Then goodness knows what will happen
A. O. Scott of the New York Times recently noted that “Film” has become more of a stretched-luggage term than ever. When packing big items from an ever-growing canon with little souvenirs like The Innocence of Muslims, I’m also aware of vocabulary issues. In the long view, this is not a new problem: “drama” for Plato meant a worrying trend toward mother-loving, father-killing heroes. Aristotle worried about drama too, though more about tightness of structure than looseness of impact.
Still, it’s hard not to fret about the latest triumph of islamophobia and about the response to it by many who were never near any kind of screen, relying instead on those who did see the video clip. Again in the long view, it seems propaganda never has to reach more than a small fraction of its target audience, who can then be relied on to spark the desired chain reaction. In this context, Mr. Completely Sane Anders Breivik has serious claims to be his own small fraction and chain reaction rolled into one. Not that this makes him too comfortingly freakish: emerging from the suburbs of Oslo where Muslim immigrants are least prevalent, he shares with many other such fractions a whole integer of depthless ignorance concerning the demon interloper. (It’s a fair bet that the most recent “anti-Western” riots — like all their predecessors — occurred in places with fewest real live Westerners.)
At any rate, the above explains my brief glance at “responsible movie-making” — whatever that is. And if I spend more time with Hitchcock, Lang, and Ford than, say, the Dardennes Brothers, I’m not dismissing any of the media-savvy or socially aware directors on the present scene.
As a distinct feature of Now and Then, in Cinema’s first half-century or so worries about commercially motivated news manipulation fed into many productions. Not that this was a hugely self-critical affair. In the blame game of the times, long before TV came to receive its own share of the flak, Film often pointed an accusing finger at the ugly power of the Press, a perfect example of which comes in early Hitchcock.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) is the director’s fifth movie, but its Wrong Man storyline is the first to define typical Hitchcock territory. As a film it has much to savour. What I’m stressing here, though, is the intensity with which it portrays a tabloid-inflamed mob: they know the man they’re hounding has been killing innocent women and must die. What they don’t know — and what 1920s audiences would quickly have seen — is that the cloak, hat, and face-concealing scarf are the eccentric garb of Ivor Novello, sensitively handsome star of stage and screen, best remembered today as an early example of the singer-songwriter tradition. But even if we know nothing about the actor playing the fugitive, we still feel a real sense of growing horror, if anything more sickening now because, until the last moment, Hitchcock withholds all formal clues about innocence or guilt.
Conventional wisdom explains the peculiar intensity of all this in a couple of ways. There’s the well-documented incident in Hitchcock’s childhood: being locked up for a few minutes in a police station near his father’s London grocery store, an Edwardian lesson in what happens to “bad boys.” More relevant, though, are his adult experiences as a trainee director in Weimar Germany in 1924 and again in 1925. From these he absorbed an incalculable number of influences that — among other things — reinforced a deep admiration for the films of Fritz Lang. And though one would normally see glaring contrasts between Lang’s Metropolis (also from 1927) and The Lodger, both train their searchlights on the theme of mass manipulation.
In his own career, Hitchcock exhibits a conscientiousness no less fearful or real. One might ask how someone known for artifice-laden thrillers could have a conscience about anything. But the kind of awareness I’m talking about is shown in that obsessive artistry that — whatever information is “cruelly” withheld — always lets us know “It’s only a movie.”
There is one famous exception: The Wrong Man, uniquely for Hitchcock a true story of false arrest and imprisonment. Intriguingly, this departure from his own rules came out at the same time as the genre-defying “noir” described above. Ten years younger than Lang, could it be that — even when both were well into middle-age — Hitchcock was still tracking the master?
Despite my present maturity when I come to John Ford — a match for the most conscientious artist Europe has to offer — I tend to be thrown back among childhood responses to bog standard B movies; and, frankly, I still feel mildly shocked that the genre has produced any examples of great art or emotional maturity. Learning from Wiki that the young Ford played a Ku Klux Klansman in Birth of a Nation, the Pavlovian reflexes weren’t any easier to overcome. To make progress, I decided that, after putting it off for many years, I had to watch this terrible film. The hope, probably forlorn, was to understand how people like Griffith and Ford — typically so inclusive in their vision — came to lend themselves to such an appallingly racist thesis.
I found that the film’s first ninety minutes or so concentrate, innocuously enough, on the Civil War period itself. Helped by fulsome, even scholarly titles, we watch as an almost renaissance idea of pastoral slowly gives way to smoke-filled hells, scenes both dreadful and beautiful, as though painted by Goya and Turner. From them we can make some sense of the film’s claim to show its abhorrence of war. Yes, we have our suspicions about a racially structured rural idyll, raped as it were by fraternal conflict. All the same, if the scenario had come to a stop with Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U. S. Grant, we could be speaking of the first great antiwar movie.
Under the subheading “The Reconstruction,” the next hour and a half also deploys a steady supply of helpful intertitles. And at the purely technical level, the film still has edifying claims on our interest. A “Facsimile” of the Master’s Hall in South Carolina is a scene that opens with a brilliant dissolve from rows of empty desks to a sudden throng of activity. But we then see that this is an arena of rowdy black delegates unable, apparently, to cope with the giddy pleasures of sudden enfranchisement. Citing no less an authority than Woodrow Wilson, the titles explain that abuses of power by newly freed slaves were occurring all over the South. Today’s historians point out that the only evidence for this comes from contemporary press cartoons; and these no doubt very accurately reveal the anxieties of the white community.
More than anything, white people feared being forced to accept interracial marriage. And Griffith begins showing this as though recording a rational response to a real-world threat. Again, just to be clear, there’s absolutely no evidence of black interest in such dastardliness. However, in states like South Carolina where history suggests blacks could outnumber whites by as much as five percent, the impending violation of white women obviously had to be deterred. And since the threat was sanctioned by government policy, it was best to keep resistance as clandestine as possible.
Connected by a particularly bizarre title with “fiery Scotland,” KKK ritual and garb were obviously meant to evoke notions of medieval knighthood. And here, I think, is our biggest clue to how Griffith and Ford came to be dragged along in the undertow of this flooding sewer. Griffith, with his proud Welsh roots, was a chivalrous Southern gentleman to his fingertips. Ford, his young protégé from Maine, was of good Irish stock and another romantic Celt. Both were brought up to love theatre. Sealing the bond, they also shared a passion for the great outdoors. For filmmakers of the era, this was pretty much a basic requirement; and even when the big studio lots were constructed, it was still often quicker and cheaper to use natural scenery, which, in sunny deserts, also offered reliable natural light.
The point is that Ford’s great mentor, Griffith, was a peripatetic Chaucerian prototype, “a very parfit gentil knight.” However, the potential blind spot of every true knight is, as we know, the duty to protect his lady from taint or tarnish of any kind. For the second half of his film, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman is the text that Griffith now follows to the letter. Therein, the Ku Klux Klan is seen by all (Southern white) gentlemen as the defender of all (Southern white) womankind.
It’s something of a relief to know that, from its release, Birth of a Nation was recognised as a steaming pile of potentially toxic gobbledegook. Griffith meanwhile felt hurt, believing he’d done no more than show black Americans as misguided agents of a higher — white — power. What I noticed in my own viewing was that in scenes of generic crowd behaviour — for example, dancing or fighting — black roles were played by black people. In more foregrounded scenes, like those involving ex-Union soldier “Gus,” whose clumsy advances lead to a white girl’s suicide, a blacked-up white actor was used. Clearly a white actor could be better relied on to achieve the required complex effect — in this case an innocently misguided but all the same “crazy” demeanour. The intertitles, by the way, vamp constantly on “crazy” (rebellious black person) and its opposite “faithful.” Unsurprisingly, the latter is illustrated by the old family servant, “Mammy”; but this is another “important” role and, as such, must be entrusted to another blacked-up white actor. What’s going on here we now call “institutional” racism — something so deeply endemic that practitioners have no conscious awareness of the underlying aim: to infantilise grown people.
One could admit that Griffith’s world of patronising gentility didn’t help him see the problem. Seventy years on in A Passage to India, many of us wondered what time warp David Lean was trapped in when he gave Alec Guinness the role of Godbole. By this time, though, a real live Bengali Indian, Victor Bannerjee, does get the bigger role of Aziz.
The dramatic intensity of it all derives ultimately, I think, from Ford’s deeply conscientious dislike of the self-centered criminal mind. As opposed to the dreadful propagandist fakery in Birth of a Nation we now have a film in which the horrors of imminent rape are much more honestly portrayed. This time there’s no “honourable” male self-aggrandisement, the sort obtained by armed midnight raids on unarmed citizens. Instead, to take Ford’s most brilliantly realised scene, we have a simple-looking middle-distance shot of a young man — Clegg’s tallest son — arms outstretched, holding a small young woman under the arms. She’s perhaps eighteen inches off the ground, her body stiff and straight. He ogles her for what feels like an eternity though only seconds go by. There are helpless bystanders, so it’s a scene of public humiliation, a display of conscience-free physical power that — adding to the psychological horror — is allowed to pass with no immediate consequences, physical or otherwise.
Commending itself to those whose view of male bravery includes a disinclination to be shot at, Ford allows the good guys to show their nerves as they plan the dangerous job of restoring moral order. If confessions of fear by male leads was a standard Ford device — and I’m afraid that is how it feels in, say, Rio Grande — there’s nothing posted-in about it here, nor, one could add, about any other aspect of a truly grown-up production.