Sunday, March 8, 2015

João Bénard da Costa - The Critic - Coda

I wrote the last posts in Portuguese because they were about a Portuguese film critic and columnist. It made no sense to me to write about him in English. But I changed my mind, at least in what concerns the coda because it is about John Ford's (et al) The Searchers and because it also is about images and words, etc...

So, without further ado, here's my translation (speaking of which all the translations are mine):
I told you - and what a poor job it was - ten minutes (if that) of a two hour film [The Searchers, John Ford et al, 1956]. Wanting to do it right, not even a book would be enough. I left out almost everything and told nothing about the silence of the remainder. Who said that film is about plots and if you know the “story” you know the film?
          João Bénard da Costa, "A Casa dos Edwards" [the house of Edwards], Crónicas:   
          Imagens Proféticas e Outras [columns: prophetic and other images], 3º Vol., Documenta,             2014, 124, 125.

In “Une certaine tendence du cinema français” [a certain tendency of French cinema] (Cahiers du Cinema # 31, January 1954) François Truffaut refuted the idea, understandable in a time when the great literati were buried in the pantheon and gave their names to squares and avenues, that “great cinema” had to adapt “great books”. This was the verge of the auteurs theory, explained by Truffaut himself a year later (Cahiers du Cinéma # 44, February 1955) in "Ali Baba et la "politique des auteurs"" [Ali Baba and the auteurs politic].

João Bénard da Costa defended these theories, as we can see from the epigraph above. I’m not going to discuss here the validity, or lack thereof, of a theory that counted six decades recently. I’ll just question the fetish of the “artistic vision.” Is it enough to the Jacques Beckers of this world to show technical mastery and a certain coherence from film to film to produce masterpieces? I don’t think so, but, as I said before, that’s a discussion for another time…

What interests me now is brief and simple. It’s João Bénard da Costa’s use of the word “story” in the excerpt above. To adopt a tech tone let’s see what Mieke Bal said in Narratologie [Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative] (H&S, 1983, 4):
All the events, in their chronological order, in their sets, in their relation with the actors that cause or suffer them, that’s what the story is.
Narratologists (Todorov, Genette, bien sûr, C. Bremond – that’s what the Dicionário de Narratologia [dictionary of narratology] by Carlos Reis and Ana Cristina M. Lopes, Almedina, 2000, 195, tells us) distinguish story from expression, story from the speech or the narrative that conveys it – récit. The story is, then, an inhabited and coherent space-time suggested in the work (it is connected with concepts like: diegesis, fabula, etc…). The truth is that whoever tells a tale summons a past world. fictitious or not (once upon a time…), and adds on a bit or two (does it his or her way).

"A Casa dos Edwards" describes the Chekovian sordino (I cited it in my last post) that emanates from the images (from a sound or two also). But the images can be narrative too. Didn’t they tell the stories of a book for centuries: and I mean The Bible. They’re as much on the side of the story as they are on the side of its expression (not unlike words). At the beginning of The Searchers the images reveal what words hide? John Ford invested in them a supplement of meaning that isn’t in the script (by pudency? João Bénared da Costa thinks so)? Does it matter? Don’t they describe sequences of actions, relationships among the characters (and how!, what a cast direction!) the spacio-temporal context in which everything occurs (occurred)? (This last point reminds me of a detail that I find a little odd: how come the ranches of the Edwards and Jorgensens are set in the desert? Mythomane Ford always preferred to sacrifice verisimilitude to legend – if the legend becomes fact…) I know that the plot is written and the word reigns over it. I also know that we will never have a true access to the story because the final product is the story “transformed” by the narration (with analepses, prolepses or, more modestly, with ellipses: in The Searchers there’s a seven year ellipsis which is another detail of the film that I find odd.)

To sum everything up, and incurring in the risk of repeating myself: what I want to say is just this: as Derrida taught us all dichotomies are always false. I don’t think that we should face the romantic relationship between Ethan (John Wayne) and Martha (Dorothy Jordan), brother and sister-in-law, as being part of the expression, not as part of the story, which is what João Bénard da Costa wanted. I know that lots of people deny the narrative capability of images and that for many people to tell = literature. We are immersed again in the Lessingian denial of Horatius’ ut picture poesis. Frankly, I remain with the Latin poet of genius.

On the other hand these things are never clear cut. A voice inflexion (“is it me, is it many others, is it there, is it not there, but does Martha say “Ethan” with a bigger commotion than it’s to be expected towards a brother-in-law […]?,” 122) is it story or narrative (is it there, or is it not there?)?

John Ford (d) e Winton C. Hoch (p), et al, The Searchers, 1956. John Wayne’s character enters, literally, the story in media res. He was away during the time of the two wars in which he participated: the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) and the Second French Intervention in Mexico (1864 – 1867). We know nothing about what happened before that. In the image above the two men are preparing to be part of a posse against the Comanches. Samuel’s (Ward Bond) discomfort is perfectly detectable. He feels awkward (three is a crowd) in the presence of such an affectionate demonstration (not to mention what he knows and we don’t). Because visual illiteracy is as serious a problem as the properly called – if not more: people don’t even acknowledge it while the other is obvious – the affair between Ethan and Martha, or so the chronicles say, went undetected by the spectators at the time (or should I say by the spectators in any time?).

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