When Sleepers Wake and Yet Still Dream
Melinda Barlow / University of Colorado at Boulder
from all thought
a clean break
in blank space
Neither cowboy nor oilman, hardly a giant and more like a ghost, Travis Henderson dreams his way into West Texas oblivion, then runs from dawn to dusk to get there. A haunted man on the lam from his own memory, he wanders in a desert as vast as the hole in his heart, armed with a tattered photograph of a vacant lot he bought in the town where he may have been conceived and hoped to raise his son. But when the wife he shackled with a cowbell and belted to the stove finally managed to flee, he left fatherhood behind, burying it inside. Only after his brother retrieves him four years later following a collapse in the blinding light of Terlingua does he begin to see what being a father really means.
Mute and melancholy, Travis is the antithesis of Texan flamboyance. No swagger or slang; uninterested in style; incapable of telling tall tales and devoid of sweeping ambition, his is not a larger-than-life personality but rather a diminished late 20th-century masculinity—in the opening shots of Paris, Texas, he is but a speck within the frame. Anxious, uncertain, and shorn of vanity; unsure how to bear the mantle of paternity, deal with loss of potency and pending mortality, and definitely not in assignment service any condition to fight, Travis, and the fellow troubled men who precede and succeed him in many mid-20th through early 21st century American films, nonetheless does battle, and, in the quiet epic of his own life, as it unfolds in the elegy for the American West which is Wim Wenders’ film, ultimately makes a single monumental gesture. He restores an estranged mother (his former wife) and son. Until then, as with his equally apprehensive onscreen counterparts, his duel lies deep within.
What is the appeal of the pose that Travis eschews, and that a relatively unconflicted man like Bick Benedict (Giant, 1956) adopts so effortlessly? That Hud Bannon (Hud, 1963) appears to embody? That Jack Burns (Lonely Are the Brave, 1962) clings to with tenacity, while fending off modern technology? That Joe Buck knows is intimately bound up with his clothes (Midnight Cowboy, 1969), and that revisionist westerns routinely dismantle? What pleasures and paradoxes are expressed through the image of the cowboy and his costume? What are the ideological stakes of this form of male masquerade?
Clothes, as they say, make the man; they also allow boys to envision themselves as potent masculine images: as stylish, heroic fighters of custom dissertation headed straight for the OK Corral. But images may be deceiving, and by 1960 American westerns know this. Says an extra playing one of Davy Crockett’s men in John Wayne’s The Alamo when he first sees dashing General Santa Anna, “Fancy clothes don’t make a fightin’ man,” and even Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey), tired of The Duke-as-Crockett’s hokey adages and exaggerated vernacular, quips “All that bad grammar is a pose.”
No image is more striking or more deceptive than that cut by tough as a boot Hud Bannon, a cowhand as mean and unprincipled as his father Homer is venerable and hardworking. Instead of shooting their entire herd of cattle when it is infected with foot-and-mouth disease—any rancher’s worst nightmare—Hud wants to sell it, before it’s too late. Homer can hardly believe such an unscrupulous man is his son, and warns nephew Lonnie that Hud’s charm is nothing but a sham, and one with national implications: “You think he’s a real man. But you’ve been taken in our service at http://samedayessays.org/case-studies-online/…Little by little the look of the country changes because of the men we admire.”
When Kyle Hadley, alcoholic heir to the Texas oil company run by his father Jasper, a successful “big man,” is told by his doctor that his test results show a “certain weakness,” a classic moment of Sirkian mise-en-scène expresses his humiliation at the possibility of impotence, as Hadley walks by a young boy vigorously bouncing up and down on a mechanical horse. Even more significant is the fear he describes to wife Lucy upon awakening from a fevered dream: “It’s like I was deep in a mountain pass, snowcaps hanging over my head. If I make a sound, snow might all come tumbling down. Bury me—alive.”
In the President’s dreams, we are told, his words become “distorted and undefined,” his sentences barely trip off his “swollen and uncooperative tongue,” and his talk becomes incomprehensible—mushy and doughy. When he finally loses his voice and compensates aggressively, imagining an imposter who delivers his speeches with the utmost eloquence, he also dreams of a stampede of cattle charging him at great speed, rendered in the film as a blank screen onto which we project our most terrifying visions of what such an assault might be like. An anxious big talker who was a product of the poverty of the Hill Country— afraid of ending up penniless, just like his father—in The Rancher, Johnson becomes a man unhinged, the “credibility gap” associated with his late presidency a function of the distinction between his public persona and his unconscious private life.7
An aged man is a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress
There are things we don’t know. We yet still dream.
1. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984).
2.Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984).
3. From left: Found photograph, Austin, Texas. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Paul Newman in production still for Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963).
4. Jon Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969).
5. James Mason as Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956).
6.Dorothy Malone as Marylee Hadley in Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956).
7.From left: Postcard of The Texas Ranger of 1960. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Postcard for The Trailer (2013-ongoing) by The Bridge Club. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
8.“What Remains,” (The Bridge Club, 2013), detail. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
9. The Rancher (Kelly Sears, 2012).
10. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978).
Please feel free to comment.
- Jean Baudrillard, America, Trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), 9. [↩]
- Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 449. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Art Spiegelman, “Mein Kampf,” New York Times Magazine (May 11, 1996), 37.
Courtney Fellion’s Honors Thesis, “Heroes and False Prophets: Why the New American Western Doesn’t Believe Any More” (University of Colorado, 2008), opens with a lovely meditation on the personal and cultural significance of a “found” image of an “unknown” cowboy she discovered in a family scrapbook. [↩]
- Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 81. [↩]
- Barbara Welter, The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1960,” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), 152.
The other irony of this image is that the sculpture, whose official title is Texas Ranger of 1960, was created by Schulenberg-born artist Waldine Amanda Tauch, whose teacher Pompeo L. Coppini told her early on that she was “too small” to be a monumental sculptor. Her answer: “That’s what I started out to be and that’s what I’m going to be.” See University of Texas at San Antonio Digital Library, “Interview with WAT, 1983”, p.6. [↩]
- For more on Lyndon Johnson’s driving fears and anxieties, see Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). [↩]