Why do film school classes analyze the magic out of the movies? 2,246 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
At 6:02 p.m. on October 11, under a canopy of puffy coins sliding lazily south to southeast over the Los Angeles basin, professor Edwin E. Daggett has an epiphany.
“Yes! Of course!” he shouts and thrusts his fists upward in triumph.
Two hours later, Professor Daggett stands before his USC film studies class, his eyes burning with an excitement that his students haven’t seen in him before.
“So, your next assignment is to watch John Ford’s classic western The Searchers over the weekend and on Monday we’ll have a thorough discussion of its mysteries.”
Levi Sims, a member of the Trojans’ track team whose personal best in the 100-meter hurdles is 13.42, raises his hand with a puzzled look on his goateed face. “What do you mean by mysteries?”
“I want you to dissect the film and decipher scenes or dialogue that hint at other things,” replies the veteran author of several books on the Golden Era of Hollywood. “Look for what you may not have seen before.”
“You mean like mistakes?”
“Not mistakes. These are deliberate and inserted throughout the film to create real mystery in their meaning. At least they do for me.”
“And nobody else has noticed them before?”
“Some of them, certainly. But I think there are more to be found. I want you to make your own astute observations. Don’t rely on what others have written. This film requires constant study and rewards those who search for clues. Some of these mysteries, if you delve deeply enough, are quite disturbing in their implications.”
“Like why John Wayne is such a fucking shit-assed racist?” Levi blurts out as the class erupts in convulsive laughter.
Daggett smirks, “Well, that’s part of it.”
Skylar Mylar raises a pinkie. She hates her name — Mylar, not Skylar — and hasn’t told her parents yet but is seriously thinking of going to court once she graduates and asking that her surname be changed to Marx. Not after Karl. After Groucho.
“Professor,” she says, “my dad has seen that movie like 180-zillion times. Can I ask him what he thinks?”
“Ask anyone you like,” Daggett tells her. “But I want your own judgments, your own analyses. Come prepared to discuss scenes, characters, plot.” He scans the classroom. “But I warn you. It took me decades to come to my latest opinions — in fact, just today I had another one — and I admit it may be way off track and even insane. My advice is to think outside the box. Class dismissed.”
That night, Levi Sims and Cory Abdul stare at the YouTube video on the computer screen and examine the opening scene from The Searchers.
“Okay,” Abdul says, pointing to the shot, “she’s this shadow figure and she opens the door and walks out onto the porch and—“
“Into bright sunlight,” Sims interjects.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” his friend chastises. “It’s daytime. You want her to walk out at night? She couldn’t see shit, dude.”
“Okay, she walks outside. The inside of her house is black. She walks out and what do we see?”
“Right. Nothing. At first.”
Abdul snaps his fingers. “Then we see John Wayne!”
“But she sees him before we do.”
“Right! She sees him first. She sees him when nobody else does.”
“Maybe. Hell, how do I know? Ford could have been drunk when he shot this scene.”
“Okay, so Ethan Edwards comes riding into view. See him here? And Martha’s been waiting for him awhile. You can see that.”
“Now look. The whole family gathers on the front porch.”
Sims studies the screen. His eyes widen. “Holy crap.”
“What do you see, dude?” Abdul asks, staring over his shoulder.
“The little girl, Debbie. She’s goes to the opposite end of the porch. Her brother and sister, Lucy and Ben, are at this end. She’s separated from both of them in the scene.”
“That’s because she’s gonna get her ass kidnapped, dude. She’s the focus of the plot. She’s gonna wind up a squaw later on. You know the story.”
“No, it’s not just that,” Sims says, his eyes riveted on Debbie. “I mean, look at her. She’s got dark hair. Lucy and Ben have light hair.”
“That a clue? It’s pretty flimsy. Their dad, Aaron, has dark hair.”
“Just help me look for more clues, dude. I ain’t got all day.”
In another part of L.A., Skylar Mylar plops herself on her parents’ flowered sofa next to her father. She is munching on moist chunks of tuna swimming in canola oil from a Starkist can and points with the prongs of her fork at the TV.
“So, it’s obvious that the mother here, Martha Edwards, is in love with Ethan. Right, Dad? I mean, any moron can see that.”
“Yeah, I guess,” her father replies as he scratches his chin. “But why do we have to go into all this detail when it’s obvious that John Wayne is just a mean SOB who hates Indians. End of story.”
“Who is also in love with Martha, his brother’s wife. That’s pretty out there for 1956.”
“Hey, you think the 1950s were so tame? I grew up back then and let me tell you, Jack Kennedy was running around with different dames in the White House every night and he was married.”
“That was in the early 1960s, Dad”
“It’s all the same.”
“But nobody reported on it. That stuff didn’t come out until years later after JFK was assassinated.”
“Well, it was still happening.” Mr. Mylar insists. He glances back at the TV as Skylar points to an image of Ethan Edwards riding off in search of the Indians who have run off the Jorgensens’ herd. Ethan is watched by Martha, who has her arm around Debbie’s shoulder.
“See that?” Skylar remarks. “Martha loves Ethan. It’s as plain as your nose.”
“So what if she loves Ethan. Lots of women love the Duke.”
“But why is Martha standing there only with Debbie in this scene?”
“Because it sets up the story to come. The little girl Debbie is about to be kidnapped by the Comanches.”
Skylar stops, her jaw drops, and flecks of tuna fall off her fork into the Starkist can. “Holy shit,” she says. “I just thought of something.”
Meanwhile, Cory Abdul has his arm around Melanie Sanger, a computer whiz from Cedar Rapids who is studying game pipelines at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. “When I become a famous director,” he tells her, “it will all be CGI. None of this bullshit dealing with egotistical actors.”
“And the video games I create will inspire you, right Cory?” she asks him before they dissolve into Round 4 of passionate kissing.
Levi Sims is seated across the room, still mesmerized by The Searchers.
“Hey, dude, I can’t figure out Martin Pawley.”
“This whole Edwards family is full of fucking Confederates, right?”
“Confederates who have taken in a half-breed to raise as their adopted son?”
“Ethan discovered him when he was just a baby.”
“Yeah. But when Martin’s mom gets killed and scalped, I want to see that backstory. Wonder what was going on then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there was some kind of righteous battle going on. Women getting scalped. And Ethan comes along and finds them. So, my question is,” Sims crosses his arms, “what prompted this righteous fight in the first place?”
“Maybe it was just a fight.”
“Just a fight, huh? A fight that had Martin’s mom lose her scalp? A scalp that ends up proudly displayed years later on Chief Scar’s lance?”
“What are you driving at, dude?”
“Martin is part Indian. He says he’s quarter Cherokee mixed in with European stock and whatever else. But what if he’s really half Comanche?
“What are you getting at, Levi?”
“These are all white Confederate dudes living in post-Civil War Texas, right? All fought for the glory of the Southern cause. And Ethan — John Wayne here — doesn’t surrender his fucking saber. That’s how messed up his brain is. He’s still fighting the goddamned war. He says he doesn’t believe in surrenders. It’s three years later and he’s been down in Mexico robbing and doing whatever to get by. The war ain’t over for him. But let’s go back to Martin’s mother. Back to a time and place we don’t see in the film. Martin’s mom has a son with Indian blood coursing through his veins. Maybe it’s just a little Cherokee left over from past generations — or maybe, like Ethan says, Martin could be mistaken for a half-breed. In which case, his mom was violated by an Indian. Or maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she was in love with Martin’s real father.”
Across town, Skylar puts the can of tuna down and draws her legs underneath her on the sofa. “Okay, so Ethan Edwards and his sister-in-law love each other. You can see it on their faces. But they can’t be together. This is 1868, remember.”
“It’s called life, Skylar. Doesn’t matter what year it was.”
“But look. Ward Bond — I mean, Reverend Captain Clayton — knows they’re in love. No doubt he has heard things and chooses to keep them secret.”
“There are so many secrets in this family. Marty’s heritage. Ethan and Martha’s forbidden love story. Why didn’t Ethan return after the war?”
Mr. Mylar’s expression sours. “Quit imagining things.”
“There’s just a big backstory that John Ford isn’t presenting to us. He hints at it now and again, but we have to come up with our own backstory, Dad.”
“The story he tells on the screen is good enough for me. Skylar, don’t go ruining a good movie with your pop psychology.”
“But you can’t understand the movie unless you understand all that has come before.”
“And what’s that?”
“Martha and Ethan love each other.”
“And he returns to Texas. He greets the family. Martha’s as nervous as a kitten. Ethan helps get the lamp down off the mantle for her. He sits on the front porch with the dog and looks back to see Martha and his brother disappearing into their bedroom for the night.”
“Before that we see Ethan talking to his brother and family in the parlor. He’s greeting the kids and he comes to Debbie and he mistakes her for Lucy, the older sister.”
“Are you implying that Ethan fathered Debbie?”
“He definitely could be Debbie’s biological father.”
“Maybe Martha kept the pregnancy a secret from Ethan. He was off to war and then to Mexico. Or maybe he knew he had a kid and decided to keep away from Martha so she could raise their daughter in peace. Ethan keeps things from people. Uncomfortable things. Anyway, all I’m saying is that Debbie could be Ethan’s child. Poor Aaron. He doesn’t have a clue. He thinks Debbie is his own kid. Always has.”
“Ethan’s the father, huh?”
“That’s why he spends five years trying to find the young girl after she’s kidnapped. He’s relentless. That’s also why he wants to put a bullet in her brain. Martha would have wanted it that way. She’s a Confederate through and through just like Ethan. The last thing Martha would want for her daughter — for their daughter — is to be sleeping with a buck.”
Mr. Mylar studies his daughter’s eyes. “You see racism everywhere, don’t you?.”
“That’s what makes this film so engrossing, Dad. It doesn’t shy away from raw emotions. Ethan is consumed by hatred for the Comanches. What big movie star would ever take a role like that? Not many. And, yes, Ethan changes in the end — at least he changes his attitude toward Debbie — but it’s a long journey. He even comes to accept biracial Marty.”
Mr. Mylar looks uncomfortable. “Where’s my soda. Did I finish it already?” He sinks deeper into the sofa and glances once again at his daughter. “You think too much.”
Skylar brushes off the remark. “Ethan knows a lot about the Comanches. He knows their beliefs. He goes and shoots the eyes out of that dead brave because Ethan knows that, given what the Comanches believe, that if the Indian has no sight he can’t enter the spirit land and has to wander forever between the winds.”
“Well, all I know is that Ethan and Scar hate each other.”
“They are opposite sides of the same coin, Dad. Ethan hates Comanches and Scar hates white settlers. Maybe Scar was in love with Marty’s mom? Maybe Ethan tried to stop it?”
Mr. Mylar dismisses her theory. “Scar has her scalp still hanging on his lance. He wouldn’t love a woman and do that.”
“Unless she turned away from him and wanted to keep the baby. Maybe she wanted to raise him white and Scar would have nothing to do with it. The boy was his son. Maybe Scar conducted a raid and tried to kidnap the baby and bring him back to the tribe?”
“I don’t know, Skylar. John Ford is not Ingmar Bergman. It’s just a Western. Why can’t we leave it at that? Why do you film geeks have to pile on so much psycho-garbage until you ruin the movie? This is entertainment and should remain that. I don’t want to be thinking and re-thinking it for years on end. Then I’ll be just like Ethan Edwards, letting things consume me my whole life.”