Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The camera in Stagecoach

Stagecoach, 1939, directed by John Ford.

In classical Hollywood, you’re not supposed to be aware of the camera. So it’s interesting when you ARE aware of the camera.









This is the iconic shot of the movie, and the iconic shot of John Wayne’s career. Why is it so powerful?

Until then, the movie has shown the stagecoach’s journey in three kinds of shots: 1. interior shots of the passengers, 2. exterior shots of the top of the coach, with Buck driving and Curly riding shotgun (literally)









and 3. extremely long shots of the coach moving through Monument Valley.








Inside the stagecoach, all camera positions are motivated by character points of view—they are looking at each other as they talk, and Ford uses these eyeline matches to construct the interior space (without ever showing it all in one shot) as well as to illustrate the social relations between the characters. The two exterior shots are not motivated in this way. Who exactly is looking? The two-shots of Buck and Curly are especially jarring, because unlike the long shots they contain significant narrative information, and so they can’t be explained away as transitions between scenes. The viewer is slightly disturbed.

Along comes John Wayne to save the day. Ah ha! It’s HIM. Well, that’s okay. In Lacanian terms, “the missing field is abolished by the presence of somebody or something occupying the absent-one’s field.” (Daniel Dayan, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema.”) Wayne is the authority figure, the law, because he’s the unseen watcher. More theoretical jargon: “The Absent One, also known as the Other, has all the attributes of the mythically potent symbolic father.” (Kaja Silverman, “On Suture.”)

But because this is John Ford, every shot is recuperated by the narrative—even the long shots of the coach which seemed to be nothing more than some nice scenery to look at. In contrast to the Buck-Curly shots, though, the “missing field” here turns out to be filled by the Apaches—far more sinister. In both the shot seen above and the shot of the Indians, Ford moves the camera to draw attention to the importance of the shot: he dollies in on Wayne, and he whip-pans from the coach to the Indians overlooking them from the top of a cliff.









Whereas Wayne is the authorized observer (Buck is on the soundtrack: “Hey, it’s Ringo!”) the Indians are not (ominous music plays). They threaten Wayne’s privileged viewpoint, since theirs is more commanding. The stage (so to speak) is set for the climactic face-off between Wayne and the Apaches.

The camera also shows up here, at the ford. Coincidence?

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