Friday, March 3, 2017

Brian Lindenmuth on Westerns

You may know the name Brian Lindenmuth as the publisher of Spinetingler Magazine and Snubnose Press or maybe for articles he's contributed to places like Mulholland Books, Crimespree, Noir Nation or any number of other quality outlets concerned with crime fiction and films.

Today he's announcing his latest project, a blog concerned with Westerns: Observations From the Slash Y. 

Like everything he tackles, he's obsessive, insightful and completely unable to stop once he gets going and I expect this blog will be the go-to resource for all your western questions in the future. I asked him for some thoughts on the Western as it bleeds easily into crime fiction and below are those same thoughts. Give it a read.

On Westerns
by Brian Lindenmuth

I've been tinkering with a new method to judge western films and, after watching three more recent westerns in quick succession, thought I'd kick it out to anyone interested. Really, its just the way that I judge westerns. It's an odd mix of subjective and objective that, in some cases can yield interesting results. Really, I suppose, I'm just trying to look at westerns a little differently, maybe scratch below the surface to see what makes them tick, and think about the film language of westerns. In short, the criteria boils down to how the movie showcases and utilizes faces, landscapes, and horses.

Faces

Westerns are great showcases for men's faces. Think about some of your favorite westerns over the years, think about some of the best westerns over the years. Now think about those faces. Weather beaten faces with crooks, crags, crevasses. Unshaven faces with scruff, mustaches, and beards. From John Wayne and Ben Johnson to Robert Ryan and Woody Strode. The western is so kind to the male face that it even does wonders for non-traditional faces like Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, Gabby Hayes, Dub Taylor, Strother Martin. When the studios were cranking out westerns these non-traditional looking actors had robust careers. Not everyone can be Randolph Scott and in westerns they don't have to be.

The squinty eyed stare of The Man With No Name wouldn't be as effective coming from a bland face.

The landscapes of the faces on display relate directly to the land itself. Hard travel and living, on hard land, is going to produce hard faces.

Landscape

Westerns are as much about the land as the people that live on it. The two go hand in hand in a symbiotic way (which arguably became parasitic but that's a topic for another day). Landscapes are key to the film language of westerns. There should be wide shots, long shots, and medium long shots that show off the land (close ups are for the the great faces). The land is its own character and it should be featured accordingly. There should be more exterior shots than internal shots.

Horses

The greatest trick the genre ever pulled was convincing people that gunmanship was more important than horsemanship. Horses have a place of almost invisible importance in westerns. For something so ubiquitous, little thought is given to horses.

Jane Tompkins' book, West of Everything, is one of the few books that recognizes the importance of horses in westerns. Horses even get their own chapter. In my opinion the importance of her chapter on horses lies in the formal recognition of horses in westerns as being worthy of study but her exploration of the topic, while having some merit, eventually goes awry.

You expect the sage dotted plains, buttes, the town with its false fronts, sandy main street, saloon, livery stable, cowboys in jeans and ten gallon hats. And horses: in town tied to the hitching rail, being ridden by a single rider outlined against the sky, pulling covered wagons, free on the prairie. In the background, in the foreground, on the margins, at center, horses are the screen constantly, seen in every conceivable attitude. The presence of such beings has an extraordinary influence on our experience of Westerns. The sheer energy of the posse, chasing the bandits at breakneck speed, pulling up short, the horses' mouths foaming, bridles clanking, saddles creaking, hooves churning the sand; the fleeing villains stopping at a lookout point, wheeling around, pausing for a moment, then turning and galloping off again in a cloud of dust-these images are the heart and soul of a Western.

But though horses in Westerns are de rigueur, the characters who ride them don't pay them much attention, and as far as the critics are concerned they might as well not exist. The index to one of the most complete treatments of a corpus of Western ever written -- Tag Gallagher's excellent John Ford: The Man and His Films -- lists in boldface heroes, Indians, homosexuality, home, innocence, wilderness, rivers, good badmen, drunks, determinism, and destiny but it doesn't list horses, although Ford, who made more than sixty Westerns, was almost unique in recognizing their importance, that is, he seemed to really see horses in a way other directors didn't. Horses, in Westerns, are precisely what meets the eye; that is physically, visually, they are right there in front of you, but no one seems to notice them in the sense of paying them any attention. Because of this strange invisibility they are the place where everything in the genre is hidden. Besides doing all the work in a literal sense, getting the characters from place to place, pulling wagons, plowing fields, and such, they do double, triple, quadruple work in a symbolic sense. The more you look at them, the more indispensable they seem.

Larry McMurtry is more direct and practical in his essay, Take My Saddle from the Wall: A Valediction.

The master symbol for handling the cowboy is the symbol of the horseman. The gunman had his place in the mythology of the West, but the cowboy did not realize himself with a gun. Neither did he realize himself with a penis, nor with a bankroll. Movies fault the myth when they dramatize gunfighting, rather than horsemanship, as the dominant skill. The cowboy realized himself on a horse, and a man might be broke, impotent, and a poor shot and still hold up his head if he could ride.

Horses are an important part of westerns because they were important to life in the west. They were tools, a means of travel, a way to work, a way to achieve and accomplish most tasks. So westerns should have horses and actors riding them, and if the actors can't ride, they need to be at least able to sit a horse.

At one time, when western films ruled the land, actors were practically required to be able to ride a horse. If an actor excelled at riding horses (or a related skill) they were guaranteed work.

The first great western is Stagecoach. Andy Devine (look at the face!) got his part in the movie because he could handle a team of six horses, which was a requirement of director John Ford's.

"One day he got sore at me and said, "You big tub of lard, I don't know why the hell I'm using you in this picture." I answered him right back: "Because Ward Bond can't drive six horses."

The artist Frederic Remington understood the nature of the relationship between man and horse. Look at his statues and paintings, the two are one. Ben Johnson, one of the great western actors, got his start because of his great skill in riding a horse. John Wayne will always be one of the most iconic actors of all time (and rightly so) but Ben Johnson riding a horse is pure poetry.

The next time you are watching a western ask yourself a couple of questions. Was this movie a showcase for interesting faces? Did this movie showcase the land in such a way as to make it a character? Did this movie show the close relationship between the land and those who live on it? Did this movie have any horses? If so, how were they used? Did this film show actors mounting, riding, or dismounting a horse? How about just sitting on a horse? At the very least, are their stuntmen or body doubles riding horses?

The recent westerns that started me down this path were Bone Tomahawk,
The Magnificent Seven (2016), and Slow West.

Bone Tomahawk stars Kurt Russell, a western face if there ever was one, so the face grade is going to automatically skew higher. His facial hair alone could carry a movie. (side note: there needs to be a movie about an aging Wyatt Earp starring an aging Kurt Russell). The surprise of the movie was Richard Jenkins. I've liked his work for a long time but thought he practically stole the show here and his face is the best on display here.

Patrick Wilson has leading man looks but doesn't look out of place, back in the day he likely could have had a successful career as a cowboy hero.  Plus he looks comfortable in the clothes and the part. And in terms of faces, Matthew Fox didn't quite fit. It's not that he is handsome, but he just seems like to much of a dandy to be out there. When the group is traveling, out in the middle of nowhere he still maintains his well coiffed appearance. Did he wake up each morning and use product? Sounds silly but still was some of the shit I was thinking about while watching.

Bone Tomahawk has a curious lack of landscape and horses. There are a lot of interior shots and even the scenes of travel don't feature the landscape in any memorable way. Horses are noticeably absent (or were to me anyway). The quartet did ride some in the middle section of the movie, but even then, they lost their horses and traveled on foot.

Faces: B
Landscapes: C
Horses: C (at best)

The Magnificent Seven does pretty good in the face department, which it should given the ensemble nature of the story. Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt both have leading man looks and charm (the former is a well established leading man, the latter is new to the part). Ethan Hawke was a surprise. He's been around for so long it was great to seem aged and grayer.

Vincent D'Onofrio however steals the damn show. I didn't even recognize him at first. Not only did he chew scenery in that way that only great actors can but yes, he looked the part of a trapper who is a little touched. Jonathan Joss deserves a special shout-out. He has a great face and should have had more screen time. His was the character I wanted to know more about and the final fight scene between Denali and Red Harvest deserved more time and attention.

The landscape is featured well in The Magnificent Seven. There are good wide shots that showcase the land and the people on it. Nothing really remarkable but Fuqua understands the film language of westerns and of epics and shows a sound, working knowledge of both. The Magnificent Seven features, throughout the duration of the movie,actors sitting on and riding horses. It also ups the ante by featuring stunt horse work, especially in the climatic battle.

Faces: B+
Landscapes: B-
Horses: B+

Before we get to the third western: Does utilizing this admittedly subjective criteria mean that one movie is better than the other? Specifically, in this case, do my grades mean that Bone Tomahawk is better than Magnificent Seven? Not necessarily. I enjoyed both of these movies in different ways and would recommend each of them but, I think The Magnificent Seven is the better western.

Let's talk Slow West. I loved this movie. The cinematography, the sly humor, the way it trusts the audience, and a near perfect final shot. How does Slow West fit in with the criteria?

Michael Fassbender is another actor who could have been a mega star in a Hollywood that produced more westerns, but the 60s & 70s when revisionist westerns were on the rise. His character is calm and confident but not arrogant or cocky. He's assured and understands his place in this harsh world. He has a rugged handsomeness, without being a pretty boy, that is on full display in Slow West. The biggest compliment that you can pay to him is that he looks comfortable, like he belongs, and that when he is on screen he holds your attention.

Another actor that holds your attention, and who has an interesting face, is Ben Mendelsohn. He doesn't have much screen time, but he makes great use of the time he does have. The camera loves his face. The director knows this and spends time on it.

The supporting cast is stocked with faces that reflect the ruggedness of the land and the lives being lived. Rory McCann, probably best known as The Hound in Game of Thrones, doesn't have traditional leading man looks but he has a face that tells a story and has a history. And if you are the kind of person who judges someone by the qualities of their face as it pertains to a certain genre, and clearly I am, you know that he was born to be in westerns.

Slow West is gorgeously shot. It spends most of it's running time outside, utilizing a wide array of western locations from deserts, to small towns, to wooded areas. It shows off both the harshness and the beauty of the land. This isn't yet a land civilized or populated and the characters are merely a part of the existing landscape.

Holy hell, a modern western that significantly features actors riding horses. It's a damn miracle I tell you. Slow West, in the horses department, is the opposite of Bone Tomahawk. Horses are necessary, they are prominent, they are ridden.

Faces: A
Landscapes: A+
Horses: A

***

About Brian Lindenmuth: These day I am my own audience and I wrote this mainly for myself. I wanted to explore the film language of westerns and highlight some of the qualities that are important to me in a western flick. I maintain a slow blog, devoted to westerns, where I share links and thoughts on the genre. It's really more of a notebook in public form, again mainly for my own use. This is the first time I'm making its existence known. Stop by if you like.

2 comments:

Kevin Helmick said...

Ah, good read. Personally I like the late 60-70's era of westerns like Little Big Man, (mom took me to see when I was wee lad, but I own it now and watch it often,) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,(which I recently got to see in theater for the 1st time, and it was cinematically beautiful, made for a the big screen) Missouri Breaks, Going South, Josey Whales, just off the top of my head. But yeah, I am and always have been a fan of the western and all it's sub-genres.

Yvette said...

Excellent post, Brian. I am a big fan of westerns from the 40's through the middle 60's. I agree completely with your criteria - faces, landscape and horses. In fact, I'd somehow gotten the idea that I was the only one who admired, enjoyed, worshiped horses in westerns and considered then almost more important than the actors. I grew up ages ago and got to see many of the early westerns on the big screen - in fact when we were kids we'd line up on Saturdays to watch the old Republic western serials and ten cartoons for 25 cents. Even then, I loved the way Roy Rogers could ride a horse - really almost like no other cowboy actor.

I'm fortunate to have see THE SEARCHERS (John Ford, master of the landscape), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (played hooky from school), all the Rory Calhoun westerns, YELLOWSTONE KELLY (talk about faces - my goodness, John Russell, Ray Danton and Clint Walker.) and a bunch of others up on the big screen.

Woody Strode - I'm convinced a whole movie could have been made featuring just close-ups of his face. Remember him in SEARGEANT RUTLEDGE? Now there was a western that broke all the rules. No big landscape shots (that I can remember but there might have been some in the beginning) and lots and lots of interior shots. Little horse action. But of course there is always an exception to any rule and RUTLEDGE is that. But it is primarily a murder mystery so maybe it's not even a 'real' western.

I don't watch westerns (except the oldies) much anymore - they changed and I grew older and less tolerant of certain excesses. Plus most of today's actors can't hold a candle to the craggy faces of old. Men were different then.

I think the exception for me would be SILVERADO. That's about as modern as I get. :)

Thanks again for a terrific post.