Theory Teacher's Blog

Searchers 2.0, from Tragedy to Farce

It’s spring break this week, so among other things I caught up on my movie watching. The King’s Speech was great. (I don’t know about “best picture” but definitely great, and that’s not the kind of film I usually go in for.) In stark contrast, The Adjustment Bureau, based loosely on a Philip K. Dick story, is the kind of film I do usually go in for, but I didn’t like it at all because the whole story is organized around a simplistic, obvious idea that the director seems to think is really smart. It’s not smart. From my library, I checked out the comedy Due Date, starring Robert Downey, Jr., which follows the standard road-trip genre. It is sometimes amusing (and I unfortunately have a bit too much in common with Downey’s character), but predictable and forgettable. Another movie I checked out on pure whim turned out to be a surprising gem: Searchers 2.0. First shown in British theaters in 2007 and 2008, but just released on DVD in the United States in October 2010, it is a road trip revenge Western parody — an ironic blend of genres. As you might guess from the title, the movie alludes to the classic John Wayne Western, The Searchers (1958), and since I taught that movie just a few weeks ago in my film class, I’d like to say something about this new film. Here is the trailer:

The characters Mel and Fred are old, out-of-work Western-movie actors who decide to search out and take their revenge upon a screenwriter who physically abused them when they were child actors. Since neither of them has a working car, they convince Mel’s daughter Delilah to drive them to the famous location of so many Westerns, Monument Valley, where they believe the evil screenwriter, Fritz Frobisher, will be. During their road trip through the west, Mel and Fred constantly talk about movies, especially some of the classic westerns, and some of the scenes clearly allude to famous moments in that genre. Because it’s essentially a meta-film (a film about films), and because it was made on a tiny budget, just $180, 000, it is perhaps the kind of movie that only a movie nerd like me would find hilariously clever. And I did find it hilariously clever.

The movie satirizes American culture by having the Quentin-Tarantino-style dialogue meander back and forth from discussions of revenge tragedies, war films, and Westerns to discussions of the war in Iraq, gas-guzzling cars, the corporate film industry, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, and Chicano politics. The slogan the characters come up with for their quest is “justice, gas, revenge” — an obvious commentary on American foreign policy, except the characters don’t themselves see that connection. (And this is an example of dramatic irony.) The humor is based on the unlikely connections between movie worlds and the real world.

For some reason, the movie reminded me of Karl Marx’s sarcastic joke about Napoleon III in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte when he says, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” As the characters in Searchers 2.0 say, the first Searchers movie is almost a classic revenge tragedy (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet) of American racism against Native Americans, but the tragedy that happened in the real historical world is famously averted in the film world in the final climactic moment. The first Searchers was made right when the civil rights movement was beginning, and the second Searchers 2.0 was made during the post-civil rights era. So, the comic irony is that its characters are trying to emulate the pre-civil rights era hero. But of course the world has changed, and their attempt to reference an earlier movie world is clearly farcical. It is especially farcical since the character Mel is Chicano, so he both idolizes and hates the racist white hero of the classic Hollywood Western. (For example, he mentions that his father would not let his family watch any John Wayne movies.) All they can do is talk endlessly about the many manifestations of heroism that clearly they are not.

In the next paragraph of his book, Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” So, the characters talk and talk and talk, but can do nothing, so trapped are they by their cloudy memory, the role they want to play but ironically can not play. To conclude, the movie is a classic example of how dramatic irony reveals the disconnect between metaphorical identity and real identity (condensation) and exposes the narrative trick of displacing real political problems onto simpler moral stories.

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March 18, 2011 - Posted by | movies

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