The Structure of Myth and the Structure of Western Film

Based on Saussure (1974), structuralism is a theoretical method derived from his theoritical work. He divides language into two component parts which together produce a third (signifier, signified and meaning). According to him, meaning is produced through a process of combination and selection. As Saussure insists, “In language, there are only differences without positive terms language has neither ideas not sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued for the system. (1974: 120) Saussure divides language into langue and parole. Langue refers to system of language, the rules and conventions which organized it. Parole refers to individual utterance, the individual use of language. Structuralism takes two basic ideas from Saussure’s work. First, a concern with the underlying relations of cultural text and practices – the grammar which makes meaning possible. Second, the view that meaning is always the result of the interplay of relationship of selection and combination made possible by the underlying structure.

According to Levi – Strauss, the myths are structured in terms of binary opositions. All myths also have similar social culture function within society. Their purpose is to make the world explicable, to magically resolveits problems and contradictions. In sixguns and society, Will Wright (1975) use both methodologies to analyze the Hollywood Western as myth. According to Wright, the western has evolved through three stages: classic, transition theme and professional. He also identifies a basic set of structuring opositions: inside society , outside society, good-bad, strong wilderness (49).

In order to fully understand the social meaning of a myth, it is necessary to analyze not only its binary structure but also its narrative structure – the progression of event and the resolution of conflicts. The classic western is divided into sixteen narrative functions.

Those are:

  1. The hero enters a social group.
  2. The hero is unknown to the society.
  3. The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability.
  4. The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status.
  5. The society does not completely accept the hero.
  6. There is a conflict of interests between the villains and the society.
  7. The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak.
  8. There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and a villain.
  9. The villains threaten the society.
  10. The hero avoids involvement in the conflict.
  11. The villains endanger a friend of the hero.
  12. The hero fights the villains.
  13. The hero defeats the villains.
  14. The society is safe.
  15. The society accepts the hero.
  16. The hero loses or gives up his special status.

Poststructuralists reject the idea of an underlying structure ultimately determining the meaning of a cultural text or practice. For poststructuralists, meaning is always process, a momentary stop in a continuous flow of possibilities. Jacques Derida (1973) has invented a new word to describe the divided nature of the sign: meaning both to defer and to differ. The sign is made meaningful for Saussure by being different. Derrida adds to this notion that meaning is also always deferred, never fully present, always both absent and present.

Jacques Lacans poststructuralist account of the development of the subject has had an enormous influence on both cultural studies and film studies. Lacan takes Freud’s developmental structure and rearticulates it through a critical reading of structuralism to produce a poststructuralist psychoanalysis. According to Lacan, we make a journey through three determinate stages of development. Those three determinate stages are:

  • mirror phase
  • the fort-da game
  • Oedipus complex

Laura Mulvey’s (1975) work is in part an attempt to appropriate the poststructuralist psychoanalysis on Lacan for a feminist film criticism.

Using Lacan, she constructs an analysis of how popular cinema produces and reproduces what she calls the male gaze. The inscription of the image of women inthis system is twofold: she is the object of a male desire, and she is the signifier of the threat of castration. A particular problem for cultural studies is Mulvey’s account of the audience as purely textual- a homogenous and passive production of the text. There is no room in Mulvey’s theory for social, historical subjects who arrive at the cinema with a range of competing and contradictory discourses, which confront and negotiate with the discourse of the film.

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