Sunday, January 3, 2010

Men in a Desert: the history of an image.

Images in films are actually echoes. If they are not echoes of day-to-day life, then they are echoes of other cinematic images. One of the best and longest-lasting echoes originated in Battleship Potemkin; the upper-figure of the battleship commander, shown in an ironically reverential close-up, as he barks orders at the starving crew and points, is the original shot of countless introductions to tyrants, or emphases of their tyranny. Tracing shots to their logical, (usually) silent beginnings is not merely film scholarship; it is a way of getting to know a large family. Cinema, though, is a medium that became attracted to the aesthetics of individual people and objects early on. The image from Potemkin can bear this out, as can the close-ups of Maria Falconetti that frame The Passion of Joan of Arc, and later, the iconic depictions of Charles Foster Kane, Don Corleone and Neo. In regard to objects, a gun firing in to the camera, a branded ‘M’ and a gigantic baby floating space all have their own lineages of both parody (2001’s gigantic baby) and homage (Train Robbery’s shot in to the camera) Cinema, that most collaborative of all the arts, loves its individuals.

The word collective usually means some form of teamwork, and this brings up an irony of cinema: although making a film takes immense teamwork, we don’t see much of it on screen these days. But at their inception, it was okay for films to portray collectives, beautifully. The Lumieres shot the first filmed image, of workers leaving a factory, which was a collective depiction. In Soviet realist filmmaking, too, images portraying the collective were key. But the Lumieres and the Soviets were isolated in history; rarely have their images been outright imitated or expanded on by anybody outside of their immediate period or nationality. Most other collective images have been incidental, or glanced over by filmmakers who look in to the vaults of their’ profession. Yet in regards to one of cinema’s favorite genres—the Western—one particularly charismatic collective image has had a long, grand cycle. This image is of a group of men moving across a desert in the daylight, in formal procession. Let us call it the Men in a Desert image.

To this film-viewer’s knowledge, the origin of this image can be traced back to D.W Griffith. Furthermore, there is no director more appropriate to trace it to. Griffith is the reason for most of the flourishes that made a film narrative a film narrative. With cameraman G.W Bitzer he founded crosscutting, close-ups, above-the-waist shots, fish-eye shots and an assortment of other techniques that enhanced the story of a film. What he created after years of working with certain founded techniques was an appropriate way of shooting the Men in a Desert image. His version first appeared in his 1913 film, The Massacre. For the shot, what Griffith had to figure out was a way to frame large ensembles. In his version, a large ensemble is the central object. Griffith presented them in a very wide shot. The twin ensembles of Indians and soldiers are circling on their’ wagons and horses around the base of a canyon. Smoke from their gunfire crowds the screen like a main character. The true main characters are the group of people—swaying and confronting—and the jagged cliffs and contours of the desert—heartless, neutral, ever-present.

Before the image comes, a story about a love triangle is established; the woman is pregnant; her lover’s, two soldiers, are friends. She has the baby and one goes off to help the pioneers move out west; the other soon follows, with the girl. Naturally, all three will meet up, and find themselves in the heat of the battle. The story seems routine and simplistic, and this is why Griffith found it necessary to do what later filmmakers would not dare do; he began to show the individuals in relation to the collective. The collective, as it is introduced, is a large procession of settlers and soldiers. They are what are presented in the many shots leading up to the men in a desert image.

The many variations on the images of the settlers moving, on their wagons and horses, include animals walking in to the frame as the ensemble passes by, or an Indian in a large headdress—meant to appear animalistic himself—walking in to the frame and spying on the intruders. Griffith used these as establishing shots, but he was careful not to put the master product of the men in a desert until the last third of the film. When the two ensembles of the Indians and the white soldiers clash, and guns start firing and the white smoke begins billowing, then we see the widest possible version of the men in a desert. The film has come in to its own at this point; the story finally permits chaos and grandiosity in a wide frame. This shot is, in fact, what ends the film; following a wide shot of wagons and soldiers moving around uncertainly, as if victory is the white man’s for now but maybe not later, a title card reads “In Memoriam.” In just a half hour, Griffith and Bitzer had developed a major collective image to its most grandiose potential, and let themselves get sentimental immediately afterwards. While a formulaic western film in many ways, The Massacre nonetheless was the first western to find such an image, and from that point on, the genre had higher expectations.

Some forty-three years later, a big-budgeted, yet somewhat perplexing western was produced called The Searchers (1956). The director, John Ford, was well established—probably better so than Griffith was in his time—as the go-to western director. He had previously shot Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and Rio Grande, among other popular westerns. All these films had been borne from traditional western themes: masculinity, guilt, redemption, expansion of western civilization, the clash of Indians and white Americans. The Searchers was the first western to explore all sides of these themes, implicating racism, male self-destruction and the complexity of familial bonds as sub-themes within them. For these reasons, the film was groundbreaking, yet it is the disciplined stylistic traditions that The Searchers adheres to that make it a great film. One of these traditions was its continuation of the men in a desert shot. All of Ford’s aforementioned films had utilized this shot as well, especially Stagecoach, with its plot that hinged on a nothing more than a collective moving across a desert. Yet The Searchers is more interesting in this case because it also showed how far films had moved towards the individual object since the advent of sound. The Searchers is too obsessed with the contours of John Wayne’s face, and with the framings of individuals in doorways, on horses, or set against the desert sky to be called a collective film. Unlike The Massacre, it is not structured on collective imagery. But Ford, being a disciplined traditionalist, felt obligated to reconcile a film about an individual with the men in a desert image as much as possible.

The pervading men in a desert image from The Searchers is not much different from the one in The Massacre. A group of soldiers, along with veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), ride on horses. They are in the ever-shifting desert of Monument Valley—though it is Texas in the film. Sometimes they are riding through open, gently sloping desert, always in view of a plateau. Other times, they are beside a reservoir at the bottom of a hill. The apex moments of these shots are when the men encounter the Indians; who are in their own winding band, making their own way through the desert, on a similar mission involving the aggressive protection of their home. Early in the film, the small group of soldiers marches parallel to a ridge when they spot an Indian scout on top. “Keep moving,” commands the leader, Captain Clayton (Ward Bond). This time around, the men are viewed in a series of medium shots as they try to hurry away from the Indians in an awkward acceleration of speed. The Indians are seen amassing in the background, trailing them.

Just as Griffith added variations on the men in a desert image, so does Ford. The primary difference is that his variations are meant to show that the individual of his film—Ethan Edwards-- trumps the collective. Soon, a fight breaks out at a reservoir, as the Indian warriors gallop down a hill and cross the water in droves while Ethan and the other soldiers shoot at them from the cover of rocks on the other side. Many images have passed by now, all of them collective, but each one is a progression towards re-focusing on Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Ethan fires his rifle at the retreating Indians as if reloading the gun from his nerves. He is trigger-happy and the disturbed expression on his face is counterpointed with two shots of the retreating Indians. It is at this point that the white men experience a rift; Clayton jerks Edward’s rifle down so he shoots the ground, telling him to cut the Indians some slack at last. Edwards, it is now clear to us, is a different breed from these other men; a genuinely brutal sort of beast, ravaged by war and loneliness. This is not the same cohesive group we saw in The Massacre. Because of one individual, this is an agitated, complicated group. A modern viewer would say they are closer to real people.

The Indians still serve the pure function of the collective, as they do in The Massacre; though even their collective also becomes complicated later in the story. Ford’s fealty to the men in a desert image must always come back to the plight of the individual, Ethan Edwards. So Ford’s shots are choppier, and move from wide shots to close-ups to medium shots by necessity. Storytelling in film had secured itself in this complexity by this point (the mid-50’s) and there was no going back to Griffith’s utter precision.

(Daniel Day Lewis in There will be Blood)

There will be Blood (2007) is the most recent western that is indebted to Griffith’s men in a desert tradition. But first it gets us acquainted—though not without obstructions—with early American silent cinema. The first twenty minutes contain no dialogue and could have been outtakes from any of Griffith’s westerns were they produced at the turn of the twentieth century. Much of its allusiveness to the silent cinema era is simply collateral. The film is set between the years of 1898 and 1927, the same years America began turning its cinematic cogs. The film contains images of oil, an image pervasive and practical to the film, gushing out of the ground, in to the air, or splattering one’s face; these shots suggest the geysers of wheat showering down on the greedy businessman at the bottom of a vat in Griffith’s early film Corner in Wheat. The sacred cinematic object, the train, plays in to the film in key intervals; First Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) rides a train further west with his adopted son; later, he abandons the boy on another train. The film illustrates the colonial progress of America at the turn of the century in the same way that film was colonizing the world at the same time.

Yet the film strays from Griffith dramatically in that it is only about one man in a desert for the first third. Daniel Day-Lewis, as Daniel Plainview, is a hard-nosed capitalist and a rugged individual whose image drips with irony over the course of the film. It is his figure, always wearing a hat and with a mustache planted in the middle, that dominates the desert, along with the shivery musical score. The men only start to enter this mix when Daniel allows them.

These tendencies show There will be Blood following the same pattern as The Searchers; of the collective in relation to the individual. Everything is shown winding back to Daniel Plainview. So it is no coincidence that the epochal men in the desert image from There will be Blood is one which has been engineered—ironically, we shall see—by Daniel Plainview himself. After the gigantic oil well the men working for Union Oil (Plainview’s company) bursts, Daniel rushes out of his cabin to rescue his son, who was hit by the blast and fell on his back on the platform of their oil rig. Daniel Plainview jumps on to the platform, grabs his son, and rushes back to the cabin with him in his arms, both drenched in oil. It is early evening and the setting sun reflects in faint reds and blues on the sky. Plainview’s workers are running in the opposite direction of him; towards the gushing well, which has burst in to flames. This is the image all the smaller gatherings of men in the desert had been building up to, along with the rising-headache musical score, which now becomes a steady banging of percussion. After laying his son, who has fallen deaf within seconds of being knocked away by the blast, down in the cabin, Plainview races back to the burning well. Now he is running along with his men and shouting orders to them. This image introduces an element of panic to a greater degree than the images from The Searchers and The Massacre. It feels more panicky in no small part due to the emphasized camera movement, something Griffith had virtually no use for and Ford only a little. The camera here fluidly dollies alongside Daniel and against the men. This image, as with most others in the film, gives way to a shot of Daniel with his son, and then an individual shot of Daniel cutting the ropes to the rig loose. But it also gives way, for the first time, to shots of things that Daniel is not in control of. At the end of the sequence, Daniel and his men stand a safe distance from the raging fire, in the twilight, looking dumfounded. There will be Blood offers this as a dark closure to the men in a desert image; the image has become uneasy, chaotic and full of disaster.

(from The Ten Commandments, 1923)

Griffith, Ford and Anderson each represent their own era’s of filmmaking, yet each found themselves producing westerns, and have therefore became students of this particular image. It must be said that the men in a desert image is not particular to westerns, per se; this is because there have been a good deal of films set out west that do not count as part of the western genre, and because men are everywhere, in all imagery. So the men in a desert image indicates a certain tendency in the western genre, and is a means of adhering to said genre’s conventions; in Griffith’s and Ford’s cases, of showing cowboys and Indians fighting; in Anderson’s case, displaying the bonding of men; in all three, showcasing a spectacle set against a harsh and empty landscape. It is an image that signifies homage to silent cinema, conventions of the western genre and a sense of the establishing shot; at the most practical level, it shows the bigger picture.

It is doubtful that this is the best the image can show; Ford and Anderson’s approaches to the image are gorgeous-looking, but Anderson’s in particular is too choppy. Griffith may have been a simpleton, and his simpleton-ness barred him from getting at psychological complexity in his shots. But it also allowed him to create an ideal rhythm for a beautiful shot; a wide-shot held from a far distance, on a static camera. Each director’s image was necessarily followed by cuts closer to the action, but Griffith always returned to the wide shot, with only the barest variation.

Had Ford and Anderson decided to stay with this simplicity of storytelling, would that mean cinema had stood still, or would it have branched off in different directions? Should they have disregarded the individual and focused entirely on the collective? The obvious answer is no, because then Ford would not have given us the dark dolly’s towards John Wayne’s face, as he tries to suppress his reaction to disturbed white girls rescued from Indians, and Daniel Day Lewis would not have been able to convey the transformation of Daniel Plainview from pale-faced idealist to sniveling creep. That collective imagery has moved closer to individual imagery does not mean the pure collective image is disintegrating; though it may be in trouble. But it can be placed in a framework of silent-cinema grandiosity, as Ford taught us; it can be mixed in with camerawork-leaden flashy techniques and still serve the purpose of homage to silent cinema-style collectivism, as Anderson realized.

At best, filmmakers can continue to home in on the details of Griffith’s master image. Ford homed in on the individual; Anderson homed in on natural elements and the individual. Griffith’s purity of imagery can never be repeated, but then, the lamb-days of cinema are so far in the dust that imagistic corruption has taken on it’s own beauty and has become it’s own seed for more cinematic sprouting. Future filmmaker’s must show the beauties of the ways Anderson’s men move their feet, or the reactions of Griffith’s horses and their relationships to the men who ride them. Griffith’s men laid out all the groundwork; the corruption is for keeping.