The Rhetoric of Stagecoach

Nick Browne’s text on the rhetoric of Stagecoach (The Spectator in the Text: The Rhetoric of Stagecoach, in Braudy and Cohen) examines how the narrative unfolds in one of the films most telling sequences while analyzing the role that the spectator plays in the act of storytelling.

In his text Brown explores the connection between the act of narration and the imagery. The way the image is presented, the framing of shots and their sequencing, the repetition of setups, the position of characters, the direction of their glance, all take part in the act of telling a story.

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In other words, Brown wants to explore the narrative agencies that take part in the action, who is involved in the act of storytelling while exploring the (not so passive) role of the spectator.
The scene in which he focuses is the moment in the story in which the characters arrive at Dry Fork, the first time that they sit down for a meal together. Brown analyses the scene in great detail, isolating the sequence of the shots in order to explore whose point of view it is representing and who is responsible for the narration and the consequences that such “points of view” have in shaping the spectator’s reading of the film.

Brown notices that there are two “points of view” or two narrative agencies taking part in the action. The first one being that of Lucy sitting at the head of the table, whose narrative authority has been established after a series of shot/reverse shots. The second narrative agency being that of an omniscient narrator that seems to place itself (the camera) at an angle where the spectator can have a better view of the action as a whole. This view is not associated with that of any character, rather it is there to show us, the spectators, the interplay between the characters in the group.

Lucy’s gaze is not detached from her “moral” background; she is an insider, a woman of society, married to an army lieutenant. Dallas, the “other” female companion, is by contrast an outsider, a prostitute that has been driven out of town by the ‘Ladies Law and Order League’ (to whom Lucy might well have been a part of). Tension arises at the table when Ringo (who has broken from prison to avenge his brothers death) invites Dallas to join them at the table. A close up of Lucy’s face reveals us how uncomfortable she is by the whole situation. The shots that follow (because they are made out of an angle that could well be that of Lucy’s gaze) metaphorically embody her point of view.

French film theory refers to spectator’s view as derived from the central position of the perspective of the photographic representation. It does not, however, allude to the emotional responses or the connections that the choice that this placement might induce. As a spectator we can be tricked/coerced to identify with the view of that who is “looking” or, as Brown argues, in Stagecoach we are compelled to identify with those who are “looked at”.

Brown expands on Lucy’s gaze over Dallas: “Though I share Lucy’s geographical position of viewing at this moment in the film, I am not committed to her figurative position of view. I can, in other words, repudiate Lucy’s view of or judgment on Dallas, without negating it as a view, in a way that Dallas herself, captive of the other’s image, cannot”.

Our positions as spectators have a life of its own and are not merely mechanic responses to the “perspective of the photographic representation”. Identification asks us as spectators to be in two places at once, both where the camera is (in this case with Lucy) and “with” the depicted person (Dallas). This puts as in a complex position of oscillating between that of viewing and being viewed. (A very uncomfortable situation in many cases explored in great detail and achieved wonderfully by P.T Anderson in his film Boogie Nights).

This sequence achieves to side the spectator with the “outsider” despite the fact that she has been denied of a point of view (and of a place in society). Thus, as audiences we do not necessarily identify with the character trough’s eyes we are meant to be seeing the action, suggesting that the spectator is also playing an active role in the construction of the narrative.

Brown argues that the “cumulative effect of the narrator’s strategy of placement of the spectator from moment to moment is his introduction into what might be called the moral order of the text”. As spectators we are then encouraged to adopt a posture of rejecting that “moral” code that Lucy as a character comes to represent and to see behind such “moral” conventions that support discrimination and intolerance and align ourselves with the outcasts.

Brown concludes that “certain formal features of the imagery – framing, sequencing, the prohibition, and “invisibility” of the narrator, can be explained as the ensemble of ways authority implicitly positions the spectator/ reader. [Therefore they study of the narrative agencies in] “Stagecoach” points to a largely unexplored body of critical problems associated with describing and accounting for narrative and rhetorical signifying structures”.

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