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Happy birthday, Mr. Kurosawa

[ 55 ] March 22, 2013 |

Turn off the college basketball games you never care about when you’re not gambling on them and spend the weekend watching something worthwhile.

You’re welcome.

UPDATE: So long as we’re on the subject of cinema, feel free to discuss the relative merits of The Searchers if you’re so inclined. I say it might could be terribly racist. What say ye?

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  1. Erik Loomis says:

    Are you saying The Searchers is as racist as Birth of a Nation? Because I am. It’s still an awesome movie.

  2. Vance Maverick says:

    It’s been a while since I saw it, but I found it merely boring. David Thom(p?)son spoke before that showing, and dwelled at unbelievable length on Natalie Wood, whose role turned out to be brief — more a McGuffin than a Pauline.

    Thanks for the Hulu link! There’s so much of K’s I haven’t seen.

  3. Why no “Ran?”

    I just got “Rashamon” from Netflix, and by “just,” I mean it’s been sitting in its envelope for a couple of weeks waiting for me.

  4. Major Kong says:

    I didn’t see “Kagemusha” in there either. Not quite as good as “Ran”, but it was my introduction to Kurosawa.

  5. Chesternuts says:

    Rest in Peace, Mr. Kurosawa. You’re one of the greatest !!

  6. Chesternuts says:

    Satoshi Kon was also a great Japanese director. Paprika is available on Youtube, full movie.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQfHiJdk-40

    Do you guys know of another Japanese director as great as Kurosawa and Kon?

  7. Pinko Punko says:

    It is racist but it also explicitly shows some racism, even while still internalizing the racism of the time. I don’t think it is anywhere near as racist as Birth of a Nation. John Wayne is clearly the anti-hero, and this would clash I think a little with audience’s expectations that he would be a straight hero. He clearly isn’t. Ford’s hammy Irish drinking and humor aside, I think it is an excellent film that is deeper than much of its apparent or perceived shallowness. I think there is somewhat of a backlash now following a period of canonization. I think it is excellent movie, and even though Ford directs Jeffrey Hunter’s character to the tune of a single note, he is clearly the hero in many regards- the adopted half Native-American son who fights for his sister no matter what versus Ethan’s flipside of that equation (the familial outcast who seeks to destroy his own niece because she has become othered). The film is beautiful to look at and is mesmerizing on the big screen if you can take the scenery chewing of the Ford regulars.

    • Pinko Punko says:

      Here are some thoughts I added to the other thread, RE: the Searchers:

      Ford’s theme of the romanticizing Confederates runs through many of his films, but I wouldn’t be inclined to think anything useful from Matt on this topic. Since the old Confederate is a Ford trope that intersects with other things he is doing in The Searchers I don’t see it as synergizing with some special racism of the film, and The Searchers is less problematic on the Ford side than his other films for what he does with old Confederates. That said, Ford’s Johnny Rebs generally are fighting with the US Cavalry- they are reintegrating into the American fabric (ugh see “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” or “Rio Grande” for examples)- though they are implements of America’s Manifest Destiny at the expense of Native Americans. But this is not singular to Ford’s westerns. I give thoughts in the newer SEK thread on this, but since the end of the film is “maybe it isn’t worth killing someone because they’ve been Othered even though I’m gonna spring this as a surprise as the reason John Wayne has been searching for 10 years)” and that Jeff Hunter’s character is clearly the conscience of the film and Ethan is clearly cast as in the wrong (showing the imperfection in the supposed romantic hero). Ford’s racism kind of blends in with his stereotyping. Because of our nations crimes against Native Americans, Ford’s bad comic approach and stereotypes are more terrible, but see what he does with his beloved Irish. They are all drunken brawlers. This is less pernicious, but I wouldn’t put Ford in the uniquely or especially racist category.

      I know Erik mentioned in the other thread that he thinks The Searchers is as racist as Birth of a Nation, and given Erik’s attention to these things, I would at least listen to his argument. However, I would counter-intuitively say that Yglesias’ statement is “Loomis-like” hyperbole from Yglesias’ point of view, because here I have no confidence in anything he would say.

    • DPS says:

      I think this is all spot on. No question that it accepts and reaffirms all kinds of racist ideas about Native Americans. But the heart of the movie is a figure whose racial hatred is terrifying and causes him to border on the inhuman. It’s a racist movie that also expects us to be frightened by Ethan’s passionate embodiment of racism. I always thought that was one of the reasons why people thought it was interesting.

    • John Protevi says:

      I’m in agreement with the thoughts expressed on this mini-thread.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I don’t disagree with any of this. And again, I think it’s a wonderful film. A couple of additional points. First, Ford wears his Griffith influences on his sleeve and that includes a white supremacist view of American history (even casting the KKK leader in Birth of a Nation as a pro-Confederate preacher in the awful Judge Priest). In The Iron Horse for instance, the Irish become Americans only when they stop fighting with native-born Americans in order to stop the Indian attack. Certainly, The Searchers is a much deeper film than almost anything else Ford did; that’s why it’s better. But although Ethan is a borderline monster, his monstrosity is a necessary byproduct of creating a white America ridden of the horrors of non-whites defiling white women. The heroes who do the dirty work of making America safe for whites may well not be fit for society and they make us modern viewers (including modern viewers when the film came out) squirmy and uncomfortable, but they are heroes nonetheless.

      • Batocchio says:

        But although Ethan is a borderline monster, his monstrosity is a necessary byproduct of creating a white America ridden of the horrors of non-whites defiling white women.

        Yes, good point, and the scene with the white women who have ‘gone native’ and are “hardly white” anymore is the most cringe-inducing and problematic for me. I thought the book What This Cruel War Was Over argued convincingly that Southern male honor was defined in large part by (supposedly) defending the virtue of Southern white women. That certainly fits Ethan. Without the character Martin, the dynamics of the film would be completely different. I like The Searchers a great deal, but at times I view it like one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” (And for some viewers, those problems are insurmountable, which I can respect.)

  8. Leeds man says:

    “Sorry, currently our video library can only be watched from within the United States”

    Fuck you, Hulu.

    “We are happy to announce Hulu is now available in Japan.”

    Super.

    Feel free to discuss the relative merits of Zulu if you’re so inclined. Some folk say it’s racist.

  9. Batocchio says:

    Not the 23rd here yet, but Kurosawa remains one of my favorites (if not the favorite). Happy birthday to a master. (I wrote up a big post for an exhibit of his work at the Motion Picture Academy here in Los Angeles back in 2008.)

    On The Searchers, I’ve got a copy of the screenplay but still haven’t read it; I’ll check it out. For me, it’s a great film in part because I find elements of it problematic, most of all the racial issues. I find it multilayered and I pick up on new things with each viewing (I’ve seen it 2 or 3 times on the big screen), similar to Pinko Punko. It can’t be described as progressive in its depictions of Native Americans, even compared to other Ford films. (The big exception is Martin, who’s a more complex character.) There’s no doubt that some of the characters are racist, including (most importantly) Ethan. But his better impulses overcome his racism in the end. Is that a copout? Does that excuse his faults? Is it plausible? I still debate that. For me, the film has a fair amount of ambiguity in terms of Ford’s attitudes, and I watch it more as an exploration of racism than a celebration of it – but I may well be viewing it differently from the original audiences (at least certain white ones). Still, Ford has his frequent collaborator Wayne, a big star and usually a clear (or at least less ambiguous) hero, play a plainly flawed man. Ethan is shown to be a man eaten up by hatred (especially in the buffalo killing scene). The racism ties into the other main themes of the film – searching, isolation, obsession, revenge, forgiveness, redemption. I can buy the argument that to some extent Ford was a man of his time and the film’s perspective itself and not just the characters are racist. But even taken on those terms, if there’s a “message” to The Searchers, it’s that old “taint not they mind” maxim, that hatred (including or perhaps especially racism) is corroding. Ethan is the chief hero/antihero, and while he has some admirable qualities, he’s also something of a cautionary tale. (And oh, that final shot.) I can buy other arguments. But it’s not a simple film.

    • Pinko Punko says:

      Yes- very much agree, and it is also most definitely not a singular, prismatic example of racist filmmaking (like Birth of a Nation is).

      • Batocchio says:

        Side note to the racial issues, but speaking to the other virtues of the film: I love how, in the opening of the film, Ford conveys that Ethan and Martha love each other without any dialogue. (I just checked; it’s explicit in the screenplay directions. Some 1950s screenplays have practically Shavian character descriptions.) It’s great filmmaking, and subtle enough that some viewers might miss it, at least on a first viewing. It also adds to the feeling that Ethan is a man with a past, and that a few films’ worth of material preceded this one.

    • mxyzptlk says:

      One of the things that always bothered me upon repeat viewings of The Searchers is the origins of Ethan’s hatred. He kept his sword and has been presumably wandering the west since the end of the war. The sword is important: I’m pretty sure that when the Civil War ended, the Confederate soldiers surrendered their swords or otherwise had them broken, so the fact that Ethan has his suggests he may have skedaddled before the surrender, which calls into question his loyalties and ideologies in general. Or he could have taken it from someone else, but he’s still wearing it, which would signal to others — especially other ex-Confederate soldiers — that Ethan may have deserted, which marks him as an outcast.

      But at little points along the way, we also find out that Ethan knows a lot more about (and maybe identifies with) the Comanche than a general racist would. He knows their language, their customs, their religious traditions, and he seems to organize his life in opposition around those points.

      I understand that hardened racists get to know as much about the other as they can, usually through skewed sources that reflect and predetermined ideology. But I don’t get the sense that this is the case with Ethan. First of all, where would he get access to such in-depth anti-Comanche propaganda? It’s not like he was firing up Netscape on his horse and browsing Stormfront. Learning a language and religious customs suggests a deeper familiarity with a culture than garden variety racism allows for. And although I don’t doubt that there is at least a very racist perspective in the film, I also always got the sense there is a yet-to-be-filmed prequel about how Ethan fell out with the Comanche and became the psychopath he is.

      There’s no evidence for this in the film, but I could imagine Ethan actually spent much of the time between the war and the start of the film actually being around and maybe even living with the Comanche. That’s how he knows them so intimately. Somewhere in that interaction his hatred of them develops out some kind of self-loathing recognition that they could accept him to some extent (which is why he knows so much about them), but he can’t accept them. Or maybe he was cast out. And since he still has his “I’m a deserter” sword, there could be a price on his head; he has no community in the Old South, tried to find community with the Comanche who weren’t that involved with his past war but was cast out, and has focused his rage on them.

      Does the screenplay offer any hints about what he did between the war and the film?

      • wjts says:

        Does the screenplay offer any hints about what he did between the war and the film?

        We know he spent some time in Mexico. In Gunfighter Nation, Slotkin points out that the medal Ethan gives to Debbie indicates that he was fighting for Maximilian and the French against Juarez.

      • wjts says:

        I’m pretty sure that when the Civil War ended, the Confederate soldiers surrendered their swords or otherwise had them broken, so the fact that Ethan has his suggests he may have skedaddled before the surrender, which calls into question his loyalties and ideologies in general.

        I don’t think it does. Doesn’t Ethan say something snide to his brother about his having taken the loyalty oath after the end of the war? And isn’t there some suggestion that he robbed a stagecoach right before the start of the movie? I think the implication is that Ethan, unlike his brother, never abandoned the Confederacy even after the war was over.

        • mxyzptlk says:

          Fair points, but I’m not as convinced. He says a man’s only good for one oath at a time, and his was to the Confederacy (which doesn’t exist by the time he makes that statement). I could completely see Ethan thinking the Confederacy turned on him, and that by deserting the military rather than face surrender, he’s actually upholding the ideals he took an oath to, while the Confederacy is now something else (sort of a No True Scotsman fallacy — No True Confederacy would have surrendered, therefore the political organization that surrendered wasn’t the true Confederacy he took an oath to).

          As for robbing a stagecoach, that just upholds his position as an outlaw; it doesn’t necessarily identify where his loyalties are.

          As far as his leaving the military goes, I’m just back-filling, trying to figure out how/why he’s so familiar with his chosen existential enemy. The possibility of his living among the Comanche because he was an outlaw, and/or because there might have been a reward on his head for deserting the military, are just some options I’ve entertained. Because somehow or another, his knowledge of the Comanche language, customs and religion needs to be accounted for.

          Or maybe it doesn’t and it’s just a blind spot in the film. Either way, I’d probably see that prequel.

          • wjts says:

            As for robbing a stagecoach, that just upholds his position as an outlaw; it doesn’t necessarily identify where his loyalties are.

            I thought there was some specific reference to it being a Union or Yankee stagecoach (I haven’t seen The Searchers in… Jesus, probably about 15 years, so please take my thoughts with a grain of salt). So it helps set him up as certain kind of outlaw, one in the tradition of Jesse James whose career as an outlaw was a sort of extension of his war service as an anti-Union guerrilla with Quantrill and Anderson.

            • mxyzptlk says:

              Yeah, I can see that. I think that would still work with an Ethan who believes he’s actually upholding the ideals of the Confederacy, while believing the actual political organization has betrayed what the Confederacy stood for.

  10. Batocchio says:

    Oh, and for other classic Japanese filmmakers, besides the obvious Mizoguchi and Ozu, I’m a fan of Kobayashi and Shinoda. Seppuku (Hara-Kiri) and Joichi (Samurai Rebellion) are well worth a look.

  11. cpinva says:

    the only wayne movie i ever really thought was worth a damn, was Stagecoach, the first Ford directed film of wayne’s career, and the one that, arguably, made him a star. it’s also (if memory serves), the only film of wayne’s career where he unambiguously plays a bad guy, who eventually, kind of, ends up the good guy. one of the first true “anti-heroes” on screen. i’m sure i saw The Searchers, when it first came out, but haven’t seen it since. have to give it a watch. as for the racism, ford could as well have been reflecting (intentionally or otherwise) either historical or contemporaneous, given the year it was released.

    first kurasowa war time film i’ve seen. also, first one without toshiro mifune (one of my all time favorite actors). first one not taking place during the early-mid shogunate period too. thanks for the names of those other japanese directors, i’ll have to check those guys out.

    • GeoX says:

      I saw Stagecoach recently, and while he’s putatively a “bad guy” at the beginning–an outlaw, anyway–he never does any actual “bad guy” things in the movie. I would never call him an anti-hero.

  12. Another Kiwi says:

    ‘Ran’ made me change the way I thought about movies. Kagemusha is maybe not as good as Ran but, hell, there’s a lot of company there.

  13. LittlePig says:

    Other than giving Buddy Holly the idea for ‘That’ll Be The Day”, I can’t find a whole lot of use for the The Searchers myself.

    But that’s mostly due to my autistic lack of emotional nuance, I expect. My favorite John Wayne movie is The Sons Of Katie Elder.

  14. Todd says:

    I’ve heard that “The Searchers” is Ford’s try at an Anthony Mann western. In this I think he was successful, but all things considered, I’d much rather watch “The Man from Laramie” or “The Furies”. (Mann was also willing to throw Native Americans under the bus to further the plot or help to develop his white characters.)

    Delmer Daves probably went the furthest in the fifties with actually trying to portray Native Americans as “generally” sympathetic (“Broken Arrow”, “The Last Wagon”), but his films aren’t quite as good as Mann’s or even Ford’s. It’s probably no coincidence that my favorite Ford westerns (“My Darling Clementine”, “…Liberty Valence”) and favorite Daves western (“The Hanging Tree”) really have no Native American aspect in them at all.

  15. Chesternuts says:

    Someboy needs to go John Wayne against those animals !!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMCfMh9hEWA

  16. Anonymous says:

    Notice no one has yet mentioned “The Bad Sleep Well”, Kurosawa’s take on “Hamlet” (unlike his other Shakespeare adaptations, this one is set in postwar corporate Japan). It’s one of his most underrated, IMO – cool noir atmosphere, great performances by Toshiro Mifune and others.

  17. Ford fanboi says:

    Ford had a history of both telling the established narrative and undermining it. The ending of Liberty Valence makes the point well.

    Ethan Edwards is presented as a former reb and mercenary for the Emperor in Mexico. He’s consumed by racism. He uses racist epithets, he shoots people in the back, he shoots out a dead Indian’s eyes to spoil his afterlife, scalps an adversary, shoots buffalo to deprive Indians of food, and so on. To sit back and say, “whoa, that Edwards is racist so I guess it’s a racist film” misses the point, I’d say. In both The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn, Ford lays out the racism for us to see. I suppose he could have had Edwards make explicit speeches about his racism and then have Edwards symbolically defeated at the end of the film for having those views. But pedantic, didactic, heavy-handed art wasn’t Ford’s style.

    • Ford fanboi says:

      Sorry to reply to my own comment, but this thread prompted me to re-watch Cheyenne Autumn. The weakness of the film is Ford’s pedantic, heavy-handed approach — so untypical of him. It would go too far to say that Cheyenne Autumn is soviet-style art, but watching it confirms the subtle genius of The Searchers.

  18. Billmon says:

    The Searchers is a very interesting movie. Made in 1956, it falls somewhere between standard pre-World War II Hollywood image of Native Americans as bloodthirsty untermenschen (Stagecoach) and more sympathetic postwar films (like Broken Arrow) that portrayed them as proud but doomed losers (Broken Arrow). In other words, racist, but uneasy and conflicted about it.

  19. [...] month, SEK brought up the racism of The Searchers, which I argued was as racist as Birth of a Nation. I decided to rewatch the film. It had been a [...]

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