Ethan the loner, framed in one of Ford’s great doorways
John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, is a Western bookended by two famous shots looking out from the doorways of connected family homes, nestled in the wilds of West Texas.
In the film, these shots and the points of view they frame represent many things. The opening doorway view captures the staggering scale of a remote frontier land that dominates the family home perched so precariously there.
For the arrival of the film’s central protagonist, Ethan Edwards (brilliantly played by John Wayne), the framing signals his status as an outsider – he emerges from the wild ‘out there’ and is more at home in its harsh environs than the domestic spaces he visits.
In the end, after returning the once lost Debbie to what is left of her family, Ethan stands tentatively within Ford’s final doorway frame (see above), but we understand that he cannot join the others inside.
Some doorways can’t be entered again, not after so many lines have been crossed to get there. For Ethan, there’s nothing to stay for – Debbie is rescued and Martha (his love) is gone.
In my home, the doorway to my bedroom has for the last few months been a barrier to Amelia, my daughter, who has positioned herself as the Ethan to our Aaron and Martha (do yourself a favour and watch it). Her comfort zone is the outer limits of the hallway, not the warmth of her parents’ cosy bedroom.
In the early hours of the morning, Amelia will come and visit us for a short, iPad-induced stay, but during the day she will stand nervously on the threshold and never enter our room.
I didn’t really notice the demarcation at first, except to remark that it was a welcome thing that one room in our house was free from the onslaught of toys and the relentless prying of small hands.
The objects within our room remain safe; precious possessions do not need to be hidden or squirrelled away. I can actually go and get dressed or tidy up without Amelia’s ‘helpful’ assistance.
A small victory, yes, but she’s running the rest of the show, so I’ll take all the privacy I can get.
Lately Amelia has become strangely agitated by our doorway – it looks pretty nonthreatening to me, but for her it clearly looms up and signals something fearful beyond its perimeter. I have puzzled over it for weeks.
If she is the director of her own story – and she most definitely is – then the open space of our bedroom doorway is certainly not the frame Amelia would choose to make romantic or mythical points about belonging and unrequited love.
No sirree. From the moment we break ranks with sleep in the morning, she starts barking orders at me in a dictatorial tone I’m sure Ford would have used with his film crew: “Shut the door!! Shut the door!!!!”
And what do I do? I shut the damn door and I keep it shut. All day.
One day I absentmindedly opened it while I was on the phone. I forgot to close it on my way out and walked into the kitchen, still talking to the person on the end of the line.
The next thing I knew, Amelia was sitting on the floor in front of me in tears of distress as she began hitting herself on the head with the flat palm of her hand while yelling, “Shut the door, shut the door!!”
Okay, I thought, this door business has got to stop. I tried talking to her about it, asking her what she was afraid of or didn’t like about the interior of our room during the daylight hours. But she wouldn’t tell me or didn’t know how.
Then I remembered something from her younger days, when I used to use a Swiss ball to do some crazy home exercise program. She really hated that ball, and it now resides permanently in the corner of my bedroom.
I wondered, ‘is it the Swiss ball, so innocuous to me (and a reminder of a long-abandoned fitness regime) that she fears so much? Is that ball like a sleeping giant to her, ready to pounce unless the door is closed?’
I’m not above pondering the evil properties of a Swiss ball if it helps to calm down my agitated child.
So on Tuesday this week I experimented with a little acting of my own. I took the dust-covered ball and brought it out into the lounge room.
Amelia bolted like Lord Voldemort himself had swept through the door (actually she would have liked that a lot more). I discovered her cowering in the toilet. My instinct about her terror of the ball had been on the money.
There’s no such thing as a victimless crime…
Then I commenced my pre-meditated pantomime of hunting down that poor unsuspecting Swiss ball and committing cold-blooded murder. In the kitchen. With my foot.
Yes, with my sock-covered foot I did slay that good-for-nothing ball. I took out its pin stopper and invited Amelia to peek out from her toilet hidey-hole to witness its painful demise.
To hasten the death throes of the ball, I pushed my foot down repeatedly onto its once shiny, silver skin. I watched Amelia’s eyes widen in awe at her mother’s unbelievable bravery, as the life-giving air hissed out of the Swiss ball’s body for the last time.
That ball now knows never to mess with a red-haired woman with murder on her mind.
The sordid affair ended with the ceremonial carriage of the deflated ball-corpse from our house to the garage.
I shouted “Be gone, foul beast!” (or something to that embarrassing effect) into the suburban air, to mark the end of a once mighty (cough) foe.
But did my theatre of the absurd exorcise imaginary demons and convince Amelia to stop being so frightened of our doorway and the bedroom space behind it?
Well, so far, so good. In the mornings since my crime, she has looked anxiously at the door and asked me the vital question with her eyes, “is it okay?” Yes, dear one, that big, nasty ball is gone and the room is ‘good’ now. You have nothing to fear.
She now performs my act of brutality for anyone who asks about the story of the doorway and the evil Swiss ball. “Go away big ball! Mummy’s room good now”. She signs ‘good’ with a generous thumbs-up.
Her gleeful rendering of my ridiculously overacted (think Ward Bond) stomping makes me laugh and laugh every time I see it. But she is deadly serious when she acts it and tells it, just as she was serious about never coming into our room while the ball ‘lay in wait’ for her.
While she remains somewhat wary of coming into our bedroom during the day, that’s fine with me. I was running out of places in the house to safely hide a stash of chocolate or presents bought for her cousins.
But the incessant yelling and anxiety about shutting the door has ceased for now. Calm has been restored, at least on that score.
I’m no superhero – I can only slay the fears that are identifiable, that I can see. Some Amelia will have to fight on her own, like the loner Ethan Edwards, out in the wilds of West Texas and beyond.
So I guess what I’m really trying to say is that you just HAVE to go and watch The Searchers. Like, right now.