Saturday, May 17, 2014

Héctor Germán Oesterheld's Swipe File - Coda

From left to right: Philadelphia Thursday (Shirley Temple), Emily Colingwood (Anna Lee), Mary O'Rourke (Irene Rich) in Fort Apache (1948) by John Ford (director), Archie Stout and William H. Clothier (cinematography).

That, up there, is an image with a meaning. It proves that the often posed question, "is film a literary or a visual form?" makes no sense. Ditto for comics.
To contextualize: the men went to war leaving the women behind suffering in silence, and waiting... The minimalist set (clouds in the morning sky) and the low angle shot give the scene an epic, mythical tone. I'm tempted to say, as it was said of Ernst Lubitsch, that this, right here, is John Ford's poetic touch. 
"Poetic" is a literary term, so, am I being abusive applying it to an image? Maybe I am, but then, to avoid cathacresis, what word do you suggest to convey what I mean? Maybe there's none and that's why I'm using the above one, but then, didn't Horace say "ut pictura poesis"? Lessing denied it, but I'm a firm believer in the former's opinion, not the latter's...
And, that, in a nutshell, is why the question "is film a literary or a visual form?" (and what about sound?) makes no sense. Because, you see, we shouldn't judge an image by its surface alone. Technical skill is important, but it is far from being the most important part of an image's judgement.
What I'm saying is that I don't get comics exceptionalism or the annoying habit comics fans have to laud eye candy (if there's such a thing; every image has a content of some sort...) while considering that any idea behind a comic is a literary judgement. Are images just fun and superficial while words are serious and profound? Is the visual artist just a machine, showing instead of telling? Bête comme un peintre?...
I say no to all that, of course, as John Ford's imagery clearly proves. Images convey ideas and tell stories as much as words. There's nothing exclusively literary in stories. A literary comic doesn't necessarily mean a wordy one. Another problem may be that, in spite of being swamped by images of all sorts, most people remain mostly image illiterate. (And here I go again needing to borrow a word from another field.) Modern visual artists and  critics are to blame for this: in their relentless search for purity they denied any connection with narratives. Trees and stones, as Cézanne would put it, shouldn't tell any stories, but the fact is that they do, either we want them to or not...

In the foreground: Madgelana Martin (Claudette Colbert) in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) by John Ford (director), Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan (cinematography). 

In the foreground: Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) in My Darling Clementine (1946) by John Ford (director), Joseph MacDonald (cinematography). In the background, Agathla's Needle: imposing mythical symbol or just another phallic symbol, or both?... Didn't I tell you that rocks tell stories?...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Héctor Germán Oesterheld's Swipe FIle

Page 493 of the Sgt. Kirk series by Héctor Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), Stefan Strocen (c).
"Cerco de Muerte" [the siege of death], Misterix # 317, October 15, 1954.

The above page is part of a Sgt. Kirk episode that came directly from Fort Apache (1948) the film by director John Ford written by James Warner Bellah (his original story is titled "Massacre") and Frank S. Nugent (screenplay). It's interesting (but not surprising) that two of my favorite comics artists (one's a writer, of course), Carl Barks and Héctor Oesterheld were both John Ford's fans. 
The situation is as follows: lieutenant colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) underestimates the Apaches ("You make me suspect your Cochise has studied under Alexander the Great, or Bonaparte at least.") and enters a canyon where the Indians expect his column slaughtering everybody. In the comic a nameless lieutenant recklessly attacks the Indians (Sioux this time) to meet the same fate as the Fort Apache troopers. I posted a couple of Hugo Pratt's swipes sometime ago... this is an obvious Oesterheld swipe. As for Pratt's editing, it's interesting to compare it with Ford's and Murray's:

Corto and Dinard (Kirk is with them) witness the massacre from a safe distance, powerless to do anything...

Ditto captain York (John Wayne) and lieutenant O'Rourke (John Agar)... Both images have a low angle shot.

In both sequences the soldier who plays the bugle is shot...

...but lacking movement the situation is a bit ambiguous in the comic (is he just riding his horse or is he starting to fall?).

In both sequences the Indians are shown ambushed:

from above (high angle shot)

and from below (low angle shot);

an impressive display (low angle shot); 

the ambush viewed from above (high angle shot) combined with a pan shot of the cavalry men passing through the canyon.

 The military column is isolated in the comic panel above. The comic's readers never see the Sioux and the soldiers in the same frame.

In conclusion: the comic is a lot more elliptical than the film (no surprise there) creating even some ambiguity. On the other hand the film editing (by Ford and Jack Murray) is very similar to Hugo Pratt's, but comics have page layouts and films don't, of course. This page layout is what Benoit Peeters called rhetorical: panel sizes adapt to what they're showing. The colors are by Stefan Strocen and are magnificent as usual in this Pop Art inspired artist. They create a warm, but crepuscular atmosphere. Finally, there's what Philippe Marion called graphiation. Hugo Pratt's "hand" is visible while film stills are the product of a machine.   

Thursday, May 8, 2014