Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Lone Ranger and Deconstructing the American Myth

The Lone Ranger is being released to Disney Blu-Ray and DVD in a mere five days, so we thought it would be worth revisiting one of the most unfairly maligned - and misunderstood - films of the year. It was also my favourite of the year, and one of Quentin Tarantino's top 10, and if we agree then you know it's a great movie!

Despite poor critical reviews, Disney's The Lone Ranger was unexpectedly one of the most intelligent and adventuresome films of 2013. The histrionics of professional critics was almost in direct inverse proportion to how intelligent and adventuresome. Gilbert Cruz of The Vulture decreed that it "Represents Everything That's Wrong With Hollywood Blockbusters," San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle called it "the biggest stinker of 2013" and Lou Lumenick of the New York Post audaciously declared it "the worst [Western] — and then some." Such immoderate complaints are pure nonsense: The Lone Ranger is nowhere near the worst movie of the year or the worst Western ever made. It's not even the worst Disney movie of the year, nor the worst version of the Lone Ranger ever made. Mark Hughes of Forbes was right to decry the media as "flop-hungry," overwhelmed by the sheer momentum of their own self-important negativity.

A great irony of critics complaining that The Lone Ranger  was  big, dumb and banal - a complaint better befitting most other summer flicks, including critical darlings like Pacific Rim -  is that it actually outsmarted them. It is a common habit of ignorance to think that something is stupid because one does not understand it, and I suspect that habit came into play with The Lone Ranger. Some complaints were simply frivolous, like how it was a comedy or that it was "overlong" (sorry, at only six minutes longer that the first Pirates of the Caribbean, I didn't notice), but I can at least sympathize a little bit with the fact that maximizing one's experience with the film requires a functional knowledge of historical American Western settlement and the American Western as a genre.

The Lone Ranger, drafted by the same creative team as Pirates of the Caribbean, pokes at the corniness of the original radio and television versions while genuinely attempting to reach out to the tastes of modern audiences. In doing so, it can become corny in its own right, with a wink and a nod, proving that it isn't poking at the original Ranger in a mean way. On the contrary, knowledge of the original is required to understand the film's subtexts. Our story opens in a carnival in San Francisco in 1933, the same year that The Lone Ranger debuted on radio. A young boy, clad in Hollywood cowboy style complete with Lone Ranger mask, enters a Wild West show, out of which pours the music of celebrity singing cowboy Gene Autry. The carnival barker promises that the exhibit will take visitors back to "the thrilling days of yesteryear" - a quote from the radio show's opening - though inside are mostly static displays of buffalo and grizzly bears. One display, however, features a living "Noble Savage"... An aged and decrepit Tonto, who proceeds to tell the boy the true story of the Lone Ranger.

Not long into the film we come to understand that Tonto is an unreliable narrator, raising the question of how much of the true story of the Lone Ranger is really true. The boy tries to remind Tonto - or convince himself - that the Lone Ranger is just a made-up character. A key point in the film is that Tonto is emotionally scarred from the childhood trauma that connects directly to his desire for revenge on Butch Cavendish. Cherokee elders relate the story to John Reid, the Ranger's alter ego, believing that Tonto's mind is broken and that his perception of the world is skewed. At least it would explain why he keeps trying to feed the dead crow on his head, or why he wears one at all. Supernatural, "Weird West" elements are layered throughout The Lone Ranger, but these are all called into question. Are they real or imagined by Tonto? Is the Lone Ranger real or imaginary? For that matter, is Tonto even real or was he also imagined by the boy?

Consequently, the film calls our attention to the act of Western myth-making and sets about, in its own way, to deconstruct how cultures recollect and reinterpret their own history (including a self-deconstruction of the very act of making cinematic reboots, which is the sort of self-awareness I haven't seen since the South Park movie's being a satire of the controversy the South Park movie would generate). The reality of western settlement in the United States has been layered over and over again by myth-making and faulty recollection, due exactly to film, television and radio. Not only them, but even the people who lived it, as with Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west shows, Ned Buntline's dime novels and the paintings of Charlie Russell. From Washington Irving to Walt Disney, the United States has always been a myth-making culture that reworks and retools its own history to communicate a certain ideal however divorced that may be from fact. Everyone knows about the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere and Washington crossing the Delaware, but not about the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that was a proximate cause of the Revolution (it forbade the conquest of Native lands and unrestricted colonialism, instead requiring legal land surrender by treaty). Everyone remembers to remember the Alamo, but doesn't remember that Mexico was actually in the right in that conflict (Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William Travis and the Texan settlers were essentially foreign insurgents). It is common knowledge that the Wild West was settled by the gun, less well-known that the average annual homicide rate per city during the period of western settlement was two, and that gun control was strictly enforced in towns. The Gunfight at the OK Corral was instigated by the Clantons and McLaurys flouting the ordinance not to carry firearms in Tombstone. Illegally carrying firearms was the second most common cause of arrest after drunk and disorderly conduct.

Given this, The Lone Ranger did hold out the threat of imposing upon us that uniquely American brand of hero's journey where the limp-wristed, educated intellectual must learn that the only way to decisively resolve conflict is with bloodshed. Theologian Walter Wink dubbed this story form "The Myth of Redemptive Violence," dating back at least as early as the Babylonian Enuma Elish of 1250BCE, in which the god Marduk creates the cosmos by stretching out of the entrails of his slain foe, the dragon Tiamat. America's history invites - almost requires - adherence to the moral framework of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, since the American Revolution is as concrete an historical realization of the myth of Tiamat and Marduk as is possible. The United States has a particular version of this myth which reinforces the ideal of the rugged, individualistic, gun-toting type against the effete, intellectual, liberal type. Our introduction to John Reid is his sitting on a train reading John Locke's Two Treatises on Government. During the first big train robbery action scene, we also find out that he eschews firearms and is a lawyer. Wimp!

Thankfully the film retains its composure and adherence to the original character, whose ultimate goal was justice. Not justice taken into one's own hand, but the justice of due legal process. Though he grows into a more model American toughguy, the Lone Ranger still possesses the ethic that he is an agent of civilization, even when being so requires being an outlaw (which also fits in with the American fetish for the criminal class, from Old West outlaws to Depression-Era gangsters to easy riding bikers to inner city gangstas). This new version also hews closely enough to the established origin of the character, complete with that infamous ride of the Texas Rangers into the canyon and the silver mine which would furnish a near endless supply of silver bullets. The origin of Silver is distinctly different, as required by the ambiguous supernaturalism imparted by Tonto.

Silver, the horse, is a fantastic actor and frequently steals the show. Armie Hammer is adequate in a role more clearly written for Brendan Fraser circa The Mummy, and Johnny Depp does much to act his way out of the fundamental ickiness of casting a white actor to play a Native character. The ambivalence of his playing Tonto is, I think, handled as well as one can hope by how Tonto is written. Because he is emotionally traumatized and mentally broken, he is not intended to represent a typical "Indian Brave" or "Noble Savage." His being in the Wild West show's display as a specimen of the "Noble Savage" is lampshading how Tonto has traditionally been portrayed. He is allowed to break out of having to portray Native Americans as a whole and permitted simply to act the character. Between them, the Lone Ranger and Tonto have a fun and lively dynamic that chews more scenery than did a taciturn Ranger and a stoic Tonto.

Some legitimate criticism pointed out the gratuity of some silliness and some violence. It seems that simply killing someone is no longer quite bad enough (I suppose not, when our summer movie death toll was in the billions, between zombies, starship crashes, giant monsters and alien terraforming engines). Now the cold-blooded killers have to eat their victim's remains just to prove that they're really bad guys. Despite being needless, the acts of cannibalism were written well into the plot and fitted with the film's supernaturalism and subtle theme of nature being out of balance. I suspect more would have been made of nature's imbalance had not major parts of the script been excised when Disney brought down the fiscal hammer during production.

Upon seeing the first ads for The Lone Ranger, I initially found myself in worry over whether they would play the character for laughs... Making him the butt of a joke, that white men are stupid and that old things are funny because they're not modern things. That is blessedly not the case, even though it is mostly a comedy. Any fun that is poked at the Lone Ranger earns the climactic payoff when John Reid owns his masked identity, takes off on Silver's back and Hans Zimmer's arrangement of the William Tell Overture hits the octane. It's an origin story after all. It has to end with the hero rising up to become the legend that our young boy in 1933 admires.

Not only is The Lone Ranger an origin story of the character, but it is also a deconstruction of the mythmaking about American origins. That makes it at least one of the most intelligent of summer blockbusters of 2013... So intelligent that it may indeed have outsmarted the critics of the intelligentsia who were neither expecting nor desirous of a worthwhile film from Disney. While it may not have gone quite so far as to capture lightening in a bottle the way Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl did, to even try suggesting that The Lone Ranger is anything but enjoyable and provocative is laughable.

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