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Arts > Film / Movies > Genres
Camera, laptop, action:
the new golden age of documentary
From Kevin MacDonald's examination
of the YouTube phenomenon
to a cab ride with
Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard,
cheap technology is allowing film-makers
to stretch the form as never before
Sunday 7 November 2010
This article appeared on p12
of the The New Review section of the Observer
Sunday 7 November 2010.
It was published on guardian.co.uk
at 00.06 GMT
on Sunday 7 November 2010.
"Right now, documentary film-making is like malaria," says Hussain
Currimbhoy, curator of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Britain's premier showcase for
new documentaries from around the world. "It's a virus that's spreading fast and
far and wide."
In the past week, the festival has screened 120 new documentaries – including
shorts as well as feature-length films – from 26 countries. As well as
fly-on-the wall documentaries about well-known figures, such as the American
comedian Joan Rivers and the English playwright Alan Bennett, there were music
documentaries about subjects as diverse as Elgar and Heaven 17, and biographical
documentaries about the beat poet William Burroughs, the Romanian dictator
Nicolae Ceausescu and a taxi driver who once worked as Osama Bin Laden's
This year, the festival also focused on low-budget films about everyday life and
politics in the Middle East, made as Currimbhoy puts it "by people who really
needed to tell their stories and can suddenly afford to do it on film". He seems
genuinely excited, even by the films that have arrived on his desk unsolicited
and not made it on to the festival programme.
"There is definitely a new energy out there. We are living in a moment when
film-makers, and young film-makers in particular, are increasingly turning
towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in. They are
more alert about, and suspicious of, the mainstream media and eager for a form
that talks to them about real events in a real way, even if that form is often
rough or even low-key. It's a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the
This view is echoed by the young British director Lucy Walker, whose latest
film, Waste Land, opened to rave reviews across America two weeks ago (the film
is out here in March). It tracks the artist Vik Muniz as he travels from
Brooklyn to his native Brazil to undertake an unlikely creative collaboration
with the "catadores" – garbage pickers – who scavenge a living on the world's
biggest garbage dump in Rio. It is a film, says Walker, about "the
transformative power of art" and one that utilises the grammar of fictional
film-making to tell a real-life story that is as uplifting and redemptive as any
fictional feelgood movie.
"I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary film-making,"
says Walker, over the phone from Los Angeles, where she is currently on a
frantic promotional schedule. "There is a frustration with traditional media and
a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. The week it opened,
my film was number one at the box office in terms of what they call 'per-screen
average attendance'. Of all the movies playing in America, a Portuguese-language
documentary about the lives of people living on a garbage dump in South America
had the highest per-screen average across America. That tells me that people are
looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting
from Hollywood or the traditional media."
To a degree, this has always been the case, but today, with the coming of
affordable high-end digital camera and laptop technology, it is possible to
prep, shoot and edit your own film in a fraction of the time – and the budget –
it would take to make a traditional film. In many ways, cheap technology has
energised film-making for a fast-forward generation who have little time for the
slowness of traditional script-based film-making. "I've been in development hell
for four years for a fiction film that never got made," says Walker, bullishly.
"I don't have that kind of time to waste. I want to get on and make films that I
think need to be made."
The availability of cheap digital cameras and software has also meant that, for
every campaigning film like Walker's more hard-hitting nuclear weapons
documentary, Countdown to Zero (released in March next year), or Charles
Ferguson's Inside Job, a riveting, clear-headed exposé of the ruthless financial
tsars behind the 2008 global financial meltdown (due next February), there are a
host of smaller, stranger documentaries being made, many of which seem to push
the boundaries of the form almost to breaking point.
In Exit Though the Gift Shop, released earlier this year, Banksy, the world's
most famous street artist and arch art-prankster of our time, plays havoc with
notions of authorial "reliability" and takes the audience on an entertainingly
self-referential rollercoaster ride that says more about the baroque
pointlessness of contemporary youth culture than it perhaps intended.
One of the most ground-breaking documentaries of the year, though, is also one
of the most complex, formally and emotionally. The Arbor (released last month)
is a film about the short and brutal life of dramatist Andrea Dunbar (writer of
the 1986 film, Rita, Sue and Bob Too), who died from alcoholism at the age of
29. Director Clio Barnard restages short extracts from Dunbar's work using
actors on the estate in Bradford where Dunbar grew up. The director also uses
actors to lip-synch to recorded testimony from Dunbar's friends, family and
grownup children. This has proved problematic as well as distracting to some
reviewers although, as the Guardian's film critic, Peter Bradshaw, noted, the
end result is a kind of "hyper-real intensification of the pain in Dunbar's work
and in her life". All human life, it seems, can now be reassembled, and
sometimes even creatively reinvented, by contemporary documentary directors.
Many recent documentary films also denote a generational shift in both style and
subject matter away from the political and outward-looking, towards the
emotional and solipsistic. One could argue that Catfish (out here next month),
currently the most talked about documentary of the year in the US, is one such
film. It is a documentary for – and about – the Facebook generation and it was
made possible, says co-director Henry Joost, "by technology that is available to
anyone. You can now buy a consumer-level digital camera for $400 [£246] or less
that shoots in HD [high definition] and that still looks pretty good when blown
up on a cinema screen. This really is an anyone-can-do-it moment for
Catfish chronicles the odd relationship between a young, hip and handsome New
York photographer, Nev Schulman, and Abby, an eight-year-old who initially sends
him an unsolicited painting of one of his published photographs. She lives, she
says, in rural Michigan with her mother and her sister, a horse-riding,
guitar-playing beauty who flirts with Nev shamelessly via phone texts and email.
It all seems too good to be true and it is, though in ways that are surprising
and, at times, affecting.
Made in a seamless vérité style by Nev's brother, Ariel Schulman, and his
friend, Joost, two young men who seem to chronicle every waking hour of their
lives on camera, Catfish is essentially a film about narcissism and
self-delusion in the social networking age. There is a sting in this particular
tale – and one that would be giving too much away to talk about here. Depending
on where you are coming from, however, this unlikely twist is either redemptive
or exploitative. You may come away, as I did, feeling both charmed and
manipulated, wondering if real life could ever be as unreal as this. Are we
seeing a film that unfolded alongside the events it portrays, or a retouched
version of the same. And, more pertinently, how retouched?
"It really was an unbelievable perfect storm of circumstances and events that
led to this film being made," insists Joost. "We're a little compulsive,
systematic. We are all making home movies all the time. It's kind of like
fishing. Then, suddenly, we found a story right under our noses. Our friend,
who's sitting right in our office, was the story. We just followed it to see
where it led. I really do feel that my life as a film-maker – all the dumb jobs,
the commercial work, the videos – all led up to this moment."
Catfish may indeed herald an age when the quotidian can become prime subject
matter for documentarists – this has already happened with photography. With one
or two exceptions, everyone in the film seems to live lives that are so mediated
by the grammar of reality television and docudrama that they behave as if they
are somehow both utterly knowing and wilfully naive. Like Banksy's film, Catfish
may ultimately say more about the emotional shallowness of the culture it
betrays than its makers intended.
"There is a sense that the grand narratives are gone and that people are now
living in an age of uncertainty, and documentary increasingly reflects that,"
says the film-maker, Adam Curtis, who has made two ground-breaking documentary
series for the BBC: The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, each of
which illustrated in their different ways how ideologies of power work on the
collective imagination. "Traditionally, documentaries were part of a progressive
tradition, a progressive machine. They provoked us or inspired us to do
something. I would contend that, when politicians turned into managers, that
system did not work any more and even big budget, well-meaning, measured
documentaries, like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, leave us perplexed and
helpless rather than angry and politically energised. At the other extreme, you
have films like Catfish that noodle about with the intimacy of feelings. Here,
people know the grammar of feelings, they know how to act on camera and how to
emote formally, while real feelings, which are of course messy and complicated,
Back in 1935, the pioneering British documentary film-maker, Paul Rotha,
declared: "Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the
present." Rotha was a socially conscious director who believed, like many of his
contemporaries, that the role of the documentary film-maker was to help change
the world for the better. One wonders what he would have made of The Arbor,
Catfish, or Exit Through the Gift Shop, all of which undoubtedly "reflect the
problems and realities of the present", but in ways that Rotha could not have
envisaged. In doing so, they don't set out to change the world but rather to
question the nature or reality, truth and, indeed, documentary itself.
"The form is certainly being stretched more than ever," says the director Kevin
MacDonald, who has made feature films (The Last King of Scotland), documentaries
(One Day in September) and merged the two (Touching the Void). "But documentary
is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things. If you think about
it, journalism, letter-writing, memoir, satire – they all qualify as
non-fiction, so why can't the same loose rules apply to documentary?"
To this end, MacDonald is currently working on the first feature-length
documentary made entirely of user-generated content shot in a single day and
then uploaded on to YouTube. Called Life In A Day, the impressionistic film is
currently being edited down by MacDonald from 5,000 hours of footage from 190
countries. It will premiere as a three-hour documentary at next year's Sundance
festival. "It's amateur film-making on a grand scale," says MacDonald. "But,
because the participants are often showing such incredibly intimate things that
you could not get in a traditional documentary unless you spent months filming,
it is also ground-breaking in ways that we did not expect."
In the end, says MacDonald, it all comes down to great storytelling. "The irony
is that, when I make a documentary, I always feel like I am taking all this real
material and trying to tell a story almost as if it was a fictional narrative.
When I make a fictional film, I do the opposite."
Documentary, as MacDonald reminds us, is essentially structured reality. "The
only real breaking point," he adds, "is when documentary actually becomes
fiction, but more often than not, as many great documentaries testify, real life
does often turn out to be a hell of a lot stranger than anything you could make
That is perhaps the reason why its boundaries are currently being stretched – to
keep up with the increasing unreality of the real world.
Camera, laptop, action:
the new golden age of documentary,
MOVIE REVIEW | 'CASINO ROYALE'
Renewing a License to Kill
and a Huge Movie
November 17, 2006
The New York Times
By MANOHLA DARGIS
The latest James Bond vehicle — call him Bond,
Bond 6.0 — finds the British spy leaner, meaner and a whole lot darker. Now
played by an attractive bit of blond rough named Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan
having been permanently kicked to the kerb, Her Majesty’s favorite bad boy
arrives on screens with the usual complement of cool toys, smooth rides, bosomy
women and high expectations. He shoots, he scores, in bed and out, taking down
the bad and the beautiful as he strides purposefully into the 21st century.
It’s about time. The likable Mr. Brosnan was always more persuasive playing Bond
as a metaphoric rather than an actual lady-killer, with the sort of polished
affect and blow-dried good looks that these days tend to work better either on
television or against the grain. Two of his best performances have been almost
aggressively anti-Bond turns, first in John Boorman’s adaptation of the John le
Carré novel “The Tailor of Panama,” in which he played a dissolute spy, and,
more recently, in “The Matador,” a comedy in which he played a hit man with a
sizable gut and alarmingly tight bikini underwear. Mr. Brosnan did not demolish
the memory of his Bond years with that pot, but he came admirably close.
Every generation gets the Bond it deserves if not necessarily desires, and with
his creased face and uneasy smile, Mr. Craig fits these grim times well. As if
to underscore the idea that this new Bond marks a decisive break with the
contemporary iterations, “Casino Royale” opens with a black-and-white sequence
that finds the spy making his first government-sanctioned kills. The inky blood
soon gives way to full-blown color, but not until Bond has killed one man with
his hands after a violent struggle and fatally shot a second. “Made you feel it,
did he?” someone asks Bond of his first victim. Bond doesn’t answer. From the
way the director, Martin Campbell, stages the action though, it’s clear that he
wants to make sure we do feel it.
“Casino Royale” introduced Bond to the world in 1953. A year later it was made
into a television drama with the American actor Barry Nelson as Jimmy Bond; the
following decade, it was a ham-fisted spoof with David Niven as the spy and a
very funny Peter Sellers as a card shark. For reasons that are too boring to
repeat, when Ian Fleming sold the film rights to Bond, “Casino Royale” was not
part of the deal. As a consequence the producers who held most of the rights
decided to take their cue from news reports about misfired missiles, placing
their bets on “Dr. No” and its missile-mad villain. The first big-screen Bond,
it hit in October 1962, the same month that Fleming’s fan John F. Kennedy took
the Cuban missile crisis public.
The Vatican later condemned “Dr. No” as a dangerous mixture of violence,
vulgarity, sadism and sex.
Ka-ching! The film was a success, as was its relatively unknown star, Sean
Connery, who balanced those descriptive notes beautifully, particularly in the
first film and its even better follow-up, “From Russia With Love.”
In time Mr. Connery’s conception of the character softened, as did the series
itself, and both Roger Moore and Mr. Brosnan portrayed the spy as something of a
gentleman playboy. That probably helps explain why some Bond fanatics have
objected so violently to Mr. Craig, who fits Fleming’s description of the
character as appearing “ironical, brutal and cold” better than any actor since
Mr. Connery. Mr. Craig’s Bond looks as if he has renewed his license to kill.
Like a lot of action films, the Bond franchise has always used comedy to blunt
the violence and bring in big audiences. And, much like the franchise’s
increasingly bloated action sequences, which always seem to involve thousands of
uniformed extras scurrying around sets the size of Rhode Island, the humor
eventually leached the series of its excitement, its sense of risk. Mr. Brosnan
certainly looked the part when he suited up for “GoldenEye” in 1995, but by then
John Woo and Quentin Tarantino had so thoroughly rearranged the DNA of the
modern action film as to knock 007 back to zero. By the time the last Bond
landed in 2002, Matt Damon was rearranging the genre’s elementary particles anew
in “The Bourne Identity.”
“Casino Royale” doesn’t play as dirty as the Bourne films, but the whole thing
moves far lower to the ground than any of the newer Bond flicks. Here what pops
off the screen aren’t the exploding orange fireballs that have long been a
staple of the Bond films and have been taken to new pyrotechnic levels by
Hollywood producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, but some sensational stunt work and
a core seriousness. Successful franchises are always serious business, yet this
is the first Bond film in a long while that feels as if it were made by people
who realize they have to fight for audiences’ attention, not just bank on it.
You see Mr. Craig sweating (and very nice sweat it is too); you sense the
filmmakers doing the same.
The characteristically tangled shenanigans — as if it mattered — involve a
villainous free agent named Le Chiffre (the excellent Danish actor Mads
Mikkelsen), who wheels and deals using money temporarily borrowed from his
equally venal clients. It’s the sort of risky global business that allows the
story to jump from the Bahamas to Montenegro and other stops in between as Bond
jumps from plot point to plot point, occasionally taking time out to talk into
his cellphone or bed another man’s wife. Mr. Craig, whose previous credits
include “Munich” and “The Mother,” walks the walk and talks the talk, and he
keeps the film going even during the interminable high-stakes card game that
nearly shuts it down.
If Mr. Campbell and his team haven’t reinvented the Bond film with this 21st
edition, they have shaken (and stirred) it a little, chipping away some of the
ritualized gentility that turned it into a waxworks. They have also surrounded
Mr. Craig with estimable supporting players, including the French actress Eva
Green, whose talent is actually larger than her breasts.
Like Mr. Mikkelsen, who makes weeping blood into a fine spectator sport, Ms.
Green brings conviction to the film, as do Jeffrey Wright and Isaach de Bankolé.
Judi Dench is back as M, of course, with her stiff lip and cunning. But even she
can’t steal the show from Mr. Craig, though a human projectile by the name of
Sébastien Foucan, who leads a merry and thrilling chase across Madagascar,
“Casino Royale” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The sex is
demure, the violence less so.
Opens today nationwide.
Directed by Martin Campbell; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul
Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming; director of photography, Phil Méheux;
edited by Stuart Baird; music by David Arnold; production designer, Peter
Lamont; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli; released by Columbia
Pictures. Running time: 144 minutes.
WITH: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), Mads Mikkelsen (Le
Chiffre), Judi Dench (M), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter), Giancarlo Giannini
(Mathis), Caterina Murino (Solange), Simon Abkarian (Dimitrios), Ivana Milicevic
(Valenka), Sébastien Foucan (Mollaka), Jesper Christensen (Mr. White), Tobias
Menzies (Villiers), Tsai Chin (Madam Wu), Lazar Ristovski (Kaminovski), Urbano
Barberini (Tomelli), Veruschka (Gräfin von Wallenstein), Tom So (Fukutu), Ade
(Infante), Charlie Levi Leroy (Gallardo) and Isaach de Bankolé (Steven Obanno).
Renewing a License to Kill and a Huge Movie Franchise,
How the Western Was Begun
June 11, 2006
The New York Times
By A. O. SCOTT
IN the last shot of "The Searchers," the
camera, from deep inside the cozy recesses of a frontier homestead, peers out
though an open doorway into the bright sunshine. The contrast between the dim
interior and the daylight outside creates a second frame within the wide expanse
of the screen. Inside that smaller space, the desert glare highlights the shape
and darkens the features of the man who lingers just beyond the threshold.
Everyone else has come inside: the other surviving characters, who have endured
grief, violence, the loss of kin and the agony of waiting, and also, implicitly,
the audience, which has anxiously anticipated this homecoming. But the hero,
whose ruthlessness and obstinacy have made it possible, is excluded, and our
last glimpse of him emphasizes his solitude, his separateness, his alienation —
from his friends and family, and also from us.
Even if you are watching "The Searchers" for the first time — perhaps on the
beautiful new DVD that Warner Home Video has just released to mark the film's
50th anniversary — this final shot may look familiar. For one thing, it
deliberately replicates the first image you see after the opening titles — a
view of a nearly identical vista from a very similar perspective. Indeed, the
frame-within-the-frame created by shooting through relative darkness into a
sliver of intense natural light is a notable motif in this movie, and elsewhere
in the work of its director, John Ford. Especially in his westerns, Ford loved
to create bustling, busy interiors full of life and feeling, and he was equally
fond of positioning human figures, alone or in small, vulnerable groups, against
vast, obliterating landscapes. Shooting from the indoors out is his way of
yoking together these two realms of experience — the domestic and the wild, the
social and the natural — and also of acknowledging the almost metaphysical gap
between them, the threshold that cannot be crossed.
But that image of John Wayne's shadow in the doorway — he plays the solitary
hero, Ethan Edwards — does not just pick up on other such moments in "The
Searchers." Perhaps because the shot is thematically rich as well as visually
arresting — because it so perfectly unites showing and telling — it has become a
touchstone, promiscuously quoted, consciously or not, by filmmakers whose debt
to Ford might not be otherwise apparent. Ernest Hemingway once said that all of
American literature could be traced back to one book, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry
Finn," and something similar might be said of American cinema and "The
Searchers." It has become one of those movies that you see, in part, through the
movies that came after it and that show traces of its influence. "Apocalypse
Now," "Punch-Drunk Love," "Kill Bill," "Brokeback Mountain": those were the
titles that flickered in my consciousness in the final seconds of a recent
screening in Cannes of Ford's masterwork, all because, at crucial moments, they
seem to pay homage to that single, signature shot.
At the end of "Brokeback Mountain," for instance, we are inside Ennis Del Mar's
trailer, looking out the window onto the Wyoming rangeland, from a domestic
space into the wilderness, as in "The Searchers." But in this case, the
interior, rather than a warm, buzzing home, is barren, the scene of Ennis's
desolation. The outside, insofar as it recalls the mountain where he and Jack
Twist spent their youthful summer of love together, is an unattainable place of
freedom and companionship, rather than a zone of danger and loneliness as it was
in the earlier film. Ennis is severed from those he loves, and from his own
nature, by the strictures of civilization, while Ethan's violent nature renders
him an exile from civilized life, condemned to wander on the margins of law,
stability and order.
Of course, "Brokeback Mountain" is a western by virtue of its setting rather
than its themes, which recall the forbidden-love mid-1950's melodramas of
Douglas Sirk more than anything Ford was doing at the time. But just about any
movie that ventures into the territory of the western — and a great many that do
not — has a way of bumping up against not only Ford's images but also his ideas.
He did not invent the genre, of course, and hardly restricted himself to it in
the course of a career that began in the silent era and lasted more than 50
years. There will always be those who find the frontier visions of Budd
Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks more complex, more
authentic or more varied than Ford's, as well as those who seek out western
heroes less obvious than John Wayne. But like it or not, Wayne and Ford, whose
long association is sampled in a new eight-movie boxed set and examined in a
recent PBS documentary, "John Ford/John Wayne: The Filmmaker and the Legend,"
directed by Sam Pollard, have long since come to represent the classic,
canonical idea of the American West on film.
Which is to say that their movies, however
deeply revered and frequently imitated, have also been attacked, mocked,
dismissed and misunderstood. If, from the late 1930's to the early 1960's, they
defined the classic western — a tableau involving marauding Indians, fearless
gunslingers, ruthless outlaws and the occasional high-spirited gal in a calico
dress — they also begat the countertendency that came to be known as the
revisionist western, with its nihilism, its brutality and its harsh
demystification of the threadbare legends of the old West. Thus, after Sam
Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, after "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Unforgiven,"
after "Dead Man" and "Deadwood," the brightly colored black-and-white world of
"The Searchers" might look quaint, simplistic and not a little retrograde.
It certainly looked that way at Bennington College in 1982, when the novelist
Jonathan Lethem saw the film for the first time. He recalls the laughter of his
fellow undergraduates in an essay called "Defending 'The Searchers,' " which
also recalls his own earnest intellectual obsession with the film. His first
attempt to appreciate it ends in defeat — " 'The Searchers' was only a camp
opportunity after all. I was a fool" — but he keeps returning to contend with
the sneers and shrugs of academic and bohemian friends and acquaintances, who
can't see what he's so excited about. "Come on, Jonathan," one of them says,
"it's a Hollywood western."
So it is, which means that it's open to the usual accusations of racism,
sentimentality and wishful thinking. David Thomson, in his "Biographical
Dictionary of Film," tips his hat to "The Searchers," but only in the midst of a
thorough ideological demolition of its director, whose "male chauvinism believes
in uniforms, drunken candor, fresh-faced little women (though never sexuality),
a gallery of supporting players bristling with tedious eccentricity and the
elevation of these random prejudices into a near-political attitude." The idea
that Ford is an apologist for violence and a falsifier of history, as Mr.
Thomson insists, dovetails with a longstanding liberal suspicion (articulated
most fully by Garry Wills in his book "John Wayne's America") of Wayne, one of
Hollywood's most outspoken conservatives for most of his career. And of course,
the presumed attitudes that make Wayne and Ford anathema at one end of the
spectrum turn them into heroes at the other.
But as the PBS documentary makes clear, the two men did not always march in
political lockstep. And in any case, the closer you look at the movies
themselves, the less comfortably they fit within any neat political scheme. Even
the portrayal of Indian and Mexican characters, once you get past the accents
and the face paint, cannot quite be reduced to caricature.
And Wayne himself, from his star-making entrance as the Ringo Kid in
"Stagecoach" (1939) to his valedictory performance in "The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance" (1962), his last western with Ford, is hardly the simple
personification of manly virtue his critics disdain and his admirers long for.
Even when he drifts toward playing a John Wayne type rather than a fully formed
character, there is enough unacknowledged sorrow in his broad features, and
enough uncontrolled anger in that slow, hesitant phrasing, to make him seem
dangerous, unpredictable: someone to watch. He is never quite who you think he
And this is never truer than in "The Searchers," where much about Ethan's
personality and personal history remains in the shadows. A former soldier in the
Confederate Army, he arrives in Texas (though the film was shot in Monument
Valley in Utah) three years after the end of the Civil War, with no way of
accounting for the time lag apart from the angry insistence that he didn't spend
it in California. Wherever he was, he acquired both a virulent hatred of Indians
and an intimate understanding of their ways. When his two young nieces are
kidnapped by Comanches — their parents and brothers are scalped and the
farmstead burned — he sets out on a search that will last for years and that
will blur the distinction between rescue and vengeance. It becomes clear toward
the end that he wants to find the surviving niece (now played by Natalie Wood)
so that he can kill her.
This impulse points to a terrifying, pathological conception of honor, sexual
and racial, and for much of "The Searchers" Ethan's heroism is inseparable from
his mania. To the horror and bafflement of his companions (one of whom is both a
preacher and a Texas Ranger, and thus a perfect embodiment of civilized order),
Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche, and exults that this posthumous
blinding will prevent this enemy from finding his way to paradise. But when you
think about it, Ethan's ability to commit such an atrocity rests on a form of
respect, since unlike the others he not only knows something about Comanche
beliefs but is also willing to accept their reality. And the film, for its part
(the script is by Frank S. Nugent, who was once a film critic for The New York
Times before he took up screenwriting), acknowledges the reality of Ethan's
prejudices and blind spots, which is not the same as sharing or condoning them.
The Indian wars of the post-Civil War era form a tragic backdrop in most of
Ford's post-World War II westerns, much as the earlier conflicts between
settlers and natives did in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. That the
Indians are defending their land, and enacting their own vengeance for earlier
attacks, is widely acknowledged, even insisted upon. The real subject, though,
is not how the West was conquered, but how — according to what codes, values and
customs — it will be governed. The real battles are internal, and they turn on
the character of the society being forged, in violence, by the settlers. Where,
in this new society, will the frontier be drawn between vengeance and justice?
Between loyalty to one's kind and the more abstract obligations of human
decency? Between the rule of law and the law of the jungle? Between virtue and
power? Between — to paraphrase one of Ford's best-known and most controversial
formulations — truth and legend?
Ford's way of posing these questions seems more urgent — and more subtle — now
than it may have at the time, precisely because his films are so overtly
concerned with the kind of moral argument that is, or should be, at the center
of American political discourse at a time of war and terrorism. He is concerned
not as much with the conflict between good and evil as with contradictory
notions of right, with the contradictory tensions that bedevil people who are,
in the larger scheme, on the same side. When should we fight? How should we
conduct ourselves when we must? In "Fort Apache," for example, the elaborate
codes of military duty, without which the intricate and closely observed society
of the isolated fort would fall apart, are exactly what lead it toward
catastrophe. Wayne, as a savvy and moderate-tempered officer, has no choice but
to obey his headstrong and vainglorious commander, played by Henry Fonda, who
provokes an unnecessary and disastrous confrontation with the Apaches. In the
end, Wayne, smiling mysteriously, tells a group of eager journalists that
Fonda's character was a brave and brilliant military tactician. It's a lie, but
apparently the public does not require — or can't handle — the truth.
In telling it, Wayne is writing himself out of history, which is also his fate
in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (not, unfortunately, one of the discs in
the Warner box). That film — which contains the famous line "When legend becomes
fact, print the legend!" —throws Wayne's man of action and James Stewart's man
of principle into a wary, rivalrous alliance. Their common enemy is an almost
cartoonish thug played by Lee Marvin, but the real conflict is between Stewart's
lawyer and Wayne's mysterious gunman, one of whom will be remembered as the man
who shot Liberty Valance.
What we learn, in the course of the film's long flashbacks, is that the triumph
of civilization over barbarism is founded on a necessary lie, and that
underneath its polished procedures and high-minded institutions is a buried
legacy of bloodshed. The idea that virtue can exist without violence is as
untenable, as unrealistic, as the belief — central to the revisionist tradition,
and advanced with particular fervor in HBO's "Deadwood" — that human society is
defined by gradations of brutality, raw power, cynicism and greed.
If only things were that simple. But everywhere you look in Ford's world —
certainly in "Fort Apache," in "The Searchers," in "The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance" — you see truth shading into lie, righteousness into brutality, high
honor into blind obedience. You also see, in the boisterous emoting of the
secondary characters, the society that these confused ideals and complicated
heroes exist to preserve: a place where people can dance (frequently), drink
(constantly), flirt (occasionally) and act silly.
And everywhere else — after Ford, beyond his movies — you find the same thing.
The monomaniacal quest for vengeance, undertaken by a hero at odds with the
society he is expected to protect: it's sometimes hard to think of a movie from
the past 30 years, from "Taxi Driver" to "Batman Begins," that doesn't take up
this theme. And the deeper question of where vengeance should stop, and how it
can be distinguished from justice, surfaces in "Unforgiven" and "In the
Bedroom," in "Mystic River" and "Munich."
In "Munich" the Mossad assassins spend most of the film in a limbo that Ethan
Edwards would recognize, even though it takes place amid the man-made monuments
of Europe rather than the wind-hewn rock formations of Monument Valley. The
Israeli agents are far from home, exiled from the democratic, law-governed
society in whose name they commit their acts of vengeance and pre-emption, and
frighteningly close both to their enemies and to a state of pure, violent
retaliatory anarchy. With more anguish, perhaps, than characters in a John Ford
movie, they often find themselves arguing with one another, trying to overcome,
or at least to rationalize, the contradictions of what they are doing. They
appeal to various texts and traditions, but they might do better to pay
attention to the television that is on in the background at one point in the
movie: another frame within the frame, tuned, hardly by accident, to "The Man
Who Shot Liberty Valance."
Searchers': How the Western Was Begun, NYT, 11.6.2006,
Call to gaol the makers of blue films
From the Guardian archive
Wednesday September 20, 1972
New laws to make it easier to imprison
pornographers are demanded in a 520-page report of Lord Longford's unofficial
commission on pornography.
It demands sentences of up to three years for blue film makers and organisers of
live sex shows.
The report wants the laws to cover radio and television, theatres and cinemas,
and sex education in schools. The young are particularly vulnerable and
therefore need special protection, the report says.
Instances of links between pornography and criminal corruption are cited, one of
them involving a boy of 17.
"The painful irony of the present situation is that the young - those who claim
to be the most disturbed by the public violence they read about in the press -
are precisely those who are being conditioned to accept, and to participate in
private violence, the sadistic and brutal hardcore of pornography."
The commission, set up 16 months ago by Lord Longford, aged 66, calls for a
twofold law under which it would be illegal to display in a street or other
public place any written, pictorial, or other material which was held to be
indecent; or to produce or sell any article which outraged contemporary
standards of decency or humanity.
Penalties for inducing people to act in obscene shows or take part in
pornographic films should be a fine or imprisonment for not more than three
years or both. Distributing or exhibiting publicly "any written, pictorial, or
other material which is indecent" should lead to a fine or imprisonment for no
longer than six months or both.
Prosecution would be easier if the report's definitions of obscenity and
pornography became law. Pornography is defined as that which "exploits and
dehumanises sex, so that human beings are created as things and women in
particular as sex objects".
The test of obscenity should be: "An article or a performance of a play is
obscene if its effect, taken as a whole, is to outrage contemporary standards of
decency or humanity accepted by the public at large."
In a breakdown of the pornography trade, the report says that the mail order
business will continue to increase unless it is stopped. Two Leeds University
graduates had built up within a year a porn-by-mail clientele of 25,000
Many of the pornographers' customers are people with serious sexual problems,
"but there is evidence that 'normal' people can become addicted to pornography
in certain circumstances, and there can be little doubt that ordinary curiosity
could lead teenagers to experiment with it".
the Guardian archive > September 20, 1972 >
Call to gaol the makers of blue
February 17 1932
Censors take drastic action
on 'sex' films
The Guardian > From the archive
February 17 1932
A serious warning to the film industry regarding "sex" films,
which are becoming more and more daring, is contained in the report for 1931 of
the British Board of Film Censors, signed by Mr. Edward Shortt, K.C., president,
which was issued yesterday.
"There has unquestionably been a tendency of late," the report declares, "for
films to become more and more daring, the result probably of the large number of
stage plays which are presented on the screen, and of the licence which is
to-day allowed in current fiction.
"Subjects coming under the category of what has been termed 'sex' films, others
containing various phases of immorality and incidents which tend to bring the
institution of marriage into contempt, show a marked increase in number. Even
when the story is not in itself immoral, there appears to be a desire to stress
the unpleasant aspect which is best described as 'sex appeal'.
"The Board has always taken exception to stories in which the main theme is
either lust or the development of erotic passions, but the president has come to
the conclusion that more drastic action will have to be taken.
"There are producers who delight to show the 'female form divine' in a state of
attractive undress. There has been also a move in a similar direction so far as
men are concerned. The objectionable aspect is the tendency on every conceivable
occasion to drag in scenes of undressing, bathroom scenes, and feminine
underclothing which are quite unnecessary from the point of view of telling the
"They are solely introduced for the purpose of giving the film what is termed in
the trade 'a spicy flavour.' The cumulative effect of a repetition of such
scenes as can be described as 'suggestive' is very harmful."
Thirty-four films have been rejected, the reasons being —
The materialised figure of the sav iour. Blasphemy and comic treatment of
religious subjects. Travesty of religious rites. The institution of marriage
treated with contempt. Death treated with vulgar flippancy. Gross and brutal
travesty of prison life. Hospital scenes treated with vulgar levity.
Physiological enormities. Suggestive themes acted throughout by children.
Unrelieved sordid themes. Prolonged and gross brutality and bloodshed. Scenes in
and connected with houses of ill-repute. Lives of thoroughly immoral men and
women. Collusive divorce. Stories in which the criminal element is predominant.
Equivocal and objectionable bedroom scenes. Habitual youthful depravity.
Habitual immorality. Offensive political propaganda.
Gross and objectionable dialogue.
From the Guardian
archive > February 17 1932 >
Censors take drastic action on 'sex' films,
Republished 17.2.2007, p. 30,
Related > Anglonautes >
pictures / films / movies / cinema
Related > Anglonautes >