I was at the gym the other day, and I had put TCM on one of the televisions in the cardio room, in part because it confuses people, and in part because, well, I felt like it. And it was between movies, and so the channel was running one of its great-moments-in-cinema interstitial montages, and one of the images was, well, not quite the one I'm posting in the below screen grab, but, you know, close...
Taking in the image, from, of course, John Ford's 1957 1956 The Searchers, I was once again moved, but also reminded that one man's iconic cinematic moment can be another man's aberration. One thinks, of course, of the bristlingly contemptuous 2006 treatment of Ford's film by Stephen Metcalf in Slate, in one of his columns under the too-apt rubric "The Dilettante," in which Metcalf tsk-tsked that the picture is "off-putting to the contemporary sensibility," a complaint that I doubt he would dare to make about, say, Cosi fan tuti. (Then again, Metcalf's such a thorough-going twit that he just might, at that.) Ethan Edwards' reclamation of Debbie (Natalie Wood) comes in for special praise and then, of course, mockery: "I stand with the detractors of this silly film, but what follows must count as one of the more thrilling moments in anyone's movie-watching life. Wayne places his hands under the terrified Natalie Wood's armpits, then raises her up to the sky, examining her—murderously? Paternally? He then drops her into his arms and utters his first soft words of the film: 'Let's go home, Debbie.' Now, 'Why didn't he kill her?' is right up there with 'Why does Hamlet dither?' and 'Did the governess really see Quint and Miss Jessel?' as one of the great seminar unanswerables; it is sure to keep discussion going for the allotted 50 minutes, along with: Wait, why did he want to kill her in the first place? Was he in love with Debbie's mother, his milquetoast of a dead brother's dead wife? Why is Debbie the only hint of good sex in the movie? Are Ethan and Scar doppelgängers? Does Ethan spare Debbie because the scalping of Scar has purged him of his own most perturbing desires? Who knows? In later years, Wayne was asked about the strange depth of Ethan's obsession. 'He did what he had to do,' answered Wayne, mangling the basic details of the plot. 'The Indians fucked his wife.' A movie made by semiprimitives will submit more docilely to extensive Rorschaching than a self-consciously dark and mature Western like Little Big Man or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As is so often the case, Kael deserves the last word: 'You can read a lot into The Searchers, but it isn't very enjoyable.'"
From the priggishness of the phrase "this silly film" to the predictability of making a straw man out of John Wayne to the sheer shittiness of "semiprimitives" to the hideous smug complacency of "Kael deserves the last word," this passage exemplifies everything hateful about the critical perspective embodied by Metcalf, not to mention Slate itself...not to mention, well, everything queasy-making about classic American liberal condescension in general. Which isn't to say that hatred of The Searchers doesn't extend across ideological lines. Indeed, when Metcalf's piece appeared in 2006, it found a big fan in well-known neo-con scion, Jeopardy big winner (I'll always be jealous of him for that, I have to admit), film-critic hater, and current Commentary editor John Podhoretz, who said of Metcalf and his piece that it "blows the whistle" on the "bizarre enthusiasm by cineastes" [sic] for this "turgid, wooden, boring and weird movie." Not just silly, you see, but weird.
And right about now you're probably asking, "Geez, Kenny, you're taking the occasion of seeing an image from The Searchers on TCM while you were at the gym as an excuse for once again going after some anti-Searchers sentiments that were expressed, like, four years ago? I thought you were trying to get off of the Obsessive Rage Express there." Fair enough, but the reason I bring it up is because, yes, John Wayne's Ethan finally embracing Debbie, moving as the moment is, actually does not make rational sense, and seeing the image again the other day brought on my own personal "eureka!" moment about it. That is, yes, I finally figured out just what Ethan's motivation is, not that the explanation will please the literal-minded likes of Metcalf or Podhoretz; indeed, it just might further confirm Podhoretz's conviction that the film is "weird." For the first time, Edwards' lifting and drawing in of Debbie struck me as a transcendent moment, transcendent in the Schraderian sense. The whole point being that it doesn't parse in any rational way, and it's not meant to. It is an unabashed and matter of fact depiction of the mysterious workings of grace in the same fashion that the finale of Bresson's Pickpocket is.
In Pickpocket, the love that the young, nihilistic Michel (Martin LaSalle) has been so stridently denying and acting against suddenly rushes up and out in a flood as he presses his face to that of Jeanne (Marika Green) in the film's final prison sequence. Like Michel, Ethan in The Searchers has acted against, in denial of, love throughout, seemingly intent only on vengeance. And just as Pickpocket goes into great detail as to just how Michel accomplishes his violations of other people and their belongings, so too does The Searchers almost make a fetish of Ethan's intimate methods of visiting various depredations on the hated Comanches. And yet when it comes down to the wire, both characters are visited by an irresistible force. One could call it grace, as I have; one could call it the Holy Spirit. One might be best off in calling it love.
But whatever it is, no, it doesn't make "sense," and no, I don't think it's meant to, not as such. And to place such an out-and-out spiritual moment as the sort of icing on the cake in a film in which so much tension between tradition and modernity is already present, right from its opening VIstaVision logo, is a more-bravura-than-usual bit of artistic daring. "Off-putting to the contemporary sensibility," no kidding. Ford is often accused of laying on the schmaltz, and the temptation to read his every heart-tugging moment as the knowing manipulation of an archetypal gruff-but-sentimental Irish storyteller can be strong. But the less-obvious moments of transcendence; I wonder if there aren't more of those in the man's cinema than we had previously thought. Surely Dallas and Ringo's quiet ride away from the "blessings of civilization" at the end of Stagecoach could count. And of course, Ford's world being Ford's world, the moment of transcendence at the end of his extraordinary 1955 The Long Gray Line comes not as Marty Maher (Tyrone Power, below, at left) nearly tears up as he "sees" all of the old friends and lovers he's lost over his West Point years gathering at a tribute to him, but when he re-gathers his composure and stands at attention with the group of men he's always longed to be part of.
Ford made Line two years prior to The Searchers, and boy, if John Podhoretz thinks the latter film is "weird" he ought to check out its predecessor some time.
I'm very nearly certain that some of the Fordians among this blog's readership will be able to provide some other fruitful examples. The floor is open.