Sunday, July 14, 2013

Geoffrey O’Brien’s Canyon Leaps

The Geoffrey O’Brien essay in the New York Review of Books, “Implacable in Texas,” like everything in the NYRB except the advertisements says more about the mindset of today’s critical establishment than it does about its topic.

The essay’s topic is Glenn Frankel’s book on the 1956 John Ford Western “The Searchers.” Geoffrey O’Brien equals Glenn Frankel, in that O’Brien agrees with everything Frankel says. They carry the exact same viewpoint toward the movie and the historical circumstances behind the movie. They could be the same person.

The Geoffrey O’Brien essay is filled with questionable assertions and canyon-sized leaps. Including a canyon in his essay he’s completely missed.

“Are these later episodes scenes that John Ford could’ve filmed?” O’Brien asks loudly about the inability of rescued white captives to readapt to white society.

Except, John Ford did film those scenes, a mere five years later, in “Two Rode Together.”

Geoffrey O’Brien asserts: “—gestures and exchanged glances also establish that Ethan and Martha love each other.”

NO. They don’t “establish” anything—except within the cultural establishment. O’Brien is repeating an assertion which has become established. The gestures suggest that Ethan and Martha might love each other. Or that Ward Bond believes they might. Or maybe he’s just drinking his coffee. Repeat the inference enough times and everybody believes it.

O’Brien: “The search advances. . . .”

No, it meanders.

O’Brien: “There is an aesthetic unity. . . .”

No. There are fragments of unattained aesthetic unity.

O’Brien: “But the poison that seeps into ‘The Searchers’ is the mixing of bloodlines.”

A melodramatic sentence and an overstatement.

Other Westerns are stronger on the racial theme, or on racism, including ‘Two Rode Together,’ but many others, even ‘Duel in the Sun’ and ‘One-Eyed Jacks,’ not to mention ‘Ulzana’s Raid,’ which is much tougher and more “shocking” on the white-Indian conflicts than either of Ford’s movies. Conversely, another Western, “The Magnificent Seven,” handles the theme of racism far more subtly than Ford’s much hailed movie.

“The Searchers” is stagey in that it telegraphs everything. John Wayne looks ominously off-screen, directing the audience. “Don’t ask me,” he intones. “Don’t ever ask me.”  Dark shadows, someplace, which we never see. They’re in the wings of the theatre.

O’Brien: “There is a ragged sense of pain at its heart.”

This is standard MFA-style literary bathos. I felt pain in my stomach reading it.

O’Brien: “—it channels a live current of emotion directly from some unhealed hurt, some old well of fear.”

Here Geoffrey O’Brien is layering on the bathos, bathos which thankfully isn’t too much in the movie.


Author Glenn Frankel has written an excellent book, but the book itself contains at least one huge leap. Frankel says about the religious settler family, the Parkers: “They were tribesmen and warriors, just one tenuous step removed from barbarism. Not so different, in truth, from the native peoples they met along the way.”

This is a gigantic leap, seeing that the Parkers and the Comanche Indians came from vastly different cultures, at completely different levels of civilization. Yet I’m sure that reviewer Geoffrey O’Brien agrees with Frankel’s statement implicitly.

Frankel’s statement is revealing. It says a great deal about the world view of the two men; about how they view America’s past and how they view elements of American society. I think it says much about how the intellectual class views, for instance, someone like Sarah Palin. It’s a viewpoint, not incidentally, which has colored depictions of the West, and Westerners, over the last 40 years of moviemaking.

It’s a topic I cover in my new About Western Movies ebook. But I do want to say more, here, about Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay, about “The Searchers,” and about the herd mentality of today’s intellectual elite. Stay tuned. That post is upcoming, when I find time to write it.

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