Monday, April 20, 2015

The Spectacles of the Spectacular West

Last week we talked about The West, Westerns, and American Character. With that we discussed Western legacy, and the journey of the west through popular culture. At the American West's beginning as a "myth and symbol," Thomas Cole's The Course of the Empire series "shows a civilization in balance with nature."


The paintings depict life in the Roman Empire, comparing the United States conquering of the west with Rome's conquering of Eurasia. The idea of the "American Hero" comes from a powerful nation that conquered the west. The idea of the "American Hero" tamed the land, the animals and the savage natives in order to set out and live his destiny. But Thomas Cole's idea of the West is one that, like the Roman Empire, inevitably reaches an "imbalanced relationship with nature" that leads to "decadence, decay, and death."


We then talked about Westerns and their place in American culture. In the book Six-Gun Mystique, John Cawelti states: "Westerns must have a certain kind of setting, a particular cast of characters, and follow a limited number of lines of action. A western that does not take place near the west, near the Frontier, at a point in history when social order and anarchy are in tension and that does not involve some form of pursuit, is simply not a Western."


In our discussion on Westerns, and the American Hero, we discussed how "American" can the "American Hero be if the most famous cowboy movies were made in Italy, with a European crew, and based off a Japanese movie that came out years prior. We then discussed what similarities the Samurai and the Cowboy have in common.

Afterwards, we added suggestions to our "Movies About the West" list (seen on the sidebar to the right).

The article, “Ruinopolis: Post-Imperial Theory and Learning from Las Vegas,”, discussed a post imperial idea of Las Vegas based on the building’s architectural design. To summarize the basic idea of the article and what it was trying to portray is a quote from the reading, The external world is symbolically swallowed up and brought home to Las Vegas. Bringing the world’s capitals, monuments and great buildings ‘back’ to the US and rescaling them to fit into a single city is a symbolic gesture of world domination—however ironic the gesture.”

Friedrich Ratzel was an important figure within the reading, he was the founder of political geography, he had idea about imperial geopolitics and capitalism which lent towards the article. He felt that Las Vegas was a “ruinopolis” and becoming the next Detroit, due to the progressive aging. Ratzel felt that as a population grows it requires a larger Lebensraum. That states will become tense and cause friction due to the growing. He also observed that the United States does not build items that last very long, that everything is appropriated and commodified, aiming towards profit maximization.

Due to bankruptcy and a pause in construction a new source of entertainment has grasped Las Vegas. Tourists can pay to drive excavators and bulldozers, moving basketballs and digging deep holes. We discussed in class if this was a “proper” use of the land or if it could be used for better things. Some felt that it was a great change from the crazy city of Las Vegas and others felt that it could be used to make more jobs instead of only employing 10 people at this attraction.


 The Dunes Hotel and Casino, 1950s

Casinos are a major attraction in Las Vegas, many of the newer casinos built during the 1950’s evoked a north or sub Saharan feel. Examples are the Desert inn, the Sands Casino, and the Algiers Hotel. We watched the destruction of the Dunes Hotel, as it was celebrated as it was blown up in front of thousands of viewers. We discussed that this would never happen due to 9/11.

The short book “Learning from Las Vegas” by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour is an analysis of Las Vegas through the lens of symbolism and landscape. The text explains that it is a study of method, not context, which means that the reader should ignore the gimmicky, consumerist undertones of Las Vegas and absorb the place as a “place”. What this means is that the reader should see past the “marriage chapels, credit cards accepted” side of things and start noticing how the billboards create their own landscape within the city. The graphic sign in space has become the architecture of the landscape.

Emphasis is placed on directional space in the design and layout of the buildings, specifically on the strip. Las Vegas is spaced out (with distance between buildings and billboards) because it was designed to be “read” through the window of a moving vehicle. They are far apart so that they can be comprehended at high speeds. We discussed this in relation to the graphic quality of the signs and the buildings, as mentioned before. The book periodically shows diagrams that explain this connection. One example of this is “the big sign and the little building”, where the duck-shaped structure functions as the building and the sign. The symbolism and signs in Las Vegas are what gives it its character and if the signs are taken away then there is no “place”.

Grif Williams, Kyla Tighe and Nikki Stacey

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