I ain’t no preacher no more

Image of Grapes of Wrath movie posterI watched John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) last night and I have to say it is a masterpiece of the highest order. The film both blew my mind and deeply touched me on so many levels I just can’t sort them all out right now. I’m confused. So, until then, here are a few highlights from a film that must have been as relevant and deeply human back in 1940 as it was last night.

The scene at the beginning of the movie when Tom Joad (played brilliantly by Henry Fonda) encounters the ex-preacher Jim Casey (John Carradine) for the first time frames the entire film. The scene is wonderfully rich and complex in its existential humor, setting up the overarching logic of the film: honest doubt and life’s dire uncertainties are not anathema to hope and possibility. Not understanding our condition is a crucial element to being within it, to embracing it. To decide to go on while not understanding is the greatest act of faith. Similar to Estragon’s claim in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” More than that, the preacher’s lost spirit haunts me like a second skin these days.

And there’s Muley (an Oklahoma sharecropper like the Joads) being told he needs to get off his land. This scene beautifully captures the ever receding logic of responsibility and individual accountability under capital. What makes the land “our’n”?

The scene between Tom Joad and Ma Joad (played flawlessly by Jane Darwell) was an almost impossible one for me to watch. The moment captures the parting between mother and son, a strange apotheosis of Tom Joad into the canon of freedom fighters for social justice which is sealed by his “I’ll be there” speech. Yet, despite these moments of poetry, there is still no clear understanding on the part of either son or mother, and the anguish at the separation remains terribly real for both of them. This scene painfully reminded me of just how much I miss my mother, and how deeply I long to look into her eyes once again and talk to her about the world I see.

Ma Joad delivers the final thoughts of the film. A brilliant ending to the preceding dark and disturbing vision of the world. The final lines about “the people” made me realize how Ford takes the film version of the novel to another level. It is his ability to marry stock characters with profound philosophical vision that drives the engine of hope that is the Joad family throughout the film.

That final scene reminds me of something Mrs. Jorgensen said in The Searchers (1956), another Ford classic:

It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothin’ but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day, this country’s gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.

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11 Responses to I ain’t no preacher no more

  1. Martin says:

    Nice post….

    There I’ve done it! I’ve just said nice post in a bava comment! No 1500 word essay, no pretentious references, no rambling thesis on society and metaphor. I deserve a drink.

    If you had to pick a modern descendant of Ford who’d you go for?

  2. Matt says:

    Aw, Jimmy — that’s a beautiful post. Here’s hoping you keep on preaching, ’cause it sure looks to me like you’ve still got the spirit inside you.

  3. Reverend says:

    @Matt,
    The spirit is waning, I got a find a Tattered Coat and get myself some inspiration. Thanks Matt, this one was a tear jerker, strange how I am negotiating loss and hope through digitized celluloid. I need help.

    @Martin,

    “If you had to pick a modern descendant of Ford who’d you go for?”

    This, my friend, is a question I think about often. And not just in regards to ford, but to filmmakers, actors, genres, etc. So, while watching Grapes of Wrath I started thinking about my recent belief that Alfred Hitchcock is the best director of the 20th century given his ability to produce masterpiece after masterpiece while remaining so deeply rooted in both the popular logic as well as the provocative themes that any intellectual/scholar/film buff would gel on. More than that, he was unbelivably imaginative with the camers, making him an all around master. But then there’s Billy Wilder, who is far and away the most consistently brilliant literary filmmaker, his films mark some of the greatest writing of the 20th century, both in and out of film in my opinion. His mastery of dialogue, scene tension, and characterization is second to none, and films as diverse as Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, and The Seven Year Itch making him not only the master of the noir in my opinion but the king of intelligent comedic writing (which has got to be the single most difficult task).

    So those two are always there, but then Ford constantly sneaks back in, and last night was a superb example. After watching Grapes of Wrath I spent over an hour on his Wikipedia page tracing his 140 films, that’s right 140 films! Insane! And he has far more masterpieces than I have years (and I have quite a few now). Has anyone made as many great films as Ford? I don’t know, Hitchcock would be the natural suggestion, but I think Ford owns him.

    So, having that out of the way, I am going to sound very old and cynical right now. There is not a Ford now. There never will be a Ford again. Film is moribund, and the moment of another John Ford to cinema is past. This may sound even worse, but if we were to suggest one, and be honest about it, it wouldn’t be Kubrick, for he was too locked up in the modernist idea of an artist—he seems to me something else all together. Not a popular success by any mean, but a critical success almost beyond its merit (in my opinion–thoug I do love his films). In my mind, it might be Spielberg. Spielberg could be our Ford, which says a lot about the changing logic of the film industry f you buy this suggestion. I say this because like Ford Spielberg is a machine and he is also very much trying to manage the popular and critical logic of film. He also has made, and a part of me painfully admits this, more great films than most other popular directors of the last forty years.

    Polanski? Well, Chinatown is one of the greatest films ever made (watched that again on Thursday night), but his films don’t have the triangulated relationship to the popular industry and consistent creation of genius as Ford or Hitchcock. But he may be an easier pill to swallow than Spielberg, who was by no means consistent either, yet Jaws ranks up there with Chinatown in my opinion.

    OK, I know I have dug myself a deep hole, and I’ll live in it for now. But before I end this, let me note that this logic is very specific to US film in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. And given that I would throw Coppola out there as well, but he is the strangest director, he made five or six absolute masterpieces for the ages (Apocalypse Now, Godfather, Godfather II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish) and then Dracula and Jack…WTF?

  4. Andy says:

    Hey Jim, nice post and comments.

    Your Coppola list threw an odd anecdote into my mind. Sorry if it cheapens the profound post-age but I haven’t thought about it for ages.

    While I was doing camps in Canada my girlfriend (also a Drama grad from my college) was working as a researcher in film. So, to cut a long story short, she got a job as an asissant to director Tim Hunter (River’s Edge). He turned out to be a HK movie buff and laser disc collector (I’m a big HK movie guy).

    So, he asked the two of us to take him down to Calgary Chinatown to check out some shops there and then have dinner with him and a friend afterwards.

    So, the friend turned out to be author S. E. Hinton (Outsiders, Rumble Fish). Both of them were such nice down to earth people that I didn’t really want to bother them with a bunch of fanboy questions …and believe me, I had many. However, towards the end of the meal I saw I could probably fit one in without too much trouble.

    Don’t ask me why but for some reason the fact that Tim directed the BH 90210 pilot took control of my shallow brain and I had to ask if Tori Spelling had really auditioned in disguise to get the part on merit etc. Tim answered by telling em that when you walk into Aaron Spelling’s office there’s a 10 foot high oil painting of her behind his desk.

    Why …why didn’t I ask about making Rumblefish with Copolla.

  5. Martin says:

    Jim – maybe it’s not that there aren’t directors with Ford’s talent, but that as you suggest, the nature of the film industry has changed so much. Like his films, Ford was exploring the new frontier, and rules were more lax then, or just not made. So you could be both a popular and artistic success. It seems the more they have refined the business, the more those two have become separate entities.
    I’m so glad you picked up on Jaws – it is possibly my favourite movie. I’m not a big Spielberg fan, but Jaws is absolutely perfect in pace and structure. If I had to pick one descendant, and without opting for an arthouse choice such as Kieslowski (not mainstream enough), I’d say scorsese. He has some of the popularity, the central genre (gangsters are the modern cowboys, New York streets the modern wild west, etc), and also some of the diversity. He is also prolific and has a couple of all time classics in his bag (although I am alone in not ranking Raging Bull as one of them, but Taxi Driver sits alongside Jaws but for very different reasons). That’s not to say he’s as good as Ford, but I think he shares some of those attributes.
    There, back to doing long comments again…
    PS – Andy, great anecdote!

  6. Reverend says:

    @Andy,

    Dinner with S.E. Hinton, wow, how cool. Reading her books in Junior High and High School was a blast. I did love her style and characterization, and while The Outsiders is not the film Rumble Fish is on several levels, the whole Socs vs. Greasers thing always appealed to my fascination with class in those novels. Also, I loved That was then, This is now (both the novel and the movie) which kind of marries the drugs and the class issues beautifully from Rumble Fish and Outsiders. I’m not a big fan of Gus van Sant’s recent film Paranoid Park —I think it was far too disaffected and presumptuous of the mind of the adolescent and their utter apathy that it ultimately felt arrogant. That said, his Drugstore Cowboy is one of my favorites, and it always seemed to me to be coming from the S.E. Hinton tradition of films, which a stylized vision borrowed from Coppola, with respect and care.

    Ok, but back to the point, so you asked about Tori Spelling? I can dig that, I think I would have asked him what kind of nut precisely is Crispin Glover. That guy trips me out to no end, and River’s Edge is a wonderful film and his role in it kinda of captures Glover for me as I have watched him doing his craziness over the years.

    But now back to Coppola, he came to speak at my ex-girlfriend’s graduation at UCLA in ’94 (I think) and he was pretty cool. He just talked about film as an obsession that has everything to do with equal parts beauty and insanity. And as my special lady friend Antonella notes often, I am way too hard on Coppola. He’s a master of the first order which makes his later stuff that much more unfathomable to me. I think I m coming to terms with this a bit more, but it still haunts me.

    @Martin,

    yeah, you are exactly right about the changing nature of the industry, and I think in many ways that would account for as much as the impossibility of a Ford, as any metaphysical notion of film progressing or regressing. I also think that’s why Spielberg would be my choice, I also not a huge fan of much of his work—and spent years and years hating his work which I am re-thinking recently—but he does signify a kind of changing logic in the means of production in Hollywood that someone like Ford could work around, through, and within. So, you’re right…

    Now, as to Scorsese as a kind of Ford figure, I hadn’t thought of it, but you’re right. He would probably make the most sense. His films are obsessed with a few themes like Fords, and play them out in numerous ways. I also like his ability to move into a genre like the absurd comedy in After Hours. The more I think about it, the more Scorsese is the logical fit here, so bravo. More than that, I like many a Scorsese film, but I think even better than his films is his talking about the history of film. he is absolutely possessed with the demon of film love and just hearing him talk makes me want to run out and watch every and any film he mentions. He is a unique character in film, and while I haven’t been really impressed by just about every film he made after Good Fellas (The Departed was not a good film, despite what people say), I do like elements of his style and will always watch a Scorsese if it isn’t three hours long and dealing with Howard Hughes.

    Good stuff Martin, I knew I good drag you into a full on comment, and I’m glad I did because I always benefit tremendously from them. Thanks.

  7. Mikhail says:

    Great post, Jim. You haven’t lost the call.

    Antonella is just easy on Coppolla because of their shared heritage. Regardless, his unevenness speaks to his willingness to experiment with subject matter and source material and I give him props for that.

    I don’t think of him as a successor to John Ford because Ford for me, perhaps due to my own myopia, is all about space particularly when that space (most often wide wide open) frames one’s relationship to a particular place or moment. That said, I am scratching my head thinking of who does what ford did with space and place and am having a hard time coming up witha an answer. Clint Eastwood has had his Ford moments esp. in The Unforgiven (but that is an easy fit), Kurosawa too (Hidden Fortress, Dersu Uzala), though he’s of another era really. In a way, Herzog works, esp. re: his jungle films. Nick Cave’s The Proposition paid a debt to Ford, but that’s just one film. Nikita Mihalkov, too, has his Fordian moments, esp. in Urga (Close to Eden). Interesting question.

  8. Reverend says:

    Mikhail,

    I think you’re right about Coppola in the end, he wasn’t afraid to change and try new things, and I should give him some slack, I know I should. I’m working on it.

    As for this little analytical gem you threw out in passing:

    Ford for me, perhaps due to my own myopia, is all about space particularly when that space (most often wide wide open) frames one’s relationship to a particular place or moment.

    Wow, you nailed Ford in a sentence—quite impressive film Jedi. I think this is a wonderful way to think about Ford and his films. And, in fact, makes the idea of a descendant that much harder, because the Western in many ways laid dormant through much of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Funny you should say Clint Eastwood, for some reason Mystic River reminded me of Ford, and while I liked Mystic River and I dig Eastwood’s films for the most part, when I think of comparing him and Ford it seems ludicrous, one is an outright master and the other is a pretty good filmmaker who had at least three really good films. Strange, when I think of it this way I wonder if the industry has changed so much as to literally choke out masters like Ford. I mean Terence Malik fits your description here perfectly, but his career suggest a kind of resignation from the film industry, at least until the last ten years in which he made two films, and four (actually six) over the course of forty years. Why that pace?

    That for putting Ford (and Coppola) in perspective for me.

  9. Jason Priem says:

    I’m hesitant change the course of such an erudite conversation, but it seems that enough time has passed to comment off-pseudo-thread. I’m surprised there wasn’t more comment of the film’s relationship to the book, as Grapes of Wrath is certainly one of the great novels of the last century.

    Of course, the glaring change has to be the story’s closing; the novel’s closing image had such unexpected, haunting power that it’s hard to feel as satisfied by the film’s version. However, the strength of the film’s last several minutes is indisputable (as is, of course, the impossibility of remaining true to the novel’s conclusion in Hayes-code Hollywood). I also sorely missed Steinbeck’s truly transcendent descriptions of the quotidian tasks of the family’s life; his alert, technical descriptions of engine repair or cooking breakfast adroitly glorify the heroic in the ordinary, echoing the repetitive rhythms of Homeric verse.

    But of course, this sort of scene-by-scene comparison, popular as it might be at HarryPotterCon, misses the point of the adaptation. A film adaptation is always sort of like a jazz jam session writ large; one artist sets a theme, and then another follows it, but on a different instrument. I think Ford and his cast, for the most part, use their instrument to good effect. The film as a whole strikes many of the same chords, hits me with the same emotions, but in different ways–and adds its own notes to the melody. Fonda’s performance, in particular, had me identifying with the character in a way I don’t think I did with his literary counterpart. His portrayals of the struggle between anger and hope, loyalty to his family and outrage at their conditions: these capture, I think, Steinbeck’s vision better than he himself could.

    And more important than anything else, the movie (like the book) makes us not just watch the family, or identify the family, but feel them…feel them like you feel a great jazz tune, actually. Unlike other, more conceptual treatments of the struggle between labor and capital, this is about these people above all (compared to something like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis–another of my favorite films–which is more about the concepts and ideas). The movie gets us there, and that’s why, I think, it succeeds.

  10. Reverend says:

    Jason,

    I’m glad you brought up the novel here, because I completely disregarded it. And part of the reason perhaps is my return to the film on its own right. The first time I saw Grapes of Wrath I saw bits and pieces and kind of wrote it off as hokey. I felt the novel was far too great to really be taken over by a mere movie (my college lit days, I was still a bit of a cad) and to some degree I could warrant that opinion because of the dreadful success so many directors have at pulling off great novels like The Grapes of Wrath. But, I didn’t give Ford his due, so that’s why it was liking see it again for the first time, and have such a visceral reaction.

    Now, your comment raises so many interesting questions in my mind about his choices. For example, Steinbeck’s novel is extremely cinematic. I always wonder why one of the most memorable scenes in the novel was the Turtle crossing the road in Chapter 3. It seemed like a series of shots made for a DW Griffith or Ernst Lubitsch. But Ford stays away from it. He opts out of the rich possibilities of a political and/or symbolic montage sequence that might be quintessential of an Eisenstein. Rather, he elides those interludes all together and focuses on exactly what you suggest, the characters, the people, the characters that are so true to Steinbeck. Jim Casey the ex-preacher is a beautiful example of this. He is both stock and profound at the same time. And therein lies a part of genius that we haven’t touched on above, his ability to marry the vaudeville caricature is profound depth and a deep audience relation. What I originally thought was hokey was in many ways the driving power of its impact on my emotional state during the film.

    Your comparison to Lang brings this all home. That is really the difference between an allegory of labor and capital versus a melodrama in an almost Douglas Sirk fashion. How about that? Douglas Sirk and John Ford, trippy —I hadn’t imagined the two together, but now that I do it makes sense. Sirk complete command of the camera, the scenes, the unbelievable use of color in The Searchers for example, down to John Wayne red and white shirt, which is akin to something Rock Hudson would wear. And both love their characters dearly, but aren’t afraid to show them at their worst. Yeah, this is strand to think about.
    a
    Wow, thanks Jason helping my own thinking about Ford to tke off in an entirely different way. Very cool.

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