John Ford For Ever
By Serge Daney

A common and questionable idea has it that on television the close-up shot is king. If it was true, the man who one day shouted “I don’t want to see nose hair on a fifteen meter screen!” would not stand a chance on the small screen. John Ford wasn’t very fond of close-ups, or of expository scenes, which amounts to the same thing. He shot very quickly and spent only 28 days directing She Wore a Yellow Ribbon(and not La charge héroïque, the ill-translated and stupid French title). It was in 1949; he was his own producer and did whatever he fancied. Forty one years later, the film ‘passes’ perfectly from the big to the small screen (on Channel 1). Elementary, you say? Not quite.
 
Gilles Deleuze one day reminded the youngsters of the FEMIS school of cinema that their work as filmmakers would consist in producing ‘blocks of duration-movement’. And if Ford’s blocks remain so perfect, it’s because they respect the most elementary of golden numbers: they only last the time it takes a practised eye to see everything they contain (1). The time to see all there is to see is the right duration and the right movement for an eye as disciplined in the art of looking as Ford’s horsemen are in the art of riding.
 
A principle so simple that it allowed Ford to complicate, refine and even convolute things while always giving a feeling of timeless classicism. It isn’t the action which determines duration, it’s the perception of an ideal spectator, of a scout who would see from afar all that there is to see (but nothing more).
 
Rapid contemplation is the Ford paradox. It’s impossible to watch his movies with a lazy eye because we then no longer see anything (except stories of romantic soldiers). The eye must be sharp because in any image of a Ford’s film, there is likely to be a few tenths of a second of pure contemplation before the action starts. Someone goes out a wood shack or leaves the frame, and there are red clouds over a cemetery, a horse abandoned in the right hand corner of the image, the blue swarming of the cavalry, the distraught faces of two women: things to be seen at the very beginning of a shot, because they won’t be a ‘second time’ (too bad for the sluggish eyes).
 
Ford is one of the great artists of cinema. Not only because of the composition and the light of his shots but more deeply, because he shoots so quickly that he makes two movies at the same time: a movie to ward of time (stretching his stories out of fear of ending) and another to save the moment (the moment of the landscape, two seconds before the action). He enjoys the show ‘before’ (2). So with Ford there is not point looking for characters who, in front of a beautiful landscape, would say “How beautiful!” The character is not to whisper to the spectator what he should see. That would be immoral.
 
And the characters are busy enough postponing retirement and the end of the twists and turns of the story. This theme emerges in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and will keep coming back. Ford’s characters (soldiers included) are but the traveling acrobats of their beliefs – beliefs which tend less and less to lead to promise lands, even if they draw the figure of riders on a bright red sunset sky or in the moonlight. This image is in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon of course. This circular parade, going from left to right, is collective and never-ending.
 
But there is another movement, more mysterious, which comes from the deep end of the shot, and always emerges in the middle of the image (3). As if this film maker, who had built everything on the refusal of close-ups and expository scenes, on occasion let something come toward his characters. Thus we find a close-up in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. We can see Nathan Brittles-John Wayne-Raymond Loyer (4) talking to his wife, long dead and buried two feet away, explaining that he has only six days left before retirement and that hasn’t made any decisions. Then the shadow of a woman appears on the grave. It’s only a harmless young girl but for those who have learned to watch Ford properly, this brief moment frightens. It’s the past that comes back in the middle of the image, without warning, ‘àla Ford’. Needless to say that when an image has not only edges but also a heart, the small screen welcomes it with due consideration.

(1) I got this remark from the Portuguese film maker A.P. Vasconcelos.
 
(2) We could venture to say that, reversely, a film maker taking stock to show us the beauty of the landscape ‘after’ is immoral.
 
(3) The author of the article has reaffirmed his ‘Fordism’ at the page 62 of the excellent special issue of Cahiers du cinéma on John Ford
 
(4) Raymond Loyer is the French voice of John Wayne in dubbed movies (translator’s note).
 
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Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar. The French version of this text was originally published in Liberation, 18 November 1988 and can be found in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas (http://www.aleas.fr/), 1997.