Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some pictures of (and Tag Gallagher on) John Ford


Here is how Tag Gallagher begins his book on John Ford:
"John Ford's career — from 1914 to 1970 — spanned almost the entire history of the motion picture industry, and for most of that time he was recognized as America's finest moviemaker. His movies told good stories, had vivid characters, provoked thought, kindled down-home charms; and his own personality was apparent in them. His compositional eloquence made dialogue virtually unnecessary — scarcely for dearth of scripted richness, but because literary structure was only a single aspect of the intricate formal beauty and intelligence of his cinema.

It is this immense intelligence that critics have largely ignored. Ford's apologists laud his instincts and emotions, as though he were an artist unconsciously, unintentionally. His detractors decry his sentiment and slapstick, label him racist, militarist and reactionary, ignoring the subtleties between extremes, the double leveled discourses, the oeuvre’s obsessive plea for tolerance."

The images are from "home movies" on the DVD of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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Monday, February 02, 2009

John Ford's "Fort Apache" (1948)

'Two of the most beautiful things in the world," Ford was fond of reminding his scenarists, "are a horse running and a couple waltzing." (...) "With Ford," said Flora Robson, one of the 7 Women, "the actor is continually conscious of the fact that he is making a motion picture and that it must move, move, move. His scenes are never static or dominated by the dialogue." "When movies are best," said Ford, "the action's long and the talk's short. When a film tells its story and reveals its characters to us in a suite of simple, beautiful and animated shots, that's a movie.'
from Tag Gallagher's book on Ford.


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Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962)


Fred Camper cites it frequently among the great masterpieces of Hollywood. Tag Gallagher says it is "John Ford at its apex" and cites it among the important works in Ford's "Transcendence" period. I can't imagine a better publicity for a movie.

Many things have been said about it so I'll just note a few things I found interesting.


1. Dutton Peabody reciting Henry V

When he notices he hasn't any alcohol left, Dutton Peabody looks at his empty bottle and says "No courage left?". Then he adds, "Have we credit? That is the question, have we credit?" obviously referring to Hamlet. A few moments later, he recites, incorrectly, the last four lines of the following from Shakespeare's Henry V (Act 4, Scene 3).

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

In his book
, Tag Gallagher writes that if Rossellini made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he would have titled it America Year Zero. There is truly the feeling of momenteous historical change happening right in front of our eyes.


2. Two non-invisible cuts

Nothing seems invisible at Ford anymore but there are two cuts that stand out because they clearly break the known rules of Hollywood editing. And it is interesting that these happen in very similar circumstances in the film and within a few minutes of each other.

In both cases, Ranse leaves Hallie and Link alone. Just at the moment Ranse is leaving the frame, Ford cuts to a shot just a little closer. It expresses a strong connection between Link and Hallie (and Pompey, in the second one), a silent communication which doesn't happen when Ranse is around. We have not seen Tom Doniphon yet but all the arrows already point to him, and to his tragic life.






3. About lighting

An example of non-realistic, expressive lighting. When Hallie looks back in anger, her face is lit in darker tones. Tom tells her "you look mighty pretty when she you get mad", we cut back to Hallie again, her face brighter.



4. Words

In his book, Tag Gallagher expresses really well the dichotomy between word & liberty in the film.

The following is an important point because here Ton Doniphon makes his most pompous statement in the film where his shattered ego will become the main drama. Which is partly why Ford needs to reframe the action: Notice the silence that comes after such a statement, it's as if a God has spoken and there is nothing to add to it. I love the little "silent-film" that follows, a great play on depth-of-field.



5. A sense of intuition

Ranse wakes up ans says, "I've got something to do!", before he knows what it is...



6. Fire-light

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” has beautiful lighting, especially in the alternately mournful, ceremonial, and nightmarish night-time sequences. On the other hand, the lighting during the day is fairly even, but there are many moments when this isn’t so: the passage of the train over a hill with long, monolithic shadows cast across its slope; Hally sadly walking around Stoddard’s empty classroom as particles of light sift in from the windows off-screen right; Doniphon setting afire his cabin in a horrifically immediate sequence where Ford’s camera dissolves the proscenium he’s set up throughout the rest of the film by bringing us into this enclosed, three-dimensional space, a perspectival transition accentuated by Doniphon almost assailing the camera, if I remember correctly.
- Edo Choi on Dave Kehr's blog. (Click here for the specific comment.)


5. The last shot


The last shot: the black "THE END" appears, over the image, slowly. The camera is shaking while the train is moving right and left. This shaky camera goes against the whole style of the film, which is why it works, the feeling it leaves is one of a fragile universe... Very similar to what Ford achieved throughout the whole film by his editing.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mark Rothko, John Ford and automatic calligraphy


A piece of the catalog text Howard Putzel wrote for Mark Rothko's one-man exhibition (1945) at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery:
"Rothko's style has a latent archaic quality which the pale and uninsistent colours enforce. The particular archaization, the reverse of the primitive, suggests the long savouring of human and traditional experience as incorporated in the myth. Rothko's symbols, fragments of myth, are held together by a free, almost automatic calligraphy that gives a peculiar unity to his paintings -- a unity in which the individual symbol acquires its meaning, not in isolation, but rather in its melodic adjustment to the other elements in the picture. It is this feeling of internal fusion, of the historical conscious and subconscious capable of expanding far beyond the limit of the picture space that gives Rothko's works its force and essential character."

Reading this on the Taschen book on Rothko, I thought it was true for all great art, but especially John Ford and his The Horse Soldiers came to my mind. Let me repeat the same paragraph, replacing "Rothko" by "Ford", and "paintings" with "films". The word calligraphy has a more obvious correlation to Rothko's paintings of that period, but I find the word very descriptive of good film-style.
Ford's style has a latent archaic quality which the pale and uninsistent colours enforce. The particular archaization, the reverse of the primitive, suggests the long savouring of human and traditional experience as incorporated in the myth. Ford's symbols, fragments of myth, are held together by a free, almost automatic calligraphy that gives a peculiar unity to his films -- a unity in which the individual symbol acquires its meaning, not in isolation, but rather in its melodic adjustment to the other elements in the picture. It is this feeling of internal fusion, of the historical conscious and subconscious capable of expanding far beyond the limit of the picture space that gives Ford's works its force and essential character.



In a letter to the New York Times, Mark Rothko and his friends Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman wrote (1943):
"It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints, as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess a spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art."

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath" (1940)

John Ford's "Donovan's Reef" (1963)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

John Ford's "The Horse Soldiers" (1959)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Did Chuck Jones see "Mogambo"?

In Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck, Daffy Duck says: "What a way to run a railroad!" to complain about the absurdity of the situation. Daffy doesn't know this but he's talking to Bugs Bunny.

In John Ford's Mogambo, Kelly says to Victor (played by Clark Gable): "It's a fine way to run a railroad buster!", again to express absurdity.

Creators of Bugs Bunny (Chuck Jones & co.) were influenced by Clark Gable.

Both Duck Amuck and Mogambo were made in the same year, in 1953. I don't know which one was finished first.

I realize it was a common phrase at the time but still, it seems quite possible to me that Chuck Jones had seen Mogambo, which, according to Tag Gallagher's book on Ford, was a popular movie at the time ("Mogambo holds the record for first-year grosses of all Ford’s pictures."). And if my guess is correct, the fact that he stole a line of dialogue from the film hints that he probably enjoyed it too. At least, I'd like to think that way.

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John Ford's "Mogambo" (1953)