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home > undercurrent > issue 5 > John Ford > How Green Was My Valley  

about the writer

Adrian Martin is Senior Research Fellow in Film and Television Studies, Monash University, Melbourne. His most recent book is Que es el cine moderno? (Santiago: Uqbar) and he is the Co-Editor of Rouge.


[1] Ross Gibson, "The Searchers — Dismantled," Rouge, no. 7 (2005).

[2] See the essays collected in Jacques Aumont (ed.), La mise en scène (Brussels: DeBoeck, 2000).

[3] Pier Paolo Pasolini (trans. T. Simpson), "Manifesto for a New Theatre," Performing Arts Journal, Vol 29 No 1 (2007), pp. 135-136.

[4] See Chika Kinoshita, "Choreography of Desire: Analysing Kinuyo Tanaka's Acting in Mizoguchi's Films," Screening the Past, no. 13 (2001); Shigehiko Hasumi, "Ozu's Angry Women," Rouge, no. 4.

At Table: The Social Mise en Scène of How Green Was My Valley
By Adrian Martin

Roddy McDowall as Huw
How Green Was My Valley

In his brilliant text on The Searchers (1956), Ross Gibson asks, midway:

Question: Who or what is looking, listening, breathing, feeling? Answer: For the first five minutes or so, it's the cabin. It's me as the cabin. [1]

This surprising, inventive, not-quite-anthropomorphic notion of Gibson's helps to explain — and deepen our feeling for — one of those classic shots too often snipped out of the total context of The Searchers: John Wayne seen, in the landscape, through an open door. Actually, when that door shuts, it's the perfect confirmation of Gibson's imaginatively phenomenological thesis: dwellings live in Ford's cinema, they live and breathe and regulate the rhythms of everyone and everything that passes through them. Today, when we study Ford's films in slow-motion and freeze-frame on DVD, we spy strategies that have more in common with the systematic minimalism of a Tsai Ming-liang or a Béla Tarr than with so-called Classical Hollywood: repetitions of framings, positionings, humans in relation to their architecture and/or their landscape, called up like the refrains in a song.

Hardly five minutes in (opening passages are packed and crucial in Ford), How Green Was My Valley (1941) has a similar image to that doorway in The Searchers; not so well known, recognized or celebrated, but it's there. The shot (or rather set-up, because the film chops it into two parts) starts in a flurry (actions and gestures often propel us in this way in Ford): Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) races out the open door with a stool for her mother (Sara Allgood), who is waiting outside, ritually, for the father and sons of the family to return home from their daily mining work. We already know, from the shots that immediately precede this, that there is a whole line of women waiting in just such a pose, plus a veritable army of miners trundling down the hill, joined in near-musical lockstep as they richly sing together — just as we know, from the shots that frame this tale from the vantage point of a bleak present-day, that this entire scene will only be some pathetic figment of itself in the future.

Closer in on the mother's pose, with the door frame out of sight, we see the act of giving-over that answers the act of getting paid (repeated shots of different faces framed behind the same window counter, and hands collecting money): into her apron the money goes. Then back to the door frame set-up: one by one the men enter, walk up and out, frame-right. So many cinematic spaces that look and behave like little contraptions of theatre in Ford: entry, exit, proscenium arch. An important detail: each man removes his cap at exactly the same threshold spot of home and hearth. Then a little lag as the last guy enters more slowly than the others, differentiated (in his singing vocal as well as his body) so that he can provide the grace-note to this superb mise en scène: he looks back at his mother, "remarks" on her with a gaze, inscribes her into our growing awareness (conscious or unconscious) of everything that is being so carefully built up here.

Here is where we are going with this: into a house that is not just framing the lives of humans in a story, but "looking, listening, breathing, feeling" too. A home-space defined not just by its drawable architecture or floor-plan (the error of all detached set design studies), but by the repeated vantage points, vistas and configurations that Ford bestows upon it, shot by shot. Vantage points,, vistas and configurations that soak up emotion, repetition, ritual, become saturated with these things and then, in turn, imprint them upon living, evolving bodies — which fold in or strike out against this framing as the vicissitudes of history, story and psychology enter the picture. But to fully understand this interplay of person and place, we will need a somewhat unfamiliar idea to help us through: I call it social mise en scène.

But first. It may be neither wise nor safe to admit it in the context of this issue of Undercurrent, but it has taken me a long time to come around to liking Ford. I resisted something in the films, and also (perhaps primarily) in the critical celebration of them: all this talk of ritual, community, family; all these values which seemed, at a distance or in the abstract, merely sentimental, conventional, conservative. The anarchist in me preferred Samuel Fuller, Raoul Walsh, or even Howard Hawks. Even at the most basic level of imagery (or "pictorialism"), this slightly phobic taste-preference held: better the jagged or off-hand or brutal in visual style than these picturesque miners pacing over fussily planted, painted and placed faux-Welsh slopes, just another brick in the wall (as Far as I was concerned) of a crushing "aestheticisation" (it was a dirty word back in the '70s). Aestheticisation: something worth redefining and reclaiming today.

Although I had already seen it several times in my life, How Green Was My Valley hit me like a ton of bricks when I re-viewed it in recent years. It is, of course, among the most somber, the bleakest, the most despairing of his works: family and community there may be, but none of these families, and certainly not the overarching community that contains and defines them, remain in one piece by the film's end. The supposed nostalgia of the tale — which viewers sometimes lazily detach or hallucinate from the free-floating poetry of its title, doubtless repressing the memory of what actually goes on in the movie — is tearing, bitter, even ironic: as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the march of industrial civilization is inexorable, and killing; all that's left, finally, is this memory, this stranded voice or thought which calls back to a better yesterday, "how green was my valley then ."

But Ford's films come alive when you attend to the full scale of their rhetoric (narrative, cinematic, emotional), rather than their plain, detachable, familiar themes and character-types (the "mythic" level of Ford which has never drawn me). And the aspect of this rhetoric that I want to address briefly here is what a number of commentators — chiefly François Albera and Jean-Louis Comolli — have described as the category of social mise en scène in cinema. [2]

In a nutshell, how does social mise en scène differ from the plain old mise en scène we know and love from the annals of film criticism? That mise en scène which is primarily about composing great images, still or moving, and positioning actors in sets or landscapes? Mise en scène has been conceptualized and deployed in many different ways by many different folks over the past 60 years or so but, at heart, it is a theory of expressivity: the director shapes the elements before him or her of bodies, environments, image, sound, technology. As Albera would put it, the auteur (in this traditional schema of creation) gives form to the formless, as does a painter or a novelist.

But cinema does not begin from the blank canvas or the white page. In dealing, especially, with bodies and environments (landscapes, sets, streets), cinema takes into itself the facts long recognized by sociologists of every stripe: that the social world itself is already pretty strictly organized, "codified" (as Vilém Flusser would say), subject to a hundred dispositifs that govern (or at least regulate) behavior, posture, gesture, level of emotion (contained, released), where and how one will sit, stand, walk, run, be active or passive, hushed or loud . Back in the 1960s in Italy, occasional film-theorists like Umberto Eco and Pier Paolo Pasolini had already intuited this idea: for the former, social life came to the camera already equipped with its complicated codes of proxemics and kinesics, while for the latter:

The semiological archetype of theatre . is the spectacle that unfolds every day before our eyes and ears, in the street, at home, in the public places, etc. In this sense, social reality is a representation that is not unaware of being a performance, with its resultant codes (good manners, appropriate behavior, comportment, etc). In a word, social reality is not unaware of being a ritual. [3]

So what we once considered the primary properties or components of mise en scène as an artistic practice — effects of mode, suggestion, lyricism, the implied and constructed regard or viewpoint of the director — are not obliterated as such, but can be incorporated into a wider and even more complex stylistic system. What happens when the work of the director, his or her distinctive mise en scène, collides with, corroborates, interleaves with, or outrightly contradicts the indexed (and, of course, re-staged) reality of any given social mise en scène: of a religious ceremony, say, or a street parade, or a political rally, or a corporate business meeting?

Intuitively or otherwise, the idea would not be news to many great filmmakers: Hitchcock, Buñuel and Roy Andersson (to name just three) based their entire art on it. Nor has film criticism, following its diverse inspirations, always failed to notice or deal with the concept of social mise en scène: when Jean Douchet traces the dynamic vector of the "V Diagram" as a staging principle for power and passion plays in Mizoguchi, or Shigehiko Hasumi observes the telling gestures that signal "Ozu's angry women," [4] we are exploring precisely the volatile intersection between the characteristic mise en scène moves that make up each auteur's signature and the social codes that (as Comolli frequently says) "prescribe a place" for all subjects, all agents (that's us) in the evolving, everyday world of our specific culture.

This too-brief sketch of a certain trajectory in film criticism is not meant to suggest that the discussion of mise en scène has, in the past, been merely formal (or formalist), and now stands to gain a social consciousness. Quite the contrary: in the hands of a Robin Wood or a Jean-Loup Bourget, film analysis has, for a long time now, profoundly addressed the drama (or comedy) of social identity and historical or cultural meaning, and articulated these concerns with a close attention to film style (which is precisely what advanced them beyond the sociologising tendency in Siegfried Kracauer or Parker Tyler, who tended to rely on glorified plot synopses as their material for study — as Zizek sadly does again today). But social mise en scène zeroes in on something specific: known rituals that are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed. And starkly so, in the case of Ford's How Green Was My Valley.

Six minutes into the film now: a dinner table scene. Could we draw up an entire taxonomy of cinema styles — by genre, auteur, period, nation etc — in terms of how they each depict the social manners "at table"? Ford was very alive to these particular codes; he never stopped observing, staging and remaking them. This scene, in its affectionate and comic way, is devoted to defining or laying out — through minor transgressions — the rules of etiquette of a typical meal time for the Morgan family: everything must wait for the saying of the prayer by the father (Donald Crisp); no one can touch their food before he does; the women of the household (mother and daughter) wait attentively, standing to the side. That much is easy to describe, but the shots, the way they carve out and "impress" these familial hierarchies and divisions in terms of certain views of the house (a house is rarely mere background in Ford) would take a more sustained effort than is possible in this brief text.

Ritual follows upon ritual in this first part of the film: carving the turkey at table; the handing-out of spending money in an adjacent room . always running along a hierarchy of age, and thus of size, placement in the frame, dwarfed by or beginning to impose upon the house . for the body's resistance to space, as that body grows and the person changes, is also crucial in Ford, and indeed it is the very wellsrping of the fiction here. The role of the child, Huw (Roddy McDowall), constantly returned to in his place at the end of the chain, is far more than anecdotal or sentimental; it is literally anchoring for the system of the film's social mise en scène.

Seventeen minutes in, and everything is beginning to change, catastrophically. When Mr. Morgan returns home, it is viewed from a radically different angle, and under a completely different mood of light and posture: no money for the wife, and his sons already waiting, in this tense alcove (it's a violation, in a way, of the appropriate "threshold behavior" previously established via the cap removal), to challenge the political stance he has taken at work.

Two minutes later (things move fast in this film): at table, and one of the sons literally breaks hierarchy by standing up — and another breaks all meal time etiquette by speaking ("with or without your permission," as he makes clear). The effect escalates: all the working-age sons stand up, while the father holds his lonely place at the head of the table. It is a literally upsetting scene: it is the social order of things, that particular side of Ford's mise en scène, which is being tipped over, step by step, detail by detail here. "For the last time, sit down and finish your supper," the father gently pleads. But the following shot confirms the unstoppable breakage of the domestic code: a son inscribed in a low angle against the lines that mark the intersection of three walls. Now they are all standing up — a striking pictorial violation — and now they all exit, up the stairs. The women are still not yet permitted to speak. But the scene ends (as so many scenes in this film do) with the return to Huw the boy, still obediently in his subordinate place, but making just enough noise with his cutlery to insist on a tiny moment of affirmation of him in his place: "Yes, my son, I know you are there." It is the entire social mise en scène of the family home which is at stake — laid out, broken, then a hopeless dream of longing for its historic repair — in the masterful How Green Was My Valley.

Adrian Martin




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