in the world, but not of it. He is obedient to a law which is not that of the world, and despite the dangers he confronts he cannot be destroyed by those who want his death. Indeed, he is referred to at various times by one or other of the townsfolk as a devil or a demon, a point of view he himself seems to reinforce by re-naming the town Hell.
In effect, Eastwood has created here an inverted world, a ‘topsy-turvy’ world, in which the ethical devolves not upon the living, but the dead—despite the violence, and violation, that attends the actions of the dead. The conventions of the Western are retained, but at the same time they are curiously distorted. It is as though the film were addressing not so much the appearance of the Western, but an idea of it. The film incites the viewer to ask what is beyond. It leads us not to ‘see’, but to ‘look’. The effect of showing us something, an image of the West, of American greed and capital, that is so clearly marked as unreal, is to bring home to us that the world in which we think we are at home, the world of the Western as traditionally understood, is itself no less unreal. The reality we take for granted is itself already an inverted image, and in this world also we have no home.
I said earlier that High Plains Drifter is a schematic film. By this I mean that in it Eastwood shifts our way of looking at the Western as such, and by so doing tries to re-envisage the myths that underpin it, the myths of American expansion, individualism and the unquestioned benefits of the creation of wealth. What becomes visible as a result of this is an ideology that is itself in the service of death. The horror of America, its exploitations and exterminations, not to mention genocide and slavery, is seen to be internal to the action, as though it were an unspoken assumption of the film’s fictional world. The procedures of High Plains Drifter are revisited in Pale Rider (1985). The pale rider is Death, the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, and he is summoned up in answer to the prayer of a young girl, Megan, one of a group of traditional panhandling gold-miners whose family and livelihoods are threatened by the new corporate capitalism and industrialised mining methods of the LaHood Corporation, run and owned by the ruthless Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart). The film refers explicitly to High Plains Drifter, both by way of its central character, a stranger who is already dead, a figure known only as The Preacher (played by Eastwood), and with respect to elements of the plot-line, which reprise those of the earlier film. Not only that, but the theme or motif of the man who is already dead is here doubled. At one point, The Preacher strips down to take a bath, and we see him from the back. A number of scars left by bullets are visible, and it is obvious that the bullets must have passed through his heart and lungs. The significance of this emerges during the final shoot-out between The Preacher and the brutal Marshall, Stockburn (an admirable performance by John Russell), and his deputies, who LaHood has sent for. At the climax of the gunfight, Stockburn sees that the man who is approaching him is a man whom he has previously killed, and who has now returned for him. The Preacher shoots Stockburn in precisely the same places on the body as he himself was shot by Stockburn. A shot of Stockburn from behind as the bullets pass through him puts great emphasis on this. Stockburn sinks to his knees in his final agony, and looking directly up at The Preacher, who is standing over him, gasps out in amazement and wonder: ‘You!’ Without replying, The Preacher finishes him off with a bullet between the eyes, in the manner prescribed for zombies in Night of the Living Dead. By dying at the hands of a man whom he has already killed, Stockburn can be seen, in retrospect, to have been himself already dead from the time of that first killing. Like the father in the dream recounted by one of Freud’s patients, he was dead, but he did not know it. It is part of the excellence of John Russell’s performance that he able to intimate the extent to which Stockburn is subject to impending death without being conscious of what is awaiting him. Stockburn’s every gesture, the heaviness in his tone of voice, the very movement of his eyes, are all expressive of a mortification that seems in the throes of congealing around him.
This pattern is repeated in Unforgiven (1992). Although William Munney (Eastwood) is not physically dead, at the start of the film he is morally dead to his former life, of whiskey, gun-fighting and killing. He is re-born into his former condition, at the end, when he confronts and annihilates the sheriff of the town of Big Whiskey, Little Bill (Gene Hackman). The conclusion of Unforgiven is shot in a mode that differs markedly from the rest of the film. The darkness, the emphasis on rain and shadow, and the sepia tone given to the image, all suggest a shift in register, from the narrative of the earlier part to a kind of suspension or stasis in which dying and the moment of death are fore-grounded. The film is ambiguous and complex, and much of its subtlety derives from how it makes present the problematic and uncertain nature of its fictional world. The "unforgiven" of Unforgiven is one who is neither forgiven nor not forgiven. He is, he has his being, in the meanwhile, the interval. He is a man missing from his presence, just as he is missing from his place. To invoke Blanchot, one might say that the man with no name is a man whose name is a name for the nameless, one to whom is attached the murmur of the il y a, the place without place.
In these three Westerns at least, Clint Eastwood has achieved an art that comes to us from outside, that engages with the very ground of representation itself.
The Virtues of Knowledge
2 weeks ago