Thursday, June 13, 2024

Henry Fonda for President

Alexander Horwath: Henry Fonda for President (AT 2024).

DIRECTOR: Alexander Horwath
COUNTRY: Austria, Germany
YEAR: 2024
DURATION: 184 min
LANGUAGES: German, English, subtitled in English
CATEGORY: Documentary Films, Film History, Subtitles in English
Viewed at Lapinsuu, Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF), 13 June 2024


" The film begins with a personal memory: Paris, summer of 1980. The Moscow Olympics are underway. In Detroit, Ronald Reagan has just been nominated as the Republican presidential candidate. In New Hampshire, Henry Fonda is shooting his final film. Two actors sketch out two different ways of viewing the United States of America: as God’s Own Country or as a stage for social struggle. "

" A sharp leap backwards: Holland, 1651. A dual history of migration takes its course: the story of a man and his family – and the history of a nation in motion. The film’s journey continues to the shores of the Mohawk River and the years of the American Revolution, to the “Wild West” and the waves of racist violence in the early 20th century, to New York during the Great Depression, to Hiroshima and the Pacific Front in Wold War II. The postwar era and its new forms of depression, the Cold War and its apocalyptic scenarios – this is also the time when the society of the spectacle finally asserts itself. "

" Our protagonist is now closer than ever to the role of a politician. The story comes to a close around 1976: after Watergate and the Vietnam War, during a time of confusion and hope in which the U.S. is trying to find itself again. "

" Each station on this journey through the country and its times is connected to Henry Fonda – to his life and that of his forebears, to his work as an actor and his public persona, and to the movie characters he portrayed. He becomes concentrated in them – along with the country from which all of these faces arise. Considered from the vantage point of today: another time, another country. But its phantoms, no matter if famous or nameless, are more potent than ever before. "


" The search for “origins” should be avoided at all cost, but it’s not a big stretch to say that my lifelong preoccupation with the history and present of the United States, with the American cinema and its practitioners, and specifically with the actor Henry Fonda, were essential reasons for me to try out a new profession. "

" Still, this leap into filmmaking is certainly a stretch for me. I decided to go for it because in order to come to terms with the material that had accumulated in front of me the cinematic approach seemed to be the only logical one. A lesson from my previous activities: Every topic that one “adopts“ pushes towards a certain form of realization. To some degree, any constellation of questions already contains the form of the possible answer. That’s why, in close collaboration with Michael Palm and Regina Schlagnitweit, I chose to answer in the shape of a film. It may resemble a double helix: Two main strands constantly intertwine in a mutually ascending, spiraling movement – the biography of a composite called “Henry Fonda” and the “biography” of the United States of America. "

" The film superimposes multiple thematic spheres and presentation formats: fictional narratives and historical facts; individual life paths and socio-political reflections; moments from American history and its pop cultural detritus – as well as acute questions about democracy. Henry Fonda is the pilot of this endeavor. His life and the life of his ancestors, the actual person and the persona that crystallizes from his works, the places and times where and when the person and the persona were active – these threads condensed into a view of America. And they directed us to the locations where we filmed in 2019 and 2021. Their concrete shape and their own momentum led to further investigations: new side roads, new satellite characters, new connections and speculations. Thanks to his family history, his personal conflicts, weaknesses and beliefs, his films and his special talent as an actor, Fonda also acts a bit like a zoom lens, capturing the most varied dimensions of history and life in America via different focal lengths. It can give you just the outlines – or very precise details. And thanks to Fonda’s voice, which reaches us through Lawrence Grobel’s long interview with him in the summer of 1981, he is also the second “narrator” of the film. "

" In reality, he was a taciturn person. He didn’t see himself as an artist and didn’t like to talk about himself. But he managed to bear witness – even if he himself didn’t perceive it that way. Hannah Arendt talks about this at the beginning of my film, and I took the liberty of reading it as a statement about Henry Fonda: “The subject discloses an objective work to the public. What is subjective about this, the working process for instance, is of no concern to the public. However, if this work is not merely academic, but rather the result of a life lived and suffered, then it will also reveal a living action and speech, the bearer of which is the person himself. What appears here is unknown to the one who presents it. He has no command over it.” "

Lauri Timonen (MSFF 2024): " At over three hours, Alexander Horwath’s brand new personal essay-documentary Henry Fonda for President may sound long, but it goes by in a flash. The film offers a hefty helping of biographical information, film clips, interviews (including one of his final, F-bomb-filled sessions), and bittersweet accounts from his radical offspring (“Hanoi Jane” and Easy Rider’s Captain America Peter Fonda, who all but wrapped up the revolution of the 1960s generation). The director also makes a commendable tour of the important places in the life of the protagonist, who lived from 1905 to 1982, digitally recording the pale changes of the present and the slowly fading touches of history. "

" Fonda was the sum of his personal contradictions: a shy man in a public profession; an interpreter of great personalities for whom his own identity remained the ultimate mystery; a stern old-world parent who loved to work in his garden; a cold, iron-clad professional who performed on the Broadway stage on the evening of the day his wife slit her throat from ear to ear; Steinbeck’s favourite actor and a rare liberal among the morose right-wing conservatives of his generation. Yet above all, Fonda was presidential material, both for the many roles he played and for the moral backbone they conveyed! Horwath’s excellent compilation film provides ample evidence of this. " Lauri Timonen

AA: Alexander Horwath's Henry Fonda for President lasts over three hours, but time flies while watching this montage masterpiece as it moves along on multiple interconnected levels - the history of the Fonda family in America from 1642 to the present - the history of America - the life and career of Henry Fonda - his presidentially relevant roles (Young Mr. Lincoln, Fail-Safe, Meteor, The Best Man) - and the story of the director's personal engagement with Fonda. 

Seen at Midnight Sun Film Festival, the point of comparison is Ehsan Khoshbakht's Celluloid Underground seen the day before. In both, the personal and the film historical are one. Horwath is a connoisseur of the essay / compilation / montage form. Each great work in this lineage reinvents the form, and also Henry Fonda for President is such a work.

The Fonda family story illuminates film history. Just like the family in Drums Along the Mohawk, an American Revolution saga, the Fondas were settlers in what is now the state of New York. The Ox-Bow Incident is a tragedy around lynching. A relevant memory from Henry Fonda's last interview (with Lawrence Grobel, July 1981) is heard.

" On September 28, 1919, a lynching occurs outside the Omaha courthouse. The victim is William Brown, one of the many African-American migrant workers from the South who have moved to the industrial cities of the North and the Midwest after World War I. "

Fonda: " My dad’s office looked down on the courthouse square. And he took me with him, we went up into his office and watched from the window. And there was this young black that they had arrested on suspicion of rape. And this mob started to collect. I know the mayor, he was on horseback. He rode with two assistants on horseback, rode into the middle of this mob, trying to quell them and calm them. They damn near lynched the mayor. That’s how out-of-control they were. You couldn’t believe that they would overpower the law, force their way in, get this guy out of a cell, drag him through the streets, hang him from a lamppost, riddle him with bullets, and then drag him in the back of an automobile. It was an experience I will never forget. It was so horrifying. I know that my dad never lectured. We watched. And when it was all over and we went home, he didn’t talk about it. Well, it was a great shock to me. "

Henry Fonda's first presidential film, Young Mr. Lincoln, also revolves around a lynching - which the young and awkward lawman Lincoln succeeds in interrupting. Even more impressively, he makes the people regret what they have done. Inspired by him, the raging mob transforms into a peaceful crowd. Already we see a leader of the union, not above the people but of the people. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

During the movie, we go to the roots of American political philosophy - Alexis de Tocqueville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. We follow the ideas of the manifest destiny, the strategic air command, the principle of the first strike and the society of the spectacle. 

In studio era Hollywood, Henry Fonda embodied American ideals, often in complex and self-reflective ways. In the 1930s he played outlaws (You Only Live Once) and rebels (The Grapes of Wrath). In comedy (Lady Eve) and tragedy (Fort Apache) he expressed a repressed masculinity - a complex with which he had a personal family history. After Hollywood's golden age, in Once Upon a Time in the West, he played a blue-eyed baby-killer. He played the enemy against which Hanoi Jane and Captain America rebelled in turn.

In Fail-Safe, the president orders the destruction of New York to prevent the destruction of the world. The Nuclear Age came close also to the Fonda family.

" Fonda’s home town produces B-29 bombers. The flying Superfortress ensures U.S. superiority in the war against Japan. The deadliest one is the ’Enola Gay’. "

Grobel: " You knew about the dropping of the atomic bomb, didn’t you, before it was dropped. Did you realize what that was going to be? "
Fonda: " Not totally, because I had no idea what kind of devastation it would create. It was just something new, bigger bomb. And I went up to Tinian with my boss, commander Koepke. We briefed the pilot about where he was going and what marks to look for. And the next thing I knew we hear about Hiroshima, which sort of took me aback, I must say. I can only wish that they had never thought of making it in the first place and never made an atomic bomb. I’m against all of it. I wish they’d just said, “Well, that’s dangerous, let’s not touch it.” "
Grobel: " That’s not the nature of man, though, is it? "
Fonda: " No. "
Grobel: " Do you think it will eventually destroy us? "
Fonda: " I wouldn’t be surprised. "

Because Young Mr. Lincoln is my personal favourite film, I had high expectations for Alexander Horwath's movie, but it is even much better than I expected.

Henry Fonda for President is topical in a fateful presidential year. The Lincoln spirit is needed more than ever since the Civil War. God bless America.

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