This conference will be focused on the question of how landscape, place, and location become a rich, problematic, contradictory subject in the cinematic Western, both in the “golden age” of the Western and since. The Western is not identified with a single type of landscape, but it is strongly identified with the land. This Western landscape has both iconic significance and daily meaning for many people, and has come to represent America as strongly as any set of images can. Our task will be to both identify and explore the existing narratives and meanings that the landscape in the cinematic Western has, and also to ask how those narratives and meanings might be altered or even subverted while the Western is retained as a genre.
As a genre of film, the Western is almost as old as film itself, and it has often been noted that the landscape has been an integral part of that storytelling. Often this observation is limited to recognizing that sparse dialogue and harsh action are set off in sparse and harsh land, and romantic adventure and individualistic triumph over insurmountable odds requires a place that is both romantic and, in some sense, insurmountable. More than this, though, the landscape in the Western has become the space for the encounter of difference, as well as the place of personal and social transformation. Given the flood of recent work on cinematic representation, the history of film, and theories of place and space across many creative and scholarly disciplines, the time has come to re-assess these narratives of cinematic place.
Cinematic visual representations of the West have been influenced by painting, sculpture, photography and literature, and have in turn influenced all of these. These intertextual exchanges have been played out on the literal landscape, the places where homes are built, threatened, lost, and recovered, where political relationships are negotiated and inscribed on the land, where borders define self and other, friend and foe, and where physical location comes to stand in for myth, character, and identity. It is a truism that the camera’s gaze both records and creates, but in the case of the Western, the land itself has become such a romantic stereotype that it is difficult to ask new questions about it. In this conference, we nevertheless want to examine some of these questions:
* How does the landscape of the Western become meaningful, and how can it become newly meaningful?
* How do cinematic techniques and choices make some senses of the land available, while obscuring others?
* How does cinema draw on related art forms such as landscape painting, earthworks sculpture, and writing? How, for example, do painting terms such as the frame, the picturesque and the sublime, and the horizon enable our cinematic sense of the landscape? And, how does cinema take these intertextual conventions in new directions?
* How does the landscape of the West (particularly the desert) become inscribed as a place of personal and social hope and transformation?
* How do the representations of the West encode narratives, including those of being American, being male or female, being civilized, having a home, or encountering wilderness (or other forms of the “other”).
* What social, moral, political, or religious narratives or values are implicit in the Western landscape? How do these become encoded?
* How do the representations of cinematic place change in the digital age? Does the landscape of the Western change in an age when places themselves have become virtual and interchangeable?
How might cinematic depictions of Western landscape use the complex representations in other media, as well as recent theoretical approaches to place, to re-invigorate Westerns?
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