MARCH BOOK REPORT (3/13)

The Instant Enemy (Ross MacDonald, 1968)

A re-read. Late period MacDonald, the first of the “He’s-better-than-Hammett-and-Chandler!” hard-boiled writers and still the only one I know of who very nearly was. This was in his high-middle range and very good indeed. I hadn’t visited with him in a while and though I hadn’t exactly forgotten his unique gift for plots that are simultaneously labyrinthine and tight-as-a-tick, swift and contemplative, it was still a sort of giddy pleasure to be caught up in one again. The fact that he had worthwhile things to say about the center that was falling apart around him in the late sixties is icing on the cake.

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Glenn Frankel, 2013)

Frankel is a little more devoted than I am to the idea of Cynthia Ann Parker’s particular captivity narrative being the true wellspring of Alan LeMay’s novel The Searchers and the subsequent classic film of the same name. Even he admits here and there that LeMay’s sources were numerous, so a broader-based approach might have been more productive.

Still, threading together the Old West and mid-twentieth century Hollywood required massive research (enough that I’m not going to quibble too much over occasional mis-statements of fact such as crediting John Ford with a directing Oscar for Stagecoach in 1939 or stating that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford’s last collaboration with John Wayne or suggesting that the famous “Print the legend” line is the conclusion of TMWSLV–except to wonder why it must always be so). And, given how much territory it covers, the book is a good, swift read. [NOTE: I bogged down a little in the Cynthia Ann section but only because I had recently read S.C. Gwynne’s compelling account and found myself covering a lot of the same territory].

The book is a must have in any case for fans of the film or novel if only because it sheds a lot of light on LeMay and scriptwriter Frank Nugent, two figures that haven’t been written about or appreciated nearly enough. And all credit to Frankel for not falling into the common trap of elevating these unfairly obscured figures into more than they were–he knows that, for all the skill and inspiration supplied by others, the reason The Searchers has the hold it does is because Ford directed it and John Wayne found his greatest role in it and, even if I don’t agree with all his conclusions about the film’s real significance, this is still a valuable addition to the basic libraries on the varied subjects it addresses.

The Pioneers (James Fenimore Cooper, 1823)

Fourth in the historical chronology of The Leatherstocking Tales, but the first written. Maybe a third of the way through it, I thought it was reading a lot like a Jane Austen novel and subsequent research (I really should get hold of a good Cooper bio) revealed that he was in fact enamored of her and that his first novel, written a few years earlier, had been a more or less straight homage.

And as a comedy of manners it often works quite well. The usual criticisms of Cooper’s style are hardly unfounded. Yes, he’s stilted at times, given to melodrama (often at moments when it’s least effective), needlessly repetitive and prone to long-windedness and–a particularly salient criticism here–awkward plotting.

Of course, many a high modernist has been praised to the skies for exhibiting the very same qualities.

And very few of them have matched Cooper’s real strengths–his action scenes still haven’t been surpassed, his descriptions of the American wilderness are peerless and, in the Leatherstocking series at least, he found–over and over–those moments of real emotional power that have evaded–over and over–virtually every one of his stylistic “superiors.”

Plus, all the themes that still engage us in our little experiments in Statecraft and Nationhood are present, restlessly coursing through the national bloodstream right where he put them: tensions between Man and Nature; Civilization and the Wilderness; Private and Public interests; Capital and Community; Christian and Pagan (a theme that has made a particularly strong comeback in the last fifty years…with Christianity being put to flight both within and without the church walls); Progress and Primitivism; Hearts and Minds. The tone might be old-fashioned but the themes will always be contemporary. As long as there’s an “us” anyway.

And while it would be foolish to insist Cooper’s novels in general–and this one in particular–couldn’t do with some pruning, it would be even sillier to deny his more than occasional mordant wit:

“Mr. Doolittle belonged physically to a class of his countrymen, to whom nature has denied, in their formation, the use of curved lines. Everything about him was either straight or angular. But his tailor was a woman who worked, like a regimental contractor, by a set of rules that gave the same configuration to the whole human species.”

Or his knack for pegging social and psychological types at a glance, as in this look inside the dual and tortuous mind of a lawyer (where his real thoughts are inserted parenthetically among bland, oblique language virtually anyone who has ever dealt with a certain kind of legal mind will recognize):

“I will make the communication, sir, in your name (with your own qualifications), as your agent. Good morning, sir.–But stay proceedings, Mr. Edwards (so-called), for a moment. Do you wish me to state the offer of traveling as a final contract (for which consideration has been received at former dates (by sums advanced), which would be binding), or as a tender of services for which compensation is to be paid (according to future agreement between the parties), on performance of the conditions?”

Granted Joyceans–including Joyce–engaged in this sort of thing more frequently. But they never did it any better.

 

JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE…LOOK

Played by: Beulah Archuletta

Film: The Searchers (1956)

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of essays on characters in John Ford’s films beginning with The Searchers. All entries can be found in the category “John Ford’s People” at the right]

“One of the most deeply moving scenes in the film remains, at least for me, the discovery of Look’s death at the hands of the cavalry. Even Ethan is touched. And yet this is the same character at whom we are expected to laugh when Marty kicks her.”

(Source: Kathryn Kalinak, How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford, 2007)

“This is also the section [the flashback sequence where Laurie Jorgenson reads Martin Pauley’s letter] that seems to contain contradictory ideological messages: the revelation of the savagery of the cavalry versus the racism of the ‘comic’ portrayal of Look, the Indian ‘wife’ Marty acquired in trade.”

(Source: Joan Dagle, “Linear Patterns and Ethnic Encounters,” John Ford Made Westerns, Gavlyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein, eds., 2001)

“From the first misunderstanding (when Martin finds he has bought a wife instead of a blanket) through Ethan’s ribbing, to her leaving Martin when he kicks her out of bed, Look provides comedy, not the seriousness of theme that Debbie’s and Scar’s mixing does. But Look is justified in the end; after her departure, she may have gone back to another tribe to find information for Martin–we do not know, and it does not really matter.” [Italics mine]

(Source: J.A. Place, The Western Films of John Ford, 1973)

“Interesting here how Ford sets up the character of the Indian Maiden who’s a bit overweight and not that attractive and it becomes a questionable running gag in the picture. Some people have said Ford was insensitive in how he did it, but Ford doesn’t really endorse the behavior of the actors or the characters in this, but he does not flinch from showing their racism and their insenstivity to her. But then it also becomes touching, so it’s like the whole movie. The way they deal with this Indian woman is ambiguous….

“This of course is a sequence of questionable taste. Got a big laugh in the theater but I don’t know if it really makes you comfortable today. And I don’t know that Ford didn’t feel very conflicted about it himself.”

(Source: Peter Bodgonavich, DVD commentary track for the 50th Anniversary edition of The Searchers, 2006)

Read a little Ford scholarship and very soon you run across his habit of supplying each of his actors–even those playing minor characters–with ‘biographies’ of the character they were to play.

Who exactly wrote these biographies–whether Ford, his scriptwriters (at his behest) or some combination–I’ve never quite gotten clear on. Nor have I quite gotten clear on whether the biographies were a page or several, when the habit began, or how much Ford really insisted on his actors knowing what he (or his scriptwriters) knew about the person they were hired to embody.

What I do know is that if these biographies existed in the number that has been continually hinted at, and if, by some unlikely miracle, they could be assembled into a book, it’s a book I would pay almost any price to own.

And certainly one of the first characters I would want to read about in that book would be the “Indian Maiden” Look.

Absent all that, I’ll have to be content with throwing myself back on first things–having to settle for what’s in the film itself.

First I would like to point out–starting from the select, but representative, commentary above–that this is a limit scholars have not tended to put on themselves.

Almost always with Look, it is about how “we” feel. We, of course, being all us representatives of modern enlightenment.

Tag Gallagher has written (eloquently as usual) that we do not actually “see” this character called Look. “We” being the viewer and/or our surrogate white characters in the film: Ethan Edwards, Martin Pauley, Charlie McCorry and the Jorgensen family.

I think he’s right up to a point. That point stops when we get to the camera actually showing us this Look. You know, us “looking” at her.

At that point it gets tricky.

Is she really supposed to provide comedy “from the first misunderstanding…to her leaving Martin when he kicks her out of bed?” And is all this really not supposed to “matter?”

Is the point of her existence–in life, in film, anywhere–mostly to provide some combination of crude belly laughs and grist for scholarly misunderstandings and gentle chidings about somebody or other’s racism (yours, mine, Ford’s, white folks in the 1870s…or the 1950s…or…somebody)?

I wonder.

* * * *

One interesting aspect of looking at Look is that just about everybody agrees we shouldn’t be laughing at her and just about everybody also insists that there sure are a lot of other people who do–or at least who have.

We have the word of Bogdonavich and others that lots of people laughed in the fifties. I don’t doubt it.

Okay, actually, I do doubt it at least a little, but it’s certainly a valid possibility and I’ll buy it for the sake of argument.

Having said that, I don’t imagine many people laugh now.

Oh, sure, maybe when they/we see this…

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Or this…

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But, even taking into account that she’s only in the movie a little under twelve minutes from first appearance to last (and that includes her time as a corpse and as a reason for Laurie Jorgensen to throw Martin Pauley’s letter in the fire), this is but a small sample of her presence.

What about the rest of the time?

Would much of anyone–I mean anyone other than the people who will laugh at anything–be laughing here? In 1872 or 1956 or any other time?

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Or here?

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Or here, here and here?

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Let alone here…

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I mean even in the fifties, when the great American liberal conscience was still yearning to breathe free, did laughter ring from the rafters of movie palaces across the land whenever poor Look came on the screen?

I’m not so sure. How are/were we really supposed to feel when Martin Pauley kicks her down that hill? That is, how are we supposed to feel when we get to the crux here…

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…without which, incidentally, virtually nobody would be likely to think Look had been treated so badly that we needed to talk about it decade after decade and continually reassure ourselves that we certainly aren’t laughing at her (even if we allow ourselves to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, which is a somewhat different matter).

And without which, we also might be inclined to think of Martin Pauley–Indian blood and all–as Puritan True Heart.

I’ll have more to say about what Look’s presence (and their reactions to her) might signify for Martin and Ethan when it’s their turn.

Staying with Look for now–and that “sequence of questionable taste”–I’m put in mind of a movie-going experience that offers a strange but somewhat apt comparison.

*  *  *  *

Back in the early and mid-eighties–before the full weight of the video age had settled in–my local college theater was still running a regular series of arthouse fare. So one semester they had a weekly program of Bunuel and ran some of the then-hard-to-see usuals, including Los Olvidados. It played to a packed theater, as almost everything did in those pre- and early home video days, with film majors and like minded citizens of what I would have deemed a more than usually sensitive collective mindset. And, of course, not too far into the movie there is a famous scene (famous at least among cinephiles, though I doubt more than a handful of the several hundred people in that particular auditorium were prepared for it by either word of mouth or a previous viewing), where a gang of street kids take a legless beggar off his rolling cart and push the cart down a hill, laughing all the while.

With us being unprepared to say the least, the audience split just about equally into those who gasped and those who laughed out loud–much the way somebody would laugh at the Marx Brothers or better yet a good Saturday Night Live skit.

It was unsettling to say the least. Not just the scene itself, but even more so the very audibly split reaction.

Any laughter that took place after that was careful, guarded. I think those who laughed got the idea that others might be watching and, as I say, the place was filled with us sensitive types–a thoughtful group who were quite sure we were the last people on earth who could be divided into those who laugh at the casual consequences of human cruelty (that is, at anything) and those who don’t.

Very daring that Luis Bunuel was.

And he was daring. As daring in that short sequence as he ever was–far more daring I’d say than when he was having razors slit eyeballs.

But it wasn’t the last word in daring. I mean, the legless beggar in Los Olvidados is every bit as obnoxious as his tormenters. And while he is certain to be gravely inconvenienced, there’s no indication that the loss of his cart is permanent. “Look,” Bunuel seemed to be saying. “Look at the war of the rats, how terrible it is.” Or how funny it is.

I have no idea if Ford (or his screenwriter, Frank Nugent) ever saw Bunuel’s movie or that scene. I’d be surprised if anyone knows one way or the other.

So I’ll just note that–whatever gave him or Nugent the idea–Marty kicking Look down a hill is far more disorienting.

Here we have the very likable hero committing a truly unseemly, violent and frankly inexusable act against someone who has done him nor anyone else any wrong, has even earned a degree of sympathy. For Ford–or anyone–the act is, on its surface, supremely unbalanced.

This is not John Wayne dragging Maureen O’Hara through a field full of sheep dip in The Quiet Man (to take a Fordian example) or Cary Grant pushing Katherine Hepburn in the face in The Philadelphia Story (to take an example from George Cukor who was really supposed to be above that sort of thing). We know O’Hara and Hepburn’s characters have plenty of ammunition at their disposal to fight back with (sex appeal, familial and communal protection, firebrand spirits and, in O’Hara’s case, what looks like a killer roundhouse right if she could only connect with it). We might tut-tut, but I don’t think anyone is really under any illusion that they will fail to get theirs back, one way or another.

Look enjoys no such privileges, protections or expectations.

She is not being played by Katherine Hepburn or Maureen O’Hara–or, if it comes to it, Vera Miles or Natalie Wood.

She’s being played by an actress who, according to the usual online sources (IMDB, Wikipedia, etc.), worked for many years and received exactly one other on-screen credit (in a television episode of Wagon Train). The actress is, as Peter Bogdonavich describes her, “overweight, not particularly attractive.” She was also forty-three years old at the time of shooting–playing a much younger woman, presumably because Ford had one of his whims which, as usual, probably wasn’t really a whim at all, but a gentle chiding of his own.

Of our expectations perhaps.

After all, we know what we are supposed to think and feel about the stooge who is, however briefly, holding up the third side in a romantic triangle where the other two sides are being played by the supremely attractive leads.

We know what to think because the movies have taught us–or at very least reinforced our base prejudices.

Ralph Bellamy ain’t gonna get the girl!

And a female version of Ralph Bellamy–or Ralph Bellamy cubed (by age and social position and ethnicity)–ain’t gonna get her man!

So Ford invites us to laugh, if we will, at a modestly unattractive Native American woman who is twice the age of her character and is sold by her father (in the movie, evidently a Native American of his own time, who is thus unaware of his future status as a proto-feminist flower child in the raised consciousness of the modern liberal-who-does-not-liberate; on the set of the movie itself, a Southern Plains Comanche being played by a Monument Valley Navajo who was probably old enough to remember how much Navajos hated Comanches) for the price of a tall hat.

Then he has us stop laughing, if we will, when she is kicked down a hill, subjected to rough interrogation that borders on physical abuse:

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disappeared from sight, if not consciousness:

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then massacred by the U.S. Cavalry.

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Meanwhile, without us presumably noticing (certainly I haven’t seen her discussed much in this light, even though she’s probably been discussed more than any other thirteenth-billed character ever played by an actress who would work for years and pass away with a single official film credit to her name), he also gets almost impossible narrative mileage out of her.

Like most great narratives, The Searchers runs on triangles. Unlike most great narratives–even most great Ford narratives–it runs not on one or two triangles but on many.

I’m not going to bother counting them all–at least not yet–though I will note that they interlock with a congruity that is remarkable even by Ford’s own frequently astonishing standards.

Suffice it to say that, by being what she is in the movie (as opposed to the source novel, where she is young, beautiful and immediately spirited away by a young warrior–an episode, no more), Look herself creates and joins at least three such “triangles” (with Martin and Ethan, with Martin and Laurie and, ultimately, with Martin and Debbie, who Look may or may not be trying to find so that she can win Martin’s favor when she is cut down). Plus she illuminates or heightens several more (between Martin, Laurie and Charlie, between Ethan, Martin and Scar, between Martin, Laurie and Debbie…and that’s before we get into symbolic representational triangles of the sort favored by psyche-oriented modernists like, say, White People/Native Americans/Frontier, Slavery/Abuse/Decency and so on and so forth).

I’ll leave the latter to others because my own focus is on Ford’s characters as they actually appear in the movies he made. But the immediate triangles are plenty interesting in themselves, not least because Ford splits the difference here between image and reality (exemplified in the old question, raised by several Ford apologists who think that this particular mini-narrative calls for one, of whether Look, as she appears to us, is really just a projection of Laurie’s spite-filled imagination–a question that the movie doubles down on when Martin’s letter says Look, played by the plain-faced forty-three-year old Ms. Archuletta is “not nearly as old” as Laurie, played by the twenty-six-year old Vera Miles, signed that year by Alfred Hitchcock to be the very specific replacement for Grace Kelly….Hello, John Ford. Hello, Mr. Perversity.)

On the one hand, Look really is a helpless bystander in the game that is already being played (between Martin, Laurie and Charlie McCorry) far beyond her possible consciousness, let alone the one that will be played (between Martin, Laurie and Debbie, about which much more later) long after she is dead.

On the other hand–and this is where Ford is jabbing, jabbing, going far beyond where the clear boundaries of even the best script or the most perverse sense of humor could possibly take us–she is everything a man might want….except young and beautiful.

Despite his harsh laughter…

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Ethan isn’t really kidding when he says she’ll make Martin–or anyone–“a fine, dutiful wife”–a higher value, incidentally, in Ford’s universe than sex appeal.

Besides which she is clearly intelligent, faithful, loyal, hard-working. And, at least in the single moment where she is not being terrorized and speaks her own language, possessed of one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever recorded on film.

She is not sexually aggressive. When she lays down next to Martin, she carefully puts her back to him, so we can count her dignified as well–hardly a threat to Martin’s puritanical decorum.

She is also–unlike her counterpart in the novel, and certainly unlike Laurie or Debbie–down to her last chance.

If we look back at the frames above where she truly is “comic”, we find that they are interspersed with equal-and-opposite scenes where she clearly is not. Where, long before she meets her tragic fate, she is anything but a joke.

She is someone who could have had her life saved–perhaps even her existence fulfilled–by the simplest kindness. And she is someone who never finds it, who is never granted even this smallest of rewards or slimmest of chances. Not from her own people or from the U.S. Cavalry or from Fate. Certainly not from the film’s “heroes” who cannot, in the only moment that matters to her, meet even this least standard of civilized behavior.

So laugh or don’t. Watch who else laughs….or don’t.

And before you get too terribly satisfied either way, put yourself in Martin Pauley’s place and ask if you would have done it any different.

I doubt I would have. Maybe I wouldn’t have kicked her. And what a standard that is.

I wouldn’t have kicked her, my modern liberal self!

But I would have been just as glad to see her gone–and likely lingered no longer over her corpse.

With Vera Miles and Natalie Wood to worry over–in film or in life–I’d have not given her much thought, once I knew she was past helping me find the one so I could get back to the other.

I’d not have given her much thought even if, in my heart, I knew I was wrong.

Unless maybe John Ford and Beulah Archuletta made me keep looking.

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