Tuesday, November 13, 2007

3 Godfathers

Sometimes, one needs to forget all about the real world when watching a movie. We’ve come to expect too much realism from them. Musicals are in a state of collapse because, well, real people just don’t suddenly start singing and dancing in the streets, rain or no rain. Westerns seem so old fashioned to our modern eyes. Nobody robs banks nowadays and then has the nerve to attempt escape on horseback. Cars are much quicker.

I recently showed John Ford’s western 3 Godfathers, one of my favorite movies, to a group of adults. What I didn’t expect was how much – to me inappropriate – laughter I would hear from them throughout. It caused me to ponder how much some movies must overcome to reach jaded modern viewers. 3 Godfathers has three really high hurdles to clear. The film is old. The film is a western. The film is directed by John Ford who takes a might bit of getting used to – as do most persons with the last name of “Ford.” Ahem.

Actually, 3 Godfathers isn’t all that old. It isn’t dawn-of-cinema-silent-movie old which presents a whole different and much higher hurdle to most viewers. 3 Godfathers was made in 1948 and stars a still quite young looking John Wayne only a wrinkle or two removed from his presence in that western genre touchstone Stagecoach, the film that made westerns respectable as more than Saturday afternoon serials. 1948 is plenty old though to cause some difficulties. When we think westerns nowadays we think of more enigmatic and elegiac works like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the recent Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Those films are products of the seventies cinema where open-endedness and loose ends and uncertainty concerning a character's thoughts and motivations was prized. The scene in 3 Godfathers where our three bank robbers meet the town sheriff just doesn’t sit well with eyes accustomed to the modern approach. We are driven crazy by how the robbers’ intentions are communicated loud and clear and yet the sheriff lets them ride away instead of throwing them behind bars.

After decades of seeing child birth explicitly depicted on screen and on television (even during dinner) and being exposed to television commercials for such intimate products as tampons and Viagra, it seems ridiculously quaint to see – or rather not see – a scene of child birth so obliquely and at such a distance. And when we see the mother and infant, shortly after birth, there’s no blood, no afterbirth, no umbilical cord. Heck, the baby looks like it entered the world three weeks ago and the mother like she just returned from an afternoon at a health spa. Times have definitely changed.

The world isn’t black and white no matter what the Ronald Reagans and George W. Bushs would have you believe. We realize it is full of complexity. The classical western genre (the films of the 30s and 40s, not the revisionist works starting with Anthony Mann or Ford’s The Searchers or The Wild Bunch) though is all about the play between extreme good and bad. It is about black hats and white hats. It is about men being wanted dead or alive. It is about Us versus The Other as in cowboys versus the Indians. We have difficulty containing a chuckle when we hear a sheriff utter a line like, “I’ll add fifty dollars to the reward. I want them dead.”

Westerns are also stuffed full of conventions that don’t fit our realistic model of the world, like singing and dancing in the streets causing many pairs of modern eyes to roll while watching Hollywood musicals. Why do six-shooters always seem to hold enough ammo to fuel a machine gun? Why can’t the bad guys ever shoot straight while the good guys never miss the tiniest of moving targets while they are hanging upside down by one foot stuck in a stirrup with a cowboy hat covering their eyes? Or (one of my favorites) why does every stagecoach arrive in town carrying a beautiful young woman in her best Easter dress to be greeted by two suitors holding pathetic looking but heartfelt bouquets? When the men realize their shared intentions, they react somewhere between an exchange of jealous glances to a slapstick fistfight in the dusty street followed by them offering each other a beer in the always nearby saloon.

To enjoy westerns, or any genre movies for that matter from musicals to kung fu to screwball comedy, one must be able to recognize the conventions and then to simply accept them, roll with them, have fun with them, and notice when they are occasionally turned on their ear. There is an inversion of the Good Guy/Bad Guy dichotomy in 3 Godfathers for example. Our “good guys” are the bank robbers while the sheriff and his posse are the “bad guys,” an earlier example of the type of variation that would reach its peak expression in The Wild Bunch.

Director John Ford was a quite distinctive voice in American movies. I often compare him to that most distinctive of all Japanese masters Yasujiro Ozu. He was fond of building scene after scene around arrivals and departures always accompanied by characters looking longingly and searchingly off-screen toward some far distant vanishing point. He loved wide shots with his characters silhouetted as tiny figures on the horizon often against Technicolor sunsets. He was one of the most romantic and sentimental of artists. This often led him to stylistic flourishes that can stick out like proverbial sore thumbs when viewed in isolation. His constant use of slapstick humor (which can often seem nowadays as un-amusing pratfalls) and his insistent recycling of favorite hymns (which can seem oddly melodramatic if not outright out of place and weird to modern viewers) erect an insurmountable barrier to enjoyment for many. It is only by watching many films by John Ford across many genres that one appreciates these as artistic pre-occupations, even obsessions. They become building blocks of a genuine artistic vision.

What do I find so compelling about 3 Godfathers? I’ve watched it many times now and I truly find it epic, heroic. Watching John Wayne and his fellows trek across the formidable desert without food or water trying to safely deliver a baby to New Jerusalem is like watching Frodo struggle to right the world by carrying the ring to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom. There are even shots of Wayne’s iconic figure scaling mountain passes that honestly must have inspired Peter Jackson. I love how wind machines are obviously employed to create just the right chaotic, battle of God and the Devil atmosphere and to blow the pages of a Bible to and fro to give our heroes guidance. I love how Wayne’s line that he will continue along his chosen path “until he finds religion” rings in my head the way his line from The Searchers – “We’ll find them alright … Eventually … Just as sure as the turning of the Earth” – has rung between my ears ever since first hearing it 25 years ago.

Yes, I’m grateful that I can see Ford’s tropes for what they are, take westerns for what they were, and understand that people haven’t always been able to handle commercials about constipation while sitting at the dinner table. This way, I can enjoy a terrific old John Wayne western without being distracted by my own giggles.

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