Jim Emerson at the Chicago Sun Times blog rips Stephen Metcalf a new one for his Slate essay on THE SEARCHERS, which I used a jumping-off point for a post of my own the other day. I link in the interests of fairness, of course. Some observations and reactions of my own, as someone who generally would take Metcalf’s side in the dispute over the merits of THE SEARCHERS.
Emerson does make some good points. Metcalf is a bit too reliant on citing Pauline Kael, and a bit unspecific in his complaints. It IS anti-intellectual for Metcalf to point to Ford’s personal inarticulateness or to imply that the formal academic study of film is a joke.
But I don’t really think Emerson quite grapples with what is most offputting in the playing of THE SEARCHERS. Metcalf made that point (though he didn’t go into much specifics), and every example that Emerson cites in specific rebuttal (the paragraph that begins “Like his model Pauline Kael…” ) comes in the film’s main threads and/or the principal characters. But that’s not where the truly thumpingly awful stuff is. I named about a half-dozen shockingly bad or ham-fisted performances — overripe clowns, offensive stereotypes or empty suits. I don’t think Emerson even alludes to one of them (in fairness, he’s not answering me specifically, but I don’t claim any great originality. I’ve never met a SEARCHERS skeptic who didn’t quickly alight on Hank Worden’s Mose or Beulah Archuletta’s Look).
It’s not persuasive to say of the acting in THE SEARCHERS that “it’s impressionistic or balletic.” But these are descriptive terms not evaluative ones. As Leonard Pith-Garnell would say … it’s jolly bad ballet. Nor does pointing to the influence of silent films mean much — THE SEARCHERS is, after all, a sound film, and in the late-20s and early-30s sound film very quickly developed a different, much-lower-keyed acting style than the silent film for some very good and inherent reasons.
Not that it has anything to do with THE SEARCHERS, as Emerson would say, but he simply gets politics all wrong. Shockingly wrong. And he rattles on about Ford, Wayne and politics for long enough to make me think it does matter. It is not true that “a staunch Roosevelt Democrat” as Emerson (correctly) identifies John Ford is, “what Republicans today would call a radical Hollywood liberal” — unless Emerson is simply using “Roosevelt Democrat” as a synonym for “good” or “on the right side of history” (which is not too far from what some ahistoric born-yesterday types do in fact do). If “Roosevelt” refers to the historical person and not an amorphous ideal that shifts with the passing wind, the claim of Emerson’s is indefensible. No debate possible.
- In a review of CINDERELLA MAN last year, I touched on a big part of what distinguished Roosevelt from today’s liberals — his attitude toward the welfare state, which Hollywood liberals since the 1960s have believed to be a mean-spirited, blame-the-victim stance.
- Roosevelt expanded executive powers during wartime in ways that would make current Hollywood liberals blanche. He authorized military tribunals, and a half-dozen executions took place pursuant to them. He approved and defended a mass ethnic roundup (Michelle Malkin’s calls for racial profiling are nothing compared to what FDR did). Before the US involvement in the war, he subverted and contravened the Neutrality Acts in every way he could and at least one of his orders (a shoot-on-sight order against all German ships) constitutes an act of war under international law. If the Hollywood liberals of today had to deal with Roosevelt, they’d be on their knees in thanksgiving for Dubya.
- Roosevelt also didn’t lift a finger over segregation, and not from ignorance, as he wintered in Warm Springs, Ga., and took political support from the Herman Talmadges and Theodore Bilbos of the world. He was the candidate of the guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks, as Howard Dean tried to say he wanted to be before being shouted down by the racialism of today’s Democrats. FDR did not believe that morality on segregation was worth the destruction of the New Deal coalition, as have the Hollywood liberals of the 60s and since, to their subsequent chagrin.
- Roosevelt signed and acted on the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the US government. The statute survived almost 20 years and provided the legal basis for much of the anti-Communist witch-hunts [sic] that Emerson so righteously decries.
I could go on — mentioning Roosevelt threat to pack the Supreme Court or his refusal to increase Jewish immigration quotas and turn away the SS St. Louis — but this is more than sufficient for my point, which is that Emerson, like many film critics when they talk politics, is talking out the top of his hat (or the other end, as it were). There is no way that a Roosevelt Democrat is what Republicans today would call a radical Hollywood liberal. None. And what makes Emerson’s political analysis sadder is that Ford is apparently very much the sort of man who serves as an explanatory example of why FDR would be despised by today’s liberals — namely the reaction to the New Left and the student movements of the 60s. Ironically, Emerson himself realizes this, when he (approvingly) cites Joseph McBride’s of Ford as “a longtime progressive, he had turned to the right because of the war and his general unhappiness with the way America had not lived up to his vision of its potential.” Or as Ronald Reagan put it: “I didn’t leave the Democrats; the Democrats left me.” But instead, we get the (absolutely unsupported) assertion that “today, anyone claiming that America has not lived up to its potential is most likely to be accused of being a radical left-winger” — a claim one is not inclined to believe given how superficial Emerson’s knowledge of actual political spectrums seems to be. And it’s a claim which turns Ford into a man fundamentally insane. Because if the right and “reactionaries” are as Emerson describes, why would the war and the 60s generation have caused a man “unhapp[y] with the way America had not lived up to his vision of its potential” turn right, meaning toward those who “defend the status quo as evidence of America’s innate greatness, and proof that we do not have to change or become ‘better’.” It’s like deciding your body has not lived up to your vision of its physical potential, and then turning toward the cupcake and potato-chip lobby. (Sorry … a really good analogy escapes me, but hopefully that’ll at least demonstrate how wack Emerson’s theory of Ford’s politics is).
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