Tuesday, October 2, 2012

That Jack Ford yells very loud, he’ll make a great director

How should one start a blog-post about John Ford? Mention some of the great actors and actresses that he’s worked with like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Maureen O'Hara? List many of his great films like The Informer, The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, When Willie Comes Marching Home, The Long Gray Home? Bring up how he made some of the most iconic Westerns like The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers, Sergeant Rutledge, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Bring up some of the seminal writing about him like Andrew Sarris’s entry in The American Cinema or his interview with Peter Bogdanovich?

Or try to describe why all of these old black-and-white films are as relevant as ever?

Today, in the early twenty-first century, when film production, distribution, and viewing is experiencing a seismic shift, accommodating itself to new technological changes; Ford’s cinema is a reminder of the great films that were being made in the Classical Hollywood studio era. Perhaps studying them might be rewarding to better understand and contextualize some of the films that are being made today? As Jean-Loup Bourget brings up in Hollywood, la norme et la marge, “the classical Hollywood forms are still alive in our time, even though, the truth is that they no longer have the same social function, nor without a doubt, the same significance.”

Eric Rohmer wrote about Westerns in Redécouvrir l’Amérique (Cahiers, N.54),
“There is certainly a touch of pedantry in evoking the Iliad while discussing a Western, but apart from the fact that certain commentators have had no qualms about comparing Chaplin or some Capra hero to the Percival of Arthurian legend, the obsession with antiquity is so flagrant in some masters of the American novel – Melville, James, Faulkner – that a parallel between the first colonizers of the Mediterranean and the pioneers of Arizona is no mere artifice of rhetoric.”
Rohmer is on the right path in bringing up the ancient Greek epic poem - along with highlighting terms like efficacy and elegance in discussing the form, and the genres preoccupation with destiny and morality - as in these Westerns, and especially Ford’s, these men, for their time, were experiencing the parameters of human experience. By choosing the colonizers of North America as his subjects, what we are being shown are the men and women that would go up against the empty abyss of a burgeoning country. They were literarily pushing the boundaries of their preconception of space. But there isn’t a rosy nostalgia to these pictures, as these social portraits hinge upon the collapse of civilized society into that of chaos or violence. One just thinks about the hold-up in Wagon Master, when this group of Mormons face exterior threats and a hold-up from within their group - the only way to fight back is with their guns. This is only one example of what’s particularly interesting about these films, and that is how the characters resolve these moral conflicts in face of humanity in extreme conditions.

The military seems to hold a strong place in Ford’s cinema. In Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford, McBride brings up that a young Jack Feeney as a young boy got all excited during his history classes. Ford felt proud when he discovered that a lot of Irish-American immigrants participated in the American Revolution (his father included). Joseph McBride, 
"His identification with the military ethos and his growing sense of himself as a national poet made him turn his postwar filmmaking efforts largely to themes of American history. [...] The result was a postwar body of work that became more nakedly individualistic, more deeply emotional, in many ways more pessimistic, fascinatingly and sometimes maddeningly self-contradictory, often defiantly quirky and self-indulgent to the point of perversity." 
One gets a sense that the military is viewed as a unifier of the population but also as a, perhaps, an inevitable period of misery and grief, before lighter times ahead. Just like how it takes a war and tragedy, in Drums Along the Mohawk, before there could be the creation of the American flag. So that there is something valedictory about how Lana (Claudette Colbert) would then compliment and admire it.

For more information about Ford’s biography a great resource is his grandson’s Dan Ford’s biography Pappy: The Life of John Ford. But for starters, here is a brief account of his youth and his early career.

Ford was born on the first of February, 1895 into a large family and whose parents were Irish-American bootleg saloonkeepers in Portland, Maine. His father John Feeney moved to America from Ireland, following his nephew Michael Connoly, who had already been living there, living through exciting times.

When he was young, a young Jack Ford played on his high school football team, and worked at Portland's Jefferson theater, a prime stop for road companies. He then moved to join his brother's company, the Francis Ford Serial Company, which moved to the new studio Universal City in 1915, "the first truly modern studio," where he would make his first two-reelers The Tornado and The Scrapper (both 1917).

"Francis Ford was John's first great teacher and his first great professional influence,” writes Dan Ford, “but it was John's teaming with silent star Harry Carey that paved the way to his eventual success." Ford would make twenty-three films with Carey. Dan Ford writes about how this collaboration made John Ford, "a first-rate action director." On an assignment for Universal to make another two-reeler, Ford, with Carey, would make Ford’s first full-length feature, Straight Shooting (1917). Irving Thalberg really liked it, and tthe success of Straight Shooting convinced Universal to get Ford and Carey to make more of the same kind-of films billed as "Harrey Carey's and Jack Ford's Just Plain Westerns". Their last film together is Marked Men (1919).

John Ford’s reputation was improving and he left Universal for the William Fox studios, where his wage would increase to six-hundred dollars a week. His first two films there starred Buck Jones: Just Pals and The Big Punch (both 1919). Ford worked with Tom Mix "the hottest western star in Hollywood" on two pictures: Three Jumps Ahead and North of Hudson Bay (1922). Dan Ford describes Cameo Kirby (1923) as his "first truly mature film."

Around this time in 1920, Ford married Mary McBride Smith and had one son with her, Patrick. But this time of joy would not last long, as then the Irish Revolution got Ford interested again in his Irish roots and he went to visit his family in Galway, Ireland.

Tag Gallagher does a good job at breaking up Ford’s career into different periods in his book John Ford: The Man and his Films. Gallagher divides Ford’s oeuvre into the following four categories: 1) The Age of Introspection (1927-1935), 2) The Age of Idealism (1935-1947), 3) The Age of Myth (1948-1961), and 4) The Age of Mortality (1962-1965). About these periods Gallagher writes,
"The first period tends to be relaxed, airy, concerned with being and with contemporary social life. The second period tends to be more manipulative, closed and formal, concerned more with mood and the past. The third period is brighter and more vital, formal but open, concerned with pilgrimage and subsistence. The fourth period, following a "season in hell," is eschatological, existentially and aesthetically."
It is also relevant here to bring up William K. Everson who in American Silent Film, in describing some of the more salient silent films, writes,
"The films of the early twenties concentrated more on beauty of camerawork and lighting - a beauty enhanced by the skilled utilization of tints and tones and by the increased and soon perfected use of gauzes, filters and glass shots. […] Through the twenties, the virtuosity of the purely pictorial aspect of film increased steadily, reaching its apex in 1927 and 1928 [...]  For quite certainly, the overall standards of the American film - both as entertainment and as art - were higher in the twenties then in any other period. It is in the twenties that we find the largest concentration of permanent classics of the American screen."
The films that Everson include in this group of “permanent classics” includes Ford's The Iron Horse and Four Sons, along with Borzage's Seventh Heaven, Griffith's Isn't Life Wonderful? and Orphans of the Storm, von Stroheim's Greed, Murnau's Sunrise, and von Sternberg's Docks of New York

Since Ford's career has spanned for over fifty-years, from the teens to the late sixties, there are many filmmakers that one could classify as his contemporary. He is usually discussed in terms of being a classical Hollywood director, and thus could be associated with many directors of the time. Some examples: Cecil B. DeMille, as they both worked through the transition from silent to talkies, and in both eras made epic-scale spectacles; Alfred Hitchcock, for imbuing their films with a working-class social texture; Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, with Capra for a shared sentimentalist-optimism though Ford wasn't as preachy, and with both for how they re-used a stock company from film to film; Fritz Lang, both directors have made films that share very similar stories, but where Lang was a pessimist, Ford was a humanist; and Howard Hawks, for making Westerns and creating some of John Wayne's most iconic performances.

It is interesting to note what Ford admired about his friend Frank Capra's films,
"His genius has been applied not only to the art of but to the business of making great motion pictures, and his name on the credits has assured rich satisfactions to bankers, exhibitors, stars, feature players, extras, cameramen, crew, and the theatergoing public for more than half a century. This he has accomplished without compromising his own exacting sense of the good, the beautiful, and the appropriate; without ever losing a friend or having a scene censored."
It is interesting to note that the business-side of movies is one thing that Ford admires, because he openly voiced his frustration and anger towards his producers. But if one looks further into why Ford’s films stand out is that he too was able to mix the best of both worlds balancing personal expression with studio resources.

"Capra has not only achieved a place of distinction in that select company of really fine directors - men like Bill Wellman, Fred Zinneman, George Stevans, George Seaton, Billy Wilder, Henry Hathaway, the late Leo McCarey, and (abroad) Jean Renoir, Fellini, De Sica, Sir Carol Reed, and David Lean." Ford continues, from his foreword to Capra's The Name Above the Tile: An Autobiography, "He heads the list as the greatest motion picture director in the world."

Ford’s films have a distinct style: the people in his films are characterized by more than just how they look and by their actions, but also by their behavior, glances and gestures; he usually films in long-shots so that there can be more things going on in the fore-, mid-, and background then just the primary action; there isn't too much editing and the camera movements - like dolly-shots to provide emphasis, or pans - are used sparingly (more like Ozu than Eisenstein). Ford continues in the tradition set forth by the D.W. Griffith of The Birth of a Nation by making films exploring the countries history and social problems. The French film-critic Jean-Loup Bourget refers to Ford as a “cinéaste classique par excellence,” and talks about his films as deriving their form from classical paintings. In Bourget's essay D’un classicisme l’autre: Poussin, Ford, Hawks, from the book Le classicisme hollywoodien, he writes, “It’s clear that the paintings that have been brought up by others aren’t “sources” (e.g. the paintings of the West by Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer) or punctual references, but more like that of similar world-views, that share an air of familiarity, where the reprisal of certain pictorial motifs are openly both visual and thematic.”

Ford is more than just as an auteur, but is a cineaste - a director conscious of making movies, and wanting to heighten their experience. One filmmaker that Ford admired and who had a great influence on him is F.W. Murnau. In the late twenties, Murnau was invited by the Fox Studios to come to Hollywood to shoot a movie Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Ford who was at the studio at the time was impressed by its many-fold visual tricks and distorted realism. Gallagher writes about the Murnau influence on Ford that, "Ford found cinema could be completely poeticized; he discovered movies might be art."

The Informer (1935) with its angst-ridden protagonist, stark lighting, titled camera angles and distorted sets; is one of the early Ford films to be influenced by the German Expressionist filmmaker. Murnau's Nosferatu was also was influential on Ford. Especially the shock effect that comes from the revealing of Nosferatu (Max Schreck) from out of the shadows into the light - where he's looking like a mixture between a rat and a vampire. Ford would appropriate this device when he would present luminary figures revealing hidden truths. One can think of the many court-room scenes in Ford's films where in a moment of suspense the onlookers would be shocked by someone revealing important information. As well there is the Nosferatu dazed-like wandering - a tabula rasa which watches and absorbs - that seems to be the primary influence for Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), from How Green Was My Valley, whose unchanged stunned look remains on his face as he wanders around the misery of the Welsh mining community.

The subject of American history plays a large role in Ford's cinema. A good description of his films could be that Ford gives life to history through the rituals of individuals within communities: marches getting ready and then taking place, ballroom dances in unison, military preparations and following orders, court-room procedures and so on and so on. Orson Welles said about Ford that at his best, "you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world."

In discussing industrialization Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, in Thinking the Twentieth Century, highlight that John Steinbeck and his book The Grapes of Wrath, “serves the function of creating an image of working class suffering, making society look different than it did before”. Where Steinbeck creates the social texture of the Great Depression through his prose, Ford presents the faces and the people going through these experiences. So in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and his family put a face to the plight of the migrating farmers, which was caused by their property being allocated by the banks. And one could include How Green Was My Valley as one of the great proletariat films. In Ford's films, to use two other examples Mary of Scotland and Cheyenne Autumn, Ford gives precedent to the victims and the defeated. There is something almost modern about the social criticism imbued within his historical portraits.

Where a historian like Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition describes the 19th century politician Abraham Lincoln in terms of being a self-made myth, both self-conscious of his poor and humble origins alongside being political ambitious. Lincoln’s views on slavery, as Hofstadter posits, was more a tool of electoral self-promotion then that of a humanitarian concern. While for Ford, in his rich, though perhaps naive, portrait of Lincoln: Ford emphasizes certain qualities of the Lincoln spirit, that of education, collectivity and the possibility of creating change. It’s almost a revolutionary spirit and you can see it in many of Ford’s films where Lincoln appears as a character or solely represented in a photograph (The Prisoner of Shark Island, the Calvary trilogy).

A good reference for discussing Ford's relation to the spirit of Lincoln is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, A collective text by the Editors of Cahiers du Cinema from August 1970, which is anthologized in Narative, Apparatus, Ideology. The essay is a Marxist-Freudian reading of the film, that analyzes it in the way that Walter Benjamin has insisted the discussion of arts as, “not as a reflection of the relations of production, but as having a place within these relations.” The Cahiers essay is useful for providing a brief history of the United States of America to contextualize Young Mr. Lincoln. Like how in 1938, under Democrat president Roosevelt, the fairly gloomy context of the Young Mr. Lincoln undertaking was that of “federal centralism, isolationism, economic reorganization (including Hollywood), strengthening of the Democrat-Republican opposition, new threats of internal and international crisis, crisis and restrictions in Hollywood itself." And that, “It is no doubt difficult, but necessary, to attempt to estimate the total and respective importance of these factors to the project and the ideological “message of the film.”"

So what is Ford's influence on contemporary cinema? and how do we remember him today? In a political climate where the truism of the past are snatched from their original meaning to promote false claims and distorted ideals, and in a culture that fetishes the new and novelty to the disregard to the old. John Ford’s cinema stands out for its humanistic concern and as a relic of mainstream mid-century American cinema. His movies today both move and are moving.

From early on, even while he was still alive, his work was already influencing other filmmakers, especially in terms of how he presented communities and his treatment of landscapes. Some directors, from the past to the present, that show a marked influenced by Ford include: Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman (the early, medieval films), Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Monte Hellman, Maurice Pialat (Van Gogh), Straub & Huillet, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, José Luis Guerín (Innisfree), Pedro Costa, and Andrew Stanton (John Carter).

When the language of film criticism has yet to catch up with the new realities of the twenty-first century, there needs to be some understanding of the past to better understand how to move forward. Two directors that admirably keep on with the Classical Hollywood tradition which was personified by Ford that I would like to highlight are Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. It is a shame then that some of their great new films like Lincoln and Trouble With The Curve are oddly dismissed as being anachronistic and out-of-date. While a regular, yearly output may lead to a variety in quality, the Hollywood tradition that Spielberg and Eastwood are engaging with; make me confident in the way that the movies are being made, and in the stories that they tell, and in the society that watches them.

David Davidson

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