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November 2015

‘The Searchers’ (1956)

After much anticipation I took myself off the Dendy on the Harbour to see ‘The Searchers’ on the wide screen. Wow! I expected that at two+ hours it would drag now and then, but no. The lights went down — and mercifully we were spared Val Morgan’s assault on intelligence — and the titles started. There in the darkened theatre the mythic events and characters came to life. Roger Ebert said a movie is a machine for empathy. Click went the machine.

‘The Iliad’ with the doomed Achilles, ‘The Odyssey’ with the bedevilled Odysseus, and ‘The Searchers’ with the haunted Ethan Edwards are each epics of endurance but also of self-realization. Each is a man of war whose role in peacetime is uncertain, precarious, and unhappy. But each is needed in times of war.

Searcheers cover.jpg

What can be said about ‘The Searchers’ that needs saying, or has not already been said many times? Film schools have dissected its technical aspects, deep focus, Vista Vision, the framing shots, the comic interludes, filming the horseback chases, the terse screenplay, and more that I do not fathom. I am even more sure that Cultural Studies aliens have parsed it into an empty husk in more than one PhD dissertation, burying it under polysyllabic barbarianisms to prove to each other how smart they are. The pygmies must have their days.

Yet it remains on any informed list of great films and at the top of its genre, the Western. ‘Shane’ (1953) is so elegiac it is hard to watch without choking up, and there is no greater moral lesson than ‘High Noon’ (1952) or ‘The Unforgiven‘ (1992), and a personal favourite is the laconic ‘Comes a Horseman’ (1978) or the profound 'The Misfits' (1962), not to mention Ford's own cavalry trilogy. All are excellent and so are many more, ‘Lonesome Dove’ (1989). ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962) but they are second to ‘The Searchers.’ To the reader who has never seen ‘The Searchers,’ what can be said?

First, the film has pace. At nearly two hours, it is long, but the pace keeps an audience engaged, as I rediscovered.

Second, it offers the remarkable landscape of Monument Valley and the Grand Tetons. For the geographically deprived, Monument Valley looks just like its name, a flat, red plain with soaring rock monoliths, while the Grand Tetons are mountains that rise from a high grassy plain without foothills of any kind. (We spent a few days in both some years ago, and they still look just like that.)

Searchers Monument.jpg I stood on this very ledge once upon a time.

Third, there is the cast of characters from John Ford’s stable, each supporting actor getting face time, and some memorable dialogue. Today supporting actors might as well be CGI.

The natural and social context is rich then in place and people.

Four, the Indians are allowed an integrity not seen again in Westerns until Ford’s ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ (1964). The whites fear and hate the Indians for good reason in this world, and vice versa. This is a clash of equals who are enemies.

Fifth, there is the moral tale of redemption as Ethan Edwards, whose hate knows no bounds, whose disappointments are innumerable, whose future is bleak, whose past was bitter hardship and defeat, finds the little remaining humanity he has, much to his own surprise. Some of the close-ups of John Wayne's expression of hate are works of art.

Searchers Wayne closeup.jpg

The most powerful one I could not find on the web. That is when he looks back at the crazed women captives at Fort Robinson. It delivers a silent jolt of hatred that foreshadows all that is to come.

This Wayne character is an unpleasant and twisted man, not the anodyne hero he often played. Added to that is the flat voice only he could ever do.

Ethan has one moment of pathos, yet he has no future, ergo the last scene when from the doorway he turns away. This Achilles has no place in an ordered society. He knows that even if no one else does. It is a moment of self-consciousness worth seeing, made the more powerful without either a close-up or a comment. Understatement, thy name is no longer Hollywood.

The story is simple, as epics are. A Comanche raiding party carries away a young girl and the Texicans pursue it. The going is hard, and in time most of the pursuers give up, but not Ethan for whom the pursuit becomes an addiction that gives his miserable life meaning. This man who has lost so much, will not accept another loss. That obsession transmutes into blaming the victim, and when the opportunity comes to rescue the girl, well, there is a moment of profound hesitation and doubt, which is beautifully realised by the camera, the dialogue, the director, the actors, as if for a moment they were all elevated to a higher plane to produce a masterpiece. All this is silently observed by the vastness of nature broken by a single line of dialogue: 'Let's go home.'

The pygmies find much to fault. The cast is replete with the stock characters of westerns. The subplot involving a romance is not well integrated. As there are stock characters, so there are stock events and incidents, a dance, a fist fight, etc. One part of the film is Ethan’s gruelling quest played out against the social context back home. In joining the two, Ford perhaps made the former acceptable to audiences by reassuring them with the latter. Maybe the combination also satisfied him, too. It certainly satisfied Homer because he juxtaposed Ithaca with the war at Troy.

Those who are easily satisfied can hang the label ‘racist’ on Ethan and leave it at that. Ethan does hate, and these Indians have done much to earn his enmity, and vice versa, but Indians are also shown as majestic, insightful, good humoured, and with a nearly divine endurance. The only reprehensible character in the film is the store-keeper Jerem Futterman.

It is a movie that has a coherent screen play complemented with some very astute camera work to punctuate the story, and then there are Ford’s veteran actors who know what to do and how to do it. Though it does lack one of his usual features, namely a chorus to note silently the futility of it all. The assembly of the family on the porch at the initial homecoming is a near example, as are the Comanche women lined up when the Mexican trading party enters. But neither shot is held, nor is there any obvious emotion.

Ford momument.jpg John Ford on location in Momument Valley

That dean of movie reviewers Roger Ebert used words like magnificence, unforgettable, influential to describe it. Though it is clear to this reader Ebert was gun-shy of praising the film too much for fear of eliciting rants from the pygmies. On You Tube there is a comment on the film from Martin Scorsesse who styles Ethan Edwards a 'poet of hatred.'

Perhaps one day, Hollywood will butcher this one, ah, remake it. How would that go? Scar will be an innocent victim, and will be played by … Angelina Jolie. Like it so far? The Rupert Murdoch's cavalry will kidnap Scar’s little brother played by Johnny Depp, using his Tonto make-up which hides the white spots on his face. Angelina can lead a band of Amazons to abstract Johnny from the clutches of the villainous general played by ... Ron Howard! Is this gold, or what!

A play at the Old 505 Theatre on Eliza Street at #5

O’Connell Town has its own live theatre between King Street and the Camperdown Park. I noticed it on a circuitous path from the gym to our new digs, and found it on the web. I read about 'Dot Dot Dot' and we decided to go.

Dot Dot Dot-1.jpg

The play is set on the cusp of Federation in late 1900 in Sydney. A serial killer is at work, called Noah because each murder is a pair, two school girls, two merchants, two football players, etc. Two-by-two, Like the Ark before the flood. There is some Victorian spiritualism to confuse matters, a manipulative media mogul (guess who), a spineless political establishment, and much hysteria. The analogies to current events are transparent, but the play is not preachy.

The title ‘Dot Dot Dot’ I took to refer to connecting the dots to figure out what was going on and who was doing it. There is a twist in the tale that I will not spoil.

The staging was spare, toward the Kabuki end of the spectrum of stage craft, and, fittingly, there was some singing, though it is not a musical. Four players suffice. The young man has two roles to fill, as the naif police office and the scion. The older man likewise doubles up as the sage copper and the media mogul. The two women stay in their respective parts as sideshow mystic and woman of the night. The relationship among are tangled, and gradually get untangled through the first long act and the second short act. The direction is crisp, and the players inject conviction and energy in their performances.

Dot Dot Dot=2.jpg Lucy Miller and Matt Bell-King

Niggles, we had a few. Some of the longer speeches were delivered at light speed, and I am sure we missed some relevant things. The shoes worn by the young police office/scion are currently fashionable with the clown toes, but were not au courant at the fin de siècle in 1900. At one point the mogul says to his son that he will send him to Paris where he ‘can be among his own kind.’ We each independently thought that a reference to homosexuality, but it is not developed and the son seems to have had a sexual liaison with the female mystic. Given the Old 505 Theatre’s association with the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, touted on its web page, the homosexual references is palpable, but irrelevant it seemed. That mystery did not detract from the fun of the show and gave us something to chew on while walking home across the park, where the nocturnal hoons were yet to gather, the pubs had not yet closed and flushed them all out.

Dot drew_fairley.jpg Drew Fairley, the writer

The venue is intimate, seating seventy at most; we sat in the back row but were not more than ten meters from the performance area. The front row is on the floor where the performance occurs at one point in a dramatic scene toward the denouement one of the actors, in full oratorical flight, brushed the foot of a spectator in the front row who gave a startled shout that added to the tension of the moment.

This is the twenty-first novel in which Richard Sharpe’s career is recounted by a master story teller. As a teenager, Sharpe’s career started in India, but in these pages he is nearly forty, called once more into the breach.

Sharpes devil cover.jpg

The wife of an old friend solicits the assistance that only Sharpe can lend to find her husband, who has been lost in the fog of war in rebellious Chile in 1820-1821. He reluctantly leaves home and hearth in his farm in Normandy. It is a common set-up made fresh in Cornwall’s hands.

En route to distant Chile his ship calls stops for water at St. Helena. There Sharpe meets face-to-face the nemesis that has dominated his life from 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte. In the company of a group of a dozen Spanish officers with whom he is travelling, Sharpe is received by the Emperor. This scene is well realised. While everyone in the room is an officer, the Spaniards all decked out in grand uniforms for the occasion, there are only two soldiers in the room, and each recognises the other as that almost immediately. After some polite formalities Napoleon dismisses the gaudy Spaniards, so that he and Major Sharpe in a faded field jacket and he can talk about …,well, what else, Waterloo. For his part, Sharpe clearly sees in the sallow, pudgy little man, the inner warrior.

As well done as that is, at the time it seems window dressing, but read on.

In Chile Sharpe finds a mare’s nest. The Spanish officials range from incompetent to corrupt. The British consul is a useless. The rebels are not any better, back-biting and bak-stabbing.

Sharpe’s perception of the Spanish colonial administrator is insightful and amusing. He enters a room to find the governor surrounded by officials. Each is intense and focussed, none more so than the Captain-General Bautista.

“The Captain-General had resumed pacing up and down …stabbing more questions into his audience as he paced. How many cattle were in Valdivia’s slaughter yards? Had the supply ships arrived from Chiloe? Was there any news of Ruiz’s regiment? None? How many more weeks must they wait for those extra guns? Had the Puerto Crucero garrison test-fired their heated shot, and if so, what was their rate of fire? How long had it taken to heat the furnace from cold to operational heat? It was an impressive display, yet Sharpe felt unconvinced by it. It was almost as if Bautista was going through the motions of government merely so that no one could accuse him of dereliction when his province vanished from the maps of the Spanish Empire” (p. 88).

A few pages (p. 91) later the Captain-General outlines his strategy to defeat the rebels, which is to build ever larger fortifications and lure the rebels to their deaths before the cannons, if only Spain will send him more men, cannons, ammunition, and artillery men. It is, as Shape muses a strategy of doing nothing and shifting the blame for the result onto others, not enough cannons, not enough ammunition, poor artillerymen. In short, he has no strategy. The puff seems plausible because of the theatrical presentation. Why does this remind of briefings from some of my leaders? I could not possibly say.

The action scenes are so energetic that the reader suspends disbelief due to the momentum of the prose. Cornwall knows how to do this. The small rebel force succeeds by subterfuge, guile, surprise, and audacity and more audacity. It succeeds because the Spanish are poorly trained, poorly led, poorly equipped with rock bottom morale. While the Spanish have sturdy forts and many cannons, they have no reason to fight so far from home, being well aware of the corruption of their leadership. While the rebels are resilient, the Spanish are brittle. This, too, Cornwall does well.

Cornwell.jpg Bernard Cornwell

In addition to Sharpe, Cornwall has also published another many other novels on a variety of other themes from the Saxon Trails to the Copperhead Chronicles. Then there is the non-fiction. Wow!

The idiom a ‘mare’s nest’ traces back to the Sixteenth Century where it meant something extraordinary and remarkable. Indeed too remarkable to be a true, a hoax. By misuse, that god of idiom, came to mean something extraordinarily complicated and confused.

A novel with that super nerd Johannes Kepler in the leading role. It is part of a series of such eponymous works by the tireless John Banville, on whom there will be more later.

Kepler cover.jpg

The young Kepler, having exhausted alternatives, goes to work for the great Dane Tycho Brahe who is sustained by that screwball emperor of the vestigial Holy Roman Empire, Rudolph II in Prague (been there).  In so doing Kepler’s backstory unfolds in several flashbacks.  

Kepler is a teacher whose tenure is precarious in a world still riven by the Great Schism and where schools exist at the whim of the local grandee.  He marries largely for the dowry which is quickly spent on an inadequate model of the planets.  His wife Barbara is seen only through his eyes as part whore and part harridan.  

Brahe is a remote and glacial figure who treats Kepler as an underling, not a colleague. Tyco is moody, vague, and irascible by turns. Hardly the ideal patron, but Kepler has no alternative but to bear it. Rudolph is seldom seen, and exercises no influence, it seems. He just lets Brahe get on with it.

kepler brahe.jpg

The atmosphere is laid on by the cement mixer load and gets in the way of both the plot, if there is one, and character development, if there is any.

The author tries too hard to create a foreign world by reaching for the dictionary and using as many an arcane words as possible each of which distracted my attention as I looked each of them up.  Moreover, I soon lost patience with Kepler's tongue-tied ineptitude. He blunders about like one of the Stooges alienating even his supporters.  Now that may been historically accurate portrayal, but it does not inform, entertain, or enlighten a reader.  

When he is offered the chance to explain his system to a patron (and thereby to the reader), he does not seem to know what to say and starts with the most minute details, quickly boring the auditor, and this reader, too.  It is as though Kepler does not know the point either. I wondered if Banville was trying to show this as an example of pure research scoffed at by practical people, but if so, it fails. All I got was the urge to shake Johannes and tell him to get to the point, whatever it is.

Towards the middle of the book one finds a series of letters written by Kepler and the man revealed in these letters is not the bumbling oaf of the preceding pages. The letters are succinct, clear, and revealing. I do not know (yet) if they are real or imagined, but they are a relief of the clown Kepler of the earlier pages. Then in the last third we have Kepler again, not quite as bumbling and irritating. There is no explanation for the insertion of the letters and no indication at the end about their veracity. While there is an end note that mentions a biography of Kepler there is nary a word to explain Banville's caricature.

kepler banville.jpg John Banville is a one-man industry with scores of books to his credit under a phalanx of pseudonyms, or so it seems.  He writes contemporary novels, mostly set in Ireland under his own name, krimis featuring Dr Quirk under another name, still others as Benjamin Black, and this series of biographical novels about great scientists. It must be in the blood since his brother Vincent is also a busy author-bee, too.   Sadly nothing in this book motivates me to read another.

There was some added interest in that much of the novel takes place in Prague on that hill, which we visited in 2014. We walked through some of the rooms where Kepler worked. Moreover, that odd specimen Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor, is a character. This Rudolph sponsored all manner of invention and science. There is an excellent account of him in an ‘In Our Time’ episode from Lord Bragg. I have not been able to locate a biography of Rudi.

Two teenagers, aged 16 and 17, are chosen by aliens to justify the existence of humanity by preventing the murder of Adam and Eve. Such a trial of poor old humanity is a common premise in science fiction. Consider the Q Continuum for one.

Adam Eve.jpg

That old chestnut is given a new twist in these pages by sending the pair -- Ellie and Nick. -- back in time to 50,000 B.C. to save themselves by saving the genetic forbearers of our species in East Africa, styled Adam and Eve.  

Nick has all the egotistical misery and self doubt of a normal teenager, while Ellie is several classes out of his league, pretty, smart, decisive, and confident. Nick is a loner with few interests.  But together they make something of a team, the more so with a box of matches, a Swiss Army knife, and few other things in their pockets when the trial began, but their greatest asset is Twenty-First Century knowledge (hygiene, maps, the wheel).

Yet for all their several advantages they have a lot to learn about living in Eden, stay downwind of the animal herds. That standing still while a lion passes in the distance is very hard when the fire ants swarm.  
They do find the genetic bearers whom they call Click and Foxy, and they do try to protect them and also get them to move toward Sinai thanks to their Twenty-First Century knowledge of maps and cross into the Middle East in time to come.  

In the course of these exertions they learn to kill, butcher, and eat, sometimes raw, wildebeest and other delights of the teeming flora and fauna. This is no place for vegetarians, vegans, lactose intolerants, etc., etc. They also learn to trust each other, and slowly win the trust of Click and his clan.  

Eden africa.jpg

Woven into the story are comments, too many for this reader, about the dire straits of the environment in the Twenty-First Century and the looming environmental catastrophe that threatens the Earth.  The self-destruction of planet Earth, a perfectly good piece of real estate, is what has prompted the aliens to intervene, thinking to reset this world by extinguishing Click (Adam) and Foxy (Eve) and let evolution start over. This is a clever idea for a plot.

There are two sub-plots to muddy the water, though the major twist was evident long before its revelation. Even so it was well done.

The suspicion of my acne years that high school science teachers are not human was at last vindicated. 

Dietrich has a good ear for teen-speak though it is mercifully shorn of speech crutches of 'like' and 'actually.'  Though the latter has long since migrated to adult speak.  Quarantine failed on that one.  He is even better at getting inside the mind of Nick, whose high school experiences perhaps reflect Dietrich's own. I know they do reflect mine.

Dietrich.jpg William Dietrich who is an accomplished writer whose Nathan Gage I have much enjoyed. 

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