Saturday, January 12, 2008

"Desert Flowers"

Is there a film that aligns itself more fully with what Erving Goffman calls “the normals” than My Darling Clementine (1946), the scariest film I saw last year? There must be a thick literature on Ford’s interest in foundations of various sorts, and on his racism—observations on this can’t be new; so why is the film still surprising? It’s unimaginably upfront about the costs of what it depicts; it’s all in the daylight. It’s very early on that Henry Fonda/Wyatt Earp gets himself nominated marshall by slipping into a dark saloon to deal with an armed “drunken Indian” whom no one wants to confront, and emerges dragging the inert body, which he proceeds to insult and abuse before shoving it permanently offscreen. The power of this self-nomination to “proper authority,” as he calls it, radiates from Fonda’s sensitive, precise body language in long, silent shots as he hangs out, doing nothing, on the porch, and is elevated by Ford in symbols that go deeper than “religious imagery.” Fonda’s natural morality, for example, is figured in the wildflower fragrance that the barber spritzes on him and that people comment on thereafter (“The air is so clean and clear! The scent of the desert flowers!” “That’s me. Barber”). He’s anointed with oil, but he’s no Jesus type; he’s something better, he’s the pagan stud that preceded Jesus,who doesn’t need to be saved. (“Nobody with a good car needs justification” [Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood].) The central scene in which the citizens gather without a minister for a secular dance on the foundation of the future church uses the same logic, implying that we’re looking at something more ancient than any religion, from which religions evolve; and Wyatt Earp’s and Clementine Carter’s walk down the sidewalk in the sunshine, shot head-on and faraway to look like a walk down the wedding aisle, is fresher than any wedding—it uses the future wedding to make us nostalgic for the present. (This is a totally magical cinematic moment, like the carriage-house kiss in Vertigo.) There’s a little of this nostalgia in the use of the title song, which is temporally disruptive; it plays before Clementine is introduced, and at the same time the Clementine in the song is dead while Ford’s is young and alive. Ford presents the time of the film as a momentary eternity, even altering the refrain of the song in its last rendering from “You are lost and gone forever, / Dreadful sorry, Clementine,” to “I’ll be loving you forever, oh my darling Clementine.” But it’s plain enough that they can have only a short time. It’s only the loss of the civilization left behind that exposes the layer of radical purity in which the film is invested, and which gives it its “sweet” air, so in a way, the normals are working against themselves by community building—or at least, they will experience declining returns. If law and church were already established, Wyatt Earp and Clementine Carter would be invisible, which is why they like it out there in the territory even though they could be more comfortable and wealthy back East. Fonda’s soliloquy over his young brother’s grave, claiming that the point (of ejecting and slaying the unfit, or dying yourself to do so, as amply shown) is that kids like him be “able to grow up and live safe,” does nothing to account for why you’d want to go to the Arizona Territory to do that. So, discontent with the limits of civilization gets sublimated into the fantasy of civilization-creation, which comes with the bonus of seeming to get to stand outside it for as long as the construction lasts.

Image: Henry Fonda in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, 1946

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