Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Squirming Through the Classics

Over break, I watched 26 feature-length films. Aside from a few mediocre new releases in theaters and on Netflix, these movies were classics, either from the art house tradition or the Golden Age of Hollywood. Before you question my sanity, know that I really enjoy these kinds of movies and I had some company — Sam Bromer ’16 dedicated his column last week to praising the intellectual value of some Criterion Collection films we watched. I agree with him that you feel good after sitting through demanding, “more nutritional,” as he puts it, fare from the olden days. That is, you do until a movie’s age begins to show, and not through cheesy special effects.

If “theme” is the artistic essence of narrative film — a reader of film cares how plot, aesthetics and cinematic form bring out a theme or question — then “representation” is its thorny by-product. A man filmed in a medium shot is more than just a man: He is a character, the actor playing that character and, whether the filmmakers intended him to be or not, a symbol. For what is anyone’s guess, though if that man wears a cowboy hat and talks, walks and looks like John Wayne, you can bet he, the man on-screen, stands in for ideals of honor, chivalry and masculinity. Of course, the same close reading should be applied to female characters as well, and it is there where things get awkward, especially when diving into the classics. 

John Ford was a master of his craft, winner of a record four Oscars for Best Director and a go-to textbook for formal nuance — he told stories through images and saw a script as just a “skeleton.” Being a pioneer of the Western genre, Ford included a lot of American Indians in his films, most of them silent, savage antagonists. That’s the case inStagecoach, the 1939 hit that made a star out of Wayne (and viewable now on Hulu Plus). While he atoned, somewhat, for past racism in his morally gray 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, his depiction of women remains interesting for the notes he struck right as well as those that were off.

In Stagecoach, Wayne’s character falls in love with a “woman of ill repute,” a common archetype in the lawless Old West of myth. There is a moment when Dallas, the prostitute, exposes her leg while climbing into the stagecoach, to the catcall of one old bastard, but for the rest of the film she keeps herself covered, even conservative in appearance. She seems ashamed less of her line of work than the reaction she spurs from others, like the ladies behind the town’s Law and Order League, who are reminiscent of 1920s Temperance activists. Wayne’s Ringo smiles at her and prods his male peers to treat her with the same respect they automatically afford the pregnant aristocrat in their midst. Dallas appreciates Ringo’s kindness but hesitates, at first, at validating his romance. As the film progresses, Dallas acts as compassionate midwife, skilled homemaker and an increasingly vocal presence.

Ford builds sympathy for Dallas by moving her away from her past and toward respectability — he is far from a feminist. He is more a Catholic than a misogynist, subtly coding prostitution as bad, yet he also satirizes the hypocrisy of drunk, stupid men who look down on Dallas and then hope for the flash when she will show some skin. Dallas is an admirable character, though not a very strong or self-made one. We like her because Ringo does, because this Male Gaze finds her appealing. Today, we find Dallas’ characterization flawed but, if we put the film in context, we recognize she, and Ford framing her, oppose prejudice, to an extent.

So it is awkward to fast-forward nearly 30 years to Sergio Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West. The film is incredible in many respects, from its tense wordless opening to Henry Fonda’s uncanny bad guy performance. Yet there is a dimension or two missing from Claudia Cardinale’s character, a voluptuous widow who crooks and vigilantes fight to control, both for her land estate and other, obvious assets. She is at the center of the conflict, and yet Leone does not afford her much empathy. She stays tight-lipped through most of the film, not airing her grievances, while falling into positions of increasing undress. Cardinale is a beautiful actress, so the men are probably not complaining, but one wonders why the sole female character is so used and abused throughout this canonical film. Perhaps a degree of irony is lost on me; if so, its subtlety is too refined.

These two films stop short of the pretty shameful “slut shaming,” as we call it today, that can be seen in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Early on, a gregarious psychopath murders the promiscuous wife of our protagonist, who told the killer in confidence how he seeks a divorce. Prior to her death, the killer follows the wife as she giggles, licks an ice cream cone and pulls around anonymous, extramarital lovers. Just before he wraps his hands around her neck, she gives him a seductive glance, as if she wants to fool around with him too. Her subsequent murder strikes us not as awful but deserved — she was asking for it. I do not believe in that conclusion one bit, but I don’t have much choice from how Hitchcock, who never was known for being gracious to women, orders and frames the scene here.

I still take something from Strangers on a Train because, you know, Hitchcock did it. Young filmmakers can learn their craft just from breaking down how he orchestrates any given sequence. Yet I do not disown this film’s politics just because I find them wrong. Critic Peter Labuza wrote last month how “Dated films are vital to our understanding of the past.” Hitchcock is a legend who lives on, but his time has passed. A filmmaker could and should steal from him today, if only to fix where the master failed.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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