April 9, 2015. Elevn p.m. On the road home from Syracuse.
Matt Zoller Seitz visited our Wired Critics class this afternoon and as you can guess he had a lot to say. But before I let him say anything I had something I wanted to say to the class, along with something to show them: a scene from the original Star Wars.
It was the scene of Luke rushing home to the moisture farm to find that stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle and left their burned bodies on the doorstep. The scene's modeled on a scene from The Searchers, John Ford's great Western starring John Wayne as the vengeance obsessed Confederate Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards: Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin return to the family's burning ranch and find that a Comanche raiding party has slaughtered Ethan's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, and carried off his nieces.
Here are the clips.
From The Searchers:
And Star Wars:
Reason I showed it was that last week we watched The Searchers. My students knew from their reading of Glenn Frankel's book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend that the movie has had a considerable influence on succeeding generations of filmmakers and I wanted them to see that influence at work in a movie they all knew well.
The students were all revved up to hear Matt talk about Wes Anderson. For the course, they've read his book The Wes Anderson Collection and watched---re-watched most of them, some for the third and fourth time---The Grand Budapest Hotel. But of course Matt had some things to say himself about The Searchers and its influence and he rattled off a long list of films that referenced, quoted, paid homage to, and out stole from The Searchers, including one I hadn't thought of in that light before, Taxi Driver.
Matt pointed out that Travis Bickle's self-appointed mission to rescue the twelve year old prostitute Iris from a life of sexual degradation mirrors Ethan Edwards' quest to rescue his niece Debbie from what he sees as her defilement by the Comanches, the difference being that Travis believes Iris can be restored to a life of purity and Ethan believes Debbie is ruined forever and better off dead.
You want to get picky about it, that scene is not from the original Star Wars. It's from the DVD version of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the one put out in 2007 that George Lucas monkeyed around with and had Han shooting first. One of the scenes beside the shootout with Greedo he monkeyed around with was this one. He made the skeletons more vivid and gruesome.
I pointed out that in The Searchers we're not shown the bodies. Ford leaves the horror for our imaginations to conjure up. The look on John Wayne's face when he approaches the shed is enough to tell us we don't want to see what he knows he's going to find in there. Now, there are two things to consider when thinking about how much better and affecting the scene in The Searchers is.
One is that Lucas probably didn't feel he had the time to devote to his scene. He had to get across what happened and Luke's grief and horror in a hurry in order to get on with telling his action-adventure story, while Ford's story is about Ethan's grief and horror and the hate and desire for revenge that follow.
The other is that Ford couldn't show the bodies. Not in a realistic way. The times wouldn’t allow it. But the point is that there's a lesson for aspiring filmmakers and student critics in that. It's wonderful how much Ford and other directors of his era managed to do because of what they couldn't do. Reticence and restraint are artistic virtues. Indirection and suggestion can often accomplish more than the most detailed and lifelike cgi.
I quoted W.C. Fields on a key to comedy that can be applied to most any art: Whenever you feel the need to do more, do less.
Matt had something to say about that too.
The reason filmmakers of Lucas' generation, particularly in their early movies, did more was that they could do it. The times didn’t just allow it. They reveled in it. More and more graphic violence, more swearing, nudity, explicit sex. The filmmakers were testing limits and finding that there weren't many. In the process, though, they overdid. That's why there's a messiness, sense of self-indulgence, superfluity, and an apparent lack of discipline in their movies that I said I think dates their movies.
I don't mean dates as in marks them as having been made at a certain time. I mean makes them look dated.
Matt is more forgiving and tolerant of that aspect of 1970s filmmaking than I am, but he did bring up a movie that exemplifies the giving in to the temptation to excess---just for starters, the bad guys shove the hero's hand down a garbage disposal--- Rolling Thunder, which had a screenplay by Paul Schrader who also wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver. Rolling Thunder features more obvious and extended borrowings from The Searchers. That doesn't help make it a great movie. In fact, I was surprised Matt remembered it or had even seen it. I only remember it because it played at the movie theater where I was working.
But Matt sees everything and remembers everything and he can talk about it all in depth, with wit, with energy and enthusiasm in a way that can carry away a seminar room full of curious honors students with great, gaping holes in their knowledge of movies and cinematic and cultural history. Which is what happened in class today. It was Matt's show and I turned things over to him and right away he and the students moved on to talking about all sorts of things and not only or even mainly things concerning Wes Anderson.
I knew that would be how it would go. It's why I invited Matt in. So I was pleased. A good time was had by all. But a part of me kept hoping the discussion would circle back to The Searchers and was hard at work concocting ways that would do that. There were some questions I wanted to ask my students, questions I didn't have a chance to ask them last week because the movie took up most of our class time and won't get to ask them next week because we're not meeting as a class. They've got individual appointments with me to discuss their upcoming final essays. Week after that is our last class meeting and the whole time will be devoted to their filling out course evaluations and our watching Bringing Up Baby and having pizza.
What I'd like to ask them is: What did they make of John Wayne? Not just in the role of Ethan Edwards but as an actor? And what did they make of The Searchers? Did they see it as a movie or did they see it as a Western?
Did they know what a Western looked like?
I know from the discussions we have had that they know who John Wayne was and are at least conversant with what's behind his status as a movie and cultural icon. But none of them could remember ever having seen even one of his films. And while all of them were pretty sure they'd seen some classic Westerns on TV when they were kids, the only Westerns any of them were sure they'd seen and could not just name but discuss in any detail were True Grit---the Coen Brothers' version---Django Unchained---I didn't dare get into it---The Lone Ranger, and Rango.
Rango is a good Western, in case you haven't seen it, in the way Galaxy Quest is a good Star Trek movie and Young Frankenstein's a great Frankenstein movie.
And of course you have to wonder how they would have seen any other Westerns. Most of their "old" movie watching is what streams on Netflix and Netflix is woefully lacking in pre-1980s classics of any kind. And the only good Westerns I can think of from the last 30 years are Silverado, Tombstone, Unforgiven, Wild Bill, 3:10 to Yuma, the Coens' True Grit, and a little-known, little-seen unpolished gem starring Pierce Bronson and Liam Neeson called Seraphim Falls.
What can I tell you. I really like that one.
I also liked The Lone Ranger, so you can't always go by me.
The best Westerns of the last thirty-odd years were all on television: Lonesome Dove, The Streets of Laredo, Deadwood, and Justified, which doesn't bother to hide the fact it's a Western with cars and cell phones. My students haven't seen any of them.
They're familiar with the tropes and clichés and recognize them when they see them in non-Western movies and TV shows, but I wonder if they truly know what they're seeing.
What imagery and memories are conjured up?
What would that be like?
Seeing The Searchers for the first time without that stuff cluttering up your imagination?
Did they even see it as a Western? Did it strike them as a any period piece might? And how about John Wayne? What was it like to see him for the first time as the great movie actor and star he was without having to look past all the prejudice, biases, politics, gossip, and jokes that got in the way when I was their age?
Is it even possible to see The Searchers and Wayne as Ethan Edwards this way?
Ford knew exactly what he was doing. He wasn't making an anti-Western or a revisionist one. He was making what he considered an essential one. The Searchers is a crash course in the Western both as a genre and as the story of the America's idea of itself at the middle of the 20th Century. He had to do that in order to question both the genre and the idea. And he knew what he was doing casting Wayne as Ethan instead of his other favorite leading man, Henry Fonda.
Fonda might have been too good in the part. He might have made Ethan too much himself---that is Ethan's self---and given us too few traces of Fonda the good guy's good guy. In short, Fonda's Ethan might have been too straight-forwardly and obviously an anti-hero, like his Colonel Owen Thursday in Ford's Fort Apache.
But with Wayne Ford could do something more daring and subversive. He could use Wayne himself to suggest that there was always something dark at the heart of Wayne's type of Western hero, which is to say at the heart of all Western heroes and so at the heart of America's sense of itself as a heroic nation. With Wayne in the part, Ford could make Ethan a hero while suggesting that a hero could also be a villain at the same time.
Anyway, the only way I can get my students' to answer my questions is to make them write about it, and they've already got enough to write about over the three and a half weeks that remain in the semester, starting with what single, specific thing Matt's visit got them really thinking. I'm looking forward to reading their answers to that. Be interesting to see what they each focused on. Lots to chose from. I filled up a dozen pages of my own notebook.
But I guess I just gave you my answer if I was a student in my own class.
Lots of assigned reading to go with this post. You have to work hard to get an A in this blog.
My reviews of the Coens’ True Grit, which is called True Grit and True Grit and…True Grit; The Lone Ranger, “There’s Something Very Right With That Horse”; and Seraphim Falls, Seraphim Falls and the better, and baser, angels of our nature.
Matt Zoller Seitz’s books The Wes Anderson Collection and The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel along with Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend are available from Amazon.