*SPOILER ALERT!!* DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN "MAVERICK"
> It was disappointing because I had hoped I would enjoy it more, a
> simple matter of expectations vs. reality. More to the point, the
> filmmakers seem to have done everything they could to remove the elements
> of "the Western" from the film or by using "standard" Western elements in
> either arbitrary ways or with a degree of self-consciousness and archness
> as to make the motif meaningless.
> Not to make an "academic" issue out of all this (a temptation that as
> the editor of _Cinema Journal_ I find hard to resist!) but the best
> Westerns say something about American history and culture through the
> mythical-historical period of the taming of the frontier. What does
> _Maverick_ have to offer>
A look at Maverick will
> reveal more in common with _The Sting_ than say, virtually any Western of
> the classic era (1946-1975).
> David Desser, Cinema Studies
It's very interesting that you mention _The Sting_ in relation to
_Maverick because, if I'm not mistaken, Paul Newman was first picked to
play Garner's role as Sheriff Cooper. But more to the point, it's
has little in common with the traditional Western save for one: "Maverick,"
the television series; and I think, at least in part, that's what Donner
was attempting to recapture--the playful nature of the series. And that's
the key to fully appreciating the film.
But even more importantly, your criticism of _Maverick_ rings hollow
because saying _Maverick_ is not a traditional Western like _Stagecoach_
,for instance, is like saying _Finnegan's Wake_ is not a traditional
novel like _Pride and Prejudice_. In other words, since when are there
hard and fast rules about how a Western should play or what it should
show or what we should "learn" from it? Further, what kind of media would
exist if prescriptive rules were steadfastly kept in place? I suspect
any genre sooner or later would fall flat, become stale, which is
precisely what happened to the traditional Western form.
But back to the playfulness of _Maverick_. The film, the form itself, is
clearly a poker game replete with bluffs, tricks, cheating, gameplaying,
etc. These are enmeshed in the very nature of its presentation. It is,
in the postmodern sense, a pastische of genres, both dramatic and
comedic, both self-reflexive and plot-driven. This pastische succeeds in
distancing the viewer from the text--a typical postmodern move--and
perhaps this, more specifically, is what makes you feel uncomfortable. We
are continually reminded by the intermingling of forms, by the breaking of
frames, by the undercutting of genres, that this is a film--a work of art;
not a great one, mind you, but the art of filmmaking is still apparent
Consider, for example, the early scene where Brett is accousted by the
young "gunfighter." Play it as Eastwood might, and I think you have
essentially your definition of a Western. But Donner places the
revisionist Eastwood character within a comedic framework--breaking the
revisionist frame, as it were, and creating instead a pastiche: Eastwood
meets Jerry Lewis; and yet an element of drama is retained: We know at
the outset that in spite of Brett's playfulness and "gutlessness," he is
still a figure to be reckoned with, respected, feared in basically the
same Eastwoodian manner.
Another example is the momentary encounter/recognition that Brett has with
the bank robber. This contemporary, self-referential overlay is a key
sign that the film will play out like a poker match--continually
bluffing the viewer, playing games that distance you from the
traditional Western genre and at the same time drawing you into its
A final example is the poker game itself. Certainly the "First Annual
Riverboat Poker Championship" has little to do with the traditional
West and more to do with our contemporary association with Las
Vegas-style gambling. Another overlay, but further, a tremendous
opportunity, for those of us who remember, to see and recall *not* the
traditional West, but the TV Western of our youth and childhood.
This is where the film's self-referential form becomes most apparent--that
is, we are viewing something far more than a storyline being played out,
but an entire generation, the history of an essentially forgotten medium,
recovered again for one brief shining moment: Your traditional Western,
but framed in a wildly different, contemporary form.