THE LAST PICTURE SHOW

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There has long been a theory that his first wife Polly Platt was the creative genius behind Peter Bogdanovich.  It’s based on the fact that after he stopped working with her, a few years after they separated, Bogdanovich’s career went into a precipitous decline from which it never quite recovered

Platt encouraged Bogdanovich to film Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show.  There have been rumors that she worked closely with McMurtry and Bogdanovich, uncredited, on the screenplay and played a decisive creative role on the set.  The actor Ben Johnson said she virtually co-directed the film.  She certainly designed the film, her credited role, with impeccable authenticity and taste.

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Bogdanovich was a fine filmmaker, but It was Platt’s critical evaluation of material, and the ways to approach it, that seemed to keep Bogdanovich on course in the years of his success, and whose absence left him a bit adrift after Platt moved on.

Platt (pictured above with Bogdanovich) described their creative partnership this way — “He’s the locomotive, I’m the tracks.”  Bogdanovich’s career after Paper Moon, the last film he worked on with Platt, can be fairly described as a locomotive that’s gone off the tracks.

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In any case, The Last Picture Show is a genuine masterpiece, wonderfully cast and brilliantly shot.  Though Timothy Bottoms (above) carries the film as its principal character, our window onto the tale, the heart of it is Ben Johnson’s powerful performance as Sam the Lion, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

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The film is about the passing of time, the dying out of a small Texas town, and Sam the Lion (above) personifies what’s being lost in the process, the old breed of Texan whose world is vanishing.  Without Johnson’s character, we wouldn’t have quite the same sense of what’s at stake in the film’s mournful, bittersweet parade of longing and disappointment and heartache.  Johnson gives the film an epic dimension, elevates it into the highest ranks of American cinema.

SIMPLY GRAND

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Although my sister Libba had no need to photograph The Grand Canyon for her documentary, and I had no reason to go there for my own research, I felt it imperative that she see the place, especially since we were so near to it.

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So we drove north again from Flagstaff and checked it out.  Looking into the canyon is like looking up at the night stars — awesome but impossible to process rationally.  In Kant’s formulation, it is sublime, beyond comprehension, rather than beautiful, a phenomenon with a quality of aesthetic unity.

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The sublime is always somewhat forbidding, somewhat terrifying.  It reminds us that the mind of God passeth all human understanding.

[Photographs © 2014 Libba Marrian]

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HEADING NORTH

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After our visit to Fort Verde we drove north to the head of Oak Creek Canyon so Libba could take some video footage there.  The light was a little flat for her purposes but she got some good stuff anyway.  The first Hollywood film shot in the Sedona area, in 1923, featured Oak Creek Canyon as its main location.  The film, The Call Of the Canyon, based on a Zane Grey novel, was directed by Victor Fleming.  Long thought lost, a print of it was discovered in Russian archives in 2010.

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We continued north from there to the Hopi Reservation.  Hopi art was an inspiration to the artist Libba is making her documentary about.  The main settlement on the reservation is set amidst a vast empty landscape, hours away from any other town, and is a depressing place, like many Indian reservations.  We were not inclined to linger long there.

We drove west looking for a place to stay the night but had a hard time finding one.  At Tuba City, in the Navajo Indian Reservation that surrounds the Hopi lands, the most likely spot, all the motels were filled.

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We had to drive to the outskirts of Flagstaff to find a Travelodge with a couple of free rooms.  It made for a long day but at the end of it we were treated to the sunset above by way of compensation.

[Photographs © 2014 Libba Marrian]

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FORT VERDE

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The high point of our Arizona trip for me was a visit to Fort Verde, the best preserved of all the frontier cavalry posts in the state.  Only a few post buildings remain, along with the parade ground, but it’s enough to give you a strong sense of what the place must have been like in its period of service from the 1870s to the 1890s.  There’s not a lot of modern building around it that you have to overlook, as there is at Fort Hayes in Kansas, for example.  Hayes was a bigger and more important post but its few 19th-Century structures are surrounded by a modern working army base.

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Fort Verde, pictured above in 1879, was never a stockaded fort, like the ones you invariably see in Hollywood Westerns, and hardly any cavalry posts were — Indians almost never attacked large concentrations of soldiers, so there was no need for defensive walls.

General Charles King, whose novels give the best picture of everyday life in frontier army posts, was once stationed at Fort Verde, which served as the model for the fort in his most famous book, The Colonel’s Daughter.  It was a place renowned for its civilized amenities, courtesy of the officers’ wives stationed there over the years.  The commanding officer’s home, for example, below, had a mansard roof because the first commanding officer’s wife had seen them once on a trip to France and developed a fondness for them.

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The post administration building survives, along with the commanding officer’s home, one building that housed unmarried officers and the post doctor’s house, all ranged on the edge of the parade ground, which feels haunted by the ghosts of many parades and formations of mounted men doing a tough job in a forbidding place.

So here they are: the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals   . . . riding the outposts of a nation.  From Fort Reno to Fort Apache — from Sheridan to Startle — they were all the same: men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing.  But wherever they rode — and whatever they fought for — that place became the United States.

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My sister posed in one of the uniforms the park visitors’ center provides for such purposes.

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I was thinking about John Ford the whole time.

[Contemporary photos © Libba Marrian]

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ENCORE SEDONA

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On our second day in Sedona we drove south of the town so Libba could photograph the scenery for her documentary.  Then we drove down to the old cavalry fort in Camp Verde, but it was closed so we settled for lunch in the town of Camp Verde at the picturesque restaurant below.

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It had a spiffy old Bel Air parked beside it and pretty good Mexican food.  Then we drove out to see Montezuma’s Castle.

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Early visitors to the Verde Valley figured the cliff dwellings had some connection to the Aztecs, hence the name, but they were actually built by the Sinagua Indians, a local tribe.  No one is quite sure why they built their houses so high up — protection from enemies, perhaps, or refuge from floods.  In any case, the complex is quite impressive.

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SEDONA

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Our second stop in Arizona, and the place we’d set out to investigate, was Sedona.  It’s about 30 miles southeast of Flagstaff and is situated at the end of the spectacular Oak Creek Canyon, seen above.

The forested canyon gives way to an equally spectacular landscape of sculpted red rock formations, in the midst of which Sedona is located.  The area was a frequent location for Hollywood films, mostly Westerns, from the 1920s to the 1970s, which is partly why I was there, to do research for a book of short stories about the experiences of people involved in movie productions around Sedona.

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My sister Libba was there to take video footage for a documentary she’s making about a sculptor from Flagstaff who as a kid worked as an extra on movies shot in Sedona.  Behind Libba in the photograph above are the Cathedral Rocks just outside of Sedona.  John Wayne rode a horse over Oak Creek near this spot, with the Cathedral Rocks in the background, in the movie Angel and the Badman, from 1947.

The town of Sedona is now a little boutique-y and twee, but it’s a pleasant place to stay for a couple of days.  The landscape around it redeems its touristy vibe.

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We ate dinner our first night there at the Cowboy Club, dining on buffalo meatloaf wrapped in bacon.  It was served with buttery mashed potatoes, fresh asparagus and grilled mushrooms and was superb.

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[Correction -- just watched Angel and the Badman . . . Wayne rode his horse over Oak Creek in some other movie.]

KINGMAN

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My sister and I spent our first night on the road in Kingman, Arizona, a small but interesting town in the Western part of the state.  Andy Devine grew up there and it was a waypoint on Route 66, mentioned in the song about that lost highway.  The part of 66 that runs through Kingman has been renamed Andy Devine Avenue.

We stayed at the Quality Inn, apparently a place favored by rodeo participants, whose stays are memorialized on the doors to the motel rooms they once occupied.  I stayed in 164, above, though sadly Shayne was long gone.

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My sister stayed in Cody Custer’s old room — he was nowhere to be found, either.

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We ate at the joint above — the shrimp tacos were excellent, and they had Pacifico on tap.

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OFF TO ARIZONA

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. . . with my sister Libba.  Our mission — top secret.  All I can say is that it involves capturing and training large rattlesnakes for entertainment purposes.  Reports to follow when I return.

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ESSENTIAL

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John Ford started out making two-reel Westerns for Universal in the silent era and directed a number of silent feature Westerns but Stagecoach was his first sound Western, over a decade into the talkie era.

He must have been working on sheer instinct, because adult-oriented A-Westerns like Stagecoach were long out of favor. The film, well received critically and a commercial success, brought the A-Western back, and incidentally made a star of John Wayne, as Ford predicted it would at the time.

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The picture has to rank among the most important of all Westerns simply for reviving the genre as mainstream Hollywood fare, which it remained well into the 1960s.

It was based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, though Ford said his sense of it was shaped by the short story “Boule de Suif” by Guy de Maupassant.  Others have suggested the short story “The Outcasts Of Poker Flat” by Brete Harte as a more likely model.  It hardly matters, as all these stories share the conceit of a group of strangers thrown together in an unexpected adventure — a timeless premise in fiction.

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Ford’s variant on it is simply brilliant.  The characters are all sharply drawn and varied, their conflicts and alliances engaging and continually shifting, often in unexpected ways.  Wayne’s Ringo Kid becomes the center of the tale, because of his gallantry and determination, and because of Wayne’s screen presence, easy and natural but riveting.

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Wayne was hardly star material at the time, being predominantly a veteran of scores of modest B-Westerns, and Ford had to fight to cast him in the picture, but more than holding his own with a cast of fine supporting players he somehow towered over all of them.  He was the one you couldn’t take your eyes off of.

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Ford brought all his considerable skill as a director and storyteller to the movie — it’s impeccably crafted and wonderfully entertaining.  It was the film Orson Welles watched over and over again in order to learn how to direct a movie and it repays countless viewings for ordinary film lovers as well.

It’s one of the great movies and the Criterion Blu-ray edition of it belongs in every American home.

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RED RIVER

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A lot of folks reckon Red River to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made but I myself don’t see it that way.  It’s a damn good Western, and a fine entertainment, but to me there’s something just a little off about it.

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The outdoor scenes were all shot in southern Arizona and are spectacularly good.  The crossing of the cattle over the Red River is as impressive as any river crossing in any Western.  Throughout the film John Wayne gives one of his very best performances, ably supported by Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan and Joanne Dru.

Its first 45 minutes are as good as the first 45 minutes of any Western, but the film seems to wander off the trail a bit after that, starting with the sequence of the night stampede.

[Spoilers below]

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Having Latimer, well played by Harry Carey, Jr. (above), talk about his wife and his hopes and his dreams moments before getting killed in the stampede comes across as artificial.  The stampede itself, though it incorporates some stunning location footage of rampaging longhorns, is interrupted once too often by inserts shot back at the studio on a sound stage.

The sequence has emotional power but it feels like an interpolation and too obviously manipulative.  Hawks generally got at sentimental effects in less direct ways.  More importantly, it feels like a departure from the easy and natural way the film establishes its characters and their conflicts in the first 45 minutes, with crackling dialogue and inventive exposition that never plays as exposition.

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Hawks being Hawks, a master storyteller, the stampede has a legitimate function in the overall structure of the tale, motivating John Wayne’s character, Tom Dunson, in an understandable way, to commit his first suspect act as the boss of the trail drive, coming very close to killing the hapless cowboy who caused the catastrophe.

This line of development gets more and more intense after the stampede, Dunson more and more unreasonable and unhinged.  We proceed to the triumphal and visually masterful crossing of the cattle over the Red — a superb piece of filmmaking — only to find that it hasn’t settled Dunson down at all.

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A final confrontation with his adopted son Matthew Garth, played by Clift, causes Garth to mutiny and take control of the drive, exiling Dunson, who promises to come back and kill him.  This is the core of the movie — revealed now to be a version of Mutiny On the Bounty on horseback.

At this point, it ran into the same problem Mutiny On the Bountry ran into dramatically.  The tension between Christian and Bligh, having reached its climax in the mutiny, essentially ends and the tale bifurcates.  We see what happens to Christian, we see what happens to Bligh, but the personal face-to-face conflict between the two men, the engine of the drama, is over.

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Hawks was wise enough to bring his Christian and Bligh together at the end for a final showdown, but the narrative mechanism he used to arrange this was clumsy.  Basically it involved the late introduction of a new character, Tess Millay, played by Joanne Dru.  Garth rescues her from a wagon train under attack by Indians, then leaves her, whereupon she falls in with Dunson and becomes a kind of mediator between the two men, finally stopping their duel to the death at the end of the film.

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It makes for some interesting interactions between the characters, but feels a little jury-rigged as a plot development.  The film was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay.  Chase thought the heart of the tale lay in the triangle between Dunson, Garth and Millay.  Hawks wanted it to lie in the  spectacle and historical consequence of the first major cattle drive to a rail-head in Kansas, so he hired Charles Schnee to rewrite the script with that in mind.

He and Schnee never really solved the problem of how to integrate the two parts of the movie into a whole.  Two thirds of it is the epic tale of a cattle drive with a Mutiny On the Bounty structure, the last third concentrates on an intriguing emotional triangle between three characters.  Hawks acknowledged this in later years, saying he was never happy with the ending of the film, but he blamed it on Schnee and on Dru, a last-minute replacement for another actress — he said Dru simply didn’t know how to play the role correctly.

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In fact, Dru (above) is wonderful in the film, and no actor giving any kind of a performance could have resolved the split nature of the narrative.  The ending is satisfying enough, if a little perfunctory — Millay simply tells Dunson and Garth to stop fighting because they love each other, so they stop fighting.

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The film remains a fine entertainment, because each section of it is involving and well executed, but it doesn’t have the driving through-line, the structural cohesion, of a first-rate film, a first-rate Western.  Surely some way could have been found to introduce Millay earlier and more naturally into the narrative — Hawks and his writers simply didn’t take the trouble to do it.

Audiences didn’t seem to mind — the film was a huge hit and is now considered a classic, though I myself don’t think it measures up to Hawks’s other important Western, Rio Bravo, a less ambitious film in some ways but in my opinion a flat-out masterpiece.

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ESSENTIAL

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The craven, dickless men who run Hollywood today have an understandable hatred of the Western, a genre which has traditionally mocked, with scorn and contempt, cowardly eunuchs like themselves.  Still, it’s a hard genre to kill.  Real Westerns keep showing up unexpectedly astride the trail every ten years or so — an Unforgiven or a True Grit — always welcomed by audiences, always profitable.  It must annoy the hell out of the eunuchs.

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The Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, from 2010, may be a sort of miracle, as Unforgiven was, but it’s real enough and its commercial success understandable enough.  It’s one of the best Westerns ever made, beautifully crafted, humane, inspiring, thrilling, dealing with the timeless themes of the Western — shame, honor, redemption.

The Blu-ray edition of it belongs in every American home.  It’s not just a joy in itself, it’s an immensely satisfying rebuke to the Hollywood nullities who fear and hate such works from the shallows of their shriveled, dessicated hearts.