Quentin Tarantino Takes Swings at John Ford and Whiffs
It's uncommon for the post-modern auteur to be overly critical of the old stand-bys.
In Quentin Tarantino's latest wonderfully written piece for the New Beverly blog, he covers the legacy of Peter Bogdanovich, the influence of John Ford, the impact of films like Paper Moon, The Grapes of Wrath, and Last Picture Show. Along the way, he takes a few shots at Ford.
But does he land the punches?
We'll get to that...
But first off:
This is the fun part of film theory and analysis!
It's like getting to see LeBron James pick apart Michael Jordan's game. Or watch Mike Tyson get in the ring with Muhammad Ali.
If QT wants to take it to the old man, I am here for it!
Let's take a look at this analysis from Mr. Tarantino, and see what punches he lands...and which ones he didn't.
John Ford: the Grumpy Auteur
John Ford made a lifelong habit of speaking very little at all about the whys and hows when it came to filmmaking. In fact, he considered it just a way to "pay the rent". The one filmmaking assignment Ford took seriously in life was when he was asked to lead a division in the army that involved filming material during World War 2. If you haven't read Five Came Back: The Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, it's a must for any cinephile or filmmaker.
It paints a picture of Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the lives of its biggest directors. It also tells you how they shot and survived the war.
Ford in particular takes center stage. He routinely didn't show up to the Academy Awards (where he always won) because he was either getting drunk, sailing, or... you know... helping the war effort.
There couldn't be a more different set of filmmakers than Ford and Tarantino. Here is what Ford said about directing movies:
"Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery. It's not an art."
This well-documented attitude could be why Tarantino, the exact opposite, has some aggression towards him.
In one corner we have the filmmaker writing lengthy pieces about the history of cinema... in the other corner we have this man:
So, with all that said...
"Let's get ready to RUUUUMMMBLLEEE."
First off... this is a huge subject, tackled by one of the great students of film and filmmakers—Tarantino.
Ford is considered one of the early and purest of auteurs. Peter Bogdanovich, prior to making his own beloved films, sought out Ford and learned from him on set, wrote a book about him, as he did with many others.
That Ford really didn't impact Bogdanovich's films.
It's a great read. It's a fair point, and I wouldn't argue against it.
While the overall thesis here works, the specifics are hit and miss.
First... the hits.
What Tarantino Gets Right
It's true that most of Bogdanovich's films feel more like a direct product of Howard Hawks than of John Ford. Even if we're just talking about themes and genre. Bogdanovich wasn't a guy who made westerns about tough men and women... he mostly made movies about romance, usually with a comedic element.
From a visual standpoint, Tarantino makes a great point in almost painterly prose, recreating for us the way George Lucas' American Graffiti used the canvas to portray the same exact era as The Last Picture Show to such completely different thematic ends.
It's an amazing observation that I've never seen anywhere else. The movies literally are about the same concept, taking place during the same time, but the treatment of the images create entirely different worlds and entirely different meaning.
Tarantino thinks of time and place in terms of mediums and media. That's part of why he is the true post-modern auteur. He points out how The Last Picture Show was shot more like a film from the era it takes place in. Stylistic choices, to him, have as much to do with creating a period as anything else.
The choice to keep a camera still, at eye level, for example, might be more impactful when trying to convey a time period than a costume does.
Hawks of course made movies about EVERYTHING in every genre. This is part of why he's an auteur in the first place... according to the strictest of definitions.
The influence of Ford's themes and styles feel pretty absent from Bogdanovich movies. It feels like a stretch to find them at all. There is no denying that this, Tarantino's main point, seems entirely correct.
But... along the way, he stumbles into some weird territory.
What Tarantino Got Wrong
It does seem that, on some level, QT flat out doesn't like John Ford. There is no rule anywhere that I can find about filmmakers loving John Ford.
But what's interesting about it that Tarantino is a direct cinematic descendant of Ford...
Ford was a huge influence on Akira Kurosawa, "Yet the seminal influence on [Yojimbo], for me, was a hard-drinking Irishman from Maine named John Ford, who made Westerns." - Charles Silver, curator of the department of film at the Museum of Modern Art.
Later in the same piece on the film, Silver would mention the times Kurosawa and Ford visited with one another, "What Kurosawa admired and tried to emulate were the Ford Westerns"
Kurosawa and Ford were friends and had a deep mutual admiration for one another. There is this quote from Kurosawa himself, "John Ford is really great…. When I’m old, that’s the kind of director I want to be.”
So what does Kurosawa being inflicted by Ford have to do with Tarantino?
Well, Yojimbo, like many of Kurosawa's samurai films, was remade as a western
The remake of Yojimbo was unauthorized, titled Per Un Pugno Di Dollari or A Fist Full of Dollars and directed by Sergio Leone. That film launched his career making Spaghetti Westerns, which had more than just a passing influence on...
"The movie that made me consider filmmaking, the movie that showed me how a director does what he does, how a director can control a movie through his camera, is Once Upon a Time in the West." - Quentin Tarantino.
Interesting side fact: Kurosawa wrote a letter to Leone about the film saying "It's a very fine film. But it is my film." A lawsuit was settled between them that led to Kurosawa receiving 15% of the film's worldwide box office.
Great artists may steal... in this case the artist also had to pay a fine.
But it doesn't even end there. Yojimbo is also the source material for another Spaghetti Western remake titled Django.
Ok, so there are no two ways about it, right? Ford to Kurosawa to Leone to Tarantino.
Ford is Tarantino's cinematic great-great-grandpa.
But why then is Tarantino so harsh on the old man here:
"And for all the critics (and a jealous Orson Welles) who tried to tie Paper Moon’s attributes to The Grapes of Wrath, in every instance, Bogdanovich betters his elder. The beauty attached to László Kovács’ black and white photography was somehow linked to Ford. Now Ford’s photography has always been overrated in my estimation. But I think it’s pretty obvious his color films look better than his black and white films."
Tarantino is just flat out wrong here. Ford's photography is overrated in his opinion, but it's not obvious that his color films look better than his black and white films.
John Ford's black and white visuals aren't just some of the foundational pieces to the entire art form... but he took them to new heights in The Grapes of Wrath.
I don't want to call out Tarantino... but this line makes me wonder if he's seen the movie. The images speak for themselves, and don't even do the film itself justice:
The director of photography for The Grapes of Wrath was Gregg Toland, truly a legend in the field. He lensed Citizen Kane.
But you wanna know why?
Because there was one filmmaker who wrote the book on black and white photography, and Orson Welles himself knew it that man was John Ford. Citizen Kane is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. When asked about the inspiration of its visuals what did Welles say?
"John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."
Welles wanted the man who shot Ford's recent films, not only The Grapes of Wrath but also, The Long Voyage Home. Both of which were released in 1940 and lensed by Toland. The DP lost "best cinematography" that year to George Barnes for Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. Hey... no shame in that.
But the point remains, how can any cinephile discount the impact, or value, of John Ford's black and white visuals? Let alone one who is so influenced by the filmmaker's Ford influenced!
It's possible that Tarantino meant the later films because he follows with this line: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has all the artistry of watching a Technicolor western on black and white television." The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a seminal film for many reasons. The photography is definitely not one of them. So I'll agree with Tarantino there.
But the early Ford black and white movies? Are you kidding me???
Quentin Tarantino... what the hell are you smoking?
This time... it's personal?
I have to wonder if the reason for the slight, and the statement of feeling the visuals of Ford are 'overrated' has something to do with the fact that Ford was notoriously negative about talking film—"I love making pictures but I don't like talking about them,"—where Tarantino is one of the best film-talking filmmakers who ever lived.
There is room for both to thrive and be beloved by all. There is no question they are two of the greatest, and they bookend a legacy of great filmmaking. Their approaches differ in fascinating ways, and their themes and visual grammar intersect in unique places.
There are some other interesting things Tarantino seems to misread about Ford and The Last Picture Show author Larry McMurtry, which leads to deeper conclusions.
"The reverence that the Communities of John Ford pictures have towards ritual is not championed by Bogdanovich (or novelist Larry McMurtry) but subverted. Both Bogdanovich and McMurtry even poke fun at the Texas characters’ obsession with high school football."
The joke of the character's obsession with high school football has more to do with bigger themes... a younger generation that has failed the older one... a shift in priorities... a sense that something once important has become a second thought. There is a sense of sadness though, and the joke is not that characters care about football... but that everyone is mutually depressed about it for different reasons. It's a theme connected to the whole story.
There isn't any poking fun at the characters in the work of novelist Larry McMurtry. He has distant compassion for his characters, watching them struggle with issues large and small. Some characters mock others for being bad at football, but the artists don't seem to be commenting on the characters caring about it.
If anything, The Last Picture Show is the kind of older style of filmmaking where the artists aren't injecting themselves or their sensibility into the work. The kind of directing Ford did.
Maybe the film is actually more similar to Ford's than Tarantino is suggesting. Consider those stills shared earlier. Aren't the long empty black and white eye-level compositions in The Last Picture Show reminiscent of the ones from Ford's films?
Community ritual in the Ford sense comes into play throughout the film, maybe in a revisionist Western sad way, which is distinct to the tone of McMurtry's work. The high school dance/event is one loaded with a somber melancholy. Both for what it is... and what it isn't.
McMurtry's work, and The Last Picture Show, in particular, mourn the present. The characters long for the past they are currently living. Like we are seeing it all as their faded memory. It's a powerful kind of time-travel, an immediate and haunting version of nostalgia.
Tarantino's take on the near-miss of Bogdanovich's epic western Lonesome Dove, written by McMurtry, was mainly geared towards the casting. Notably, McMurtry was writing a script for Bogdanovich about a cattle drive. Bogdanovich wanted a trio of Ford's greatest leading men: John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. But they were all old and passed on the project, and it ended up becoming a prize-winning novel, and an 80s miniseries event. But forget the miniseries. Just read the book.
Tarantino suggests alternate casting for the would-be film. His filmmaking eye always seems to drift to cast. Another way in which he couldn't be more different from great-great-grandpa Ford who saw John Wayne in Red River after constantly casting him in his own films and finally said, "I didn't know that son of a bitch could act."
Ford thought about as little of his performers as one could. He wanted actual cowboys, not actors pretending to be them. Ben Johnson was among these; he barely spoke 5 lines in most Ford films, but he was cast by Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show and suddenly had tons to say... and said it beautifully.
Tarantino notes in his piece that this led to the casting of Johnson in many roles, and he came to embody a new side of the mythology.
But all of this points to where the two filmmakers land on this spectrum. Ford started his career making one-reel silents at a time when Wyatt Earp—the actual guy who shot people in the street in western towns—was an advisor to Hollywood.
There were still real cowboys when John Ford started. The types of men and women he was making movies about were in the world. The Grapes of Wrath is about the dustbowl, which hadn't happened that long before the movie was made.
Tarantino is brilliant in his own right, but he's not making movies about things that happened recently. Or things that ever happen.
He's making movies about pieces of movies, and ideas from movies. He's riffing with the instruments Ford was building. They are part of the same continuum, pieces of the same narrative. Movies about tough guys and gals and their heroic deeds. One closer to the idea of the deeds when they were done, another closer to the interpretation of them through cinema itself.