THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
In the intellectual realm and the arts, commentators and critics are pushed by intellectual consensus into well-trod paths, with narrow parameters, set choices, no one thinking outside the box.
An example: A list of “Greatest Westerns” by the people at Wonders in the Dark.
The list is acceptable from an academic perspective. “Auteurs” are well represented. The list is properly diverse and politically correct. The only problem with the list is that these are not the greatest Westerns, for the most part. Not when you actually watch them.
“Rio Bravo” at #2? It’s a nice, leisurely movie. Not deep. Not profound. I have it at #19 on my own list (see my ebook, About Western Movies). I thought I was being generous. Director Howard Hawks is considered a pantheon auteur. Though the movie isn’t in any way “great,” it’s a safe choice.
My own #2 Western, “The Magnificent Seven,” isn’t anywhere on the Wonders in the Dark top 50 Westerns list.
Which film is better?
WATCH them and see for yourself. “Seven” is more impressive visually. It’s better paced. It has the unity and completeness of great art—when it’s over, the aesthetic kick of the perfection of art. It has better form. It’s better scripted and better acted. It’s vastly more exciting. Heretical as it is to say this, Yul Brynner, in this film, makes a better model of an ideal leader of men than John Wayne. “Seven” has more emotion and greater heart. Also, of course, it has the magnificent Elmer Bernstein score. As fine a Western movie composer as Dimitri Tiomkin is, his music for “Rio Bravo” can’t match it.
Another example: John Ford’s “Wagonmaster” (1950) is on the list. A very good film. “Westward the Women” (1951) isn’t on the list, though it’s even better.
Ford’s film falls short of being epic, because it subordinates the wagon journey to a plot complication involving a stereotyped gang of lawless psychos. The movie’s characters, good and bad, are flat types.
In “Westward the Women,” not only is the journey epic; not only are the subsidiary characters (like Ito and Patience) more impressive and mythic ; but the two leads, played by Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel, have surprising emotional depth. Their relationship has depth. The arc of their finding each other as mates matches the epic journey, and the theme of community which undergirds the film.
At the end, when the two come together, it’s a profoundly satisfying moment—the sense of unity and completeness. The “kick” of great art.
Frank Capra, a near-pantheon director, constructed the scenario for “Westward the Women.” William Wellman directed the actual movie. I don’t know if this proves or disproves “auteur” theory. I don’t think it matters. What matters is the result.
The trick for a new thinker is to not be trapped in the mental corridors of status quo. For an artist, received wisdom exists to be demolished.