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“We Cannot Live Without Ford”: An Interview with Tag Gallagher

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

By Jake Rutkowski.

I confess I was intimidated by the prospect of interviewing Tag Gallagher regarding John Ford: Himself and his Movies. His initial study of the director, John Ford: the Man and His Films (1986), was a massive biography and exegesis of an entire oeuvre, matching prolific artistic output with its own prolific dedication to study. As Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his original review of the film in Sight & Sound (Spring, 1987), “The sense of Ford’s personality which emerges achieves at times a novelistic density. And the films are often seen to reverberate on multiple planes as well.” In short, Gallagher is a writer who knows from complexity, and here he is diving back in and offering even more insight (and pages) than before. I was worried I would not know which plane to operate on in order to connect with Tag. Instead, I found an accessible and patient email companion with whom I was able to maintain steady communication over a period of weeks.

Gallagher’s new text takes advantage of the ways in which proliferation of scholarship has grown since ‘86. It incorporates developments of the digital media age, both in its e-book publication status (which has made it easier for the author to share with a reading audience) and in its use of newly rendered film images for clearer and more illustrative frame enlargements. So, there’s an aspect of updating the text for our times, but there’s also the author’s desire to re-evaluate his readings of Ford, a director whose work he has been viewing and thinking about for decades. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of X-rayed paintings revealing artists like Rembrandt and Picasso painting over their own work, or someone like Llyn Foulkes taking a machete and hacking out entire sections of a piece he’d been working on for years because he needed to re-think it entirely. It feels more and more necessary to find a certain comfort in a lack of closure anymore, as truths are obfuscated and news cycles move at hyper-speed. That’s why I gravitate towards artists, writers, and other such thinkers who are not afraid to explode or refine their approach to an idea. I can now happily count Tag Gallagher among their ranks, and I’m glad he wasn’t done with John Ford, be it himself or his movies.

This study has seen many iterations over the decades. So why this latest rewrite, and why now?

Since John Ford: the Man and His Films was published in 1986, five “lost” silent features, plus various fragments, have been found; a great deal of enriching biographical material has appeared; and my own insights into Ford’s movies have matured in hundreds of viewings. Also, I felt a need to rewrite most of the book less verbosely, more clearly, and with new ideas and information.

In addition, the original book was something of a pioneer in extensive use of frame enlargements – at a time when most film criticism used press photos, without informing readers that these purported illustrations of a moviemaker’s pictures are in fact pictures by other people, not by the moviemaker himself and not from the movies under discussion. For me, frame enlargements were essential in order to discuss Ford in terms of his pictures.

But in 1986 producing frame enlargements was arduous and awkward and the results were always murkier than press photos, and limited to black and white.

Today it is easy to make frame enlargements from DVDs with splendid results and in color. So, the digital versions of the new book, John Ford: Himself and his Movieshas more than 700 frame enlargements, about seven times more than previously.

I have published John Ford: Himself and his Movies in Kindle and iBook editions, at $5.99, I would like to do it as a printed book, but I have not been able to find a publisher – partly because the first book sold exceptionally well: publishers fear people will regard the new book as merely a new edition of the first, rather than the new book, which it is.

Of course, I’m happier doing “movie criticism” on video, and have been fortunate to have been able to make videos on The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, My Darling Clementine, The Informer, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, The Quiet Man, Young Mr. Lincoln, Two Rode Together – as commissioned by various DVD publishers. (I regret lack of commissions for other favorite titles.) One of Mogambo may be seen online. I also did a one-hour intro to Ford which has been shown in Korea and Brazil.

Why John Ford? What about his work has captured and held your interest so consistently over the years?

When I was in college in the early 1960s, I not only had never heard of the “auteur theory,” I had never paid any attention whatsoever to movies’ credits. I didn’t even know the actors’ names, let alone bothered to read all those other names. For me, movies were storybook worlds.

I had a friend, however, Michael McKegney, who was an ardent auteurist. In long walks I’d name movies I loved, and, lo, they almost all turned out to be by one “John Ford.” So, I knew Ford before I knew Ford.

At the time of my first book, much conventional opinion (outside California) held that Ford the epitome of everything despicable: racist, sexist, militarist, chauvinist, boring. My effort was to refute such nonsense, not by debating it, but by putting forth an alternate vision of Ford as the profoundly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-militarist, anti-chauvinist, and the most inventive and imaginative of American moviemakers. At a time when Hollywood movies were rarely taken seriously, I said he was our greatest native-born artist.

Oyhers joined this effort, and I believe that today we have largely succeeded.

Finally, why John Ford? Well, to paraphrase Bertolucci, because we cannot live without Ford.

Regarding your intentions and motivations, you mention your shared ethnic background with Ford as a motivating factor in your bias towards favoring him. What does an Irish-American identity mean to you, and where do you think Ford fits into a sense of “Irishness” artistically? 

Well, I wouldn’t call it a “bias,” rather an affinity. And I’ve never thought much about it, and doubt I could spell it out now. I’ve never been to Ireland or had much to do with Irish culture or Irish-Americans (my family excepted, who came over more generations ago than I know). And I’m suspect that being Irish-American can be as different from being Irish as simply being American can be – and no one is very good at delineating what an American identity is. Nor can I spell out a Catholic identity, though I was deeply immersed in Catholicism all my life, and I have pointed to many Catholic themes in Ford – Christlike heroes, a sense of redemption of people and the world, of Augustinian pilgrimage, of grace acting in the world, of constant examination of conscience and endeavor to do good, immense respect for individual life.

You write about how, towards the end of his life, Ford begins to slip into relative obsolescence in America despite being fêted internationally. AFI did eventually put some respect to his name at the very end, but overall it seems there was a disparity between his treatment at home and abroad. Why do you think that is?

There was a big difference between East coast and West coast attitudes. However disparaged Ford was in the east (where scorning “Hollywood” was a badge of sophistication) I think he was always regarded with awe in California, and that the AFI sensed they were honoring the greatest among them.

Movies in many European countries are treated as seriously as books, music, painting or architecture. A new movie by a noted native director is given front-page headlines, and major directors’ funerals are often enormous state ceremonies. In the U.S. Ford’s death was a minor back-page event, compared to the attention stars and sports figures regularly receive.

In the U.S., we name airports, buildings and streets mostly after generals and politicians. There is, I believe, only one monument in the United States to a movie director: to John Ford, in Portland, his home town. And even there the Art Commission refused the mayor’s efforts to have it erected near the art museum.

In the U.S., the audience for “old” movies is pretty small (“old” meaning ten years or less); a common attitude is that watching an old movie is like reading an old newspaper. In contrast, no one would throw ten-year-old books out of libraries, or ten-year-old-paintings out of museums, or ten-year-old music out of concert halls. In Europe Ford has always been a god in the museum world. In contrast in the U.S., ironically, Ford is less a museum object than a living spectacle: scarcely a week passes when half a dozen of his movies are not shown on cable tv, where thousands of people enjoy them without even thinking of “Ford.”

A somewhat related follow-up: at one point you juxtapose Ford and Hitchcock on the topic of personal branding and pursuing wealth, writing that Ford “never exploited his name for gain.” How do you think this relative lack of salesmanship plays into Ford’s overall canonization, and how his popularity compares to a Hitchcock or a Welles? 

FordHitchcock actively marketed his image and exploited tv. All credit to him! Nor any fault to Ford for not doing the same. He could have. Westerns were much bigger on tv in the 50s than mysteries. Ward Bond probably made more money than Ford in the 50s and 60s, with Wagon Train, which was based on one of Ford’s poorest earners, Wagon Master. As for image, Kurosawa wore a baseball cap in homage to Ford. Can’t think of a director who aped Hitchcock’s costume.

Ford kept himself out of the news most of his career. But it’s well to recall that Hitchcock was ridiculed and despised in the 1950s as the epitome of commercialism. It was only some years after his canonization in France by Cahiers du cinéma in the late 50s (which floored Americans) that he began to gather esteem in the U.S.

Similarly, as late as 1971 Pauline Kael, “our greatest film critic” according to the East coast, made headlines with a book asserting that Herman Mankiewicz, not Welles, deserved credit for Citizen Kane. Kael was important enough to provoke wide refutation, which gilded Welles’ reputation. Welles was championed for being anti-conventional and anti-Hollywood at the same time as Ford as disparaged as the opposite. Welles himself, however, claimed he owed everything to Ford. But Kael derided auteurism in general, as did many British critics.

The #MeToo movement has led to many a productive discussion, and one that I keep coming back to is whether or not a hostile or tense working environment is conducive to artistic production. So I’m not quite sure what to make of Ford’s notoriety in creating various on-set trials for his actors at times. What do you make of that legacy?

I think the stories of hostility were quite exceptional events and obscure the truth. Ford’s set were noted for their silence, “like a church,” Harry Carey Jr. said; everyone’s total attention was on Ford. What outsiders took for acts of sadism his own people celebrated as the badgering of a beloved coach. Anyone who worked for him once was eager to be invited back. Ford has a reputation as the funniest director in Hollywood.

Yes, at times he would go too far, and sometimes afterward he’d be found crying in his dressing room and would seek out and apologize to someone who’d been a victim.

Whatever his reputation as a man’s director, it’s his actresses who laud him most eloquently and enthusiastically. You’ll find much such testimony in my book.

I don’t think there are many Marxist analyses of Ford’s films that can stack up to this book. I really enjoy your approach to the oeuvre as a dialectical appraisal of his cultural output that speaks to the political power of mass-produced art, especially when thinking about the communities that he builds and un-builds. Do you think that the concept of community has become too fragmented today for much of Ford’s Brechtian characterizations to track for a modern audience?

Well, please elucidate your thoughts for me. I’m not consciously Marxist, to the extent that I don’t know what that would be. True, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley and even Tobacco Road show communities being destroyed by distant economic forces they don’t understand or quite recognize, and Stagecoach has a crooked banker, but I don’t know if any of these qualify as “Marxist.” Ford always show corruption as deeply rooted in a community’s moral beliefs — all forms of intolerance, which is Ford’s major theme — but this is more like Gramsci than Marx and Ford had probably never heard of Gramsci.

I did toy with using a subtitle like “dialectical” cinema, but too pretentious, and what I meant was that every idea contains also its opposite, even on a graphical level, the way Ford composed a shot or choreographed movement.

I’m also not sure what Brechtian means; I mean it can mean so many things. Is Stagecoach “Brechtian” in that each character represents a segment of social caste and attitudes?

It’s Straub who cited the end of Fort Apache as one of the most Brechtian moments in cinema, comparing John Wayne putting on Henry Fonda’s hat to the end of Galileo where the bishop puts on the pope’s garments. Fort Apache is a good instance for your question. It was incredible to me how many astute critics totally missed the glaring ironies in the movie and saw only a cretinous endorsement of flag waving. I think this case is a paradigm for the entire division pro or con positions regarding Ford. (I can’t call it a debate, because the con people always assume their notions are indisputable.)

I once asked Jean-Marie Straub what “an experimental film” is. He slammed the table and declared, “The Long Gray Line! That’s an experimental film, no?”

I suppose I meant “Marxist” in the sense that you’re looking at the dialectical nature of this history and the way Ford’s work develops in relation to social structures over the course of his career, but I like your invocation of Gramsci here. Perhaps Ford hadn’t read or heard of Gramsci, but do you think he would have agreed with the concept of cultural hegemony (i.e. that social norms and an “agreed upon” status quo stem from the ruling class)?

Well, you know my “master plot” is that traditions (all the stuff that Gramsci maybe would call hegemonic principles?) preserve a community but ossify and turn into intolerance which corrupts and destroys a community, whereupon a “hero” is needed, a Christ figure from outside history, who comes, reunites families torn apart and institutes a new “testament.”

So, I think in almost every Ford movie, he gives great attention to the beliefs, traditions, artefacts (costumes, music, furniture) of society, and there is a dialectic, or conflict, whether an individual is determined more by social context or by autonomous personality. As I said, in Stagecoach each character represents a caste and ethnicity and each one of the undergoes a kind of awakening from their intolerance. You see this clearly in The Searchers where even the most empathetic characters are blind racists and where the movie’s drama if Ethan’s gradual awakening to higher priorities.

You write, “Art is focused concentration of experience and emotion. A good movie doesn’t ‘capture’ reality, it spins it.” You also touch on the relationship between film and escapism in a footnote. Can you expand on that note, especially with regards to what we’re seeing today by way of film trends? 

The first sentence is a paraphrase of Josef von Sternberg’s remark, that “Art is the compression of infinite spiritual power into a confined space.”

I can’t recall or find the phrase about “escapism.” Can you remind me, please?

I suppose all good art escapes reality in order to immerse us in it (i.e. human reality). We don’t need movies for reality itself. There’s more reality outside my window than in all the movies ever made.

I see so little of current cinema that I can’t comment on trends.

The footnote I’m referring to is towards the end of the book, in which you push against the notion that Ford’s filmmaking, and an audience’s film viewing, are passive acts. Maybe I’m making a mistake in conflating “escapism” and “passivity,” but I think there’s a prevailing notion that because many popular movies are spectacular fantasies, then they can’t be “about” anything. I brought up current film trends because you reference Star Wars in this footnote, and we’re seeing an uptick in films from that franchise and a dominant trend towards franchising in general. I think I’m turning to you for some optimism: is there still hope for a future of active, critical filmgoers?

Star Wars came out in 1977, so I can mention it but still claim ignorance of current film trends. You suggest that such trends are formulaic. If so I suspect that’s true because the audience for theatrical movies is a small segment of society, 18-24-year-olds who go to movies on weekends; I read somewhere that people over 40 see one movie every four years. Secondly, production costs are astronomical. If you’re going to risk $50,000,000 you’re going to place your bets on a sure thing.

As for escapism, I didn’t mean to use it as a dirty word. If someone gets absorbed in music by Bach or Mozart, it’s escapism whether they experience the music as an amorphous blob or as a trained musician sensitive to every nuance of counterpoint, harmony and structure. In fact, the more conscious they are of the music, the greatest the “escape” (escape into the music).

Same thing for a movie. Maybe someone goes just “to have fun” and doesn’t notice cutting or even whether the aspect ratio 1.3 or 2.3 (I met a guy like that who worked in a video-rental store) and is incapable afterward of saying what the movie was about on any level, let alone philosophically. So, he had fun and it was pure escapism. Someone else sees the same movie, is as conscious of every cut, camera movement, body language, inflection, etc., and can lecture on for weeks without pausing for breath on the movie’s deepest ramifications within three thousand years of art and philosophy, et al. He also has fun, he also escapes.

Where my objection started was with Bazin and others talking about Ford’s (or “classic Hollywood’s”) “invisible montage.’ It’s not invisible except for people who don’t look – which is maybe a big majority, but so what? People object that noticing such things, that analyzing a work of art, “ruins” it for them. Others argue (like Alberti in Rossellini’s Medici) that the more they analyze it, the more they are awestruck in wonder.

The other side of this is that when they come to Godard 1959-68, they claim he’s doing all sorts of things “to remind us we’re watching a movie” and to snatch us out of fantasy. Well, I can’t speak for Godard, but I have no trouble “escaping” into the fictional world of Godard’s movies and relishing the “reality” of his characters just as I do with Ford or Mizoguchi or Straub or Walt Disney. It’s like claiming that someone puts a scratch on a record of Beethoven’s 9th to remind us we’re listening to music!

You have such a holistic approach to film study in terms of generic discourse, invoking Vermeer and Mozart as seamlessly as you do Hawks or Eisenstein. What is your impression of film’s overall place in the pantheon of artistic genres?

Perhaps I don’t understand this question. I can’t conceive how one art form can be superior to another.

This question piggybacks off of Question 8. I don’t mean pantheon in terms of superiority, but in thinking about genre specificity. So much of early film criticism was dedicated to clarifying whether or not film is even an art form at all. I guess I feel that this conversation is still happening, and that film still isn’t taken seriously in a lot of popular media. Maybe my concern is not so much that film is not taken seriously, but that film study itself is still not given its due as a “proper” field of academic inquiry?

Where is the early (or late) film criticism disputing film is an art form? Most discussion of film treats it as a branch of literature, in much the same way that it treats theater as literature, and even opera as literature. “Song” too is often a synonym for “poem,” again as a form of literature, its music somehow secondary. At the same time film, even more than photography, could do something that was not literature: it could record reality. But since most of the time what it recorded was theater, how was film a distinct art? Or if it recorded an “imprint” of reality (as Bazin argued), where was the human crafting that would make it an art?

Academia ran for refuge to semiotics and then to postmodernism, culture theory, psychoanalysis. “Auteurism,” meanwhile, was greeted as something wholly unintelligible – in part because only a tiny percentage of films (less than one percent) were considered of high enough artistry to be classed as “auteur” movies. Ultimately, it was suggested, only in these instances was cinema fully an art. But how to define this artistry was difficult.

What is it that the movies of Sarris’s “pantheon” directors had that other movies lacked (or possessed only partially)?

I can’t answer this question. But I can quote Max Ophuls: “The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere: neither in theater nor in life; otherwise, I’d have no need of it; doing photography doesn’t interest me. That, I leave to the photographer.”

So, we can experience cinema as an art by experiencing Ophuls’s movies, or Ford’s, among others’.

As luck would have it, I’m headed on a trip to Portland, ME (Ford’s childhood home), so I’m inclined to ask: what was Ford’s sense of place, and how do you think this might have affected his filmmaking, and the stories he wanted to tell?

The Quiet Man (1952)

The Quiet Man (1952)

One thing in the early bio section which no one had noted is that his family moved so often and frequently, that he later remarked “Until twelve, I didn’t have a real home.”

[But], it’s hard to say. Of course, search for home is a frequent theme in his movies, but not dominant. It’s hard to know the dynamics of his family. People say the brothers would pick on Jack, and Frank in Hollywood mixed affection with brutality, and Jack repaid similarly if more ideally than physically. He was a terrible father, as it’s related, mostly in not being there, while his wife wasn’t much help it would seen. His son says he strapped him because that was what his father had did to him. But once Jack started earning money, supporting his parents was a top priority, even if it left him short at home – $1000 a month, supposedly, which was a lot in the 20s and 30s.

So, it’s impossible to speculate. As Simone Weil says, “To write the lives of the great in separating them from their works necessarily ends by above all high- lighting their pettiness, because it is in their work that they have put the best of themselves.”

I suspect, in terms of autobiography, that Ford put the best of himself into his movies. I was always impressed that, apart from half a dozen totally demented sadists (e.g., Liberty Valance’s henchmen), the nasty people in his movies (e.g., the authorities in Steamboat Round the Bend or The Whole Town’s Talking or Arrowsmith, et al.) always manage to be attractive without any of their evilness being masked. Of course, this was a trick that theater villains learned early on.

While I generally chafe at the all-too-common practice of ranking in film media, because you’ve spent so much time with the man’s films I do wonder: what are some of your personal favorite John Ford films? 

At the moment, I might single out, in chronological order, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, The Battle of Midway, Wagon Master, The Sun Shines Bright, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, Liberty Valance, Donovan’s Reef, 7 Women. (Except that even I find it hard to stomach the flag waving in BoM after Iraq et al.)

But if Ford has not made any of the pictures above, I still think he’d be among the finest moviemakers. So we could add Air Mail, Pilgrimage, Judge Priest, Steamboat round the Bend, The Fugitive, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Mogambo, The Long Gray Line, Gideon’s Day. I could include a dozen or two more.

Just for contest, here’s my “ten best” list, limited to one picture per director:

Dreyer: Gertrud
Ford: How Green Was My Valley or Stagecoach
Jennings: Diary for Timothy
Mizoguchi: Sansho the Bailiff
Murnau: Tabu or Sunrise
Ophuls: Madame de
Renoir: French Cancan or The River
Rossellini: Voyage in Italy
Straub-Huillet: Dalla nube alla resistenza
Vidor: War and Peace
Von Sternberg: Morocco

You mentioned the videos at the top of this interview, but is there anything else you’re working on at present?

I’m not working on anything at present. Things depend on getting commissioned by someone with copyright. Unfortunately, I’ve never been in contact with Turner or Fox, so I’ve not been able to do many of the movies I admire most, e.g., How Green Was My Valley.

John Ford: Himself and His Films, including a detailed filmography and bibliography, is available in Kindle format and IBook.

A complete list of Gallagher’s writing and video essays can be found here.

Jake Rutkowski holds an MA in English from Rutgers University in Camden, where he studied genre semantics and the African-American hero in Western films of the 1970s. He regularly covers film at Identity Theory and Cutting to Continuity and is a contributor to the forthcoming collection David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

3 Comments for ““We Cannot Live Without Ford”: An Interview with Tag Gallagher”

  1. Jake, an exceptionally fine and culturally relevant interview. Well done!

  2. Marvelous exchange of insights !

  3. Thanks much for the kind words, Tony and Richmond! Ford really does represent the platonic ideal of a “timeless classic,” I think.

    On the point of timelessness: Sean Collins, who I respect quite a bit, recently had a sort of slideshow in The Outline (https://theoutline.com/post/5823/monumental-horror-image-the-shining-the-exorcist?zd=1&zi=vyv5zrdg) about the “monumental-horror image,” moments of overwhelming stasis in horror films that bring about sheer, frozen terror and stay with us long after we leave the theater.

    I wonder if someone could make a similar case about Ford, the “monumental-western image” or even the “monumental-war image,” and the way he defined how these landscapes have stuck around in our unconscious since the very early days of film. Case in point: Ford clearly stayed with Tag for decades (and we’re all the better for it)!

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