Criticism is an experimental art. We keep looking for new tools and new perspectives and tie them together in new theories, all so we can somehow get a little more out of a book or understand a little better what is going on in a film. Sometimes the newness alone is all that is needed to provide an effective way in to a novel or a revealing reading of a film. Though, of course, it is in the nature of experiments that they sometimes fail. There would not be any point to experiments if they succeeded every time.
I must admit this is one of the aspects of criticism that I find invigorating and enjoyable. I love throwing out suggestive new comparisons or perspectives, and if they fail that can be almost as much fun as when somebody comes back saying ‘oh, yes, I never thought of it like that before …’ So when I see another critic doing the same sort of thing, arranging some unexpected conjunction of ideas as a way of teasing out a fresh interpretation of something, I am delighted.
Sometimes you get a double whammy, when a critic gets a fresh idea while looking at the fresh idea of another critic, and that’s exactly what happened in today’s Independent. Clive Sinclair reviews Westerns by Philip French. French is, of course, a fine film critic, and he is particularly good on that staple of the American cinema, the cowboy film. Westerns was first published in 1973, and has now been republished and expanded to bring the story up to date, and it seems to be full of those glittering nuggest of revelation which can make critical studies so well worth while. In 1973, for instance, French divided Westerns into four categories each named after a politician. John F. Kennedy films are cool, like High Noon; Barry Goldwater is hot, like Wayne’s The Alamo; William Buckley mixes hot content with a cool style, as in Charlton Heston’s Arrowhead; while Lyndon Johnson mixes cool content with hot style, as in Cheyenne Autumn. Now for someone like me with a vivid memory of 60s politics, that sounds like an intriguing way of analysing film.
But then comes Sinclair’s own coup: ‘the gigantic body of work which goes under the collective noun “Westerns” is both America’s Torah (its bundle of foundation myths) and its Talmud (a continuing commentary upon them).’ Wow! I am sure that if you are looking in detail at the Western that Torah/Talmud comparison is going to fall apart; but as a broad, sweeping way of looking at what John Ford and John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and their fellows are doing, it is breathtaking. And doesn’t it open up a wonderfully productive feedback between the stories America tells about itself and the way that America sees itself in the world? This is one idea I certainly want to see taken further.
First published at Livejournal, 20 May 2005.