“When in doubt, make a western.” – John Ford.
This quote stuck out to me in the opening of The Taking, the latest film about film from Swiss director Alexandre O. Philippe. Like ford, director John Schlesinger made a western himself after an early-career stumble. The films of John Ford and Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy aren’t linked too much; at least not on the surface. But with two new documentaries, they are given visual deep-dives that tie them together as logical ends of a spectrum that used images to sell America as a hard land or hard men.
Both Philippe’s The Taking and Nancy Buirski’s Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy err on the side of cinematic essays than traditional behind-the-scenes making-of documentaries. Each offer their subjects’ take on the (quote unquote) western as both of their time and in many ways timeless. I enjoyed them both.
The Taking was actually produced in 2021, only receiving its American theatrical release this past May just a few weeks before his next movie, Lynch/Oz, premiered in American cinemas. The prolific nature of his filmmaking (eight films in 11 years) might suggest he has a point of view towards John Ford, but this film is about more than just Ford. Or at least Ford as a man beyond a particular slice of his creative output. Rather, it nestles itself within the plateaus and atop the buttes of Monument Valley made internationally famous by the American western genre and in particular the eight films of John Ford that were shot there (or, at least, the few square miles of it that he chose to set them).
His subjects—only heard; never seen—call this place a red cathedral of stone. An early split screen juxtaposes the imposing towers of Monument Valley in Mackenna’s Gold with the bombed-out streets of Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair. In a film stuffed to the gills with film clips, Philippe and first-time editor Dave Krahling entwine their early efforts of place-setting with movies like Night and Fog, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Transformers: Age of Extinction and more. This film is about mythology and what filmmakers can and have done to places such as Monument Valley to memorialize them and turn them into something that they never would have been. It’s about the American west and what it means to cinema, eventually what it means to the America, and in some ways the world, too.
It’s true that The Taking doesn’t entirely break out of its confines of essayistic homework—although its trading of narrator voices and its focus on a much larger slate of movies mean it comes across more like an oral history than something like, say, Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. Its points have been well covered by written essays, in books and probably in other movies, too. I didn’t mind. I found it enjoyable and entertaining in the way a movie can be. There are perhaps some easy targets, in particular the selfie-fication of the landscape by tourists; but when it lingers upon what it means for its indigenous population and their ancestors that it feels like it is at least attempting to grapple with something bigger than just pretty pictures.
I was probably most impressed when Philippe and Krahling would throw some unexpected historic references at us in ways that recalled Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film more than Philippe’s own earlier film-centric documentaries. It isn’t just shot after shot of Monument Valley and John Ford westerns, although I wouldn’t have blamed him for doing just that. In one passage, we swerve from Dziga Vertov’s pioneering silent documentary Man with a Movie Camera of 1923 to The Searchers of 1956 and then to The Blair Witch Project of 1999, finding lines across cinema technique that traverse Monument Valley, but which started as far away as the then Soviet Union through to the low-budget haunted woods of Maryland. For many these may come across as nothing above student academics; film school 101. And sure, there is a bit of that. But the doc moves quickly enough through its many topics that there isn’t all that much time to dwell on the specifics. At a very brisk 75 minutes, there is little time for The Taking to become stale unless you’re really not with it from the get-go. I can understand that, too.
Speaking of pretty pictures, though. Unlike most of Philippe’s other films (among them 78/52, Memory: The Origins of Alien, and Leap of Faith: William Friedkin and The Exorcist) that had the faint glisten of an elevated DVD special feature, The Taking is one I wished I had been able to see on a big screen. It’s recurring use of film clips, so beautifully composed as its narrators are keen to repeatedly remind us, creating a really vivid montage of images. Whether it is the iconic black and white introduction of John Wayne in Stagecoach with its dolly shot into his face as if, as one speaker notes, his face is etched into Mount Rushmore, or a scorching hot Technicolor vista from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the temptation is to simply ogle and marvel at some of nature’s finest creations captured by the best of Hollywood.
And, because it tickled me so, the occasional references to Peter Bogdanovich’s famous interview with Ford himself really does underline why Spielberg was so right to cast David Lynch in The Fabelmans.
It is perhaps interesting then to pivot to Buirski’s Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy. That the film at its centre won Best Picture the same year John Wayne won an Oscar for Best Actor is not lost on its maker; we’re reminded of this film a few times throughout. When watched in companion with The Taking, this idea of the so-called western and the mouldability of American mythology only grew.
Buirski spends much of her film discussing where the movie sat within the public consciousness upon its premiere in 1969, particularly in regards to sexuality on screen. Considering how little of that there is these days in mainstream Hollywood movies (something made obvious by repeated discourse about such things on Twitter), I found this one perhaps more interesting that it would have been if it had been a more straight down the line documentary. Buirsky shoots her talking head interviews (Cowboy actors Jon Voight, Brenda Vaccaro, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Salt among them) often in close-up as if to play on the original movie’s confronting nature.
Midnight Cowboy was, after all, one of the first big Hollywood productions to put this type of sexuality at its core without the romanticised glamour of others. The image of a woman inviting a hustler to her apartment. A man propositioning him for sex on 42nd Street and everybody knowing exactly what was happening. Buirski focuses a large part on the perception of homosexuality in Midnight Cowboy (Voight tries to downplay it, but doesn’t dismiss it entirely despite what his public persona today may imply he would) with much attention played to Schlesinger’s own homosexuality and what that meant for him as a director moving to America in the 1960s. I was particularly impressed by one moment that acknowledges the impact that the civil rights movement for African Americans had on the gay rights movement, although this isn’t the forum to dive into that much deeper.
Buirski and editor Anthony Ripoli lean a bit too heavily on the old staples of this era. There is a lot of Vietnam (including a mini montage of Apocalypse Now), Malcolm X, Don McLean’s “American Pie”. Especially since they make an effort of pointing out how removed Midnight Cowboy was from all of those things even if it had much to say about the image America had of itself and where its narrative fit within the great American stories that came before it. But I nevertheless found it involving and that its narrative swerves broadened my understanding of Schlesinger’s film. Like The Taking, could I have read a book on the subject? Almost certainly. But as cinema about cinema goes, I was intrigued by the mood Buirski was able to conjure within familiar terrain.