This video essay uses Stagecoach to explore the everchanging face of film.
Last year, Kevin B. Lee and David Verdeure edited a list for Sight and Sound of the best video essays of 2017. They surveyed video essayists, critics, and scholars, and aggregated a list of must-watch essays. It is a fantastic archive, one I have turned to repeatedly for inspiration and for essays to write about on this website. One of my favorite essays on the list (and one that was selected by three of the video essay experts polled) is Johannes Binotto’s “Facing Film.”
Video essays, unlike most written film criticism, can be incredibly effective. They utilize the moving image to convey thought and emotion in ways words simply cannot. “Facing Film” is one those essays.
The essay examines one of the most iconic scenes from John Ford’s Stagecoach, the moment we are introduced to Ringo, played by John Wayne. For those who have seen the film, you know the moment I’m talking about.
It comes early in the film, just after the stagecoach has left Tonto for Lordsburg. The stagecoach is rounding a corner when all of a sudden they find Ringo standing in their path. “Hold it,” he yells. The camera cuts to him, holding a rife. He swings the rifle in his hand, prompting a rapid, dolly into Gringo’s face. He’s young, vulnerable, afraid, in need of a friend. That face says it all. However, as Binotto shows, Wayne’s is not the only face we see.
The dolly in is clunky. Wayne’s face is blurred, the film flickers. Binotto focuses on the image to the side of Wayne. The grey, grainy background. The face of film.