An essay written as an introduction to my project, "Rio Bravo Diary." Essay originally published in Notes on Videographic Criticism on November 1, 2020, here.
In 2011, I was a Republican and in the eighth grade. Neither was really a choice. I was “conservative” for the same reason that most of my friends were: most of the adults in our lives were too. We became what we knew. Plus, it was an exciting time to be a Republican in Massachusetts. Mitt Romney, our former governor, was running for president against Barack Obama, and the GOP successfully instilled fear and a sense of urgency in unknowing people like me with words like “deficit” and “individual mandate.” I fully believed that if the incumbent president were to serve a second term then the country would most certainly cease to exist. As I write these words nine years later, my conservatism is very much gone, but that same fear over the outcome of a presidential election remains. Though I look back on this period with a mixture of humor and embarrassment (it’s difficult to be too hard on one’s 14-year-old self), the one good thing may be that my Republican politics inadvertently led me to Rio Bravo, and thus began the most intimate relationship I’ve ever had with a work of art.
I began watching Fox News regularly in the spring of 2011, never missing an episode of shows like The O'Reilly Factor. Candidates vying for the Republican nomination would regularly appear on Fox to do two things: claim they were the most conservative of all and name drop Ronald Reagan whenever they could. During one of the GOP debates, Romney, in a “mic-drop moment”, turned to New Gingrich, who had been playing up his relationship with Reagan, and said that Gingrich, in fact, had only been mentioned once in Reagan’s diaries. Boom roasted.
Though I certainly considered myself a “true conservative,” I quickly realized that I knew almost nothing about the patron saint of my new collective. In 2011, on a rainy spring day, I remember sitting down at the computer, going to YouTube, and just typing “Ronald Reagan” into the search bar to see what I could find. The first video I watched was a compilation of Reagan’s best moments from his 1980 debate with then President Jimmy Carter. I grew bored and clicked on another video: “The Humor of Ronald Reagan”, a collection of various one-liners Reagan delivered during debates and speeches. Oh boy, he trolled those Democrats good!! As I was laughing, I looked towards the bar of suggested videos and saw another: “Ronald Reagan Roasts Frank Sinatra.” I was confused. A roast? Like the raunchy specials on Comedy Central? The future president and the old singer? That makes no sense.
I clicked and my life changed.
The number of hours I have spent watching the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts are too many to count. I got sucked into the lives of those who appeared on the dais. Remnants of this obsessive period sit in nearby boxes as I write now: Phyllis Diller records, books on Sinatra, DVD sets of The Lucy Show (not to be confused with I Love Lucy), a VHS copy of George Burns: His Wit and Wisdom, and, of course, the obligatory Ocean’s 11 poster. Like the millions of others who have discovered or rediscovered him through YouTube, I fell in love with Don Rickles. Three years later, for my 16th birthday, I saw Rickles perform in person at Mohegan Sun. A few months ago, I finished up an M.Phil. program at Cambridge, where I studied on a full scholarship. During the interview process for the scholarship, I bonded with one of the interviewers over our shared love of Rickles. Could I have gotten the scholarship without that connection? Perhaps. But I prefer to go with the story that Rickles, as I said, changed my life.
The only entertainer who could rival Rickles for real estate in my heart is, in fact, the master of ceremonies himself, Dean Martin. In the past nine years, I have listened to his music nearly every day. Throughout much of my time high school, I was deeply anxious, stressed and often had trouble sleeping. I would listen to Dean as a way to unwind. I love Sinatra too, of course, but there’s something about the cadence of Dean’s voice that just instantly put me at ease. My favorite song? Perhaps his version of “Gentle on My Mind”:
It's just knowin' that the world will not be cursin' or forgivin'
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you're movin' on the back roads by the rivers of my memory
And for hours you're just gentle on my mind
Rio Bravo ends with Dude (Dean) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) walking together out of the frame before the image fades to black. Dean sings the final lyrics of “Rio Bravo”:
By the memory of a song
While the rollin’ Rio Bravo rolls along.
While the rollin’ Rio Bravo rolls along.
In his monograph on Rio Bravo, Robin Wood is critical — or at least puzzled by — the end of the movie, noting that perhaps Hawks “was unable to find a clinching moment to the film.” I’ll leave my take on the ending of the film for another time, but there is perhaps no better visual metaphor for the serenity of Dean’s voice than a flowing river, whether it be the literal one of Rio Bravo or the figurative rivers of our memories.
At that time in my life, I hardly ever watched movies, and did not develop anything close to a serious interest in any form of Film Studies until my junior year at Middlebury College. But in high school I would sometimes seek out Dean Martin’s films as a way to deepen my love for — connection with — him. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I purchased a DVD that included four John Wayne films, including Rio Bravo. I remember I watched the film for the first time in my family room, on a night when I was home alone. I did not know anything about the film, let alone who Howard Hawks was. There’s not much I remember about that first viewing other than feeling a deep love for the film and for Dean’s performance as Dude that I couldn’t really understand. Again, I did not even have a passing interest in film history or criticism, let alone the analytical skills necessary to make sense of my visceral reaction what I had just watched. I do remember trying to search for any political metaphors or allegories in the film, but I failed.
After that initial viewing, I would return to the film from time to time and remain just as captivated and moved as I was during that first viewing. Whenever someone would ask that dreaded question: “What is your favorite movie?” I would say Rio Bravo, even though I could never precisely say why. It just was.
In “Volume 1, Issue 10” of “Notes on Videographic Criticism”, I wrote about my introduction to Film Studies. Allow me to repeat myself: In the summer of 2017, I was working as a reporting intern at The Addison County Independent, the local newspaper based in the town of Middlebury. I had just finished my sophomore year and declared a major in Film & Media Culture. Why? Because it seemed to be the closest thing Middlebury had to a journalism program. I had no real interest in the discipline on a scholarly level. I asked Jason Mittell to be my advisor because I planned to write a senior thesis about conservative television (Fox News, William F. Buckley Jr., etc.). During a meeting with Jason, I told him I would be working for the paper and to send me any tips of cool stuff happening in town. Fast forward to June, and Jason emailed me about something called the Scholarship in Sound & Image Workshop, and said if I needed a story that I could come up to the college and interview the participants. Long story short, that day changed things for me. I eagerly enrolled in Jason’s Videographic Film Studies course that fall (which is modeled after the workshop aka “video camp”) and fell in love with video essays.
Those familiar with the Scholarship in Sound & Image Workshop will know that the first week of the program is dedicated to creating a series of videographic exercises using a single media object. The exercises are designed to get one familiar with the theory and technical skills necessary to produce videographic criticism. Jason’s course followed a similar format. For my media object, I selected Rio Bravo. You can watch my exercises here. (I was lucky enough to have received the best reaction to these videos one could imagine. Click here for more.)
I loved making the exercises and decided that I would continue working with the film for my final project. For the first time, I began to research Rio Bravo and learned that I was not alone in my obsession. I read Roger Ebert’s short essay in The Great Movies IV. I learned who Robin Wood was and read his monograph on the film. But as I began making my way through the material, and after months of working with the film in the exercises, I hit a mental wall. One of the strengths of videographic criticism is that it allows one to develop an intimate relationship with their object of study. But in this instance, my relationship with the film was too personal. I had to stop. And instead I made my first video essay, “How to Shoot a Film in One Room.”
The following semester, I enrolled in a “writing-intensive seminar” called “Methods of Film Criticism,” taught by Leger Grindon. Similar to the structure of Jason’s course, we were required to choose one film to write about throughout the semester as we made our way through key theoretical concepts of film & media criticism. Once again, I chose Rio Bravo. Writing about the film proved to be a far less intimidating task than creating a video essay. I also think that getting to know the film so intimately in the videographic criticism course made the task of writing much easier and allowed me to see the film in a fresh way. In the video essay course, I also felt a pressure to be more innovative in my argument, whereas with the written essay I could focus more on understanding what was out there on not only Rio Bravo, but Howard Hawks too. One of our first assignments was to create a plot segmentation analysis of the film. Here’s what I came up with in the spring of 2018 (you can scroll past this, I just thought it’d be fun to include):
ACT I – Dude Returns to Town Drunk, Afraid, and Alone
1. Opening credits and montage of Western landscape.
2. Dude (Dean Martin) enters the bar looking for a drink. Joe (Claude Akins) mocks Dude’s alcoholism. Chance (John Wayne), Dude, and Joe fight. Joe murders a man. Chance arrests Joe with Dude’s help.
3. Pat brings his wagons to town and introduces Chance to Colorado (Ricky Nelson).
4. Dude throws a beer at Joe in jail.
5. Chance brings lingerie to Carlos (Pedro Gonzalez) and learns Feathers has not left on the stagecoach.
6. Dud longs for booze. Chance, sensing that longing, silently walks with him around town.
7. Chance talks to Pat, defends Dude, is denied by Colorado, wrongly accuses Feathers (Angie Dickinson) of cheating and busts the real cheat.
ACT II – Burdette Strikes Back; Dude Kills the Murderer
8. Pat is murdered. Dude clips murderer as he and Chance chase him into a bar.
9. Dude leads search of the saloon and kills the murderer.
10. Chance, Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and Dude celebrate success back at the jail.
11. Feathers and Chance share a drink at the hotel before bed.
12. Chance confronts Feathers after she lets him sleep in. Feathers camps outside his door to protect him all night.
13. Dude searches Nathan (John Russell) and his men as they enter town to see Joe in jail.
14. Colorado tells Chance that Feathers did not leave on the stagecoach. He confronts her and they kiss.
15. “El Deguello” plays: a message from Burdette that he will show no mercy.
16. Dude and Chance walk to the hotel. Feathers tells them she has been hired by Carlos.
17. Stumpy accidentally shoots at Dude on his return, “He’s scared too.”
18. Chance returns to the hotel. He finds Feathers sleeping downstairs and carries her to bed.
ACT III – Dude Trades Bottle for Badge
19. Dude is jumped by Nathan’s men.
20. Nathan’s men then corner Chance. Colorado and Feathers help Chance and kill the men.
21. Chance frees Dude, who quits.
22. Colorado comforts Feathers at the hotel. Chance tells Feathers he is glad she stayed and asks Colorado to join the team.
23. Colorado is sworn in as a new deputy.
24. Dude pours a drink back in a glass as “El Deguello plays.” He rejoins the team.
25. Together, the gang sings “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” and “Cindy.”
26. Chance and the team decide to stay in jail until marshal arrives.
27. Chance and Dude go to the hotel for supplies. Nathan’s men attack hotel, bring Chance to jail. Stumpy and Colorado kill the men.
ACT IV – Burdette Is Finished; Dude Promises to Take Care of Chance
28. Chance learns Dude has been kidnapped, has Carlos set up meeting.
29. Carlos returns to jail and tells Chance that Nathan wants to trade Dude for Joe. They decide to make the trade.
30. Nathan and his men arrive in town. Chance decides Colorado can go to trade but Stumpy cannot.
31. Chance and Colorado bring Joe to the warehouse and trades him for Dude. Dude tackles Joe. A shootout begins. Stumpy arrives and saves the day. Nathan’s men surrender.
32. Gang celebrates the quiet back at the jail. Dude, Chance talk about Feathers and show affection for one another.
33. Chance goes and visits Feathers back at the hotel. They fight, makeup and kiss.
34. Dude and Stumpy walk around town, see Feather’s tights fly out of the window, and laugh.
35. “Rio Bravo” plays. Credits.
I found breaking the film up into segments and bits to be a productive exercise, one that allowed me to understand the film in a new way and to really think about — and understand — not only what I was watching, but how Hawks put it all together. I began to love and appreciate the film even more, and in a new way.
On more than one occasion, friends have suggested, knowing that Rio Bravo is my favorite movie, that we watch the film together. I’ve always come up with an excuse and said no. My relationship with the film is just too intense; too personal. Whenever I watch, I need to be alone. But that is not to say that I don’t seek out others who love Rio Bravo, or, as David Bordwell has called the film, “the Sacred Text.” He begins his beautiful tribute to the film:
Too long has this scrolling site ignored the Sacred Text. In a gesture of penance, I return to the true path. Like all Sacred Texts, this one attracts worshippers in different degrees: the Seekers, the Initiates, the Adepts, and the Exegetes. There are Heretics too. Today, I wish merely to introduce you, who may not yet be even a Seeker, to the serenity of The Way.
I look for fellow worshipers everywhere, and sometimes find them unexpectedly. You can only imagine my delight after walking into Christian Keathley’s office at Middlebury for the first time and seeing a framed, sun-faded Rio Bravo poster on the wall. Or when the film came up in passing during a conversation with Catherine Grant, who said, “Oh, I love Rio Bravo.” Or when I searched for the list assembled in 1959 by Cahiers du Cinéma of the year’s best films and happily found that Rio Bravo was number six (a little low, of course, but I’ll take it). Or, when scrolling through Adrian Martin’s essential website and archive, I read two lists he made of “Best/Favourite/Top” films in 1996 and 2012, respectively. In his preface to the 1996 list, Adrian writes that his list “has almost everything to do with subjective love, desire and madness, and almost nothing to do with so-called critical objectivity.” He also offers a brief history of his moviegoing history, and writes:
So far, I had been flying solo – a lone (and lonely) cinephile. Then I went to film class, and a new wave hit me: the radical theory historically associated with Screen magazine (but in fact circulating via a very complex and diverse cultural network), embodied in this country by a number of exceptionally charismatic writer/teacher/speakers. I fell into a very deep, very real crisis: all of a sudden, Hawks’ Rio Bravo, hitherto my favourite film, made me want to puke, for it epitomised in my mind all the illusionist-spectacular-sexist-racist-capitalist-imperialist-repressive sins of horrible, mainstream cinema.
A fair critique if there ever was one. But, of course, such a paragraph does not, I think I can safely assume, come remotely close to capturing Adrian’s full view of the film. Rio Bravo made his list in 1996, and again in 2012.
In his monograph, Robin Wood acknowledges the problematic elements of Rio Bravo, but still offers a full-throated defense of the film and of Hawks. While I, like Wood, consider myself a defender and protector of Rio Bravo, I cannot be as blind to its more problematic elements as he was in 2003, when his book was published by the British Film Institute. But now is not the time to engage with such questions. I note this as a preface to what comes next, and as a way of making clear that I do not have a blind loyalty to the film or to Hawks. My devotion to the film is instead rooted in a deep personal history that, at times, has been out of my control, when the film has emerged and re-emerged at crucial periods of my short life. As I’ve tried to describe up to this point, Rio Bravo and I are linked. I’m not writing this newsletter or producing a podcast without Rio Bravo.
It has been nearly three years since I did not make a video essay on Rio Bravo for Jason’s class and, two film degrees and a handful of finished video essays later, I still do not feel ready. But I’m ready to try something a little different!
Writing this essay has taught me two things about my relationship with Rio Bravo: I like breaking it up into pieces and sharing my love of the film with other people, but at a little bit of a distance. To try and understand both the film and my relationship with it, I have decided to start a new project called “Rio Bravo Diary.”
My plan is to watch Rio Bravo over the course of one year, 365 days. I have uploaded the film to Adobe Premiere and cut it into 365 (roughly) equal parts. Each day I will watch a clip, upload it to Twitter, and write a “diary” entry in no more than the 280-character limit. I will also upload the clips and commentary to this website as a backup. Please consider following the Twitter account and sharing the link, here.
I first thought of this project over a year ago and am deeply excited that it is now happening. It has also been about a year since I last watched Rio Bravo, and I do not plan to watch it in full until the project is over. I want every frame to be as fresh as possible. It is my hope that this will allow me to see and understand the film in a completely new way. The idea to house the diary on Twitter is to keep the commentary short and simple and to not overthink it, and to also ensure the authenticity of the diary. In other words, to make sure that the time stamps show I watched one clip every day. And to share the experience with anyone who may be interested.
While I do consider “Rio Bravo Diary” to be research, I don’t really have any questions going into the project. It is really just about understanding what the hell this thing is and my relationship with it. But I suppose the reason I am sharing this essay in “Notes on Videographic Criticism” is because I do wonder whether this project could be considered a form of videographic criticism? I don’t think I will have an answer until the project is done, but in the meantime if there’s anything I should read/anything out there that reminds you of this project, please do sent it my way. And as the project continues, please let me know what you think.
Anyway, today is Day Zero. The journey begins tomorrow. See you on the other side.
November 1, 2020
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