“Stillness in Motion”; or, The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Westerns

Anson Mount, handsome and gifted star of AMC’s railroad blood-mud-and-guts western Hell on Wheels, waxes poetic in Cowboy & Indians magazine (August 2014) as he explains what about westerns gets him in the solar plexus. But first he stakes an XY chromosome claim on the genre, describing it as perhaps the most masculine of them all, depicting manly manly men men men men men men men men menmenmenmmuhm. Which it does, yes. And very well. BUT–

–oh hell, buckos, just skip over that part, frankly, because it’s a claim we’ve heard before. Go right to the beautiful contrast he sketches out in a few minimal lines soon thereafter.

On one hand is the war genre, in which “the delicate interplay of light and sound is actually exploded and perverted for the sake of shocking us with what we are capable of doing.” On the other, in a western, he says, “the interplay of light and sound must not be ripped from its mooring but achieve a kind of stillness in motion.”

Mr. Mount loves this scene too!

Mr. Mount loves this scene too!

The evocative “stillness in motion” arrested me, halting the sounds of gunplay and galloping hooves still echoing in my ears from a mid-afternoon binge watch of Man with a Steel Whip. He explains it further as a kind of “listening” that is at the heart of the western performance. It’s a beautiful way of depicting the strong, silent protagonist. I think he’s also describing the archetypal western’s omnipresent connection between land and sky, character, and action. It’s always there in a western, always rippling between the elements, the way the reins between a horse and its rider are always in play. (I imagine the ham-fisted directors of bad westerns, sawing at the reins, ruining a horse, and the subtle communication that happens between the elements when a great director is astride a western flick.)

Case in point! The Searchers, 1956

What amuses me–and truly, I appreciate throughout the article his depiction of stellar male protagonists and the power of the genre–is the totally quote feminine unquote dynamic that he actually invokes, a term I use with a quote eye roll unquote but which seems important to use in the context of his dichotomization: a “listening” that communes closely with the desire to merge with the monumental dry landscape, the squeak of saddle leather, the bite of the wind, the piercing sun. Jane Tompkins in West of Everything calls it what it is: a romance, a “desire for, wish to identify with…an object that draws the viewer ineluctably to itself….”

"Shane, come baaaaack," is actually the western landscape's line, if you listen very, very, very closely...

“Shane, come baaaaack,” is actually the western landscape’s line, if you listen very, very, very closely…

Owen Wister, the granddaddy of the modern western, was himself a yearning kind of man, and his archetypal hero, the tall cool drink of water called the Virginian, describes this swooning kind of love when he shows his secret grove to his ladylove.

Often when I have camped here, it has made me want to become the ground, become the water, become the trees, mix with the whole thing. Not know myself from it. Never unmix again. (Chapter 36: At Dubarton)

And what an awesome mix of feminine and masculine in that written scene.

Follow that there linkage thing at the beginning of the post, dear buckos, to read a fine writeup of westerns from an actor working in a great one. Now if we can just retire that “masculine” thing, that would be awesome.

Courtesy Wyoming Tales and Trails

Courtesy Wyoming Tales and Trails


2 comments to “Stillness in Motion”; or, The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Westerns

  • Hey there Bucko.

    Stillness in motion IS an arresting notion, to be sure. It makes me think of those moments in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai when the final battle is raging and you suddenly feel yourself alligned with one of the characters in the middle of the action and yet stood back watching it at the same time. Of course, I don;t need to tell you both the influence of John Ford on Kurosawa and then what he gave back in turn to the next generation of the capturer’s (is that a word) of the inevitable “stillness in motion”.

    Nice post. Loved it.


  • bucko

    Thanks for visiting! I wonder if that stillness is often on the part of the viewer–while the final battle is raging or in the midst of seeing our hero/heroine jumping from a train. Is it an identification? Or is it a moment onscreen that is part of direction/action/lighting/sound? Still trying to figure it out!

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