- Lines of Sight in the Western
Let me start out by stating the most obvious possible fact about cinema in general: it was made for our eyes and is organized around our patterns of ocular attention, especially lines of sight, both in its apparatus of exhibition involving machines, celluloid, and light and also in its grammar of visual storytelling. Lines of sight orient us to human actions, social relations, spatial relations, and relations to that imagined environment, or landscape, that we call setting. They inform the basic building blocks of film language, including fundamental editing patterns of shot / reverse shot, eyeline matches, point-of-view shots, and reaction shots, as well as compositional conventions such as “eye room” and balance. Lines of sight also direct our attention within static or mobile shots, often through various kinds of suggestive mimicry of human vision such as subjective shots or on-screen vision-enhancing props like binoculars, telescopes, or rifle sights. Our movies are always telling us about ways of seeing.
That quintessential, originary cinematic genre, the Western, is built with the same tools as other kinds of cinema, but the Western is unique in the way that it marries lines of sight to the territoriality of its putative location. Of course this landscape is symbolic, and places in the West are often represented using practices of substitution (Monument Valley for Texas in The Searchers, for example). The system of illusion involves backstage production and an onstage that is “captioned” in order to activate our imagined West. These imagined lands are the heart of this storytelling genre—both the ground upon which its struggles take place and the stake to be won or lost in that struggle, as Stuart Hall says of popular culture. Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued [End Page 97] that American character was defined through the frontier, the “existence of an area of free land” (1), but of course Westerns, for all their exaggerations, show us that the land was not free; rather, it was taken by violence. Because Westerns, as a rule, are about conquest, theft of land, and subsequent crises of settler legitimacy on that stolen land.
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I begin here with a discussion of how Westerns—a dominant film genre if there ever was one—privilege certain forms of oppositionality over other kinds of social encounters on the land. A quick overview of some “looking relations” involving lines of sight in the classic Western reveals its genealogical descent from imperial travel writing, which, as Mary Louise Pratt demonstrated some time ago in her book Imperial Eyes, has long relied on the vision of the colonizing figure, the look wielded by the “Master of all I survey” upon the New World landscape, whether that land is imagined as empty or populated by Indigenous peoples. In Westerns, mechanistic extensions of human vision—occasionally survey transits or binoculars but most often the gunsights of a rifle—remake that human vision into a form of domination, empowered with settler colonial force. The power of visual storytelling itself is signified by the ability of the gun to translate a sharpshooter’s vision into destructive action in the material world. The shooter’s gendered and racially coded gaze, amplified by devices that are also metaphors for the moving picture camera, is a structural part of the well-established “gun/camera trope.” [End Page 98]
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For the sharpshooter—or even just your average Western gunslinger, for they are all good shots—the detecting gaze and the use of force travel the same route. Like a camera, the rifle’s hyperbolic gunsights tell the story of our interaction with an imagined landscape, characterizing that interaction as a form of subjugation dependent upon the relationship of seeing to action. Characters leverage surveying, aiming, and other forms of machine-enhanced visual reconnaissance into narrative mastery through “shooting.” This gun/camera trope has been understood by theorists such as Susan Sontag, Donna Haraway, and...