Thursday, 22 July 2010
Resolution Ten: No#2 - The Searchers
Cinematic aging is both a difficult and fascinating thing to discuss, because when you watch a film celebrated in its day and don't get it, the first instinct is to blame yourself. To think there's some aspect that passes by the comprehension of you undetected, to think you're simply not clever, cultured or smart enough to get what makes it so great, I mean if all those dudes who fought the Nazis liked it, surely this is on me. But if a film ages with its critical generation, growing rusty, outdated and surpassed then I think it is not only critically dishonest but downright redundant to continue to preach its gospel. Don't get me wrong, I find a large part of criticizing things is defending your position left, right and center, and that can lead somewhat inevitably to stubbornness.
But if its there, it will out. As is seen by a younger generation of critics muscling out there predecessors in regards to replacing the 'Greatest Film Of All Time' Citizen Kane with the masterpiece of their own adolescence, The Godfather. Or why Nosferatu can stand up, yet the Bela Lugosi Dracula feels like a post-modern spoof of itself. I think the key to understanding why some films age better then others is probably the tone of the execution. Methods, styles and technologies are going to date but if the quality of the material has a kind of timelessness to it, it might just be OK. What that timelessness is I have no idea, but you know it when you see it and I didn't see it this time.
Having said this, I would begin by saying The Searchers was a masterpiece for its time and place, perhaps, but because of this it means it has lost some of its value. It seems so specifically dependent on subverting the tropes of its genre, introducing a great deal of darkness, violence and stiff upper lip to the landscape - and John Wayne's image - that to a viewer half a century later not brought up on a culture where the western reigns as the escapist supreme, I can't instinctively recognize its qualities as a game-changer, which I'm told by many different websites and lecturers that it was, and nor can anyone else born later then 1970 for that matter, and thus it ages badly. And this is why I'm not surprised when people call it a masterpiece of its time, but because its so dependent on its time and what came before it that by its very nature, of its time is all it can be.
I don't wish to give the impression that I disliked The Searchers, it has a lot to recommend and certain aspects of it remain impressive to this day. From John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards being an absolute, unrelenting douche without the movie ever having to apologize for it. Which works as somehow refreshing given how much time movies of all genres and ages spend telling me how heroic their heroes. Edwards works almost as a comment against that traditional sense of American masculinity, in which toughness is confused with virtue and being able to beat seven shades of shit out of a guy makes you morally superior to him. But here Edwards is, unforgiving, uncompromising, kind of racist and full of hate toward everyone, a note of derision in every word he ever says. Granted this could be a consequence of John Wayne's limitations as an actor but if so its a happy accident, because The Searchers arguably gave birth to the modern Western anti-hero, and for that we have a lot to thank it for. Having a protagonist so refreshingly detestable is a huge feather in its cap. Being a John Ford film, the fact that it looks as good as it does isn't surprising, and some of the imagery stands up, with Ford and his DOP Winton Hoch making the deserts and the plains more striking then many that came after.
Similarly worthy of appraisal is the aforementioned darkness present in the searchers, where the violence is felt and ever-present even if it occurs off-screen. Its consequences are felt almost in subtext, due to the censor limitations of the time no doubt, but there are times during the Searchers that one could mistake it for a post-apocalyptic movie, so bleak is the atmosphere and endless is the empty road. Perhaps it feels like this because The Searchers represents in many ways the last great chapter of that golden age western, and all that's left is a near nihilistic resentment. The violence is worth mentioning also because it gives me a fairly smooth transition into the worst aspect of the film, which for me was the acting. I don't mind the occasional bad performance, particularly in a genre film, but it ends up undermining much of The Searchers impact. Most notably is a scene near the beginning of the film where Wayne ingenue Jeffery Hunter discovers his surrogate family murdered, in what in theory is a horrifying moment, becomes entirely undermined by Hunter, whose entire performance is kind of an over-zealous cartoon and not in a good way, more in the way that he doesn't know how to nuance emotion and so bigger is better, the moment lost a great deal of impact for me because of how unconvincing Hunter was and this happened more then once throughout the film.
Sadly it doesn't stop there, with many of the supporting characters, most notably Mose Harper and Charlie, coming across like refugees from a bad horror movie about inbred southerners, so broad are these characters. In fact the acting landscape a whole disappoints and dilutes much of the visual and tonal strengths that the film works so hard to achieve. I refuse to blame the time for this, because I've seen movies of this time period that don't do this at all. I'll give Vera Miles a pass I guess, but I'm tempted to say that John Wayne is the best performance in the movie, and if that's the case then, well...
At times the framework of the film, much of the dialogue and characterizations, feel dated. I word I hate to use but is undoubtedly the most appropriate description. the one-note depiction of the Indians is something I want to criticize too but I guess I'll forgive that one, as this movie was born before the politically correct hordes descended, but it means that the final battle has less stakes then it might. I guess it makes sense for a movie, that for all intents and purposes is about searching for something and hanging onto something that doesn't exist anymore. Debbie the kidnapped girl has been raised as an Indian, so the red, white and blue pink tailed Debbie is dead regardless of whether they recover who she is now or not, something the younger Hunter accepts and the elder Wayne can't. Which leads to what in hindsight is a twisted finale, in which the happy ending (SPOILER) is that Wayne doesn't kill his teenage niece for representing a race he hates. This action is worthy of a soundtrack swell and triumphant beat. Some dark shit.
Ultimately, I think The Searchers is the kind of film that when analyzed, looks a lot more progressive and better then it actually is. Its agendas, beautiful look and that tone of frustrated hatred are very admirable, and give the film a unique feeling, but too much of it creaks under inspection and I would say it doesn't quite have the weight to be what it wants to be, pulled back by poor acting and a few too many moments of atmosphere destroying cheapness or caricatured characters. It has moments that implied the film I was told about, but something was lost slightly in cross-generational translation.