Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Donovan's Reef, or the Soft Underbelly of Auteurism

"One sees the danger," said Andre Bazin of the fledgling politique des auteurs, "which is an aesthetic cult of personality." I thought of Bazin's warning as I revisited Donovan's Reef at MOMA last night. It's rather an amazing film, a John Ford home movie shot in Hawaii at Paramount's expense, a completely personal project that shows off Ford's effortless command of visual storytelling. It's also the distilled essence of all the bad taste that ever found its way into a Ford film. I watched openmouthed, astonished at how dense was the weave of unfunny jokes, offenses against human dignity, and ill-judged narrative tics.

I love John Ford, and I certainly feel the power of his regard in every one of the beautiful full shots that both propel the action and abstract each moment into a state of timelessness. But what does an auteurist do with a movie like this? It's like a child with Down Syndrome: perhaps at one point abortion might have been an option, but now that it's here, your parental instincts kick in, and in any case you can't just push it out the door.

Of course, a great many auteurists love the film without reservation. Would they be as enthusiastic if it were Ford's only film, if there were no career for it to be the summation of, if they hadn't received homeopathic doses of this vulgarity in even Ford's masterpieces? I think some of them would love the film for its own sake. And I can relate. But, jeez Louise, love or no love, it's a real problem for auteurism if we just advocate for movies like this without grappling with their peculiar problems of sensibility.

Just a note for the record: it's in the scenes of drunken, brawling male cameraderie where Donovan's Reef feels most natural and achieves some comic subtlety. The best thing about the film is Lee Marvin's Gilhooley, a force of destructive masculinity who, perhaps thanks to an improvised script, becomes a sort of domesticated housepet, idling childlike on the periphery of scenes, contained by social forces and not unhappy for it.

1 comment:

alsolikelife said...

A strange film to be sure in how it breezes along. In terms of rhythm it's top notch. Otherwise it's almost embarrassingly silly. But as you said, it's perhaps one of the most transparent renditions of Ford's psyche:


Ford at his finest.