The Searcher

Joseph McBride's landmark biographies and the craft of film scholarship
by Paul Brunick  posted February 22, 2011
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A recent item in The Guardian announced that Orson Welles’s unfinished final project The Other Side of the Wind was at last “set for release.” The announcement was immediately republished to several dozen news sites, few of which bothered to confirm the expansive claims of the article’s lone source (a lawyer representing Jacqueline Boushehri, widow of the film’s backer) nor subsequently to update their posts when another rights holder, co-writer and star Oja Kodar, publicly stated she had been misrepresented.

This systemic lack of fact-checking in entertainment journalism—and the ease with which strategic lies and self-serving myths are pawned off as historical truth—is an issue all too familiar to Joseph McBride, the author of three doorstop biographies recently reissued by the University Press of Mississippi: Searching for John Ford; Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success; and Steven Spielberg: A Biography (the last updated through the present). McBride has been one of the leading scholars of Hollywood since his years as a student repertory programmer at University of Wisconsin-Madison, a course of study capped off with an informal education by the cinema’s most infamous fabulist, Welles himself, who offered the youthful enthusiast a leading role in The Other Side of the Wind.

In the halcyon years of late-’60s cinephilia, McBride’s expressed preference for studio-era touchstones over contemporary art-house fare was somewhat unfashionable, but itmust have given this clean-cut and very serious young man a certain hip-to-be-square, echt-auteurist cachet. While co-writing with Michael Wilmington what could have been the first book-length monograph on Ford in English (had years of publisher disinterest not cost them that status), the then recent graduate headed to Hollywood to interview the director. “I didn’t tell him anything!” Ford later bragged of the one-hour meeting, which by all accounts went much like the colorful barking session Peter Bogdanovich memorialized in Directed by John Ford that same year. At the time, Bogdanovich had directed only one work, Targets, a lean exploitation film that slipped under the radars of most critics but developed a small cult following that happened to include McBride. It was through contact with Bogdanovich that McBride came to Welles— at an opportune moment when casting issues left the director looking for a new Mister Pister, a character that (playfully? caustically?) caricatures the obsessive fandom of auteurist acolytes. “My role was a total buffoon, the most obsessed, obnoxious film buff,” McBride said of his bizarro doppelgänger in a Bright Lights interview. “I would follow the John Huston character around and ask endless questions. Which I actually tended to do in those days. I was a little intense.”

McBride may have since mellowed out, but he’s kept up the endless questions, a habit abundantly in evidence in his epically researched and meticulously sourced biographies. These books are—and will likely remain—the authoritative accounts of their subjects’ lives. Whatever one’s opinion of McBride’s funtionally prosaic style or evaluative judgments, the baseline achievement of these unauthorized accounts—correcting factual inaccuracies and subjecting outsize legends to historical scrutiny—makes it significantly easier for other critics to do their jobs. A few additional words on their means and motive makes for a useful object lesson in the craft of film scholarship.

While it’s easy to remember a time when Spielberg was reflexively attacked as an infantilizing and manipulative hegemon (actually, that caricature still surfaces today), it’s harder to convey how critically unfashionable Ford was at the end of his career, now that he is revered as a national treasure. But when McBride began his first book on Ford in 1969, most left-leaning cinephiles reviled the director for his politics (Goldwater, Nixon, Vietnam) and aesthetics (“bourgeois” classicism). Reciprocally, when McBride began research on the biography that would debunk much of Capra’s self-aggrandizing memoir The Name Above the Title (a work that critic Elliott Stein has classified as “auto-hagiography”), he was also demystifying the passionate cult of personality that had woven itself around the director. This was much more than admiration for a few screwball comedies or a sentimental fondness for seasonal broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life; it was a collective cultural project that elevated Capra to a level approaching national myth, a lived affirmation of our naturally wholesome values, irrepressible love of freedom, and multiethnic democratic harmony.

If the Capra work is the only McBride biography that can be described as revisionist, each of his long-running critical engagements originated in the spirit of corrective interjections. Much of film commentary amounts to so much piling on: polished thesaurus-jobs that heap additional praise on pantheon artists, political condemnations that retrace familiar lines of ideological critique. But McBride has said he writes the books that he’d most like to read but don’t yet exist—a small distinction that makes a big difference.

His early essays, animated by the polemical energy of auteurism, were amateur criticism in the best sense, fueled by personal enthusiasm and a direct engagement with the work. As a professional book writer who’s operated outside the university for most of his life (he now teaches at San Francisco State University), McBride rises above breezy star worship yet avoids the academic cant and elaborate meta-methodologies that blight a lot of film scholarship.

As auteurism laid the groundwork for film studies departments, it provided a ready-made canon of filmmakers (see Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema) but its freewheeling criticism left the emerging discipline with a contextual vacuum. As an adjunct to English departments, there emerged a minority tradition of film scholarship that derived from literary New Criticism, neatly separating real-world auteurs from their “textual constructs” to focus on intrinsic formal analysis. Mostly, however, there was an awful lot of semiotics, a school whose wholesale importation of (post-)structuralist linguistics inspired decades of the most rhetorically acrobatic analyses ever written (in stark contrast to McBride’s unfailingly prosaic style). Advocating an anti-psychological, social constructionist theory of authorship (while remaining incongruously preoccupied with individual auteurs), film studies semioticians devalued biographical criticism as so much “anecdotal” uselessness. Based on McBride’s scattershot attacks on a “self-appointed elite” of vaguely “Marxist” scholars, it seems he has as little patience or interest in their work as they do in his. But in McBride’s empirically based work, bigger, theoretical issues progressively materialize through successions of small anecdotes, much like the image in a photomontage. The analytical abstractions that so preoccupied the totalizing, top-down practice of critical theory (e.g. authorship, identity, social and material determinism) emerge in McBride’s biographies as organic extensions of his bottom-up approach.

This is not immediately apparent. When McBride writes of the “subterranean cunning” in Ford’s films—the “artistic expression [that] emanated from secret, fiercely guarded places,” which makes the work “a study of almost Talmudic complexity”—he is articulating an approach that Roland Barthes dismissed as “theological criticism” in his influential post-structuralist essay “The Death of the Author”: “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.” Or take this book’s very title, Searching for John Ford, which suggests both a quest for the traces of individual expression in an industrially determined body of work and an attempt to pin down the psychology of a man so fiercely secretive he often seemed a stranger to his own family. The title evokes a metaphorical extension of the “enigma”-game that Foucault (another theory heavyweight) critiqued in “What Is an Author?”: “If a text should be discovered in a state of anonymity—whether as a consequence of an accident or the author's explicit wish—the game becomes one of rediscovering the author. Since literary anonymity is not tolerable, we can accept it only in the guise of an enigma.”

Yet even if we accept the semioticians’ narrowly defined standards of critical sophistication, McBride’s works are in no way naïve. “Much about Ford’s life is contradictory,” he writes. “Accepting that [it] didn’t always cohere took me a long time and was part of what finally helped me learn how to explain who he was.” A man with almost schizophrenic mood swings, given to generous sentimentality and impulsive moments of sadism, who irregularly binge-drank to the point where coherent thought was blotted out, John Ford seems like an object lesson on the radical discontinuity of the self. McBride’s deconstruction of Capra’s fanciful autobiography (as well as the liberal-humanist persona the director assumed in the ’70s to better ingratiate himself to the film buffs behind his critical resurgence) is a fascinating case study in the “performative” dimensions of personal identity. McBride’s argument that Capra came to narrate his own life as if it were a plot from his films uncannily parallels Barthes’s description of Proust: “By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model.”

The unexpected congruence between McBride’s biographies and semiotic theories of authorship derives ultimately from his emphasis on the collaborative nature of film production. When he critiques the Capra-coined “one man, one film” philosophy as unchecked egotism disguised as artistic integrity, he is arguing that the films must be seen as a discontinuous patchwork of multiple “voices” (screenwriters, studio heads, cinematographers, source novelists, stables of actors), which downgrades the author to a “more or less passive sounding board,” sometimes more, sometimes less. (Considering the necessary insistence with which McBride restores credit to Capra’s neglected collaborators, he might well have called his book The Names Below the Title.)

McBride’s sustained assault on Capra’s self-aggrandizing distortions is much more than a personal attack; as Time critic Richard Corliss said, it is a “700-page deconstruction of auteurism.” The Ford biography, in turn, is ultimately “about” studio classicism as a mode of artistic production. The Spielberg biography is “about” the critical standing of a populist entertainer in the decades after auteurism was thought to have nullified the stigma of genre production and commercial success. Thus each work transcends its particular subject to articulate a larger critical-historical issue, transforming biography into a genre of intellectual history.

Someday, perhaps, a version of The Other Side of the Wind will be given a theatrical release, and we will all get to see Joseph McBride in his debut role. Though I’ve no idea what kind of performance he turned in, I suspect it will prove to be one of the cases when we can fairly declare: the books are much better. 

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Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride on the set of The Other Side of the Wind
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THE AUTHOR

Paul Brunick is a contributing editor to Film Comment magazine. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slant, and indieWire.

More articles by Paul Brunick