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The Western

1. Trees, field, forest. A drift by train. Crossing through the countryside the land is divided into a patchwork. The fields are all sizes and shapes but what unites them all is the fact that the trees, bushes and shrubbery almost always function as border-markers between fields. It is rare for a single tree, or clumps of singular trees, to have remained standing in the middle of a field. This semblance ##of order, of tidiness is initially pleasing. There is an almost industrial precision to the smooth green of the fields. Nothing seems to have been left to chance. Tractors and farm equipment are easily visualised as crossing the fields in a symmetrical and routine manner; each turn ergonomic and measured. There is nothing to obstruct this making the most of the land. No stray trees. The time of ploughing and of putting to fallow is measured out as the space between striations that can, in some fields, be dimly perceived beneath recently regrown grass. This is no rural idyll contrastable to the city towards which we speed. It is a variation of the form, a visual analogue, to that which rules the nearby conversations. We’re making the most out of ourselves, we’re putting ourselves to work; our aspirations are tied up to the striated marks that continue to teach us; we’re boxed in; we’re our own private property and we’re going to make money.

2. These open fields that seem so appealing from a passing train window are as nothing when we move our glance towards the distance and catch a glimpse of a collection of farm buildings nestling in the protection of a small valley. These buildings, silent in the twilight, are, along with the neatness of the fields, an indication that all these fields are owned, enclosed and separate. Though each of these fields has a gate, there are no roads that lead into them. Each field is reached by means of another field and where we cannot see the farmhouse it must be that the fields comprise not simply a farm but an estate. Lying there so silent and innocent, protected as if by a father, owned, you have to consider that it constitutes a violation to simply look at these fields. As if possession could proceed by a glance. Belonging, though, proceeds by the belief that the fields are part-owned by all those who would have it that they are formed by a larger enclosure, bordered by custom-posts, barbed wire and locales of language. These simple and beguiling fields are expressive of the ownership of time.

3. The forests though, the forests transmit an imaginative power. Clumped in corners, covering hillsides they exert a strange fascination: like the fields they are owned, but both in their sparseness and density they seem to be unproductive, producing nothing other than a sense of depopulated wilderness. The forests, dells and copses are a blurred edge that contrasts to the cleanliness and cut of the fields that jut up against them. No one who owns and belongs seems to want to remain for long in these forests, for it is here that brigands and tramps, the destitute and the desperate have sought the replenishment of their own differences and from the undergrowth have planned their forays and risen to plunder. Indeed, the way that canopies of foliage create a dark and binding atmosphere seems conducive to the foreplay of unconscious impulses; an outpouring of ‘irrationality’. And so, there is something uncivilized about the forests, something that refuses the pull of a reality principle and turns instead to a repetition of the same: stuck, unable to work or progress towards achievement, but, welcoming instead the energy of entanglement and confusion. There is something murderous about the forest, as if, like on the planes of a western movie, there is a sense of a lawlessness that is no longer confined by the hearth, the school-room and the church-house but learns only from an undomesticated wandering. As with the plane, the forest has vagabonds confront themselves and each other in an environment devoid of distinguishing landmarks and commercialised distraction and so being left to weigh and build upon the balance between what has been made for them and what of themselves has been made they choose a period of deliberation before they decide in which direction to strike.

4. Alone on the plane. Active tactical thinking. The frontier town, whether it has been established to be a supply centre for gold prospectors or new settlers, is always on the cusp of the old and the new. It is a place where one form of law has been left behind and where other, equally arbitrary laws, seek to establish themselves. The rights of disseminated judgement accrue to those who have already garnered to themselves a sufficient amount of rich pickings. They are administrative warlords who divide up the land, colonise the land of others and seek to parcel out the plane in ways that maximises their own prestige. Just for a moment, before these wordsmiths and lawyers establish themselves, there is a sense that a new form of social life is pushing itself to the forefront. In the Westerns this is nearly always a neo-puritanism that always needs a school and a church, that soon begins to #re-define itself in terms of the institutions it has left behind. But to what degree is this a desire that re-asserts itself in the face of a violent putsch for mastery that has occurred in the follow-through of an accelerated alliance between the law and trade? Is it a protective fallback towards the nostalgia of what is known? A small step into the unknown has been made and the tentativeness of this step, instead of being nurtured and supported, becomes even more fragile and self-doubting in the face of the administrative warlords who mark up their prices, re-sell goods already sold and pronounce a death sentence whilst playing poker. In several Anthony Mann westerns it is demonstrated that the ‘enemy’ is not always the native-indians, the war is not always a civilizing holy war aiming at the enclosure of reservation, but that the conflict of the wild west, as it becomes the new frontier, is a social struggle where strategically navigated relations of #power (where the individual can change form and become a subject that is actively self-constituting) are coming up against a blocked field of power relations conducive to the establishment of domination (where the subject is defined as a subject of law, having ‘rights’).

5. The theme of whether or not a person can change is a constantly reoccurring motif in Anthony Mann westerns as are questions which surround a person’s hidden past. Can the former outlaw, whose experience of living outside the law equips him with a strategic experience, become accepted by those whom he accompanies and supports in their quest for a new life? Though the overall import is of the outlaw going straight there is often enough room within such movies as Bend Of The River to allow the viewer to play with the idea that the outlaw has a more refined sense of justice, an ethos of freedom which is informed by a revolutionary misanthropy that, after gaol-breaks and foiled hangings, is still prepared to collaborate on the building of a decent and equitable life. The class element comes through when we consider that many of those on the trail are part of a newly spewed-out urban working-class who have had their fill of the life in the industrial centres and are prepared to reject all that such a life of wage-slavery has to offer. It is this sense of optimism that the outlaw is drawn to and what kind of life it will eventually be (neo-puritan, colonial) is to some degree offset by the fact the movies concentrate on the process of getting there: the wagon trains, the riverboat, the pack horses are all part of the suspended reality of travel where the ideas of what arrival will be like are at their strongest. Just as the reasons and impetus for the settlers to begin their travels is left to conjecture, so too is their future point of arrival, but what is communicated along the way, and perhaps informs the form and content of the future, is a sense of the communality of the process that overrides opportunities for personal profit. This is played out quite dramatically in Bend of The River, where the situation arises for the food supplies to be sold at an astronomical profit. This leads to divisions and a testing of loyalties which itself points to the shifting allegiances and precarious relations of power amongst the settlers upon which Anthony Mann westerns often dwell . The alliance and counter-alliance portrays just as political a situation as that of the administrative warlords, and, as with the latter, it often leads to a retaliatory violence that strikes from a position of logistical weakness by using a strategic acumen in which all the factors of guerrilla warfare seem to come into play: the terrain, inter-personal alliances, the keeping open of supply routes, navigation by the#stars and travel by moonlight. Factors as minor as sound are all weapons in such warfare: the plaint of an oriole and the decorative bell of a saddle. Over the glacier or through the valley?

6. In Bend of The River and The High Country, Anthony Mann replaces the gunfight (the conflict of rival wills for domination) with this dispersed and constantly piecemeal warfare (strategic relations allowing for a manoeuvrable degree of freedom). The rejection of the gunfight and its function as narrative resolution, implies that the dichotomies of good/evil, right/wrong, have been jettisoned to be replaced by an unresolvable problematics that seeks to resist the domineering tendency of ‘power’ on any terrain and in any circumstances. If it is no longer a good against evil struggle, with all the visible ostentation of gunfights or verbal polemics, but a question of always making alliances, forming groups and negotiating a psycho-social trail through an always hazardous and instinctually seductive terrain, then, as part of this strategic subversion, the Mann westerns show the necessity of recognising that right and wrong flow through each individual to the point of inconsequentiality. It is circumstance, a context into which so many factors flow and combine. Once a perceived error has been admitted it is no longer an error, its being shared means that it moves a process of engagement along, it works as a fuel, it establishes a conjunction that follows upon another conjunction. It is a binding agent. This whole idea of movement, of things and circumstances changing is integral to so many westerns and works, even when it is used as a technique, to retaliate against the stasis of attributive judgements: once right, always right. But this sense of movement in westerns, the motion of a frame cut by an angled horizon, the multi-perspectived tracking of the wagon-train through the plane, also makes us consider how circumstances can move faster than the speed at which they are usually apprehended by words#: ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ become misnomers and the seeking after a coherence, a ‘rightness’, carries the bitter flavour of a narcissism that always seeks to delimit and ignore what exists outside of it. Being right all the time, to the degree that it is premeditated, is a kind of self-protection, it is a will to an exercise of power as a domination and as such has very little need of anyone else and, crucially, it does not partake in the active supercession of established definitions. It seeks to become law. The gunfight, one ‘right’ versus another, becomes a metaphor for a terrorist option that wears violence as a badge and proving itself to itself, strikes, at noon, in full view of the street. Error is not a one on one, nor a honing down of options, it is a strategy of fluctuating vigilance that needs no heroes.

7. As one frontier closed and the west was won another frontier remained open. The foliage of the#unconscious rustled and the letting loose of aggressive instincts on the plane was explained away as being at first necessary for expansion and then unacceptable, dissolute and contagious. So many opening frames of gallows profiled against dark skies proved that before Freud worked on the conquest of the unconscious and the sublimation of emotion these were being dimly perceived as eradicable by the law-makers, husbands, wives and ranch owners. There was to be no more unconsciousness, no more dangerous impulses roving free and liable to turn against the guilty deal makers that policed the reservations and enclosures. Freud would make sure that the last ones to be sent to a public hanging would be the revolutionaries who, melancholic and ready to identify with others, spoke openly of an unconscious, a reservoir of desires that needed the plane and the destruction of the new cities in order to be sure that displaceable energy need no longer connect with the array of commodity-objects that deflected and assuaged it. Unbound violence and its effect of provoking an awareness of social contradiction was to be either eradicated or controlled. Up went the white picket fences and on came the bonnets and bowlers. Dirty secrets moved inside and aggression, protest and maladjustment fell as silent as the acacia-print couches from where, every once in a while, they were expressed as a guided echo of something forgotten. The new life of the west, built upon dependence and equivalence, threatened everyone with the nightmares of being no longer irreplaceable nor guaranteed. There was nothing to fight for. Obedience took too much energy and sapped the need for violence until it returned and slipped through the frames, first as conquest, then as crime, and latterly as a minimal aperture, allowing us to alternatively perceive the resistance of an armed and embittered mob facing the landowners and lawmakers in a dusty and burning street.

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One thought on “The Western

  • This shows real exiprtese. Thanks for the answer.

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