Sunday, November 8, 2009

Message Cinema II

By Eric Jessen 11/8/09

So a Kramer movie might be a little overly simplistic, but what's so great about these “Pantheon” directors? What makes them so special? Subtle and nuanced, but boring as hell, I would guess. Let's pull back out Sarris' obviously pretentious Directors and Directions. Who's in this “Pantheon?” Welles, Renoir, Murnau, Ophuls – too artsy. Lang, Keaton, Hitchcock, Hawks – merely genre hacks. Ah, how about John Ford? I know he's made a message movie or two – with prize worthy subtlety and creativity, I bet. There's The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and then later The Searchers. You might call those message movies. Well, Young Mr. Lincoln is more of a “hero movie,” so that's out. And we must avoid holding the now horribly stale Grapes of Wrath against Ford, so that's also out.
That leaves The Searchers and Stagecoach. You could call both genre films. Stagecoach was the western genre's savior while it was in transition from silent to sound. And although it was not highly praised when it was released, many modern movie junkies argue The Searchers is the greatest of all westerns. (I prefer The Wild Bunch, to let you know I'm in the Kael rather than Sarris camp.) It jumped into the Sight and Sound and AFI list mix after directors like Martin Scorsese and Sergio Leone, once movie junkies themselves, noted The Searchers as greatly influencing them. But for the sake of this discussion let's consider the two, “message movies.” Under the many message movie categories such as women's rights, drugs, and sex, The Searchers would fall under the race category and Stagecoach, the class category. (Let it be known, I despise categorizing movies, but because I am thoroughly ensconced in a Sarris mode, I can't help but continue.)
As so called race movies go, The Searchers is definitely among the most interesting and unique. As opposed to any of the Kramer movies and Stagecoach, you might find yourself wanting to watch The Searchers a second or even a third time, not because it's particularly entertaining, but because it has an added element of mystery. With The Searchers there are still questions left to ask. But it's important to note, they are questions we're eager to mull over, as opposed to ones that annoy us throughout. While watching “Guess” I was constantly irritated wondering, why if Joey and the Doctor's love is so strong, do they need their parents permission? And why is it so darn important that Joey's parents decide by the end of the night? What comes to mind is that these seemingly arbitrary constraints are necessary not for the sake of clarifying a message, but for the sake of suspense and to perfectly lead into Tracy's monologue. During that final speech, so not to ruin the moment, when Joey learns her fiancé was ready to back out of their marriage if her parents disapproved, her only response is to say, “Well, that's funny.”
As opposed to “Guess,” in The Searchers there is always enough gray area to heighten our interest, but not so much that we are left bewildered. It's never clear until the very end whether John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is good or bad, racist or not. Ethan is a big wild bully, shooting out the eyes of a Comanche corpse, and scalping Scar, but we get the sense as he looks fondly at the horizon, as he lifts Debbie above his head then carries her in his arms, and how he holds on to his Confederate ideals, that Ethan is also a hopeless romantic. All of that considered, The Searchers deserves the probably overused but still much sought after adjectives, “subtle” and “nuanced.”
But what about Stagecoach? Those two adjectives don't immediately come to mind. Stagecoach seems on second, third or however many viewings in the Kramer vein. Ford makes it fairly easy on us. The drunk, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), the prostitute, Dallas (Claire Trevor), and the criminal, Ringo (John Wayne), of the lower class are to be admired. The pregnant wife of a Cavalryman (Louise Platt) and the gambler (John Carradine) are misguided in their snickering at the prostitute. And as always, the banker, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), is a fat, sniveling backstabbing thief. We know from the start it's a class movie, and we know immediately who Ford favors. So it's not a champion of subtle message-making, but it does make significant strides. With the help of its actors who settle into their roles perfectly, and the great stunt work of Yakima Canutt who jumps from horse to horse then lets a row of horses and the coach trample him, Stagecoach is an especially likable and enjoyable movie. And Ford, who I would say is deserving of “Pantheon” status, makes it work naturally.
So I guess the point here is that message movies are not hard to come by, especially ones as bloated as Kramer's. But good message movies are: message movies that make their point without shoving it down our throat. And as much as I would like to put down Andrew Sarris' auteur theory and his rigid categorizing, with Kramer and Ford he was definitely on to something. It's easy for any viewer, even if they watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for two minutes and Stagecoach for one, to tell the difference between a Ford and a Kramer movie, or a Cornfield and a Bergman, or a Brahm and a Lubitsch.
It's a shame that message movies from the directors at the “Pantheon” or “Far Side of Paradise” level seem to take a back seat to those in the Kramer message-mongering mold. It is for that reason, “message movie” remains an insult in my word bank.

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