Wednesday, May 15, 2013

John Ford: Multiple Perspectives (Costa, Comolli, Gallagher, Straub)

In discussing John Ford with David Jenkins at Mubi, Pedro Costa praises Ford for his film's documentary and poetic quality, "It makes me dream and it makes me come back. I felt so right when I saw a film by John Ford and I'm in front of those people. It was a dream thing. It was a real thing." It's hard to isolate what exactly makes Ford's film so special and why his influence is so vast. Throughout the history of cinema there has been a plethora of of diverse directors that have praised Ford's cinema: Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Jean-Marie Straub, Maurice Pialat, and the Ross Brothers (River). To just name a few. And, of course, Ford is equally as polarizing, and other directors, like Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino, have reacted against him.

In an interview with by Daniel Fairfax with Jean-Louis Comolli, "Yes, we were utopians; in a way, I still am...", Comolli brings up Ford in the his recounting of the conflicts between Cahiers du Cinéma and Cinéthique in the late 60's,
"They distinguished themselves by radically rejecting practically the entire cinema. Personally, I have always been concerned with saving the cinema, including the most ideological films. The idea behind "Young Mr. Lincoln" was to save Hollywood. [...] "We proceeded from the idea that, if forms have a meaning, it could be – and this is the case with the great Hollywood directors – that this meaning is not that of the characters, or the story the film tells. It could be that this meaning comes from the mise en scène, and there, all of a sudden, forms take on a meaning at odds with the énoncés of the film’s logic. In the end, Young Mister Lincoln is particularly striking because it is a film which, if you read it rapidly, tells us of the Lincoln myth, of bourgeois, mercantile America. Everything is there, justice, absolutely everything. But as soon as you dismantle it, as soon as you deconstruct it, you perceive that it is infinitely more perverse than that, and that the filmmaker manages, on the basis of his work, or his own genius, to endanger, and even squarely overturn, the énoncés which are in the film. This can lead to a much more subtle reading, which in the end shows the film as fiercely critical of Lincoln’s position. This is what is interesting: Lincoln is there, like a statue, and at the same time he is something much more problematic, none of his weaknesses are concealed."
In an interview by Toni D'Angela with Tag Gallagher for La Furia Umana, Gallagher speaks about Ford in regards to the structure of his films,

"He made “experimental films” (at least according to Straub and me). Sometimes he experimented more in one direction, sometimes in another. [...] Ford is virtually the only filmmaker in Hollywood between the wars who exposes and denounces racism and the nature of the military, […] more Brecht than Brecht, as Jean-Marie Straub says."
Gallagher might be one of Ford's staunchest defender and in his writing he ocasionally brings up Jean-Marie Straub admiration for Ford’s cinema. 

In Gallagher’s incredible John Ford: The Man and His Films (University of California Press) he further elaborates on Straub's describtion of Ford as "Brectian" in Footnote #703 (pg.566-567). 

Here it is: 

Any effort persisted in becomes corrupt. The sense of duty that sustains
Ford’s individuals (and also their sense of faith) commonly leads them astray
into aberrations or death. Duty-bound, they invade others’ privacy, and
arrogate knowledge of higher good, right and judgment: judges, ministers,
soldiers, outlaws, priests. Thus racism, war or any form of intolerance
becomes a function of society. In tracing Ford’s pictures (particularly Judge
Priest, How Green Was My Valley, This Is Korea!, The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance) we have seen how people (and governments) act from feeling, not
from logic. People are made of dreams as much as reality. And we have
seen how Ford, in awakening around 1927 to cinema’s ability to be art
through total stylization, awakened simultaneously to his art’s high task: to
help us free ourselves from determining ideologies. Art, after all, has the
capability of making us understand things through emotion that we would be
absolutely incapable of understanding through the intellect. Within a determining 
milieu, particularly when that milieu is challenged, free will,
human nature, life’s worth, a benign divinity’s existence, all must necessarily
be posed in question. And so Ford pictures ideally construct in minute detail
a social set of apparent homogeneity (thus often military-like) in order to
analyze that society within its historic moment, and in order to demonstrate
how the garments of society, together with history itself, operate on the
individual. It is for these reasons that Jean-Marie Straub has called Ford the
most ”Brechtian” of all filmmakers.703
703. When Straub made this remark to the author in 1975 (after seeing Pilgrimage
and Donovan’s Reef) he was referring not so much to Ford’s acting style —in that
sense no films are truly Brechtian — as to Ford’s manner of stripping naked social
ideologies that are elsewhere unacknowledged. To Joseph McBride, Straub said Ford
is the most Brechtian of filmmakers, “because he shows things that make people [making] the audience collaborate on the film” (McBride and Wilmington,
John Ford, p. 108). McBride analyzes Fort Apache in this light, pointing out how
Captain York donning Colonel Thursday’s hat at the end is a Brechtian device [like
the cardinal donning the Pope’s robes in Brecht’s Galileo], and that we see clearly
that an insane system needs the dedication of noble men to perpetuate itself.) Less
simply, one might call Ford Brechtian because every element in his cinema is
engaged dialectically with every other element (whether one speaks of elements of
— or between — style, content, myth, ideology, or whatever), with the result that
Ford’s movies are self-reflexive and transparent in their workings.
This notion — essentially the thesis of this book — flies violently in the face of a
recent [1980] critical tendency to regard the “classical” cinema of Hollywood as a
monolithic system that sought to mask its “codes” (e.g., its montage) in order to
create an apparently unmediated representation of the real world; it sought to
entertain passively and left unacknowledged its own governing ideology. (Cf.,
Stagecoach: my argument with Browne (“Spectator-in-the-Text”); also Burch,
Distant Observer; Robert Phillip Volker, The Altering Eye [New York: Oxford, 1983];
Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres [New York: Random House, 1981]). “Modernist”
(i.e., some post-1960) cinema, on the other hand, subverts our absorption in
emotion, story, or character, and exposes its “codes” (e. g., by showing the camera,
discordant editing, having an actor speak directly to us), in order to force us to relate
intellectually rather than through emotional identification.
In these circles, Straub is admired as epitomizing “modernist” cinema, while Ford
is often derided (although not by most of the above-named critics) as a sentimental
reactionary. Thus Straub’s comparison of Brecht and Ford caused considerable
head-shaking. It is, of course, generally agreed that many movies cater exclusively
to an audience’s desire for passive spectacle (e.g.. Star Wars, some of Hitchcock);
and all research shows that audiences generally watch movies in order not to think.
Nonetheless, the fallacies of “modernist” critics are multitudinous (even including
their arrogation of the label “modern”). Firstly, their premise of a monolithic
classical system is a pure fantasy that reveals little sensibility for the complexity of
pre-1960 cinema and almost no acquaintance with the actual films themselves.
Secondly, they naively assume that audiences can be forced to think, whereas
“modernist” techniques soon lose their initial shock and audiences happily reimmerse
themselves into the fictional worlds of even the most determinedly
antipathetic movies. Thirdly, because their basis is exclusively materialist, they, like
Grierson and Aristarco before them, distrust emotions and aestheticism and would
destroy the art of cinema in favor of a cinema of political propaganda.
An examination of Brecht’s 1930 table, in which he gave cursory comparison
between the (bad) “dramatic” and the (good, Brechtian) “epic” theaters, will, in the
light of Straub and this book, show Ford very much on the “epic” side — the
Dramatic Theater                                           Epic Theater
plot                                                                  narrative
implicates spectator into drama                         makes spectator an observer
wears down his capacity for                             action arouses his capacity for action
provides him with sensations                            forces him to make decisions
provides experience                                         provides a picture of the world
involves the spectator                                       confronts the spectator
suggestion                                                         argument
feelings are preserved                                        feelings are propelled into perceptions
man is assumed known                                      man is the object of inquiry
man unalterable                                                 man alterable and altering
suspense about the outcome                              suspense about the progress
each scene exists for another                             each scene for itself
linear development                                            in curves
evolutionary determinism                                   evolutionary leaps
the world, as it is                                               the world, as it becomes
what man ought to do                                       what man is forced to do
man as a fixed point                                          man as a process
his instincts                                                       his motivations
thought determines being                                   social being determines thought
(Brecht did not intend, obviously, that epic theater be absolutely one way and not at
all the other way; it is a question of tendency.)
Tag Gallagher

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