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The Disappointment Artist: Essaysby Jonathan Lethem
Defending The Searchers
(Scenes in the Life of an Obsession)
What's weird in retrospect is how I seem to have willed the circumstances into being, how much I seemed to know before I knew anything at all. There shouldn't have been anything at stake for me, seeing The Searchers that first time. Yet there was. Going to a film society screening was ordinarily a social act, but I made sure to go alone that night. I smoked a joint alone too, my usual preparation then for a Significant Moment. And I chose my heavy black-rimmed glasses, the ones I wore when I wanted to appear nerdishly remote and intense, as though to decorate my outer self with a confession of inner reality. The evening of that first viewing of The Searchers I readied myself like a man who suspects his first date might become an elopement.
I wasn't a man. I was nineteen, a freshman at Bennington, a famously expensive college in Vermont. I'd never been to private school, and the distance between my experience and the other students', most of whom had never set foot inside a public school like those I'd attended in Brooklyn, would be hard to overstate. On the surface I probably came off like an exuberant chameleon. I plied my new friends with stories of inner-city danger when I wanted to play the exotic, aped their precocious cynicism when I didn't. Beneath that surface I was weathering a brutally sudden confrontation with the reality of class. My bohemian-artisan upbringing—my parents were hippies—had masked the facts of my own exclusion from real privilege, more adeptly than is possible anymore. It was 1982.
Soon the weight of these confusions crushed my sense of belonging, and I dropped out. But before that, I cloaked my abreaction in a hectic show of confidence: I was the first freshman ever to run the film society. The role freed me to move easily through the complex social layers at Bennington, impressing people with a brightness that hadn't affixed to any real target. Plus I was able to hire myself as a projectionist, one of the least degrading work-study jobs, then pad the hours, since I was my own manager.
So when I walked into Tishman Hall, Bennington's small, free-standing movie theater, I was entering my own little domain on a campus that really wasn't mine at all. Which had everything to do with the episode that night. The rows of wooden seats in Tishman were full—deep in the Vermont woods, any movie was diversion enough for a Tuesday night—but I doubt any of my closest friends were there. I don't remember. I do remember glancing up at the booth to see that this night's projectionist was my least competent. The lights dimmed, the babble hushed, and the movie began.
A cowboy ballad in harmony plays over the titles. You're thrust into a melodrama in blazing Technicolor, which has faded to the color of worrisome salmon. A homestead on the open range--no, hardly the range. This family has settled on the desolate edge of Monument Valley, under the shadow of those baked and broken monoliths rendered trite by Jeep commercials. You think: they might as well try to farm on the moon. The relationships between the characters are uneasy, murky, despite broad performances, corny lines. At the center of the screen is this guy, a sort of baked and broken monolith himself, an actor you might feel you were supposed to know. John Wayne.
I'd seen part of Rooster Cogburn on television. The only feature Western I'd ever watched was Blazing Saddles, but I'd passingly absorbed the conventions from F Troop, from Gunsmoke, from a Mad Magazine parody of 3:10 to Yuma. Similarly, I'd grasped a sense of John Wayne's iconographic gravity from the parodies and rejections that littered seventies culture. I knew him by his opposite: something of Wayne's force is encoded in Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould, Alan Alda. And the voice—in high school I'd sung along with a hit song called "Rappin' Duke" which aped his bullying drawl: "So you think you're bad, with your rap / Well I'll tell ya, Pilgrim, I started the crap—"
As for movies, I was a perverse muddle, another result of my parents' milieu. I'd seen dozens by Godard and Truffaut, and never one by Howard Hawks or John Ford. My parents had taken me to The Harder They Come, not The Wizard of Oz. In my scattershot reading I'd sensed something missing in my knowledge, something central, a body of Hollywood texts the European directors revered like a Bible. But I'd never seen an American film older than Dr. Strangelove. Somewhere in my reading I'd also gleaned that The Searchers was terribly important, though not how, or why, or to whom.
Wayne's character, Ethan, is tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly—resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you, watching, even as his charisma wrenches you closer, into an alliance, a response that's almost sexual. You try to fit him to your concept of hero, but though he's riding off now, chasing a band of murderous Indians, it doesn't work. No parody had prepared you for this. Wasn't Wayne supposed to be a joke? Weren't Westerns meant to be simple? The film on the screen is lush, portentous. You're worried for it.
Now Wayne and the other riders falter. The Indians, it seems, have circled back, to raid the farmhouse the riders have left behind. The family, they're the ones in danger. The riders race back in a panic. They've failed. The farmhouse is a smoldering cinder, the family dead. The woman Wayne seemed to care for, raped and murdered. Her daughter, Wayne's niece, kidnapped. The sky darkens. The score is a dirge, no ballad now. Wayne squints, sets his jaw: the girl would be better dead than in the hands of the savages. John Wayne's a fucking monster! So are the Indians!
Now you're worried in a different way.
That's when the audience in Tishman began laughing and catcalling. Some, of course, had been laughing from the start, at the conventions of 1950s Hollywood. Now, as the drama deepened and the stakes became clear, the whole audience joined them. It was the path of least resistance. The pressure of the film, its brazen ambiguity, was too much. It was easier to view it as a racist antique, a naive and turgid artifact dredged out of our parents' bankrupt fifties culture.
Benefit of the doubt: What cue, what whiff of context was there to suggest to this audience why it should risk following where this film was going? These were jaded twenty-year-old sophisticates, whose idea of a film to ponder was something sultry and pretentious—Liquid Sky, The Draughtsman's Contract. If an older film stood a chance it should be in black-and-white, ideally starring Humphrey Bogart, whose cynical urbanity wouldn't appall a young crowd nursing its fragile sense of cool. The open, colorful manner of The Searchers didn't stand a chance. A white actor wearing dark makeup to play the main Indian character didn't stand a chance. John Wayne, above all, didn't stand a chance. The laughter drowned out the movie.
I was confused by the film, further confused by the laughter. The Searchers was overripe, and begged for rejection. But the story was beginning to reach me, speak to me in its hellish voice, though I didn't understand what it was saying. And I clung to shreds of received wisdom—this was the film that meant so much to . . . who was it? Scorsese? Bogdanovich? There must be something there. The laughter, I decided, was fatuous, easy. A retreat. Sitting there trying to watch through the howls, I boiled.
Then the film broke. The crowd groaned knowingly. This wasn't uncommon. The lights in the booth came up, illuminating the auditorium, as my projectionist frantically rethreaded the projector. It was then I began daring myself to speak, began cobbling together and rehearsing words to express my anger at the audience's refusal to give The Searchers a chance. A print brittle enough to break once in Tishman's rusty projectors was likely to do it again, and by the time the film was up and running I'd made a bargain with myself: if there was another break I'd rise and defend the film.
My silent vow scared the shit out of me. I sat trembling, hating the crowd, hating myself for caring, and praying the film wouldn't break again. The Searchers was meant to be the center of this experience, but with one thing and another it was reeling away from me.
It did break again. I did stand and speak. What I recall least about that night are the words which actually came out of my mouth, but you can bet they were incoherent. I'd love to claim I said something about how presentational strategies that look natural to us in contemporary films would look just as silly to an audience in the future as those in The Searchers did to us now. I'd love to think I said something about an American tendency to underestimate the past, that I planted a seed by suggesting The Searchers had been put together by artists with a self-consciousness, possibly even a sense of irony, of their own.
Of course, I didn't. I was nineteen. I called them idiots and told them to shut up. What I didn't do, couldn't do, was defend The Searchers itself. I hadn't seen more than a third of the film, after all, and what I'd seen I hadn't understood. My schoolmates might be wrong to condescend to this film, but I couldn't tell them why. Years later I'd come to see that part of what I was defending, by instinct, was the fact that the film had the lousy taste to be a Western in the first place. The aspiring novelist who'd soon make his first clumsy attempts to work out his surrealist impulses in the despised medium of science fiction felt kinship with John Ford, a director who persistently cast his moral sagas in the despised form of the genre Western. The indignation I felt was partly on my own behalf, indignation I couldn't express because I was ashamed of it. So The Searchers and I began our relationship with a grudge in common, but at that moment, under the astonished eyes of my schoolmates, I was only sure I'd made some irrevocable commitment, laid my cards on the table. I didn't know which cards, or what table.
I sat. The film started again. The audience was quieter, mainly because it had thinned. In the face of this unpromising night, this ludicrous film they'd now been informed they weren't allowed to laugh at, and who knew how many breakages to come, half the audience opted for the campus cafe, for an early corner on a booth and pitcher of beer. Face burning, I settled in for my hard-won film, determined now to see its greatness. But the worst was to come. For then The Searchers betrayed me. Fifteen minutes after my speech came a scene of such giddy misogyny, such willful racism, it seemed indefensible by design.
During a comic mix-up at an Indian barter session, Wayne's sidekick has inadvertently acquired an Indian wife. The sidekick and Wayne tolerate her presence, barely, until nightfall. When they bed down by the fire the chubby Indian girl slides in beside the sidekick, drawing exaggerated and unfunny derision from Wayne. The sidekick, enraged, kicks the girl out of his bedroll, so hard she cascades down a hill. There she ends in the dust, weeping, her ludicrous marriage in ruins. Wayne hoots with pleasure, his eyes maniacal. The scene is odious. The chance Wayne might be some kind of hero, that the filmmakers might redeem him, or themselves, has been pissed away.
The crowd bellowed, cawed. There were more defections. Those who stayed were ruthless, their suspicions confirmed, surpassed. The Searchers had slapped me down. I had to sit it out, of course, though now I was suspicious of the film, of the audience, of myself. My watching brain did worse than withdraw. It became autistic. After the turmoil of the first half, I followed the rest as a plot schematic, unable to risk any identification or strong response. The Searchers was only a camp opportunity after all. I was a fool.
2. San Francisco
D. was a junkie, though not at first. When we met, D. was one of the most dauntingly clever, well-read, and pop-culturally savvy people I'd known. He'd written for a legendary L.A. fanzine, was friends with a famous underground cartoonist and a famous punk singer. I was honored to be collected into this company. D. was also a sweet and devoted friend. Just a bit of a drinker, and with a weakness for speed, then overly fond of Ecstasy. I'd indulged with him at times—we went to see the first Batman movie together on mushrooms—but I could never keep up with him, never go the lengths.
When D. got involved with heroin he began pilfering from and lying to his friends, as though working by rote through some shopworn guidebook to junkie behavior. I avoided him, not systematically, but in guilt at his decline and my complicity. The pleasures in knowing D. had slowly evaporated anyway, mercurial charm replaced by boozy maunderings, devoted attentiveness by passive-aggressive gambits. Besides, I had to protect my stuff, my pawnable books and records. Our friendship became a room we'd both abandoned.
Then D. came to share a large apartment in San Francisco with three roommates, one of whom was my girlfriend. There I'd edge past him in the corridor and kitchen, exchange pleasantries, try not to get caught alone. His method-actorish comings and goings for "cigarettes," his jittery, sweaty jags, all were made awfully plain there. The three roommates and I were a microscope D. was under, and we took too much satisfaction from watching our sample squirm, nodding and rolling our eyes at one another to excuse our collective failure, the fact that we'd let someone rare and fragile plummet into depravity on our watch. It was a terrible place, and we were all locked into a terrible stasis.
One day I rented a videotape of The Searchers and brought it to the apartment. This was seven years after the screening at Bennington. I hadn't seen the film since, though I'd prepared plenty, read about it anywhere I could, gathered evidence of its greatness. I needed to justify being stirred that first time, to prove that the force of that moment was more than a neurotic projection, that it resided in the film, intrinsic. In the process, of course, I'd repeated my mistake: this second viewing was already overburdened. (In fact I was about to begin a novel I'd predetermined should be influenced by The Searchers.) Armed with cribbed defenses of various aspects of the film, I was ready to lecture my girlfriend as we watched: See, Wayne's the villain of the piece until the end; see, it's a film about racism, obsession, America; John Ford was made an honorary member of the tribe, you know—he actually spoke Navaho. She: Gosh! So went the fantasies. I was plotting to remake my scene in Tishman Hall, only this time the audience would be completely under my guiding hand. We would enter the temple of The Searchers together. Her awe would confirm and justify my own.
From the Hardcover edition.
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