Friday, June 9, 2017

John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn

A melodrama of historical staging, such that would give fellow late master Angelopoulos an aneurism from envy.  Ford makes viable threats to step on the toes of (post-contemporaneous, televisual-form) Rossellini here, if the latter had an interest in the illusionist cinema and its mythologizing decorum.  There is a symbolic order to images, and Ford understands that, Cheyenne Autumn (1965) one of his strongest in cementing a unique set of language markers within its diegesis, rivaled only by other late Ford work like Sergeant Rutledge (1960), which theatricalizes memory in a way the film under debate makes palpable historical tableaux.  Here, in Cheyenne Autumn, history is a pure logos that is propped up and almost delegitimized by Ford's sturdy hand (so firm that he stages a Dodge City-set interlude as a sort of separate history lesson, given extra parochial import by its locating the humor amidst tribulation), by the most convincing manifestation of Ford's "centrist" political aestheticism through use of a pro forma "stately" and idealistic form that would soon be formulated and post-modernized by a more irreverent Rossellini.  The point then resuscitated is that Ford's idealism is a limited one, more suited for the emotional imagination he shows in a film such as Donovan's Reef (in which cultural and national barriers are overcome by our core humanity, resulting in a melting pot Utopia of a "trans-religiosity," showing once again irreverence was as much a part of his toolkit as extreme earnestness was), rather than the humanist treatment of unresolvable political history, rendering it falsely resolvable, falsely dramatic/cinematic/linguistic, that is, falsely comprehensible (as a half modernist poem, half history lesson of an anecdotal incontinence), seen in Cheyenne Autumn.  So lays the reason I will hold Ford always at arm's length, an obstinate false dichotomy that separates the filmmaker of imagination (who are pre-lingual, creating language presently, on the spot, grammar refreshed as an invention, rather than initiating into an existent symbolic order) - personal patron saints such as Hooper, Varda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa - away from the ghetto of dogged dramatists and traditionalists, even true visual poets like Ford.  One group creates connections between the myth of (filmic) language and the Real, or, in further Lacanian terms, the lower-case "other," the order of the Real closer arrived at through the imagination of our state of innocence, of those more at one with their current nascency, rather than a conformity with existent systems.  For Ford, for Spielberg, there is never a wrestling with an inner other, which can come to be the alien, the foreign, that which demands representation.  There is only a falsely "objective" and parochial construction of the Other, a socialized and limited language that upends nothing, builds nothing.  In other words, there is often only statements, or a statement, to make, very rarely built from scratch.

So Ford represents both the best and the worst of the idealist sensibility, poetizing the didactic instinct without a grander discipline of withholding or auto-critique, shewing classicalist eloquence and the pinpointing of metaphoric centers to visual determinacy, but never quite showing the imagination of artists of exploration (previously dubbed "artists of imagination").

Never is connection made between the distant objects of who we are and what we don't know, only what we know and have concluded.  Where Straub and Huillet can come to the conclusion of Ford's mythologizing high poetry, Godard can similarly come to the conclusion of Spielberg's - whom Ford serves as forebear - absence of genuine images connecting distantly the imagination to the True, an absence through refusal to imagine "history" (grand or small, factual or imaginary - in which it can just be called "story") as not something pre-fabricated, but, as Hegel put it, something of "progressive embodiments," which is best explored by artists who create their films like progressive embodiments themselves, as present circumstances to fabulize on the spot, creating histories, or, more accurately, adding to history, rather than monolithic events to symbolize dutifully.  Just think of Ford's approach to history-making as contrasted to the anti-histories of Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion, Varda's Vagabond (in which a present history - that of the eponymous vagabond - is presented through contradictory testimonies), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Real, the errant genre filmmaker's most flawed work that nevertheless, out of his filmography, most wrestles with a total perspective of our anthropogenesis as a process of forgetting and neglecting, thus establishing a bold eschatology (something he does also in Pulse and Charisma, but without the narrative elements to study our human history through a newfound ecological viewpoint).  These works connect to our history through imagination, not disguising or confusing memory and the real, our necessarily symbolical-realm cinema with Truth, managing somehow to represent "Real" through not quite Derridean deconstruction, but the innocence of creating images that do not purport to be a making-lingual of poetic memory (untrustworthy), but a making-natural an impossibility of truth.  Ford replaces the eternal with smothering and high-flung political and social analysis, which reflects in a form as inspired as it is systematized.  This is why Hooper, Varda, and Kurosawa are conventionally-perceived termite artists, for they focus on the immediate, tactile moments of their film without thought of the "overall" - only on the literalness of the present, in order to best represent Truth beyond it.  The imagination of an innocent state is evinced and afforded to every effortful frame.  Ford creates symbolic language contoured to his story/myth, his confusion of it with truth, while the artists of imagination create the real more successfully by calling attention to the cinematic image's part within the realm of the symbolic, for nothing for them is contoured to story/myth.  It is only connected to the present, more important than the past or the future, so Hegel, again, says.  It is through a free-flowing stream of invention with which story/myth is best served, that is, by being best under-served, and that is by being underpinned, by constant inner struggle with the act of creation and immediate auto-critique.  In Hooper, Varda, and Kurosawa, it comes into play through a labored, and likely completely natural to them, aesthetic reserve, a willingness to limit themselves to their perceived limits - such a thing Ford bowdlerizes for sublime ends in Cheyenne Autumn, close to my favorite film from him, for, by stripping his style down, he divests much of what can be said to be culturally, hegemonically borrowed.  It is this utility of reserve that even some stratum of "artists of imagination" never catch on to at all, which is then a striking mark in favor of Ford, for realizing in the first place the value of this and prototyping Rossellini in Cheyenne Autumn's beautiful admixture of sweeping historical overview and all the smaller stories within it, all filmed with the same inclination for tableaux-like wide shots.  Take a scene within an abandoned schoolhouse, in which one character professes his love for another, nary a close-up in the entire stretch of potent melodrama.  There is a certain kick, or phenomenological effect, of a running musical score that simply plays emphatically underneath uninflected wide shots, the images not cut and matched to the music.  It is a melodramatic trope, but Ford, not a maker of melodramas of the Sirkian model, uses this in Cheyenne Autumn to create an even more lofty historical viewpoint, the tenderness of emotions essentially equated to and existing confidently beside the grandeur of historical forces.  This is something we see in many historical melodramas, but Cheyenne Autumn is not a melodrama; it is a historical film first and foremost.  Ford making this his central mission is what makes the tenderness here even more potent, for it is not a stylistic dressing to historical narrative (most accurately called a "stylistic addition" to narrative in the frothy likes of Titanic), but just another anecdote, another part of the history lesson.  Feelings can be as rational as occurrence, and Ford metes it out in his film in perfectly sized morsels.

Add to this a chameleonic turn by Karl Malden as a Dutch/Germanic army captain who struggles with his ambitions of rank and being on the wrong side of history, and which I would say is my favorite vignette and complete character arc in a film composed of many vignettes and character arcs caught in a larger stream of historical event.  Malden is delightful and then ultimately tragic, a feat underneath a comical mustache and convincing-enough accent.

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