Near the end of the first act of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the film’s main characters find themselves at “Pete’s Place,” a bustling restaurant in the frontier town of Shinbone. There, aspiring attorney Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) works as a dishwasher who is still recovering from a vicious beating he received at the hands of the local gang leader Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). The restaurant owner, Pete, asks if Ransom might help Hallie (Vera Miles) serve food to their hungry guests. Pete’s wife protests instantly, saying, “Papa! Washing dishes is enough for him.” This is quickly followed by Hallie’s incredulous, “Who ever heard of a man waiting on tables?”
This short video essay begins, ends, and is structured throughout by Hallie’s rhetorical question—it’s the piece’s sonic and rhythmic spine. Like most rhetorical questions, Hallie’s inquiry is not about eliciting an answer or gathering more information; rather, the goal is to prove a point. This editing exercise is also a kind of rhetorical gesture, one that is purposefully less instructive than it is suggestive, less didactic than it is evocative.
Released in 1962 and shot on black-and-white celluloid (after color film had become the norm), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of Ford’s last westerns and it comes at the end of a long cycle of Hollywood westerns. The film’s most memorable quote is not Hallie’s line in the kitchen of Pete’s Place, but it belongs to the newspaper editor who summarizes the film’s main theme, saying: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The entire film—one that is told in flashback—functions, as film historian David Bordwell contends, as a feature-length elegy on how the “West was won and lost” (Bordwell, 20). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an “exhumation and autopsy on the Myth of the West” (Bordwell, 18).
Yet Ford’s meditation on memory and myth-making resonates with us, in part, because we are already so accustomed to the semantic and syntactic rules of the western (see, Rick Altman and Barry Keith Grant). If The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a cinematic reflection on how Hollywood and its studio filmmakers like Ford mythologized the West, then this short audiovisual response highlights some of the genre rules and conventions that underpin its design. Like Hallie’s statement of fact that masquerades as a question, the rhetorical aim of this project is to draw attention to genre repetition vis-à-vis editing repetition.
Hallie’s loaded question conveys gender assumptions common to the classic western. But it isn’t alone. The dramatic showdown in Pete’s Place between Liberty Valance and local rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the film’s representative of frontier justice and resourcefulness, abounds with gendered signifiers: Valance’s hard, phallic whip; Stoddard’s white apron; the men sparing over the spoiled meat (Doniphon: “That’s my steak, Valance.” And Valance’s charged, erotic reply: “Why don’t you get yourself a fresh steak on me?”).
Before I started toying with the footage, I thought this project would focus exclusively on the homoerotic standoff between Valance and Doniphon (who both tower over Stoddard, the victimized representative of law and order). However, I was so struck (as it were) by the rapping sound of Valance’s whip-on-table along with the sing-song quality of Hallie’s question, that I shifted the project’s aims to thinking about how genre films signify through the repeated deployment of textual resources like mise-en-scène, dialogue, and performances. The looping clips are a technical means of highlighting the kind of symbolic work that genres perform.
One of the foremost research joys of making audiovisual essays are the serendipitous discoveries that come from de-contextualizing familiar images and sound; decoupling them from the demands of narrative and continuity editing. Critically, this process of discovery and remix is itself a performative act that generates original knowledge that extends beyond the source material, as Catherine Grant compellingly argues (Grant, 262). For instance, this creator’s statement is one initial attempt at explaining my thinking on the project and on the design process. But it doesn’t and, indeed, it shouldn’t exhaust interpretations of it. The audiovisual essay’s flexibility of form—such as transmogrifying the emotional beats of a scene lifted from a classic western into the sonic beats of a video essay—give critics an expressive platform with which to ask questions (rhetorical and otherwise) about social power and representational practices, and to formulate provisional answers about how these concerns overlap, diverge, and reverberate over time.
Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Cinema Journal 23, no. 3 (Spring 1984): 6-18.
Bordwell, David. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Film Comment 7, no. 3 (Fall 1971): 18-20.
Grant, Barry Keith. Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2007.
Grant, Catherine. “The audiovisual essay as performative research.” NECSUS: European
Journal of Media Studies 5, no. 2 (2016): 255-265.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Directed by John Ford. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1962.