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The thin man

The third picture description

deutsche Versinon hier

OK, this time I think we’ve gotten through quickly with the picture description. There is a man lying there and there is a gun. In supporting roles there is a stone and the hooves of at least one horse. The saddle cloth laid over a weathered wooden trunk serves as a pillow. The hat, which lies casually on the man’s head and covers his face up to his nostrils, tells with its sweat stains the story of the hard work that filled the day and the need for rest that the still young man here indulges in. Work clothes in the form of a checkered shirt, jeans trousers and probably a jacket covers the body and most likely also serves as leisure wear and pyjamas. It is possible that two cans of beans are already sizzling over the fire, because it is still light and the man will get up moaning again before he really goes to sleep. The fact that the weapons are not laid down, but lying on and beside the body ready for action shows that the situation is not completely relaxed and it will probably never be completely relaxed on this ride. I don’t know enough about weapons to say whether he needs the cartridges in the cartridge belt worn under his trouser belt for his Colt or for his Winchester. That this belt is not just for decoration can be seen from the fact that two cartridges are already missing. The hands rest relaxed on the chest and stomach, but can certainly twitch to the guns very quickly. So much for the picture.
What irritates me about this picture is the angled right leg. Why doesn’t the man put it down, if he wants to rest after all. Or does he not want to? Is he just trying to give the impression of resting, but he is wide awake under his hat brim and just waiting to hear a twig snap somewhere. If this were the case, the knee that is not shed is a telltale sign.
And now to the mediality of the picture. It comes from a film published in 1950, which I have not seen and do not intend to see. It is a scene painting.
From my research on film stills , I know that in the pre-digital age, scene photographers were active who took pictures of re-enacted film scenes with their special cameras, which were then used for advertising in cinema showcases. So we do not know whether this image is a ‘frame’ from the film strip or an image made especially for this purpose. I have described the image above as if this context of the film did not exist at all, i.e. I questioned it only with regard to its pictorial message and not its function in the narrative of the film. I stand (this is the viewer position from which I describe the picture) in front of the showcase, so to speak, and consider whether I want to watch the film. The casual way in which the man adapts to the floor, so to speak, impresses me, but the aggressiveness that lurks in the weapons and the bent knee rather repels me.
I deliberately refrain from giving in to the temptation to psychologically dissect the picture, on the one hand because I lack the expertise to do so and on the other hand because I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who are fascinated by such pictures. But this much can be said. It is a topic today around which a fierce cultural battle is being fought, whether men can develop a self-image somewhere between cowboy and flannel that allows them to stand up to themselves and others without having to spend time polishing up this image at the expense of others.

There he lies, “the thin man” James Stewart, stretched out for a nap, at the turning point of his career. Previously known more as a Broadway star and leading actor in light entertainment films, US director Anthony Mann gave him the chance to correct his image of the clean man in 1950 with the role of avenger Lin McAdam. In “Winchester ’73” – the Westerner has a copy of the repeater rifle from the title film placed next to him ready to hand – Stewart gives a multi-faceted, sometimes brutally gripping character.

An English language copy of the film can be found here , from which the photo to be discussed is also taken (43:29). It is a “screen scrap” taken from the film sequence, and is not a single shot taken by a still photographer.

In a so-called “American shot” (reaching from the head to the knees), it shows the protagonist from a frog’s perspective in a wagon train of the US Cavalry. In the next moment he will be rudely awakened by the clatter of a pot and shortly afterwards will have to prove the firepower of his ’73s against the attacking Indians.

The shot follows a long shot and a half shot. It was presumably filmed from a crane, which was driving over the scenery at low altitude. Stewart is, as far as I can tell, realistically decked out for a western set in the Midwest of the USA in 1876. With a checked cotton shirt, short jacket and trousers comfortably cut in the style of the time. Everything hasn’t seen a wash tub for a long time. And the hat pulled over the eyes is adorned with extensive sweat marks – either artistically applied by the make-up artist or actually due to the subtropical climate of Arizona (the actual film location, located in the southwest of the United States). They give his headgear, and thus himself, something weather-tanned, especially tough. In contrast, Stewarts has a freshly shaved lower face in every situation and throughout the film. But strangely enough, you never see him handling a shaving brush and shaving foam. Thesis: maybe a studio-sided, with a view to the box office, ditto the questionable cast of the Indian chief with a white man (the young Rock Hudson). The “thin man” was only allowed to show his full beard much later.

The camera was directed by the legendary and Oscar-winning William H. Daniels, “Greta Garbo’s personal lensman”. In 21 films between 1926 and 1939 Daniels had put the diva in the right light in sometimes very elaborate settings, and distinguished himself as an absolute master of black-and-white photography. He got the chance after Fritz Lang’s production company had to give back the rights to the script. This was a good thing, because Fritz Lang would have realised “Winchester ’73” in Technicolor, and this would have been a completely different product – without the richness of contrast of the monochrome medium, which, in combination with Daniels’ creativity, gives Anthony Mann’s version an enormous, artistically valuable force and drama.

The cine lenses used conjure up an abundance of grey tones on the
35 mm black and white film, which would reveal itself on the digital reproductions shown here and would do credit to an Ansel Adams. The motif to be discussed is no exception. Photographed shortly before sunrise, probably with a focal length of around 50 mm, it captivates, despite the lack of light/shadow effect, with a plasticity that can only be achieved by elaborately calculated and manufactured, and therefore expensive, precision optics.

There are a few more things that could be discussed, such as the exclusively one-dimensional, simple-minded and/or bloodthirsty Native Americans, or the film’s certainly NRA (National Rifle Association) compliant tenor, or such statements as “Winchester ’73 (…) is phallocentrism at its purest”.
But that would be a different matter.

Pictures (paintings, drawings, photos, …) do not show themselves and – strictly speaking – they do not even represent anything: They are people who show pictures that they have previously produced and with which they have represented something; and by showing the pictures, they carry out communicative actions, not in a linguistic but in a pictorial way: For example, they share something, or ask someone to do something, or promise someone something, or express their feelings, not by saying sentences, but by showing pictures.

One and the same picture can be used not only to carry out different communicative actions; the relationship between a picture and the object represented by the picture is also open (and more open than the relationship between sentences and facts expressed by means of sentences, since, unlike sentences, there are no syntactical rules in pictures), although not arbitrary: For if one wants to answer the question of what is or could be represented by a picture, one must fall back on criteria of representation; one must have such criteria in order to be able to represent objects pictorially and understand pictorial representations of objects.

Now, as far as the photograph, which is our theme this time, is concerned: I came across it on the Internet; and if it immediately appealed to me massively against the background of my (at least earlier) enthusiasm for Westerns(films) and the knowledge about Westerns(films) that I now have, then I must have understood it spontaneously as a representation in the context of a use that I could then also make (and probably still make) of it myself – in an “auto-communicative” modification, so to speak – for example by pinning a printout of the photo to the wall or using printouts of the photo for the visual design of self-made book covers; and which hardly coincides with what was intended – in terms of presentation and use – when the photo was produced: Originally probably simply a certain scene was depicted in the Anthony Mann Western Winchester 73 from 1950, which is about revenge on the one hand and the hunt for a particularly accurate “One-of-one-Thousand” Winchester rifle model 1873 on the other hand, “which constantly changes hands and serves as a red thread, as it were, for an anthology of almost all striking Western situations, from the saloon scene to the Indian fight” (Seeßlen 129). And the use it was intended to be put to was probably primarily to advertise the photo for the film; and in addition, the photo was probably also intended to be used in a media multiple marketing of whatever kind.

If I wanted the photo to be understood by other recipients as I understood it spontaneously in terms of its use and presentation, or if I just wanted other recipients to at least understand it as I understand it, then it would always be part of the knowledge that is always needed to understand a communicative action – whether a linguistic action or a pictorial one – and to which belongs the knowledge that the photo is a film photo, means that here, as far as the relationship between photo and reality is concerned, an actor was portrayed in a “so do as if” (on the theatre stage or in the film, too, a “pretence without intention of deception” (“so do as if”) is brought into play, which is the basis of fictionality here, in that the actors (without intention of deception) pretend to be other persons and to carry out actions of these persons).

So, first of all, in discussion with Georg Seeßlen’s book “Western – Geschichte und Mythologie des Westernfilms”, Marburg 1995, from which I have already quoted once, a short information concerning such a special knowledge.

According to Seeßlen, Western film found its “classical form” in John Ford’s Stagecoach of 1939 (cf. Seeßlen 59), and by the early 1950s “the A-Western had finally come of age”: “It had formed a language, a logic and a mythology through which current political as well as cultural and ‘essential’ problems could be presented. In a sense, the Western had become a framework for discussing problems of power, violence and law”. (Seeßlen 98)

One could say that Western or (A-)Western film has two central functions: a mythical and as such “critical” function (with Seeßlen, myth can be understood as “a method of harmonizing contradictions that cannot be solved in practice in a dreamed, imagined, desired way” (Seeßlen 21) or “a method of making the unavoidable happen” (Seeßlen 21); and a utopian and thus “pro-critical” function. And according to Seeßlen, “two essential impulses” are then inscribed in the Western genre (cf. Seeßlen 197), then one impulse, namely “the repressed evil, the bad conscience about the historical guilt, the shame and the sacrifice” is fended off qua mythical component of the Western; and the other impulse, “the utopia of self-realisation” and the probably utopian “reconciliation of man and nature”, then makes the Western not only a mixture of realistic and fantastic, but of realistic, fantastic and utopian type of fiction.

As far as its mythical function is concerned, the Western can initially be understood as “a kind of national epic”, in which US history in particular is thematised around a “mythical centre”: “the settlement of the West after the Civil War” (cf. Seeßlen 175); nevertheless, the Western here has a “universal” dimension beyond the USA, insofar as the “capitalisation of the world” finds its most advanced and complete expression in the USA – and not only since yesterday – and thus the myths of the Western “carry within them the contradictions not only of the history of the ‘Western world’ but also of every (at least every male) individual in his or her social system” (cf. Seeßlen 21) and the Western also has the characteristic of being “a mythical image for transitions, transitions of the individual as well as of society” (cf. Seeßlen 69).

And as far as the utopian and thus “pro-critical” function of the Western is concerned (it too is undoubtedly “universal” or of global relevance in capitalism and against capitalism), in which above all the “anti-capitalist affect that is always latently present in the genre” (cf. Seeßlen 143), as diagnosed by Seeßlen, is productively implemented: In the 1950s the Western was increasingly questioned in the USA with regard to its mythical function, “because in the image of the enemy of war, National Socialist Germany, the brutal openness of racial murder made the question of responsibility and circumstances virulent” (Seeßlen 122), and the national consensus in the USA and with it the US myth in general then broke up over the Vietnam War (cf. Seeßlen 179). Capitalism (its history, especially its US history) could no longer be harmonized ideologically and positively in the “myth of the border”, the “mythological border” in the Western closed, so to speak, “the ‘pact’ of the Western with society (had to be) broken” (Seeßlen 178), the “Western in the 1970s” was “in the USA itself rather perceived as dissident cinema” (cf. Seeßlen 178), “the national epic was in danger of being destroyed on the silver screen” (Seeßlen 178) and “the Western (enriched) itself with ever new approaches to critical culture and (wandered) to the left, so to speak” (Seeßlen 178). And if one now considers the emancipatory overcoming of capitalism as a realistic or quite feasible “utopian” project (i.e. does not understand utopia in the sense of its usual bias in capitalism) and thus re-establishes the social openness required for the functioning of the Western (cf. Seeßlen 179: “The Western can function completely … can only function fully in a society which considers itself at least partially open. “Then this utopian and thus “pro-critical” function of the Western could not only come to the fore, but could make the mythical function completely superfluous; and the Westerner could develop away from the mythical-fantastic hero and towards the realistic-utopian hero of an, let’s say, “emancipatory self-realisation” (and not only like the Westerner of the Italo-Western, but also like the Westerner of the Italo-Western to the “Westerner without borders, without the myth” (cf. Seeßlen 158), but become at best a somewhat “rebellious” Westerner in a “genre of resignation” (cf. Seeßlen 161); and also not, like the Westerner of the US “Late Western”, a Westerner whose “movement can (only) be an escape” and of whose “autonomy” “the option to die … is the only thing that … has remained” (cf. Seeßlen 167)): Finally, this Westerner, as originally conceived in the genre, seems to me to be anything but unsuitable to be such a realistic-utopian hero: as the actual “loser” of the “capitalisation” of the world (cf. Seeßlen 175: “In its mythology, the genre had focused on the actual losers of this explosive modernisation at the frontier: …”); as a “whole” person (possibly) striving for self-determination (cf. e.g. Seeßlen 178: “Der Westerner … is … not one who has identity (even if he is unquestionably a “whole” person), but one who (perhaps) seeks it”); as a figure who has in himself all heroic figures of history, but at the same time represents a very ordinary person who does not want to be special and normally does not claim to be a leader (cf. Seeßlen 21); as a figure who educates himself (cf. Seeßlen 107), who always fights only for himself, but who also becomes active for others in order to maintain the rules (cf. Seeßlen 101), who also has the role of a mediator, a messenger “who tells the old about the new and the new about the old” (cf. Seeßlen 22), and who then again and again “in a way, an evil part (of its) nature in order to destroy it” (cf. Seeßlen 120).

Now to the photo or to a representation achieved by means of a photo and a corresponding use of the photo as I understand it (or understood it spontaneously):

The western film – it lives above all through certain actors who remain unmistakable in their costumes. If you know western films, you know James Stewart; and if you know James Stewart, you can recognize him in the photo despite his face half covered by his hat and not least by his typical western costume: short jacket, checked shirt, light and sweaty Stetson. (Clothing in the Westerns (and especially the protagonists’ weaponry) does not correspond to today’s reenactment standards until the 1980s and 1990s, when people began to strive for “historical authenticity”, is always a mixture of the contemporary (Winchester 73: 1949/50) and historical (here 1876, the year the film (Winchester 73) takes place), but still appears as such a thoroughly realistic and functional outfit, suitable for life in nature, for work (or let’s say better: for reproductive activity) and for combat. ) And although – or no: precisely because it is and remains clear to me that James Stewart – an actor – is portrayed here in the “so to speak”, it seems to me that by means of the photo not only James Stewart is (appeared to be) portrayed as identical with a role he plays in a western, and not only as the embodiment or “incarnation” of a western, but as the western (western hero) in general. And due to the representation provided by the photo, not only the fictional hero of a fictional and realistic-utopian genre appears (appeared) to me, but with him the utopian part of the western genre – as part of what it is/must be about in an emancipatory way – has become reality; and the photo accordingly as if made for a use that consists (would consist) above all in strengthening someone like me (people like me) with regard to an effort to realise what seems to have become (at least partially) real here and/or to spur him (her) on accordingly or motivate him (by showing him (them) the photo).

And what is it about the representation provided by the photo, as I understand it, that is above all what constitutes its relevant quality for me?

According to Seeßlen, does the Western “in its pictures” serve “above all the salvation of physical reality” (cf. Seeßlen 181) – against capitalism in general and especially against capitalism in the course of the third industrial revolution (cf. e.g. Seeßlen 180: “The value of work in post-industrial society is removed from the body itself, the machine no longer determines the work process alone, it no longer needs the human being at all”). then it seems to me that the photo not only shows the Westerners’ peace and quiet in an unsurpassable way by means of an “American shot” (the actor in the Western is shown in the half-close shot not only up to his hips, but also up to his knees, in order to get his armament on the picture), but also represents “(that) peace and quiet which in the Western stands for the utopian” (cf. Seeßlen 173), but also a pleasurable rest that serves the “salvation of physical reality”, as it is only possible for a body (qua meaningful reproductive and other activities, of course) that has been repeatedly brought “to the edge of resilience” (cf. e.g. Seeßlen 180). And since with Seeßlen (Seeßlen 180) “one could (say) that the ideal of the Western is a mechanisation with human dimensions, with machines whose value can only ever be determined by the person who operates them, like the cowboy operates the revolver, like the locomotive on its way through the prairie, like the telegraph”, with which “the genre also (defines) something like a technical and economic ideal”, which admittedly cannot be realised within capitalism and thus refers in its own way to the emancipatory overcoming of capitalism, it seems to me that the Winchester lying on the floor next to James Stewart not only shows how the Westerner is able to relax in situations, but also how he is able to be in a position to take a break in the world of capitalism.

in which the struggle personally seems/could seem necessary to him (cf. e.g. Seeßlen 180: “… and the struggle is only accepted as a necessity, not as a securing of spheres of interest”), but also brings the technical and economic ideal of the genre into play. And when “the horse … in the classical Western the idea of speed (determined) and the hero … not only because it can be staged as a beautiful stunt, but also in order to confirm this natural movement against the mechanical movement” (cf. Seeßlen 181), then the hooves at the top of the photo seem to me to serve above all to confirm the living beings and their needs (whether human or animal) against the capitalist deformation and perversion of technology. And with James Stewart, who is simply lying on a blanket or tarpaulin on the floor (taken in perspective from his right knee and shown diagonally from bottom right to top left in the photo), it seems to me that the “territorial experience” lost in capitalism and especially in the course of the third industrial revolution and conveyed and sought after by the Westerners is now experiencing its plastic representation (visualisation) (cf. e.g. Seeßlen 176: “Territory is the word John Ford used for what we might have to call (and ideologise) home, and which then means something different from the German term. The western is not a homeland film, but rather a universal film about man’s search for home, and already in Ford’s case, about the fact that it is not found. And: “This search for homeland, for the territorial experience of the world, in which the conflict between the nomadic and the peasant-settled impulse of man is to be experienced as a moral drama, had become obsolete in the 1970s: the media age had begun, people lived in the global village”); and on the other hand, so had the appropriate relationship between man and nature, which the western aims at: For in the Western, nature not only experiences no “symbolic sausageageageageage”, no reduction to the function of a symbolic backdrop, as we know it from German Heimatfilms, but also appears as something from which the last secret cannot be wrested even through the establishment of natural laws (cf. Seeßlen 177: “In a German Heimatfilm, nature is nothing but a sign of the inner conflicts of the heroes, the text behind the text, so to speak; nature in the Western, on the other hand, is a sign in a state of decipherment, never without a remnant of mystery and defence”), so here the human being – the Westerner – also appears as a social being, but in his ultimate conditionedness by a nature that sets the boundaries for him, in which he fits in and which he does not try to overdo: “Cinema in the Western means precisely … a kind of feedback of the gaze to nature, a form of humility: … the exuberance of the first (apparently democratic) industrialisation meets a barbaric and metaphysical nature, which one cannot easily ignore or disregard as the heroes of other genres do. The barely bearable heaviness of material existence is the problem of the Western hero.” (Seeßlen 177)

*** Translated with the help of (free version) ***

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