Monday, May 18, 2009

John Ford in "Undercurrent"

Chris Fujiwara has assembled a wonderful, diverse dossier of essays on John Ford in the new issue of Undercurrent. The roster of 18 writers is first-rate--and the range of pieces a real treat.

One of my favorite 'minor' Fords is She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and since it doesn't appear in the Undercurrent special section, I thought I'd say a few words about it.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon--the first thing we notice about it is the searing Technicolor!--is the middle work of the Cavalry trilogy, sandwiched between Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950), both of which are in black-and-white. It is a comedy, a romance, an adventure film, but most of all it strikes me as a Cavalry procedural. An elaborate web of rituals--and their underlying rules--envelops this film. These rituals aren't grand but small-scale, ordinary, everyday.

For Ford, these Cavalry rules and procedures form a grid that serves two purposes: (1) To ground the film, moment by moment, in the minutiae of the work that Cavalrymen do; and (2) To provide a solid support structure within the film through which emerge its humor, romance, and pathos.

Ford uses, repeatedly and with great imagination, that lowliest and least-respected of bureaucratic activities: making a report. In a moving moment, a corporal is rescued after being seriously wounded in a Cheyenne attack. But before being attended to, and half-fainting, he insists on delivering his report. Capt. Brittles (John Wayne) listens attentively, then replies according to proper procedure without acknowledging the man's wounds: "That's a good clear report. It'll join your record. You'll come up with that extra stripe in 2 or 3 years." As written, the words are unemotional but Wayne's expression and delivery undercut their neutral, businesslike quality with sadness. Later, when the corporal is being operated upon by a surgeon, Brittles refuses to bend the rules and stop the troop for even a few minutes ("You know I can't halt even if it were my own son!"), and so the operation takes place on a wobbling, lurching wagon with the inebriated nurse (Mildred Natwick) singing a lusty perversion of the title tune ("She wore a yellow garter/wore it for her lover/in the US Cavalry").

In another report-making instance, a former Confederate brigadier-general, now a trooper for the US Army, spends the final moment before his death praising, with Cavalry formality, the sergeant (Ben Johnson) who aided him. At the close of the film, Brittles is brought out of retirement in a photo-finish--just as he is about disappear into a flaming-red John Ford sunset--and returns to the fort. A celebration dance--that Fordian axiom--is about to begin. But business comes first: Brittles must make a report. We see him exit through a door but puzzlingly, the camera stays in the ballroom, with his commanding officer (to whom he would ostensibly report) in full view. Who on earth could Brittles be making his report to instead? To his long-dead wife, it turns out, as he kneels at her grave.

In his essay on Fort Apache, Dan Sallitt proposes the fascinating idea of the Fordian "container"--a deliberate authorial setting of mood that operates independently of story, often undercutting or deflecting the deep tragedy and sadness of the film. There is nothing in Yellow Ribbon that is close to the shattering ending of Fort Apache but when we peer through the thick net of work and ritual, procedure and process in Yellow Ribbon, we find that at the heart of the film lies defeat: the complete and utter failure of "the last patrol," the mission that forms the film's central section and occupies most of its running time.

Leaving aside what are often considered to be the 'major' Fords--The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, Liberty Valance, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.--I'm curious to learn if you have any favorites among his other, possibly 'minor' works?

The Ford at Fox collection has gathered great praise but its very size (21 DVDs!) has daunted me. I'm wondering: what are (in your opinion) the high points of this set, the films you might recommend first?

Also, any ideas or comments on the Undercurrent essays? Please feel free to share.

Cavalry procedure? A lieutenant (John Agar) embraces his sweetheart (Joanne Dru) and turns around to ask his captain (John Wayne) a silent question. The captain barks: "Well, haul off and kiss her back, blast you, we haven't got all day!"

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Cinema Haunted By Writing

Film criticism has been often been drawn to the metaphor of cinema as writing.

1. One of my favorite interviews with a film critic is the one conducted with Serge Daney by Bill Krohn, originally published in the zine The Thousand Eyes in 1977. In it Daney says: "...the cinema loved by the Cahiers--from the beginning--is a cinema haunted by writing. This is the key which makes it possible to understand successive tastes and choices. This is also explained by the fact that the best French filmmakers have always been--at the same time--writers (Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Pagnol, Sacha Guitry, Jean Epstein, etc.)"

Daney is referring here not only literally to film artists who were gifted writers but also in a broader sense to writing as an act of "personal utterance" (this is how Susan Sontag translates Roland Barthes' notion of écriture).

2. The figurative heart of auteurism was that of the author who inscribes his [sic] personal vision into a film often made in a collaborative fashion within an industrial context. Alexandre Astruc, in "The Birth of a New Avant-garde" (1948), one of the most famous essays in French film history, used the figure of the caméra-stylo, or camera-pen, to symbolize the means of expression for future film artists. Jean Douchet wrote that Astruc "dared to claim that like literature and philosophy, film could tackle any subject, that the subject was part of the writing, and the camera the pen of modern times."

But Astruc was not only a critic. According to Richard Neupert, he was the earliest model of critic-turned-filmmaker for the young Jean-Luc Godard. Such a dual vocation was not uncommon in an earlier era of French cinema (the 1920s) in the work of Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac and Jean Epstein. (Astruc himself was once dubbed the "Louis Delluc of the sound cinema.") Godard, in turn, considered criticism and filmmaking to be common, closely allied, expressive activities.

3. Robert Stam points out that the graphological trope of film-as-writing has been especially dominant in France since the fifties. The New Wave films contain a surfeit of writing imagery: "From Truffaut's Les Mistons (1958) through Godard's 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (1967) we encounter people writing: on walls (Jules et Jim), on cars (Masculin, Feminin), in dairies (Pierrot le Fou), on advertisements (Le Gai Savoir), and in notebooks (2 ou 3 choses)."

Stam shows how Truffaut's 400 Blows prefigures this obsession. In the credit sequence, the director's name is superimposed on an image of the cinémathèque. The first shot following the credits shows a student writing at a desk. Antoine writes a poem on a wall, and is punished by having to conjugate a sentence. He forges a note from his mother, and later steals a typewriter to avoid having his handwriting recognized. And so on.

4. Auteurism has traditionally been a male-dominated movement but one of the key pre-New Wave films was La Pointe Courte (1954), made by Agnès Varda after she had established her reputation as a photographer. The activity she often refers to when she describes her cinema isn't still or motion-picture photography but writing. She calls her work "cinécriture" (cine-writing):

I am so fed up with hearing: "It's a well-written film," when I know that the compliment is meant for the scenario and the dialogue. A well-written film is also well-filmed, the actors are well-chosen, so are the locations. The cutting, the movement, the points-of-view, the rhythm of filming and editing have been felt and considered in the way a writer chooses the depth and meaning of sentences, the type of words, number of adverbs, paragraphs, asides, chapters which advance the story or break its flow, etc. In writing, it's called style. In the cinema, style is cinécriture.

5. In the new translation of Andre Bazin's What is Cinema? (see this previous post for an extensive discussion), Timothy Barnard has a translator's note on découpage. For Bazin, "the essence of cinema was situated in the act of writing the film visually through découpage." Similarly (Barnard writes), Astruc believed that when the silent era gave way to sound, montage

was replaced by a process of ‘picturising’ the script through mise en scène and camerawork, a form of narrative writing distinct from and prior to editing. For Astruc, sound cinema did not just adopt a style of editing different from silent montage cinema: it introduced a different way of conceiving and creating films, one which opened the door to ‘writing’ films with a caméra‐stylo.

6. Returning to where we started, to Daney in 1977:

In American cinema I think that it is easier to see, as it recedes, what interested us: always the excess of writing over ideology, and not the reverse (Huston, Delmer Daves, William Wyler, today Altman.) It's clearly a paradox: because this led us to take an interest in filmmakers who were not exactly left-wing. This excess of writing over ideology is only possible in the framework of a prosperous industry and a real consensus. This occurred in Hollywood until some time in the fifties; a little in France before the war; In Italy; in Egypt and India, no doubt; in Germany and England before the war. Outside this industrial framework (industry+craftsmanship), it's the reverse that happens: excess of ideology over writing. Look at the countries of the Third World, including China. This cinephilia is historically dated: the terrain from which it sprang is this mixture of industry and craftsmanship. It's not possible to revive it. But in the precision of the writing of Tourneur, Lang or de Mille, there is an exigency which continues with Godard, Straub, Robert Kramer, Wim Wenders, Akerman, Jean-Claude Biette, Benoit Jacquot.

A couple of questions I'm curious to pose to you: (1) Other examples (there are surely many) of critics or theorists employing the writing metaphor for cinema?; and (2) Favorite examples of films that depict the act of writing or instances of the written?

Also, any comments on the Daney passages and interview? Please feel free to share.

Good news: six more pieces are up at Rouge including Adrian's festival diary from Las Palmas. Which reminds me: his new column is online at Filmkrant. Finally: there's a new issue of Screening the Past.

The image above: Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows" writing what will be condemned as Balzac plagiarism. Resources for this post included: Richard Neupert's "A History of the French New Wave Cinema" (2002), Alison Smith's "Agnès Varda" (1998), and Robert Stam's "Reflexivity in Film and Literature from Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard" (1985).