Landscape in Paradigms


Booth Wilson


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Accompanying text

This video reorganizes images from John Ford’s films made in Monument Valley based on the particular geological landmarks there. A journey through the area using Google Earth conveys its cinematic possibilities, Ford’s visual approach to employing them, and the abundant thematic connections among the films.


John Ford’s Westerns are responsible for turning Monument Valley, an area on the Utah-Arizona border little-known outside of the Navajo community, into a major tourist destination. For decades filmmakers have included it as a sly postmodern quip or lazy shorthand for the Western genre (actually few studio-era westerns were shot there, most of them Ford’s). Today, images of its distinct mesas saturate our media environment. It is perhaps no surprise that they appear in the title sequence of of HBO’s recent hit Westworldbut TV viewers can also spot them in a recent commercial for a blood thinner. This sublime landscape has been reduced to a cliché that must be defamiliarized to be appreciated.

Monument Valley’s cinematic possibilities also raise a fundamental question about how the medium conveys an environment. What is the “atmosphere” that directors seek when they take a film out of the studio, sometimes at great expense? What visual payoff do they get for the time and energy expended? And if the purpose of natural settings is to create visual novelty, why would Ford return to the same place again and again? This project began when I started to use Google Earth to explore these films as part of traditional film analysis to consider these issues. I found it helpful to map out the placement of the camera for certain scenes based on careful observation of film sequences, maps, and production documents. This technique is essentially a form of paradigmatic analysis, but unlike common narrative or thematic paradigms (‘wilderness,’ ‘civilization’), these rock formations are literal and tangible objects in the frame, not abstractions by the critic.

The landscape is not an uncommon topic in film criticism, but most often critics treat it as a semiotic bearer of meanings—especially ones related to national identity—rather than as a specifically visual element. Theories of the cinematic landscape emphasize its role as spectacle at odds with a film’s narrative design. Martin Lefebvre, in the most thorough theorization to date, argues that the cinematic landscape emerges only in those cases when the spectator attends to aspects of the environment without, or at the expense of, narrative action. Filmmakers encourage this response through techniques such as protracted temps morts or disjunctive editing.[1] Yet neither of these techniques are common in Ford’s films, and critics have more often characterized his use of the environment as subtle or understated. So did Winton Hoch, the director of photography for She Word a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, who once remarked, “In Monument Valley [Ford] avoided the temptation to shoot nothing but breathtakers. He had only an occasional beauty shot. It’s like diamonds. They are very valuable because they are rare. If the street was paved with them, then they would be worthless.”[2]

My analysis reveals a different kind of landscape in Ford’s Monument Valley films than Lefebvre’s theory would suggest. Ford includes salient features of the environment as incidental details in the background and repeats them throughout a film to create a dense texture of thematic and graphic connections. The area’s visual impact derives as much from its careful integration in the ongoing action as from its own inherent splendor. As I worked, it occurred to me that a journey through this cinematic landscape in videographic form would enable insights far exceeding what I alone could mobilize for a scholarly argument. I was attracted to videographic criticism’s ability to foster a different mode of spectatorship but remain open-ended—to show, not describe, something new in films. I initially conceived of the video as a kind of database of shots or a visual concordance. However, I wanted it to be watchable (not an hours-long conceptual art piece) and accessible to viewers with different degrees of familiarity with these films. I used the geography of the region to reorganize shots from the films, including both “breathtakers” and routine dialogue sequences.

The vast majority of identifiable shooting spots cluster around the four areas that the video surveys. I noticed that the common settings used for the white and Indian settlements had literal geographical correspondents. The Anglo settlements, including Tombstone in My Darling Clementine, tend to be filmed near Goulding’s Lodge (2:10), while all Indian reservations are filmed in the sandy areas near the Yei Bi Chei rocks (section IV). Meanwhile, areas in the central part of the valley (10:10) tend to be on the furthest margins of Western expansion, including the fort in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and the Edwards’ ill-fated homestead in The Searchers.

Other repetitions are more mysterious. In The Searchers, why would Ford film Marty’s camp with his unwittingly-acquired Indian wife, Look, at the exact same spot where he reconnected with Laurie Jorgenson earlier (section I)? Why does a particular pyramid-shaped rock inevitably appear during chase sequences (section III)? Ford admirers are likely to find some of their observations about these westerns confirmed but might also make some new insights. For those less familiar with these films, my video renders the cinematic universe discernable across them in a tangible—and I hope exciting—way.

[1] “Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema,” in Lefebvre, Martin. ed.  Landscape and Film. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 49.

[2] Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, 1st U.S. ed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 281.