Who Ever Heard…?

Creator's Statement

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.

Works Cited:

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.

Unlike other film genres, the western is indivisibly connected to U.S. origin myths. In essence, Hollywood westerns are stories America tells itself about itself. Thus, even fifty years after the western peaked in public popularity and social influence, the genre remains a fascinating canvas of dominant national ideologies upon which a multitude of cultural anxieties can be traced and studied—from race and religion to economics and politics to, most essentially and especially, gender and the performance of masculinity.

These generic codes of masculinity are indeed the subject of Matt Payne’s video essay “Who Ever Heard…?” and while the topic could easily become overreaching, Payne successfully engages the task with shrewd focus, skillful design, and playful technique.

Payne uses a single scene from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961) as the raw material—the infamous dinner scene, wherein the film’s outlaw villain (Lee Marvin), outlaw hero (John Wayne), and official hero (James Stewart) all come into conflict over a tarnished steak. The true conflict of the scene, of course, is tarnished manhood and how challenges to machismo should be properly addressed. Payne breaks the scene into a small collection of two second moments spread across nine windows. Each two seconds adds to a growing symphonic remix, using the rhythmic repetition of each moment to comment upon the ever-repeating generic codes of a classic western standoff. Vera Miles’s initial cry (“Who ever heard of a man waiting on tables?!”) is eventually joined by all manner of masculine performance, from slamming whips to the threatening snarls to guns cocking.

The choice of the scene also adds greatly to the project. Although not expressed in the author’s supporting statement, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is inherently an interrogation of the western genre. Arguably the last great work of Hollywood’s most famous western director, the film comes near the end of Hollywood’s classic western cycle and carries a deeper skepticism towards traditional American masculinity than possibly any western up to that time. Thus, it is not just codes of masculinity that ring through the Payne’s nine windows, but also challenges to these codes, as the macho threats of Wayne and Marvin are complimented by Stewart’s cries of exacerbation that men would threaten to kill each other over so little. Even Vera Miles’s titular question reveals the inquisitorial nature of film itself.

Payne’s conceit is simple and his execution deeply clever. The video and its rhythms act as a witty distancing device, offering the spectator a simple and fresh view of the scene, the genre, and the ideology.

Matthew Thomas Payne’s audiovisual essay “Who Ever Heard …?  Genre, Gender, and Repetition in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is an elegant and compact inquiry into repetition as a fundamental structuring element intertwining cinema, the Western genre, and modes of gender performance.  Repetition is of course at the heart of cinema as a technical apparatus, and a crucial if not constitutive feature of narrative, perhaps most distinctively elaborated through the editing patterns established by Hollywood (as Raymond Bellour has most influentially demonstrated); if these fundamental repetitions escape attention through the flows of the film itself or our engagement with story, repetition is often foregrounded at another level through genre, commonly dismissed as simply repetitive by critics but appreciated by fans who enjoy the musical model of repetition with variation – a formal pattern Payne employs effectively by turning the hard slap of Liberty Valance’s whip into the video essay’s sonic beat.   (More broadly, Ford’s film has been understood as both a significant variation within both the Western genre as well as his own oeuvre.) 

Illuminating these interlocking levels of repetition – from those disavowed by the cinematic apparatus to those anticipated as the conventions of genre – would be a rewarding critical exercise in itself.  But Payne’s manipulation of Ford’s scene, again, lends his material a strong backbeat, while polyphonic “lyrics” are derived from the snatches of dialog that here become chants through the rhythmic repetition that renders language ritualistic.  As his title and motivating quotation emphasize, in this Western, questions (as well as guns) are loaded.  Indeed, Payne’s demand that we listen to Hallie’s rhetorical question again and again confirms  that her expression of a traditional gender norm through a question that expects no answer  condenses cultural assumptions about proper gender roles that have seemed foundational to the Western, if not Hollywood cinema overall.  However, if the Western is often accused of reducing hypermasculine male characters to clearly opposed heroes and villains, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance provides three representatives of American masculinity, brought together in this scene in a feminized “domestic” space rather than on the uncivilized frontier, and at a moment when gender roles are felt to be unbalanced through an emasculated man serving food (steak, of course) to other men.  Payne’s video places these characters and their roles in relief by simultaneously linking and isolating them on a grid, enhancing our ability to analyze what Ford dramatizes.

This distance, combined with the pedagogical function of repetition, helps reveal how in this scene whips and guns remain implicit threats, while verbal threats are displaced into statements about meat; as Payne’s strategies emphasize, cowboy boots are the primary tools of physical violence in this scene.  Payne’s nine-screen pattern allows him (and us) to play a clever game of addition and subtraction, as well as continuity and substitution, that remains remarkably easy to follow and that skillfully modulates sounds to simultaneously overlap and come to the fore.  This careful organization of the screen (and soundtrack) subtly alludes to other spatial modes of repetition – games like tic-tac-toe or chess, or the panel construction of comic books – as well as the temporal models I’ve already noted of beat-driven music or vocal chanting that renders verbal communication as ritual.  But the video essay’s real achievement is to suggest that these fundamental formal repetitions may extend to and sustain residual ideological patterns in which women cook and serve the Western beef that men eat and find ways to fight over.