UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"I am not the fine man you take me for" : the postmortem western from Unforgiven to No Country for Old Men Strang, Brent


The Postmortem Western is so named because, after having been buried for 15 years, the genre reappears with a pronounced self-awareness of its atrophied conventions and ideologies. As Jim Kitses and Alexandra Keller observe, today’s Western is almost entirely revisionist. Chapter One delineates two broad revisionist cycles: those Westerns that re-imagine marginalized histories and those that deconstruct the genre’s problematic influence on subject formation. This thesis is concerned with the latter, which may be likened to a postmortem examination of the Classical Western that reveals a systemic cause of death rooted in the Frontier Myth. While Richard Slotkin researches how the Frontier Myth has become symbolically encoded within American ideology, he does not attend to how it has also functioned as a prescription for masculine subject formation. Building from Michael Kimmel and Stephen Whitehead sociologies of masculinity, I elaborate how the Myth’s perpetual retelling through the Western has worked to justify compulsive masculinities, incite disjunctive gender relations, and foster an illusory lone-hero mythology of mastery and wholeness. Chapter Two is a literature and theory review that contextualizes the Postmortem Western within the genre’s history of adapting to cultural and ideological change. It also establishes an historical, profeminist methodology to substantiate the connection between an ancestral pattern of frontier masculinity and a perceived contemporary crisis in masculinity. Chapter Three establishes the cycle’s foundation insofar as Unforgiven, The Proposition, and The Claim depict masculinities constrained in rigid gender scripts and dysfunctional behaviours. These same themes thread through Chapter Four’s analysis of HBO’s Deadwood, whose epic scale is able to go much further by formulating a new mythic-historical script to cope with neoliberalism. Lastly, Chapter Five presents The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Down in the Valley, and No Country for Old Men as a subset that deploy Western elements in a modern day setting in order to express another intricacy of this cultural condition. Their narratives and formal designs portray our moment of historical rupture with a palpable sense of loss, when culture feels increasingly disconnected from the meaning and national cohesion once glimpsed in the past.

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