>On the art (and ideology) of John Ford’s films

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Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)
Even if John Ford had not made his ten best movies (whichever they are), he’d still be the greatest. [Tag Gallagher]

In Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford achieves the perfection of his art. Never were his matter and his method more aptly fitted, and never were his tendencies toward sprawl and overemphasis more rigorously controlled. It is a masterpiece of concision in which every element in every shot, every ratio, every movement, every shift of viewpoint seems dense with significance, yet it breathes an air of casual improvisation. While its surfaces paint, with relaxed humor and effortless nostalgic charm, an imaginary antebellum America, it sustains an underlying note of somber apprehension, all the more powerful for being held in check.

Ford finds a mood that avoids the clutter and ponderousness of most Hollywood history movies, a mood more of parable than of textbook chronicle. That preoccupation with history and its contradictions—the variance between actual human experience and the official version that will be constructed after the fact—that suffuses films as different as They Were Expendable (1945), Fort Apache (1948), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) resonates troublingly at the heart of this film, for all its apparent serenity. Nothing here is as uncomplicated as it seems designed to appear, which may be why the editors of Cahiers du cinéma, in a celebrated, if by now scarcely readable, special issue of 1970, brought the full force of their post-’68 Althusserian-Lacanian rhetoric to bear on the film in a scene-by-scene analysis, as if here the secret mechanisms of the American ideology itself might be decoded and exposed. In trying to pin down the meanings of Ford’s art, however, Cahiers du cinéma missed his mercurial—and, admittedly, sometimes infuriating––ability to be in two places at once. If Ford’s Lincoln exhibits at once a radiant sincerity and the devious subtlety of a trickster, he is to that extent the director’s mirror image. [Geoffrey O’Brien, ‘Young Mr. Lincoln: Here in Waiting’, The Criterion Collection, February 13, 2006]

Cahiers du cinéma’s 1969 analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), reprinted in Screenin 1972 in its first English translation, introduced symptomatic reading to British feminist film critics such as Pam Cook and Claire Johnston. Louis Althusser (1968, trans. 1970: 28-9) coined the term “symptomatic reading,” an interpretive strategy that searches not only for the structural dominants in a text but most importantly, for absences and omissions that are an indication of what the dominant ideology seeks to repress, contain or marginalize. Reading against the grain operates under the assumption that the text comprises a hierarchy of discourses in which one discourse – patriarchal ideology – asserts its dominance over others. Nevertheless, tensions between the dominant ideology and subordinate discourses produce ideological contradictions that the popular film cannot mask nor reconcile, try as it might. [Aspasia Kotsopoulos, ‘Reading against the grain revisited‘, from Jump Cut, Issue 44, 2001]

While it is difficult to ascertain exactly how an ‘oblique’ analysis of film would proceed, the editors of Cahiers [du cinéma’s] essay on John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln (1939) is a significant example of this type of criticism and stands as exemplary of the many important analyses of mainstream Hollywood films that were carried out in the pages of Cahiers and elsewhere. The analysis of Young Mr Lincoln is a close reading of this film, which belongs to the category that is in many ways the most difficult to endorse: films that remain within bourgeois ideology, but reveal its ambiguities and fissures (when subjected to a highly specialised mode of reading).The reading by the Editors of Cahiers uses principles of Marxism, semiology and credits Marxist and Freudian discourses, and includes fleeting references to Jean-Pierre Oudart, Althusser, Roland Barthes and Serge Daney, and Lacan. However, there is no sustained explanation as to precisely which principles drawn from these discourses they will deploy. While Peter Wollen, in his Afterword to the translation of the analysis of Young Mr Lincoln in Screen, declares that the text “owes its concepts to Jacques Lacan” […], this text would seem to be exemplary of Žižek’s contention that a sustained and explicit consideration of Lacan was in fact missing from 60s and 70s film theory.
     At first glance, therefore, the Young Mr Lincoln article might seem to exemplify a move towards Lacanian psychoanalysis. Furthermore, upon first glance, it appears to be a step towards a consideration of narrative content. As such, it might seem to undermine a contention of this thesis: that the content of popular film was systematically precluded by considerations of film and ideology during the 60s and 70s. In this article, the Editorial Collective treat the text of the film in many ways like a work of literature, analysing it sequence by sequence, with scarcely a mention of its materiality. It could be argued that here is an example of textual analysis that confounds the assertion that subject matter was neglected in favour of form and materiality in analyses of film and ideology. While an extensive examination of the content of Young Mr Lincoln, or signifié, to use the Editors’ turn of phrase, appears to consume the bulk of this article, it must be noted that it is the film’s form which is ostensibly the impetus for the discussion of its content. [Kate Greenwood, Confronting the limits: Renditions of the Real in the Edge of the Construct Film, PhD Thesis, The University of Adelaide, December 2006: 63-64]

It’s been a slightly quieter week than usual here at Film Studies For Free, as its voracious readers may have noticed.

A good reason for that is that this blog’s author has merrily begun a new university year, teaching … (drum roll) … Film Theory!

This shiny, new, non-virtual, pedagogical order will continue to slow up FSFF’s production a little, it’s true, but it will also inspire the direction that some of its entries will take in the coming weeks and months.

For example, as next week’s teaching focus is John Ford‘s 1939 film Young Mr, Lincoln, and the ideological film readings that it inspired, or provoked, here’s a little list of online and openly accessible scholarly books, articles and videos on the inspirational and/or provocative work of that very director.

Video Essay by Kevin B. Lee on The Sun Shines Bright (1956, John Ford) and Gertrud (1964, Carl T. Dreyer) with commentary by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Part One of Two. Part of the Shooting Down Pictures project

Video essay by Kevin B. Lee on Tobacco Road (1941, dir. John Ford), #905 (46) in the Shooting Down Pictures project.

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