The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi)
  2. The Long Voyage Home (John Ford)
  3. Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla)
  4. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger)
  5. Robinson Crusoe (Luis Buñuel)
  6. Adoption (Marta Meszaros)
  7. Dracula (Tod Browning)
  8. The Boys in the Band (Joe Mantello)
  9. The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi)
  10. Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam)


1- I am struck by how genre-bending the modern films of Iran are. This Is Not a Film was made by Jafar Panahi who is currently under a multi-year ban on film-making. Hence the title. Shot on cell phone or on hand-held camera in his own house, this depiction of his mundane life (eating lunch, talking with the garbage man) becomes an extremely moving picture of an artist who cannot stop creating, no matter what the powers-that-be decree. It is fascinating. The scene where he acts out his unproduced screenplay in a stage delineated by masking tape on his carpet is extremely moving.

2- The fact that The Long Voyage Home is a John Ford film starring John Wayne just a year after Stagecoach made it a must-watch for me. Add to this that the cameraman is the legendary Gregg Toland of Citizen Kane only made it more appealing. I had seen it decades ago but didn’t remember much. It looks fantastic, of course, because of Toland’s magical camera work, but the macho high-jinx of the sailors on shore-leave repelled me. Also, the cliché of Irishmen having to get drunk at every opportunity might have been humorous once, but now it is grating and borderline racist. The screenplay is based on four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill. Yuck.

3- October is the greatest month because it contains the greatest holiday of the year: Halloween. I love Halloween so much. I gorge myself on wonderful, sometimes cheesy horror films for the whole month. I started off this year’s celebration with the wonderfully economical and chilling Village of the Damned. I had forgotten how effective this little movie is. I wish the studio had the wherewithal to make a longer film since the ending seems rushed. But what’s there is cherce. The acting of the twelve diabolical children is stunning. How did the director get these performances out of them? George Sanders is on hand to do his fruity elitist thing, which is always fun. But this is a movie that is all about atmosphere. And all about horror, too. Truly a chilling movie. Great way to start off this year’s Halloween festivities (as if 2020 hasn’t already been Halloween all year!)

4- And talking about a movie that looks great despite its content, I give you The Red Shoes. This is another Technicolor fever dream from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. Nothing is as breathtaking as the reds in this movie. Unfortunately, so much has gone into the mise-en-scene, that the movie as a whole suffers. It really doesn’t make any sense. The characters are cardboard and inconsistent. But you get to see Robert Helpmann chewing up the scene and the legendary Leonide Massine is on hand to lend a bit of nuttiness and authenticity to the proceedings. But watching it is like being really hungry and all you have in the house is Oreos. But man….those reds!

5- I remember seeing Robinson Crusoe in a school auditorium when I was probably nine or ten. I had no idea who Luis Bunuel was then, and today, if I hadn’t seen the credits, I would not have known he was the director. No surreal or outlandish flourishes. Pretty straightforward story-telling. Just finished reading the novel, so I was interested in the movie. It is very good for what it is.

6- Adoption was shown on TCM as part of their Women Make Film series.  They have a documentary series they are showing over 14 weeks, and each week after the documentary runs, they show a few of the films mentioned. This is a rare treat since very few of the films are familiar, even for TCM-heads like me.  Case in point is this powerful Hungarian film.  A single woman involved in an unsatisfying years-long romance is trying to make a connection.  At first she tries with a troubled teenage woman from a local reformatory school.  There are satisfactions in that relationship which lead the woman to her ultimate decision and her great chance at happiness. Is this a woman’s movie? It is made by a woman, yes, and it concerns women. But can you tell that it was a woman who wrote and directed it?  I think perhaps yes.  The cliché in noting the difference between men and women is that men jockey with each other for position, where women use empathy to make connections.  Adoption is almost claustrophobic in its unrelenting use of close-ups.  It this the cinematic equivalent of empathy?  In any event it is an extremely moving film that I would never have heard of if not for TCM.

7- We are so used to thinking of the Universal Studios Dracula as  a horror film classic, that one forgets (or perhaps never knew!) that it was an pretty prosaic adaptation of a great stage success.  Its staginess really shows. Compared to Frankenstein of a year later, it is hardly a movie at all.   

8- For a very closeted, sixteen year old Gay man, going to see the original The Boys in the Band in the movie theater in the 1970s was thrilling.  So thrilling that I completely had no idea what a miserable evening these gentlemen were having.  I hadn’t seen it since, so I was intrigued to see the film version of the recent Broadway revival (the first Broadway mounting of the play, I believe).  The Princh assures me that this version is practically a shot-for-shot twin of the original film, with some performances better, some worse.   I was struck by the decision to keep the action in the original historical time.  No AIDS, no Gay Lib, hardly and Stonewall.  Does it become a period piece? Not exactly. But it is very remote.  Even when I was a callow youth sitting in that Brooklyn theater, I could not understand the self-loathing that seemed to be a given in the play.  The bitchiness didn’t seem to be wit, as in The Women or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but desperate lashing out.   It seems to me that the self-loathing in this new version is centered more on the characters Catholicism than on they’re being Gay.  I still can’t relat. But Matt Bomer is unforgivably handsome.

9- The Criterion Channel has been featuring The Australian New Wave.  The Devil’s Playground is a film that I had missed when it first came out. It is brilliant. The depiction of life in a boy’s Catholic Seminary in the 1950s is fascinating mostly because of the huge scope of characters that it gives us in such loving, or at least penetrating, detail. I think it would be a phenomenal double-bill with Picnic at Hanging Rock.

10- Sunday Too Far Away is apparently a much-loved classic in Australia about the rough-and-tumble life of itinerant sheep-shearers.  See my comments above on the macho high-jinx of The Long Voyage Home and you’ll get a pretty good idea how I feel about this film.






The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
  2. The Last Wave (Peter Weir)
  3. Rio Grande (John Ford)
  4. Manchester-by-the-Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
  5. The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Lothar Mendes)
  6. The Lost Squadron (George Archainbaud)
  7. Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton)
  8. Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti)
  9. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
  10. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)


1- The Birds is one of the films I have seen the most times in my life.  Others include Citizen Kane, Wild Strawberries, All About Eve, Nashville, The Shop Around the Corner and Celine and Julie Go Boating.  They are like little vacations for me to resort towns that I know so well.  Some of these resort towns are creepier than others. All are familiar as home.

2- I remember when the films of the ‘Australian New Wave’ hit New York City in the late 70s/early 80s.  They had the effect on me that the appearance of the French New Wave must have had on my cinephile forebears in the late 60s/early 70s.  Films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, Walkabout, Gallipoli and The Last Wave were young, exciting and sometimes perplexing.  Out of all of these, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains the most meaningful to me.

I hadn’t seen The Last Wave since my first viewing, and always considered it a companion piece to Picnic at Hanging Rock, mostly because they were shown on double bills throughout the 80s.  Seeing The Last Wave again made me realize that it is a lesser film for exactly the reason why Picnic at Hanging Rock is a superior film: ambiguity.  The mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock is never really solved, but you realize that that is not the point of the film.  The point seems to be the effect of disaster on the world.  You would think that the same would be true of The Last WaveI love the foreboding atmospherics and the tantalizing aboriginal hoodoo, but ultimately it is too much about a mystery that never is cleared up and it doesn’t satisfy the way the other film does. Still, it is a great watch.

3- I need to write a piece on John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. The Trilogy consists of Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, in descending order of greatness and complexity. They are all masterpieces. Stay tuned.

4- Manchester-by-the-Sea. The only word for it is ‘magnificent’.  The complex relationships are handled so masterfully and the story is revealed so artfully. I am not a big believer in a movie needing to be ‘realistic’ to be great. Most of the time when filmmakers are reaching for realism, the results are embarrassing. Here, though, I felt that I was spending time with people I knew and understood. Not necessarily liked, mind you. The cumulative effect is devastating.  The buzz before I saw it was that it was incredibly depressing.  Obviously, the people who said this have had no life experience.  Magnificent.

5- I knew that pre-code films were pretty loose with morals and conventions but imagine my surprise when I saw this in The Lost Squadron:


6- Regarding Boy Erased and Love, Simon I refer you to my post on movies targeted to a specific audience.  I would be selling both of these short if I were to imply that they don’t appeal to a wider audience than Gay people. But Love, Simon is incredibly sweet and mostly just a Gay rom-com (not that there is anything wrong with that!) and Boy Erased is greater in its ambitions. The portrayal of the characters is nuanced, and transcends stereotypes. Thrillingly so.  Lucas Hedges is amazing, just like he was in Manchester By The Sea.

7- The Shape of Water. Best Picture of the Year? Really? I have long ago given up on the idea of Oscars as the arbiters of anything, but this award really baffles me. Except for The Devil’s Backbone, every Guillermo Del Toro films I have seen collapses under the weight of its own diffuseness and studied weirdness. This is no exception. Please feel free to tell my why I am wrong here.

8- I went crazy for both Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love when they both came out. I also really liked Boogie Nights a lot.  Since then I have felt a huge disconnect with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.  I hate it because I see the attention, intelligence and style that are lavished on these movies, as well as the incredible performances he gets out of his stars. But once again, Phantom Thread left me cold and confused. Not as cold and confused as The Master.  Seeking your opinion here also as to what I might have missed.



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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Another Part Of The Forest (Michael Gordon)
  2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (John Ford)
  3. Angst Essen Seele Aus (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  4. Night Nurse (William Wellman)
  5. Love is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  6. Fort Apache (John Ford)
  7. Conflagration (Enjo) (Kon Ichikawa)
  8. The Prowler (Joseph Losey)
  9. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)
  10. Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone)


1) Another Part Of The Forest was a prequel that Lillian Hellman wrote to her more famous and much, much better play The Little Foxes. The play tries to be ‘How the Hubbards got that way’, but after a while you feel that Hellman is revisiting these characters with no real intent.  The film version is minor indeed compared to the towering Bette Davis film version of The Little Foxes.

Question: The title seems to come from stage directions in either A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It.  Beats me why. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

2) What fun to see Stormy Weather.  It’s not much more an excuse to showcase a ton of great black musical performers. The numbers are strung together with the flimsiest of plots, but you get to see Fats Waller doing his stride-piano thing, you get to see a mind-blowing routine by the Nicholas Brothers, you get to see the gorgeous Lena Horne sing the title song, among other treasures.  You get to see the star, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, without Shirley Temple.  There is a very curious vaudeville comedy routine where Robinson and his costar put on blackface.  Black artists in blackface flips the whole controversy of the performing style on its head.  Or does it?

3) It is very illuminating to watch a first work by a great director, and then a later work from the period where that artist hits his stride.  Love Is Colder Than Death is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first feature and for me it was longer than death.  It seemed completely derivative of the worst posturing of the French New Wave with its disaffected heros and treacherous amoral heroines. However, Angst Essen Seele Aus is a masterpiece.  Derivative also from the works of Douglas Sirk, the film uses its sources merely as a starting point.  It is beautifully moving and very much a Fassbinder film. I give the title in German since it is hard to give an accurate rendition in English. It conveys the broken German of the hero in his most poignant moment of the film: he tells his love how fear is consuming his soul.  It is a heartbreaking scene and transcendent in the way the best of Sirk is.

4) Will you just watch Night Nurse already?!? It is the best example I know of the loose moral universe that Pre-Code Hollywood showed so well. It is scary and funny and sexy.  Clark Gable (without the moustache) is truly a monster.  Barbara Stanwyck is glorious as always.  Joan Blondell is on hand to provide the olive in this perfect gin-heavy martini.

5) Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I cogitate over the conflicting world views of the Western (including Fort ApacheThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Naked Spur) and Film Noir.





The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Once Upon A Time (Alexander Hall)
  2. Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls)
  3. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  4. Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford)
  5. A Doll’s House (Patrick Garland)
  6. Julius Caesar (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  7. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)
  8. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
  9. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese)
  10. Bad Day At Black Rock (John Sturges)


1- If you are looking for a film that features Cary Grant as well as a dancing caterpillar, then Once Upon A Time is the film for you!

2- Can someone please explain the genius of Max Ophüls to me?  I find his legendary moving camera distracting. I find his films dull. I’ll keep trying but I would certainly appreciate a little help here. Le Plaisir flowed better than most of his films I have seen, but for me they are deadly – mostly because they seem to be wearing ‘high art’ on their sleeves and that is never a good thing.

3- This time around I caught up with some films that I have been trying to get to for years.  I always dodged Sergeant Rutledge because, for some reason, I figured late John Ford would be stodgy John Ford. I should have known better. It is a stirring film. Its dealing with race issues is surprisingly frank and at the same time matter-of-fact.  Quite unusual for a film from 1960 where race was either ignored or served with a sledge-hammer. Ford turns Woody Strode into an icon of virtue to rival what he does with John Wayne. Plus you get to see Billie Burke!

sergeant rutledge


How did I miss Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? What a rich script, with dense, surprising characters. It doesn’t have the taint that so many landmark films of the 70s have.  By way of contrast, The Conversation reeks with that taint.  The paranoia, the smarminess, the ugly mise-en-scene, the nihilistic characters – it has them all.  It is indeed brilliant, but I think once was enough for me.

4- All That Heaven Allows  – pure genius

5- Bad Day At Black Rock was recently shown on TCM as part of a Westerns festival.  That was pretty brilliant programming since it is truly a western disguised as a contemporary drama. Good guy rides into town and frees it from the corrupt and sadistic thrall of the bad guy. Plus it features a one-armed Spencer Tracy which makes it required viewing


Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears The Yellow Ribbon……….

In the late 1590s, William Shakespeare wrote a series of plays that portray England at the turn of the 15th Century. Richard II, Henry IV parts one & two and Henry V present a world of astonishing scope and detail. The intrigues that end up with the deposition of Richard II and the ascension of Henry IV are portrayed in Richard II,  the only dramatic work of Shakespeare entirely in poetry.  This play functions as a kind of prelude for the huge tapestry of the two Henry IV plays.  In these two works, Shakespeare portrays the entire range of English life.  The court life of Henry IV, who is constantly besieged by rebellion from all over the country by ambitious rivals questioning his claim to the throne, is presented in contrast to the bawdy denizens of the Boar’s Head Inn, Cheapside, where the Prince of Wales is slumming while the country is convulsed in civil wars. Here Sir John Falstaff, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, presides over a vivid group of the lowest of English society.

It is in the remarkable depiction of both high and low characters that the plays achieve their epic feel.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the more Shakespeare details his individual portraits, the wider his canvas becomes. By the time we reach the coronation of Henry V with its devastating repudiation of his earlier, wilder days as embodied by Falstaff, we feel we have been presented with an entire world.

 Henry V rejects Sir John Falstaff

When thinking of film, the one director whose achievement can be termed Shakespearean would be John Ford.  There is so much that these supreme artists have in common.  Both understand the importance of contrasting comedy and tragedy and both can work in either or both genres.  This comic and possibly offensive ‘Look’ sequence in The Searchers relieves the high tragic propulsiveness of the plot.  It is not essential, but it relieves the tension and fleshes out a lighter side of Ethan Edwards, the character in Ford’s oeuvre that most achieves a Lear-like titanic stature

The world of John Ford is filled with the kind of character detail that we see nowhere else but in Shakespeare.  Great care will be lavished on a scene that won’t necessarily further the plot, but will be essential to creating the world being depicted.  Wyatt Earp will get a haircut, the young cadets will go picnicking in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Philadelphia Thursday will try to make her father’s new home in Fort Apache as home-like as possible with objects donated by the other ladies at the fort. This last scene is inconsequential as far as the big picture is concerned, but it affords Ford the chance to show a nascent, decent society developing at what was then thought of as the outer limit of society (although I am sure there are a lot of Native American nations which would balk at this description).

Philadephia Thursday makes a home for her father

I would posit that the three Cavalry films of John Ford occupy the same place in his output as the Henriad does in Shakespeare’s.  In both cases the artists were at the height of their powers. Shakespeare was soon to write his four great tragedies, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Ford was soon to direct his masterpiece The Searchers.

Ford’s Cavalry trilogy is made up of three very loosely connected films. They do not share a continuous plot.  They do not have the same locale. They do not share the same characters although certain names like Tyree and Quincannon appear over and over, sometime played by the same actor, sometimes not. What links these three films is that they tell the stories of various cavalry units at the edges of what was deemed ‘civilization’.  Fort Apache (1947) takes place shortly after Custer’s Last Stand and is a meditation on the foolishness and actual danger of the reckless pursuit of glory. I have written before about She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) in an article comparing it to Malick’s Tree of Life.  In the guise of depicting the last few days prior to the retirement of Nathan Brittles, Yellow Ribbon movingly shows the passage of time and how a new generation inevitably replaces the older. Rio Grande is the working out of a pretty complicated domestic situation involving Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne and their son.  The boy has just graduated from West Point and has been assigned to the outpost under the command of his estranged father, estranged because he burned down his Southern mother’s plantation as part of Sherman’s March To The Sea.  The domestic difficulties become a metaphor for a nation trying to figure out how to be a nation again after the trauma of the Civil War.

When watched together you get as wide a panorama of post-Civil War America as the Shakespeare plays give you of England.  In both works high tragedy is mixed with bawdy low comedy (in both cases usually involving drink).

At the end of the Shakespeare cycle, we know that the world we have just lived in will come to an abrupt end because the warrior savior King Henry V will die young, leaving the kingdom to fall into chaos, giving rise to the devastation of The War Of The Roses.  At the end of each of the films in the Cavalry Trilogy, we have a sense that we are witnessing the end of an era, the end of the exhilarating days of the pioneer. Now it is time for dull civilization to take root and erase the memories of the larger than life characters we have been spending time with.

Do yourself a favor and watch these three films.  Do yourself another favor and read as much Shakespeare as you can.

john ford shakespeare

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini)
  2. The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismäki)
  3. I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller)
  4. The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir)
  5. Three Women (Ernst Lubitsch)
  6. Rio Grande (John Ford)
  7. Went The Day Well? (Michael Balcon)
  8. Spione (Fritz Lang)
  9. Hold Your Man (Sam Wood)
  10. Angel At My Table (Jane Campion)

1- I was always reluctant to get on the Sam Fuller bandwagon. It struck me as one of the excessive enthusiasms of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd. In their glee at tearing down French icons, they appeared too eager to praise what seemed like a bargain-counter director of solid B films. My feelings changed after I saw The Steel Helmet. What a solid, tightly-constructed picture. A comparison to John Ford would be excessive, but there is something similar in the concern for characterization. I Shot Jesse James is another satisfying film. The characterization of ‘the coward Bob Ford’ is fascinating and all the more noteworthy as the whole film lasts barely longer than 80 minutes. I found films like the much-lauded Shock Corridor overwrought, but these two are tremendous.

2- I was lucky to catch a rare screening of Lubitsch’s Three Women at the University of Chicago’s swell new Logan Center for the Arts. It was part of Professor Tom Gunning’s series ‘Screenings and Pallavers’. Interesting discussion by one of the grad students explaining how influential this film was in Asia, along with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle – a film I am longing to see, especially since it left a huge impression on Ozu.

3- I think I am done with Aki Kaurismäki. I grant that his films are powerful and well-made, but they are so relentlessly downbeat and present such an ugly world. I understand Le Havre is different, so maybe I’ll try that before I write him off completely.

4- I am constantly dazzled by John Ford. Like with Shakespeare, I keep asking myself ‘Is it really as good as it seems, or am I thinking it is as good as seems because it is by the great god John Ford?” The unequivocal answer is ‘It is as good as it seems – if not better’. I have viewed She Wore A Yellow Ribbon a lot in recent years, and have even written about it on this blog in relation to Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (of all things!). I remembered Rio Grande fondly, but had not seen it in over 30 years. TCM to the rescue! It is as rich an experience as I thought it was. The Cavalry Trilogy, three very loosely connected films comprised of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande mark a high point in Ford’s oeuvre and a high point in American Film. Maureen O’Hara is a shamefully underrated actress.

Maureen O'Hara as Mrs. Kathleen Yorke

Maureen O’Hara as Mrs. Kathleen Yorke

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Daisies (Vera Chytilová)
  2. The Death Kiss (Edwin L. Marin)
  3. The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman)
  4. Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
  5. The Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki)
  6. Boy (Nagisa Oshima)
  7. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
  8. Voyage In Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
  9. The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura)
  10. Upstream (John Ford)

—          (I had a big backlog so please forgive the posting of two ‘last ten’ lists in a row)

1- TCM provided a wonderful service this fall by showing the complete, 15-part documentary The Story of Film by Mark Cousins. What made the broadcast of the series even more satisfying was that TCM complemented it by showing many of the films mentioned in the course of the documentary. Daisies was shown as part of a look at the New Wave all around the world. In the beginning, I was enjoying it tremendously as it appeared to be a slightly earlier, Czech version of my beloved Celine and Julie Go Boating. After about 45 minutes or so, it just became grating. I was glad to have had the chance to see it, though.

2- The Story of a Prostitute , Boy and The Insect Woman were revelations. I have spent a lot of time in the rarefied world of Ozu and Naruse and Mizoguchi. It was very satisfying to watch these films by some of the messier, later Japanese masters. The Story of a Prostitute was particularly dazzling.

3- Watching Boy and The White Ribbon made for a troubling but powerful double feature on child abuse.  I was glad to see a film by Michael Haneke at last. I found The White Ribbon thrillingly beautiful. I am still too chicken to watch Funny Games.

4- Upstream was a once-lost film by John Ford recently found in a New Zealand archive. This silent film was a delightful, light comic story of actors in a boarding house. Is there no end to John Ford’s versatility?


Book Recommendation

searchersThis book traces the evolution of the classic film from the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured and raised by Comanche, ‘rescued’ by Whites after living and raising children among the Indians for over twenty year. The sad story of Cynthia Ann’s return to ‘civilization’ is followed by the story of her son, Qua’nah, first a renegade among the Comanche, then a shrewd politician deftly negotiating his way between the declining Comanche and the ascending White Man.  Cynthia Ann’s story is fictionalized by Alan Lemay in his novel The Searchers, which was read and turned into the classic film.

Only about one third of the book deals with John Ford and his film. The arc taking us from the ‘true story’ to the film version is the main event here.

The decline of the Comanche makes for very grim reading.

Frankel’s assessment of the film seems to be the latest installment of critical approach to The Searchers. Upon its original release, it was regarded as little more than a John Wayne Western.  The French critics of the Cahiers du Cinema were really the first to elevate it to masterpiece status. Then came the backlash declaring the film to be racist in its depiction of Native Americans. The next pendulum swing seems to be apologist in rationalizing Ethan Edwards’ hatreds.

It seems that Frankel is voicing the latest and, to me at least, most satisfying view of this film: it is undeniably great, brilliant, breathtaking, etc. but at the same time confounding, ambiguous and unsettling.  The same can be said of King Lear. Not bad company to be in.

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I recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers back to back with Wild Strawberries. They are two old favorites. Revisiting Wild Strawberries was a birthday treat to myself. What struck me when watching them in such quick succession was the way Ingrid Thulin mastered such vastly different roles filmed some 15 years apart. In Wild Strawberries she plays the protagonist’s daughter-in-law who is trying to save herself and possibly her husband from a typically hellish Bergmanesque marriage. The depth of her pain and her longing for resolution are powerful. Her role in Cries and Whispers couldn’t be more different. She plays the aristocratic, uptight and literally strait-laced sister of the dying woman. The pain she exhibits at any encounter of emotion is palpable.

Thulin in Wild Strawberries

Thulin in Wild Strawberries

Thulin (r) in Cries and Whispers

Thulin (r) in Cries and Whispers

Getting reacquainted with these performances made me think about how Bergman used the same actors over and over again, in quite varied roles. I thought of Gunnar Björnstrand, who appears briefly as Thulin’s husband, chillingly soulless in Wild Strawberries. And yet, he was lightness itself playing the comic role of the philandering lawyer Egermann in Smiles of a Summer Night.

Many of the ‘Pantheon’ directors use the same troupe of actors in film after film. It is apparent that the great directors rarely stereotype their stables of actors. In fact, the actors often play greatly contrasting roles as they appear over time in the same director’s work.
It is as if the director is a sculptor who likes the way a certain clay responds. He might make vastly different objects with that clay, but he knows he will be able to achieve the desired result using it. I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these sculptors and their particular brands of clay.

Ingmar Bergman: Along with above-mentioned Thulin and Björnstrand, many other actors appear over the years in his works. Harriet Andersson became an international sensation starring as the incarnation of adolescent desire in Summers with Monika. Some twenty years later, she is the dying sister with the enormous soul in Cries and Whispers, and still later the bitter, vengeful, decrepit housemaid who is the nemesis of the children in Fanny and Alexander. Liv Ullmann created a powerful gallery of characters from the psychosomatically mute actress in Persona, to the sexually manipulative younger sister in Cries and Whispers to the wife in Scenes from A Marriage.

John Ford: Ford’s iconic actor is John Wayne. Wayne appeared in all sorts of films under Ford’s direction ranging from adaptations of O’Neill (The Long Voyage Home) to war films (They Were Expendable) to Irish Blarney fantasies (The Quiet Man). Of course the range of characters is great here, but even in the genre that Wayne is best remembered for in his work with Ford, the western, it is hard to stereotype him. His memorable first appearance as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (who can ever forget that slightly out of focus zoom shot?) set the Wayne legend in motion showing an upright, heroic, beautiful man with a hint of a dark side. As the years went on the Wayne characters became more and more nuanced. The aging, wise Nathan Brittle of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon could not be more distant from the monomaniac and, frankly, scary Ethan Edwards of The Searchers – his greatest role. Towards the end of his career with Ford he played a character that was almost the logical end of the Ringo Kid in the brilliant The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – a man who was a relic of the Old West who knows that his time is over and that ‘civilization’ will be taking over.

The Ringo Kid

The Ringo Kid

Wayne (l) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wayne (l) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Henry Fonda was another Ford favorite appearing as characters as varied as Abe Lincoln, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and the picture of virtue in his turn as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. None of his appearances in other Ford films prepares you for the egotistical, wrong-headed and reckless Lt. Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache.

Like many other directors who use a stable of actors, Ford has a troupe of supporting players who beautifully offset whoever assumed the starring roles. Actors like Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr and Ben Johnson.

Preston Sturges used his supporting players in a similar fashion. He didn’t really have a stable of lead actors, but whoever was starring could count on superb support from the likes of William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn and all the demented members of The Palm Beach Story’s Ale and Quail Club.

This discussion of troupes of actors is not to be confused with the way certain directors use actors, usually women, as muses. Von Sternberg had Marlene Dietrich, Godard had Anna Karina, Fassbinder had Hanna Schygulla. This differs from what we were talking about before in that the works of these directors seem to have come into being strictly to set the actress off as a rare jewel. That might be an idea for a later post.


Achieving Timelessness

The most discussed film of the past year must be Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. There was never any doubt that the film would be devoured by cineastes. Malick is a famously reclusive director who surfaces after long periods of silence with films of great beauty. Film lovers have ecstatic memories of their first viewing of his Days of Heaven (1978). With only five feature films in thirty-eight years, expectations for The Tree of Life were understandably high.

The film is stunning to look at, but quite cagey in its intentions. Just what is it doing? It seems to be concerned with depicting the life of a young family in Waco, Texas in the early 1950s. Their lives are presented in an impressionistic fashion. We don’t get their story, rather we get the shape of their story. The film also attempts to put this very specific place and time in the context of the birth and death of the whole universe. A curious interlude with dinosaurs may echo tensions between the main character and his father. Scenes of the birth of planets contrasts with a highly stylized sequence at the end of the film where all the characters appear to be meeting beyond death in the shallow waters of a barren lake bed. Blissful scenes of summer evenings of childhood contrast with angst-ridden scenes in modern-day Houston’s barren office buildings. The angst is never clearly articulated although it is effectively presented, just as the beauty of those summer nights is only evoked.

I left the theater dissatisfied. Subsequent attempts to get at the core of the film didn’t yield much either. It is discussed in hushed, reverent tones and attempts to pin down its meaning are often dismissed as shallow efforts of a philistine.
The Tree Of Life left my consciousness quickly after seeing it. It wasn’t until I recently watched John Ford’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) again that I began to re-engage with it. I was able to come to a better understanding of it through the lens of that Western.
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is the second in a loosely connected series of films often referred to as John Ford’s ‘Cavalry Trilogy’. It follows Fort Apache (1948) and precedes Rio Grande (1950). The films are only connected in that they depict cavalry life on the frontier right after the Civil War. Curiously, the characters played by Ben Johnson and Victor McGlaglen have the same names even though they are not playing the same people from film to film.
The film takes place in a very specific time. The voice-over introducing the film informs us that Custer has just been killed, which places us in late 1876. The Indian Wars seem to be winding down, but there are still pockets of resistance from tribes fighting the encroachment of the white man on ancestral lands. The Civil War also casts a long shadow over the events of the film. Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson) constantly reminds us that he is a son of the confederacy and states that the letter of honor that Capt. Brittles receives at his retirement would be even more meaningful if it contained Robert E. Lee’s signature along with Grant, Sherman and the others. The officer killed at Sudros Wells lies in state under the Stars and Bars.

This anchoring of the film into this specific era is done with a plethora of details of the time. The minute detailing of daily life, a hallmark of Ford films, is evident here in the depiction of life at Fort Starke. We go with the soldiers to the genearl store that doubles as a bar. Young officers and their girls go, or at least attempt to go on picnics. Friendships, rivalries and camaraderie among the soldiers is fleshed out by small, almost off-handed detail. Though unessential to the plot, dances, scouting parties and troop exercises give a great feel for life in that place at that time.
This very attention to detail has the dual effect of solidly locating the action in a time and place, but it also expands the everyday aspect of the film into the epic and timeless. Consider how She Wore A Yellow Ribbon depicts the whole spectrum of love and marriage:
a -The trajectory of the flirtation between Olivia Dandridge and Lts. Cohill and Pennell points to an inevitable marriage just beyond the end of the film. Here we see the budding romance ending in almost fairy-tale like coupling.
b- The mature relationship between Col. Allshard and his wife Abby, affectionately referred to as ‘Old Ironpants’, shows the quiet understanding and wordless communication that only comes after years of being together. They represent the high point of relationships.c- As Olivia and her beaux show us the beginnings of love and marriage, the poignant visits of Capt. Brittles to the grave of his wife depict the relationship that exists even after death.
This multifaceted depiction of love and marriage lifts the movie into a timeless rumination of just what love and marriage is. It is no longer the story of these individual characters. It is the story of love itself.
The way that the various stages of military service are shown in the film also lifts it out of a particular time and place. The whole notion of ‘career’ is laid out before us.
a- She Wore A Yellow Ribbon begins with a clear statement that Nathan Brittles along with Sgt. Quincannon are soon to retire from active service. This is another of the trajectories that create the framework of the film. Brittles and Quincannon are career soldiers on the brink of the unknown. What will they do once they leave the cavalry? They look ridiculous in the suit of civilian clothes they both try on. Brittles talks off-handedly about going west, perhaps to California, but going west means going into the setting sun, and the setting sun metaphorically means one thing only.
b- But with then end of the career of these two hardened soldiers, the career of two green cadets on the rise. Cohill is poised to take the reins of command from Brittles. We are anxious about his inexperience and callowness, but as the commander says, everyone must make their first run cross the river under gunfire. He will gain his experience just like Brittles did.
c- The counterbalance to these two is Sgt. Tyree. He is a seasoned soldier at the height of his career. He, too, will be at the fort after Brittles has gone, but he will be gone long before Cohill retires.

The sense of epic is taken a step further with the hint of a past history, of things that happened before the story begins. This is so beautifully depicted in the scene at the camp of Chief Pony-That-Walks. Ford creates a sense of tension and fear that the situation could explode into violence. We are afraid because even the usually cool and collected Sgt.Tyree is visibly nervous. However, Brittle strides into the camp. What gives him the confidence? We soon see that he has an almost brotherly relationship with Pony-That-Walks. They are both relics of a time when Indians and white men, while not exactly friends, at least respected each other. They can speak each others’ languages. They have smoked the peace pipe together.
The tragedy is that it is too late for peace. Our glimpse of Brittles and Pony-That-Walks as leaders of their respective men, is but a shadow of what they now are. Their civilized friendship is swept aside by the zeal of a new generation bent on the annihilation of the other side. Even though it is not shown, we know the history of these two men. By being able to sense what they were, we leave the ‘present’ time of the film and are aware of history rushing past them.
pony that walks

I feel that the concreteness of the depiction of time and place in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon allows it to accomplish what The Tree of Life tries to do, but ultimately fails to do. The obliqueness of The Tree of Life prevents it from attaining the epic and timeless, something that She Wore A Yellow Ribbon does with seeming effortlessness.