• Caleb Carter

The Great Silence: Finding the Perfect Western


Designed by Caleb Carter

I have an itch for the perfect Western that has yet to be scratched. When I close my eyes I can see it, campfire lit in flitting images (extreme wide or extreme close-up). It's told in a wind-warped foresters cabin where candles shake in the night. Wild shaman eyes spin its yarn; his wrinkles are weights and his face is wrapped in a wolf pelt still dripping with suet. There are earth-cracking sunrises and ice-age sunsets. There are pagan rituals that work. The hero is like a horror villain: you hear his name half an hour before he steps into frame. You hate and love him as much as he hates and loves himself. He believes blindly in Manifest Destiny and blindly in its god and, in the end, its perverted pantheon comes back to gnarl his heart as he ages in a boring civilisation. There is no deeper message, it is just a myth retold with deep affection and detail and mystery. It's barbaric and beautiful. It's never been made.


Leone's worlds feel like kid's comics to me, and his style has been anatomized by pastiche. The Ford Westerns are too ignorant of their massacres and too doughy-eyed for its heroes that sit old and fat on old horses fat with Hollywood money. There are some contenders for my vision, of course. Blood Meridian's hallucination of the pre-world has a biblical quality close to my mind's eye, but my perfect Western is enjoyable in the way all favourite films and books are, and calling the relentless dirge (of both violence and language) that constitutes McCarthy's hellscape 'enjoyable' would be a stretch for even the most devoted nihilist. McCabe and Mrs Miller plunders a woozy, ambient browncore but Altman's frontier grumble is deeply about capitalism and its rot. It also has a distinct lack of heroics, not that I want a suited-booted-goodie in the traditional sense, but I dream of a deluded figurehead made of shiny overblown charms that is willing to go all the way in martyrdom for his protagonist syndrome: Lawrence of the Plains. Dead Man is the closest I've found to my vision. It's my favourite Western, and one day I'll try to write about how much I adore that film, but the genius of Jarmusch's scrap-metal metanarrative means that it can never be straightforward. In a way, it overshoots what I'm asking for, and winks whilst it is doing so.


Enter Corbucci. He is the godfather of the Spaghetti Western, that genre with which the Italians smeared a bloody hand across Wayne's white knight and sliced his frame into letterbox vistas: eyes, guns, antiheroes. Corbucci's Django is the seed of the Spaghetti Western like Godard's Breathless is the seed of The French New Wave, in that both feel so manhandled that their formal nudity is surreally frayed: ideas, ideas, ideas. It's electric, but I prefer atmospheres so thick you can chew them. Enter snow. Set in Utah decked with crystal cloudfall, Corbucci's The Great Silence follows a mute gunslinger named Silenzio who refuses to draw first and shoots off the thumbs of anyone who does. Corbucci is so great at building self-contained universes brimming with emblems, his own little, bloody myths. You could see it in the coffin Django lugs around. The Great Silence even feels like the other side of Django’s tan, Diavolo coin, but whereas the latter got muddier, bloodier, and weirder with each second, The Great Silence’s wintry tableaux’s stoke the film warmer and sadder. It has a hell of a finale. Klaus Kinski plays the antagonist Loco, whose blue eyes crown him an ice king as he catches wind of Silenzio’s Han Solo M.O. and initiates a lengthy stand-off. They both stalk Snow Hill's ramparts encased in frost like a skeleton’s finger whilst their hot desire for vengeance boils under the attrition of tested patience. The whole film is a stare-down, a cold and lengthy game of chicken.


It has my raw ingredients: a simple narrative and heroes cooked on a rich patina of symbols. But what about the tenebrous dreamscapes of whispered superstition? Something occult. Something beyond the screen. In Roland Barthes Camera Lucida he makes the distinction in photography between what the viewer experiences as the 'Studium' and the 'Punctum'. The former contains contextual meaning, projected by the viewer onto an image (historical, cultural, biographical) whilst the latter is where the poetry lies. The Punctum pierces the viewer, and like a curse cannot be spoken. It is meaning invoked by no recognisable symbolic system. It resides in the same heartland as déjà vu, blood moons, solitude, and witchcraft. The Punctum is unique to each individual and perhaps most importantly cannot be decoded by the viewer, or intended by the creator. You can't choose to feel it. In that sense, it is pregnant with the sublime. Barthes' catch-22 is that the Punctum inevitably becomes the Studium when it is written about, which makes my own attempts at curation difficult (and might be why your favourite art is impossible to describe)... But I might disagree with him; I believe in ekphrasis. Anyways, that's where the snow comes in.


In one hand Corbucci wields pulp, in the other he wields mysticism. Photographically, snow allows for a more concentrated palette: not quite black and white, any colours pop like ripe fruit. In a particular favourite shot of mine, working women wear gaudy headdresses and dig a snowy grave as crows circle towering rocks that are their same pitch-black colour. They look like flying golems. The headdresses feel like floral defiance, mournful and celebratory. Loco rides a stygian stagecoach around Utah to retrieve bodies he has hidden in the snow like it is a chest freezer. His black cloak and wide brim hat make him a razor void against the vaster void of white, and all the characters rock atop horses that lumber slow and pebbly through the landscape rather than pegasus off into a watery sunset. Snow does that. Snow is also a blank page. Manifest Destiny is entrenched in a distinctly linear folly, ceremoniously disregarding the humbler truths of cyclicality. It wishes to claim greedily for itself Day One, The New World, and claim that it will remain so until the wilderness has been wholly circumvented by the 'civilised man'. How appropriate then, this white. So that any story written upon it looks particularly like a stroke of hot blood drawn upon downy, newborn skin; white skin. It must be made clear that this was never Corbucci's intention. Some things were: Corbucci retrospectively dedicated the film's release to the memories of JFK, MLK, and Che Guevara, suggestive of his own allegorical pursuits and the director is well within his right to decide what his film is about. But one does not decide the harsh, minimalist wash of snow, or how it is sharp, soft, hostile, and welcoming all at once. One does not choose how the mountains hush your soul. The pulp narrative of corruption: Studium. The mysticism: Punctum.


The Great Silence that exists on the screen is not the same film as the one that exists in my mind. I sought out the shot that I previously described:


A great shot by anyone's standards, but it lacks the same drama I afforded it. It lacks a certain sadness and sublimity (both are immanent within each other). But Corbucci, perhaps more than any other director of Westerns I have come across, provides the tools for the Punctum. Emblems, symbols, flitting images (extreme wide or extreme close-up). Though what I may witness is "that one Western in the snow", what materials I take from it are cobbled into something far grander. There is a silent sliver of night that brings death around a world pure and soft. There is an angel with a slit voicebox. Mountains seem to birdcall to the sun and threaten to collapse the sky over tiny horses that seat tiny people, though the solitude they feel is as large and sudden as a blood moon. When I close my eyes I can see it.

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