Friday, March 05, 2004

The Ox-Bow Incident; Things Seen While Book-Browsing

First, the film:
The Ox-Bow Incident (1942, dir. William A. Wellman; starring Henry Fonda, Henry Morgan, Anthony Quinn, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, William Eythe). I'm at something of a disadvantage in discussing this film, in that while I'm an old guy, I'm not THAT old: of the actors listed above, I only recognized the first three. The DVD box assures me, though, that this is "an all-star cast." No matter: everybody was fine in it. It was nominated for Best Picture for the 1943 Academy Awards.
As I mentioned in my earlier post today, this film, like High Noon, both cuts against the grain of the staples of the Western and, in so doing, establishes some new ones. In fact, I found myself thinking, as I watched this one, that High Noon owes some of its overall feel to its predecessor, just as, when I watched High Noon about a month ago, I couldn't help but be reminded of the look--though not the content--of Sergio Leone's Westerns with Clint Eastwood. Harold Bloom, speaking of literature in his book The Western Canon, said that the power of classics is that they either make the world look strange or make the world look like the world of that work. Surely the same is also true of film. The opening scene of The Ox-Bow Incident has Fonda and Morgan riding into town and pulling up at the saloon for a drink. They walk in, and we first see Fonda staring fixedly at something behind the bartender. The camera then reveals what it is: a painting of a reclining woman with a cloth draped over her torso but her exposed arms and legs showing no other clothing, and, in the middle background, a man approaching her. Cut back to Fonda, still staring. A few more seconds. Then he says, "That man is sure taking a long time getting there." The first words spoken in the film--he hadn't even ordered a drink, and there he is making a comment that could have been written by Keats, had he been a cowboy writing "Ode on a Grecian Urn." But, appropriately, whereas Keats sees the ever-about-to-kiss lovers as the personification of beauty, Fonda's remark emphasizes the delay in achieving something seen as implictly appropriate--and, as it turns out, we'll soon learn that that's an important theme for him personally (it's not clear why exactly, but he had lost a woman whom he had loved some time before; we'll see later that she has remarried and gone to live in San Francisco with her husband) and for the film as well. The plot is that a cattle rancher named Kinkaid is reported to have been killed when rustlers came to steal his cattle; the sheriff is out of town, but his deputy decides to round up a posse, even though he can't legally do so. It's led by the mayor, who wears his uniform from his Civil War days and who commands as though he still were leading an army. The town judge tries to get the posse to disband, to no avail. But even though on the surface the men (and one very mannish woman who proves to be even more coarse than many of the men) are united in their purpose to find the rustlers, in fact the group has many internal rifts. Those rifts come to the surface when the posse encounters 3 men who have some of the dead man's cattle in their possession. The remainder of the movie (in a negative image of Aristotle's unity of time, it takes place between the setting and the rising of the sun)consists of the examination of the case against the men and the growing uncertainty among the members of the posse as to the guilt of the men and, assuming they are guilty, the correct procedure for punishing them.
As you can see, most all of what I've said above flies in the face of the conventional Western. Frontier justice, we are usually shown, is the old-fashioned eye-for-an-eye type, swift, compensatory, and certain as to the question of guilt. In this film, we don't know for certain the guilt or innocence of the men until quite late. Maybe even more interesting about this film, especially for those interested in such things, is its examination of gender roles. Most of the men seem to be the usual sort of men you see in Westerns. However, I've already mentioned the very mannish woman: when no one immediately volunteers to whip the horses the condemned men will sit on when it's time to hang them, she volunteers, saying that she'll do it "if no one else wants to." Meanwhile, serving as a counterbalance to this woman is the mayor's son, who is at least effeminate and, if certain shots of him gazing a little longer than one might expect at Anthony Quinn are any indication, perhaps even gay. All the other men (and the woman) wear solid-colored overcoats; the son wears a double-breasted plaid overcoat. In another, smaller, subplot, it's revealed that Henry Fonda's girl leaves town not because people are talking about her but because she doesn't want to wait for them to talk. Again, the theme of guilt and innocence, but also we see here a single woman who does what she must to survive with her dignity intact. But she does so on her own terms.
Anyway: this film was a treat. The tensions are fascinating and suspensful to watch as they play out. They are much more intense than those of the usual Western, in which, once you've identified the good guys, you know whom we'll see the final credits roll over. And, as I say, it's interesting to see how this film both breaks ranks with other Westerns and influences subsequent ones.

The bookstore:
At least once a week, I like to go to the nearby Barnes & Noble, browse the stacks, pick out a few books that look interesting, and then read a chapter or two in them to get a sense of them. I did some of that today, but my chief purpose this time was to look at a couple of art books in anticipation of an Honors section of English Comp that I'll be teaching this fall. I chose two thick Abrams-like books on Pieter Bruegel and Frida Kahlo and a much thinner one on Caravaggio. Though I liked the Caravaggio well enough, for some reason the images left me cold. Not so with the other two. It grows late, and I simply cannot now give you a sense of what it was like to look at these painters' work. I was and remain awash in their imaginations, as though I was bathing in them. Though on the surface they are very different, they are remarkably alike in that each, in painting after painting, seeks to create and develop a mythology, a visual language with images serving as the alphabet. Bruegel's language is rooted in the Church and the folklore of his people; Kahlo's in the geography and events of her life. Breugel's overwhelms with its profusion of images; Kahlo's, with its many fewer but highly evocative images. Geez, this is so simplistic. It's true, but what you need are examples, and these paintings are hard work to look at and talk about--something I wouldn't be up to tonight even if I had the images in front of me, which I don't. So there.

I seem to have said something in Wednesday's entry about March Madness. Well. It's my prerogative to change the course of the Meridian, no? Rest assurred, basketball is never far from the surface of my conscience, especially these days. Soon. Patience.

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