People Like Us

For a little bit of meta-blogging, I’m phasing myself out of a facebook group I’ve been in and some of my contributions to that group involved some long-form writing that I’m a little bit proud of and would like to share outside that group’s confines. As such, below is the first of what will be several posts this month migrating my writing from there to here.

Depending on the results at the night of which I write these words (Author’s Note 1 Dec 2022: this was written the night of the 2020 Presidential Election), who knows if we’re in the mood to think about some small utopic town in Texas? But somethings just have to be grappled with for some and I’ll wrestle with your conscience while you wrestle with your partner.

Just to get full disclosure out of the way: I’m barely certain that David Byrne’s 1986 movie True Stories – the only movie that the frontman for the former band Talking Heads ever directed – is actually a good movie and don’t have any illusions of it being a great one by the metrics I go by. Byrne, co-writers Stephen Tobolowsky & Beth Henley, and editor Caroline Biggerstaff don’t seem to have spent enough time thinking about how to connect all the wonderfully fascinating ideas and concepts they have about this one isolated Americana town of Virgil, Texas. More particularly, Byrne appears to see making a feature film as no different that making a bunch of music videos and though those music videos are marvelous eye candy as shot by the great Ed Lachmann with subtly depressive tones of bright blue and pink and of course Byrne is a phenomenal songwriter (and anybody who needs to see the light on Talking Heads must run to the masterpiece Stop Making Sense immediately), it doesn’t make for feeling like we ARE watching a whole. Just pieces.

And this kind of prevents me from feeling like the creation of Virgil as a place – the very raison d’etre of True Stories – is as complete as I could be satisfied by. The knowledge that we are watching setpieces instead of living in an environment and the full lack of even atmospheric thoroughline between those setpieces.

And yet… True Stories is a movie that I am deeply in love with ever since I had first seen it 3 years ago, coincidentally a few months before I visited Dallas in flee from Hurricane Irene (and funny enough almost bought a DVD copy from the Movie Trading Company in Beltline before reminding myself a Criterion edition was being hinted at the time). Another visit to Dallas years later would see me deliberately visiting locations where I knew it to be shot.

Works about America as a concept interest me greatly (the Western lover in me insists on this) and works especially about America as a concept made by foreigners interest me most of all (such as Wim Wenders’ work or Garth Ennis’ Preacher comic series). They make me recognize that as somebody who isn’t born of this land, there is a way to examine it while feeling of a part of it in all but birthright. Calling David Byrne a foreigner is something of a stretch given that he’d moved to Baltimore by the time he was 8, but that is a couple of years older than I was when I came here and her took much longer to get his American citizenship than I did (in fact, he was still solely a Scottish citizen at the time he made this movie). More importantly, the energy and attitude of this movie looking in on the town of Virgil is explicitly that of an outsider and that’s what encourages us to have an exploratory attitude. Byrne’s music had already by this point given away his desire to dissect what is in motion about a community or a society or even just a connection between two people with a sense of distance that somehow doesn’t feel tragic (in one of the rare instances of Armond White’s mouth not spewing reactionary bullshit, he observed a yin and yang between Prince’s desire to turn the sexual into intellectual and Byrne’s desire to turn the intellectual into the sexual, which I absolutely believe songs like “Wild Life” lead into and hey look at that… there’s a Prince homage in that scene). True Stories has given him an opportunity to apply that fascination – something that almost always spilled over to interrogating modern life’s focus with consumerism and Rockwellian domestic fantasies – to a different medium and try to see what that medium allows him to do. Apparently, it allows him to turn it on its head by choosing as a subject a land ostensibly rural that also ends up indebted to a single computer company Varicorp, something I feel could be treated as more cynical than it is (though at the very least, Byrne, Lachman, and Biggerstaff treat Varicorp as a sterile environment) or to have long dolly shots through the malls that Byrne’s lyrics so previously had curious musings on.

It also allows him to populate this community with quite a crew of characters, like John Goodman’s breakout performance as the gregariously yet melancholy Louis Fyne or late monologuist Spalding Gray’s chattering civil leader Earl Culver (who will apparently talk the head off of everyone but his wife, played by Annie McEnroe) or Tejano musical icon Tito Larriva’s suave psychic, not to mention a bed-resting Swoosie Kurtz or Jo Harvey Allen’s compulsive liar. I expect that most of Tobolowsky’s background as a phenomenal and deservedly beloved character actor went into creating these people, but apparently they also came from a bunch of eccentric news clippings that Byrne collected and put against a wall from his time touring with Talking Heads and his wondering about what if… these stories were all true? And even with performances that distinguish and live in these characters – Allen and John Ingle’s conspiracy theorizing preacher in “Puzzlin’ Evidence” particularly hint at the darker side of Virgil (though I honestly think the playfulness of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” as a setpiece weaken and muddle this) – that core allows the people of Virgil to feel like extensions of what Byrne is trying to put together about the town as a conduit for a community.

In any case, I find the loneliest moments of True Stories where those characters are nowhere to be seen the most compelling to me: the shots of Texan landscapes in sad blue dusk light and horizons that feel more like they’re going than coming, gas stations with no cars stationed at them, buildings with the lights out. Moments like this find ways for Lachman to play with the lines of architecture that clash Virgil’s modernization against what this land used to be, an attitude Byrne opens the film with discussing with unexpected candidness compared to Earl’s later platitude about God’s wisdom in making people who would like Virgil how it is. Virgil as it is is not what it was. But most importantly, it stresses both the isolation of Virgil as an environment and us within Virgil looking into it. It gives us the same outsider energy that Byrne has making this.

Given both Louis and the Culvers’ familiarity with Byrne’s nameless narrator, there’s not much reason to assume the Narrator’s much of a stranger to Virgil. But the way that the Narrator drives in and out and especially musing as he exits with the film behind him on how he loves forgetting the details of a place so that he can see the place “as it really is” makes it feel like he’s just passing through. Maybe he’ll always be passing through. As somebody who finds myself at my most free when I am just driving a long distance – and I mean long… cross state lines, cross country lines sometimes even – and deciding to just figure out where I landed, I like to think I’ll always have that manner of just passing through no matter how familiar I get when I go “I guess that this must be the place”.

On Cloud Nine

To go into the ways that Cloud Atlas has affected me as a person when I went to an extremely late screening one October night 2012 at one of the lowest points in my adult life would involve being a lot more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable than I’m willing to be in public. I only vaguely refer to how that watch was one of the most fundamental moments in my development as the person I am today to at least give an explanation on why I simply don’t think I can be THAT objective about the movie. I can give the impression of it – it doesn’t take too much effort to acknowledge at least one particular element that is out-and-out racist, full stop – and I think I’ve done enough hair-splitting on what defines “best” and what defines “favorite” to me that I can disrupt the illusion of perfection in any movie, let alone Cloud Atlas which has pretty clear missteps in my eyes. But all of that qualifying is just formalities in the face of the fact that there are few movies in the 21st Century that I feel changed my life the way that Cloud Atlas did.

Fortunately, there are also few movies that I can think of that radically codified what I look for in movies: I had definitely seen Intolerance beforehand, so ambition on this level was not new to me in 2012 but I think this made me consciously aware of what a vast canvas of styles and stories as realized by filmmakers Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, all three of whom are visionaries in their own right (it is safer to say in 2022 now that the Wachowskis are working separately than in 2012 when they were still kind of an item). Of which Cloud Atlas would demand given that the 2004 novel by David Mitchell which it adapts is literally six different storylines, structured in the source material so the stories bookend each other snugly into a Russian nest doll style and flipping different forms of dialect appropriate to their setting. Tykwer and the Wachowskis decided to be a bit more radical than that structure where the only logic to Cloud Atlas‘ continuous cross-cutting between its stories is their momentum and trying to map their climaxes alongside each other, though I am certain they worked very closely with editor Alexander Berner to make sure that the patterns in character arcs and visual compositions were arranged like a cinematic symphony alike one of the central leitmotifs, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” which is credited in the narrative to Robert Frobisher but actually is composed like most of the score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil.

Anyway, the stories: we have a sea-faring period adventure in 1849 about a fresh young lawyer connecting with a Moriori slave while a doctor in the lawyer’s employ reveals his intentions. We have a 1932 queer tragedy centered around a passionate amateur composer and the aging legend’s home he infiltrates. We have a 1973 conspiracy thriller centered on a journalist who has a chance encounter in an elevator that puts her in a position to blow a big damn whistle. We have a 2012 screwy British comedy on a publisher manipulated in his fleeing from crooks to be entrapped in a prison-like nursing home. We have a 2144 science fiction picture set in Neo-Seoul that depicts a class-based insurrection essential to asserting the personhood of clones (the closest it gets to resembling the CGI-heavy popcorn movies we think of these days, specifically with special effects miles better and more stimulating than most MCU movies). And last but not least, a post-apocalyptic yarn on an Islander’s survivor’s guilt and challenge towards his worldview when he is commissioned to guide a visitor from a more advanced civilization.

That’s a whole lot of material and that translates in the hands of these filmmakers (the Wachowskis directed 1849, 2144, and the post-apocalypse, which makes sense given their history with genre filmmaking, while Tykwer took on the more contemporary period pieces of the movie) with purpose to that as we are suggested the idea that these tales actually intertwine and influence each other’s course of action in subconscious ways, largely through the running theme of souls transcending time and identity and such. That last part is certainly embodied by the extensive cast of names and familiar faces continuously reappearing in roles whose arcs seem in conversation with each other or at least consistent in their carriage: Tom Hanks (whose unflappable enthusiasm reportedly was why the very unstable development of what was to be a very expensive production came through), Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, David Gyasi, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, and Robert Fyfe altogether play multiple roles in the many storylines and most of them have been saddled with roles that reflect each other in ways I had never guessed from reading the novel with all of them finding the most dedicated ways to keep their performances in conversation (Broadbent, Grant, and Whishaw are absolutely the best at this; Weaving has the easiest path for this since all of his roles are characteristically villainous; Hanks I think has the most difficult set overall and therefore is most admirable in his loopiness).

This is where I must confess the primary reservation I have in recommending this movie to others liberally: part of the admirable conceit is that the actors play roles that cross genders and age and in one particular case… race. Specifically the Neo-Seoul storyline is almost entirely populated by non-Asian actors in latex makeup meant to make them resemble Koreans (Tom Hanks is a notable exception who appears in that storyline without the yellowface makeup, which no doubt would have demolished his screen image) and I truly understand the thought process that gets to that decision, but that’s not the same as thinking it’s particularly the right decision. It’s just racist. But in a film as expectedly indulgent as Cloud Atlas very much is, one would expect that not every decision will be the right decision and I personally consider messy self-betrayal of the lapses of the artist to be very much essential to art.

But returning back to that central idea: souls defying the end of life to find its way to some peace and satisfaction (I think most beautifully represented in Hanks’ characters – particularly when it comes to how interacting with Berry’s characters relates to his character’s corruptions), the connectedness of separate lives (the most heartbreaking instance: two lovers meet their ends in similar ways, one commits suicide through the mouth and the other is murdered by a gunshot through the mouth), the idea that one act can make ripples that it will never be aware of for the better (“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops”), all of this stuff drives Cloud Atlas as the most convicted embodiment of these admittedly fanciful but much attractive ideals. It is a very humanist picture at its core and its aesthetic decisions come from that humanism – explicitly through the cross-cutting that mostly tries to keep the movie at a propulsive rate but also finds the smallest gestures to make up the connective tissue within those cuts (characters on the phone, writing, running on elevated and slim platforms). In virtually every way, Cloud Atlas basically signals towards the future television series Sense8, but that is settled towards globetrotting in the present time and Cloud Atlas just takes blockbuster money to fully create worlds like Neo-Seoul’s futurism in spacey action movie laser blast setpieces and the ruins of civilization in the post-apocalypse against beautiful Pacific Islander landscapes as well as revisit dated designs like pre-war Belgium or 70s San Francisco (captured by production and costume designers and cinematographers regular to the director of their respective segments: the Wachowskis brought on Hugh Bateup, Kym Barrett, and John Toll; Tykwer brought Uli Hanisch, Pierre-Yves Gayraud, and Frank Griebe) that can only be made compatible by the beautiful visuals, mannered performances, or simply the familiar emotions within those distant worlds.

Such inspired and grandiose pursuit will of course collapse and fail in areas, even outside of the Asian make-up. There are performances that do not work, the Sloosha’s dialect is much easier to read than it is to say, the old age make-up is so blatantly artificial and cartoony. But all of that comes from the movie’s fearlessness and actually enhances the broad dramatics of its storyline with its artifice much more than its undisciplined screenplay could. I frankly feel the script flattens the complex density of the novel’s themes to near-incomprehensibility, even when its final third gets annoyingly didactic about what it thinks it’s saying. It pretty much aids the movie to be so sprawling to the point of disaster, particularly in the face of everything it miraculously gets right which outweighs what it gets wrong despite the odds. And it is never less than beautiful (both to look at and to listen to), watchable, and entertaining: it is as cinematic as things get and it is specifically a movie that best represents what it is to BE moved. In the darkness of that theater for its fully-felt 3 hours, I came to recognize that boldness extravagant to the point of chaos is the pinnacle of expression that a film artist can accomplish: daring, sincere, full of personality, and defiantly establishing its own terms. That’s Cloud Atlas: it’s the first movie that crosses my mind when I think of those specific superlatives, maybe my favorite example of “interesting messes” in cinema and unlocking what about them embeds their takeaway to my heart. Now what that takeaway was that I feel changed the course of my life 10 years… that’s between me and Cloud Atlas in the dark of that cinema.

The Night He Came Home

If I made a mulligan on every review here that I think does not hold up, this blog would be going nowhere at all, even by the standards of how much my posting here has slowed to a crawl. Nevertheless, there’s been no movie previously reviewed that I found more deserving of a second go at than John Carpenter’s 1978 classic horror film Halloween – 8 years after having shared an insufficient split-post with fellow mulligan’d horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. This is partially because Halloween is one of the movies I think about most often, a point of intersection between my love for slasher cinema, for movies that make minimal resources feel properly big, and as an example of peak fundamental form.

And I guess the only better context to revisit this classic than Shout! Factory’s current 4K re-release of the original franchise is the imminent “finale” of at least the recent David Gordon Green trilogy, Halloween Ends, a title which makes promises certainly not going to be kept as long as it keeps money in Carpenter and Malek Akkad’s pockets. And it’s a context that compels me to review the full feature film franchise from 1978 all the way to 2022.

But let’s start from the beginning: obviously not the beginning of slasher cinema as we know it, given how Halloween is preceded by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas alone (and if you’re even snootier about the starting line, there’s Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace, and Bay of Blood but I don’t think those are correct), but the starting line of addressing what Halloween is outside of the legacy it made as the most profitable picture of its time, as a recognizable horror brand, and as a foundational blueprint for the slasher boom in the 1980s. Because you take away all that context – including the developments that the sequels provide to the characters, which we will complain about when we get to them – and what you have…

… is a simple straightforward yarn: One Halloween in the sleepy Illinois town of Haddonfield, an indistinct shape of a man (Nick Castle) is following a young babysitter with stoic obsessive focus. That nutshell summary is basically all the essence needed for this movie, a stripped-down elemental tale scripted by Carpenter and his long-time producer Debra Hill of predator and prey and the dread that is pulled out of such a random and evil occurrence. Given that that man is the subject of his own frantic chase by his doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence), we have the context to know this man is Michael, who 15 years earlier as a child (Will Sandin) murdered the teenage Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) before being institutionalized and escaping the night of 30 October 1978. And that context is probably more information than we should want to maintain this story’s mystique except for two things in its favor…

To begin with, that murder is portrayed to us from the very first scene with a miraculous first-person Steadicam shot (made up of two, but there’s an extremely well-disguised cut) as we watch Judith make out with her boyfriend from outside through a window, enter the house after her boyfriend has been satisfied by like… 3 minutes of action it seems (teenagers…), follow the stairs up to her room, stab her to death (with an awkward stare at the stabbing hand at one point), and exit the home in time to have his mask removed in a chilling cut that reveals him staring off absently into the night. And the uninterrupted smoothness of that ambitious camera movement is more than just Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey showing off how much they can get done in a take: it’s a very cinematic way to portray the fixation of a patient assailant to just have the camera lock onto a character and never waver or cant. It’s a discomfort putting us in the headspace of that violent individual and feels no less alien seeing things through Michael’s eyes than watching in horror from the third-person. Compare that to the brilliant hypnotic low-level shots of fellow Steadicam exemplar The Shining and it’s fair to say horror cinema exhausted the capabilities of that game-changing tool.

But the other thing is that this cold turkey open into an act of random violence feels no more explicable than Michael’s sudden stalking of Laurie in the movie itself proper. There’s no explanation, no motivation, barely any discernable dialogue and only the smallest identifiers of the characters. It is fully impossible to comprehend the thoughts behind Sandin’s vacant stare as the camera hovers away and above the scene.

And that’s the launchpad for Michael Myers as character and performance, at least in terms of the 1978 film. He’s fully unknowable. Nick Castle’s performance of the character as adult is an understated masterstroke of minimizing any motion that could betray the possibility of relating to this giant figure, to the point that the famous moment where he stares at a body he just pinned to the wall and cants his head back and forth only furthers the distance between the viewer and this force of evil, daring us to figure out what thought process is communicated by that shift. Certainly it helps prevent reality from interfering with Loomis’s doom-laden monologues on how Michael was identified by him as “pure evil” since childhood and making him look like a terrible psychiatrist. You can’t dehumanize a figure that the movie treats as inhuman, even when Michael appears otherwise grounded. We can’t see him as flesh and blood for most of the film: just his characteristic all-white William Shatner mask and faded dark boiler suit. Hell, even his actions don’t seem corporeal as – outside of Judith’s killing with a large splotch of stageblood – none of the kills are particularly bloody. The production explanation is probably based on the limitations of this admirably low-budget picture, the contextual basis is probably in how most of the deaths are by Michael’s firm hand rather than a knife and the one on-screen knife kill is bathed in darkness. Whatever the case, the aftermath is nevertheless dissonant from the vicious brutality performed.

So, everything vague about Halloween as a situation is anchored to Michael himself and that’s something the movie wields gloriously. But that vagueness especially cuts deep when dropped into the specificity of a plausible real-world town targeting plausible human characters. Which is where the cast comes in: I’ve mentioned Pleasence’s heightened alarmist take on Dr. Loomis but he seems more like an urgent element than a source of naturalism in the cast (though his screen partner for the latter half, Charles Cyphers, reacts to him with due skepticism of an everyman). It is in Curtis’ exemplary example of a horror movie final girl in Laurie Strode – the babysitter Michael locks into his sightlines – with her down-to-earth personality and intelligence that provides that anchor to reality as she plays into a lengthy wariness at the figure she sees in the distance. And aiding that even with their stock type characterizations are PJ Soles, Nancy Kyes, and Brian Andrews portraying believably clumsy sex-obsessed teenagers. We’re not talking about 1:1 psychological realism here, merely characters we’d buy as a first impression walking by them on the sidewalk.

And the city they populate is just as well something we’d recognize as a small town, the arena in which Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey show their best hand. First, there’s the application of Panavision’s anamorphic width to stress the depth and distance of that shape staring at us from behind the hedge or beyond the window. In the lines of the hedge, windows, and streets through those “Michael watching” shots, we have perfect visual parallels to the frame’s length or height so that the interruption of that far-off figure stands out and captures our eye, aligning with Laurie’s suspicions so the viewer feels eerie too.

And then there’s the coloring, which is probably the most fun thing to talk about. The story of Carpenter and Cundey’s problem-solving is endearing to me: having to shoot summertime Pasadena for autumnal Illinois and inspired allegedly by one of the great cinematographic representations of midwestern Halloween Meet Me in St. Louis, they decided to color correct the shit out of the daytime scenes to orange and the nighttime scenes to the deepest blues which doesn’t make Haddonfield more recognizable but does make it moodier in a strong way reconciles the realism of the setting with the mythic element of Michael, especially during the night scenes that Carpenter openly confessed were inspired by Suspiria. Halloween‘s colors aren’t illogical the way Suspiria‘s are, but the blues are affective with a profound spookiness. And I guess the 44 years of home video releases since have given Cundey multiple chances to just continue playing around with the sharpness or color tones of those visuals (the variety has to be deliberate at this point, since there never seems to be an exact match to what played in 1978) and this excites me when a new release comes. In this recent 4K Shout! Factory release’s case, Cundey opted to wash out the daylight oranges with whites which is extraordinarily different from any other version and actually starts to resemble the pre-winter chilliness I feel when I walk my dog on the street as I close up my 2nd year living in Chicago.

When it’s shots that Michael and his prey get to share together, it’s even stronger in expressing the relationships between the teenagers and the unknown: a two-shot of a frightened Laurie in a darkened blue hallway with a doorframe filled with black before a key light illuminates Michael watching in the darkness, just enough to recognize him without separating him from that inky abyss. Another two-shot of Laurie completely shaken in the foreground as Michael sits upright after being prone in the background. A shot of a woman strangled through the haziness of a dark car windshield in a garage. A single bedsheet ghost standing upright in a doorway staring directly at us as we sit in the perspective of his next victim. All of which gets stronger in the context of indoor sequences that call attention to the walls and their angles against the frame trapping these characters with Myers in dreadful fatalism.

And of course – even at the risk of derailing my train of momentum – one can’t possibly close out an accolade of Halloween as a work without acknowledging Carpenter’s immediately iconic score and what it does for the movie’s suspicious tension, a result of how strange it is: minimalist in its reliance on a synthesizer’s high tones, abnormal with its odd 5/4 time signature, fast-tempo’d in a manner that influences the heartbeat of one who hears it, and particularly used in a sharp way to stress Michael’s appearance as an audible premonition of an evil deed to come. It’s a properly uncanny accompaniment to the Shape (as Castle is to be credited as in the cast) and the final layer to connecting the spare storytelling to the specifics of who and where that is to be forever marked by this grave presence.

So that’s the power of Halloween put together by the cast and crew behind it: a bedtime story monster brought into a setting that could reasonably be identified for the street right outside your door and attacking people that your could have bumped past a few days ago without realizing. An “it happened in your neighborhood” sort of fable of mysterious doom fixating on otherwise unexceptional people. All of these brought together by poetic technique applied to mundane real-world lives. None of this is particularly innovative in the wake of Hitchcock or Black Christmas or the endless gialli and Carpenter never pretended otherwise. But like Citizen Kane – a movie that wasn’t the first to do the things it did but instead found the most exhaustive ways to use the tools it was adopting – so too did Halloween basically give final form to what the quintessential slasher movie is by simply knowing the vocabulary of tension and violence and fear from those influences and getting the best mixture of those ingredients to never be surpassed again. And as Laurie and Loomis confirm when their paths finally converge in the final minutes of the film, the end creation is the boogeyman.

Suzy, Do You Know Anything About Witches?

I think I’ve been on record as feeling I did not exhaust Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, when I first reviewed it ’round these parts. I’m not sure it’s a movie that CAN be exhausted nor should it: it gains its power from the inability to truly qualify what exactly is going on, like the best horror movies. If you come in desiring to leave the film with a sense of normalcy, you are going to leave the movie massively disappointed. Even when you put yourself in the mindset of Italian cinema ’round the time of its release, its very storytelling is a disruption of the standard giallo that dominated the country’s horror cinema within the 1960s and ’70s (one of several reasons I don’t recommend this as someone’s first Dario Argento – there’s a whole third of his career we associate as emblematic of giallo that Suspiria truly refuses to resemble), teasing at belonging to this genre in its initial murder scene. Of course even before we watch poor Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) and the friend kind enough to take her in for the night succumb to what starts as a gruesome kniving that escalates to an elaborate multi-colored sunroof breaking into several beautiful shards below her body that lodge into the skull of that kind samaritan below the hanging corpse of Pat, there is a superimposition of green bright eyes hovering in the darkness that simply has no place in real-world logic that giallo abides by.

But I get ahead of myself here. Even before we are introduced to that elaborate apartment building of lines cutting through shades of red and mirrored staircases, flattened by the direct wide angle Luciano Tovali shoots from, we are introduced to our protagonist Suzy Bannon (or Benner if you watch it with Italian audio, though I am not inclined to do so with the way that I am now used to Jessica Harper’s voice with the character… Harper also being the actor who portrays Suzy on screen) the moment she arrives in Freiburg, Germany to attend the Tanz Dance Akademie overseen by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (an unrecognizable Alida Valli, who has an vicious wide-eyed demeanor the whole time that gives further authoritarian vibe to her masculine suit and straight posture). And as Suzy heads towards the exit of the airport in the first few minutes, we have the soundtrack of a busy terminal cut off by the sliding doors opening as the tinkling opening music box notes of prog rock band Goblin’s famous theme (as part of one of the all-timer of horror movies scores) peeks its head in and then shuts off as the doors close. Once again in that anticipating early steadicam shot heading to the door from Suzy’s perspective, the doors open and we hear those notes continuing where they left off and then they cut off as the doors close. And then finally Suzy goes through that doorway and into a blasting rainy storm and there is no way back from there as she manages to grab a taxi and reach the school in question, only to be rejected by a frightened voice on the call box and witness Pat’s fleeing from the school to her doom.

It’s a cliché to say this, but to discuss Suspiria in terms of plotting is a futile game. I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of elements ’round my tenth watch of the film but that’s missing the forest for the trees as the experience of Suspiria is not to rationalize what is happening to Suzy and her classmate Sara (Stefania Casini) as she learns just how shifty and untrustworthy and dark the matrons of this school are, but to lose our footing the same way Suzy does. On the narrative level, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi have no interest in coherence as they create an experience of associative horror clichés (the violent murders, a sequence of creepy maggots dropping, blood-based imagery, etc.) based partially on a nightmare Nicolodi had while the two of them were dating and partially on Thomas de Quincy’s poem Suspiria de Profundis. That nightmare atmosphere is exactly what comes through in the final film with the sort of momentum that makes the viewer feel like its slipping under and the abstraction of Argento and his crew’s imagery refuses to give us any anchor through which to catch ourselves and maintain some stability.

That’s the main thing: Argento and Nicolodi’s script is good enough for a pretext of Suzy losing her balance in all the horrors that leave her wide-eyed, but Argento’s direction is what takes Suspiria to another level of wrong-headedness. Nothing about it makes sense on a film vocabulary level: starting from the soundtrack, which has the particular benefit of the Italian film industry’s of soundtracking during that time, where the post-synced ADR means that the sound is always untethered from the image no matter how close it gets. Suspiria is perhaps the one foreign-language film that gains a lot from how the dubbing does not feel natural to what we’re seeing on-screen (and this is something retained in the Italian audio thankfully, because again that’s how Italian soundtracks were put together). And of course, Goblin’s iconic music is the cherry on top, punctuating the disorienting sound design with its loud pumping dread-filled rock scoring.

Following up on that, the cutting of the film is not as bravura as the sound: certainly the general structural shape of events put together does not lend itself to clarity, only insomuch as “this is happening and then this is happening” but it does take subtle rule-breaking of film editing vocabulary to constantly allow Suspiria as an object to be part of the unreliability: sequences where the eyelines will not match, the abruptness of one moment moving to the next particularly once we’ve lingered on a dead body long enough, the refusal to establish spatial clarity particularly when it comes to the relative position one character has with another predatory character. How else can we be shocked when a gloved hand enters the frame out of nowhere to take a life? Indeed, when we do have some kind of establishing into the killer’s point of view, that’s when Argento and Tovali employ the still-then-new Steadicam, giving its inhumanly smooth surveying of a space the same kind of silent purposefulness as Halloween would bring to its opening scene a year later or the eerie expectation of something horrible (such as in the early airport shot I mentioned above) that The Shining perfected 3 years later. It is those moments in which editor Franco Fraticelli makes patience insufferable, whereas once things get truly maddening, he turns things up and takes us aback (a moment where a man has his throat ripped out from an unexpected assailant being the best employment of what Fraticelli brings).

But most of all – More than the angles it chooses to dizzy us with even at its most sedate late exposition scene. More than the ways that the movie finds framings of Suzy that make her feel isolated or trapped in various ways, particularly with a utilisation of reflective surfaces that either box her face in an off-center corner or use the translucency to make her look faint and barely present in the shot like her own ghost. – it’s the colors. The colors of Suspiria are at once why I love Suspiria deeply enough to be one of my favorite movies and at the same time why it works impeccably as a confusing dive into a world separate from ours with zero explicability. It is not just that its selection of colors with which to light its subjects or shape the interiors it takes place in are not logical by our own means, what with greens and reds and blues coming in deep vibrant tones shaping characters in their presence or assaulting the visuals completely until it numbs you up. It’s that the colors also doesn’t make any sense by the logic of Suspiria‘s internal world, constantly feeling like part of what takes characters aback and shocks them until it feels like a language towards the viewer more than the character that something bad is about to go down. Not that the colors individually have a specific mood assigned to them, but the intensity of their appearance and strength of their hue (aided by the 3-strip Technicolor process which the movie was printed off of, but not shot) is an emotional thing to witness. Besides which it makes Suspiria just absolutely beautiful to look at, pleasurable to the eye in spite of how alarming and inexplicable it all is.

In these ways, Suspiria works as a befuddling experience, a movie that fundamentally refuses to work itself, only get close to a clear picture before breaking down again in maddening ways and throwing us in a whirlwind of sound and color (something it curiously shares with another horror movie released around the same time, Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House. I really should remind myself to one day double feature those two). And there is a cause and motivation behind Suzy’s haunting in the wall of the school, the school belongs to an evil coven of witches (a spoiler certainly, but one that seems to be common knowledge on the film. I did use THAT review title after all) so they’re breaking down reality and Suspiria as a film is not just a window but a doorway for us sitting in the middle of that breaking unreality up until its explosive climax. The images and moments are themselves upsetting in context like a horrible shot of a face pressed violently against a window, a close-up of a throat slit from a poor soul trapped in a room implausibly filled with razor wire, a dead body risen to giggle as it approaches us with a knife, etc. but the violence is only a punctuation to the movements in this symphony. Within the context of the film, they are just stops on a spiraling descent through a nightmare, “a bedtime story for the damned” I appropriated* in the last time I discussed Suspiria ’round these parts. And in that same review series, I closed discussing another favorite movie Blade Runner as one in which “my best dreams take place”. I open this loose review series in the same vein that Suspiria‘s world is where my most memorable nightmares slip into, dazzling and inhuman and altogether alienating.

*From Stephen King and Blue Öyster Cult, as I only quote from the best.

1989, The Number, Another Summer

It has been 32 years and I don’t think cinema has ever produced something as incendiary as Do the Right Thing since its 1989 premiere at Cannes. Definitely nothing in the mainstream American cinema, sadly nothing writer-director Spike Lee has made since (even with the ambition he threw 3 years later behind Malcolm X), and the closest analogues I can think of – Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables – are sadly written off as “French Do the Right Things”. The fact is that the fire lit by the Do the Right Thing is still burning enough to keep us heated all these decades later and honestly given the state of American society as it is today, it is sad but true that that fire has to keep burning. And the brightness of that fire has of course scared a-plenty of viewers at the time of its release fearing that the movie was genuinely dangerous and was going to cause race riots on the streets from its content, a modern-day Rites of Spring. And even when that fear was unfounded, the movie’s lack of interest in providing a straightforward answer regarding the issues it casually depicts apparently struck enough of a nerve with viewers to engage less in the conversation that Do the Right Thing was inviting and more in a desire to validate their own pre-existing notions.

Maybe it’s simply the charged energy of the picture that truly took audiences aback before the fiery climax even occurred, since Do the Right Thing opens on one of my favorite opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen – bombastically providing what looks like a studio-set version of a Brooklyn brownstone set with black shadows between green and red lighting and dynamic cutting for one of the film’s actors, Rosie Perez dancing with aggression to the angry declarations of Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power”. One could absolutely see how a movie providing such bold imagery and rhythm from its very first frame, not even giving us a breather, could intimidate an audience and get them outside of ease before Lee begins weaving us through the variety of charged stories that take place in Do the Right Thing‘s Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bed-Stuy for short.

The film famously portrays a day and change in Bed-Stuy, except it has a particular distinction of being the hottest day of the summer. Insofar as the movie has a protagonist, it would be Mookie (Lee himself) as he starts another day at his job delivering pizzas from Sal’s (Danny Aiello) restaurant, a cornerstone of that neighborhood for a very long time. And as Mookie heads on down his deliveries to his leisure (occasionally one leading him to his girlfriend Tina (Perez) and their infant son Hector), we meet and hang with several different characters on that street: the local drunk Da Mayor as he occasionally disputes with the matriarchal Mother Sister (played by real-life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee respectively) being one of the more important strands for us to pay attention to, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who alienates everyone with the large boom box he carries around blasting the same Public Enemy song from that opening credits being another, but mostly doing its relaxed best to sift through Bed-Stuy as a place of diversity that’s not entirely welcome: the tension between Korean shopkeepers, West Indian immigrants, and Puerto Rican folk among all the born-and-raised-in-Brooklyn Black Americans already brings about a nervousness to the energy this movie starts with without adding in the Italian-Americans and police presence intruding on a neighborhood that the movie takes care to note are not from there. While Do the Right Thing is about watching that tension just continuing boiling in a pot over and over under the hot sun above before the pressure just blows the lid right off, the fact is that most of the racial antagonism was there from the start and the movie wants us to know it: one of the first incidents is a low-scale explosion where Da Mayor – one of the film’s most lived-in and agreeable characters – blows up on the Korean family and delivers some racial remarks simply for not having his brand of beer.

If there is any real inciting incident to the picture, it’s the moment where one of Mookie’s friends – the outspoken Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito – there was a time where this movie and Breaking Bad were my only conscious exposures to Esposito and it was outright impossible to reconcile Buggin’ Out and Gustavo Fring were played by the same actor) – dares to challenge the Wall of Fame in Sal’s pizzeria and how it only has Italian-Americans and no black people on it. And yet it escalates from the temperaments of both Sal and Buggin’ Out so quickly that shortly after Sal steps out from behind the counter with a baseball bat simply from Buggin’ Out’s loaded question and has to be held back by his openly racist son Pino (John Turturro) as opposed to his more black-friendly son Vito (Richard Edson). And that sort volatility is revealed before the halfway point of a two hour film: so what we see is just characters letting the heat get them soured enough to spit invective in any which direction and it seems like the only character who has not a single antagonist hostile bone in his body is the DJ who occasionally describes the state of affairs before his giant window in his air-conditioned radio booth, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), to the point that he personally interrupts a centerpiece sequence of four different characters spitting the most venomous racial remarks in direct address with an accelerated wide-to-close-up dolly that really grinds our nose in that hate. Everything that happens by the explosive end of Do the Right Thing was a brewing a long time in the hearts of the characters, even while it all comes as a mixture of shock and disappointment and Spike delivers it all with a rage that shakes the viewer violently.

Anyway, the thing about Do the Right Thing – at least the takeaway I’ve had in the 12 years since I first saw it – is that it is a movie about NOT knowing everything, even and especially when you’re under duress both environmental and social. And more particularly an attempt to subvert the camera eye as something so omniscient towards its subjects but providing a story that has absolutely no easy answers and even impishly gives conflicting attitudes about its own things: it ends with two contradictory quotes by the late civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, characters whose dichotomy we are constantly reminded of by the disabled character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) and his attempts to sell pictures of their handshake to people who just aren’t interested. Do the Right Thing is a very cinematic picture with its choice of camera movements by the great Ernest Dickerson such as those afore-mentioned direct address dollys or the placement of the actors in the grand space of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in a way that plays well with how often Dickerson seems to decide one type of scale per shot is not enough (the Radio Raheem “Love-Hate” monologue swaps from profile to its own direct address and then back to profile; a long-take boombox battle between Raheem and the Puerto Ricans switches back and forth in tight close-ups before visually announcing the victor with a grand rise of the crane; another interior medium pulls out into an exterior crane late in the film). It’s also just as cinematic the rapid way Barry Alexander Brown switches between tangeants like a continuous thought to the point that some scenes cut in the middle of a character’s last word, sometimes in association like when a delivery from Mookie to Señor Love Daddy leads to a needledrop that catches the attention of the Puerto Rican boys leading to their conflict with Raheem. And it’s of course most intense when it comes to actual heated conflicts: the climactic ones between Raheem and Sal are shot in bizarre canted angles that look like medium shots with the direct focus of close-ups so the intensity of Sal and Raheem within the frame gives the sense of big emotions with physical smallness.

And that’s just in regards to what Do the Right Thing does with its visual ambition to communicate the sense that we are looking all over the people of Bed-Stuy in a novelesque way. There’s another function to the movie-ness of it all: because Do the Right Thing has to feel real fucking hot and just cramping up interiors with fans or drenching the actors with screen sweat won’t just cut it, Dickerson and the color editors have seen fit to favor the reds and oranges that remind us of that hot sun above (and I don’t remember if there’s even a close-up of the sun, meaning that it’s through that color that we are meant to live in the heat with the characters) while in the meantime, the lights seem positioned specifically to favor the brightest white spots on the heads of the actors like a negative chiaroscuro so that we understand exactly what that temperature is falling on. The walls of the neighborhood and the costumes fill in as much white and blue as they can while still playing along with that color temperature serving as the visual translation of the REAL temperature.

It’s of course to be expected that someone like Spike Lee – whose open film scholar-ness isn’t discussed on the same level of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, but absolutely reaches their levels – would be happy to engage with the extent to which he and the crew can move the camera around to the sweet jazz score of Bill Lee and watch these characters bake in the summer. Him pouring his love for the movies (lest we forget that Raheem’s “Love-Hate” monologue is pretty much an appropriation of a similar monologue in The Night of the Hunter amongst other cinematic quotings sprinkled throughout) is just one of several areas that makes Do the Right Thing an obviously personal film: it’s practically a family affair on the level of The Godfather with Bill Lee being Spike’s father (who was also responsible for Davis and Dee getting cast) and Spike’s sister Joie playing Mookie’s exasperated sister Jade, Spike being a longtime native to Bed-Stuy and portraying the neighborhood with the sort of loving intimacy only someone so close to that place could have (to the point that even the constructed pizzeria and Korean shop feel well integrated), and even inching in an anti-Celtics joke with a cameo by John Savage. It’s basically indulgent in the ways that somebody pouring their heart into a depiction of a place and an issue that matters deeply to them would have to be, casual enough to be a pleasant watch but not to undercut the urgency of the climactic violent moments that probably most horrified viewers of all sorts.

And it feels hard to discuss Do the Right Thing without discussing the ending, which I’m trying not to do for anyone who might want to run to see this movie immediately after reading this (and you should have been running to it yesterday) but basically SPOILER ALERT: that climax is where Spike as a writer lays all his sucker punches while portraying how easily the thread can snap for people and a combustion can be catalyzed. It’s not all that much a surprise to the right viewers that Sal turns out to be a racist just the same as Vito is, but we did spend an hour and 40 minutes in his company watching him happily chat up Jade or Da Mayor or letting the kids in after hours to have one more slice before he leaves for the night (the fact that those same kids are behind Sal when Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront him during closing time and then turn around in shock when Sal throws out the n-word is indicative of how well embedded he was in Bed-Stuy as a community and how easy it was for him to betray that). And it’s not just Sal who has a rapid shift, Mookie is relatively placid during the movie when Buggin’ Out is causing a scene with Sal (though that may just be Lee’s… lack of acting ability. It works though!) and yet once he sees Raheem dead on the ground is when he recognizes action must be taken and throws that garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria in another long take. Or the manner in which a community that frequently mocked or confronted with Raheem and respected Sal throughout the movie is willing to put all that aside in solidarity against Sal in recognition that he caused Raheem’s death at the hands of the police (who characteristically leave scot-free). Or simply the fact that ML (Paul Benjamin) – after holding a verbal grudge against the Korean grocers (Steve Park & Ginny Yang) – is inches away from invoking his own violent wrath on their store in the heat of the riot receives clarity at the last second and leaves them be. In any case, the chaos of that climax is where Do the Right Thing pulls the curtains back on what all the characters were truly feeling and lets it sprawl on the streets like a wildfire.

And if Spike decided to just leave us in that emotional sprawl, maybe I’d get why audiences were scared of this movie to the degree that the Oscars ran all the way in the other direction that year to award Best Picture to the cravenly placating Driving Miss Daisy (a move I’m certain Lee considers a personal insult with all the critical acclaim and discussion Do the Right Thing was getting that awards season). But this is a movie about a place he loves and that we can assume he doesn’t want to see torn down and it’s telling that the next morning’s final sequence is not just the character recognizing they’re still standing but Mookie and Sal specifically still standing and at a mutual recognition with each other. It starts hot – a shot-reverse shot that involves Mookie and Sal’s heightened emotions regarding Mookie’s pay and what happened to Sal’s pizzeria – but it ends by the end of it with the wide two-shot that could only come once the two of them got it all out of their systems and walk away not friends but not at each other’s throats either. That Lee saw fit to allow Sal that dignity as opposed to any other character in the film is telling, a mood of restoration that is essential if Mookie or Sal or the rest of Bed-Stuy is gonna be able to survive last night with the memory of Radio Raheem strongly surrounding it, a memory invoked by the last spoken line of the film by that one calm, cool, collected voice of reason Señor Love Daddy.

Anyway, none of that final cool down stopped audiences from feeling that this movie was dangerous and I agree that it’s dangerous. Just not dangerous in the same way that people realize. It’s the last dangerous picture, not no Joker that has nothing social to really say or agitprop films that try way too hard to deliver THE POINT. Do the Right Thing is dangerous because it’s ostensibly about people just living in one spot for 24 hours and it just builds up in an organic way to the violence it depicts: a violence that indicts systemic imbalances and horrors that remain relevant and grave to this very day and age, a violence that comes with a righteous rage that was on 11 from frame one, and a violence that interrupts an otherwise survivable but hot day in a very vibrant and colorful place lived-in by vibrant and colorful people whom we don’t have room to hate (outside of the police and Pino). It’s a movie full of humanity that ends up casualty to that violence, constructed and depicted as a realistic place amplified by the movie’s craft. And that craft may be the subject of Spike’s indulgent and compromised perspective on Bed-Stuy in an ostensibly “Day in the Life” overview of the characters, but somehow all that indulgence and compromise and inconsistency just piles into the humanity of Do the Right Thing to make it not only that dangerous movie that people feared but an unexpectedly perfect object – arguably the only PERFECT movie of a filmmaker who is not interested in perfection and never pursues – and in turn the greatest American movie of the 1980s. In my humble opinion you see, for if there’s one thing Do the Right Thing teaches me, it’s that I don’t know everything.

That’ll Be the Day.

For Marshall

“Which movie is the hardest to discuss in this week-long John Ford series?” is a question with a lot of answers, but I think his 1956 picture The Searchers might edge through for the individual reason that – as the film widely considered Ford’s best – it seems like every single thing worth saying has already been said by far more intelligent and articulate film people than myself. It doesn’t help that – as I’m sure you’ve guessed with this being a series exclusively dedicated to what I consider Ford’s masterpieces – I’m not really set to go against conventional wisdom. It’s also the case that The Searchers has been getting the mildest drop in reputation over the past few decades, some of which is understandable if also ungenerous.

Understandable on a thematic sense that is, but we’ll get back to that. On an aesthetic sense, however, I don’t get how anybody couldn’t find it overwhelming. It is Ford’s EPIC in a way that no other picture by him could be, with cinematographer Winton Hoch given the expanse of the VistaVision widescreen film to capture the most out of the Western horizon and then make it feel tired on the part of the washed-out coloring without losing one detail of that rocky and sandy expanse. And this matters all the more so when Jack Murray cuts the sequences with every bit of slack to stress that we are feeling the years pass the characters by on a journey that feels… OK, maybe this is something lost once you have seen the movie but it’s a journey that doesn’t promise any particular satisfaction at the end of it.

I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this journey that the scope in structure and image is in service of? Frank Nugent’s screenplay – adapting the 1954 novel by Alan Le May – begins with Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into the Texas homestead of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). This arrival is certainly to the pleasure of the children Lucy (Pippa Scott), Debbie (Lana Wood – played later in the film by her sister Natalie), and Ben (Robert Lyden) but less so in the case of Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) for some unspoken reason. It might be because Ethan did not reach out in three years since the Mexican Revolutionary War he was fighting in ended, it might be the romantic tension between Ethan and Martha, it might be the quiet hostility Ethan shows to their adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) specifically because he resembles his Cherokee descent*. In any case, the elders are not jumping for joy to see Ethan back and when the Law shows up in the form of the Reverend Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse, there’s even further a friction between Ethan and authorities that are mostly there to recruit help for investigating a cattle theft.

That theft – which Martin accompanies them on as well as Ethan after making a point to NOT swear in – turns out to be a trap, not for the men but for one of their unsuspecting homes. And unfortunately that turns out to be the Edwards’ home, desolated in the wake of a raid and leaving the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben with Debbie and Lucy missing. Something which enrages the already hardened Ethan to go on a search for the two girls with Martin in tow, but it takes very little to scratch the surface and see he’s mostly looking for blood and not for the girls.

In any case, this is a journey that spans over a decade for the two searchers and that timespan takes its toll on both of them, Ethan much more severely as he grows bitter and nastier to Martin in denying him his relationship to the Edwards’ and holding him at a distance compared to the rest of their companions that hop on and then drop off throughout the film (some of whom drop off violently). Which is where Murray’s editing does the most work to slow the flow of momentum. The Searchers doesn’t stop completely but it’s more of a grind under Nugent’s structure and the story’s shape. Certainly one can already call to mind how the iconic opening and closing shots of the movie involving the long empty desert behind a moving door, but there’s also how much of the middle is taken up by a fragmented frame narrative involving the one letter Martin sends to his beau Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) as well as how cyclical the movie’s treatment of hot yellow summers crossfading into soft white winters at least twice before it feels like the few clues Ethan and Martin have (a Comanche Chief named Scar has been seen with Debbie) are finally leading them somewhere. The Searchers is not a very long movie – just a minute shy of 2 hours – but it makes it all felt and then some.

And then there’s still the fact that we are spending it in the company of Ethan, a role embodied by Wayne’s single most caustic performance, not above smiling or having a laugh when he’s under the roof of someone (there is a lot to be said about the dichotomy between Ethan’s domestication and savagery) but whose default manner appears to be a firm scowl under the bright desert sun or the shadow of his brim (this particular rewatch having a close-up round the middle of the film truly catch my eye as a moment where Ethan looks so very vicious, not to mention being a great example of what the VistaVision 35mm does to close-ups as it brings out all the stubble and lines on an old face like Wayne’s). His antagonism towards all the many people he will encounter in that long journey within Hoch’s vista (and particularly being dwarfed by those vistas in pointed ways, just as Ford loves to do to his drama visually) is a big part of what makes The Searchers feel so dark as a story without having to try so hard.

Ethan as a character is only one such way that the movie introduces a cynical attitude about what the Western as a genre yields. Conventionally speaking, The Wild Bunch is considered the first revisionist Western and being that The Searchers was still made in the later end of the 1950s, there was only so much violence that the movie could portray. But the implication of the brutality feels so much stronger than any bloodbath could provide: just look at the wide shot revealing what’s left of the Edwards home, the blackened smokey fire in the middle of nothing. It’s not gruesome but it gives us a chill down our spine just the same in its dark fatalism. Violence is what sobers The Searchers most, whether from the things the characters refuse to say or let others see or how three instances an off-screen death that brings further exhaustion to the mission. And particularly in the manner it frames Ethan’s meting of his own violence. One of his earliest moments on this search is to desecrate a found Comanche corpses as a low-angle shot, deliberately in a manner most offensive to the Comanche beliefs. Later, we have a middle shot witnessing Ethan about to commit a heinous act of desecration mirroring an taunt displayed to him just before by Scar himself (Henry Brandon).

Which brings us to the matter of racism and The Searchers. It seems to be a continuing question brought up by both apologists and critics of the film alike: Is The Searchers commenting on racism or is it just plain racist? Not to be too flippant, but I feel the movie makes itself explicitly clear on this matter: Ethan Edwards is a bad person who does not belong in any sort of society (a hell of a reversal on the first big Ford and Wayne collaboration Stagecoach condemning society). But even the Comanche is given the sense of civilization from their organization once we see them and the part-Cherokee Martin plays as a voice of reason and understanding against Ethan’s brutal tactics and philosophies, most often when the possibility of Lucy and Debbie’s miscegenation among the Comanches is brought up and Ethan determines death is a preferable fate for the girls. When they finally meet Scar face-to-face, Scar turns out to be very eloquent and has no trouble communicating his anger towards Ethan and his people with an attitude that feels rather of a kin to Ethan’s rancor (this is maybe the only area where casting a white man as Scar feels like it pays off, otherwise one of my only two issues with the movie besides the intolerable wise fool character giving undeserved comic relief). In nearly every aspect of Ethan’s characterization, he is wrong and the manner with which the film makes the shape of shadow (from the cowboy hat) on Ethan’s face more solid than any other movie Wayne made with Ford is impossible to ignore.

But Ethan is still not just some two-dimensional surprise villain and I think it’s the ending of The Searchers that most appears to complicate its tone as well as Ethan’s character logic in a major final decision, where Max Steiner’s previously weighty score (another area of projected exhaustion from The Searchers) makes a 180 over to this soft idyllic cue that transforms to melancholy in the final moments. And it just all fits, even despite giving us no indication to expect The Searchers to go that route and if anything preparing us for the opposite by having it play as the aftermath of one of Ethan’s most vicious actions. But it still effortlessly swings into those tones of relief and sadness in the last few minutes in an emotionally consistent way before we watch that famous shot of Ethan looking through the doorway but turning around and walking away from us as it closes. Maybe it’s that humane complexity about Ethan that causes everyone to feel like it undercuts its pessimism up to that point. I don’t agree though…

… Because it still marches towards the same final observations The Searchers about the Western and its place in the world anymore. That it idealizes a lone hero who is in fact just a violent bully, that it romanticizes a landscape that has no blatant feeling of the drama within it (Hoch’s cinematography being more realist in its mythic iconography than anything Ford made before or since), that it vilifies a race and enemy that has its own pain and its own establishment and agency. Not too long ago, I was faced with someone dismissing The Searchers with the claim that “I’m sure it was subversive for its time” but I absolutely don’t subscribe to liking movies for being “subversive for their time”. The Searchers is still subversive now in 2021 deconstructing and critiquing elements of storytelling mythology that is used to this day (plus I mean… I love The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it’s not like we stopped having movies portray Native Americans as “savages”) and it’s a wonder that even if you’re not willing to accept how insightful it is as an amalgamation and examination of everything Ford accomplished in his career to that point, you can’t help surrendering into the shadow of a never harsher vision of that long surviving horizon in the American Southwest.

*Which like… Jeffrey Hunter, even with his tan here, resembles a Cherokee about as much as I resemble Bruce Lee. But if I’m going to meet this movie halfway…

Only an American Would Have Thought of Emerald Green

When I began this writing project on John Ford’s 7 masterpieces in Marshall’s memory, I knew that I wanted to revisit his 1952 film The Quiet Man despite having already given a review a couple of years ago that I still stand pretty well by. For the continuous momentum, for the blunt fact that 6 reviews over a week does not look as good as 7 reviews, for the fact that it WAS a movie Marshall loved, and most of all just to give myself an excuse to rewatch it the way I am always looking for an excuse to rewatch my old favorites. But of course, that comes with wanting to talk about The Quiet Man without really knowing what to talk ABOUT. And then a few hours before I was freed up to pop my blu-ray in and revisit that beautiful green land of Innisfree… I found myself scrolling through a few of our old facebook messages together and found this…

An angle of The Quiet Man that I didn’t even feint towards in my past review and so – with thanks to Marshall directly for guiding me here – my rewatch occurred looking at the ways in which The Quiet Man is very much about this. Which should be obvious in its authorship – John Ford being an American with Irish ancestry born John Feeney or, to his claim, Sean Aloysius O’Fearna – as well as in its premise. You could just read the back of your DVD or blu-ray case to identify this in its plot summary. Sean Thornton (John Wayne, also of Irish descent and did you know his real name is Marion?) returns to his birthplace of Innisfree, Ireland after a hard life in Pittsburgh trying to bury his past in America with this idealized version of his homeland. But let’s go a bit deeper into how A Quiet Man is about this…

Everything we learn about Sean’s life in America is of hardship and most of that established from the beginning. His grandfather died in an Austalian Penal Colony, both of his parents dead before he was 12 years old, grew up in destitution next to a “slag heaps” (a piece of dialogue that calls back specifically to the imminent coal rundown future of How Green Was My Valley). It’s important to note that two of the figures that raised him ended up dying outside outside of their homeland – Sean’s mother and grandfather – and his father of a “bad accident” before America, implying Sean’s barely has memory of him. And so he is brought to feel like what little memories and stories his mother told him of Innisfree and his childhood home White O’Mourn, he recognizes Innisfree as “another word for Heaven”, something instantly shot down by the local Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) as “Innisfree is far from being Heaven, Mr. Thornton” as well as her immediate assumption not that Sean wishes to live once more there but that he seeks to create a monument or memorial of the shack.

Nevertheless, Sean tries to build his own heaven and it’s a little bit more of the fantasy version where he reconstructs White O’Mourn with rusticity that is greeted not necessarily with condescension but with some amount of surprise. His choice to paint his home door green at one point is treated as a charming perculiarity – “Only an American would have thought of Emerald Green”, as this review’s title quotes – and there is a later scoffing at his choice of things to plant once he makes to create a garden on the lands. Which is to say that Sean is trying very hard to fit with an image of Ireland that might be more in his head than in the land before we even reach the major conflict of the film, where Squire “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen, for this is obviously Ford’s most Irish film since The Informer and that of course means McLaglen will be front and center)’s deep grudge at Sean for claiming his birthright of White O’Mourn just before Danaher was aiming to purchase the home and the complications that ensue when Sean and Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara, returning among other actual Irish Ford regulars like a never-better Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields) court and marry.

But this is talking more explicit narrative evidence and if there’s one thing I hope I’ve indicated John Ford does, it’s how he says things a whole lot better through aesthetics. The primary one being that Sean – despite our noting that he very much born in Ireland – does not have an Irish accent. And it can be safe to say the reason is practical, as Ford and Wayne’s earlier collaboration The Long Voyage Home indicated that accents are probably not Wayne’s strongest suit. Regardless, the result is strong: when even Ward Bond is able to put on an Irish brogue in his delivery, Wayne is going to look plenty out of place amongst this otherwise friendly company (let alone when it’s actually antagonistic to him like Red and Mary Kate).

Beyond that, The Quiet Man still feels somewhat an autocritique of Sean’s mindset returning home as it appears to be Ford’s mindset making the movie, being born in Maine and to my knowledge this being the first time he was in Ireland, creating his own image of how the land should look. I’ve never been to Ireland (though Odin help me, I will try to make that not the case* before I die) and it is sad to say I know very few Irish people, but I think it’s safe to say that the manner in which Ford presents the land and its people is… shall we say animated? It indulges in a multitude of stereotypes about drinking and impishness and throwing fisticuffs (which of course we will get back to) and fiery redheads of the sort, but it doesn’t lack one bit of sincerity and it seems as better a home for that loving jabbing at Ford’s ethnic background. Besides which, I can’t imagine that mindset also didn’t inform Ford and returning cinematographer Winston Hoch to make green by far the most saturated of the colors in The Quiet Man, though plenty more are prevalent with one we will particularly note.

Back to the complications of Sean and the Danahers. Those complications are the basis of when Sean starts to recognize that Irish customs of domesticity don’t exactly match up to his expectations and to deal with that. Red particularly is spending most of his appearance trying to goad Sean into a physical fight but this is something Sean is adamant on preventing, but it’s more Mary Kate whom he has to look out for. In a movie full of greens, Mary Kate is almost exclusively set in blues and reds, normally the former when she’s at her most agreeable and red when she’s at her most confrontational with Sean and a balance of both the scenes that require the most complexity out of O’Hara’s performance. Either way, her visual color palette cuts particularly through the greenery (including and especially her introductory wide shot) in a manner that interrupts the exact sort of Irish landscape that Sean was looking for when he arrived. Eventually, this becomes more or less a visual struggle between green and blue – when Sean tries to adapt to Irish customs of courtship is where we see him most in blue and outside of the third act, it is an outright fish out of water look. Just consider this hilarious two-shot of them in marriage…

Later on a mixup causes Red to be so infuriated that he refuses to provide Mary Kate’s dowry and that’s the real kicker in Sean and Mary Kate’s marriage. To Sean, he’s abandoning materialism and possessions in the US – particularly after a life of having none – but Mary Kate’s possessions of her own earning from her own hard life and Sean does not seem to truly understand that, causing the biggest hurdle for them two as a couple. Particularly Mary Kate’s frustration that Sean doesn’t care to integrate her way of life with his and will not fight for her, something Sean really needs to be convinced of and where his status as an outsider truly brings him at a divide.

The moment that indicates Sean’s reason for not wanting to fight and for leaving America in the first place is a flashback distinct in both being the only sequence we see set in America and the only one that’s abstract: the backdrop is darkened beyond a backlight for Sean’s stunned posture and when we see him taking a seat and being covered in something comforting… what is important to note is that his name is embroidered in green of all things in that one flashback sequence. A visual anchor right back to where we meet Sean and a moment of personal contention before making his decision to finally accept and engage the fight for his identity and his new home, a moment where he cuts along through the field of green marching and dragging along with Mary Kate in a blue shirt. And his blue shirt matches up well against Red’s own blue when they finally have their phenomenal and unforgettable fisticuffs match (on top of being the moment where Victor Young’s score, the best ever made for a Ford film, get most indulgent in traditional instrumentation after previously just sprinkling Irish airs whenever Sean seems to get closest to getting it) which ends specifically with a dissolve to the two of them side by side, blue sleeved arm over the other’s back, embraced like brothers now… no decisive result of the fight, just that it ended with Sean’s acceptance. And blue-shirted he remains in his final shot as well when we literally say farewell to every character with their own direct address close-ups and two-shots.

So there you have it: John Ford took the opportunity with The Quiet Man to imbue his own sense of what Ireland would look like to the mind of someone whose heart belongs there but does not come from there. And in turn that informs The Quiet Man‘s tale of an Irish-American trying to have Ireland fit into his foreign idea of the land before taking solace in being a part of the culture itself and reclaiming his heritage. And like all of Ford’s best masterpieces, he lets this psychology fit just as well into the strong and striking visuals even in a movie as easy-going and easy-on-the-eyes as The Quiet Man.

*in this asterisk, I shall hide my shame that I was at one point in consideration of an internship at Cartoon Saloon before pulling out.

She Wore It in the Winter and the Merry Month of May

For Marshall

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – the second entry in John Ford’s informal Cavalry trilogy – is not Ford’s first rodeo with color filmmaking or even his first rodeo with the famous early three-strip Technicolor process. That privilege belongs to Drums Along the Mohawk ten years prior to Yellow Ribbon‘s 1949 release. But that movie doesn’t yield nearly the amount of ambition with this development in cinema as our current subject, so we shall forgive She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for doing it first as it does it best. Because whoa nelly does it do it best, well enough to win the year’s Oscar for Best Color Cinematography at the very least but that’s hardly a worthy award for the sort of formidable imagery we are granted as our window to the mythic West.

One such reason is because of what it is capturing in brilliant color: John Ford’s favorite shooting location Monument Valley, the very image of the West now transformed to more immediate presence and making a great leap from Fort Apache‘s cracked texturing of that landscape into bringing more awareness to the brush and the shadow in relation to the warm colors of that mountainous desert environment. And another is the fact that as the second film of that Cavalry trilogy, now we truly get to watch the proud bright blue and yellow of their uniforms in those lovely landscapes.

But it’s not just the colors and shapes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but what they are representing: it perhaps moves past How Green Was My Valley as Ford’s most sentimental film but if it is not as surprisingly fatalist as that movie or Yellow Ribbon‘s earliest predecessor Fort Apache, Ford, returning co-writer Frank Nugent, and co-writer Laurence Stallings – adapting TWO Saturday Evening Post stories by James Warner Bellah – bring an awareness of the end of things to come and the place of the cavalry and their duties in the scope of the world. Nugent and Stallings’ screenplay follows the last days of Fort Starke’s Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), which happen to overlap with the days after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn (making this a spiritual sequel to Fort Apache is a more direct way) and so the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are emboldened by their victory to combine forces against the US and move for war. Brittles’ order from Major Allshard (George O’Brien) for his remaining five days is to quell the Native Americans’ desire for war and in the meantime accompany Allshard’s wife Abbey (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach.

And so for most of the movie’s runtime, we are instead brought to watch the Fort Starke Cavalry prepare for the journey and then just move on the road alongside them as a passenger and Ford’s aim appears to be just enjoying the company and miniature dramas of each of these men, whether the rivalry for Olivia’s romantic affections between 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) or Victor McLaglen’s boistourous default Irish drunkard now taking the form of 1st Sergeant Quincannon or Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson)’s reconnaissance mission or just Brittles dealing with the fact that he is going to have to walk away from this life very soon and his adventure is over.

Which seems as good an avenue as any to say that while Fort Apache is Wayne’s best performance… Brittles is a very able to challenge to that being the case. Part of that is how well the makeup – with its lines on his face and the broad white streaks in his hair – does to transform him into an aged man (Wayne was only 41 years old at the time) and the manner in which, without particularly changing his regular performance method in a big way, Wayne is able to modulate a sense of regret and looking back that anchors this movie’s fondness for the characters he finds his sense of belonging with (and I think that most of these actors had already worked with Ford amplifies that familiarity for a regular viewer of Ford’s). And particularly the level of emotion he would display according to who was his screen partner crafts together the image of Brittles of a man who is a big softie but cannot stand to let anyone see it, something performed in subtle places where Wayne can fit in honest reactions to loneliness or disappointment or tenderness… all things that will turn out to be necessarily present in Brittles’ character arc as his final steps towards retirement do not appear to go in the direction that he hopes. And in turn She Wore a Yellow Ribbon turns out to be an analysis of where warmth and gentleness belong in masculinity – the idea that it is ok to apologize, even in spite of the famous line “never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness” and to feel for a man – something that isn’t acknowledged nearly as much in this world of toxic masculinity and in which Ford was known to live by in his life despite trying very hard not to betray how easily emotional he could become.

And yet then there is all of these magnificent nature-based wideshots in all the wonder the camera was capable of providing for the painterly scenery that is the American Southwest. For even in the immortalizing of the cavalry’s soul as men, it is small in the face of this magnificent untouched desert land and Ford with cinematographer Winston Hoch never run out of ways to transform these panoramas into magnificently romantic variables of light and surface, particularly in a famous central scene set in a thunderstorm where ever hue is captured with the sort of straightforward darkness that a overcast sky could blanket upon the day but allowing each crack to make the colors burst ever so aggressively each second. The awareness of how light responds to the vistas differently in color than in black and white is something Ford and Hoch were expected to get hold of if She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was going to work, but their ambition with changing the lighting of not just each sequence but within the shots themselves is extraordinary. To say nothing of the gorgeous red-mixing sunset silhouettes that come at She Wore a Yellow Ribbon‘s most sentimental.

Even more so in the manner that while the colors of those cavalry outfits proudly call out in the vastness, the movie visual gives the encroaching Cheyenne and Arapaho confederacy the same distinguished space within this vast framing of this land as the Cavalry… maybe a manner in which John Ford did not want to roll back on all the progress of Fort Apache interrogating the United States’ history of relations with Indigenous people. I’ll confess even the most progressive Western picture – which Fort Apache may very well be among – still gets a bit dubious for me on its treatment of Native Americans, but I’d forgotten how clearly Ford seems to be willing to favor and even understand the objections of the Native Americans in this picture (giving them a blunt voice in the form of Chief John Big Tree’s performance as Pony-That-Walks). The major thesis of this movie is not that the Cheyenne or Arapaho are wrong (and while it is easy to make the mistake of Custer’s death and defeat being something that provides foreboding in this picture, the context of Fort Apache instantly disabuses that), but that war is not something favorable for anyone. Even when Major Allshard moves for war and the early third act of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon embodies a sort of resentful regret on what could not be done and what may very well be on the horizon, Brittles is looking for a way to circumvent that by any means necessary (there is other things that Nugent & Stallings’ script tries to circumvent at the last second and it leads to the ending being the single biggest mark against the movie, but it takes up so little runtime and the movie is over before I know it that the movie still remains a masterpiece in my eye).

There’s a humanity throughout She Wore a Yellow Ribbon welcome to any presence within it, no matter how big or small the part (I honestly am surprised that Johnson makes the biggest impression on me as a performance outside of Wayne), and it’s through there that Ford is able to fill this ostensibly simple color western with awe of the land, sobering reconsiderations, musings on how to be a man, and camaraderie with others. The movie that most betrays the soul of John Ford is a very tough bet to make (especially considering how much of his 100+ movies I haven’t seen and ESPECIALLY with the knowledge that Fort Apache and The Quiet Man exist) but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems most characteristic of Ford as a person to give the impression of a big tough guy and still break down before the picture or grave of a loved one and try to find the words to express personal failure. And it is through that personality that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon becomes more than just one of the most gorgeous films ever made… it becomes an extremely dense character study on top of it.

…And The Valley of Them That Have Gone

For Marshall – who was one of the first people I’d met who’d push back on this movie’s ill-deserved legacy

We all know the infamous results of the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where How Green Was My Valley won 5 Oscars including the third Best Director win for John Ford and Best Picture. And that happened at the cost of Citizen Kane, thereby leading to nearly 70 years of backlash that insisted because How Green Was My Valley was not worthy of that award because the win was stolen from “The Best Movie Ever”. What this post pre-supposes is… maybe this win was deserved.

It really was. Certainly, How Green Was My Valley is not better than Citizen Kane (likewise, Orson Welles is my favorite director where as John Ford is only my favorite American director) but not being as good as Citizen Kane still leaves room for being one of the best movies ever made.

And I get how it may feel like the sentiment inherent in How Green Was My Valley‘s storytelling from a script by Phillip Dunne adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn was being awarded as a reaction to Kane‘s cold cynicism but if you may permit me the chance, I’d like to propose that How Green Was My Valley accomplishes that sentiment of a child’s memory but from the eyes of an adult that clearly came to recognize the beginnings of what is a darker and immediate present. That’s after all the first thing we are faced with before anything: an unseen narrator voiced by an uncredited Irving Pichel observes with us the audience a blackened and smoke filled hillside Welsh village as he prepares to leave this place for good. The very shot has us hover past his hands preparing to leave and exiting out the window of his home where blackened ground and smog from the nearby colliery greets us by filling an place in the frame where the sky could be visible with gray toxicity.

After Pichel delivers his defiant monologue for remembering the valley the way it was over the way it now is, we fade into a view of the major road where young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) and his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) are able to view mountains as far as seen filled with trees and brightness in Arthur Miller’s glowing black-and-white cinematography but even within that opening introduction to our narrator’s – who is identifiable as the adult Huw – childhood reminiscences, the beginnings of that “black slag, the waste of the colliery” is visible (including a shot where it takes up a third of the frame at the top of the village’s adjacent hill. That slag is introduced to us in the frame narrative with practically half of the village’s homes buried beneath it, thereby even from the start of Huw’s voiceover waxing we are reminded grimly that the destruction of this village has already begun.

And before I go on, if I may note something I really love about the way these first three minutes (for indeed, I’ve only JUST described the first three minutes!) invite us to watch Huw’s memories with him: the introductory montage in the present brings us to face the remnants of the village with straightforward cuts from James B. Clark to each reveal but then once we fade into the past, a single moment – Huw and his father walking to the coal slag before Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) calls out to them through song and Huw calls her back with the same tune – features crossfades between the shots, giving it more of the sense of something associative rather than continuous. Which is an outstanding usage of editing a single event to tell us how this is a movie communicating moments popping into the mind of a man rather than an active history. It will not return for most of the film, but as mental place-setting, it did all it needed to in those 3 minutes.

Something else that won’t necessarily return until later is the sense of things becoming for the worse, since this is in the end a movie about adult Huw’s attempts to maintain nostalgia as Pichel’s narration never ceases to be warm and wistful no matter what the scene be. Even while the central colliery remains hovering over the village with its smoke and its waste taking up one isolated quarter of the landscape shots involving that lovely and cozy village main village road (a studio set* designed by Richard Day and Nathan Juran in a manner that greatly favors Miller’s full frame and Ford’s attempts to resemble 19th Century British landscape paintings), Huw plays softball selecting early memories like his eldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles)’s marriage (and Huw’s immediate infatuation with his sister-in-law, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)), the men working that colliery that make up that village’s entire economy singing proudly in Welsh at the end of the working day as they prepare to wash up the soot covering their bodies, and the pleasant domesticity of dinner together with the family.

And yet before very long, we are faced with the first major conflict: the wages of the coal mine workers has been cut and the remaining four of Huw’s brothers that were living in the Morgan home clash with their father on the matter of creating a Union to protect their rights as workers. And then further on more quiet conflicts occur at the margins of Huw’s happy memories until they start taking over the narrative structure. That’s the most impressive thing about Dunne’s writing here: the way it lets the events play episodically until they catch together as something like momentum to the inevitable around halfway through. It is also one of the ways this movie allows Ford to slip in as much of his socialist politics as possible: the union business, the lingering presence of capitalism and the awareness of its coming effects, and even fits in environmentalism in the quietest (though not subtle) ways.

In any case, just as much as Pichel attempts to provide resilience to the early signs of his village and his family’s future, there is still one more formal element to provide reinforcement to that swell and it’s Ford and Miller’s favor of wide shots and wide angle lenses. Which certainly makes sense for exterior sequences that add to the sense of community when we witness all the workers filling the streets and the screen, singing together or marching together or even just need a reminder of what is at stake with the shots of the entire village and what is coming with the colliery standing in the back. But the interior sequences – those particularly in the Gwilym home though the chapel in which Pastor Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) preaches between acting Huw’s secondary father figure has a significant presence and there is also an incredible usage of a schoolhouse hallway that stresses the out-of-placement of certain characters – give up the game by abiding by the same angles and lenses where we see just how tightly fit together the Morgans are in their own home, particularly when they get to pull Ford’s favorite trick of capturing the ceilings (introduced earlier in Stagecoach). Yet even within those homey walls, there are battles to be lost: the forces of the colliery ruining the livelihood and home of these people move back as the interpersonal conflicts take center stage, some of which are the acts of good people not knowing right (such as the afore-mentioned tension between Gwilym and his sons on unionizing), some are complex (as in the romance between Gruffydd and Angharad), and some are just the cruel acts of the vindictive (the deacon Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is the closest this movie has to an antagonist).

It is perhaps through the characters (and the ensemble’s lively way of playing them even at their most significant hardships) that Huw most finds his memories faced with a lack of pure sweetness. The perspective of which we are particularly watching Gwilym beckons the sort of uncontested admiration a son would have of his father, aided by the firm human patience with which Crisp (in an Oscar winning performance) fills Gwilym. But yet there are moments where Gwilym is fundamentally wrong and while it is admiring to recognize the manner in which Gwilym holds tightly to patience and manners, the course of events eventually locks on what his second oldest son Ianto (John Loder) declares “If manners are what keeps us from speaking the truth, then we shall be without manners”. Gwilym’s demeanor and role in the family are idealized tenfold especially from the eyes of a child, but it is not the answer in all cases and it unfortunately leads to the inevitable dissolution of the household by the end of it all (and maybe the best function of Sara Allgood as Gwilym’s wife Beth, the matron of the family, is how she gives by far the most emotive performance and the sadder moments in her performance give way to a better knowingness of where we are being led to than anybody else on-screen). Meanwhile, Gruffydd himself is a more grounded figure in Huw’s life who – even in his capacity as spiritual leader – leads the people to more down-to-earth perspectives and matters. And yet in the first of essentially two climaxes in this film, he finally betrays himself to an emotional outburst that promises all bridges burnt against the hypocrisies of the church he works in, something the film finds extremely unmanned even in the truthfulness of it all.

And so here I declare that How Green Was My Valley, even as blessedly affectionate and romantic about the past as it may be, is doing so in a defiant struggle against the clarity of what the real implications and consequence of the times Huw lived in as a boy. And the result is something as effectively bittersweet as anything else could be when introducing a boy’s dearest recollections the sort of gravity only a mature mind can recognize, something more complex than I feel the detractors give How Green Was My Valley credit for. Can it truly be blamed for wanting to indulge as much as possible in its maudlin sympathies? Can a man truly be condemned for wanting to remember simpler times, especially as he recognizes they were not so simple at the same time as the viewer does? That the very final moments of How Green Was My Valley fights the grimmest tragedy with the comforting fact of the affable homeliness at the very beginnings of this memory’s journey (including recalling the sing song calling in a new context) and refuses to return to that initial frame narrative before the credits gives me the sense that even if the past is distant and the present is impossible to escape, perhaps Huw’s battle was not in vain. And that is impossible for me to disparage in any capacity, especially in how it stands as memorable to me as any of Ford’s Westerns.

*An outlier amongst Ford’s pictures, which are usually shot on location. Unfortunately, the ongoing Second World War – which Ford would later famously be involved in the documenting of just after this movie was released – made shooting in Wales out of the question.

For All the Cows

Back when I had the delusion that I would have the time and energy for this (though I’ll never say never to the future), I had toyed with the idea of making a retrospective of reviews for Pride of Miami Cinema* Kelly Reichardt’s movies up to First Cow, which premiered Telluride in 2019 and was famously the last major US arthouse release this year before COVID popped its ugly head stateside and shut down theaters (a release I unfortunately did not catch). If I had been able to do so, First Cow may have very well turned out to be a much more appropriate stopping point than I expected.

God forbid that Reichardt never makes another movie again (especially if First Cow ends up maintaining its awards and critics’ circles momentum that makes me quietly hopeful that Oscar attention is in its near-future, which I imagine will boost her profile in much deserved ways), but it is kind of the prime example of all the things she’s been trying to work with throughout her career. Which is funny because the very quiet and unrushed manner in which its presents its narrative to the point that the themes are less spoken by the film so much as left there for the viewer to recognize and put together is probably one of those things it shares with all of Reichardt’s previous movies. She doesn’t particularly work with urgency, even in cases within her films where peril or stress is an active presence.

And like all but two of her other movies, First Cow gets to share the world of Oregon. Oregon that was, particularly, given an initial scene that reminds me very much of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the way it temporally divorces us from the story and characters. An Oregon that Reichardt – adapting with Jonathan Raymond his novel The Half Life – presents at the very beginnings of its 19th century colonizing. Like the last time Reichardt indulged in a period piece on life in Oregon-before-Oregon Meek’s Cutoff, she and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt box the environment in Academy 1.33:1. But where that one captured the frustrating hostility of the frontier in harshly washed-out colors and cracks, this time they have allowed some measure of warmth and amiability to the environment of old… capturing all the earthy colors with enough realism to prevent undermining the memory as something inauthentic while the frame fits Reichardt’s awareness of the characters’ placement in the shot relative to their relationships like a glove.

Both that spatial placement of characters as well as the comfortable soil-based color work provide an excellent enough setting for a story of two men finding each other in the world and developing a deep platonic love for another. Those two being Maryland transplant Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Cantonese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who meet briefly at first when Cookie finds King naked and hiding in the bushes from some vengeful Russians and Cookie is able to give him shelter within the tent he has separate the trapper team whom he cooks for, a team we can easily tell does not like Cookie very much and would betray King if they were aware of his presence. King of course slips away before they are any the wiser, but the two reunite later on within what appears to be the major camp in the area. From there they are able to bond over a variety of things within King’s shack on the outskirts of that society and eventually one of the things King learns about Cookie is that he has enough of a skill as a baker to take to market in the camp. Of course, the creation of their fast-selling oily cakes requires the procurance of milk and with enough caution, they are able to regularly acquire that ingredient by milking the only cow in the region late at night. This cow happens to be under the ownership of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who takes an interest to these popular baked goods.

There’s basically a lot to say about these conditions in First Cow – the obnoxious prioritizing of masculinity as a trait (introduced by the trappers’ antagonism towards Cookie), colonialism giving the image of sophistication without actually embodying that with dignity (best portrayed by Jones’ oblivious performance), capitalism’s reliance on exploitation and privilege and so many more things that even while shaping this mythic image of the beginnings of American society are observations that still remain relevant to this day. Not all of them as cynical as the ones I point out – alongside Lee’s presence as a co-lead, there is a charmingly small moment of him trying to communicate with an indigenous man that ends with the two of them finding a common language of Yiddish – and practically none of these are particularly stressed by Reichardt’s direction nor the way her and Raymond steer the story (I don’t know if Raymond’s novel is more explicit on these matters since I haven’t read it). They are just offhand elements of a world where the main source of solace is Magaro and Lee’s lovely chemistry together as friends. Not necessarily a perfectly ideal friendship – there’s the slightest implication that King is taking as much advantage as he can of Cookie’s friendship in a one-sided way – but one that feels sincere and deeply caring all the same, so that even in the most doubtful moments, we have that one early shot that transports us to this time period to remind us of how strongly bonded these two men are.

So outside of the central relationship, where does Reichardt particularly focus her energies on? Her love for Oregon, whether by the manner of the soft dark cinematography I mentioned before or the serene sound design letting us be aware of the life within the wilderness. And given that this is a place that Reichardt has spent most of her life and career in, her directorial hand at letting us live in that environment and takes advantage of its barely-present Western trappings to remind us of how the genre is at its best when functioning as synecdoche for America’s history while letting the story just shuffles along to its stopping point (maybe the one element that distinguishes First Cow from Reichardt’s other movies is that this does has a firm ending, albeit with an unorthodox placement). Reichardt’s marshalling of these skills she’s showcased before – the pacing, the aesthetics, and the thematic interests – with a confident simplicity is exactly what makes this feel like the ne plus ultra of her style to this date and I truly wonder where there is to go from here. But whatever her next movie is, I’m sure it’ll be likewise phenomenal without even trying.

*That wisely never returned to Miami once she could bail.