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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

From 'Shane' to 'Blood Diamond': Carleton professor lectures on real, disguised Western films

By Alyssa Kleven
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 23, 2007

On March 14, Carleton Chair of the Cinema and Media Studies program Professor Carol Donelan presented a lecture in Viking Theatre titled "Beyond the Shootout at the OK Corral: Real and Disguised Westerns from 'Shane' to 'Blood Diamond'." The lecture was sponsored by the Boldt Chair in the Humanities.

Donelan, who came to Carleton in 1999 and was granted tenure this year, was on campus for two days this week giving lectures and visiting classes while Carleton students were on spring break. Donelan shaped the Film Studies program out of the Media Studies program at Carleton to create the cinema major.

Using clips from various Westerns, Donelan discussed how her thoughts on the genre were shaped. Her ideas came from an American Films history class she teaches at Carleton, as well as from Rick Altman's genre theory.

Donelan's main theme was the development of the "garden" and the "wilderness" as settings and characters in early and contemporary Westerns. The idea of space is also very important, since some characters are a part of the "wilderness" framed in Westerns by the large and open skies, while other characters never leave the "garden," the utopian place of safety for the open frontier of the unknown.

In films like "The Searchers" we see the characters physically move out of the garden but eventually retreat back to the home, while an open doorway frames the wilderness. In "The Searchers," the character of the wilderness, Ethan (John Wayne), stays outside the home. Unlike the other characters, he doesn't re-enter the house at the end of the film, since his place is in the wilderness.

"Shane," which the St. Olaf Film Club showed in preparation for the lecture, also demonstrates the juxtaposition of the garden and the wilderness. In "Shane" there are two characters, Shane and Joe Starett, working together. They represent the garden and the wilderness, respectively. It isn't until the climactic scene, as Donelan illustrated, that Shane resolves the Staretts' family problems the only way he knows how (gun-slinging) and then rides back into the wilderness.

These types of characters also show up in contemporary films like "Fight Club" and "Blood Diamond." In all four films, the official hero and the outlaw hero are usually juxtaposed by framing. "Fight Club" is unique since we discover at the end that the official hero - or anti-hero, in this case - and the outlaw hero are one and the same. As for "Blood Diamond," we see a contemporary role reversal, as race does not factor into the other or the outlaw hero, as is typical of older Westerns. In "Blood Diamond," Djimon Hounsou plays the official hero, while Leonardo DiCaprio plays the outlaw hero.

Donelan ended her lecture by posing a question: "What kind of nation is being birthed out of these films?" Beyond the frontier myth, we can observe legacies of the Western in other contemporary films, like "Taxi Driver," in which the city functions as the wilderness. Donelan's rhetoric is intentionally reminiscent of the film "Birth of a Nation" that notably popularized the KKK. Donelan noted a legacy of racism and stereotypes, such as the function of "women 'corralling' men," in Western films, and said we must observe how the Western has been transformed, from the nationalistic images in "Spiderman" to films that act as a "grief map." Westerns and their thematic patterns, as Donelan pointed out, have not fallen off the map but appear in contemporary cinema, telling the same stories.

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