|Interview with Tag Gallagher|
|Scritto da Tag Gallagher/Toni D'Angela|
INTERVIEW WITH TAG GALLAGHER.
L’AUTRE, C’EST MOI
Question) Qui est Ford? asked Jean-Louis Comolli in the 1960s. And in 2001 after thirty years of effort, Joseph McBride in his 900-page book still could not give a definitive answer. Can you?
Answer) My response could be: “Who am I? Who are you? Who is Berlusconi?” How can one be so presumptive as to conceive of a “definitive” answer? There have been zillions of books about Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln; none one would claim to be definitive. Part of the fascination of people is their contradictions. We all have contradictions. Is there someone who had none? If Comolli and McBride feel that the most important thing to say about Ford is that he had contradictions, don’t ask me to explain their fetish.
Simone Weil: “To write the lives of the great in separating them from their works necessarily ends by above all stressing their pettiness, because it is in their work that they have put the best of themselves.”
McBride hunts out Ford’s pettiness like a pig after truffles. He proves once again (and Scott Eyman proves it much more) that one can take anyone’s life, find the ten worst things they ever did (or said, or thought), and make those the pillars of a biography. Contrast their approach with Maureen O’Hara’s in her autobiography: she tells worse stories about Ford, but from a mature sense of “who” a human is, and of the worth of one’s “works.” Indeed, if we wish to know “who” the best of John Ford is, it’s to his works that we shall look.
And I should add that despite my grumblings both McBride and Eyman are extremely worthwhile books with much valuable material.
Important: My replies here and throughout are to the questions posed, not to the actual texts of the critics cited, which I have read many years ago (or not at all) and have not reviewed.
Q.) Cahiers du Cinéma, when it began with André Bazin, didn’t have a good relationship with Ford’s films. Not until the mid 1960s was Ford valued as an auteur or great artist by a new generation of critics and cinephiles: Comolli, Narboni, Daney, Biette, Noames (aka Skorecki). But it wasn’t they who rehabitated Ford but another young critic, Louis Marcorelles in 1958, who declared Ford was the most important director in the world, along with Renoir. But Marcorelles is also the source of a cliché: that Ford is naïve, elementary, superb at recreating an idyll, the “splendor of the world”, great singing elegies but uncomfortable with expressionism («esthétisme rigide», claims Marcorelles) -- when he raises his target and artistic ambitions lead him astray, and he makes films that are too labored over and refined, like The Informer or Mary of Scotland, which lack spontaneity («dangereux excès», again Marcorelles). What do you think? Is there really one Ford who’s spontaneous and realistic («Ford créateur d’instinct plus que de raison»), and another Ford who’s pretentious and artsy? Even Henri Agel and Lindsay Anderson accused Ford of succumbing to artistic and intellectual ambitions.
A.) In my experience it is part of the human condition that many people are blinded to the splendor of truth – to John Ford, specifically. Every time I have led a class on Ford, half the class loathes the first film, no matter what it is, and someone will quit in indignation. I don’t know of any other filmmaker in history who so routinely excites such hostility. People feel morally bound to loathe Ford. And if you look back to reviews from the 1920s you will find not only that Ford was “valued” in the US as author and great artist of the new generation, but that already in the early 1930s he inspired hostility.
Essentially, the point of contention is very simple. Ford makes a movie like Salute (1929) with Stepin Fetchit deliberately doing a take-off on “the comic Negro,” appearing at the US Naval Academy, dressed up like a Halloween admiral, and telling a sallow cadet, “I’s yes mammy!” And to half of a given audience, Stepin Fetchit is so offensive, so insulting, so disgusting, that no further thought is necessary: Ford is a deplorable racist, yuck. Meanwhile to the other half of the audience, 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.
A black was being lynched every two weeks in the South when Ford in Judge Prest had Will Rogers (probably the most loved personality then, 1934) confront a mob trying to lynch a black teenager. Alas, the studio cut the sequence, simply because theaters wouldn’t have played the film or would have cut out the sequence themselves. But let’s give credit to Ford for trying. Even President Roosevelt was afraid to challenge the South’s popular past time (which had been greatly encouraged by The Birth of a Nation). Someone today could watch thousands of Hollywood movies from the 1930s and, if he skipped watching Ford’s, might reasonably conclude that no such beings as black humans existed in America at that time. In fact I know of no denunciation of American racism (unless one counts Ford) until Rod Geiger put it into Rossellini’s Paisà in 1946.
On the other hand, there’s a professor in Nebraska who insists I “fail to satisfactorily address the racism and sexism that Ford simultaneously embraces and defends (the only possible words) in his work.”
The older I get, the more I’m impressed by how often received opinion has blinded generations of movie viewers. We could talk about the cant on Italian neo-realism that convinced three generations that Rossellini is impersonal…
Getting back to my classes, the Ford haters would always diminish with each successive movie, until by the sixth the room would be awash with tears.
Perhaps something similar occurred with our French critics. You may recall Truffaut “confessing” years later how his indignation at John Wayne slapping Maureen O’Hara on her rump in The Quiet Man blinded him to the fact that thanks to Ford she “was able to play some of the best female roles in American cinema.” Absurdly, people today close their eyes to this woman in the movie and insist Ford “embraces” humiliating all women. I spent seven years arguing with Gerald Mast whether The Searchers is racist or against racism.
In addition to blindness, we must remember that French critics did not have a great deal of access to Ford’s movies. The things they wrote were often on the evidence of a handful of pictures, not on a just sampling of his surviving oeuvre, let alone on most of it.
Ford wasn’t considered PC (politically correct). To champion him was in bad taste. Even his obvious virtues – his careful staging, his lighting, his angles — seemed passé, alongside rabid youth. The results of Bazin’s pitting Ford against Welles were foreordained.
But in my experience, again, eventually almost everyone has a Pauline moment of revelation, where like Eric Rohmer converting in the middle of Stromboli because he realized there’s something behind phenomena, people suddenly awake and “see” Ford for the first time.
The question of a conflict between spontaneity and excessive refinement will resolve itself for anyone who will watch all of Ford’s movies at least three times each. Ford was not following a formula. He made “experimental films” (at least according to Straub and me). Sometimes he experimented more in one direction, sometimes in another, naturally. But always he was totally stylized. Around 1948 fashions changed, pallettes became lighter, but parts of The Searchers are surely more expressionistic, more Murnau-like and experimental than anything in The Informer. Saying something is “excessively refined” is sometimes a refusal to jump into the pool. Fifty years ago, Mozart was routinely rejected for being excessively refined.
Q.) Jean Mitry in 1954 described Ford as classical because he was an artist with character and originality and a “vision of the world” that had a “message.” He said Ford is not an epic filmmaker because humor redimensions the characters’ heroism; rather Ford is a picaresque filmmaker because his heroes are anti-rhetorical, they never take themselves too seriously.
A.) Did Mitry mean that Homer and Vergil are classical because Achilles and Aeneas don’t take themselves too seriously?
Can’t something be an epic and still have someone in the story find something funny about the hero?
It’s not surprising that cowboy heroes are unrhetorical or antirhetorical, but surely Mitry would not argue that Ford’s Lincoln is un or anti. Or Frank Skeffington in The Last Hurrah, or preacher in The Grapes of Wrath. The Irish in The Quiet Man and The Rising of the Moon and The Plough and the Stars relish every word. Gideon of Scotland Yard is constant amusement at the way the English speak.
I like Mitry, despite his pigeonholes. “Le roman est un récit qui s'organise en monde, le film un monde qui s'organise en récit.” !!!
Q.) Roger Tailleur, in Positif in the 60s, insists on the irony of Ford, and on the fact that his films do not have epic’s quality. Despite his many war movies, his Iliad side is always less important than his Odyssey side. His Iliad side, says Tailleur, is redimensioned by Ford’s characteristic humor, which is a form of modesty that tempers his affection for his characters and takes a bit of (Brechtian) distance from them. Humor is a perfect antidote to the sentimentality and exaggerated farce, but also to the rhetoric. Rather than in History which ignores common people, Ford is interested in the history of ordinary people and everyday life or, better still, in people and their stories. You approve this reading?
A.) More pigeonholes. Is not Fort Apache more Iliad than Odyssey? Or 7 Women? What about Liberty Valance, The Sun Shines Bright, Donovan’s Reef, or My Darling Clementine and How Green Was My Valley or The Long Gray Line? Etc. Yes, in his teens Ford used to say his middle name was Augustine – perhaps Augustine was the name he chose at Confirmation — and throughout his movies one finds such Augustinian themes as redemption, the cities of God and of man, and of course pilgrimage – that we’re all of us pilgrims in life, odysseying from birth to death. And so a constant Ford theme is passage (thus Truffaut, prior to redemption, declared that The Searchers shows “Ford doesn’t know how to film passing time,” because those who scorn Ford never fail to see the opposite of what is there on the screen). Yet most Ford movies begin when someone arrives somewhere, and end when that person leaves, which I suppose makes them Iliads or at least Iliads enclosed in Odysseys…?
On the question of humor, where Tailleur claims it distances the epic which he doesn’t think is there anyhow, one might point out that the humor makes the audience feel intimate with the heroes. And just as a painter composes with varied colors and shapes, so Ford composes with varied emotions. His characters, too, offset each other. Each woman in 7 Women speaks with a unique pace, rhythm and tone.
It is true that in their 25+ movies together, Ford and Harry Carey developed a laconic character with a certain pace and laid-backness, and that Ford had young John Wayne model himself on Carey – “Stand like he does, if you can, and play your roles so that people can look upon you as a friend.” And Ford’s other heroes – Henry Fonda, Will Rogers, etc. – all display a welcoming modesty, but at the same time are capable of standing up to a lynch mob.
The distinction between Tailleur’s history and history isn’t detailed enough for me to know what he is trying to say. Yes, Ford is primarily interested in his humans. But he takes great care to insert them into History – a History which Ford himself is writing. As for the Philosophy of History, is there any movie that delves so deeply into it as Liberty Valance? Ford was an avid reader, especially of history. And to read history is to encounter people like ourselves who are caught up in a nexus of events and cultures. (Not surprisingly, one of Ford’s favorite writers was Jonathan Swift.) In a movie, we experience something of what the characters are experiencing. To pigeonhole, we might say that the paradigmatic Ford images is a character acting freely within a geometric composition: the Augustinian paradox of free will and predestination.
Q.) Tailleur defines the director as contemplative artist. Ford is like a Flaherty, but sings louder and more in tune. Ford organizes parties for his (anti-)heroes. The holidays are exciting, the dancing on planks laid directly on the sand, the bathing in the waters that purify. Ford, continues Tailleur, is like a Claude Lorrain in the West, a Duke Ellington with the camera. Does this image of the contemplative director convince you?
A.) More pigeonholes!
Is the fact that Claude Lorrain paints landscapes, and presumably looked at landscapes in the world and in his head, somehow a unique event? Is not El Greco contemplative? Or Giotto? Or the sphynx?
I once showed The Searchers to someone who, afterward, commented – actually, it was a complaint – “It all looks like painting.”
Ford creates, as did Lorrain. He doesn’t plop his camera down and press the switch. He would spend hours and hours posing chairs and getting the right light onto them.
Q.) Cahiers du Cinéma in the 60s has another picture of Ford. A picture less peaceful, more complex and ambiguous, less amenable to analysis. A picture that makes him more difficult and ambiguous than other major American filmmakers, like Vidor, Hawks, Lang, Hitchcock. The meetings, dances, and parties are not always quiet, calm, contemplative (as Marcorelles thought: «Tout action ressemble alors à une party, à une réunion d’hommes tranquilles assemblés le soir autour de l’âtre ou de feu de camp pour se raconter de bonnes anecdotes»). The parties of men facing one another around the campfire, telling stories are not just peaceful and serene, claims Comolli, because Ford's cinema is an art of opposites and contrasts. «Ce bal unique de film en film maintenu finit par nous apprendre non seulement que le monde de Ford est celui des parias (de la société, des convenances, des règles : c’est-à-dire un monde de révolutionnaires), non seulement que nostalgie de l’ordre et regret de la coutume les conduisent à célébrer ensemble, jusque dans leur dénuement ou leur égarement et avec d’autant plus de ferveur qu’ils se savent davantage proscrits, ces brèves retrouvailles avec la commune mesure : il nous apprend que l’art de Ford est un art du contraste, des oppositions. Que sont ces bals, sinon la réunion dans l’espace et le temps close d’une représentation (…) donnée aux autres, de forces antagonistes, de formes détonnantes, dont l’affrontement ou l’appariement constituent déjà la matière du film (…) Traditions, souvenirs, inertie des pouvoirs, règles, habitudes, conventions, ces émanations d’un Ordre contesté mais protecteur deviennent les moteurs dramatiques des films de Ford». (Comolli, « Ford et Forme », Cahiers du Cinéma, n. 183, octobre 1966).
Ireland, more than the land of birth, is the fatherland of eternal revolts, which is why another Cahiers critic, Michel Delahaye, talks about a “double allegiance” doomed to produce conflicts («double appurtenance est plutôt génératrice de divisions, duplicités et autre dissociations schizophréniques», Delahaye, « De John Ford à Sean O’Feeney », Cahiers du Cinéma, n. 183 octobre 1966). In sum, for these critics Ford isn’t a "elegiac"’s artist (as Marcorelles thinks) but is caught between two terms, two poles: contrast and resolution. The norm is always questioned by alternatives. Do you agree about this subversive Ford, a poet who shifts all the signs, who protests the conformity of institutions?
A.) Mozart and Beethoven and Wagner are also “caught” between contrast and resolution. All music is. All art is.
Yes, Ford is dialectical in every dimension: emotional contrasts, compositional contrasts, thematic contrasts. No idea that its contrary is not also evoked. I toyed with subtitling my book “Dialectical Cinema,” but it was too pretentious. Yes Ford’s communities are always made up of fractious groups, are never homogeneous. This is one reason why so many people think at first that Ford is racist.
In Ford, the first shot of a character is usually a complete cameo: the costume, demeaner, setting, a bit of action – all define the character instantly and in detail; after which Ford goes on to elaborate the character’s contradictions and dilemmas. In contrast, during the years when Ford bashing was most popular, the taste in movies was to hold off any such definition of a character until the very end. In personal relations to, it was in bad taste to ask strangers round a campfire where they were from or what they did. So Ford was plain down outré.
Q.) Jean Narboni, again in the ‘60s, reads Ford differently from Marcorelles’ peacefulness. Opposition and interaction of individuals, groups and civilizations universally hostile and foreign to each other is frequent in Ford, he says: « C’est situation bien fréquente chez Ford, dira-t-on, que celle où s’opposent, s’imbriquent, s’interpénètrent deux civilisations, deux univers raciaux hostiles ou du moins étrangers : Blancs et Indiens, Blancs et Noirs, Européens et Polynésiens, Occidentaux et Orientaux. Avec, entre les deux tout un jeu d’échanges, d’adoptions difficiles, de rapts et de reprises ; toute une suite de transferts et de passages, d’exclusions en fausses reconnaissances, de retrouvailles hypocrites en nouvelles captures. Blancs devenus – de force – Indiens, rendus à leur civilisation, mais rejetés par ceux-là mêmes qui les réclamaient (The Searchers, Two Rode Togheters) ou bien choix volontaire et adoption d’un autre monde, d’une nuovelle patrie (Donovan’s Reef)», (Narboni, « La preuve par huit », Cahiers du Cinéma, n. 182, septembre 1966)
7 Women is exemplary because the double isolation of its “mission” by location and epidemic is a frequent situation in Ford, and against its double closed walls storms “an external force” (« force extérieure »), Tunga Khan’s Mongols, which assume the value of a “cleansing devastation,” leveling the “Chinese walls,” the maniaco-defensive barrier of an “logic of Identty,” the domain of Identity, opening the mission and its women to the multiplicity and heterogeneity of the world. 7 Women shows beautifully this upsetting, terrifying destructive power (« pouvoir dérangeant », again Narboni) typical of Ford and his artistic personality, with his disequilibriums and controlled instability, his incessant and unpredictable upsetting.
Alienation in Ford is generally a good thing. We become conscious of how our culture determines us.
Naturally, the Ford bashers claim Ford “celebrates patriarchy” when, for example, he depicts the rich tapestry of rites and traditions of the family in How Green Was My Valley. It doesn’t matter that Ford also shows that because of these traditions the family and the valley are destroyed, like in Fort Apache. Ford’s sin is to depict them in the first place. Similarly, because Ford shows that people are conditioned by racism, he is called “racist.”
Q.) Now, in America. Ford’s most extraordinary quality, according to Peter Bogdanovich, is his ability to communicate the deepest essence of people, everyday people. Even with Abraham Lincon. “Ford's rapport with Lincoln brings him to life, makes us understand and admire the man—not some remote figure in history whom we are supposed to revere.” Again Bogdanovich: “It is part of Ford's genius that he can also convey the man's [Lincoln's] larger significance. At the end of the film, Lincoln walks up a hill alone…» Bogdanovich cites Welles – who loved almost all Ford’s films – in support of its argument: “With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world…" (Playboy, March 1967). The History in Ford's history, is with the small h, without rhetoric. “It is not the concentration on Americana, however, that gives his work its unity, but the singular poetic vision with which he sees all life. His most frequently recurring theme is defeat, failure: the tragedy of it, but also the peculiar glory inherent in it.” The force and grandeur of his films is not in the thematic structure work, but in an aesthetic construct, which distributes, assembles and weaves the themes of his work, themes that are found in different films, from a plot to another. You're more sympathetic to this reading, not the interpretations French?
A.) I do not understand the distinction between thematic structures and aesthetic construction. If I understood, I would probably disagree in the case of Ford.
It is true that many Ford movies have unhappy endings. But does Bogdanovich want to throw out Wagon Master, The Quiet Man, Judge Priest, Steamboat round the Bend, Donovan’s Reef, Gideon of Scotland Yard, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Drums along the Mohawk, Mogambo, 3 Godfathers, The Whole Town’s Talking, Submarine Patrol, Airmail, Wee Willie Winkie, etc., just because there’s no defeat?
Bogdanovich puts too much emphasis on American history. Circumstances gave Ford many opportunities to make westerns, which thus become “American history” but rather few opportunities to make the “history” movies he really wanted to make – about Grant, the Revolution, or the medieval adventures of The White Company.
Bogdanovich praises Ford for a poetic vision of life. Is this something unusual for an artist to have?
Q.) Another commentator alien to French criticism, Lindsay Anderson, judges closed the career of the director, with The Sun Shines Bright, and, for example, makes a bad sentence (like Tullio Kezich in Italy) of The Searchers. Anderson underestimates many films prior to 1953 also. It seems to me that the book – certainly useful - does not make a rigorous analysis of the films of Ford. Anderson consumes much energy and many pages to make polemics against Sarris, McBride & Wilmington, Mitry, or other exegetes of Ford. And, finally, Anderson is too trusting of memories and opinions of Dudley Nichols, Nunnally Johnson and Henry Fonda (memories and opinions, in some cases, polluted by misunderstandings and disputes). Anderson argues that the intellectual was Nichols, while Ford was a good craftsman, but incapable of thinking his poetry, without the contribution of an intellectual like Nichols. What do you think?
A.) Anderson is extremely valuable precisely for his interviews with Nichols and Frank Nugent, which no one else bothered to do. And his writings on Ford did much to expand people’s notions of Ford at a time when for most critics “Ford” meant The Informer and The Grapes of Wrath. Anderson wrote marvelous portraits of his encounters with Ford. And he was infamous for his cantankerous opinions. I had a tussle with him when he expelled me from humanity for not liking They Were Expendable as much as he did, but relented when I retaliated that he didn’t like How Green Was My Valley as much as I did.
Ford was not a writer. He could work intimately with a screenwriter and contribute lines and situations, and he could edit a script afterward. But he couldn’t do one all by himself. Ford wasn’t intellectual in an academic sense, but read widely, in several languages, remembered everything, and reflected deeply. It’s absurd to imply he wasn’t capable of furnishing his movies with ideas.
Nichols was more politically committed than Ford to the conventional eye. Yet one might argue that no other moviemaker’s oeuvre is more political than Ford’s. To begin with, that’s why people hate him so much. It’s very easy to make a politically committed masterpiece where all the baddies wear bad hats. It’s quite another when the heart and soul of the political problem is the lovable hero who wears a white hat.
Q.) Philippe Haudiquet, like Anderson, thinks Ford’s best work is before 1953. Why was it difficult for them to recognize the greatness of films like The Long Gray Line, The Searchers, Two Rode Togheter, Liberty Valance, Donovan's Reef, 7 Women?
A.)Philippe Haudiquet hadn’t seen dozens of Fords made between ’26 and ’53. Critics were reluctant to accept that Mogambo could possibly be anything worthwhile; The Long Gray Line was a movie that delighted graduates from that institution and critics couldn’t see any other aspect to it; The Searchers was easy to dismiss as racist fantasy; and Ford himself went through personal and professional crises in the second half of the 1950s that affected a period of his work adversely. Why critics were immune to Ford’s profundities and invention is not something I understand – unless they closed their eyes or closed their minds. But people who loathed Ford to begin with were quick to dismiss him as repeating himself.
Each generation of movielovers tends to like best the movies made when they were in their teens and twenties.
For me, it is more serious that Anderson is negative about How Green Was My Valley -- I think he dislikes that more than he dislikes The Searchers.
Q.) Tullio Kezich in Italy (1958) scolds Ford for being unresponsive to the modern world and its problems. Haudiquet, similarly, feels filmmakers like Ford, Donskoi, Ophuls and Mizoguchi feel like strangers in the modern world, but not through indifference. Ford prefers the first days of American history, the treks of the pioneers or the Old South untouched by industrial contamination. Ford chooses to go back to roots and to nourish his artistic inspiration at the fonts of the lost homeland: the frontier or Ireland. This is why there are surprisingly few urban settings in his films, because the city symbolizes the progress and industrial civilization which Ford not only doesn’t defend or praise but hates. Do you like this view of a Ford who doesn’t enjoy the present and therefore depicts the past?
A.) O all this pigeonholing! Set the birds free! People like Haudiquet, indeed everyone except a few film collectors before video tape came along, simply had no access to films by Ford, Donskoi, Ophuls or Mizoguchi. They were damn lucky to see even a two or three of them, once. I don’t know Donskoi, but anyone who knows Ford, Ophuls or Mizoguchi knows they made incredible masterpieces in contemporary settings.
The first days of American history were not in the 1800s. And there are just as many “roots” around today as there were in 1860.
Ford didn’t make these choices ascribed to him. He started out making westerns because that was what Universal would let him make. Between 1924 and 1939 there’s just one western; almost everything else is set in recent time. When Ford had his own company, his first choice was Stagecoach, but next came a set of Eugene O’Neill plays set on a freighter, then a story of a priest in Mexico, with The Quiet Man in Ireland always the prime project. But a crisis came and he was forced to make westerns to make money. And late in life, he made westerns because he couldn’t get money to make other films – but still he managed to make Wings of Eagles, Gideon of Scotland Yard, The Last Hurrah, Donovan’s Reef and 7 Women – none of which fit into the pigeonhole above.
Between 1928 and 1933 Ford made sixteen films set between 1914 and 1933. What happened next is that the American film industry adopted a self-censorship code dictated by Wall Street which made any depiction of contemporary America impossible – except within the limits of Andy Hardy. So Ford, like much of Hollywood, resorted to the historic past, or made gangster films or westerns in which criticism of the present was implied. Little did Wall Street expect how fooled French critics would be.
Q.) Jean Douchet in the ’80s writes that Ford deliberately sought Murnau’s influence, which allowed Ford to introduce a dichotomy between story and discourse into his films: « Ce qui fascinait Ford, c’était de constituer une écriture et un style qui n’entravent pas le récit, qui ne détruisent pas l’émotion immédiate, mais qui soient comme un accompagnement du film, une sorte de creuset indépendant mais indispensable à lui. Chez Ford, il y a comme un phénomène de dédoublement : l’histoire reste primordiale mais l’écriture très visible est là, un peu à côté de l’histoire, come un vêtement trop ample. Et l’histoire pourtant ne peut se conter que dans cette forme-là. D’où une étrange impression et, pour certains, un rejet total du cinéma de Ford à une certaine époque, à cause de ce parti pris d’écriture qui aujourd’hui est ce qui nous intéresse le plus », (Douchet, « Le retour de John Ford », Cahiers du Cinéma, n. 424, octobre, 1989).
A.) Murnau’s influence on Ford is one of the big theses in my own book.
I am not able to distinguish in Ford between style and story, anymore than in, say, Delacroix. Murnau also railed against beauty for its own sake rather than as a dramatic device. To the extent that there did exist a dichotomy in Ford prior to Murnau’s influence (in that intertitles provided the story, for which the pictures were sometimes nothing but illustrations), it was precisely this dichotomy that Murnau and sound abolished.
Q.) Douchet writes that Ford was never a reactionary, because in his films it’s the community that leads the game; it’s not the individual or hero, like De Gaulle, who molds the nation, but the community: « Il faut bien parler de l’idéologie chez Ford : moins nationaliste et droitière que celle Griffith, tout en reprenant des idées assez semblables. Chez Griffith, ce sont les individus qui forment une nation. Et celle-ci n’est finalement que le reflet de la grandeur naturelle, spontanée, évidente, innocente du désir des individus. Chez Ford, c’est la communauté qui mène le jeu, et les individus sont dans le creuset de cette société-communauté. Et l’on s’aperçoit que ce rapport entre le style et la fiction se retrouve au niveau idéologique de la relation entre l’individu et la communauté. Celle-ci est indispensable pour que l’individu existe, mais elle lui permet d’être libre, de faire comme si il ne dépendait pas d’elle. D’où la fantastique galerie de characters chez Ford comme si seul comptait l’individualisme » (Ibidem).
A.) But it is not the community which leads the game in Ford; it is the Fordian hero who, Christ-like, comes to redeem the community for the excesses of its traditions, which have turned into intolerance. Yes, the hero exists within a community and like everyone is conditioned by it.
Q.) You also talk about double-leveled discourses…
A.)But I believe what I meant is that a movie like The Long Gray Line, as I said above, can be seen by militarists as a loving homage, whereas anti-militarists can see it as a revelation of the causes of all wars. At the start of the movie, Marty Maher asks a sentry, “What is this place? Some kind of prison? or a lunatic asylum?” And the sentry replies, “It’s the United States Military Academy.” In fact, all three answers, as the film will show, are correct. Triple-level.
Ford movies have the virtue of giving complete satisfaction to audiences who see them once, and continued revelation to audiences who see them fifty times. Like good music. Is this a double-leveled discourse?
Q.) Andrew Sarris was the first one in America to call Ford an author, but in the last chapter of your book you argue that Ford is not so much an author as the one who reigns, without controlling the entire process of a film’s production.
A.) As I said above, Ford was regarded in America as an author already in the 1920s, if not already in 1917.
I believe that what I wrote is that there are different species of auteurs. Obviously a pure auteur would do everything, a bit like Chaplin: write the script, work the camera, be the star, edit the picture, score the music, control distribution.
I said Ford – actually it is Ford who said it – is more like an architect, in that he works through many other people to build his palace of dreams.
This does not imply that an architect-auteur cannot control all the process of production — as many of Ford’s movies demonstrate.
Q.) Chaos / Order, for you, is the antinomy that dominates the film of Ford?
A.) I think I wrote it was the major antinomy, not that it dominates (whatever that might mean -- I don’t know, do you?). I believe I derived this antimony from two images (parade and house; that is, change and subsistence) that one can say many of Ford’s postwar movies are structured around. Perhaps you would prefer Odyssey and Iliad.
Whether there is a master antinomy that dominates all of Ford’s work, I don’t know. I doubt it. But certain antinomies recur strongly.
I derived a “master plot” that I found not in all of Ford’s movies, but in almost all of them, with many variations and inversions. This is the situation of a community whose traditions have gone astray and now persecute people whom they were originally intended to nourish. Usually a family has been torn apart by some sort of intolerance. (Almost all Ford movies are about intolerance.) Thus we need a hero who will save us from ourselves (as the sign says at the end of The Sun Shines Bright), and this is the Fordian hero who, typically, arrives from nowhere at the start of the movie, reunites the family, and departs for nowhere at the end. The Fordian hero is a Christ figure (sometimes a very flawed one, like the minister in How Green Was My Valley who achieves the opposite of his goals, or even an anti-Christ like Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache) who is celibate and who, like Lincoln, seems to have access to higher knowledge and thus can lay down a new testament to replace intolerance.
As I said, you can find all or some of this master plot in most Ford movies. But not in all of them.
I bring this up by way of analogy. The “master plot” doesn’t dominate all of Ford’s cinema, nor does any master antinomy.
A cura di Toni D’Angela
- Jean Mitry, John Ford, Paris, Editions Universitaires, 1954.
- Louis Marcorelles, Ford of the Movies, «Cahiers du Cinéma», n. 86, aout 1958.
- Tullio Kezich, John Ford, Parma, Guanda, 1958.
- Henri Agel, Les grands cinéastes, Paris, Editions Universitaires, 1959.
- Roger Tailleur, Su tre film leggendari di John Ford (1964), in Roger Tailleur, Roger Tailleur & Positif. Le opere e i giorni, Alessandria, Edizioni Falsopiano, 2006.
- Philippe Haudiquet, John Ford, Paris, Seghers, 1966 (seconda edizione, in parte riveduta, 1974).
- Jean Narboni, La preuve par huit, «Cahiers du Cinéma», n. 183, septembre 1966.
- Jean-Louis Comolli, Dé-composition, «Cahiers du Cinéma», n. 182, septembre 1966.
- Jean-Louis Comolli, Ford et Forme, «Cahiers du Cinéma», n. 183, octobre 1966.
- Michel Delahaye, De John Ford à Sean O’Feeney, in «Cahiers du Cinéma», n. 183, octobre 1966.
- Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford, Parma, Pratiche Editrice, 1990.
- Lindsay Anderson, John Ford, Milano, Milano, Ubulibri, 1985.
- Tag Gallagher, John Ford, the Man and His Films, Berkley-Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1986.
- Tag Gallagher, John Ford, the Man and His Films, http://home.sprynet.com., 2007 (è una versione aggiornata e modificata per il 40% circa del libro del 1986, disponibile on-line in download).
- Jean Douchet, Le retour de John Ford, «Cahiers du Cinéma», n. 424, octobre 1989.
- Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford: A Life, New York, St. Martin Press, 2001.