Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Searchers, Racism and Ethics

Scar, the brutal Comanche warrior
Amidst my friends on the Filmspotting Forum, there has in the past been a debate as to whether the classic John Ford Western is racist. 

It’s a very good western.  Most of the performances are weak, but the direction and storytelling are powerful.  The buildup to the first Comanche attack is a perfect example: The audience knows what will happen, but the family in the farmhouse doesn’t, but they gradually gain more signs and it builds until the oldest daughter screams.  What a perfectly done scene.

Our heroes?
The story is pretty basic:  John Wayne and his companion Jeffery Hunter seek out a kidnapped girl and perseveres until they find her.  It is the many details that make this film.  The hints of an old crush a woman has on her husband’s brother.  The casual avoidance of telling any details because of the horror seen there.  The occasional perspective of a woman waiting for her noble, tongue-tied paramour.  A couple characters that are Swedish immigrants.  Just as interesting is what the film doesn’t tell us.  We never find out what happened to Ethan in the three years between the Civil War and the beginning of the film, even when certain things are begging to be explained.  Nor do we find out what happens to Ethan after the film, although he was going to be taken to trial for murder.  Each detail means nothing in itself, but put together,  this film is a whole world, a complex of activity and life.

But is it racist?

There is no question that John Wayne is racist.  Not the actor, but his character in the film, Ethan.  A point is made of it in the film.  There is one group of Native Americans, the Comanches, whom Ethan completely despises.  He will kill them if he has a chance, his companion, Martin, is concerned about what he would do when he meets the Comanches and when another main character identifies with this group, he attempts to kill that person as well.

However, just because a character in a film is racist doesn’t make the film racist.  Martin, a fifth-blood Cherokee isn’t racist at all, and sees Ethan’s racism as a danger in their overall goal: to rescue the girls of a destroyed farm family.   Certainly in other films, pro racist statements are make more boldly, such as American History X or Do the Right Thing, yet the films are clearly anti-racist.  Just because a main character is racist doesn’t make the film so.
Ward Bond and John Wayne

The confusion comes in because of the strength of Wayne’s character.  John Wayne, as usual, is the strongest presence in the film, with only occasional scene stealing from Ward Bond, playing the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton.   But, oddly enough, he is also often the wise and even the ethical voice of the film.  Ethan shows knowledge beyond what one might expect, including multiple languages.   He knows the habits and customs of many different cultures.  He knows when to allow the horses to rest and when an informer is really a betrayer.  Everyone else in the film is slow or simply average.  Ethan alone shines.

Perhaps Martin is the ethical voice.  He stops Ethan from killing and expresses more liberal values.  But if he is the ethical voice, it is a weak voice.  He is committed to doing right, but at the cost of his girl and the life they should be having together.  He returns home to disrupt her wedding to another man, and then he leaves again.  This seems like a strange action for a moral model.
Monument Valley is the beautiful backdrop of the film

In the midst of a confusing mix of details, we could get bogged down for a long time.  Perhaps it would be better to focus on the main moral theme of the film, and see if we can make any headway there.

There is one strong recurring theme in the film, and that is family.  Martin constantly chaffs at the fact that Ethan doesn’t consider him family.  Martin was found by Ethan as a baby, and was raised by Ethan’s brother.  Yet Ethan makes a clear distinction between blood family and others.  There is a responsibility, an eternal loyalty to blood family, but others can come or go—it doesn’t matter.   Family was attacked, family values attacked and family loyalty is tested over a period of years. 

For Ethan, this loyalty to family extends to peoples.  Ethan has a great respect for almost all peoples.  They have their own values and culture and Ethan gives them enough respect to learn their languages and ways, so he can best communicate with them.  But when a member of his family verbalizes a rejection of their people, the Ethan must kill that traitor.  There are clear lines between peoples, and these lines must not be crossed, which is probably the reason Ethan has a hard time accepting Martin.  Ethan’s philosophy is a consistent one, and one’s loyalty to family is strongly connected to race, and thus to racism.

Martin, of course, voices a different way of looking at things.  He is mixed race himself, and believes that one’s family has more to do with love and connection rather than blood.   He searches with Ethan in order to protect the world from Ethan’s prejudices.  In this way, Martin is the most redemptive person in the film, the one with the noblest quest.  Nevertheless, the film is not really about his quest.

Natalie Wood as Debbie
In the end, which point of view wins?  The only way to determine this is to discuss the ending of the film, so if you want to avoid spoilers, please stop reading now.

Debbie, the kidnapped girl, is found by Ethan and Martin after years of searching.  When found, she meets them and tells them to go.  She has married a Comanche warlord and they are now her people.  This is when Ethan tries to kill her, but Martin stops him.  When the Comanches follow the duo, they find Debbie again, and after her husband is killed, she gleefully returns back to the European world, making it clear that she never wanted to be with the Indians at all.

I believe that Debbie’s decision indicates the leaning of the film.  She, too, holds to the same values as Ethan.  She is loyal to her family, and only rejected them to save their lives.  Her real people are the people of her blood, not the people she had lived with for so many years.  And the final scene, that of Ethan carrying Debbie away, is the glorious and right conclusion.  Blood is thicker than experience.

I will not go so far to say that The Searchers is a racist film.  It is not preaching racism, and it does have Martin as a counterpoint to Ethan’s extremes.  But it is a movie about blood.  How important it is to be loyal to blood.   How blood is more important than anything else.  This is not racism, but it is it’s cousin.  Because to demand loyalty to blood before all else is to make other relations secondary.  So the brother who is in need of a new car is a greater requirement to meet than the homeless man who needs a meal.  And the cheap oil one needs to give one’s family a better lifestyle is more important than the hundreds of thousands of non-Anglos killed for the sake of that cheap oil.

In the end, Ethan’s fate is left open.  So is the fate of his philosophy.  The film leans toward Ethan’s ideals.  As do most conservative philosophies and religions.  But  it is still possible that Ethan will be hanged for his murder.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Kanal: Entering the Sewer

The Movie Bible: The Bible is a collection of ancient stories, all themed around humanity’s relationship with God and about how God wants us to live.   What would the Bible look like today if movies were collected around such themes?  I will discuss such movies, giving non-spoiler plots, discussing themes in the film and then drawing a conclusion.

This is easily among the top 5 darkest movies I have seen.

Right from the beginning, they warn you.  The narrator introduces a few of the characters and the company of resistance fighters in general.  Then he states in an even tone of voice, "Watch them carefully.  These the last few hours that they will remain alive."  And you might think that knowing they will die prepares you for the grueling trauma that is ahead.  It doesn't.

About two thirds of the film there is a reference to Dante's Inferno.  The comparison is apt.  Despite the horrors of war, and the realization that they have failed in their attempt to defeat the invaders who conquered their home, the true horror only begins once they have entered the kanal-- the sewers.  One would not be surprised to see at the entrance, "Abandon all hope all ye who enter here."

Everyone brings into the sewer their own weakness, their own humanness, their own crutches.  For one, he is filled with despair due to his inability to save his men.  Another has his fear.  Another is drunk.  Another is blinded by love.  Another is wounded in the chest.  Another is loyal to a fault.  Another is caught up in the comforts of high culture.  And so on.  And these crutches or weaknesses intensifies in the sewer, just as in the deepest of crises, our faults are magnified and our humanness becomes ever more human.

In the sewer the stench, the dampness, the darkness, the madness of others, the sickness-- not only does it make us physically sick, but it enters our mind.  The refuse of a populace invades our soul and soon the darkness doesn't surround us, it comes from within.  The sewer isn't just beneath our feet, but it could be in the midst of our lives.  For it is the circumstance that is beyond our strength.  Truly hell on earth.

Not everyone builds character in trial.  Suffering doesn't always display strength.  There is a trial that displays our hope, that causes our true, strong self to shine.  Until the suffering goes on too long, or cuts too deep, or twists in just the right way.  And then our strength is gone and all we have left is our weakness, our fear, our despair, our madness.

In the end, it is not our enemies that destroy us, but our lack.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Weakness and Natural Consequence: Throne of Blood

The Movie Bible: The Bible is a collection of ancient stories, all themed around humanity’s relationship with God and about how God wants us to live.   What would the Bible look like today if movies were collected around such themes?  I will discuss such movies, giving non-spoiler plots, discussing themes in the film and then drawing a conclusion.

After a miraculous victory, a general heads to his warlord’s castle, only to be waylaid by a witch who declares a dark prophecy:  At first he and his friend would both receive generous promotions.  And then he would take his lord’s place, and his friend’s son would eventually take his place.  After the first part of the prophecy came true, the general tried to forget the second, evil prophecy, but he could not.  His wife constantly reminds him of the prophecy, fanning his ambition into action.  He murders his lord and takes his place as warlord.  Eventually his ambition and selfish pride gets the best of him and all his plans sour, forcing the whole kingdom to be turned upside down in war and death.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare at all, you recognize Macbeth, one of his most famous plays.  For me, Akira Kurosawa is the king of Shakespeare adaptations.  He keeps the story, but translates them fully into feudal Japan.  One of the most problematic parts of enjoying Shakespeare is the poetry, where I feel I have to do literary analysis on every single line.  With Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Ran (his adaptation of King Lear),  you can appreciate the melodrama without the poetry.  It allows the actors more freedom to act without monologues and gives so much freedom for the director. There is so much to appreciate in Shakespearean plots and so much darkness to delve into.

Honestly, though, I have never appreciated Macbeth.  It is too dark, too fully immersed into the growing evil of the central character.  There is certainly a character arc—going the wrong way.  I am more and more uncomfortable as the story goes on.

In Throne of Blood, there is much more to appreciate than just the character.  Right from the beginning, the male chorus with the foggy castle in the distance gives one of the ominous, horror-filled bookends ever.  Mifune, one of the greatest actors of Japanese cinema gives an over-the-top performance, as he is horrified with the circumstances and with himself.

There are many defenders of the original play and story.  “It is a classic story of fate dealing with a man and his wife who made evil decisions.  In their hearts they were ambitious and prideful, and fate led them to a nasty end.  You reap what you sow.  When you give into depravity, you must face the  consequences.”

Okay, I understand this, somewhat.  Certainly it shows the consequence of vanity, arrogance and selfish ambition.  But Mifune’s Macbeth doesn’t begin ambitious.  He was on his way to receive a great reward for a great work.  He had achieved his ambition.  And right in that time, the seed was planted which was to become his downfall.  It did not need to happen, it was not natural to him.  And, in fact, he wouldn’t have even pursued the prophecy were it not for his evil wife (who is played with amazing subtlety in Throne of Blood by Isuzu Yamada—perhaps my favorite performance in 1957).  Even with her pushing, he might not have done the murder if the lord did not come to visit his castle.   He was pushed and pushed until the evil deed had almost accomplished itself, he was just the hand that held the blade.

He was not evil, just weak.  And from this point on, he is treated as the evil criminal he certainly was, but not in his heart.  As time passed, his heart soon caught up with his deed and he became the selfish lord that the witch, the wife and fate determined him to be.  What a horrible fate! 

All the more horrible, as I know many like him.  Weak, trapped and ultimately committing crimes and so convincing himself that they are among the great evil men.  And who could deny this?  No one. 

My only question in all this is: Where is the hope of redemption?  The weak one should have an out, an opportunity for repentance, for confession, for deliverance from his own heart.   But in Kurosawa’s film, as in Shakespeare, there is no hope for redemption.  The path of weakness leads straight to hell.  There is no turning back

And ultimately, this is why I must reject this film, this story.   As the ancient text says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked.  Rather, turn back, turn back!  Why then will you die?”  

Or, the more modern text says, “Are you not entertained?”  No.  No, I am not.  If life is like this, it is too horrible to contemplate, even were it true.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Grey: A Lesson In Survival

The Movie Bible: The Bible is a collection of ancient stories, all themed around humanity’s relationship with God and about how God wants us to live.   What would the Bible look like today if movies were collected around such themes?  I will discuss such movies, giving non-spoiler plots, discussing themes in the film and then drawing a conclusion.

Talk about a bad day.  Liam Neeson is filled with remorse about his life, so he gets a job in the Alaskan wilderness with a whole lot of other ne’er-do-wells.  Feeling trapped and of no use to anyone, he seriously considers suicide, to the point of putting a gun in his mouth (which looks silly, no fashion sense at all).  Coming just off of that brink, he and some of his co-workers were taking a break and heading toward Anchorage.  And then the plane crashes, with only seven survivors.  Thankfully, they have Liam Neeson there to help them survive, to focus on food and warmth and a plan to get out.  And then the wolves attack.

It would be a mistake to see this film as strictly an action film.  It has a number of tense scenes (so much so that my wife laughed at me as I am jumping and whimpering in front of my laptop) and great action moments.  But if you were to see the film as action, then you would end up being disappointed.  Because in the end, this film isn’t about the intensity, but it is a parable about survival—about how we approach life in general.

We are all in the wilderness  working together to survive.  But wolves—crises, traumas and illnesses—attack us, threaten us and try to kill us.  We are all doing our best to survive, in whatever way we know how.  Some of us are better at surviving than others, perhaps because they know that life is about survival and so they have focused just on surviving.  These survivors might help us live as well, but most of us do not focus on surviving.  Some of us survive as long as we do because of the help of others.  Some of us survive because of dumb luck.  And some of us die because of that same luck. 

Some of us have faith in a higher power to save us.  Some believe that from the sky, someone will hear our cry and deliver us from our traumas and crises.  Those that do might lash out in anger because they feel that they shouldn’t have to face a crisis that is more than they can handle.  Others of faith are more accepting of their fate, welcoming crises when they happen.  Some even welcome death, recognizing that the beauty of life is more than enough to make up for one’s inevitable death.  In a sense, these people are strong because they accept death on their own terms, and so they live life on their own terms.

Most of us, though, are about survival.  Keeping alive and thriving as best we can.  We struggle, we persevere, and sometimes we make mistakes.  Our own bodily or mental weaknesses make it difficult to survive, but still we strive.  Sometimes we succeed.  Sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes we fight against our wolves, and sometimes we have no fight left to give.  [Spoiler alert—But in the end, it doesn’t matter.  None of us survive.  We all die.  Whether we die with grace, die fighting, die to stupid bad luck, die to personal weakness—in the end we are all dead.  Does it really matter how we live if we all end up the same?]

Of course it does.  Our lives are all we have,  it is our story and our story is, in the end, all we have to give to those who live after us.   Our lives matter not only for our own survival, but the survival of those around us.  And how we live makes the difference between living a good life and a poor one.

The problem with the existential parable of The Grey is that the point of view doesn’t connect to the majority of the movie-watching public.  Most of us don’t see ourselves as survivors, barely alive with wolves attacking us.  The majority of us are thrivers, propped up by a society that has more than ample resources.  The majority of the movie-watching public whine when crises come, wondering “why me” instead of accepting it as a part of life.

To find survivors, one would have to go to the homeless, the desperately poor in other nations.  They understand this film and can see themselves as one of the characters in the parable.  This parable would make sense to (and enflame the emotions of) most people in the ancient world.  But today, the existential point doesn’t make sense to most of us.  We are just disappointed that the film isn’t more of an action thriller.

But the film’s point about life is a good one.  If we don’t see the wolves as a natural part of life, we will just be taken by surprise when they do come.  And, unprepared, we will fail ourselves and those around us.   Life is about living, and living is often about survival.  We cannot survive alone, we cannot survive without hope, we cannot survive without meaning.  What can we do to help ourselves and others survive?

Movie Bible Extra:  
Be a star like Liam Neeson!  Choose mediocre or almost bad films to be a part in, that way you are always the best thing in the film.  Voila!  Instant superstar!