Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Johnny Guitar

     Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954) is a western full of silly lines, campy acting, overt melodrama, evil villains, and criticisms of McCarthyism and conformity. There's quite a bit of feminism in there, and even some Freudian psychology; Vienna (Joan Crawford), a liberated and strong woman who runs a casino, has invoked the ire of Emma (a very annoying Mercedes McCambridge), who clearly has repressed urges for a character called The Dancing Kid. Instead of acknowledging her desire, she blames the murder of her brother on him and Vienna , and leads the easily manipulated townspeople against them. To make matters a little more complicated, Vienna has just summoned Johnny Guitar up from Albequerque. He was supposed to just play guitar in her bar, but given that he was her lover and a trigger happy gunslinger in his past life, there's not much guitar playing going on.
     Instead, there's a whole lot of conflict, none of it happening below the surface. Emma is angry at Vienna, in love with The Dancing Kid, and also hates him and the rest of his gang. Vienna loves Johnny, but has to struggle with their difficult past, and Vienna also has feelings for the Dancing Kid. The Dancing Kid is jealous of Johnny, and loves Joan. Bart, who's in the Dancing Kid's gang, hates Johnny Guitar for no apparent reason. And the townspeople hate anyone trying to mess with their way of life. The most important stuff gets played out with words as much as with bullets; in Nicholas Ray movies characters really like to talk about their feelings, even if they don't quite know what to say. Johnny and Joan's obsessing over their past love is as exaggerated as James Dean's tormented monologues in Rebel Without A Cause.
     Strange to say then that Johnny Guitar must have been much too subtle for me. Words like iconoclasm and subversion get thrown around a lot with Ray, and while this certainly applies to Rebel, I'm not sure I can say the same for Johnny Guitar. High Noon took on the House Un-American Activities Committee two years earlier, so the political parable here is hardly groundbreaking. And then there's all this talk of how bizarre, even dreamlike (Truffaut called it a "western dream"), this movie is. It may be a little offbeat, but it doesn't stray much from any standard formula; I just saw it as a regular western, but slightly goofier. But most inexplicable is the extreme praise Johnny Guitar has received from Truffaut and Godard. For Godard, "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rosselini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray." Orson Welles was understandably surprised when he discovered that he stood alongside Ray as one of only three American directors considered truly great by French critics. While Johnny Guitar may be (slightly) eccentric, all of its camp doesn't exactly scream "visionary."

7.6    It's still interesting entertainment, even if I see it as more of a cultural curiosity than a classic.

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