BUCKING BROADWAY, John Ford, USA, 1917, 4
Presenter Peter Bogdanovich, who brought down the house with his Ford imitations, called this film “interesting for what Ford became, not so much for itself.” The DW Griffith influence is here very obvious — e.g. the climax has cowboys riding to the rescue, intercut with the barroom brawl where they’ll intervene. In this 50-minute featurette cowboy star Harry Carey is the dominant artistic force, here playing a bit more gung-ho than usual. But like with a lot of silent films, BUCKING BROADWAY is interesting simply as social archeology and rebuttal of what you thought you knew about film history — the cowboy is already somewhat “Other,” the object of fish-out-of-water in the city comedy, barely two decades after the closing of the frontier and the cowboy’s heyday, and with Wyatt Earp still around in Hollywood. Also surprisingly, there’s here a moment of purely-associational editing for psychological metaphor (involving a radiator). This is 1917, long before Eisenstein and Kuleshov.
IN MEMORY OF MYSELF, Saverio Costanzo, Italy, 3
I thought from the opening scene that I would love this film about a Catholic man in formation for an unnamed order (but apparently some kind of contemplatives). The initial interview asks all the right kinds of questions and the lead actor has an appropriately serious face. The opening scenes indicate how silent rules work, and the seminary environment is presented as devout, austere and without a hint of irony or parody (the film gets metaphorical points for never becoming anti-Catholic … see that later). But MEMORY’s script is all ellipses without drama — there are two other men who the lead character appears fascinated by, but we never really learn why (is it a homosexual crush? is it holiness? is it past acquaintance?) and they only come into focus when they leave, and the revelations turn out fairly banal and hardly justifying of either the lead man’s fascination or ours or the portentous loudly-mixed score ladled all over the film. And MEMORY stretches out its few plot points to death … no, it s t r e t c h e s t h e m o u t. The last few scenes get stronger, with the central character finally giving voice to some of what ails him, some of what conflicts him, and while they’re not things every devout man has not felt, it is truthful and causes him to consider whether God can really be calling him. But by the very end, and after plenty of telegraphing that “The Big Moment of Choice is coming, folks,” it didn’t matter which way the film-maker turned it — either in terms of its plausability or in terms of my caring.
NIGHTWATCHING, Peter Greenaway, Britain, 6
Well, I didn’t try to tear down the door at Burgundy’s, so that’s obviously a vast improvement over the last Greenaway film I saw. I swore the night I walked out of TULSE LUPER 1 in anger that I’d never watch another of his films. But I relented and NIGHTWATCHING turned out to be exactly what the buzz said it was — by Greenaway standards (underline that part, newbies), a fairly coherent, entertaining and accessible movie with a very good central performance by Martin Freeman, who plays Rembrandt as a bon-vivant “character” who learns what a bunch of asses an Amsterdam regiment is and decides to ridicule them and basically accuse them of murder in his “Night Watch” painting. There’s a couple of great scenes — one of Freeman recounting into the camera Rembrandt’s Greenawayized biography and doing it in a manner somewhat like a human being, and the unveiling of the painting, with cutaways to illustrate not only Greenaway’s theories but the elements in the drama which we had just seen (which made the typically stylized narrative seem not so arbitrary). Lots of elements in common too with COOK, THIEF, one of my all-time faves — the opening scene of a man being forcibly stripped nude on a setting made to llok like a stage, an opening curtain, lots of stylized talk about Art and other Big Topics (most of it intentionally stupid). Still this is Greenaway — there are tedious scenes and the specific historical thesis, that the painting caused retaliation from the officers, killing Rembrandt’s career is [insert Dutch words for “bullshit” and “self-serving”]. And I knew the former even before doing any research, simply from the way Greenaway “waterproofs” his theory by having the head of the team say nobody must do anything publicly, in order to hide their Vast Conspiracy from future generations. The broader thesis, that artists are night watchers who paint onto the black screen of the void, made sense. But the day’s next film went from preaching that to just doing it.
SILENT LIGHT, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 9
What is so special about the incredible opening shot, which some of my buds say is among the most beautiful in movie history? It’s not simply some “inherent beauty of nature” (I would not have been impressed by that), but the fact that the sunrise actually happens before our very eyes (though time lapse is used) and that Reygadas takes the time to show the light change the world, or actually creating our experience of it. And there’s real drama — what gets revealed to us as the shot continues. As in Genesis 1, in the beginning, the movie screen was a void. Then there were the stars. Then there was the light. Then there was a cosmic shape. Then there was nature per se [trees, hills]. Then there was nature as shaped by man [farms, crops]. Now that the natural world is fully revealed — cut to a home on a street [i.e., to man as fully civilized]. Yes, it’s a very lengthy shot but (1) we see the universe happen within it and (2) its length and slowness prepares us, trains us, for what follows. SILENT LIGHT is, in almost every conceivable way, paced slowly but precisely for that reason is deeply moving. The father in a Germanic Mennonite family in Mexico is having an affair but his religious conscience (he has seven children) will not let him at ease. This milieu makes the Official Art-House Style seem more like a natural fact. The people in this semi-separated religious community (they’re not isolated, like the Amish; they drive trucks, etc.) do speak slowly, do pause between sentences, never talk over one another, never engage in idle chat, etc. And so even such elements of Reygadas style as long takes and slow camera movements seem more like a reflection of this world than an imposed authorial contrivance. Simple. Beautiful. Perfect.
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).
Stephen Metcalf has an essay at Slate on John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS with the dead giveaway title “The Worst Best Movie: Why on earth did The Searchers get canonized?” I have to place myself in the same camp as Metcalf, at least in terms of the “all-time greatest” accolades with which THE SEARCHERS is garlanded. I like the film some, but that #8 is for a very weak year, at least in the terms of the films I have seen. Only the Top 4 for that year would I unhesitatingly call “great.” Middle-of-the-pack films by Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (both of whom I much prefer to Ford in general) are ahead of THE SEARCHERS, and of the 10 years surrounding 1956, only in one other would it be in my Top 10.
Now THE SEARCHERS starts out with the flaw that I am not the world’s #1 fan of Westerns and think John Ford had some intrinsic flaws as a filmmaker, from overscoring with hammer-over-the-head music to horribly unfunny “comic relief.” I’ve now seen the film three times (never in a theater, though), and both repeat viewings reinforced my position on it — uneven, with brilliant and unbearable sequences in about equal measure, the brilliance becoming more brilliant with time and the unbearableness becoming more unbearable.
The early Comanche raid on the cabin is brilliantly staged and cut; Ethan’s arrival and all the various subtexts are handled with unFordian nuance and tact (like the way the sister-in-law caresses Ethan’s uniform when they leave on the raid); the family burial is quietly moving; the teepee meeting with Scar a nervy but stoic portrayal of two men who know that honor requires that they kill each other tomorrow. And John Wayne (with one major reservation noted below) gives a brilliant performance as Ethan, easily his best, as a man teetering on the edge of sanity — I don’t agree with Richard Schickel’s complaint in Schickel on Film that Wayne’s performance is not sustained. This very “unevenness” — Wayne shifting in between darkly menacing moments and his more-customary gruff geniality — is what makes the portrayal effective. You don’t know which Wayne you’re gonna get, and when he can keep the mask of sanity on.
But ohmigawd do big chunks of THE SEARCHERS blow big chunks. The scenes with the Indian bride Luke just made me wince, played in a register that makes Butterfly McQueen look like Angela Davis. Lord knows, I am a flaming reactionary with no sympathy for feminist and noble-Indians schools of social/film criticism; but sometimes you gotta give the devil her due. I’ll overlook pretty much anything in the name of excitement or a joke, but these scenes are witless, which makes its patronizing attitudes embarassing. When Jeffrey Hunter kicks Luke out of their “bed” and down a sand dune, while Ethan chuckles along with a jolly air, it just makes you think “maybe Leonard Peltier had a point.”
Nor is this admittedly short sequence the only flaw in this vein. Several of the characters are just as caricatured as Luke: Vera Miles’ suitor, Mose, the cavalry unit’s leader, Mr. Jorgenson. Those who play these cartoons play down to them well enough, I suppose, but I didn’t laugh once, primarily because the film isn’t a spoof. In every scene involving Mose, I think ‘what could Howard Stern’s Stuttering John do with this role?’ Jeffrey Hunter is a callow nonentity; compare Michael Caine and Sean Connery in John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING to see what can be made of a boys’ genre piece about two men on an epic quest, one of whom goes batty, when the casting is strong for both lead parts. The fight between the suitors seemed ritualistic in all the worst senses of the word. Maybe chicks in the 1870s (or 1950s) were different, but that closeup of Vera Miles beaming (in her white wedding dress, no less!!) as her two men fight over her, just seems to me like the worst sort of patronizing macho wish-fulfillment that feminists would like to think defines the male mind (sic).
The last significant plot point, Wayne’s picking up Natalie Wood, is much praised, but to me and Metcalf, it just seems like an arbitrary wuss-out and a way to create a critical puzzle that can never be solved. Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the famous last shot of THE SEARCHERS, though its point — the gap between the civilizer and civilization, and how the man who creates order does so on behalf of an institution toward which he is fundamentally an outsider — was explored much more effectively by Ford in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (here’s G-Money on that film).
But such skepticism is a minority view among hard-core film buffs, as Metcalf notes, making many of the same criticisms I just did. For a quarter-century now, THE SEARCHERS has consistently ranked among the top films of all-time in critics polls. In the decennial Sight & Sound poll (as close to a BCS system as the film-geek world has) THE SEARCHERS first placed in the Top 10 in 1982, when the poll was all critics. Since then a shift and a gradual dropoff has occurred. The 1992 poll had Ford’s film placing fifth among critics, but nowhere in the Top 10 among filmmakers. The 2002 poll showed the same split, though at a somewhat lower level, with THE SEARCHERS finishing tied for 11th among critics but barely in the Top 30 for filmmakers. There’s no doubting THE SEARCHERS’ influence on a handful of American directors, but, as the S&S Poll numbers above show, its cachet among film-makers is slipping and now primarily belongs to critics. Metcalf kind of acknowledges this, referring only to the first generation of film-school-educated directors. I think this hints at an explanation for THE SEARCHERS continuing popularity among critics.
In his very good essay on Ford, Schickel makes the point that many critics of his generation (he compares his reaction to generational cohorts Lindsay Anderson and Andrew Sarris) “had his eyes opened to the notion that movies might be something more than an instrument for fantastic escape from childhood constraints, picked up his first hints of film’s larger possibilities as an expressive form, and made his first inchoate emotional responses to that form … because of John Ford’s pictures.” I wrote a little bit below about the Warner cartoons and myself, noting that one of the first things a critic does is grapple with the (largely, but not totally, pre-critical) opinions of his childhood. Such eminent critics and champions of Ford today include Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, who would also fit Schickel’s description, at least in terms of the raw data of year of birth. Though it doesn’t focus on THE SEARCHERS, Rosenbaum’s 2004 essay in Rouge on Ford’s THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT is a perfect example of combining an intensely personal boyhood love, autobiography, and one’s adult sensibility.
But with me, no. Ford made his last fiction film the year I was born and had died before I ever heard of him. My eyes were first opened to cinephilia by Hitchcock and Wilder from the past, Kubrick and Scorsese from the then-present, and Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa among the furriners. I don’t think these factors are unrelated. Living my boyhood in another country, I don’t think I ever watched more of any Western than a TV promo clip. The whole genre just seemed bizarre to me. Also John Wayne was not the mythic presence, the very embodiment of “us,” that he was for Americans. While I no longer dismiss the Western tout court, the mythic love that Wayne and Ford could once tap into, and the residues of which remain forever, cannot be assented to, only unconsciously absorbed.