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Posts Tagged ‘John Ford’

Grapes of Wrath Book CoverIt was on this date 75 years ago, in 1939, that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published.  Following the Joad family as they lose their family farm in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma and head for fields  and groves of California,   this epic tale has parallels for the dispossessed and downtrodden everywhere and in every time.   The book and subsequent movie, the 1940 John Ford classic starring Henry Ford as the everyman Tom Joad,  have influenced my perspective on the world since I was child.

When it was published, The Grapes of Wrath was an instant bestseller but it also stirred more than  a little controversy.  Many were shocked at the portrayals of poverty and couldn’t believe they were true, that such destitution could exist in our country.  Many were alarmed at the book’s themes of collectivism, feeling that it was a nudge in the direction of some form of Soviet Communism instead of  a gathering of the preyed upon and voiceless into a form that had a strong and unified voice and gave them protection against their oppressors.

I am sure there are many who still see the book as some sort of threat to the status quo– it is still one of the most frequently banned books in the country.  I think that says a lot about the strength of the powers-that-be and the fact that there are even more  families like the Joads out there today– dispossessed, voiceless and feeling absolutely alone in the world.  I am sure that Steinbeck could find plenty of source material in today’s America to write a modern day sequel.

It’s a powerful book and movie, one that I play at least once a year in the studio.  It still moves me deeply ad always will.  I wrote about the movie here a few years back in a post titled Then Who Do We Shoot?, outlining my early brush with the movie and how it affected me as a kid. I also had the video below which has a review from the NY Times with a few of the many great scenes including Tom’s farewell to his mother.

Happy 75th, Grapes of Wrath.  You haven’t lost a step.

 

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“Then who do we shoot?”

These five words uttered by Muley the sharecropper being thrown from his family farm by bankers near the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath echo in my head.  He is frustrated by the seemingly crooked game of cards his world has become and wants to know who has been dealing him these losing hands from the deck of life that is so stacked against him.  And all he gets is anonymity and buck-passing.  He is flailing at boogeymen.

I had John Ford’s classic film of John Steinbeck’s novel on in the studio as I worked yesterday, a ritual I perform at least once a year.  I never cease to be amazed at the topicality of the film in almost any hard time and am moved by scene after scene in the film, even after all these years.  It has long been one of my favorites and has shaded my view of the world since I was a child.

I remember distinctly the first time I saw the film.  It was a very snowy day during our Christmas break.  I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and my brother and I sat down to watch Ed Murphy’s Hollywood Matinee, a daily showing of a film from the Syracuse TV channel that we were able to pick up with our antenna that laid on the roof of the the old farmhouse in which we lived.  Ed Murphy was a boozy white-haired local TV/radio personality who introduced the movies, which were usually cut haphazardly to fit in extra commercials.  Murphy also presided over the Dialing For Dollars portion of the show where he would pull a telephone listing ( a Syracuse phonebook cut into pieces) and call a lucky listener for a cash prize.  I can’t remember exactly how the rules worked but I remember a lot about watching that particular movie.

I remember thinking how Tom Joad was not a particularly good man, especially as a hero.  He had just been released from prison and talked about killing a man with a shovel in a fight.  He had a quick and angry temper but a tenderness when dealing with Ma Joad and his family.  I also remember seeing in the faces of the bank men and the bosses at the farms and orchards that same mean-spirited bully attitude I  could see in the faces of bullies at school.  actually, there was a great familarity in the whole movie.  I could see traces of my family and many people I knew in the Joads.  People pushed and prodded and never quite able to gain their footing, never in control of their situation.  We weren’t Okies but these people were everywhere–average people who struggled on small farms or worked long hours in factories.

This observed familiarity with these characters has only grown over the years.  I recognize more and more people in the faces of those downtrodden Joads and see many scenes in the film that are  analagous to situations in our times.  It’s a movie that I feel is a must-see for everyone.

Here’s a nice review of the film from the New York Times (short ad at the beginning-sorry!) that includes a couple of clips including Muley with the bankman and Tom’s farewell to Ma, which may be my favorite scene in amy film.

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Yesterday, after finally getting back in the studio after running errands, I flipped on the tube and caught the end of the classic John Ford film The Searchers.  On the day that the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit opened, it was fitting that they were showing what is probably John Wayne’s finest performance, as the damaged and hate-filled hero Ethan Edwards.  Beautifully shot film with layers and layers of content. 

 The reason I mention this this morning is the image shown here, the final shot of the film.  Ethan has finished his quest to find and retrieve his kidnapped niece and has deposited her with what remains of her family.  He stands apart, the darkness of the interior walls forming a frame that highlights his alienation and isolation.  He is a living ghost.

It is an image that never fails to move me, bringing forward a strong emotional reaction to it, even if only seeing it in a passing clip for a mere second or two. It captures perfectly the tenor and content of the whole story in a single iconic image.  Ethan holds his damaged arm representing his emotional scars as well and he slowly turns and walks away towards the desert as the door shuts behind, bringing the story to an end in darkness.  Just perfect.

I remember seeing a documentary on John Ford that equated his filmmaking to painting in that he looked at the compositions with a painter’s eye, letting the background become part of the storytelling process.  You can see it in most of his films.  There are shots that are so beautifully composed that they evoke an immediate emotional response.  What you hope for as a painter. 

Even now as I sit here writing this, my eye wanders up that image and I am struck by it.  I will probably have that image with me for the rest of the day, at least.  That is powerful.

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