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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

entry arrow12:36 AM | Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954)

Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1956) demands to be seen at least three times. First, it must be seen to sample it as the great film it is reputed to be: how it is a favourite among auteurs of the French New Wave, or how the late Roger Ebert selected it as one of cinema's unlikeliest triumphs, calling it a cheap Western but also "one of the boldest and most stylized films of its time, quirky, political, twisted." And it does grow on you, hinting of some urgent and subversive message even as it hurtles on with its oversized and silly melodrama -- but one that you suspect is contained within superlative directorial vision. Everything in this movie seem contrived or preposterous when taken in as individual details -- but composed together, they make sense. Consider, for example, Joan Crawford's Vienna as she waits for the lynch mob to come and claim her. She greets their murderous rage in a magnificent white gown, the skirt of which overflows from her like a mockery of virginity, and the  she inexplicably plays the piano in a virtuoustic key that makes absolutely no sense. Except that it does.

Second, it must be seen for the triumph of verbosity in a screenplay that it is, written with obvious glee by the blacklisted Ben Maddow. Consider this scene where Vienna confronts Johnny Guitar -- the new name that the legendary gunslinger Johnny Logan has taken on. (Here he is played by Sterling Hayden with a laid-backness that knew he may be the titular character, but that the story does not revolve around him at all.) They were lovers once and are now estranged, and during this midnight confrontation, they bring back the past with all its ghosts, a whole bundle of hurts and heartaches and betrayals.

She finds him at the bar, forlorn and drinking rum.

Vienna: Having fun, Mr. Logan?

Johnny: I couldn’t sleep.

Vienna: That stuff help any?

Johnny: Makes the night go faster. (Pause.) What’s keeping you awake?

Vienna: Dreams. (Pause.) Bad dreams.

Johnny: Yeah, I get them sometimes, too. (After a beat.) Here, this will chase them away.

Vienna: I tried that. Didn’t seem to help me any.

(After a beat.)

Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?

Vienna: As many women as you’ve remembered.

Johnny: (Imploring.) Don’t go away.

Vienna: (Reticent.) I haven’t moved.

Johnny: Tell me something nice.

Vienna: (Sarcastic.) Sure. What do you want to hear?

Johnny: Lie to me. (After a beat.) Tell me all these years, you’ve waited. Tell me.

Vienna: (Through gritted teeth.) All these years, I’ve waited.

Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back.

Vienna: (Sarcastic.) I would have died if you hadn’t come back.

Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.

Vienna: (Sarcastic.) I still love you like you still love me.

Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Vienna: (Grabs the shot of rum from his hand and throws it crashing on the floor.) Stop feeling so sorry for yourself. You think you had it rough? I didn’t find this place. I had to build it. How do you think I was able to do that?

Johnny: I don’t want to know.

Vienna: But I want you to know. (After a beat.) For every board, plank, and beam in this place…

Johnny: I heard enough!

Vienna: No, you’re going to listen.

Johnny: I told you, I don’t want to know any more.

Vienna: You can’t shut me up, Johnny. Not anymore. (Pause.) Once, I would have crawled at your feet to be near you. (Pause.) I searched for you in every man I met.

Johnny: Look, Vienna. You just said you had a bad dream. We both had, but it’s all over.

Vienna: Not for me.

Johnny: It’s just like it was five years ago. Nothing’s happened in between.

Vienna: Oh, I wish…

Johnny: Not a thing! You’ve got nothing to tell me because it’s not real. Only you and me, that’s real. We’re having a drink at the bar in the Aurora Hotel. The band is playing because we’re getting married, and after the wedding, we’re getting out of this hotel and we’re going away. So laugh, Vienna, and be happy. It’s your wedding day.

Vienna: (Looks at him wistfully. They hug.) I have waited for you, Johnny.

Vienna: (After a beat.) Oh, what took you so long?

Consider that glorious verbiage, and it is thus not to surprising to learn that Francois Truffaut once called the film a "fake Western," but means it as a compliment. Indeed, it wears its purported genre as perfect artifice, perhaps knowing full well it has more in common with the Technocolor melodrama of a Ross Hunter production, and none of the restrained machismo of a John Wayne title. (Thank God for that.) Certainly like the Hunter films, particularly those shaped by the subversive vision of Douglas Sirk, the psychosexual secrets that lurk beneath the surface become the ultimate reason to watch this film for the third time, to unbundle its hidden meanings.

I first heard about this film when it was mentioned in The Celluloid Closet, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's superb 1995 documentary about gay and lesbian iconography in Hollywood films. That documentary positioned the manly drag that Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge take on for the film as emblematic of the sapphic subterfuge it revels in. The relationships the film clearly represents are of the heterosexual sort, but the margins of meaning seem to suggest otherwise, and the cowboy outfits the two women sport throughout is suggestive of that. When you finally consider the particular conflict that propels the story, it is actually the festering hatred the two women share for each other that makes us pause. It is the very tension that grips the story, and the thing that holds it together: Mercedes McCambridge's Emma Small hates Vienna over the fact that the man she secretly yearns for is in love with this saloon owner -- and so, using all sorts of excuses and accusations, she tries to get the whole town riled up to either drive Vienna off, or to hang her. This is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's queer take on the "love triangle" in perfect representation in a film: replacing the male focus of Sedgwick's theory, the love triangle in Johnny Guitar has the two women appear to be competing for a man's affection (although not really, because Vienna only really "likes" the man, and that's that) -- a rivalry that Sedgwick posits to be actually an attraction between the two of them.

In the film, this is specifically acknowledged when the town mayor finally wisens up to what's actually going on. Ignoring Emma's exhortation for him and his men to finish Vienna off in the end, he finally says: "It's their fight. Has been all along." He leaves them to their fate.

"I'm coming, Vienna."

"I'm waiting."

And so we come to the end of the film, to my best shot, where the two women will finally confront each other in this crotch of a hilltop, to opposite sides of this vagina-shaped hut, where their subliminal sexual tension for each other will finally get its release....

... albeit a fatal one.

This post is part of Nathaniel Rogers' Hit Me With Your Best Shot series over at The Film Experience blog.

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