If there’s an article that fascinates me in the history of film criticism, it’s The Searchers: Cult Movie of the New Hollywood, written by Stuart Byron for New York Magazine in March 1979. I didn’t read it back then, but a lot later, when I found out about it I don’t know exactly how, maybe through other texts, probably by Paul Schrader or Brian Henderson. Its thesis is simple: The Searchers, directed by John Ford in 1957, would be the origin of many of the best Hollywood movies from the seventies; it would mark the beginning of the crisis of the hero of the Western and thus also of the genre itself, as well as of the mythical idea of America. I’m not sure whether it said exactly that, but that’s how it has been preserved in my mind forever. Sometimes, the material we see or read suffers constant mutations in our memory, we transform them into something else, but funnily enough it’s that final form we give it what remains with us forever more. And that’s what really matters in the end, since the world we give shape to after, through what we say or write, hasn’t got so much to do with reliable data as with the mark of a perception. As for my interest in this article in particular, it must have something to do with my generation. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Taxi Driver, from The Wind and the Lion to Hardcore, from The Hunter to Star Wars, the films Byron mentions were an inalienable part of my film education.
But I’m progressively more and more convinced that both Ford’s film and Byron’s text and also all those seventies titles (and many that came after) go beyond what I saw before. It isn’t only that John Wayne, in The Searchers, embodies the man who’s always searching but never finding, most of all because those he’s obliged to redeem don’t seem to be up for it. It isn’t either that Ford and his disciples got it right by diagnosing the Great American Illness, that moment in which a certain sense of morality becomes so strong that it ends up going beyond any human or divine law. It isn’t that Wayne only obeys his obsession for racial purity or family integrity, or that Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver is convinced he must liberate a prostitute no matter what, or that George C. Scott in Hardcore looks for his lost daughter in a mental odyssey, or that the boy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind prefers an alien adventure over his boring provincial surroundings. It isn’t even about the violence and transgression that it all brings about. There is something more. There is a crossing the line; there is a going beyond the pale that have to do with certain American obsessions but also with other things. In a superficial way, what we were seduced by was all that mysticism of the West, of the genre, of the tough and solitary man, blah, blah, blah. That door opening and closing, at the beginning and the end of the film, the hero coming and the hero going, most of all the one going away, the one who can’t be part of the civilization he has helped so much to build but is lost in the desert, in the wild nature he comes from! How at ease we felt with these interpretations! And all, in the end, to reach the conclusion that it wasn’t about that, or Wayne, or Bogart, or any of the masturbatory connotations of those years. It was only the words uttered by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, the last of all those gloomy epic poems: “The horror, the horror…” The horror that doesn’t come from the law of the frontier or from moral law but is beyond any kind of law, in the threshold between what’s unthinkable and impossible to represent.
It wasn’t Brando who improvised those words, or Francis Coppola who created them. They were written by Joseph Conrad, a Polish novelist living in Great Britain, whom, like Nabokov a bit later, adopted English as the language of culture, maybe as a symptom for a more profound sense of alienation. It is, thus, about that, about what’s already in Heart of Darkness, the novel by Conrad located in the base of all that: of a certain malaise, of a certain fear that uses the cultural excuse to manifest itself but that finally overflows it to introduce itself in an abysmal chaos, in the black hole of complete incomprehension, beyond any language and signs. Every now and then, all that comes back. The most powerful images in Ford’s film have to do with that original darkness: the shadows crossing Wayne’s face, the sad snow falling over his eyes, the cave to which he has to go looking for his kidnapped by Indians niece, in the limit of what’s visible and understandable. The Searchers might talk about racism and masculinity, about morality and culture, but in the end it ceases to talk, it stops in front of the famous black door and asks the big question: what is there behind that deep and thick darkness that hinders any reasoning, any possibility of thought? The horror of De Niro’s sinister adventure in The Hunter, entering the ever so feared hell; the horror of Scott in Hardcore, in that urban universe he’s unable to interpret; and the horror of the empty and dizzying films of Jacques Tourneur, or Fritz Lang, or Alfred Hitchcock, since The Searchers might not be so much a Western as a horror movie drawn over minimal action: someone starts walking to find his inner demons, like the fake Jane Eyre of I Walked with a Zombie, like Edward G. Robinson dreaming in The Woman in the Window, like James Stewart looking in Rear Window…
I’ve thought of all this while watching Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, at the same time a synthesis and a return to the moment of a certain purity of the mise-en-scène of films such as Kundun or Gangs of New York, beyond a golden era that finished with Raging Bull. And I should add: intolerable purity of the mise-en-scène. There’s a certain fear right now not only of those words, but of the concept they represent. The horror of seeing us facing a world in order, beyond the voluptuousness of series or of the digital ordeal. Well, that order is also only an appearance of order and, when we sense it, its vision becomes something atrocious, unimaginable, where for a moment we glimpse what its absence could be. In Silence, everything springs from images, and from the act of looking and trying to make sense of something we can’t understand: cultural modes and their respective violence, the way in which looking at a cross or a sacred figure might decide between life and death… The caged priest looks through the bars to a ritual of death that is similar to others the rest have seen before. A simple shot-countershot can create an abyss in its midst, identical to the one opening before the spectator when that priest finds the shadow he was looking for, now no longer John Wayne’s niece or George C. Scott’s daughter, but someone who won’t allow for any kind of redemption at all: on the contrary, it will drag us with him towards another false order, another mise-en-scène he has wanted to believe in.
Is that what this is finally all about? Is the mise-en-scène a way of ordering the world that we need to survive but through which we can’t stop sensing the horror that its absence would entail? Is the mise-en-scène that door in The Searchers, that bleak staircase in Taxi Driver? In Manchester by the Sea, by Kenneth Lonergan, the door to horror is a great cloud of smoke in the night that takes you towards a past that can’t be completely represented, a great exercise in mise-en-scène for a film accused of not having one. In M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, it’s about a vertigo going beyond the story, infringing it all the time, that even turns it into another, or at least into the ramification of another, with an end I won’t reveal. In Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake, what we dream of becomes an image, is mistaken with reality, destroying its everyday order. All the films I have been seduced by lately talk about the same thing: always that overstepping your boundaries, like the dark side of the order proposed by the mise-en-scène. We’re here, we’re safe, but we could be there, the place we don’t even dare mentioning, or we’ll only mention in the end: the horror, of the framing and its infringement, of the controlled space and its vanishing point, of the time we think we inhabit and the other we sometimes rush into. Conrad and Ford’s influence didn’t stop with New Hollywood. It goes beyond heroes and adventures, it is embodied in what we fear the most: the disappearance of the figure, abstraction, what narrative films have never allowed but have probably sensed far more than any other genre.