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The Five Great Westerns


MattPage
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Now I can't tell how much you're joking. My point was not that it took me 30 films to think The Searchers was good; rather, it took seeing more Ford for me to realize that he's not the artist I thought he was. I wasn't kidding when I compared him to two of your favorite directors, Murnau and Lynch. If some guy gave you a surface-level plot synopsis of a Lynch film, willfully ignoring completely its imagery, subtext, psychology, and surrealism, and then told you it was a crap film that bugged him every two minutes, wouldn't you want to tell him he's full of shit? That Lynch deserves more effort and open-mindedness than that? That perhaps several decades' worth of critical consensus and insight might be able to open his eyes to all he's missing in Lynch?

I don't make many aesthetic proclamations but here's one: I don't take seriously any film buff who isn't willing to take Ford seriously. He's simply the greatest artist the medium has ever produced.

Edited by Darren H
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he's a director who began in the silent era and never stopped making silent films.

Darren, that's a fascinating comment, thanks for that. I've heard DeMille characterized this way, but I never thought of Ford in those terms. I'll definitely be thinking about that for awhile.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Steven, my favorite way to illustrate the silent filmmaker comment is three films:

Four Sons (1928) -- a weepy, melodramatic silent film made at Fox when Ford was most directly under the influence of Murnau. If twenty A&F voters watched this film, it would be in the top 20 the next time we voted.

The Long Voyage Home (1940) -- based on several Eugene O'Neill short plays and shot by Gregg Toland, the dialog is almost redundant, the film is so beautiful. If I had to name a favorite Ford, this is it.

The Long Gray Line (1955) -- My all-time favorite bio-pic and one of the most moving melodramas and love stories you'll ever see. That opening sequence of Up lifts several moments from this film. And in the midst of it all, Ford creates some of the strangest, most surreal images you'll find in a Hollywood film.

Edited by Darren H
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Now I can't tell how much you're joking. My point was not that it took me 30 films to think The Searchers was good; rather, it took seeing more Ford for me to realize that he's not the artist I thought he was. I wasn't kidding when I compared him to two of your favorite directors, Murnau and Lynch. If some guy gave you a surface-level plot synopsis of a Lynch film, willfully ignoring completely its imagery, subtext, psychology, and surrealism, and then told you it was a crap film that bugged him every two minutes, wouldn't you want to tell him he's full of shit? That Lynch deserves more effort and open-mindedness than that? That perhaps several decades' worth of critical consensus and insight might be willing to open his eyes to all he's missing in Lynch?

I don't make many aesthetic proclamations but here's one: I don't take seriously any film buff who isn't willing to take Ford seriously. He's simply the greatest artist the medium has ever produced.

Lynch is hit and miss. Murnau was hit and miss. If you saw thirty or forty of Ford's films and make the claim that he's the greatest artist of the medium, I can't argue with that because you obviously have more insight into Ford. But this film, to someone who is only seeing this film and not thirty or forty others, is a miss, not a hit. And if a film goer is required to see a director's other films to determine a hit or miss of the one at hand, well that is unfair to the average film goer.

Scenery - nice, but aside from a tracking shot at the end mostly point and shoot in the desert.

Cinematography - nice, I guess.

Costumes - nice, I guess.

Makeup - Pretty bad. Very cliched injuns.

Plot - standard would be my guess. They got her so let's get them.

Dialogue - Awful. Enough to make me want to walk out. Written and acted horribly. In the first few minutes I thought it was going to be a classic, but it started on a descent that just got further and further toward Night of the Hunterland.

Acting - Worse than the dialogue. Just bad, especially Marty and Mose. Not all Mose's fault though. I think he was probably doing what he was supposed to do, it's just too bad that what he was supposed to do was so cheesy. Oh! - we need to make sure we have a COMIC RELIEF GUY! Now we're all set to have a thorough cast...

Score - The worst of all. Way, way over the top, constantly calling attention to itself.

John Wayne - Ugh. And people pick on Keanu!

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Darren, thanks again. I recently watched DeMille's Joan, the Woman and rewatched his 1923 Ten Commandments as well as The King of Kings. Then I watched a number of his sound films in a row, including The Crusades, The Sign of the Cross and The Ten Commandments (1956). Thinking of him as a silent director first has given me a new appreciation for his work.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Goodness, The Searchers is about as bad a movie as one can make.

No. But it is a somewhat awkward, frustrating film in many respects--I think Roger Ebert said that THE SEARCHERS is two films, one great, and one not--and I'd much rather we featured THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE instead. But I do understand why the film is such a key entry in the Western genre. And your "injun=bad, white man=good" reading of the film is so misguided I don't even know where to begin.

I guarantee you, though, Stef, that if you watch THE SEARCHERS with the Peter Bogdanovich commentary, you'll walk away with a greater appreciation for the film.

He's simply the greatest artist the medium has ever produced.

Now thems fightin' words.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Steven, Bogdanovich asked Ford about the difference between silent and sound films, and Ford, who was always a gruff, disinterested interviewee, said something like, "Dialog makes it easier to explain the plot." Watching the interview, I got the sense that that was pretty much the extent of his interest in the question.

Which isn't to say that sound is unimportant in his work. Stef, your annoyance with the score is partly, I'm guessing, an annoyance with the conventions of its day, but Ford was a sentimentalist, and music for him was a source of unaffected emotion. It's difficult for postmodern viewers (myself included) to face sentiment without irony, but that's our problem not Ford's. Have you seen any Tsai Ming-liang films -- The Hole or Wayward Cloud, in particular? He's modern sentimentalist along similar lines. His characters are stoic and straight-faced, but when Tsai breaks the film with an over-the-top musical number, there's no irony there. It's pure joy and beauty.

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Steven, Bogdanovich asked Ford about the difference between silent and sound films, and Ford, who was always a gruff, disinterested interviewee, said something like, "Dialog makes it easier to explain the plot." Watching the interview, I got the sense that that was pretty much the extent of his interest in the question.

Yes, I think the same was probably true for DeMille. The funny thing about interviewing Ford is that he really didn't seem to know what to make of the sublime virtues that the Cahiers crowd and later opinion found in his work, and seemed profoundly irritated at the suggestion that he was an artist or a poet ("horseshit," he snorted). (I don't think DeMille would have balked at such praise, if it had been offered to him.)

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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If you saw thirty or forty of Ford's films and make the claim that he's the greatest artist of the medium, I can't argue with that because you obviously have more insight into Ford. But this film, to someone who is only seeing this film and not thirty or forty others, is a miss, not a hit. And if a film goer is required to see a director's other films to determine a hit or miss of the one at hand, well that is unfair to the average film goer.

It's not that one has to see 30 or 40 other films to "determine a hit or miss," but that Ford's complexities run much deeper than is at first apparent, and the more one is exposed to his world the more one understands the beauty and artistry of his filmmaking. He's an enormously complex artist, and the more you understand his cumulative body of work the more you can appreciate how each individual picture fits within it. My feelings about this are pretty much identical to Darren's, it would seem (and, for what it's worth, I also think Ford is the greatest of all filmmakers). And this holds true with the individual films themselves, as well. I was somewhat underwhelmed upon seeing "The Searchers" for the first time. But after spending more time with it over the years and becoming better acquainted with the characters, it's myriad beauties become much clearer, and small moments that initially seemed rather unimportant (such as Ward Bond ignoring the embrace between Ethan and his brother's wife) suddenly became charged with meaning.

Also, regarding "The Searchers," I just want to say that I think your views regarding the racial issues of the film ("whites=good/Indians=bad") are enormously misguided and miss much of the point of the movie. Consider how poorly the whites (especially Ethan Edwards) come off in the movie, as well as how both the whites and Indians are depicted as mirrors of each other (as are Ethan and Scar, individually). It's views on race and racism are much more complicated than you're giving them credit for.

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Well I've heard several thoughts that my "injun=bad, white people = good" reading of the film is off, and yet no one wants to explain why that is. I am very curious about this, because in regard to the actual scenes depicted in this film, I don't know how one can NOT come to that reading.

Show me one scene that told the story from the native American perspective or one scene that even had an ounce of sympathy for their plight.

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Well I've heard several thoughts that my "injun=bad, white people = good" reading of the film is off, and yet no one wants to explain why that is. I am very curious about this, because in regard to the actual scenes depicted in this film, I don't know how one can NOT come to that reading.

Show me one scene that told the story from the native American perspective or one scene that even had an ounce of sympathy for their plight.

For one example, look at the scene in which Ethan and Martin hear the Cavalry in the distance. They then discover that the Cavalry has just massacred an entire Comanche village, and among those who were killed is the good-natured woman Martin accidentally married. This is an immensely ugly and disturbing scene, and one which parallels the earlier massacre of the Edwards house. This isn't a movie about the whites heroically avenging the crimes of the Indians, it's about the destructive relationship between the two races in general.

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Persona wrote:

: Show me one scene that told the story from the native American perspective or one scene that even had an ounce of sympathy for their plight.

Again I point you to the Jeffrey Hunter character. He may not be a pure-blood Native American -- he may, indeed, be more "white" than "injun" (I can't recall if his Native American ancestry came in at the level of his parentage, or his grandparentage, or whatever) -- but well, doesn't that itself suggest something more complicated than you are giving the movie credit for? The simple fact is, IIRC, the Hunter character is subjected to some of the same anti-Indian prejudice that the John Wayne character directs at the fully-Native characters -- and just the very fact of being subjected to that kind of prejudice would make the Hunter character's perspective something different from a purely non-Native perspective.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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And if a film goer is required to see a director's other films to determine a hit or miss of the one at hand, well that is unfair to the average film goer.

Hate to intrude on the sort of conversation that is reminiscent of past arguments and hence likely to push buttons...I will try to be direct without being inflammatory.

Stef, I have been racking my brain trying to think of any possible gloss of the word "unfair" in this context that doesn't render the sentence and the sentiments non-sensical.

Couple of questions:

1) Are you holding yourself out as representative of the "average" film goer? (If not, what is the point of this statement?)

2) Do you honestly--honestly--take your summary (the portion of the quote above following the word "if") to be what Darren said/is saying? Or do you concede that this is a straw-man caricaturization?

3) By "determine" do you mean determine for himself or herself whether he/she liked the film or determine in the sense of having a say (much less the final say) that is taken seriously in the corporate judgment of a film's worth?

4) Is it unfair to weigh the critical judgments of more experienced people more heavily in all areas of life and art or just in film?

I'm reminded of the scene in Searching for Bobby Fisher where Josh's dad runs into Josh's former chess teacher:

Bruce: How's Josh?

Dad: [...] He's playing [chess] better than ever.

Bruce: How would you know?

Dad bristles at the aggressiveness of the expression, but he ultimately acknowledges that the sentiment is true. He is judging the hit or miss-ness of any one game based on his limited experience and is pretty much incapable of seeing what is leading to Bruce's critical judgment that right now others are playing better chess than Josh. Is Bruce's statement that he can't take Josh's dad's opinion seriously "unfair" to the average chess player? Your a musician, right? If I listened to one White Stripes song and pronounced it crap, insisting that it was "unfair" for someone to suggest that the person who has listened to 30-40 other performances of Jack White playing guitar (or took the time to learn to play the musical instrument in question) might notice things about this performance that I wouldn't see, what would you say?

I'm not saying critical consensus is never wrong (see: Magnolia), nor is that what I think Darren was saying (and I think you know that); what I am saying is that the person who wants to go in the face of informed critical consensus needs to make a case (if he wants to be taken seriously as offering a counter-judgment and not just dismissed as a gadfly who enjoys stirring the pot and being argumentative for the sake of argument), and the burden of persuasion is on him, the more heavily, the more counter to consensus it is. His job is to explain why critical consensus is wrong, not merely to dismiss critical consensus as irrelevant or rail that experience is irrelevant to how much weight we give to various people's judgment.

Ken

P.S. (Later edit): Another way a counter arguer is taken seriously is by showing his/her judgment is informed in some way rather than assuming he/she is the first/only person to address the perceived flaws. The perceived racism in the film (or in Ford's work as a whole) is a very substantive part of the critical dialog surrounding this auteur's work. Perhaps you shouldn't have to watch 30 other Ford film's to have an opinion on this one, but I would think that for you (or anyone) to dismiss the critical opinions of this one film you ought to know what they (the opinions) are--you ought to know the argument and not merely the conclusion that you are dismissing.

Edited by kenmorefield
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Show me one scene that told the story from the native American perspective

By the way, Ford is under no obligation to tell his story from any perspective other than Ethan's. This is more or less Ethan's worldview we're experiencing here, but we're seeing it through a thin veil of irony (Ford's). Ethan is a well-intentioned, devoted, loving, cruel, misguided, racist, and deeply scarred and broken sonofabitch. John Wayne brings a certain heroism and sympathy to every role (for those of us who like him, at least), but Ethan is not a sympathetic character, which is one of the reasons many viewers (not just you) dislike the film on a first viewing. It's not a perfect analogy, but The Searchers reminds me a bit of Vertigo in that in both cases, the director is very deliberately playing off his star's image to create a disturbing and morally-ambiguous character. In other words, Stef, I find it really interesting that you seem to hate Ethan Edwards so much while also arguing that the film treats him as a simple, black-and-white good guy. Isn't it possible that your strong response to him is at least partly by design?

Edited by Darren H
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Looks like a barnbuner of a discussion, Stef. My recommendation? Read The Disappointment Artist. It's at your library. Sample the author's musings on, and evolution of thinking about The Searchers. See what you think.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I'm appreciating the thoughts shared here. I, too, felt very uneasy with the Native American depiction contained in The Searchers - Darren's comments make a lot of sense. If the powers of Netflix are beneficent, I'll be watching a couple of the Ford films recommended here in the next week or so.

And thanks, Christian, for the Lethem recommendation - that sounds like a great read.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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And thanks, Christian, for the Lethem recommendation - that sounds like a great read.

Sure. I fixed that link so that it goes to the first post in that thread -- the post that mentions The Disappointment Artist --rather than the last post in the thread, which doesn't.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Good thoughts here. I am headed off to work on very little sleep today, and I want to comment in detail -- hopefully tomorrow sometime. I'll also be watching the commentary track that Ryan recommended.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 2 years later...

For anyone interested, Wonders in the Dark just started their new genre countdown of essays for the 50 Greatest Westerns.  I've followed their last two genre countdowns, and while I don't always agree with their choices, their essays are some of the best you'll come across.

 

westerns3721.jpg

 

edit:  Speaking of countdowns and lists, aren't we nearing the time to start nominations for our annual Top 25?

Edited by John Drew

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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