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Of Westerns and wide open spaces. April 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been (very) slowly replacing our beloved video collection with DVDs. (Just in time for Blu-Ray! We’re Luddites, what can I say?) This week, we treated ourselves to the DVD version of one of our all-time faves, “Witness,” and of course had to watch it right away.

If you haven’t seen it—and you should—“Witness” is a drama set in Amish country, involving corrupt cops, murder, an Amish witness, the struggles of a tough Philadelphia homicide detective to adjust to the slow-paced Amish lifestyle, and the inevitable subplot romance, in this case doomed, between him and a young Amishwoman. (I suppose that, for some viewers, the romance would be the plot and the murder the subplot.) Harrison Ford stars with a superb ensemble cast that features an especially delightful performance by the Russian ballet dancer Alexander Godunov in his first film role.

There are many reasons why we love this film. Being Luddites ourselves, we’ve been fascinated by the Amish lifestyle since moving to Pennsylvania, home of the world’s largest Amish community in Lancaster County, where “Witness” was filmed. Our friend Ben’s shelves groan with books on the Amish, and I’ve read every one. Silence has Amish cookbooks, and we even have a couple of Amish-made quilts. We think that (except for the romance, of course) the film provides a great introduction to Amish life.

But what really sets “Witness” apart for us, and why we can watch it again and again (murder, after all, not being one of our favorite subjects), is the beauty of the film. The camerawork is just gorgeous. There are a lot of scenes simply of the countryside, the wind and light playing over the grain fields, a horse and buggy clopping slowly along, a water wheel turning. For us, it feels like the landscape itself is the plot, and the struggles and travails of the characters are simply textural elements.

Thus it was with amazement that our friend Ben watched the “special feature” included on the DVD, a five-part interview with the cast, director, producer, and director of photography. Our friend Ben regards all those “extras” included on DVDs as cynical marketing tricks that seldom enhance one’s appreciation of the film. But in this case, I was pleasantly surprised. The interviews were interesting and articulate, for a start. They also revealed that everyone, from the producer, director, and Harrison Ford on down, had immediately recognized that this was a special film and committed to it on first seeing the screenplay.

But two things in the interviews really struck our friend Ben: First, the director, Peter Weir, said that he and the director of photography had modeled the lighting for the film after Vermeer. Ha! What a brilliant idea. One could not do better than borrow from the greatest master of light the art world has ever known. No wonder the photography was so luminous! Our friend Ben was thrilled and astounded. (Our friend Ben feels that, in art, there is only Leonardo. But after Leonardo, Vermeer.) But the second thing was more astounding still: The producer had initially felt that Weir spent too much time on the landscape and not enough time on the plot. He complained, “You’re making a Western!”

Hmmm. A Pennsylvania Amish Western. Our friend Ben was dumbfounded, but also fascinated. The irony is that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, produced the great Conestoga wagons (named for Lancaster’s Conestoga River) that opened the West to settlement. Fortunately, the producer let Weir have his head. The result is a movie about light and space, one of the most beautiful movies ever made.

If you’re fortunate enough to visit Lancaster County, as our friend Ben and Silence do several times a year, you too will be struck by the feeling of space expanding, stretching out around you. We love to travel out there via Route 23. To reach 23, we have to take Route 100, a typically noisy, congested, ugly road that’s notable only for its ability to get you from here to there. But once we turn right onto 23, the modern world drops away. It’s as though, with a turn of the wheel, we’ve time-traveled back to the 1800s.

Route 23 is an old ridge road that runs between two deep, broad valleys framed at the edge of vision on each side by mountain ranges. Towns, many dating to the 1700s and displaying gorgeous old stone houses, cluster on each side of the road, but the valleys are still agricultural, and the farms there are chiefly Amish. If you travel that road about now, in April, you can look down on either side and see the Amish plowing their fields with their four- or six-horse teams, the great draft horses, Percherons or Belgians, looking like something out of mediaeval chivalry. (Draft horses were originally bred to support a knight wearing full and extremely heavy armor in joust or in battle. The descendants of these fabled destriers have become pullers of Amish plows and Budweiser wagons.) Amish buggies travel the road alongside you, the carriage horses glossy in the harness of the plain grey buggies. Power lines are largely absent. Time drops away, and only space remains. Space, and the play of light and cloud across the valleys and mountains.

Coincidentally, our friend Ben is now reading William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, a travelogue chronicling the author’s cross-country trip along the backroads in the late Seventies. Least Heat Moon is a compulsive researcher, a finder of facts. He enfolds them into his narrative like those candied red and green cherries people put in fruitcake batter, and the reader bites into them, colorful surprises in the cake-brown sameness of the roads.

Our friend Ben read with interest about how the invention of barbed wire had ended the great traditions of the Old West, the open range that made cowboys essential and their skills driving and tracking cattle legendary. With barbed wire, ranchers could cheaply put up fencing that would keep their herds contained. The open range vanished, replaced by fenced-in ranchland, and the cowboys became fence-menders and rodeo riders. The era of the Western, which began in Lancaster County with the Conestoga wagon, ended in the rangelands of Texas and Nevada with the stringing of barbed wire.

Yet the romance of the Western, of the wide open spaces, endures. It endures in movies like “Witness” that celebrate the beauty of the open fields. It endures in travels like William Least Heat Moon’s where you just get in your car or truck or van and go, head out onto the open road, not really caring where it takes you. It is a romance of light and space that has been with humanity since we first emerged onto the sunlit savannahs of Africa, with their tall grasses blowing and bright. We have left our birthplace and travelled far. But in meadow or prairie or the great sunlit spaces of the sea, we have never stopped trying to come home.  




1. Thomas Clump - April 30, 2008

You’ve outdone yourself for eloquence and insight. Those blue highways and luminous pathways are still out there, just around the next bend.

The curious thing about William Least Heat Moon is that he flared briefly as this brilliant comet darting across American literature, then disappeared from sight. Perhaps our friend Google can get to the bottom of this. Only Tony Horwitz (“Confederates in the Attic”) can turn travel into treasure as effortlessly. OK, OK, maybe Paul Theroux and Jan Morris and Jonathan Raban … But Moon was something special, or at least the places and people he came across were special. Thinking about Dime Box, Texas, brings a smile to the face. Our places names are us, and we’re something else. Why, “just the other day” I was in Truth or Consequences, N.M., up the road a piece from Hatch.

As for “Witness,” the name itself reflects on more than the characters of this affecting “western” set in Pennsylvania. The movie has weathered the years so well because it’s a classic, touching on themes relevant in any age. Harrison Ford won his stars with this one.

Thanks, Thomas, and thanks as always for sharing your insights with us! Reading about Dime Box cheered me up, too. Incidentally, I have Googled William Least Heat Moon and can find absolutely no trace of him after 1999, but no indication that he died, either. Does anybody know what became of him?

2. Cinj - April 30, 2008

Who doesn’t love a good Harrison Ford movie? I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie he starred in that I haven’t liked. I haven’t seen them all of course, but enough of them to feel confident in making this broad generalization. 🙂

I also admire the way the Amish are able to live their lives of simplicity in this complex modern society. I have often found myself longing for the simpler days of times long past. Those were the days when you worked hard to support your family and felt blessed for the effort.

I agree, Cinj! I think Harrison Ford has chosen his roles well. And you should have heard him in the interview! Brainy as well as brawny. As for the Amish, I think they feel blessed working to support their families because their families, communities and faith also work to support them, emotionally as well as physically. It’s a sense of community and closeness we “English” have lost.

3. Michael Nolan - April 30, 2008

Ben, please email me. I want to do a mini-interview on you for TC and I need to get some info ASAP.

Thanks, buddy!

p.s.: Not surprisingly, I adore Witness for many of the same reasons as you and yours.

Geez, Michael, that’s hugely flattering! I tried to e-mail you via Blogger and it wouldn’t open your e-mail link (grrrr). If you check back here, my e-mail’s ourfriendben@gmail.com. Thanks!!!

4. deb - May 1, 2008

It is a great and beautiful movie. Thanks for the back story on the making of it.


My pleasure, Deb!

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