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Wagon Master 

Director John Ford is "America's Shakespeare," says the author of a new biography

Wednesday, Jun 13 2001
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Wagon Master John Ford directed more than 140 films and produced another 70; his place in movie history is secure. But the filmmaker's contribution to American culture hasn't been properly acknowledged, asserts Joseph McBride, author of a painstakingly researched biography, Searching for John Ford (St. Martin's Press), which hits bookstores this month. "I think of Ford as America's Shakespeare," McBride declares. "He covered American history in a vast and ambitious way in films from The Grapes of Wrath and Stagecoach to Young Mr. Lincoln and Fort Apache. But there is a troubling lack of awareness of him among younger viewers. He should be a household name, like Mozart."

McBride moved to Albany last year after 25 years in Tinseltown as a Variety reporter, biographer (of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg), and writer of five AFI Lifetime Achievement Award specials (Jimmy Stewart, John Huston, Lillian Gish, Fred Astaire, and Capra). As its title implies, Searching for John Ford is a bit of a detective story. "He did his best to be obscure and enigmatic," McBride explains. "When I interviewed him in 1970, he wouldn't say much about his films. He stonewalled me. The older I get, the more I respect that. Now directors give dozens of interviews telling what they intended to do and how you should watch their film. There isn't a lot of room for the audience to discover things. Ford wanted his films to speak for themselves." The Ford picture most in need of discovery, McBride believes, is his last, Seven Women. Made in 1966, seven years before the director's death, it was cut by the studio and slagged by reviewers. Then again, reminds McBride, "Women's pictures have never been taken seriously by the critics."

The Stunt Man Santa Cruz and S.F. theater vet and debut filmmaker Ken Shelf found out pretty quickly that he had little use for the auteur theory. The writer and director of Humans Being explains, "I thought I'd be the director of photography, the music recorder, and I'd compose the soundtrack. I was completely out of my mind. I needed to fire myself from as many jobs as I could." Shelf laughs, recalling how he nonetheless cast himself in a few bit roles. "I play a moving backdrop in one scene," he confides, before chanting the mantra of all novice directors: "Production is madness."

Now in the editing stage, Humans Being is an ensemble piece about a group of newly minted adults trying to live in this yuppie town on artists' wages. "It's a funny movie. It's kind of a sad story. It doesn't necessarily get all wrapped up in the end," says Shelf, who hasn't had a chance to hone his marketing-speak. "Rarely did I work 16-hour days in theater, but at one point [during filming] we logged 130 hours over a nine-day period." It won't get any easier for Shelf, as his wife is about to give birth. "I am so in over my head," he says, loving every minute.

A Day at the Races In corporate news, Sony Theaters Metreon has changed its name to Loews Theaters Metreon. Loews Cineplex Entertainment, which has always owned and operated the theater, has filed for Chapter 11; part of the fallout is that Sony has severed its financial ties to the exhibitor. Ironic, given that Sony boxed everybody's ears to use the original moniker with precise accuracy. ... Longtime Landmark Theaters execs Paul Richardson and Bert Manzari, back running the art house operation, met recently with their local theater managers. "We don't have any plans for new builds in the Bay Area at all," Richardson told me. ... The Independent Film Channel has picked up In the Bathtub of the World, S.F. filmmaker Caveh Zahedi's 1999 video diary, for broadcast later this year.

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Michael Fox

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