Film

'Monument' Achievement

Violet Glaze
Monument Valley Shrouded in Clouds

When you discuss the classic Westerns of Hollywood, one name immediately comes to mind: John Ford. And when you consider his stunning cinematic masterpieces, one particular desert locale is his iconic trademark.

Have you ever had a dream that continued, serial-like, between snatches of post-REM wakefulness, smearing separate neural spasms into a seamless epic? Watching an afternoon of John Ford westerns creates the same sensation. The plotlines and hairstyles and warring Indian tribes may vary, but whether it's 'Texas' or 'Arizona', whether in black and white or color, whether the man with the gun is John Wayne or Henry Fonda, they all exist in a ostensibly Western space. Yet they may as well be on Jupiter, or Middle Earth, or Tatooine for its remoteness; a vast hermetic enclosure like THX-1138's "prison without walls" where the background never changes. That's because Ford shot them all in Monument Valley.

Named Tsé Bii' Ndzisgaii (translated variably as 'Valley of the Rocks' or 'Changing of the Rock') by the native Navajo population, the majestic, semi-terrestrial landscape located on the Arizona-Utah border stirred something in Ford. Unlike other immigrant directors (Frank Capra) who expressed their love for America through the chaste celebration of its spiritual ideals, Ford was in complete carnal rapture with America's sensual geography. For him, the physical beauty of Monument Valley became a Rorschach of buttes upon which he could project his visions of an ideal America. As he himself maintained, "I think you can say that the real star of my Westerns has always been the land."

Stories differ about Ford's first acquaintance with the locale that would figure prominently in nine of his films, but the account Ford himself preferred was this one: in 1937 Harry Goulding, grasping for a way to make his remote encampment solvent, traveled up to Hollywood with a clutch of photos of the view from his trading post, unrolled a sleeping bag in the studio offices, and waited. Ford liked the site's craggy majesty, as well as how pleasingly remote it was from the meddling eye of Hollywood. Much to the Depression-pinched Goulding's delight, Ford moved a production crew to Monument Valley three days later.

That crew arrived to shoot Stagecoach (1939), the film that consummated the cinematic marriage of John Ford and John Wayne. As the outlaw Ringo Kid, Wayne joins a motley crew of Western archetypes — disgraced prostitute, alcoholic doctor, Confederate gambler, milquetoast traveling salesman, respectable woman with a mysterious ailment — all making their uncertain journey across Indian country.

Ford was still figuring out how to best shoot his new environment. Granted, it's practically impossible to create a bad composition out of the breathtaking mesas. The familiar projections of rock — especially East Mitten and West Mitten, the mirror-image buttes that get their nicknames from their spindly wind-carved "thumbs" — become iconic even in their debut. Though much of their grandeur gets lost in flat, contrast-less exposures, Stagecoach still has much to recommend cinematographically. Interior sets have ceilings, visible in low angle shots emphasizing the difference between the claustrophobic indoors and the limitless exteriors. It predates the famously ballyhooed technique of Citizen Kane, which is no surprise, since Orson Welles once said he learned filmmaking by studying the works of "classical" film makers, by which he meant "John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

Appropriate to the otherworldly locale, the social rules of the film are different, as well. It's an egalitarian territory where the women's votes — even that of scapegoated hooker Dallas — count, and races are allowed to mix. "Yes, but she's...she's...savage!" squawks meek salesman Mr. Peacock when he realizes Chris, their Mexican host, is married to an Apache. "Si, senor," Chris blandly agrees. "She a little bit savage, l think." It's all very far removed from the "Kansas City, Kansas" Peacock worries he'll never see again. The gnawed moonscape outside makes it clear we're nowhere near Dorothy's domain. Ford may not have yet figured out how to light and shoot his newest, biggest actor but in Stagecoach he's already made sure it hit its metaphoric marks.

By My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford had figured it out. Also in black and white, Ford and cinematographer Joe MacDonald discovered how to express not only remoteness, but portent, gravity, and doom. The most noir influenced of the Ford westerns (made right smack in the thick of the atmospheric genre's first flowering), Macdonald carries John Huston's iconic Maltese Falcon palette of chiaroscuro, deep focus, and haze to Monument Valley, dust and gunsmoke standing in for the San Francisco fog that sheltered Sam Spade.

The clouds overhead sparkle with dark menace as the Earp brothers ride into Tombstone, Arizona. It is a madman's paradise and anarchic homestead where a decent man can't even get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor without the mirrors shattering in a barrage of random gunfire. Still half-lathered, Wyatt Earp — played by Henry Fonda, whose austere presence fits this film better than Wayne would have — stomps into the crowd and spanks the offending parties with a few judicious shots from a six-shooter. A grateful populace appoints him sheriff despite his protests. He warms to the job but learns that, despite the badge, in this town punishment is not his to mete out.

That's the domain of the cultivated, sensual-eyed brute Doc Holliday (Victor Mature, belying his meatheaded muscleman reputation with a nuanced performance). By this point, Ford not only knew how to juice the most from his exteriors, but he understood how to successfully emphasize his interiors, as well. The first meeting between Earp and Holliday is set at the corner of the saloon's long wooden bar, a slick ebony vortex that extends into the frame's vanishing point like a blacktop highway. Thus, the scene is set for the careful pas des deux between the town's arbiters of written and unwritten law, and creating a deep-grounded visual tour de force of gloss, shadow, highlight and deep focus.

The most gorgeous of Ford's Westerns is his masterpiece The Searchers (1956). Much has been said about its metaphoric and philosophical legacy, but to see it on a big screen (at a drive-in? In the heat of August? Someday I might be so lucky) is to be first of all awash in a desert paintbox. Illuminated with available sunlight, Ford finds as many subtle variations in the arid rock formations as Monet found in his explorations of Rouen Cathedral. The movie is a cascade of violet against yellow, sky-blue-pink clouds, sagebrush and goldenrod. When Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) stands before the cloudless, robins-egg heavens, the piercing blue of his eyes creates the illusion that we are looking through his face to the azure flood behind him.

It's that visible connection to the land that Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in the pinnacle of his collaboration with Ford) despises in his traveling partner. Martin's part-Cherokee, and it's all Ethan can do to contain his irrational rage towards him, and the non-Cherokee "injuns" who kidnapped — and by now, likely savaged — his little niece, Debra. Driven mad by revenge, he scours acres of terrain with unquenchable tenacity, certain in his heart he'll be just as likely to kill the defiled Debra when he finds her as he would rescue her.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader saw much in Ethan's quest that translated to his own "God's lonely man" urban gunslinger, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976). The same way that an extra-squalid mid-'70s Times Square represents Travis's internal decay, the wild, unforgiving frontier represents Ethan's own jagged interior terrain, pitted and bleached by the dually soul-corroding agents of racism and vengeance. Ford's famous final shot from the inside of a cabin frames the land's awesome vastness in a tidy doorway silhouette, the shaded entryway back to civilization through which all may pass except for Ethan. Knowing he's dirtied by revenge and horror in a way that's bigger than wiping your boots at the door, he turns — and returns — to the brutal wide open that'll have him.

Cheyenne Autumn (1964) was Ford's final trip to Monument Valley as a director. Something called the "Monument Valley Tribal Park" gets prominent billing in the credits, but it looks a little seedy, like an abandoned tourist attraction. Oddly, Ford uses lenses that flatten depth and strange compositions that obscure his actors behind poles and foreground objects. Impatient with the slow healing of his cataract surgery, Ford prematurely tore off his bandages and lost the sight in one eye, so it's tempting (but too reductive) to justify Cheyenne Autumn's 'half-blind' compositions from the effects of this injury. After all, Ford made his masterpiece The Searchers with said stunted monocular vision.

Besides, Captain Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark) is no Ethan Edwards. Without "God's lonely man" at the center, it's proven that a singular location alone cannot make a western. With a cluttered cast, the embarrassing dated practice of casting Italians and Mexicans in prominent Indian roles, a yakety-yak narrator, and a dead cavalry man with an arrow in his back (even though the Cheyenne have been shooting guns for the past 45 minutes), it's a sorry farewell to a beloved locale.

But Ford's last visit is, luckily, not ours. Monument Valley has, because of Ford, become visual shorthand for the American West. Its formations have appeared in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, National Lampoon's Vacation, and Back to the Future II and III. (No, it's not the alien landing platform in Close Encounters of the Third Kind — that's Devil's Tower in Wyoming, a rare exception to the Valley's cinematic ubiquity.) When The Mittens appear in a Marlboro ad or as a quick landmark behind Forrest Gump's cross-country jog, it means The West. And John Ford alone is responsible for that.

Much is made about the implacability of his Valley, how the seasons turn and the dusk follows dawn without concern for the tiny humans inhabiting its plain. But for all that threat and apathy, Ford's landscapes don't feel brutal or savage. They feel true and open — worthy of a healthy respect, but also deserving of love, the love of a long and fruitful partnership. One butte now bears the name 'John Ford's Lookout' in tribute, but he'd already received a more fitting accolade. The Navajo tribe, as a thank you for years of employment and camaraderie, presented him with a deer hide thusly inscribed: "In your travels, may there be beauty behind you, beauty on both sides of you, and beauty ahead of you." When the travels are shot by Ford in Monument Valley, that's a given.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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