What the westerns had that we've forgotten

Overread

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So I've been watching some old westerns, always rather liked them so been catching up on a few and I've noticed something. Something that westerns of old had that modern films, by and large, don't make use of any more.

That is actual visual media.

Modern films are not, in my view, built for watching.



Ok now that sounds nuts, totally nuts. Modern films have amazing visuals, high action, lots of slowmotion and legions of other things. But there's something in all that which is missing. In fact when you look at it a lot of films you can listen to; you don't have to watch. There is nothing that is visually shown that is not apparent from the audio and a casual glance every so often. Indeed everything that happens happens very clear, very up-front, very big and bold.

We have lost those moments when the camera pans, when "nothing" happens but waiting which builds the moment. We've lost those moments when the key event, the key motion is happening just in the background. Highlighted only by its motion, not by selective colour, zooming - even not even highlighted by a chance in the music.

It's these things that make you WATCH a western. You have to pause and turn and look and be part of the scene.

The Spaghetti westerns I would argue display this greatly, but are not the sole users of this kind of visual display.


I'd say this is something missing from modern cinema, we do get some slight of hands, but they are often either very bold or unshown to the viewer (a revelation revealed later in a flashback or event).
 

HareBrain

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Interesting post. I don't watch enough film to muster an effective argument as to whether you're right or not, but I think you have something. I've noticed myself that it's possible to "watch" a lot of modern film and TV with one eye on your emails (which renders the whole thing rather pointless, and which is why I don't like watching stuff on my PC), but you couldn't get away with this in one of Sergio Leone's westerns, say, and hope to keep track of what's going on.
 

Brian G Turner

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We have lost those moments when the camera pans, when "nothing" happens but waiting which builds the moment. We've lost those moments when the key event, the key motion is happening just in the background. Highlighted only by its motion, not by selective colour, zooming - even not even highlighted by a chance in the music.

Which puts me in mind of that iconic scene in Lawrence of Arabia. Here's the short version:
 

Foxbat

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Leni Reifenstahl once said that the more there is to film making, the harder it was to be artistic (in other words it is easier to be artistic in monochrome than in colour).

With that in mind, it could be the case that directors way back then had more room to manouvere and didn't have to pander to an audience that wanted sound coming at them in all directions allied with big swooping pieces of visual action.

Directors like John Ford and Sergio Leone had time (as it were) to stop and smell the roses (and to do it artisitically).

The frenetic nature of modern films are merely a reflection of our more frenetic lives.
 

TheDustyZebra

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It's quite true -- this is why it used to be called cinematography. And I thought that had been lost just because people don't know big words anymore.
 

Remedy

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Nice post and explanation, Overread. I agree.

I will say that the Coen Brothers still manage to keep this going. They use big wide (silent) shots, free from action. Building the story using the scenery and the promise of something. No Country For Old Men is a prime example, and Fargo (perhaps that's a little too old to be recent).

The most recent western I truly enjoyed was 3:10 to Yuma (2007) - It felt so authentic. And towards the end, we have that moment of waiting in silence - sweeping visuals only. Proper tension-building.

Edit: Just remembered the Coen brothers made True Grit in 2010. Now that was a good western! :) Perhaps only a western can pull it off though, would it suit another genre so well?
 
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Vince W

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One of the things that make old westerns good is the pacing. The films seem to reflect the way of life at the time, which was much slower, so a long, slow shot really sets the mood of the western.

Today, if things aren't happening every three seconds people become bored and switch off. It may be one of the reasons why westerns are really not made any more. In the classic westerns things built up and when the action happened you really felt drawn in, whereas action in films today is so relentless as to have become white noise. The latest Avengers film is a prime example: too many fights, no story, and no point.

The last truly great western IMO was Unforgiven, but my favourite western of all time is the much maligned The Cowboys.
 

Overread

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I must say the first time I really noticed this was missing was when watching Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan and in watching Tarantino films. Because I saw much of the same styles being used in those films. Indeed I think its not indicative of modern cinema, but modern Hollywood cinema by and large.

Westerns are certainly not made any more; even if they were I think they'd never recapture the same feelings
 

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