Monument Valley beckoned me for at least two decades before I finally visited there last summer. The area is one of our nation's great natural wonders and is sacred ground for Native Americans. Still, it was not the call of nature or history that lured me to this spot on the Utah-Arizona border. It was something much more personal, something tangible yet ineffable: a movie and an obligation to the past, a memoriam for two cherished forefathers of Austin's rich film culture, George Morris and Ed Lowry.
The movie is The Searchers, a great, enduring Western and one of the best collaborations between John Ford and John Wayne, the director and star who made 14 films together. Filmed in the "breathtaking panorama of VistaVision" (as the ads of the day proclaimed), The Searchers tells the story of Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier played by Wayne, who spends years in a dogged quest to find his niece, who was captured by Comanches as a little girl. Although the story takes place in late-1860s Texas, The Searchers was filmed primarily in Monument Valley, as were all of Ford's Westerns. The red buttes and mesas, those distinctive natural landmarks, have become symbols of the American West, largely through the expressive power of Ford's imagery.
Tim and Karrie League, the owners and impresarios of Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, organized last summer's Rolling Roadshow tour: a 6,000-mile, 21-day journey that pitched the Drafthouse's 40-foot inflatable projection screen at 11 stops along the way. These events were no ordinary outdoor screenings, though. The films were all classics, selected because of their use of famous locations. The tour kicked off with a screening of The Last Picture Show adjacent to the Royal Theatre in Archer City, Texas, one of the settings in Larry McMurtry's coming-of-age novel brought to the screen by Peter Bogdanovich and Polly Platt. Other highlights included stops along the way at Devils Tower, Wyo., for a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind complete with a mashed-potato-monolith-building contest; a road rally and Repo Man screening in Los Angeles; a crop-duster flyover and screening of North by Northwest in a field in Kern County, Calif.; and the projection of Planet of the Apes directly onto the sheer rock wall of a natural amphitheatre in Page, Ariz., around where the movie was filmed.
Monument Valley was another of the tour's stops in 2005. The Leagues and their crew hoped to show The Searchers, but in light of the 1956 movie's upcoming 50th anniversary, Warner Bros. planned to celebrate by striking new prints the following year. So, The Searchers deferred to Sergio Leone's great spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West, which, despite its Italian origins, has several scenes that were filmed in Monument Valley.
Some might call me a piker for not making the whole three-week journey last year and merely dropping in for the Monument Valley to the Page, Ariz., leg of the adventure. But, as I said at the outset, I was on a personal path that led toward Monument Valley. And more than presenting mere outdoor screenings, the Rolling Roadshow events are about enriching one's experience of a particular film, be it through various prescreening activities or locating the screening in an ideally related setting. (Recent local examples include the advance screening of The Descent in nearby Longhorn Caverns and Mexican-style wrestling matches and costume contests prior to a preview-screening of Nacho Libre.) Set up on the flat little area of the airstrip beside Goulding's Lodge in Monument Valley, the inflatable screen was but a speck amid the massive geological formations surrounding us. The moon, as it rose over the red mesas to our right, at first looked liked lava erupting the rock, while Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale matched wits on the screen. Filmmaker Alex Cox, who provides audio commentary on at least a couple of DVDs about the making of Once Upon a Time in the West, was also "in the house," unable to resist the opportunity to see the film under these circumstances. I was among friends of the cinematic kind, and we all were in love: in love with the movies and with one another and with this strangely singular place that had ironically become a universal symbol of the American West.
I didn't grow up watching Westerns, despite owning a Davy Crockett cap and a toy gun holster or two. It wasn't until I was in graduate school that I learned to appreciate the Western form as one of our greatest national inventions, on the order of jazz and the blues. Yet it wasn't until Ed Lowry entered my life that I learned to truly love the Western. Technically a fellow student, Ed was intrinsically a teacher. His film knowledge was exhaustive and his disposition generous. He shared what he knew, and one of the things he knew inside out was Westerns. The Searchers was among his favorites, and he had spent many a childhood vacation in Monument Valley with his family.
Ed was the Chronicle's first managing editor and Film editor. His passion for movies and zeal for excellence still provide the model for what we do all these years later. Tragically, he died of AIDS in 1985 at the age of 33. Before his death we had talked many times of taking a group trip to Monument Valley. Although the plans never materialized, we were young and confident the trip would eventually take place. Death intervened, and the plans dissolved and were replaced by my inconsolable sense of opportunities lost. In 1989, when the AIDS quilt came to town and the Chronicle contributed a panel honoring Ed, one of the images we included was a panorama of Monument Valley.
When the Alamo Drafthouse announced their plans to take the Rolling Roadshow to Monument Valley in 2005, it was the summer before the 20th anniversary of Ed's death. There seemed no better way to commune with his memory than to finally make the trip we had so long ago planned. I came for a movie and left with a new reverence for this deeply spiritual locale.
Death has been particularly harsh to the Chronicle's Film department, claiming a disproportionate number of its members over the years. Another beloved film writer and teacher, George Morris, died in June 1989, also of AIDS. He wrote mostly on older films for the Chronicle, and the films he loved knew no greater champion. He taught film at Austin Community College. He was also a friend of Richard Linklater's (Slacker is dedicated to his memory) and a driving force behind the formation of the Austin Film Society. George requested that his friends gather after his death for a screening of The Searchers. A screening was held at the Dobie Theatre, and his friends came together afterward at the old Austin Media Arts Center (the forerunner of AFS) on the Drag to celebrate his memory. From that point on, The Searchers has assumed for me a personal meaning that represents a commitment to and continuity within the Austin film community. I will be in Monument Valley next week as the 50th anniversary print unfurls.
Although my journey is something of a personal pilgrimage, each attendee will be drawn to the Rolling Roadshow by something different. The Leagues' initial idea for the Rolling Roadshow was for a fantastic summer getaway. People could come on the whole journey or join them in locations along the way. It is a way to bring their ideas about participatory cinema to the country at large. In Austin we're familiar with the Alamo Drafthouse's unique programming that features live music, sing-alongs, costume contests, thematic menu items, and such, as part of their daily offerings. Last summer, they took their show on the road.
Netflix, the nation's leading outfit to rent film by mail, is along for the ride this year as the Roadshow's sponsor. Throughout August, the tour will cross the country, having begun on Aug. 2 with a screening of The Warriors in Coney Island and winding up Aug. 26 with Escape From Alcatraz, on Alcatraz Island. Screenings are free, and many guest stars will be on hand, one highlight being the Aug. 11 appearance of Kevin Costner at the screening of Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. The whole tour offers new meaning to the "breathtaking panorama of VistaVision."
Friday, Aug. 11: Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa
Aug. 16: The Shining in Estes Park, Colo.
Aug. 18: The Searchers in Monument Valley
Aug. 20: Raising Arizona in Apache Junction, Ariz.
Aug. 24: Poseidon Adventure in Long Beach, Calif.
Aug. 26: Escape From Alcatraz, San Francisco
To read Ed Lowry on The Searchers, see www.cinematexasnotes.com.
To read work by and about George Morris in the Chronicle, see In Order to Live.
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