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The Searchers – Dismantled

Ross Gibson

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Every now and then, I delve in my files to puzzle over an essay called ‘Sunspots’ by Fereydoun Hoveyda. Each time, I marvel at how it’s beautiful and strange, possibly meaningless, possibly brilliant.

Using image-ideas not customary in conventional European aesthetics, Hoveyda explains that cinema works best when it captures and channels an ever-unfolding force that runs through the spaces and temporal rhythms of a film and also through the audience in the dark room. When a film really works, he explains, some kind of energy pulses coherently in space, in time and in people so that the animus of a scene flares through all the components of an individual shot and then arcs like electricity from shot to shot, from moment to moment, from screen to audience and back again. The rhythms and melody-lines (visual as well as sonic) all generate a charge that carries, excites and transforms every part of the film: characters, objects, spaces, luminance, time-patterns and viewers all get altered as the dynamics play out. The result is pantheistic somehow. When a film lights up like this, a world of energy is harnessed, swirling around us and through us. In front of the cinema screen, we are sometimes bathed and buffeted by a force that’s vital like the sun. Hence the name of Hoveyda’s essay.


1. See Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma, 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 135-145.



  Originally published in 1960, ‘Sunspots’ has been salvaged from obscurity by Jim Hillier’s anthology of Cahiers du cinéma, 1960 - 68. (1) When I first encountered it as a postgraduate philosophy student during the 1980s, I thought: ‘Maybe it’s a con, a parlour game staged by one of the Cahiers insiders under cover of an extravagant nom de plume.’ But I thought too that it had a palpable sincerity, that it was propelled by an ardent intellect and an avid emotion, that it fizzed with a yearning for the power that courses through movies. I sensed how the author revered radiance and really wanted to know kinetic luminance, to be with the dynamics that define cinema. I remember thinking, ‘maybe it’s some kind of mystical text, a Sufi thing perhaps, a sparkling mystery designed to riddle some realisation slowly out from my bewilderment’. That thought passed through me momentarily until, youngster that I was, I let some other notion take me elsewhere.  



Even so, I keep coming back to ‘Sunspots’. And I’ve learned a little about Hoveyda. How he was indeed a Cahiers insider, but not with a nom de plume. How it’s probably true that a mystical charge is the main topic of his essay. (Whether this charge is Sufi at all, I’m not qualified to say.)

Hoveyda was the son of a diplomat and he would eventually become a celebrated Arabic philosopher, metaphysician and historian. In the secular domain, he would be appointed Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations; and his older brother Amir Abbas Hoveyda would be Prime Minister in the Shah’s regime prior to being executed in 1979 during the fundamentalist ructions. But political power and its searing outbursts would come later. Back at the time of writing ‘Sunspots’, the younger Hoveyda was living in Paris, studying aesthetics while working on the editorial board of Cahiers du cinéma and developing an enduring friendship and professional partnership with Roberto Rossellini.


2. Maxim Gorky, ‘Newspaper review of the Lumiere programme at the Nizhni-Novgorod fair, Nizhegorodski listok, 4 July, 1896’, anthologised in Colin Harding and Simon Popple (eds.), In the Kingdom of Shadows: A Companion to Early Cinema (London: Cygnus Arts, 1996), pp. 5 – 6.   As for the elemental energies that Hoveyda brought so lucidly into focus, actually they’ve always been in cinema. When the Lumière Brothers set up their first films in the 1890s, viewers flocked to the screenings when they heard, among the chatter of reports, some amazing accounts of trees! Maxim Gorky, for example, was disturbed by the way some kind of ghost-power seemed to shiver the leaves. (2) Framed aloft in the dark, the trees appeared to be oddly alive. For Gorky, cinema offered life in spectral form. He saw not an intensification or clarification, but a leached trace of natural vitality. It worried him. However, it galvanised him too; the vivacity of his writing betrays him. All the things moving on the screen, they were like kindred creatures signalling to the human beings in the darkened room, as if the screen were transmitting a fellow-feeling that jumped out of the trees, across the auditorium, into the audience, and back again. In such a world, all things with movement in them might be considered siblings somehow. If city-folk had lost the ability to sense such animism, this cinematograph might bring them back to the mysteries. Perhaps cinema, which Gorky called ‘the kingdom of shadows’, was too savage for him. Or too pagan. But he couldn’t stop himself confessing how engaging it was.  



At cinema’s inception, many people felt they had access to a quickened world, one they had lost but could recognise as kindred to them as soon as they saw it jittering above and through them. No longer, when observing pictures, were viewers simply assaying objects or locations awaiting annexation. Rather, witnesses to this new art were encountering a world flaring out against darkness, a world that was protean, spirited and wondrous, perhaps even sacred and not entirely tractable. From its earliest moments, cinema offered an entry-point to a mentality different from the objectivity that has governed Western reality for several centuries. Not affirmative of a stable, nominalist world, cinema came as a cult for shape-shifters. Right from the start, it was animated by that radiant energy which Hoveyda would later evoke so well in his metaphor of the transformative sunspot.

In recent times, the practice of ecology has helped us understand how an interconnecting energy might weave through space and time so that the definitions of what is inert and what is alive must undergo extensive redefinition. Many cultures give spirit-names to an animating force that binds places, things and rhythms into the lively world. Hoveyda hinted at spiritualism when, like an astro-physicist priest, he suggested that the cinema screen in the auditorium resembles the sun in deep space, its energy boiling on the surface and surging into the dark ambit, altering everything that has light in it or on it.




3. Robert Bresson (1975), Notes on the Cinematographer (London: Quartet, 1986), pp. 12, 25, 9 & 82 respectively.


Robert Bresson regarded cinema similarly. Filmmaking is a process of binding ‘persons to each other and to objects by looks’, he asserted in his gnostic Notes on the Cinematographer. When a film is working well for Bresson, the world portrayed seems alive and radiant because every element of the film ‘clings’ to ‘knots’ of ‘force’ and ‘security’ which get generated all the time the celluloid is running through the projector. A resonant power is produced, as if the film-strip combines with the projector to form a fusion-reactor: ‘an image [can be] transformed by contact with other images as is a colour by contact with other colours’. Bresson declared that there can be ‘no art without transformation’. He made a note to himself. ‘Your images will release their phosphorous only in aggregating.’ (3)

I’ve tarried awhile with Hoveyda and Bresson so they can help this big idea dawn: a movie can build up a luminous charge, like some phosphorescent transformer energising the world of space, light, sound and time. The screen is no mere lodgement for the things represented on it. Rather, it is an energy field. And every thing engaged on and by the screen can get transformed so that each thing represented there can be known as no longer a self-contained object but a sensate and inter-connected part of a flowing system of energy. The screen offers pulses of light and movement, after all. Energy.




Irradiated thus, consciousness can alter and expand radically during a movie. I mean all consciousness – of the entire represented world, not just the viewer. The screen receives and generates energy over time. This energy affects every thing it plays upon, every thing represented on the screen and every thing in the auditorium. Such is the allure of cinema: it engrosses us in its force-field; it helps us feel a volatile but coherent world surging through our nervous systems; it transmogrifies us at the core and at the edges of what we think to be our selves.

Hoveyda’s essay is a lens into the extraordinary intellectual world of French film culture during the 1960s, a world informed by great ethnographers like Jean Rouch and Claude Levi-Strauss, a world accommodating many ‘Eastern’ strands of aesthetics, a world fascinated by ‘otherness’, magic, eros and violence. (Note how Jean Vigo, Georges Bataille and Alexandre Kojève were so influential on the defining intellectuals of this time.) A product of this era, ‘Sunspots’ shows how a rich and rigorous current of mysticism infuses the wonderment and sensuous satisfaction that defines great movies.



4. See, David Mowaljarlai and Jutta Malnic, Yorro Yorro: Everything Standing Up Alive (Broome: Magabala Books, 1993); Bernard Cache, Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories (Boston: MIT Press, 1995).


Which brings me, at last, to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Taking Hoveyda’s ideas, and sensing how they resonate with some other practical metaphysics that I’ve been reading lately (for instance, David Mowaljarlai and Bernard Cache), (4) I want to assay the extraordinary power in the opening minutes of Ford’s masterpiece, to understand the odd spell it casts through me every time I become part of it.

So, I’ll talk us through the opening minutes now. I’ll use myself as an experimental specimen. Watch what happens to me.




Roll the film.

First there is a symphonic blast from an orchestra, a couple of frames ahead of the Warner Bros logo. The noise and the logo mark a border, making a kind of heraldic declaration: ‘For this session, your film consciousness starts here and now’. Then I get the credits. And the song, intoning ‘what makes a man to wander?’ I’m being eased out of the workaday world that I brought into the room. The song lulls me, lets me loosen my focus, lets me wander just a little till all the credits do the business and the lyrics tail out: ‘RIDE AWAY ... RIDE away ... ride away.’

Then blackness.

Then a single white title on black: ‘TEXAS 1868’.

Then blackness again, as the title fades off.

Fleetingly I realise that the sequence has taken on the rhythm of a person blinking.

Then, continuing that rhythm, a patch of whiteness intrudes again on the blackness, while I take a slippery moment to understand that I am now seeing a door being unlatched like an opening eye. I am seeing from inside a dark room which looks out on to a landscape so bright and stark that I keep on blinking.

In the door frame, there’s a woman, silhouetted, who looks out from the eye of the room. Then comes a tracking drift forward toward the door and across the threshold, out to the liminal porch as the woman moves as if she’s pulled outside by a force slightly stronger than the combined propulsion of her own walking and the implied push of the dollying camera. A startling play of forces contend at the door frame: wind ruffles her clothing; light pours in towards me; she stutter-steps forward; the camera half-follows/half-propels her out to the porch until she and I sense that the landscape has managed to hold her, more than equalling the power of the camera, momentarily. Indeed the camera seems to acknowledge this and it stops its push forward, with the effect that after all this blinking, pulsing, breathy buffeting, pushing and pulling, after the mess of all this organic effort ... everything pauses in a tense, elastic balance. She stops and the camera stops as if it has surrendered her, while she halts and looks out and the wind plays all over her edges, as if to signal that this stillness is not stoppage but just a moment in which restless movement changes rather than ceases.




Time out.

Let’s stop the film awhile. For we need to take stock of this initial shot.

After examining this sequence countless times over the years, I know that just about everything The Searchers has to offer gets presaged in the first shot. The whole film is given to us, not as a set of themes or meanings, but as a system of power-oscillations back and forth between the incursive and the indigenous, the built and the given, the imposed and the impounded. Ford will spend the rest of the film teasing all this out. But he gives us the major sensations of his movie, cryptically, in his first camera set-up.

When running a film in a dark classroom, I often call out, asking the students to ask themselves, ‘Who or what is looking right now? Who or what is listening right now?’ I ask also, ‘What confluent forces are shaping the scene right now, what’s making everything tend in a particular direction?’ It takes the students awhile to sense what we’re trying to find: I’m asking them to divine a kind of organised, shape-shifting spirit moving through the film and through them.

Let’s put these questions to the first shot of The Searchers.

Note how I kept talking about the camera following and looking? Well, that was me avoiding the spooky issue, which is ... the camera is really just a device serving something else that’s doing the looking. Yes, it’s me – the viewer, served by the camera – doing the looking. But already the film has turned me into something other than myself. This is the spooky thing. No matter how worrying it might be, I have to keep insisting: who or what is looking and listening?

We’ll get to an answer before too long. But first let’s just keep the question ticking over in the background while I set The Searchers running again.




The second shot is a tight reverse. It lets me look at the woman and at the windowed wall of the cabin (this wall-eyed cabin) behind her. On the steps of the porch, the camera is still attached to the cabin, I surmise, and the landscape is at my back, feeling ominously present behind me. So, from these steps on the porch, the camera looks at her looking. She is still buffeted by the wind and by the light and she holds on to a stanchion while she raises her left hand in a balancing gesture that also affords her some shade. She’s awash in all kinds of energy. And some of it is tamped inside her, ready to pour out. I can see that.

I ask myself, who or what is looking right now? Well, it’s no human character that I’ve met. It’s the film itself, possibly. But that’s too glib. In this shot offered from the steps, the looking thing is rhythmically related to whatever was looking in the first shot. I feel this relationship because of a continuity that flows across the edit from the first shot to the second. This continuity, which has been sustained by the music and the wind, tells me that the entity looking is the same in each shot, despite the radically different perspectives availed by the camera. This entity is extensive; it is large and contains multitudes.

Then comes the third shot, from a new place on the porch: looking out toward the sunlight, I get a full view of a landscape with a horseman approaching in the middle distance. I see how the wind keeps agitating. I see the wind working on a blanket slung across a tethering rail that marks the edge of the cabin’s precinct in the lower foreground.

Next, looking back to the cabin, from the steps again, I see people start to come out of the front room, as if drawn out by the landscape but also as if wilfully disgorged by the cabin. Something palpable pushes out from the cabin and through me as I feel caught between the forces defining the cabin and the forces defining the landscape. These contending dynamics move me and move through me. As this feeling registers, three more people ooze out from the cabin. A dog comes out too, on to the porch. Then another person. It is as if the cabin has chosen to mobilise all these emissaries in response to the stimulus of the landscape and the horseman. The dog starts barking.

Still on the porch, but from an entirely new camera set-up, I get a mid-shot view of the dog. Then with the sound of the dog still barking, I get a view which might be from the perspective of the dog, but it might also be from any or all of the human characters who have been spirited out of the cabin. And from this camera-vantage, I see that John Wayne has brought his character, Ethan, to the steps of the porch.

I see looks and handshakes exchanged. All this is viewed from camera set-ups on the porch.

Then there’s a wide shot, from out in the landscape, looking back to the cabin from the ‘wild’ side of the tethering-rail. I feel this cut like something shocking, thrilling and threatening. It’s a major development. For the first time, I’m clearly detached from the cabin, and it feels hugely significant, panicky in its importance. This sense of panic flickers half-formed in me, before the camera bumps me back to the more comforting porch-step position and frames a close view of the cabin. I thank the film for this return of sanctuary. Oddly, I feel I have come back to myself.

Now, from the porch-steps, I see and feel a sequence that’s flat-out astonishing. As the woman keeps her eyes on Ethan, she backs into the cabin, through the door and into its interior. Ethan moves forward, as if drawn by powers stronger than him. Everyone else, including the dog, does the same. Ineluctably, it seems, the cabin takes everyone into itself.

To show this, the camera has rebounded, with a hard cut, back out into the country. From out on the wild edge of the landscape, out where I’ve just had that sudden feeling of disturbing detachment, I see the cabin reclaim its settlers and I feel how keen I am to be drawn back in there too. I feel it like an organic flex in myself, as if I crave to be part of the cabin, as if I have rights and responsibilities over every thing in the cabin. Now that this intruder Ethan has come amidst us and now that the film has buffeted my edges, I feel the need to find myself again. And I realise, with a shock that is vertiginous and organic every time I see the film ... I realise that I have become the cabin! The cabin is myself. All the camera set-ups and edits have built and braced me so. And it’s a living thing, this cabin; it’s pulsing, blinking, remembering. It has worldly compulsions coursing through it. It is not an inert object. It is a being in a large system of assertive needing and wanting. I know this because I have felt what it feels, and I have felt my need for it. I have felt a spirit-possession of sorts; I’ve been mildly inculcated to an animistic realm, a world where every thing is a live thing.

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.

This is the finish of the prelude, the film in cryptic miniature. Next there’s a lengthy interior sequence in which it becomes clearer and clearer that if the walls could speak they would tell of a painful and only partially acknowledged yearning between Ethan and the woman. Only three characters know this: the woman, Ethan and the cabin. How achingly the cabin knows it. How nobly the cabin keeps its knowledge. Indeed, how nobly the cabin does its many different keeping tasks. It keeps coolness and shaded ease safe against the hot glare of the landscape; it keeps a spectrum of colours in balance – blues against reds – as it arrays a comforting space for all these folks surviving not only the abrasions of the landscape but also (we glean this knowledge from conversations) the recent ructions of the Civil War. The cabin keeps domestic stillness counterpoised against natural wildness and political malevolence. The cabin knows everything that has passed amongst this tiny, vulnerable colony. And I know this too, because I have been allowed to be the cabin. I don’t know it cerebrally so much as nervously, as a series of blinking, pulsing emotions, anxieties and affections all infused within the cabin. I feel a real affection – self-love I suppose – for its timber and stone, for the table, the stove, for the spaces of conviviality that it offers to all the desiring characters who are sluicing around inside it. I feel the cabin’s organic completeness, its sensitivity.

This is why I will feel something like a nervous collapse at the first narrative turning-point a few minutes later, when the cabin and most of its humans are destroyed by the Comanche raid.

Each time I witness the raid, I feel it with an electrical distress that justifies my allegiance, for a while, to the berserker vengeance of Ethan. The nervous shock I feel when the cabin gets destroyed impels me into the film, to ride along with my blood up, accompanying Ethan, until I finally realise, sixty minutes in, that he is insane, that I have to find or make another consciousness to lead me to another morality – not Comanche and not Ethan – that might guide me through this tragedy of a stolen country. Over the duration of the entire film I experience an ethical flow from naïve affection, to blood-simple revenge, to analytical reflection to personal conjecture. This is the greatness of The Searchers: it is an active and activating system of urges all organised toward the creation of an ethical code which is not clearly signposted at the start. The film just propels me toward this unguided spot. There is no point of moral stasis (other than Ford’s overwhelming affirmation of the basic goodness of generous love, perhaps) pinning the film down treatise-like. I am not propelled toward one unarguable standpoint. Rather the film puts me in motion, tipping me into its moral turbulence and setting my passions in contention with my reason. Over a couple of hours, the film lets me know a world that’s neither ‘Western’ nor ‘indigenous’, that’s both animistic and objective, that’s ancient and entirely contemporary and always under construction.

All the transformations that the film works on me, they push me toward new knowledge, but it’s a knowledge that looms in my sentiments before it registers in my intellect. Only afterwards, when I’m enthralled, puzzled and reflective, only then can I bring some of these sensations into cognition. This is not to say the film is ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ particularly, but it is certainly not Cartesian!

Which brings me back to the metaphysics I’ve been reading while getting ready to display my Searchers mania in public like this. Perhaps the most ‘visionary’ has been by David Mowaljarlai, who spent the final twenty years of his life creating a spiritual system – pragmatic, ethical, ecological – that he was determined to communicate to non-indigenous Australians. This system was based on ritual knowledge stored in his country in northwestern Australia and it was enlivened by his bold decision to share portions of this knowledge more broadly than they had ever been transmitted before.


5. See David Mowaljarlai, ABC Radio Feature, The Law Report, Tuesday 31st October, 1995 <>

  Reasoning that the colonial invasions have brought fundamental change to such a degree that the indigenous systems need to change too, Mowaljarlai asserts that the country has psychic, social, geological and botanical life all synthesised into a vitality that guides a person to sensible actions. Literally sensible. Mowaljarlai describes how he can feel the presence (or not), the valence (or not), the direction (or dissipation) of this vitality and how he can act in communion with it. He can find spots in space and moments in time where the urgency in country is intensified, where this force signals most emphatically. He senses the land’s animus ‘swinging’ around him. (5) He can attune to it through cultural work, through ritual tale-telling and remembering, making events and structures that frame and intensify the force – marking the ground, lodging painted figures in caves, determining sightlines to other sacred zones, bouncing sound off cliff-faces. In other words, he arranges a mise en scène of country and from that mise en scène he gets cues for action, taking direction from the scene, on the understanding that countless ancestors have already fashioned it into a kind of energy-generator.  

6. See particularly ‘Oscillation’, Chapter 9 of Earth Moves.




7. Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Chaos, Territory, Art’, Keynote Lecture at the INSIDEOUT Conference hosted by IDEA (Interior Designers/Interior Architecture Educators Association), Melbourne, April 22, 2005. This lecture will be published in IDEA Journal 2005 (forthcoming)


.8. Dylan Thomas (1934), poem entitled ‘The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’, included in Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934 – 1952 (London: Dent, 1966).






Mowaljarlai and Hoveyda would have understood portions of each other’s beliefs. Ditto Bernard Cache when he describes how architecture is best understood as a system of frames and folds which channel the continuous flow of time and space through each other, integrating all the materials, surfaces, sheets of light, vaults of air and volumes of sound that are ready to resonate in any environment. (6) Amplifying Cache’s provocations, Elizabeth Grosz has suggested that architecture might be usefully regarded as the primary art, because it establishes frames that concentrate nature’s dynamics – the sill of a door that makes a floor distinct from the ground, the soffit that emphasises the shelter of a roof against a wall, the frame forming a window, a directional cairn of stones that’s been set down to show how to bring a river to you when you make tracks through a savannah. Grosz describes architecture as a process whereby one renders space lively by harnessing and organising the tendencies that are abroad in the territory that is being constructed. (7) It is doing for space what social history and personal memory do for time – providing gravitas and momentum. And it’s close to Hoveyda’s vision of cinema’s irradiated universe.

So, to sum up and to let you go back to the film … The pulse detected by Mowaljarlai, Cache and Grosz accords with the liveliness I feel when I am the cabin in The Searchers. Dylan Thomas once wrote of his yearning to catch ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. (8) This feels almost right for what John Ford marshals in The Searchers, except that we need a metaphor with more blood and heat in it. For, a pressed brew of corpuscular red is contained by the cabin. There’s colonialism and the clash of incursive and indigenous consciousness; there’s domesticity contending with the hunter’s depredations; masculinity at odds with femininity; desire unrelenting despite repression and distraction; passion and reason disturbing each other; conciliation rankling with vengeance. All these forces make the vitality of the cabin. Because the cabin has moved through me and made me as I’ve felt the flowing construction of The Searchers, and because the cabin is the first creature killed in the film, I know in my nerves the drama of America, founded as it is on violence, maintained as it is in blood, burned as it is by all the flaring energy that assails it, inside and out, all through time.

I understand at last that this is what it is The Searchers lets me feel, cryptically: America. The cabin is me and the cabin is America. The beast itself, pulsing, breathing, wanting. Vulnerable as it is vital. Mad as it is visionary. America. In 1956 and forever after. Always poised to be dismembered and dismantled even as it gets created. Even as it tries to re-make the entire world in its own image.


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