Rango: Terrestrial Pathfinder of the West


Above: Rango performing imaginary feats of strength to impress the townsfolk.

(originally written for UC Berkeley, March 2018)

Dripping with intertextual material, and subversion, Rango updates the Western Noir with a dose of hope and cinematic reverence. Unlike films like Out of the Past, or No Country for Old Men, where the crossing of two different periods of American justice proves fatal for the hero of our story; in Rango our protagonist survives this genre hybridization. Rango is the right man to restore order and faith to Dirt because, according to the Romantic hero myth outlined by Doug Williams in “Pilgrims and the Promised Land: A Genealogy of the Western” he has gone “…beyond the frontier to the wilderness and gained knowledge of it without himself degenerating into wildness.” (97). After Rango throws his badge in the sand in a reference to High Noon and Dirty Harry, the owl narrators pack up symbolizing the story they were here to tell has ended. Yet Rango breaks free from his existential crisis, by receiving a visit from the Spirit of the West (Clint Eastwood) who reminds him that he “can’t leave his own story…it’s not about us but about them”, which restores in him his heroic duty, and transforms the fatalism of this genre.

Existentialism is a key noir theme of Rango. In Robert Porfirio’s “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” he outlines that existentialism requires a choice in order to cope with the “meaningless of existence”. Our hero makes his first important existential choice when he is confronted by a nosy patron in the Dirt Saloon, and finds himself in-between the “authentic” and the “inauthentic” (87) life. The authentic being facing the dangers of the old west by slipping into the gunslinger legend of his own creation, and the inauthentic being cowering away from the ruffians of Dirt, and looking for another safe enclave — like his tropical glass terrarium he once occupied with his inanimate friends. By choosing to embrace his own “authentic” legend he always dreamed of having, Rango  “…assumes responsibility for his life” (87) and becomes the hero of his own story. By transforming into the revered gunslinger of Rango, he has chosen “being” over the “nothingness”(87).

Rango does not fully embody all traits of the Noir or Western hero though. For one, Rango loves to talk, especially about himself. He is no the laconic, ‘don’t ask about my scar’ John Wayne or Clint Eastwood type. Rango enjoys rambling off about his own legend so much that it becomes a motif in the film, sometimes saving him and other times causing alienation, like when Beans ignores his incessant waving and calls when he first arrives into town. This “narcissistic” trait would appear to put Rango closer to characters like Sheriff Little Bill in Unforgiven , a “false dandy”, as described by Janet Thumin in her paper  “Maybe He’s Tough But He Sure Ain’t No Carpenter: Masculinity and In/competence in Unforgiven (1993)”, but of course Rango does not carry the same “blasphemous selfishness” (73) as Sheriff Little Bill, who exerts violence through an ego-driven spectacle where Rango uses cleverness to avoid violence as much as possible. Rango is in fact the true “dandy”, who has transformed himself into a “ a medium through which divine forces express themselves.” (76). These “divine forces” allows Rango to bring an almost Jesus-like presence back into the struggling townspeople of Dirt.

Rango is less of a typical “patriarch” and more of a “pathfinder” someone who is meant to transform the status of Dirt from a “desert into the garden” (98). Although Rango survives till the end of the film, he has still mad a “sacrifice” by abandoning the comfort and assurance of civilization. Rango makes this choice for the greater good of restoring Dirt, which cements his “sacrifice, like Moses or Jesus, by which the world becomes transformed” (Williams 101).

Following the logic of Williams argument, since Rango is a dandy he is also an “imitator of Christ” (105). Being the embodiment of good, the Tortoise Mayor as the false dandy is an “imitator of Satan”; a harsh claim but fitting for someone comfortable with letting his own townspeople die from dehydration and starvation in the name of greed. The Mayor is complex in that in addition to the false dandy he also holds the position of the “religious zealot”. The promise of water is held over the town similarly to a preacher proclaiming the any-day-now resurrection of Jesus. The townspeople follow along, desperately, and even worship the water spigot like a cross, ritually marching towards it in a procession (and performing an unusual hoedown), begging for hydration. Although failing during the first procession, Rango eventually brings the “deliverance” of water that the Mayor had so vacantly promised. The Mayor Tortoise, a false dandy and Satan, must eventually be exercised from the town and killed by the dandy. When Rango allows this evil to be destroyed (without getting his hands dirty of course) he gains a respect from Rattlesnake Jake, his last significant threat and is transformed into the “the self-reliant, masterful figure for whom the unknown holds no terrors.” (Williams 93).


Rango as a sheriff and the Mayor Tortoise at the water vault.

Outside of the Puritan logic of Williams argument, Rango holds another symbolic position, that of the “non-heroic Hero” (Porfirio 83), a character displaced from “all the fixed ties that bind a man to a community” (Porfiro 84). Alone in a terrarium he is already detached from his natural chameleon community with nothing but inanimate objects as his friends. Upon arriving in Dirt he must account for this gaping “loss” of a community and “vulnerability” (from having been kept and domesticated) and find out how to survive on his own.  In doing so, Rango moves from the terrarium, aka a noir “claustrophobic interior” (258) as discussed by James Ursini in “Noir Westerns” and into the wide, open landscape of the west. To underscore this motif this first shot of the film is a close up on Rango in his terrarium, (a stand-in for the noir retreat of a private detective’s office) doing acting exercises with plastic friends, while the ending shot is a pull away from the newly restored town, water gushing everywhere with living, breathing friends. With an ending shot that cranes away from a newly restored town, we have another possible reference to High Noon (and countless others). The difference here being that in the case of High Noon, Will Kane leaves because his role as sheriff, as it has become under appreciated, even misunderstood, while Rango still has time to bask in the glory of his good deeds — although who knows for how long.  

In addition to celebrating many Western Noirs of the past, certain Western tropes are cleverly subverted in Rango as well. The traditional conception that the actor of the Western is little more than a misunderstood yet well-educated Easterner is challenged and expanded on by making the main character an actor himself. In My Darling Clementine the Hamlet soliloquy evoked by the local actor Mr. Thorndyke, according to Scott Simmon in “Concerning the Weary Legs of Wyatt Earp: The Classic Western According to Shakespeare”, is used only it seems as a “mood that is never quite argued out dramatically” (155), indeed many of the other Hamlet references were cut out of the film, most likely to not complicate the Western (154). In Rango we witness the role of the theatre/actor in Westerns grow from an underscoring visual “mood” with minor plot overlap and into the clear thrust of the story. Rango in this film serves as the bridge between a (past) carefully woven theatrical intrigue to a (present) theatrical foundation. The Western fascination with Shakespeare is referenced by Rango when he performs a small scene in the beginning of the film with his inanimate terrarium friends, naming them characters like Malvolio and Balthazar. By bringing the actor to the forefront (and placing it into the character of a chameleon) Rango subverts the idea that the West is too rugged and uneducated to accept an actor as their savior or even a respected citizen.

For all of Rango’s optimistic subversion and nuanced approach to Western Noir, the theme of “man under sentence of death” (Porfirio 88) underscores much of the film. When we begin, the main narrators of the film the mariachi owls, tell us that this is the story of the “life and untimely death of a great hero”, an idea they repeat till the end of the film. As well, when Rango first enters the town, a young cactus mouse named Priscilla who advises Rango throughout the film, (similar to the young boy in High Noon; a faithful ally and admirer) tells him that “strangers don’t last long”. Although Rango breaks the spell of surviving the Noir world he has carried into the Western, the threat of it continues to hang over him like a curse.

In surviving and restoring Dirt, Rango is given a rare hopeful turn that many Western Noirs are unable to complete or hold onto for long. This optimistic, or at least temporarily optimistic outlook that the film gives us, is partly due to it being an animated kids movie, but another interpretation may lie underneath this. In films like Out of The Past, where Robert Mitchum must die for not choosing to live in one world (the Noir/civilization or the Western/wilderness) this film may be condemning humans as more flawed than animals.

With Rango we don’t just celebrate our chameleon hero for having become the pathfinder who denounced civilization and survived while doing so, but we also celebrate the animal kingdom as a whole for being able to do what humans have failed to do; choose one world over the other. Humankind has failed to protect and split nature from the city, particularly in regards to land development. We see this in golf courses and resorts whose installation often eclipses protecting the surrounding purity of the wilderness. In this sense, Rango lacks the character flaw of greed. He is conscious of what the West means and also the threat of civilization and industrialization too, which allows him to balance both “the Dionysian [emotional] communion with nature, [and] the Apollonian [rational] knowledge of civilization” (Williams 100). This makes Rango a unique hero, one that is able to bring his knowledge of both words together in harmony rather than discord.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring: Sound in Film


Above: The master and one of his many pets he keeps during the film.

Nature as the Teacher: The Sound of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring

(originally written for UC Berkeley, April 2019)

By Jeremy Snowden

There is a certain silence in nature many modern American films have had trouble capturing. It seems in Hollywood we want to outdo nature with sound design and special effects rather than let it speak for itself. We see this in movies like Avatar where although a large tree is what is the heart and energy of the Navi people, we don’t hear them with the tree by themselves, the leaves rustling, or someone rubbing on the texture of the bark; it is always accompanied by music or an incoming helicopter. With Ki-Duk Kim’s film Spring, summer, fall, winter — and spring, nature is given a voice. In this film, sound, especially naturalistic sound is a key component in creating the spiritual atmosphere in which the viewers are transported into.

The serenity and enigmatic quality of this world is one that draws characters back through each season, just like geese that leave in the Autumn and come back in the Summer. The natural processes of the seasons represent the chapters in this unnamed buddhist’s life, as characters come and go. These themes are chiefly established through the use of sound.

Using seasons as a way to illustrate transformation is not a new concept to Buddhism or filmmaking. The Dharma Teacher Chongsan, one of the practitioners of Won Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism popular in Korea, inscribed in an epitaph to his master Sot’aesan, “As the four seasons keep rotating and the sun and the moon alternate illuminating in the universe, myriad things attain the way of coming into being.”  In this statement the cycles of the seasons, sun and moon are paralleled with maturity — which is what the main character, whose name we are never given, experiences in this film.

The ambient sound of the film, including the wind, water, snakes is a tool used to emphasize the rhythms of the story, and introduce the Buddhist themes of the natural setting. Jusan Pond, where the film was set, is not just a beautiful backdrop to the film but a recurring reminder of the cyclical and fixed quality of nature, contrasted with the impermanence of the characters.

For instance, when the film first begins we hear the creaking of old wooden doors, fish swimming in a fountain followed by a wooden instrument being played by the old master. Already the ambient sounds have cued us into the nature of the setting. We can tell that this is an old area, and that not much has changed for a long time. We get the sense that this is a regular day for the occupants of the lake. Other than the ambient sound, there is traditional music sung by Kim Young-im but it is always sparse. The richness of the singer’s voice is used later to underscore the main characters transcendence on top of the mountain, where no ambient sound could create an equivalent.

By playing up the sounds of the floating hut’s surroundings and turning down the orchestrated score, an atmosphere of tranquility is formed, which often exists despite the action contradicting this. Such as drownings, a murder, guns and much more.

The sounds heard from life aboard the hut can even have hypnotizing qualities. The detective’s pursuit towards the main character is interrupted by his own spiritual practice of Prajnaparamita Sutra, which is part of Mahayana Buddhism. From here we can assume this is the faith the monks follow. They are convinced in part by the eldest monk to stay and let the main character finish, but also by the quality of the setting. The mountain has a way of funneling the sound, and eliminating all sounds of the real, or industrial world of cars, construction and people. Try as they must the detectives cannot help but give in to the calmness of the setting, helped in part by the soft sound of the rippling water. They even talk about how quiet it is once they are there, eventually falling asleep as they are waiting for the main character. When one of the detective awakens he even helps hold a candle for the main character as he finishes carving his sutra.  Here is an example of the ambient sound acting as a character. Without saying a word it helped, along with the master, to spare the life of the main character with it’s undeniable simplicity and tranquility.

During the climax of the movie, ambient sound becomes prevalent as a character again. The pain of losing a loved one that the main character feels is maximized by the fact that he fell into the exact trap that the master had forewarned. “Lust leads to desire for possession, and possession leads to murder.”

During moments of great crisis in real life there is no perfect soundtrack to underscore the feelings, no perfect lyrics to represent the pain. The pain is unique, and so the quality of the sound should reflect that. The wide valley in which the hut sits creates a perfect acoustic instrument and visual metaphor for the sorrow and emptiness felt by the main character. Slamming his hands into the water, and wailing like a child is heard without a musical score and naturally how one would expect the sound echoed in that valley environment. The viewer is a bystander to his pain just like the master who stands upon the hill and watches. The moment is witnessed as it would be in reality, not made artificial by music from a soundtrack.

One of the last examples I will outline here is seen when the monk returns to the floating hut for the final time. It is winter now and each time he returns he is welcome by the same creaky doors, but this time he is welcomed into a world that is quiet and still. Since the water has frozen, there is no longer the soft sound of the ripples, or distant waterfalls. Here the environment symbolizes the emotional state of the character – he has finally found peace and stillness. He is even able to recognize his master’s passing without anger, but with a bow that shows he has accepted the cycle of life.

The final moments of the film where the character ascends the steep mountain in only a pair of worn pants, a stone on his back and a buddha, it is clear he has lessened his karmic retribution through discipline and meditation. In this scene, the director chooses to bring back music to underscore the character’s journey. The mountain is a clear symbol of something powerful, that has stood the test of time. As Jack Kerouac said in The Dharma Bums, “…a mountain is a buddha. think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sittin there bein perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waiting’ for us to stop all our frettin and foolin.” The mountains, like all facets of nature, carry in them a wisdom that all of us can learn from.

Exploring the wisdom of these facets of nature through the emphasis of ambient sound is a unique and effective way of storytelling. Spring is a deep and gripping film, which epitomizes the expression “silence is golden” and leaves viewers searching for more – more compassion, more philosophy and more awareness in recognizing the power of silence.