Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Directed by John Ford

Directed by John Ford (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971, 2006) Bogdanovich's primer is a "viewer's digest" of some big things that that made John Ford such a powerful director not only in individual films, but also across a career of experience.  Generous clips from throughout his acreer illustrate points, punctuated by talking head clips from the '71 version including Ford himself (who is not very helpful, to say the least—by saying the least*—and is deliberately dismissive of the doing the whole critical analysis thing, much like a comedian hates to explain a joke, or a magician a trick), John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart.  The 2006 update folds in Harry Carey, Jr., Maureen O'Hara, and analysis from Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill, and Steven Spielberg, as well as Bogdanovich.  

The update has everything from the original re-jiggered to add more points, but there's more of a "legacy" feel to the thing, now, as the casts Ford depended on have dwindled—Ford was still alive during the first version—and so the next generation who grew up and learned their craft sitting in the theater watching Ford's images talk about "what John Ford means to me."  Also, as the man is gone now, there's a bit more psychological analysis and more delving into the man's irascible personality, already on full display in his interview.

But there is one troubling aspect to this "new" version, something that stuck in my craw when I saw it (and no doubt would result in Ford caning Bogdanovich if he got wind of it).  There is a brief (very brief) examination of Mary of Scotland, Ford's only film with Katherine Hepburn, and the subject of much speculation over what their relationship was.  A sound clip is played of Hepburn's visit to Ford days before his death.  The tape was allowed to run continuously, and their parting words to each other are played, words that they had no way of knowing were being recorded, and words that might not have been said if known they'd been overheard (Ford specifically asks her "Are they gone?").  It's nothing scandalous or huge.  Ford merely says "I love you," and Hepburn says "it's mutual."  But it feels like a violation of the departed by the parties that recorded it and who have re-presented it.  And far too much is made of it (Really?  It was the inspiration for the names of O'Hara's and Wayne's characters in The Quiet Man?) in a gossipy, speculative fashion. These were, after all, words from people who must have known they'd never see each other again, and it's nice and it's lovely. But it's beneath the film, beneath Bogdanovich, and undercuts whatever scholarly impact the film might otherwise enjoy to make anything more of than the sweet parting gesture it is.  The worst part is...there's no one to rebut, no one to protest, no one to defend...or even better yet, to correct the speculation. Even Ford's maxim of "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" doesn't cover this.

That aside (and it's my quibble, really), it's an invaluable first toe-dip into the films of Ford, and enriches the experience and appreciation of every film of his seen afterwards.  One thing Bogdanovich did right (besides getting Turner Classic Movies to bank-roll it, so more people would see it, the various clips from many sources being very expensive) is he kept the original's essential narration by Orson Welles, Ford fan and student.   The voices and faces and memories out of the past have as much weight and bearing as the films do, reverberating throughout history and time, feeling immortal and universal.


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