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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tobacco Road

Tobacco Road is a very strange movie. But it doesn't feel like the result of accident or tampering. It doesn't even feel like an experiment: Ford exhales the film as naturally as if it were a Cavalry Western. Ford's admirers should really try to get their minds around this one.

Kevin Lee's typically comprehensive blog entry on Tobacco Road synopsizes the critical reactions to the film over the years. I had had the impression that the film wasn't well liked, but many of the commentators quoted by Kevin have nice things to say about it. Nearly everyone observes an extreme mixture of moods, with crazy backwoods comedy bumping up against Ford's characteristic elegiac tone.

The crazy comedy is broad in the usual Fordian way. I rather like Ford's low comedy in general, and have been wondering lately whether it might be a more important component of Ford's art than is generally acknowledged. But what's unusual about Tobacco Road is that the comic characters, who are central to the story, can reasonably be described as degenerate or depraved. The depravity comes with the literary property, of course; but Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson do not try to dispel it. The most striking antisocial quality of the Lester family in the movie is not its criminal behavior toward the outside world, but its members' casual willingness to find victims within the nuclear family. Ford and Johnson have fun with this forbidden theme, using it to disruptive effect from first scene to last.

Because we tend to associate the Fordian tone of elegy with admiration and celebration, we might be surprised to see it crop up here. I briefly wondered whether the studio might not have concocted a Ford-like score of a mournful accordion playing "Shall We Gather at the River" and laid it over the resistant material. But music is only part of the integrated Fordian elegiac tone, which also draws on beautiful deep-space long-shot compositions, a slowing of rhythm, an emphatic isolation of individual shots, and the use of symbolic imagery. There's no mistaking that Ford is on the job.

Perhaps because of my preconceptions about Ford, I wasn't sure how to react to this odd blend of style and subject matter. Early in the film, we learn that the Lesters are likely to lose their shack and be forced into the poor farm. Ford handles the scene in elegy mode, and does not escape sentiment as Jeeter Lester mournfully recounts the generations of his family who have farmed the land that he is about to lose. The scene ends with the Lesters' sympathetic landlord making Jeeter and his wife a present of a few ears of corn. The mood changes instantly: the starving Lesters are as delighted by the corn as the clochards in Renoir's La Chienne are at finding a twenty-dollar bill, and resolve to go home and eat the food before their equally hungry children find out about it. Whether or not the elegy is a good move, it surely isn't a mistake: the juxtaposition is too blatant.

At this point I wondered whether Ford might not be trying to undercut his own mythology. But this cynical interpretation doesn't hold up. Soon after comes the film's finest scene, in which preacher lady Sister Bessie takes Jeeter's son Dude (one of the most hateful and obstreperous characters ever to serve as comic relief) to the county hall to marry him. Faced with bureaucratic resistance, Bessie falls back on her usual strategy of public hymn-singing: hilariously, she has already trained the sociopathic Dude as a passable tenor harmonist. (Scenes like this form a link between Ford's goofy comedy and his more solemn moments: in both cases, we see idiosyncratic characters lay down their personal traits and become one with a group function or a mythic role.) All the characters that populate this fictional version of rural Georgia drop whatever they are doing to join in a communal hymn; Ford ends the scene, not on Bessie's comic triumph, but on a lovely, slow pan across the county bureaucrats, finishing the hymn after Bessie and Dude's departure.

A more startling demonstration of the depravity/elegy symbiosis comes when Jeeter goes out into the fields to pray for help in saving his farm. Ford spares none of the signifiers of elegy in this visually striking scene; yet, if we listen to the dialogue behind the sad accordion music, we hear Jeeter blackmailing God, threatening Him with sin if He doesn't come across with the rent money. Here is no clash of moods: all the incompatible material is up there on the screen at the same time.

Ford clearly knows that these people are the scum of the earth. He likes them anyway, which is a challenge to some of our more simplistic ideas about Ford. And, above and beyond liking them, it looks as if he is game to use them as conduits to eternity. Which is actually pretty radical.

The moving final scene drives the point home. At least temporarily, Jeeter and his wife are restored to the old homestead, looking like the last stop in the autumnal Ford universe. More than anywhere else in the film, the Lesters are all of us, suspended in a present that is already the past, waiting with acceptance and stoicism for whatever immortality the continuity of collective memory can grant. As the characters settle into their familiar postures, Ford and Johnson uncork a few last bits of depraved humor: the grandmother who seems to live in the bushes outside the shack has been missing for a while; no one is very concerned about her probable death. Jeeter says he'll go to the woods to look for her "one of these days." Recent story developments had allowed us a small hope that Jeeter might actually try to raise a crop in time to save his land from another foreclosure; the filmmakers close that door in the film's final seconds, giving us a clear sign that the undeserving poor will remain undeserving. And yet none of this difficult content gives Ford pause. The Lesters are us, and that's that.

I think Ford is a great filmmaker, but I'm not used to thinking of him as a philosopher. And yet the most likely way to resolve the dissonances of Tobacco Road is to postulate that Ford simply has an unusual tolerance for the vicissitudes of the human condition.



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