Pappy and The Duke.
The American West of John Ford (1971). A documentary encapsulating the career and Western films of director John Ford, including clips from his work and interviews with his colleagues such as John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Andy Devine.
Filmcuts of a BBC interview from 1968 that never been sent on TV.
The Duke introduces John Ford in a 1959 TV show.
In 1964, film critic and filmmaker André S. Labarthe, together with Janine Bazin, widow of influential film theorist André Bazin, approached the French television channel ORTF about starting a program that would resemble the long, in-depth interviews with film directors that magazines such as Cahiers du cinéma and Positif regularly published. ORTF gave the green light, and Cinéastes de notre temps (Filmmakers of Our Time) was born. Many of the programs were dedicated to older directors, then in retirement or in the final stages of their careers. Instead of TV journalists, Labarthe and Bazin would often ask well-known film directors to make these programs: thus, Jacques Rivette on Jean Renoir, or Jacques Rozier on Jean Vigo.
Cinéastes de notre temps lasted until 1971, when ORTF, for various clear and unclear reasons, decided to terminate production. Over the following years, the series became almost legendary, with occasional bits of its programs appearing in other films. In 1988, ARTE, the French-German cultural channel, decided to reprise the series, now under the title Cinéma, de notre temps. The focus shifted to contemporary filmmakers, and generally speaking directors were now more free to choose their own approaches—such as the self-portrait by Chantal Akerman or the film noir style of Rafi Pitts’ film on Abel Ferrara.
The films made for both Cinéastes and Cinéma, de notre temps together form an invaluable history of the cinema, full of insights into the work of individual filmmakers as well as a sense of the shifts in taste and ideas about cinema.
Hubert Knapp; André S. Labarthe 1969
France | 104 minutes
While at first the Cinéastes team was more interested in capturing on film the titans of Hollywood, many of them already quite elderly, attention was also given to the “New American Cinema,” as seen in these two terrific films. The Cassavetes film was shot in two parts, over three years. The first part, shot in 1965, catches Cassavetes as he is editing Faces; he recounts his unhappy experiences trying to work in Hollywood, and his palpable excitement for what he’s done in Faces is apparent throughout. The second part, filmed in Paris in 1968, reveals a more focused Cassavetes, as the success of Faces has shown him the direction in which he wants to continue. (50m)
Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty
Rafi Pitts 2003
France | 81 minutes
After encountering Abel Ferrara in New York, Franco-Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts returned to Paris and proposed to Labarthe a film about him. The project was quickly set up, and the filmmakers headed back to America. Ferrara gave Pitts precise instructions about where to meet to start shooting, but right before they were to begin he called to say he couldn’t make it. Pitts understood that he was going to have to “take” this film from Ferrara, and thus began the hunt of a filmmaker for his subject. The result is a fascinating portrait of an ever-surprising director that could easily fit into Ferrara’s own filmography.
Shirley Clarke, American independent filmmaker is the genius behind groundbreaking and provocative films such as The Connection, Ornette: Made in America, and Portrait of Jason.
“Dancer, bride, runaway wife, radical filmmaker and pioneer — Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema.”
— Manohla Dargis, New York Times
ROME IS BURNING (Portrait of Shirley Clarke):
Cinéastes de notre temps (Filmmakers of Our Time): François Truffaut ou L’esprit critique (1965).
Luis Buñuel: A Filmmaker of Our Time
Luis Buñuel: Un cinéaste de notre temps | Robert Valery 1964
France | 105 minutes
For what would be the series’ inaugural episode, it was decided the subject should be Luis Buñuel, the old surrealist master recently returned to Europe to make Diary of a Chambermaid. Buñuel travels to Spain, where he visits Toledo, talks of old times with Garcia Lorca and Dali, and retraces the trip through Las Hurdes recounted in his film Land without Bread. (44m)
The Scorsese Machine
André S. Labarthe 1990
France | 103 minutes
Labarthe filmed Martin Scorsese soon after the “scandal” of The Last Temptation of Christ had begun to die down. Not sure which approach to use for the film, Labarthe and his crew simply went to Scorsese’s office and began shooting him moving around, watching rushes, etc. At the end of the first day’s shoot, Scorsese asked whether or not Labarthe was going to ask any questions; “No,” Labarthe replied, just speak whenever you feel like it. And that became the approach to this, one of the most widely-seen episodes in the series. Less an introduction to Scorsese’s work than to his world, the film includes a wonderful visit with Scorsese’s parents. (73m)
David Lynch: Don’t Look at Me (1989)
Shot sometime in the late ‘80’s right before ‘Twin Peaks’ came out, this rather fascinating documentary shows the legendary director/artist/composer relaxing at his home, carving small statues out of clay, and refusing to discuss meaning or any of the particular details in his films. That’s one thing you learn about Mr. Lynch here, he won’t tell you what his films mean, he’d rather hear what you think. There are clips from the director’s three greatest films, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘The Elephant Man’ and of course, ‘Eraserhead’. Fans will be thrilled when Lynch grabs Jack Nance and drives to the famous tunnel where Henry starts his warped journey in ‘Eraserhead’. An in-depth look at one of the greatest and most thought-provoking directors of all time.
Samuel Fuller, Independent Filmmaker
André S. Labarthe 1967
France | 79 minutes
Fuller presents a kind of Dictionary of Samuel Fuller: in the course of the film, one of the cinema’s great raconteurs covers pretty much everything from racism to communism, violence to crime, and from money problems to life during combat. His extraordinary passion is evident in every frame, and the direct connection between his worldview and his work as an artist is made abundantly clear in extracts from his films Pickup on South Street, Forty Guns and Shock Corridor. The title is taken from Fuller’s self-introduction in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. (68m).
Fritz Lang et Jean-Luc Godard
1967 - 60 min
Robert Bresson - Ni vu, ni connu
1965 - 65 min
Jean-Pierre Melville, Portrait en Neuf Poses
1971 - 51 min
1966 - 55 min
Who was John Ford?
Artist and artisan, romantic and misanthrope, a loyal friend who could be cold-heart mean to those closest to him, an intellectual who wrapped himself in the cloak of a clod, a liberal with hawkish tendencies, a director to whom home and family were central motifs, yet who couldn’t cope with family life, could not wait to get away from home.
And hide himself behind the cameras.
John Ford: “The truth about myself is nobody’s business but my own.”
Nobody, not any of the great Ford biographers and scholars (Joe McBride’s Searching For John Ford, and the Andrew Sarris tome The John Ford Movie Mystery sum up the hopelessness of the task in their titles), his family, the members of his ’stock company’, his close friends, have revealed the essence of ‘Pappy’, the secret of just who Ford really was, and more importantly perhaps, why.
Of course, there are theories and McBride’s mighty biography, maybe more than most, postulates a good handful of them. But at the end, the real John Martin Feeney, inveterate teller of tall tales, inventions and outright lies, refuses to stand up, and any impression we grab at seems to run through our fingers like fine sand. There appears to be no simple truth to tell; we print the legend. Ford would have lapped it up.
Nick Redman’s new documentary, Becoming John Ford (U.S.; R1 DVD), ostensively tells the story of the evolution of ‘A John Ford Picture’, and the title gives hope that some of the many unanswered questions will be addressed. Essentially, it’s the story of Ford’s tenure at Fox / 20th Century Fox and the pictures he made under the stewardship of producer Darryl F. Zanuck; we learn a little of Ford’s eponymous ‘becoming’, but the core conundrum remains. A tightly wound Gordian knot that simply deflects every investigative sword blow.
John Ford: “It’s no use asking me to talk about art. I’m a journeyman director, traffic cop in front of the camera. If I had my way, every morning of my life, I’d be behind that camera at nine o’clock, waiting for the boys to roll ‘em. I’m a picture man.”
Orson Welles: “Jack had chips on his shoulders like epaulettes.”
Not that there’s any attempt to disguise the problem. At one point, screenwriter Lem Dobbs says, almost in exasperation: “All this jibber-jabber about John Ford and talking about his films, and all the books that have been written, and the essays and articles in Cahiers du Cinéma; you know it’s nonsense in the end because it doesn’t ever explain anything.”
For the ‘jibber-jabber’, Redman has lined up an impressive array of ‘Fordians’ and film historians - Dobbs, Joe McBride, James d’Arc, Rudy Behlmer, Janet Bergstrom, Jean-Christophe Jeuffre - plus Peter Fonda and Tom Mankiewicz. For the ‘leads’, a pair of writer / directors: Walter Hill, a lifelong Ford fan, provides the off-screen voice of the Old Man himself, gruff and no nonsense, Ron Shelton is a business like, if somewhat snippy, Zanuck.
What we get in a little over 93 minutes is a fairly rapid run-through of Ford’s early years at Universal, how he teamed up with Harry Carey to establish himself as ‘a director of westerns’, signed an exclusive deal with William Fox, and though he’d been making pictures some seven years made the film world sit up and take notice with The Iron Horse in 1924. When Fox signed the German director F.W. Murnau, proclaiming him to be an ‘artist of the cinema’, Ford gaped enviously at Sunrise and declared it the best film he’d ever seen. For several years, he aped European expressionist cinema, until he found a voice all his own and prop-man, extra, storyteller, journeyman, the guy who ‘had an eye for composition’, the artist, the genius, became John Ford.
Lem Dobbs: “If there is genius in the system, then Ford was the genius within that system.”
John Ford: “Irish and genius don’t mix well.”
It is not until Fox merges with Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures in 1935, and genius meets genius, that we get to the meat of the story. Zanuck would later proclaim Ford as the best of directors, a true master (Ford’s response was typical: ‘That’s horseshit’), while Ford, untypically, reciprocated, praising Zanuck as a terrific cutter, adding that as a producer: “Darryl’s a genius…head and shoulders above the rest.”
Zanuck himself said that he would ‘cut through the hokum’, that he ‘believed in comedy but not farce’, the assumption being that he stymied some of Ford’s proclivities for humour that could be considered too broad, or for meandering from the essentials of the story. Ford trusted him enough to give him carte blanche in the editing room, though he’d long perfected the technique of cutting in the camera, leaving barely enough trims to let anyone stray too far from his vision.
They proved a formidable partnership; Zanuck who just loved Americana, and the red, white and blue director who was born to portray the history of his country in film after film.
Though Ford railed against studio interference, claiming Steamboat Round The Bend could have been a ‘great picture’ but for “the new man coming in and wanting to show off”, he and Zanuck quickly came to form a close and mutually beneficial alliance. Ford’s throwaway comment that he shot the moving military funeral scene in Wee Willie Winkie on the spur of the moment, belies the truth. It was, in fact, Zanuck’s flash of inspiration during discussions the previous night. And, of course, it was Zanuck himself who put Ford at the wheel of the Shirley Temple vehicle, a film for which, Joe McBride insists, Ford should have received an Oscar, and not for The Informer, claiming the latter the inferior work.
Lem Dobbs: “The measure of an artist is the level of interference they are able to transcend.”
Joseph McBride: “He was a tyrant, he was a sadist. The John Ford family, it’s sort of like a bunch of abused children, and an abusive father. And yet they were devoted to him.”
Zanuck was never a ‘wannabee’ director, instead he proved a motivational figure, allowing Ford a high degree of artistic freedom. Together they made their studio piles of money, and their respective mantles were piled high with awards. From The Prisoner of Shark Island, to Young Mr Lincoln, Drums Along The Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath, Ford and Zanuck would continue with America’s story. Or, rather, a version of it.
Rudy Behlmer insists The Prisoner of Shark Island is historically accurate. It’s not, but it doesn’t matter; as Bergstrom says, it was the French who first pointed out that what Ford was doing was not portraying reality, but America’s great mythology. Print the legend was this story teller’s credo.
Darryl F. Zanuck: “I have seen the first rushes and they look great.”
John Ford: “Boys; the front office like the rushes. There must be something wrong. We’ll have to keep shooting until we find out what it is…”
There are hints that, even before My Darling Clementine, Zanuck and Ford banged heads. It was Zanuck’s idea to shoot a more optimistic ending to The Grapes of Wrath, and when Ford slowed the tempo during Drums Along The Mohawk, Zanuck complained it was ’too draggy’ adding tersely “They are called moving pictures because they move.” I’ve long pondered just how much Zanuck influenced ‘Drums’, perhaps excising some of what he considered Ford’s longueurs, a few ’grace notes’, but that’s Becoming John Ford’s only clue.
Both Zanuck and Ford served their country during wartime; their immediate post-conflict collaboration at Fox proved to be possibly the most contentious. It was Zanuck’s insistence to shoot the kiss to end My Darling Clementine, simply because preview audiences demanded one. This wasn’t his only change, however; edits were made to speed up the action and more music added to underscore certain sequences. Ford was distraught. James d’Arc says he prefers Zanuck’s final edit, yet the extant preview cut is (available on Fox’s current DVD of the film), to my mind, the far superior version - either way, it was the Zanuck / Ford valediction.
For those new to Ford’s world, Becoming John Ford provides a wealth of information of Ford’s Fox years, though there’s so much more to tell. Then again, what are libraries for? The documentary is available to buy on DVD on it’s own, but it works best if you already have a number of the films discussed on your shelves, or if you buy it as part of the Essential John Ford Collection, a DVD sub-set of the gargantuan Ford at Fox box - even at an hour and a half, there are precious few clips of any length.
John Ford: “Kiss her on the mouth, man; put some passion into it!”
Actor: “But Mr Ford, she’s playing my daughter…”
For dyed-in-the-wool Ford fans, there’s little here that they won’t have read or heard before, though there are some nuggets; Mankowicz tells of a fresh faced Robert Wagner overhearing Ford discussing a problem with his cameraman on What Price Glory. Thinking he would bring an apple to the teacher, the naive Wagner piped up: “I have an idea Mr Ford…” He got no further because his director decked him.
There are also some interesting opinions, particularly from Dobbs who says that Howard Hawks’ heroes were all about professionalism, getting the job done, Walsh’s heroes were all adventurers, while Ford’s were all about tradition. Dobbs says that ‘tradition’ is the most interesting, and I, not surprisingly as a card carrying Ford fan, would strongly agree.
It’s Dobbs who also asks - and here we are back to our problem again - “How did this crude, ugly man in many respects, achieve a body of work of surpassing beauty and poetry and depth and complexity?” McBride says that the mask Ford wore was part of his “devious, Irish self-protection”, while d’Arc claims that My Darling Clementine is worth another look for evidence. Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday can, he argues, be read as Ford’s on-screen doppelganger, a man who is fearful of expressing his true feelings, slightly afraid of woman and relationships, who astonishes all when he quotes a Shakespeare soliloquy word for word. The big pointer, says d’Arc, is the handkerchief that he continually presses to his mouth, the last thing that Holliday releases as he falls into the dirt. It is an interesting theory.
Peter Fonda, doing a passable impression of the ‘Duke’, relates how John Wayne told him of Ford’s benders on board his beloved yacht Araner, how he would crawl inside a sleeping bag in the main salon, drink himself into oblivion, lie in his own excretia for days. It would be up to two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Wayne and Fonda’s father Henry - both men owing their careers to ‘Pappy’ - to cover their noses, haul him out and clean him up. Greater love hath no man; but does it betray an unbearable level of self-loathing that Ford would abuse himself in this manner? If it does, why? Why John Ford…and the circle is complete.
Shot in a mixture of colour and monochrome and presented in a ratio of 1:33.1 - the better to accomodate the film clips - Becoming John Ford is an interesting and professionally executed documentary, each talking head interviewed in situ as if they were in a cinema watching a Ford picture and gossiping on it and it’s author, the low flicker of film through projector as a background. Christopher Caliendo’s unobstrusive score is rather nice and Redman’s direction is neat and generally unflashy; at least it seems he had a budget to work on here, unlike the impoverished offerings in Warner’s Peckinpah box set.
Jean-Christophe Jeuffre: “John Ford’s pictures represent the eternal soul and spirit of America.”
The extras include Ford’s colour 16mm documentary The Battle of Midway, an 18 minute tribute to the men who fought off the Japanese fleet to take this strategic Pacific Ocean island. Ford said that if the camera shakes - and it does, frequently - it’s not for effect, it is because shells were exploding at his feet. Watching it today is still a pretty emotional and visceral experience; quite how it affected wartime cinema audiences I can only guess. The Battle of Midway, narrated by Donald Crisp, with the voices of Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and Irving Pichel, is in very good condition, as is the additional ‘Midway’ footage, also included in the extras.
You’ll also find the shortened version of Gregg Toland’s (who was also part of Ford’s wartime film unit) December 7th, which is in rather less fine fettle (the full version is available on DVD from VCI Video), besides displaying the kind of queasy wartime racism that ‘Midway’ eschews.
Rounding off the wartime shorts is the eight minutes long Torpedo Squadron, filmed without narration using footage from Ford’s time shooting ‘Midway’; an unembriodered, save for patriotic music, memorial to USN Torpedo Squadron 8, most of whom died during the fighting. I can barely watch this kind of stuff without shedding a tear, which marks me, not a veteran of course, but as the son of a family that served their country and paid the price.
Finally, there are vintage program galleries for The Iron Horse and Four Sons (beautifully reproduced in the large Ford at Fox box), pressbook galleries for six more Ford at Fox titles, plus advertising and stills galleries for many more. Sound comes in English stereo, with English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Last words from John Ford himself, Walter Hill lowering his voice into a conspiratorial tone:
“Y’know, I don’t want this to get out; I posed as an illiterate.
“Auditory imagery; the chance to project symphonic qualities for the creation and holding of a mood, so that pictures will no longer be limited to pure and simple narrative for material.
“Oh, I like talking pictures…”
John Ford interview from Peter Bogdanovich’s Directed by John Ford.
Cinéma de notre temps: John Ford