The cowboy travels the world

8 April 2013

Through his pioneering project "Global Western – Intercultural Transformations of the American Genre par Excellence", Dr. Thomas Klein of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is scouting uncharted vistas. Many aspects of the Western still remain unexplored. With the project now reaching its conclusion, the cultural studies expert convened a conference, including a preview on future research topics.
 

There he stands, with his legs apart, hat drawn down deep over his face. The wind is tugging on his clothing. His hand reaches for his colt ... This poster is seemingly omnipresence in the corridors of the Philosophicum building on the JGU campus. It's promoting a small but finely conceived conference entitled "The Global Western – Interculturality, Transmediality and Hybridity of the Western Genre".

Everybody knows pictures like this, familiar from TV, advertising, or the latest cinematic smash from Quentin Tarantino. The Western long ago conquered the world, yet from an academic point of view it has long been neglected, with many questions still unanswered today.

The Western as a platform for intercultural communication

This led Dr. Thomas Klein of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Mainz University to found his project "Global Western – Intercultural Transformations of the American Genre par Excellence" in 2008. For the past three years it has received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG). With the project coming to a close, the expert in cultural and film studies invited colleagues from Cologne, Berlin, Göttingen, Leeds, Sydney, and Mexico City to a two-day conference in Mainz, supported by the JGU Center for Intercultural Studies (ZIS).

Its coordinator, Professor Dr. Anton Escher, also welcomed the participants. "The university’s Center for Intercultural Studies has been supporting projects and conferences on intercultural themes and topics for 12 years now. Because cultural development is only possible when different cultures communicate with one another," Escher says. "But for communication to be possible they need a common element and the genre of the Western is an ideal example of this."

Its coordinator, Professor Dr. Anton Escher, also welcomed the participants. "The university’s Center for Intercultural Studies has been supporting projects and conferences on intercultural themes and topics for 12 years now. Because cultural development is only possible when different cultures communicate with one another," Escher says. "But for communication to be possible they need a common element and the genre of the Western is an ideal example of this."

The cowboay arrives in Mexiko

The Western has long played a major role in the Mexican cinema in particular. The geographical proximity and historical and cultural overlapping between the USA and Mexico are part of the story. Spanish influences turned the cowboy into the vaquero, and a subtly differentiated Western culture developed, with elements of Mexican folklore coming together with components of the US Western.

Siboney Obscura Gutiérrez of the University of Mexico City offers an overview of the Mexican Western of the 1960s. While the Hollywood Western was going through a period of stagnation at that time, fresh momentum was coming through the so-called Spaghetti Westerns of Italian origin. The Mexican cinema reacted to the situation in its own completely different way. In this case it was stimuli emanating from academic circles that led to a renewal.

One example is how Arturo Ripstein played with the stereotypes of the cowboy in his 1965 film "Tiempo De Morier." "It shows a parody of the classical hero," Gutiérrez explains. "His protagonist has no horse, so he only rarely rides. He's old. During the final dual he has to put on his glasses. He has a definitely cowardly strain in him – and then there's a scene where he sits knitting with the main female protagonist." Gutiérrez sees all of this as representing an ironic reformulation of the Western.

Aborigines, gauchos, and Indian superheroes

Dr. Christian Wehr of the Department of Romance Studies at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt uses this same film to show just how open the genre of the Western is for cultural recoding. While the US-American version of the Western traditionally focuses on the cowboy as a hero who enforces the law through a weapon, "Tiempo De Morier" is a different type of Western movie entirely. "The weapon is no longer a tool of civilization, but rather a symbol of self-destruction." A depiction emerges of a fatherless society that is its own enemy, Wehr claims.

Various national aspects were discussed on the first day of the conference. This included "Aboriginal Cowboys" in Australia's Far West, barbarism and civilization in the Argentinian gaucho Western, and even "Vegetarianism, Clint Eastwood, and the Tamil identity – the creation of an Indian superhero."

Given the small circle of participants, there was always the opportunity for discussions and conversations in parallel to the official panels – on topics like the influence of Latin American governments on the film industries of their countries, for instance. "We have colleagues here who all can really give well-informed analyses," Klein notes happily.

From Karl May to the German 'Heimatfilm'

He himself examined nearly 150 films over the course of the project and now provides a sketch of one aspect of his research: "The landscape in the Western is always depicted as something pristine, virginal, and only partially tamed by civilization. Whether it's in Australia or Latin America, it is portrayed as something that can forge national identity."

"This is our land," the message seems to say. One special case of this involves the Karl May series of German Westerns – filmed in Yugoslavia. So is it possible in these to reference a national identity? "The mountains constantly serve as a central motif," Klein answers. "As such they offer a direct link to the German 'Heimatfilm'."

Klein plans on next exploring how the genre of the Western is penetrating into other media. The second day of the congress provided a preview. The Western in video games was discussed as was the use of the Western in comic books and the elements of the Western in the "Tatort" detective shows on German network TV.

Klein is hoping for financial support for this continuation of the project. If so, perhaps another round of invitations to a conference in Mainz will go out. After all, there remains plenty of undiscovered territory still to explore in the badlands of the Western.