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From the Wire: Defending John Ford

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 3, 2013 at 4:52PM

Kent Jones responds to Quentin Tarantino's charges of racism in the films of John Ford with a long and thoughtful essay.
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"The Searchers."
"The Searchers."

Quentin Tarantino is a great filmmaker, but he's arguably an even better self-promoter. Few directors are more skilled at stirring up controversy (and attention) with a few simple sentences. On the interview circuit for "Django Unchained," Tarantino garnered headlines by announcing a possible retirement, calling "Death Proof" his worst film, and arguing with a journalist about violence in movies. He also raised quite a few eyebrows with a very provocative quote about the films of director John Ford. Speaking with The Root's Henry Louis Gates Jr., Tarantino said: 

"One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else's humanity -- and the idea that that's hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the '30s and '40s -- it's still there. And even in the '50s."

Now several month's later, Film Comment's Kent Jones has written a belated but very effective response entitled "Intolerance: On Westerns in General, and John Ford in Particular, the Non-Malleable Nature of the Past, and Why Quentin Tarantino Shouldn't Teach Film History." Jones doesn't have a beef with Tarantino the artist (he calls parts of "Django" and "Inglourious Basterds" "brilliant") but as his subtitle suggests, he's not a huge fan of Tarantino the art historian. Examining the role of Native Americans in Ford's filmography he questions QT's generalization that the legendary director of "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers" treated minorities like "zombies" without humanity, and questions whether it's appropriate for modern audiences to look back at old movies with such a haughty air of moral superiority:

"Ford wasn’t a great artist in spite of the contradictory imperatives of his films but because of them. His films don’t live apart from the shifts in American culture and the demands of the film industry, but in dialogue with them. Do those films provide the models of racial enlightenment that we expect today? Of course they don’t. On the other hand, they are far more nuanced and sophisticated in this regard than the streamlined commentaries that one reads about them, behaviorally, historically, and cinematically speaking, and the seeds of Ulzana’s 'Raid' and 'Dead Man' are already growing in 'Fort Apache' and 'The Searchers.' Is Ford’s vision 'paternalistic?' I suppose it is (and that includes 'The Sun Shines Bright' and 'Sergeant Rutledge'), but the culture was paternalistic, and holding an artist working in a popular form to the standards of an activist or a statesman and condemning him for failing to escape the boundaries of his own moment is a fool’s game. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for moral perfection in artists."

If you read just one article before you head home for the weekend, it should be this one (assuming you've already read everything else I've published today, which I think goes without saying).

Read more of "Intolerance."

This article is related to: Quentin Tarantino, Kent Jones, From the Wire


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