Monday, August 19, 2013

Biases in movie-watching: two views of John Ford (and Kai Po Che)

[Did a version of this for my DNA column]

In an age of nonstop information and opinion-mongering, the cognitive bias called the hostile media effect probably plays a bigger role in our lives than we realise. Essentially, it suggests that if you feel strongly enough about an issue, you will tend to see a news report (or an article, or a film) about that issue as being biased in the opposite direction. It is a common enough phenomenon in sports journalism: a article about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can draw divergent reactions from the respective fan bases, each group claiming with equal conviction (and with an apparent need to feel aggrieved) that the writer hates their favourite player and loves his rival.

The HME often kicks in when films about incendiary subjects are being assessed. Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che! – about three Gujarati boys whose lives are changed by the 2002 communal riots – was an example from earlier this year. Even though I spent relatively little time discussing Kai Po Che! with anyone, I often heard two very contrary accounts of it. The first: this movie is an endorsement of the divisive politics of the Narendra Modi regime. By making a likable character – one of the film’s heroes – participate in anti-Muslim riots after his parents have been murdered in Godhra, it validates the post-Godhra killings and the simmering frustrations of the majority community. The second: this “pseudo-secular” film is unduly sympathetic to the Muslims. It glosses over Godhra (where Hindus were the targets), refusing to show details of the slaughter. But it dwells long and hard on the retaliatory terror unleashed by the Hindutva leaders. (In this context some expressed surprise that it got past the censors at all, despite presenting the riots as carefully planned – which runs contrary to the “official” version of events.)

Personally I thought Kai Po Che! was a clear-eyed view of a time and situation, and a layered coming-of-age film rather than one with an explicit political agenda. (I wrote a bit about it here, and also agree with what Trisha Gupta says here and here.) I’m not suggesting that my cosily “madhyam” view is anything like the final word, or that we should adopt a similar position on every controversial film by claiming that the reactions it draws have nothing to do with the work itself. But I do think this particular film became a test case in the affirmation/rationalisation of deep-rooted fears, and that the responses to it raise many old questions. For instance: should art necessarily set out to be corrective or prescriptive, or is it enough to dispassionately hold a mirror up to the world, even if it means coming across as amoral or nihilistic? And given cinema’s special power to stir emotions, does a well-intentioned filmmaker have a responsibility to make his position as clear as possible – to spell it out for people who need to be spoon-fed – rather than taking the Ivory Tower Artist’s stance that the viewer should be left to work things out for himself?

I don’t think such questions can have a context-free answer – everything depends on cultural vicissitudes, the nature and purpose of the film, the target audience, and so on – but I thought about them again recently while watching one of my favourite John Ford films, the 1948 Fort Apache. This is a movie that has roused very different feelings among critics – something that is also generally true of Ford’s status as the great American cinematic poet and myth-maker, a man who began his career as an extra playing a Ku Klux Klan member in The Birth of a Nation, and went on to construct a large body of work that expresses ambivalent, sometimes contradictory attitudes to subjects such as the treatment of Indians in the Old West.

Set shortly after the American Civil War, Fort Apache centres on the actions of the megalomaniacal Lieutenant Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda in one of his subtlest, most tight-lipped – and most effective – performances). Humourless, a stickler for discipline, clearly bigoted about the Indians, and also class- and hierarchy-conscious within his own society, Thursday repeatedly refuses to listen to the sensible advice of his second-in-command Captain York (John Wayne, also excellent in a role that requires plenty of quietly exasperated reacting). At the end, driven by hubris and lack of regard for the intelligence of others, he dishonours an agreement with the Indians and then drives himself and a band of his men to (a wholly unnecessary) doom.

Whereupon the familiar Fordian role as a consolidator of legends comes into effect. The film ends with York (who defied Thursday when the latter was alive) now doing everything he can to whitewash his former boss’s character for the benefit of visiting newsmen, encouraging them – and history – to remember Thursday as a valiant commander. York’s stance can be seen as a pre-echo of the famous line from a later Ford movie, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

That last scene raised the hackles of a writer I hold in high regard, David Thomson, who has been consistently critical of Ford since the mid-70s, when he published the first edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film. Thomson (who can be unforgiving when he feels a film is operating in its own hermetically sealed universe, refusing to engage with – or show a sense of responsibility to – the real world) sees the ending of Fort Apache as a sentimental and dangerous falsification. Writing about it, he evokes contemporary politics:

Let me make an analogy. It may yet emerge that at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, American forces used torture and other malpractices in interrogating suspects. If that is so, then the truth must come out. There is no kind of Rumsfeldian “code” worthy of being protected. In other words, it is not enough for the film to admit to Thursday’s mistakes quietly while holding to the legend of military duty.
Much as I respect Thomson, I think this is an ungenerous view of Fort Apache. All other things being equal, if this were a contemporary movie that dealt with Abu Ghraib, this is what it would be doing: it would show its viewers the truth (e.g. there were malpractices in interrogation; there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the American invasion was built on deceit and ulterior motives) and then end with a key character proposing that this truth not be revealed because it would be bad for morale, or would go against the grain of patriotism, or whatever.

The thing to be asked then is: are we mature enough as viewers to reject that character’s final action as a prescription for our own attitudes, and to focus instead on what we have unflinchingly been shown in the preceding two hours? What carries greater weight: a closing sequence that appears to simplistically “sum up” the director’s own attitude, or the sensitively depicted series of events through the bulk of the film, where (in the case of Fort Apache) the person who is canonised at the end has been shown as hollow and unlikeable?

Again, these are difficult questions and don’t necessarily have clear answers, but they cut to the heart of the art-life relationship and how to view a film about a polarising subject. I think one can reasonably argue that as the man who put images on a big screen for millions of viewers to see, Ford himself hid nothing in Fort Apache. (As his defenders – the director-critic Peter Bogdanovich among them – have pointed out, although the mythologizing line “Print the legend” is so strongly associated with his cinema, the director himself did print “the truth” both here and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) In his book Searching for John Ford, which I’ve been reading on and off in recent weeks, Joseph McBride points to the fatalistic subtleties in Fort Apache’s construction, including the fact that at the end the benevolent York is in the same position that the power-mad Thursday was once in, and the framing and composition emphasise that the “ordinary” soldiers are casualties of conflict, pawns being manipulated by their superiors.

Here one should point out that even Ford detractors usually concede that Fort Apache was among the first Hollywood features to present Indians in a sympathetic light and to introspect about their treatment. It is a film of warmth, humanity and generosity of spirit, qualities that repeatedly show up the bullheaded coldness of Colonel Thursday: I love the many scenes that show the interrelationships in the army camp, including those between soldiers and their wives, mothers and sons. (His reputation as a “director of Westerns” notwithstanding, Ford was so good at doing a range of comedy scenes – from understated comedy of manners involving people who are trying hard to be “civilised”, to broad folk humour involving those who couldn’t give a rat’s arse.) And that humanity certainly does stretch to the “Other”. There are Ford films that are harder to take to one’s heart, films whose motives might be more validly questioned and critiqued. I don’t think Fort Apache is one of them. But then again, maybe I have a cognitive bias of my own here – I loved that film long before I thought seriously about its politics.

P.S. Just realised that the two film discussed here both end with “che”. Completely coincidental – this wasn’t intended as a crossed-connections post.

P.P.S. Speaking of contemporary politics, similar questions did of course arise around Zero Dark Thirty, which drew pro-torture allegations. More on that here.


  1. Very interesting piece, Jai!
    I loved how you spelled out your questions and sort of let them hang in the air.
    I've grappled quite a lot with the issues around the portrayal of women in cinema, and wondered which depictions/styles/motives condone or ignore male chauvinism. I realized too that each case must be placed in its context, and even then answers may not emerge. I think acknowledging the complexity of the questions may well be the most important step in a resolution of some kind.

  2. hahaha, and neither of them have a Che Guevara connection. That begs the question- Was Che Guevara of Gujarati ancestry?

  3. Apoorva: thanks. And yes, needless to say, some of the questions mentioned here are applicable in other contexts, including the many conversations and arguments that have been happening over misogyny in cinema. If you have written something on the subject - even if only informally - do share.

    Rahul: I suspect there's a Bengali joke involving "ki hocche" waiting to be told here, but I can't think of it.

  4. Interesting. I had similar questions myself while watching Ishaqzaade (and to a lesser extent, Cocktail) which set up a terrific heroine, only to have society annihilate her in the second half. In both cases, the directors responded to accusations of sexism with the argument that they were only depicting society. I, however , feel there is a difference in saying “I am depicting prejudices on society, some of which may reside in me” and saying “Here I am, holding up a perfect mirror to society”. No filmmaker/author can be a perfect mirror after all, they view the world with their own prism and are the gods of the universe they create, with their own sets of morality. I think this is especially true of Hindi films, which tend to follow a traditional narrative conclusion, with justice/injustice meted out to the deserving and not so deserving respectively at the end – a film climax, is essentially a Judgement day for most following the traditional narrative.

    Also, I think a filmmaker is justified in saying “Look, this is MY narrative, not a comment on society”. But when we as viewers step out and take the macro view, if we see a dominant narrative emerging, what does that tell us about the society and its filmmakers?

  5. Here one should point out that even Ford detractors usually concede that Fort Apache was among the first Hollywood features to present Indians in a sympathetic light and to introspect about their treatment

    Yep. As I've mentioned elsewhere in one of your blogposts, Fort Apache was a "revisionist western" before critics started coining these fancy words.

    However I am not sure Ford ever had an agenda to sympathize or critique any group. He is too old-world and common-sense driven man to do that sort of thing! Here's a man who can do Fort Apache in 1948 and then do a Searchers in 1956. He expects mature viewers not to see a contradiction here. Sadly most viewers/critics are not mature enough.

    Yes. Indians were ill-treated. Yes. Indians were also often barbarian and uncivilized. So were several "white" adventurers. There's no contradiction here. A man like Ford who was born in the 19th cen and much closer to America's past than us understands this nuance very well. Unlike a cosmopolitan Brit like Thomson.

  6. In other words, it is not enough for the film to admit to Thursday’s mistakes quietly while holding to the legend of military duty

    The film is not in the business of "admitting" mistakes or passing judgments on people/cultures. It's simply a story. You are free to take away what you want from it. It's amazing how a man like Thomson can't grasp this.

    It's interesting how politics can skew the judgments of very fine commentators. Thanks to the 60s and all the left-wing counter-culture of that decade, generations of Americans have grown up with a jaundiced view of their history.

    People want to believe that a bunch of white men landed from Europe on the East coast and started massacring every Indian in sight. That's not what happened! The making of America in 18th/19th cen involved decades of coexistence and intermingling as well as trade between the white man and the Indian interspersed with violence. The reason why the white man's culture eventually prevailed was not because he was especially cruel or cunning, but because he happened to belong to a more advanced civilization.

  7. As with life, so with films. I wonder why some people find condemning the Godhra train burning as defending what happened later. One has to put disclaimers before saying that Godhra train burning was also hurtful and indefensible. I do not support Narendra Modi, I think his culpability is more than those who burnt the train but that doesn't mean that the killing of passengers in that train even as it may have be an impromptu act of hatred (and not a preplanned one) should never be brought up in discussions.

    Your post is very honest and clinical (in a good way).


  8. Very good and interesting
    Shirish Mehta.

  9. Very interesting discussion with no simple answer :-). Should the creator of a art be held accountable for the results of his produce (so should the bands whose songs have to violence be allowed to wash their hands off the whole thing) ? Do we place art / creation of something worthwhile above everything else? does the quality of the end product excuse the bad intentions behind the creation? I would say that the artist has the right to create what he wants and we have the right to criticise / trash / appreciate what we want.

    I agree with your point about hostile media effect. I observe it all the time when I am watching sports and I feel the whole world ( Journalists, commentators, presenters) are biased idiots conspiring against my team. But you must agree that there is some truth to it as well with some rabid , biased and agenda laden journalism.