The Sunset is a Lonesome Place: Budd Boetticher and the American Dream

Curator's Note

The Western explores the American Dream, as a concept within our culture. It is traditionally impossible to consider American Exceptionalism, and the American Dream, as something that can be held collectively. The American Dream is seen as a universal possibility, yet each must achieve this dream singularly, as the foundation of American culture rests on rank individualist notions. The Western structures itself around these themes and offers a clear-paved road towards exploring this concept. Further, as it is so formally conservative in its generic conventions, it also allows many inroads in which critiques of this whole American Dream drive can be examined. The Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, Jr. offer stark impulses toward the individualistic American Dream, and its consequence in a community. Many Westerns have a communal moment to suggest that the individual hero could be part of the society at large, Boetticher’s Westerns operate far removed from any sense that communal situations could be positives. This is Boetticher’s anxiety over what he saw as the increasing collectivization of American Culture. The group for Boetticher is seen as a barrier to the exceptionalism that can only exist in the individual. As Peter Wollen explains for Boetticher, “the role of the crowd, incapable itself of action, is to provoke the bullfighter into action, even if he is wounded.”[i] In Boetticher’s films, especially in his closet drama, Decision at Sundown (1957) the American Dream via American Exceptionalism, is an ultimately lonesome pursuit. While Boetticher would have this as his price for nobility, in Decision at Sundown, there is no resolution. Decision is an exercise in the Vengeance narrative: a man seeking retribution for the breakup of his family (itself a prime aspect of the American Dream). Yet in Decision the dream that he had of a family, turns out to be a self-constructed mythology. When he wins in the end, it only belies how crushing the individualistic life truly is. Drunk and alone, he wanders into the sunset, a tragic variation of the noble ride off. The American Dream little more than a spectre haunting the diminishing frontier. [i] Lee Russell, “Budd Boetticher” in New Left Review. No.32 (1965)


I am wondering where we might see the individualist type in more recent films and genres? Leonardo DiCaprio's character in The Revenant, for example, seems to fulfill this mythos but he comes by it incidentally and out of tragedy, after the death of his wife and then later his son: his revenge drives his isolation, individualistic characterization. But I wonder where this type of hero pops up in other genres? Batman, for one, seems of a similar type. Also often it is as if the individualistic hero of the Western is necessary to secure the collective of the frontier community for example (or in Batman's case the continued security of Gotham), so there is an interesting tension there between the individual and the collective that seems distinctly American.

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