by Lewis Manalo
Despite my naturally foul disposition, I’ll be generous and take it on faith that Tim Lott is an intelligent man. He did win a Whitbread Book Award after all, so he at least knows how to read. I wouldn’t notice his article on the Worst Best Films Ever Made, printed in the Guardian last Friday, as anything more than passing wind had he limited his criticism of canonical films to Steven Spielberg’s, about whose Schindler’s List he says:
“This film is actively offensive. To watch a group of cringing Jews gather around the ‘good German’ during the Holocaust is bad enough.”
Even if he’d kept his criticism to the French New Wave, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Like a member of the peanut gallery, he says of Jules and Jim:
“High concept? It’s a nouvelle vague buddy movie, set in France before the first world war. . . Despite its historical setting, it is a film anticipating attitudes of the 60s by people who have an absurd, privileged and conceited idea of what the 60s should or will be.”
I might’ve just pointed out that Truffaut‘s craft was quite inventive for it’s time, and if he didn’t think so it was because that film, like so many other French New Wave films, is so influential. If he thinks the plot is that of a love triangle, he doesn’t remember the film properly, and if he thinks the film “anticipates” the 60’s, then he’s forgotten his history. People explored polylandry in your grandparents’ time, Mr. Lott, and the Great War did affect people, including the Dadaist artists whose lives inspired the amazing original novel.
But in Mr. Lott’s thoughtless venture into polemical film criticism, he decides to talk shit about The Searchers, and for all the Duke’s faults, I don’t let anyone talk shit about John Wayne. One of Lott’s main objections to The Searchers stems from his failure to understand John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards.
“The film fails to explain why Ethan would go to such trouble to find [Debbie (who Lott fails to point out is played by Natalie Wood)] if he only wants to kill her. Nor does it explain why he changes his mind at the end.”
And here is where Mr. Lott’s logic begins to show. The film doesn’t explain the “why” to him. He rounds up another few films, Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and Von Stroheim’s Greed, by criticizing that “nothing happens,’ that in Greed, “nothing happens for ten hours.” (It’s worth noting that Mr. Lott fails to criticize any British films in his polemic, as if David Lean never bored anyone to tears.) (And no one living has seen the 10 hour version of Greed, Mr. Lott. It’s a lost film.)
I find it a little ironic that the novelist’s criticisms are of the type more often sounded out in high school English classes when a strong-willed student complains about some novel he or she was forced to read. Needing the plot explained, complaining that “nothing happens,” points to a reading of film as if it consists of nothing but explicit story, and just as novels are more than just explicit story, so are films.
The reason Ethan Edwards decides not to kill Debbie at the end of The Searchers is truly a profound change of character, and it’s a testament to John Ford that the film doesn’t spell it out. I’ll let the film speak for itself here:
Does that scene, one of the greatest in film history, really need explaining? If we broke it down into the explicit events of the scene, there’s little going on, but if, oh, we decide to read the film, we see a comment on how the spirit that makes civilization possible can find no place in it.
You have to read the film, Mr. Lott. It’s not that hard. Easier than reading a book, really. John Ford uses a lot of framing within the frame to get his point across. There are also other filmmakers do things other than tell a plot to say what they mean. Hitchcock likes using red to highlight certain scenes, uses point of view to indicate emotions. Martin Scorsese uses montage to illustrate the mechanics of different organizations. Not reading these aspects of film is like reading Moby Dick and not noticing the color white everywhere. Or let me guess, Moby Dick is “too long” or “too slow.” (Or do you only recognize the merits of British culture? You nationalist!)
If Tim Lott, a man of at least average intelligence, doesn’t read film, should we be surprised if no one else does either? And why don’t people read films? Sure, it takes the slightest bit of effort, i.e. thought, but it makes the viewer a participant, makes the film-going experience richer and more fulfilling. What sort of future can motion pictures hope for if educated people see films as only the sum of their events? An illiterate audience can only push such an economically dependent medium towards its own simplification, just so the medium can survive. In the future, should every movie theater be filled with buffoons giggling at G-Force or can we have a few thinkers looking up at a movie screen watching Tetro?