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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

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Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

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Archive for the '1940s Hollywood' Category

Un-Marry me a little: MARRIAGE STORY and LITTLE WOMEN

Little Women (2019).

DB here:

For a while The Blog conducted an annual ritual of analyzing storytelling techniques in year-end releases. I wrote entries from early in 2016, in 2017, and in 2018. Last year I muffed it, largely because of time spent revising our Christopher Nolan book. (Yes, we’re also looking forward to Tenet, especially after that hellah trailer.)

This time I’m trying an alternative. Instead of surveying a range of releases, I’ll focus on two that I think encapsulate some robust variants on familiar narrative strategies. Those strategies include choice of protagonist, linearity versus nonlinearity in time, and manipulation of viewpoint. While I’m concentrating on Marriage Story and Little Women, I’ll draw out some comparisons with other films.

Many spoilers follow, but of course you’ve probably seen all the new films. Except maybe Cats.

 

Protagonists, dual and dueling

Human nature is not given to a protagonist/antagonist three-act structure. Human nature is just one damn thing after another in which the only thing that matters is what went on today because yesterday is gone. And that is contrary to a lot of the business that we’re in, which makes sure that everybody understands the story by page 30 and is involved in the conflict.

Tom Hanks

You’re plotting a film. What sort of options do you face? A basic choice involves protagonists.

You might build the film around one character who pursues a cluster of goals. Examples this season would include Dark Waters, Motherless Brooklyn, Uncut Gems, and Harriet. The protagonist can have helpers, and will certainly have adversaries, but her or his initiatives, decisions, and responses propel the action. In addition, we’re usually attached to the protagonist’s point of view, which limits us to what she or he knows. Judicious widening of the horizon often takes place to enhance tension. In Uncut Gems we’re briefly attached to Arno’s thugs when they’re tailing Howard, and the climax crosscuts Howard in his office with Julia placing his big bet.

You could center the action on two characters, giving us a dual-protagonist plot. Here the goals may be shared or at least compatible. In The Aeronauts, a lady balloonist and a male meteorologist cooperate, with frictions, to break ascension records, while Ford v. Ferrari unites two men working together to win at Le Mans.

More rarely, a dual-protagonist plot can shift the protagonist in the course of the action. Good examples are Red River (1948) and The Killers (1946). I’d argue that Don Corleone functions as protagonist in the early sections of The Godfather (1972), while Michael takes up that role later. Similarly, Waves initially concentrates on Tyler, but he largely drops out of the plot and his sister Emily drives the film’s second half.

Alternatively, the plot can present two protagonists in competition. This season we’ve had The Current War, centering on the struggle between Edison and Morgan to transmit electrical power. The narrational weight is largely with Edison, but I think Morgan is characterized enough and we’re attached to his viewpoint frequently enough to present a counterweight. Morgan isn’t simply an antagonist but rather what Kristin calls a parallel protagonist, like Salieri in Amadeus or Captain Ramius in The Hunt for Red October. As these examples indicate, parallel protagonists, although they’re trying to figure out each one’s aims and stratagems, often become fascinated with each other and recognize their affinities.

Paired protagonists are common in romantic comedies, which often consist of friction between the couple (due to clashing goals) but end in harmony and union. What’s striking about Marriage Story is that here the end, not the start, of a romantic alliance is treated through the dual-protagonist strategy. Charlie and Nicole struggle over the terms of their divorce, particularly the handling of custody of their son Henry. Unlike Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which is organized chiefly around the husband’s viewpoint, this gives weight to both spouses.

Director Noah Baumbach achieves this balance through a cunning parallel block construction. The film opens with two montages of roughly equal running time. One surveys Nicole’s habits and accomplishments with Charlie’s voice-over praising her. (“She’s my favorite actress.”) Then we get a montage illustrating what Nicole loves about Charlie, with other incidents stitched together by her voice-over. Both montages weave in scenes of Nicole in rehearsal while Charlie, the director, makes suggestions.

Baumbach has compared these montages to an overture in musical theatre. The film’s score sets out themes associated with each protagonist, and the quirks and routines that rush by establish important motifs, like haircutting, Monopoly games, and Henry’s urge to sleep with his parents. With the he said/she said duality, the montages prepare us for the film’s strategy of parallelism, a compare-and-contrast attitude.

     

The montages are revealed as visualizations of two memoirs the couple have written for a mediator.

     

They’re planning to divorce, and he’s asked them to recall what they loved about each other. Charlie is willing to share his notes with Nicole, but Nicole won’t show hers. This hints that he’s more reluctant to separate than she is, planting a question about why she seems determined to pursue the divorce.

Just as important, we’ve been given privileged access to both characters’ minds, and this sort of alternating omniscience will proceed throughout the film. There won’t be any more plunges this deep into subjectivity, but we’ll always know more than either does, because after they separate we’ll be attached to one or the other in large stretches.

For a time, though, we’re with both. In the mediator’s office, and then during the play’s performance, in the bar with the troupe after the show, and in the family apartment, they interact as a couple. (True, Charlie sleeps on the sofa.) But once Nicole moves to California, the first block of action ends and we are attached to her and Henry as she launches her new project, a TV pilot.

Not until Charlie comes to visit Nicole, her mother, and her sister does the narration bring him back. There he’s officially served the divorce papers. This scene launches a discreet viewpoint pivot from her to him. The family cuddle ends when Henry banishes Charlie from bed, foreshadowing how marginal his father will be to him from now on.

     

     

The film’s next block attaches us to Charlie as he seeks out a lawyer, takes Henry on outings, and clashes with Nicole about how to celebrate Halloween. The couple wind up giving Henry two trick-or-treating trips, in different costumes, which reiterates the duplex structure of action we’ve been presented with since the start.

The alternation between Nicole and Charlie’s viewpoints quickens as their negotiations get more fraught. Their first legal meeting ends with Charlie’s losing faith in his easygoing attorney. The next meeting is an escalating confrontation between Charlie’s new hard-charging lawyer and Nicole’s equally tough Nora. In the courtroom exchange, the he said/she said pattern becomes vicious as each lawyer weaponizes minor incidents from scenes we’ve seen to cast shame on the opposing side.

The nastiness of the custody battle comes to a crisis in a ten-minute duologue in Charlie’s apartment, an all-out fight between Nicole and Charlie. They run through a repertoire of reactions, from assurance of mutual admiration to declarations of annoyance, unhappiness, frustration, and complaints. By the end they’re screaming insults. Charlie rages and then, as if aware of how monstrous he’s being, collapses sobbing at Nicole’s feet.

     

Most classically constructed films follow the pattern Kristin identified back when. The plot consists of a setup, a complicating action redefining the setup, a development section consisting largely of delay and backstory, and a climax that resolves the situation. An epilogue asserts a stable, if changed state of affairs. The four main parts are roughly equal in running time, with the climax tending to be a bit shorter and the epilogue being only a few minutes.

Up to a point, Marriage Story conforms to this architecture. The first thirty minutes set up the split in the family before focusing on Nicole’s new life in California. Both Charlie and Nicole had hoped to separate amicably, with no need for lawyers. But thirty minutes in Nicole hires Nora and sets in motion a more severe legal battle than the couple had expected. The complicating action is triggered by serving Charlie the divorce papers.

There’s no turning back, and the new situation centers on figuring out how to handle access to Henry. Charlie wants Henry to spend time in New York (“We’re a New York family”) but Nicole wants him with her, and as he was born in California the law inclines to her side. Hence the triple thrust of the Charlie block: visiting lawyers, trying to keep his Broadway production on track, and winning some loyalty from Henry.

The development section consists of characterizing stretches (Nicole indulges in a quick sexual encounter) and delays: the unsatisfactory first lawyer session, a power outage at Nicole’s house, and the courtroom showdown. What happens next, though, seems to me quite original.

 

Between theatre and TV

To determine custody, both Nicole and Charlie must let an evaluator visit to observe each one’s treatment of Henry. In a more ordinary film, this stretch would initiate the climax. The visit from the evaluator would furnish a deadline for determining how custody would be handled. Then the film’s peak could be the vicious, trembling argument between Charlie and Nicole. This would be the explosion that reveals both their love and the impossibility of their staying together.

From this angle, Charlie’s guilt-ridden collapse would be the resolution–his realization of how he stunted Nicole’s life. A courtroom finale settling the terms of custody (a little more for Nicole than Charlie) would fill out the climax and lead to an epilogue, perhaps on the courthouse steps.

Excuse me for rewriting the film. I do it to show that Baumbach’s script does something daring. The big argument comes before the evaluator’s testing. After that brutal clash, we see Nicole rehearsing her answers in Nora’s office. Moreover, the blundering efforts of Charlie to convince the stiff evaluator he’s a good father play out in a lengthy comic scene with some gory sight gags.

     

A certain amount of suspense remains, I think, but the final cascade of gags works against the emotional pitch of the couple’s quarrel. Baumbach has, in effect, risked using an anticlimax to round out the normal climax section of the film. It also serves as a good-natured punishment for Charlie’s self-centeredness.

The same daring informs an unusually lengthy epilogue. It’s built out of the sort of modules we’ve seen already. Nicole and her friends and family celebrate her divorce with a party, while Charlie mopes around Manhattan and morosely salutes his play’s closing with his troupe in a bar. We might stop there, but Baumbach again does something original (though highly motivated). Charlie, now relocated for a teaching gig in LA, comes to pick up Henry and discovers the boy reading the note about Charlie that Nicole had prepared for the mediator session.

     

Not only does it reveal the feelings she had suppressed during the session, but the fact that she kept it shows she still harbors affection for that part of her life. Other films surprise us in the epilogue (Citizen Kane, for instance), but Baumbach’s use of the memoir in the film’s final moments remains a pretty bold, and moving, choice. This stretched and packed epilogue shows Charlie how much Nicole loved him, while also suggesting things that contributed to stifling her. Lines like “He’s very competitive” and “He loves being a dad” have a new impact now that we’ve seen his battle for his son.

In telling this story, Baumbach exploits a larger strategy of what theatre people call continuous exposition. Instead of giving the necessary backstory in a lump at the beginning or middle, major information is sprinkled through the ongoing plot. We’re used to it in films that trigger fragmentary flashbacks, filling in backstory bit by bit. Baumbach goes with a more “theatrical” strategy using dialogue to invoke things that happened before the first scenes..

One of the major instances involves Nicole, who breaks down in an embrace with Nora, sobbing that Charlie slept with his assistant. Coming half an hour into the movie, it explains Nicole’s bitterness in the mediation session, as well as her larger reappraisal of her life with Charlie. At other points we learn of big events, like Nicole’s show taking off and Charlie’s long-term settling in LA, in casual conversation, not in extended scenes.

Crucially, in their climactic quarrel, Charlie justifies his affair by accusing Nicole of withholding sex for a year. We can’t appraise the truth of this, but it at least fills in a motive that more conventional exposition would have put into the setup. Resisting the temptation to supply flashbacks for all these revelations, Baumbach trusts our memory. That way the new data can color our ongoing understanding of the characters. The opening montages were generous but one-sided, chunks of incomplete exposition that suppressed important motives and behavior.

Continuous exposition is associated with Ibsen and playwrights who followed, but the theatrical patron hovering over the film is Stephen Sondheim. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird had used Sondheim as a touchstone for ambitious high-school players, but the parallel structure of Marriage Story makes more explicit references, this time to Sondheim’s Company. Nicole’s party features her and her mother and sister performing  “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a saucy song about dumping a weak man. Soon in the bar Charlie is singing the yearning “Being Alive.”

     

Maybe a little on the nose (like the movie’s title), these citations seem true to the tastes of these show-biz mavens, while suggesting that at least some of Manhattan clings to Nicole in her exile.

Another parallel reminds us of a perennial Hollywood motif. Nicole began her career in a raunchy teen movie but thanks to Charlie’s stage shows she became a respected performer. Yet to establish her own identity more fully she agrees to shoot a TV pilot. Marriage Story positions itself between theatre (a little pretentious, but nobly struggling) and TV (dumb and superficial, but high-tech and well-financed). Worse, TV literally defaces Nicole.

     

Theatre, TV: what about film?

In this story about show-biz LA, movies and references to them are sparse. (I didn’t spot any.) So maybe we should take this film itself as standing in for righteous cinema, rather than the teenpic trash Nicole was in. Perhaps Marriage Story offers itself as its own example of the subtlety and risk-taking that cinema can embody. Even when streaming on Netflix.

 

Muses in the family

The family saga is one Hollywood genre that doesn’t get enough respect. We tend nowadays to celebrate the tough, not tender side of studio cinema. The cult of noir, the abundance of hard-edged action pictures, and the idolatry that trails Tarantino all tend to make us prefer force to gentleness. When families gather, we expect big trouble, if not outright murder (Knives Out). We decry weepies of any sort, and family sagas are often felt to be soft, schmaltzy, womanish. A male friend tells me that Little Women is “a movie about hugs.”  When NPR devotes a whole show to it, panelists ponder how to convince men to see it. No wonder the family film has migrated to daytime cable TV.

Yet the family saga is one of the nicest things American cinema does. Two of our greatest masterpieces, How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), are prime examples. The Forties were rich in such efforts, including Forever and a Day (1943),  Life with Father (1947), I Remember Mama (1948), The Human Comedy (1943), and Since You Went Away (1944). We ought to recognize as well the strength of later entries like The Joy Luck Club (1993), How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and Soul Food (1997), all trying out some of the fresh approaches to storytelling that were emerging in the 1990s.

And the sentiments informing domestic sagas seep into other genres. The Fast and Furious team, we’re told, come to be a family, as do the Avengers. The coming-of-age story, that perennial of indie cinema, inherits the aura of cozy warmth that is central to the family saga. I’d add one of my favorites, We Bought a Zoo (2011), which isn’t really a saga but does radiate a comparable warmth.

Although there are probably earlier examples (I think of Vidor’s 1924 Wine of Youth), it seems likely that the 1933 MGM production of Little Women furnished an important template. The four March sisters, each drawn to a different art form, are a model for the musically gifted sisters in the fine Four Daughters (1938).

And surely the fact that Katrin in I Remember Mama chronicles the family’s daily lives owes a lot to the example of Jo March, aspiring novelist.

The family saga poses at least three creative problems for the filmmaker. Since each family member is likely to confront personal problems (romance, finance, school, job) how do you weave and weight multiple storylines? How do you provide conflict to propel the action? And, since the “saga” comparison suggests development over years or even generations, how do you handle long spans of time cinematically?

Greta Gerwig handles all these problems adroitly in her version of Little Women. I’m going to concentrate on the film, but I’m aware that some of the narrative strategies are taken from Louisa May Alcott’s original novel. But much of what’s ingenious about Gerwig’s adaptation is of her own devising.

Start with storylines. In most such films, the trick is to create a group but then produce a scale of emphasis running from minor figures to the most important one typically, the “first among equals.” In How Green, that is Huw, also our narrator; in Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s Esther. But the doings of other characters shape the family’s destiny and the decisions made by the spotlighted figure. So the activities intertwine.

In Little Women, characters shape one another’s development. Jo, the first among equals, is nonconformist and self-reliant. Yet she needs steering–from Friedrich, the professor who tries to turn her away from sensation fiction, and more importantly from Beth, who in her sickness urges her to write “our story.” They give her the strength to persist and trust her sense of what her writing can be.

On the romance front, Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal of marriage opens the field for sister Amy, who has already supplanted Jo in the role of amanuensis to Aunt March. When Jo, out of loneliness, decides to welcome Laurie’s offer, it’s too late: he’s married to Amy. The tangled alliances of melodrama get tightly bound in the family saga.

The other sisters contribute to the causal weave of the plot, with Meg’s decision to abandon the stage reinforcing Jo’s stubborn attachment to her art. More generally, the fates of the sisters dramatize the tension between creative impulse and the social demands of domesticity. Meg wants a family more than fame. Amy, the indifferent painter, can hope only for a good marriage (the same prospect Aunt March makes explicit to Jo).

In family sagas, the siblings are put in parallel. Huw’s brothers leave the household, but he loyally stays, and Rose, the mature sister, has more trouble attracting men than the vivacious Esther. Here, Jo’s kindred spirit is Beth the pianist, whose playing gives solace to Mr. Laurence in his grief. But illness keeps Beth from fulfilling herself either as artist or grown woman. As for Marmee, we’re allowed to catch a glint of Jo’s defiance behind the older woman’s warmth when she confesses that she’s angry every day.

J’s main contrast is with Amy. Amy has done nasty things, but she accepts the burden, laid down by Aunt March, of marrying for money, not love, in order to benefit her loved ones. She does this even though, as she reveals in a key scene, she has always loved Laurie and has always felt herself overshadowed by Jo. (Those revelations are also suggested as what leads Laurie to fall in love with her, and not simply as a substitute for Jo.) Even the various suitors get ranged along comparative dimensions of class, strength of will, and temperament.

The need to provide a dense social milieu also creates parallels–here, in terms of good deeds. The Marches are lower middle-class, living on a parson’s income, but they share their Christmas dinner with a more deprived family. The primary family is constantly compared to the wealthy Laurences, who are generous and good-hearted. Even Aunt March, who married well and embraced hardheaded principles, wills her mansion to Jo. The contrast with the flinty publishing house and the imperious Dashwood is softened when we learn, surprise, that he has a batch of daughters himself.

What about conflict in the family saga? There’s often an external threat–predatory capitalism in How Green Was My Valley, the war in The Human Comedy–but not always a personified antagonist. Often these films have no straightforward villains. Parental error can move the plot, as when in Meet Me in St. Louis Alonzo Smith announces that he’s taking a job in New York. And crises are created by misunderstandings or happenstance, most commonly illness. Somebody almost always gets hurt (here, Meg’s twisted ankle, Amy’s plunge through the ice) or sick (Beth’s scarlet fever).

By and large, the conflicts come through romance and sibling rivalry. In Little Women, Meg loves John only somewhat more than she loves fine clothes, so their impoverished marriage nags at her heart. Amy, enraged at not going to the theatre, burns Jo’s manuscripts. Jo responds with hatred–until Amy falls through the ice and needs rescuing. Amy later considers marrying a rich nonentity, and instead acknowledges her long love for Laurie–who in turn loves Jo. As in most melodramas, we know more than any one character, so we watch as characters’ hopes rise against forces they don’t yet realize.

Even without a clear-cut antagonist, the family members can have goals. The March girls start out as aspiring artists, and stretches of the plot are devoted to them developing their abilities. As their goals change, swerving two of them to marriage and maternity, Jo keeps striving toward what we see her doing in the film’s very first scene: selling her stories. Her burning desire to write is a major through-line, and it encounters obstacles of many sorts, from the harrumphing Dashwood to the destruction of her manuscripts by Amy. And even Jo, as we’ve seen, recasts her goals: in offering solace to the dying Beth, she will write “all about us.”

That means writing about the family as it changes over time. Our third narrative problem, in other words.

 

“If I were a girl in a book, this would all be so easy”

Marriage Story‘s avoidance of flashbacks makes it unusual nowadays. It’s hard to find a movie without at least a few flashbacks. As mysteries, Motherless Brooklyn and Knives Out resort to them to replay scenes with new information. Other films make time shifts basic to their architecture. The Aeronauts uses flashbacks to supply the backstory to an unfolding crisis situation, while Hustlers switches between a contemporary interview and stages in the career of the woman questioned.

The Irishman goes for deeper embedding. The overall frame showing elderly Frank Sheeran in the care facility; the next frame is Frank’s trip with Russell Bufalino and their wives to upstate New York, where Frank will kill Hoffa. That trip in turn flashes back to the central story of Frank’s career with the mob. I try to show in Reinventing Hollywood that this sort of Russian-doll structure comes to be a major option in American film during the 1940s.

In Little Women, the years of change in the March family are given through alternating blocks. We start in the present, with Jo in New York struggling to get published. She’s summoned back to Concord because Beth is ill. Meg is living in poverty with husband John, and Amy is in Paris with Aunt March. For about eleven minutes, crosscutting carries us among the sisters.

This block of exposition is followed by a title, “7 Years Earlier,” that sets up the time oscillations we’ll get for the rest of the film. In chronological order we follow the sisters growing up. Chunks of scenes from the past, shifting viewpoint among several characters, alternate with briefer scenes of the ongoing present showing Jo’s settling back into the family. Sometimes the cuts break the blocks into smaller, interlocking bits, as when we shuttle quickly between Beth’s childhood illness and her fatal one years later.

Why split a linear story into two intercut strands? Flashbacks often create a specific sort of anticipation: Not just What will happen next? but What caused the outcome I already more or less know? In the first ten minutes we learn that Laurie proposed to Jo and she refused him; that Amy, not Jo, became Aunt March’s traveling companion; that Meg married John, the impoverished tutor. We’ll witness the development of all these turning points, and more. We must watch the rise and fall of characters’ hopes, knowing they will be dashed. But we also know, from Jo’s initial visit to the publishing house, that she will gain some success. This time-jumping gives us another level of omniscience, one that lets us savor the details of emotional scenes whose outcomes we roughly know. We’re in the theatre, after all, to enjoy the rapture of pathos.

Instead of tagging each time shift with a date, Gerwig expects us to keep track of the double-entry storylines. She assists us by making story motifs visual hooks between past and present. Silk for a dress, a key, Jo seen writing at a window–these link scenes but also carry dramatic weight in the ongoing action. Other echoes are longer-rang. We’re invited to remember contrasting dance scenes (tavern, ballroom, porch), scorched dresses, and piano pieces.

Eventually the past scenes catch up with the present. The fusion comes with the burial of Beth and one more clutch of flashbacks, to Meg’s wedding. I take this as the end of the development section. “Childhood is over,” Jo says. Back in the present, Jo vows to abandon writing.

Now the present-time action dominates the climax. Grieving for Beth, distraught at Meg’s leaving the household, and crushed by the marriage of Laurie and Amy, Jo burns her manuscripts–except for the stories she wrote for Beth. She starts to assemble them and write more.

After a glimpse of Dashwood refusing the manuscript, we see Friedrich come to visit the Marches on his way to California. After he’s left for the station, the family claims that Jo obviously loves him.

At this point, in her most daring creative choice, Gerwig retains the crosscutting technique in a way that seems to continue the present/past alternation. Dashwood’s daughters have urged him to publish Jo’s manuscript. In New York, in a scene that rhymes with the opening passage, Jo negotiates with Dashwood.

     

Their conversation is intercut with views of Jo rushing to the station to catch Friedrich and ask him to stay.

The epilogue consists of more alternations. We see Jo watching Little Women being printed, crosscut with a party at the school Jo has founded in Aunt March’s mansion. There John, Friedrich, and Laurie can be glimpsed as Meg and Amy teach children the arts they had practiced. The celebration ends with a birthday cake presented to Marmee.

But there’s another way to take the final minutes. The alternation isn’t tracking two points in time–Jo’s rush to Friedrich and a later session with Dashwood–but rather a split between fiction and reality.

We’re coaxed to take scene of Jo’s pursuit of Friedrich as representing not her own action but the changes that Dashwood demands in Jo’s novel. “Who does she marry?” he asks, explaining that a book sells only if there’s a marriage. Jo reluctantly agrees. “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition, even in fiction.” Cut to Jo racing to the station. After the shots of her embracing Friedrich under an umbrella, we’re back in the office. Dashwood suggests the chapter title, “Under the Umbrella,” and Jo agrees. But in turn she makes demands: “You keep your five hundred dollars and I’ll keep the copyright. . . . I want to own my own book.”

We’ve assumed throughout that Jo’s book is highly autobiographical, but we’ve taken what we see and hear as actual events, the living source of a literary text. Instead, the crosscut climax allows a parallel reality to burst forth,  a road not taken. The epilogue yields another ambivalent passage of crosscutting. The school party might be veridical; certainly the family would likely gather for Marmee’s birthday. But the scene could as well serve as the fictional epilogue in Jo’s book (as it does in the Alcott original).

The true epilogue of Jo’s story would then be the moment when she sees her book printed, action that’s crosscut with the celebration. Jo gets the first copy. In the last shot, pleasure, apprehension, and determination play across her features. And she’s framed in a window, an approximate reverse shot to the image that opened the film (above).

From the start Gerwig has shrewdly foreshadowed the turn to fiction by presenting the film’s title, after Jo has made her first sale, as not an inscription on the screen but the physical book itself. That book is signed by L. M. Alcott. The apparently identical volume that comes off the printing press at the end bears the name J. L. March. Gerwig has let Jo appropriate Alcott’s story.

By giving us a double-voiced ending, Gerwig does something quite bold. Little Women becomes something of a “what-if” movie, positing two paths for her heroine. Alcott’s Jo had given up a literary career, whereas Gerwig’s Jo finds one by writing her own life and adding an optional ending. We’re free to think that Jo and Friedrich married and the family became a harmonious whole, as in Alcott’s book. A happy ending, we might say, for those who want one. But this film about hugs ends with the heroine hugging not a husband but her novel. Unmarried in life, Jo can marry in fiction, and Gerwig can have it both ways. Narrative lets you do things like that.

 

I haven’t been able to do justice to the intriguing choices made in other films of the season. I appreciate, for instance, the nonlinearity in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, where the interruptions of present-time action offer Harriet’s premonitions of future scenes. This sort of “prophetic” flashforward is rare; usually such passages are presented as omniscient narration, not assigned to characters. But the device does establish Harriet as a sensitive, almost angelic figure, and suggests that her quest to guide slaves to freedom is sustained not just by faith but by holiness.

Still, looking in a little depth at just two major films can make us aware of several choices available to filmmakers at this point in history. As Wölfflin said, “Not everything is possible at all times.” But film researchers can usefully trace the flexible menu of options that filmmakers work with, and film viewers come to master.


Gerwig has kindly made available a version of the screenplay, which I discovered only after I wrote this. (Thanks, Kristin.) The notations for the final sequences are pretty interesting. The most wide-ranging discussion I’ve seen of the ending, with plenty of links, is the conversation between Marissa Martinelli and Heather Schwedel in Slate. Among several perceptive reviews, I’d single out the one in Time by Stephanie Zacharek and Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker.

I can’t help but think how central crosscutting, that technique pioneered by early filmmakers, is to both of these films. Techniques endure because they open up a lot of expressive possibilities.

Kristin elaborates on arguments for four-part plot structure in Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Extended examples on this site are here and here. I discuss family sagas of the 1940s, along with flashbacks, protagonists, and other narrative techniques in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. On 1990s revival of these techniques, see The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies.

Marriage Story (2019). Is this why the film includes few standing two-shots of Nicole and Charlie?

Captain Cinephilia: Scorsese strikes back

Brian McFadden, No One Is Safe: Martin Scorsese Roasts Your Fandom.”

DB here:

It started with a brief, almost offhand remark.

“I don’t see them,” [Scorsese] says of the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

When I learned about this interview (Empire, November issue), I took it as simply a roundabout statement of personal taste. Scorsese doesn’t find Marvel movies, and perhaps other comic-book sagas of superheroes, to his taste. He gave them a fair shot, but he now no longer sees them. He considers them visceral stimulation, like carnivals or theme parks. They’re not cinema, if you consider cinema as emotional expression of psychological conflicts.

In the massive responses to Scorsese, people pointed out that viewers often respond emotionally to superhero films. They root for certain characters, they’re amused or thrilled by certain situations, and many claim to be deeply moved by the heroes and villains (Loki, even Thanos). In fact, it’s exactly the “emotional, psychological experiences” embedded in the Marvel and DC plots that some fans say distinguish them from crude comic-book movies that went before. Much the same could be said of the Bond films, which became more humanized with Quantum of Solace, though intermittently before.

As for the claim that the superhero films “aren’t cinema,” I wasn’t really upset. Over the decades we’ve heard that 1910s films “aren’t cinema” (too theatrical), or that adaptations of novels or plays “aren’t cinema” (too literary or stagebound), or that narrative films “aren’t cinema” (usually proposed by avant-gardists). When the claim relies on a notion of some cinematic essence (editing, or pure visual form) that’s missing from this or that movie, you might be able to have a productive conversation. But if “This isn’t cinema” comes down to “I don’t like films like this,” we’re back to personal taste.

On other occasions Scorsese went on to say a lot more. The ultimate result was a 7 November article in the New York Times. I think we should take this as his most thoroughgoing effort to explain his thinking. We can supplement that with some remarks he made in interviews and Q & A sessions.

Herewith my attempts to figure out Scorsese’s argument. Trying to sort this out might teach us some important things about film now.

 

Scorsese in defense of Cinema

Scorsese’s Times article, “I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” begins by disclaiming any hatred for Marvel movies as such. “The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament.”

But everyone’s taste gets shaped by their moviegoing experience, and in his youth Scorsese was attracted to films from America and Europe. These yielded “revelation—aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual revelation.” The films were, he felt, about characters who were complex, sometimes contradictory in their minds and behavior.

Moreover, these films showed that cinema was an art form, one existing in both commercial and more experimental spheres. Hollywood studio output (Ford Westerns, Hitchcock thrillers), European imports (Bergman, Godard), and avant-garde work (Scorpio Rising)—all these showed that cinema had powers equal to those of music, dance, and literature. These films were technically accomplished, sometimes virtuoso, but at their hearts were intense, complex emotional appeals that assured that they would be watched for decades later.

Today the Marvel pictures, often skillfully made, lack “revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger.” They are repetitive, adhering to a basic formula, “defined as variations on a finite number of themes.” By contrast, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Wes Anderson, and other directors offer new and unpredictable experiences, and they expand the possibilities of the art form. “The unifying vision of an individual artist” is essential to cinema.

It’s exactly the exploratory filmmakers who are being stifled by the Marvel releases, and indeed all the franchises. These more personal films aren’t just constrained by lower budgets; they can’t get much exposure on theatre screens either. “Around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen.” Most filmmakers design their films for that scale and that communal experience, but the blockbuster films are pushing smaller pictures into streaming outlets.

The franchise mentality is a corporate one. The products are “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.” As often happens, the business constrains the art. But you might say, what about the old studio system? Wasn’t that as mercenary as today’s franchise juggernaut? No, because the studios set up a creative tension between the business end and the artistic end that yielded outstanding works, even masterpieces. Today’s franchise producers are indifferent to art and hold a view of film history that is both “dismissive and proprietary.”

As a result we have two domains: worldwide audiovisual entertainment vs. cinema. They overlap less and less, and it seems likely that the financial power of one will dominate and belittle the other.

I think that some of these arguments are plausible, while others deserve more probing.

 

Film art: Who’s the artist?

Andrew Sarris.

During the 1950s and 1960s, this general argument was promulgated by the so-called auteur critics around Cahiers du cinéma and was developed and promoted by Andrew Sarris in the US and Movie magazine in the UK. Scorsese was deeply influenced by these ideas. He was one of many cinephile directors-in-training who assumed that the best films bore the “unifying vision of the individual artist,” who was the auteur (author) of the film.

What was considered the “auteur theory” is too complicated to explore fully here. Minimally, it’s the idea that, all other things being equal, in many movies (often the best ones) the director can be considered the source of the film’s distinctive artistic qualities. The director may achieve this by exercising near-total control (e.g., Chaplin), or working with close collaborators (Powell and Pressburger, Donen and Kelly) or serving as a “filter” for the offerings of various contributors (probably most filmmakers).

This is the minimal case. The maximal one rests on the idea that once we make the director the central power, we then discover a “unifying vision.” At this level the distinctive features of form, style, and theme coalesce into a personal conception of human life. For Ford, that might include the value of traditions and the costs they demand of those subscribing to them. Hitchcock’s recurring concern, Robin Wood famously argued, is the realization that complacency, a trust in social order, is vulnerable to disruption.

The difference between the two versions I’m sketching isn’t hard and fast. Still, it often holds good. A friend, for instance, grants that Tony Scott is a distinctive  filmmaker. “He just has nothing to say.” The idea that an auteur has something consistent and personal to “say,” deliberately or unconsciously, from film to film, is a hallmark of auteur criticism at its most ambitious. And the greatest auteurs, perhaps, show development in what they say across their careers. John Ford’s attitude toward the frontier can be said to change from The Iron Horse (1924) to Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The minimalist auteur concept isn’t new. From the 1920s on, historians and critics often attributed creative authority to Griffith, Chaplin, De Mille, Hitchcock, and European and Soviet directors. And in most film industries, executives recognized that the director had the most responsibility for the film’s look and feel.

One revolutionary edge of auteur criticism was to discover auteurs nobody had noticed before–largely unknown filmmakers working alongside humbler folk. And the critics went further, suggesting that some of these filmmakers could be considered auteurs to the max.

Typically auteur critics didn’t examine the concrete context of production to determine who did what in particular cases. They inferred directorial expression by watching lots of films and tracing recurring strategies of style and theme. Sometimes they backed their conclusions up by interviews with–who else?–the director.

Minimal versions of the auteur idea are central to film culture now. Festivals promote directors, as do studio marketers. Movie lists in reference books and search sites give directors the pride of place. Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews usually don’t name producers, cinematographers, and other contributors, but the director is always mentioned (and blamed or praised for the film). Academics and cinephile critics ascribe more maximalist “personal visions” to directors around the world, from David Lynch and Spike Lee to Wes Anderson to Wong Kar-wai and Jane Campion.

 

Auteur +genre = ?

Black Panther: Danai Gurira (Okoye), Ryan Coogler on the set.

Despite the prominence of some directors, they’re usually not what draws audiences. In most countries, the mass-market cinema is dominated by genres that are populated by well-known stars.

Sarris and others assumed that auteurs built upon the foundations provided by genre conventions and star images. Ford gave the Western a new force not only through his images and use of music but also by redefining the star personas of John Wayne and Henry Fonda. Hitchcock and Lang worked with and against the conventions of the thriller, while Ophuls gave the melodrama a melancholic elegance. Or so goes auteur gospel.

The 1970s New Hollywood auteurs embraced genre filmmaking as well. Bogdanovich, Coppola, Altman, Woody Allen, and others tested themselves in a variety of genres. Even Scorsese tried a “woman’s picture” (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a musical (New York, New York), and a biopic (Raging Bull). They are only roughly parallel to today’s indie filmmaker who, after a breakthrough project at Sundance or SxSW, signs on to make a franchise picture.

As a generous and enthusiastic cinephile, Scorsese has long subscribed to a version of auteurism. Perhaps one source of his misgivings about Marvel and its counterparts is that he can’t detect auteurs in these movies. Does that mean they aren’t there? Is today’s studio cinema largely a genre cinema, minus the classic bonus of high-end auteur expression?

One of his comments has attracted little notice. Scorsese remarks of the theme-park picture:

The technique is very well done but there is only one Spielberg, there is only one Lucas, James Cameron. It’s a different thing now.

This implies that even the franchise genres could sustain some degree of what Sarris called “directorial personality.” Admirers of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarock, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, or Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman might agree. This has been one line of defense in the pushback to Scorsese’s comments.

Or maybe we should attribute whiffs of personal expression today to the producers (Bruckheimer, Kathleen Kennedy, Kevin Feige). Even in Hollywood’s heyday, we sense Gone with the Wind and Duel in the Sun as Selznick productions. Then there’s Walt Disney, surely a producer as auteur. I suspect that Scorsese finds these old films more inspiring than today’s behemoths.

 

Closing the drawbridge on Fort Multiplex

Avengers: Endgame (2019).

A genre can rise and fall in popularity. As the Western and the musical declined in the 1970s, horror and science-fiction gained traction as both programmers and A-list blockbusters. Add in the rise of fantasy, crystallized in the prestige accorded the Lord of the Rings installments. Oddly, as comic book sales declined, comic-book movies came to be a central contemporary genre. The superhero film proved a powerful blend of all these trends.

Today, the stifling presence of the fantasy/SF/comic-book franchises seems obvious. Look at two snapshots.

In 1999, the world’s top-grossing film was Star Wars: Episode 1. Among the twenty top hits were fantasy/SF blockbusters The Matrix and The Mummy, as well as a Bond entry. But there were also lower-budget horror films (The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project). Most surprisingly, the top twenty include many comedies, mostly star-driven.

Now consider the 2018 situation.

Five of the global top ten were superhero films. The big winner was Avengers: Infinity War, which earned over two billion dollars globally–nearly twice as much as second-place Black Panther. Among the top ten are Venom, Aquaman, and Deadpool 2. Add The Incredibles as a sixth superhero film if you want. At 11 is Ant-Man and the Wasp. Most of the remaining titles are also franchise entries. There’s also the fantasy/SF blend Ready Player One, the monster movie Rampage, and the action thriller The Meg. Only China is offering live-action comedy (Detective Chinatown 2) and drama (Dying to Survive).

Of course nobody knows better than Scorsese that the big-budget fantasy/SF film has long been with us. His New York, New York (1977) came out the same year as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while 1980 saw the release of both Raging Bull and The Empire Strikes Back. But in those years straight-up genre films had a fighting chance. Smokey and the Bandit, The Goodbye Girl, 9 to 5, Airplane!, and others won big box-office.

Scorsese films have landed in the top twenty occasionally (e.g., The Color of Money and The Wolf of Wall Street). On the whole, though, I’m not suggesting that Scorsese now sees himself as competing with the biggest grossers. He’s surely right that today’s superhero films dominate the landscape. But do they squeeze out other films to the degree he suggests?

In some venues, probably yes. Small towns with one or two multiplexes may not have space for the minor-key movie. But bigger towns and midsize cities can be quite hospitable to them. In one week, alongside the big releases, multiplexes in  my town of Madison, Wisconsin (pop. about 250,000) played Motherless Brooklyn, Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, The Lighthouse, The Current War, Brittany Runs a Marathon, and documentaries on Molly Ivins and Miles Davis. At least some of these qualify as original vehicles. At its widest release, The Lighthouse played on nearly 1000 US screens, and Jojo Rabbit arrived at over 800.

These are merely data points, not systematic samplings. And you might argue that we’re in the middle of Oscar qualifying season, so more offbeat films are numerous now. Okay, go back to July, the most competitive month for domestic releases. Nationally, the big pictures didn’t prevent the release of Yesterday, Midsommar, Late Night, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Booksmart, The Dead Don’t Die, The Biggest Little Farm, The Farewell, The Art of Self-Defense, Amazing Grace, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Again, not all of these count as auteur vehicles, and several failed domestically, but they still squeezed into multiplexes. The Tarantino film obviously commanded a wide release, but many of the titles I mentioned played on between 1000 and 2000 screens. Booksmart opened on over 2500, Midsommar on 2700.

The industry doesn’t depend on the smaller or more personal titles, but then it seldom has. The biggest box-office successes in the heyday of the studio system were almost never auteur classics. Variety reported that the top domestic hits of 1943 were For Whom the Bell Tolls, Song of Bernadette, This Is the Army, Stage Door Canteen, Random Harvest, Hitler’s Children, Casablanca, Madame Curie, Star Spangled Rhythm, and Coney Island. True, Frank Borzage struck gold with Stage Door Canteen, but it’s not typical of his work. Lubitsch (Heaven Can Wait) and Hitchcock ( Shadow of a Doubt) were far down the list, bested by the likes of Sam Wood, Clarence Brown, and Henry King.

Or take 1952, ruled by The Greatest Show on Earth (De Mille), Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Sailor Beware, The African Queen (Huston), Jumping Jacks, High Noon (Zinneman), and Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly).  True, The Quiet Man hit number 12, and Mann’s Bend in the River number 13. But of the top hundred the only other auteur pictures seem to be Pat and Mike (no. 39), Monkey Business (no, 47), Carrie (no. 54), The Lusty Men (no. 76), and Five Fingers (no. 85).

It seems plausible, then, that in Hollywood “audiovisual entertainment” has overwhelmingly dominated the market for decades. Auteurs seldom win the biggest grosses. But again Scorsese’s career history may have influenced his judgment.

There was a moment, the Holy 1970s, when genre cinema with a personal-vision inflection was occasionally lucrative. The Godfather, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Graffiti, Blazing Saddles, Alien, Apocalypse Now, The Shining, and other notably original productions did earn money and awards. Yet in retrospect that seems an interregnum. The top rentals of the following decade, the 1980s, were dominated by Spielberg and Zemeckis. Then there were the usual array of star-driven comedies and action pictures. Genres came back strong, and auteurs had to work within them, or around the edges.

Such is pretty much the case right now. At the top end, perhaps the superhero films are roughly equivalent to the biblical sagas, historical pageants, and theatrical adaptations that roadshowed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Now as then, a number of auteur films are still getting theatrical releases. The blockbusters keep the lights on and the popcorn moving so that theatres can afford to wedge straight-up genre pictures and offbeat indies into their week. It seems that you can’t run Avengers: Endgame on all 22 screens.

 

Art vs. craft?

Anthony and Joe Russo directing Avengers: Endgame.

But maybe we shouldn’t think of the big pictures as “audiovisual entertainment.” What’s opposed to that? “Cinema,” Scorsese said. I’d propose that this formulation means “artistic cinema.” Which is to say that we’re in the realm of the classic distinction between art and entertainment.

This has given an opening to the people riled up by Scorsese’s remarks. Admirers of Marvel, DC, and comparable pictures can say that they find them as emotional, revelatory, inspiring, etc. as anything he finds in Bergman or Sam Fuller. They feel it in their bones. And who’s to gainsay that? Scorsese doesn’t have their bones, and neither do you or I.

On more objective grounds, I suggest that Scorsese has floated another distinction. Forget calling some things “cinema” and some things not. I think that he’s distinguishing craft from art.

Let’s say provisionally that craft is the skillful manipulation of the medium to produce the desired effects. Art, on this understanding, can be considered something more. It’s usually grounded in craft, but not always. It’s also formally and emotionally complex, original in its relation to what came before, and offering new experiences on repeated exposure (rather than replays of the original response). Many, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, would add that art induces reflection on ourselves and the world, making us wiser and deepening our humanity.

From this angle, Scorsese’s recognition of the “talent and artistry” of franchise films can be seen as a nod to craft competence. “The technique,” he says, “is very well done.” Our blockbusters are comparable to many of those anonymous hits of the studio era, turned out by skillful but impersonal artisans.

In response, the MCU advocates would need to show that the films go beyond craft. For example, some advocates find in these films the kind of character complexity Scorsese attributes to Hitchcock. He finds that Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest suffers “painful emotions” and an “absolute lostness.” Marvel fans will say something like this about moments in the stories of Tony Stark, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and the Winter Soldier.

Scorsese might reply that these are not complex characters. Yet for many years people said the same about the work of Hitchcock and other Hollywood auteurs. When people started to study them, we saw things differently. Only closer analysis of the comic-book films can give us better grounds to argue about whether their characters exhibit the “contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures” Scorsese champions.

 

Realism and its rivals

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014); Raging Bull (1980).

A few scattered speculations and I’m done.

I don’t know that we’ve fully recognized that these SF and fantasy franchises descend from earlier forms. Silent crime serials and installment films featuring Dr. Gar el-Hama and Judex had the same reliance on secret identities and world-threatening master villains. Chinese wuxia films gave their knight-errants the power to soar into the air (the “weightless leap”) and emit blasts of energy (“palm power”). The bullet ballets of Hong Kong films have obviously influenced Hollywood action pictures, but we haven’t acknowledged how our comic-book movies incorporate fantasy martial arts techniques. Hollywood owes Asian action cinema more than we usually admit.

But the silent policiers and the fantasy wuxia are flagrantly unrealistic. And Scorsese, more than many of his colleagues, is committed to realism. He couldn’t, I think, make Big Trouble in Little China or Kill Bill. I’d suggest he’s intrinsically out of sympathy with quasi-supernatural action. (Hugo is a historical film, and it’s about a sacred era of Cinema past.) Superhero dramaturgy, I hazard, rubs him the wrong way, and not just because it lacks psychological depth.

I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog that Scorsese makes forays into expressionist and impressionist technique, but they usually issue from a base of harsh realism. His commitment to realism may make it hard for him to engage with the more outrageous narrative conventions of the superhero film.

Here another classic dichotomy suggests itself. If you have to choose between basing your story on plot or character, Scorsese will choose character. In fantasy films, though, character motive and reaction are based on elaborate plot machinations. These films depend a lot on elaborate fake identities, as well as recognitions of hidden kinship. She’s my sister! He’s my father! Such devices serve to provide intricate genealogies and networks of relationships for fan homework.

Likewise, theatrical melodrama and adventure fiction from the nineteenth century supply superhero sagas with orphans of mysterious parentage, duels, hairbreadth escapes, family secrets, coded documents, precious but mysterious objects, and other franchise conventions. These are woven into complex schemes and counter-schemes of the sort found in the silent crime serials. But all these features run counter to the psychological conflicts that animate Scorsese’s plots.

Recognitions of kinship rely in turn on a plot strategy that’s worth discussing a little more; I suspect it yields much of the emotional resonance that fans enjoy. These films rely on courtship and romantic rivalries throughout, of course, as well as friendships forged and broken. These are standard for most American genres. But I’ve been surprised at how often family relations are developed in complicated ways.

It’s not just Star Wars. The Marvel Universe relies heavily on kinship to sustain its plots, as well as its pathos. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts have a daughter, as does Scott Lang. Hawkeye has a family, as does T’Challa, whose cousin N’Jadaka becomes a prime adversary. Nebula and Gamora are pressured to be dutiful daughters to Thanos. Thor and Loki share a mother, Frigga. You can argue that Tony Stark becomes a father-figure for Peter Parker. Other characters are more isolated, but for some of them, notably Natasha and Bucky, the Avengers team constitutes a surrogate family.

Marvel’s focus on the family asks us to exercise the skills we must bring to classic mythology, nineteenth-century novels, and TV soap operas. We need to keep track of who’s related to whom, and what in their past encounters can arouse obligations and conflicts. I don’t think that plots resting on such dense kinship relations are of great appeal to Scorsese; his families, when they’re present at all, are pretty small-scale (Raging BullCape Fear, Shutter IslandThe Age of Innocence).

Most of all, when Scorsese speaks of these films shying away from risk, I suspect he’d include their avoidance of narrative risk. In fantasy and SF, nobody need really die. Hero, villain, love interest, and sidekick can return in a parallel world, or they can be resuscitated through a new gadget. The worst outcome need not be the worst, as when Avengers: Endgame uses nanotech and time travel to rewrite the past. Plot mechanics again. Despite all the assurances that Tony Stark is really, really gone, we could find a way to bring him back if Downey wanted to sign on again. (Black Widow is being resurrected for a prequel adventure.) But there’s no bringing back Sport from Taxi Driver or Rodrigues from Silence—except in a prequel, another convention that Scorsese would likely disdain.

I’m just spitballing here, but for Scorsese and other stylized realists like Michael Mann, the comic-book convention of eternal return might seem merely juvenile wish fulfillment. Something really has to be at stake, and ultimates must be faced’ Danger and death are real. This is grown-up drama.

I’m not intrinsically opposed to the conventions ruling comic-book movies myself. In general, I think that plot is as underrated as character is overrated. (I’d rather give up the distinction altogether, but that’s another story.) Superhero films are mostly not to my taste, but I think they’re worth studying as intriguing contributions to trends in modern cinema. My point is just that the personal aesthetic of Scorsese, as both cinephile and cineaste, doesn’t fit very well with the elaborate, ever-changing rules of the magical MCU. He finds enough magic in a sinuous tracking shot, or a carefully synced doo-wop song, or an unexpected angle, or a wiseguy shouting match. That is Cinema.

 

There are other questions we might ask about Scorsese’s remarks. For instance, when he celebrates the thrill of communal moviegoing as a central feature of Cinema, he seems to ignore the fact that the franchise pictures are our prime multiplex attractions.  Many viewers slot the more “personal films” into a future Netflix queue, but they commit themselves to seeing the big films on the big screen. That choice can yield contemporary viewers some of the electricity that Scorsese found at a screening of Rear Window. And when they’re not checking their text messages or chatting loudly with their pals, they might even give themselves up to laughs, screams, and applause, just as in the old days.

Since I wrote this, though, something much more draconian than superhero pictures may threaten non-franchise pictures. On Monday, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim said that the  Department of Justice is moving to end the consent decrees that have governed Hollywood studio conduct since 1948. (See here and here.)

The implications of this are staggering. We may see the return of block and blind booking, the prospect that a studio could own a theatre chain (and give favored place to its own pictures), and the decline of independent producers and art houses that favor smaller films. Nonsensically, Delrahim quoted an earlier Scorsese remark about his craft: “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Delrahim went on: “Antitrust enforcers, however, were not cast to decide in perpetuity what’s in and what’s out with respect to innovation in an industry.”  Thus the ideology of predatory “disrupters” goes on, and even auteurs are unwillingly recruited to the enterprise.


Thanks to Jim Danky for calling my attention to the McFadden comic, and to Jeff Smith for discussions of Scorsese’s arguments. Thanks as well to Colin Burnett for discussion of the Bond saga.

My lists of top-twenty films come from the European Audiovisual Observatory’s publications Focus 1999 and Focus 2019.

I’ve left aside other writers’ analyses of Scorsese’s views. I benefited from reading Ben Child and Helen O’Hara in The Guardian, Christopher Orr’s older review in The Atlantic, and Zachary Zahos at Playback. Also pretty forceful is Kevin Feige’s defense of the MCU, which I discovered only after writing this entry. He argues for Marvel films’ value on several grounds, including their display of positive social values. And just before I posted this, the Russo brothers weighed in.

Here are other Scorsese comments made before the New York Times piece appeared. After his BAFTA David Lean lecture on 12 October, he reiterated his view.

Theatres have become amusement parks. That is all fine and good but don’t invade everything else in that sense. That is fine and good for those who enjoy that type of film and, by the way, knowing what goes into them now, I admire what they do. It’s not my kind of thing, it simply is not. It’s creating another kind of audience that thinks cinema is that. If you have a child and the child wants to see the picture, what are you going to do? It’s up to you. The audience that sees them now, the fans that see those pictures now, they were raised on pictures like that.

The technique is very well done, but there is only one Spielberg, only one Lucas, James Cameron, it’s a different thing now. It’s an invasion, so to speak, in the theatre. . . .

We are in a moment not only of evolution but of revolution, in pretty much the whole world, everything we know, the old political systems, it’s almost as if the 21st century is beginning now and technology has gone with it and that means cinema goes with it.

Yes, see a movie in a theatre, it’s the best with an audience, but the actual concept of cinema has become something that is not definable. Something can play as a hologram, something can play as virtual reality, maybe there is going to be an extraordinary epic in virtual reality at some point. We have to start expanding what we think of as narrative, music, literature, art and particularly the visual image.

Granted, this whole passage is a bit baffling. It’s not completely clarified in a press conference the next day at the BFI London Film Festival. The relevant section starts at 16:26.

It’s also interesting that Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Dr. Strange) defends the need for auteurs.

Some comments on Sarris’s career and the vagaries of auteur theory are here. I discuss Black Panther and its debt to classical Hollywood storytelling here.

Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas (2007).

Cornell Woolrich: The overstrained imagination goes to the movies

DB here:

Can a storyteller be maladroit in using his or her medium and still be worth reading? Can a novelist with a clumsy style be a “good writer”? I’ve posed this question before on this site, and developed an argument about it at length in our book on Christopher Nolan.

Here’s a test case. These are real sentences from books by a novelist many consider one of the great crime/mystery writers of all time.

The knob felt cold and glibly elusive under his touch.

His face was an unbaked cruller of rage.

La Bruja lidded her eyes acquiescently.

I began treacherously touching up my hair via the mirror.

I crawled up onto the seat by means of my hands.

She could feel her chest beginning to constrict with infuriation.

This time the man got up off the bench, taking Quinn’s hand on his shoulder along with him.

Smoke suddenly speared from her nostrils in two malevolent columns. She looked like Satan. She looked like someone it was good to stay away from.

I was probably just a blurred bottle-green offside to her retinas.

“Made it,” Joan Bristol exhaled relievedly.

Seconds went by in packages of sixty.

The foaming laces that cascaded down her were transparent as haze against the light bearing directly on her from the room at her back. Her silhouette was that of a biped.

These passages, and many more like them, were published in books issued by major houses and still in print today. Can anything redeem them?

I’m currently trying to write a book on principles of popular narrative, with a focus on genres of crime and mystery. The project stems from arguments in Reinventing Hollywood and The Way Hollywood Tells It, but I wanted to broaden my inquiry to include theatre and literature as well. One section is about crime writers of the 1940s and 1950s. So naturally I had to include the widely renowned Cornell Woolrich.

Despite his struggles with syntax and word choice, Woolrich has been a perennial source of popular storytelling. Nearly all the novels were brought to the screen soon after publication, and radio versions of the books and short stories were plentiful. By the 2010s his work had inspired over a hundred movies and television shows (directed by, among others, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Fassbinder, and Jacques Tourneur).

That research has led me two further questions. Are there aspects of his work that counterbalance howlers like those above? And what might have led to those stylistic problems? Readers looking for more direct and detailed studies of film versions of his work can go to Francis M. Nevins’ exhaustive biography and Thomas C. Renzi’s careful consideration of adaptations. (And my studies of The Chase, if you want.) Meanwhile, tackling the questions that interest me, I’ll touch on aspects of cinema a little bit. File this blog under Questions of Narrative Across Media.

 

Breathless reading

Cornell Woolrich is usually treated as an author with a uniquely haunting voice. Alcoholic and homosexual, he lived for decades in a hotel with his mother. After she died, he lost a leg to untreated gangrene. He dedicated one book to the typewriter on which he pounded out pulp stories and thriller novels, the most famous of them published in the years 1940-1948. His tales of suspense cultivated a hothouse morbidity. At his limit, Woolrich projects a paranoid vision of life without hope and death without dignity.

Despite his distinctive sensibility, Woolrich epitomizes some broader narrative strategies of his time. Like all popular writers, he inherited situations, techniques, and themes. To present a bleak, aching world of precarious love and doomed lives, he twisted those conventions into eccentric shapes that added to the Variorum of 1940s mystery storytelling.

For him, one bout of amnesia isn’t enough, so The Black Curtain (1941) doubles it: the hero, already having forgotten his previous identity, is clobbered by some falling bricks and now can’t remember who he just was. The prototypical serial killer of the 1940s is a man, but The Bride Wore Black (1940) lets a woman stalk her victims. Most thriller novelists are content to put one woman in jeopardy per book, but Black Alibi (1942) lines up six. Alternatively, when a woman tries to save her husband from the chair by investigating four suspects, she’s plunged into danger every time she meets one (The Black Angel, 1943).

Woolrich’s plots flout police procedure (his cops are exceptionally willing to help suspects), and the authorities often flounder. Suspense thrillers usually invoke the supernatural only to dispel it, but in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945) the authorities fail to save a life because one old man really can predict the future. Not that amateur sleuths fare much better. The unheroic hero of The Black Path of Fear (1945) could hardly be more ineffective; he has to be rescued by the Havana police.

Sometimes the straining for originality snaps. Critics have long pointed out improbabilities and contradictions in the plots. Woolrich’s most devoted chronicler, Francis M. Nevins, warns of “chaotic ambiguities.” The chronology of Rendezvous in Black (1948) is impossible, while the climactic revelation of I Married a Dead Man (1948) is arguably incoherent. Convenient coincidences abound. Add to this a hypertrophied style that in every book slips into unabashed weirdness. (See above.)

Both the plot problems and the vagaries of language can partly be attributed to the rush of Woolrich’s production, his transport while hammering at his Remington Portable. Pulp author Steve Fisher recalled: “Sitting in that hotel room he wrote at night—continuing through until morning, or whenever the story was finally completed. He did not revise, polish, and I suspect did not even read the story over once it was committed to paper.” Although Woolrich was grateful to editors who corrected his hundreds of errors in spelling and punctuation, he apparently resisted efforts to touch up his prose. When an editor suggested a change to a single paragraph, he replied, “I knew you wouldn’t like it,” and left the publisher forever.

Admiring readers excuse the faults by testifying that Woolrich’s evocation of tension keeps the pages turning. “Headlong suspense created by total, unrelieved anxiety,” noted Jacques Barzun. “Breathless reading is the sole pleasure.” Raymond Chandler called him the “best idea man” among his peers, but admitted, “You have to read him fast and not analyze too much; he’s too feverish.”

What keeps us reading? For one thing, the outré story situations. A couple hurrying to leave New York must clear the man of murder before the bus leaves (Deadline at Dawn, 1945). A killer stalks a city, but it’s not a human: it’s (apparently) a black jaguar escaped from a sideshow (Black Alibi). A mail-order bride seems unacquainted with things she wrote in her letters (Waltz into Darkness, 1947). Most famously, a man laid up in his apartment thinks he sees traces of a killing through a window across the courtyard (“Rear Window,” 1942).

Outrages to plausibility carry their own allure. What, we ask, might come of these wild mishaps? A train crash kills a husband and his pregnant wife. In the melée an abandoned woman, also pregnant, is mistaken for her and welcomed by the husband’s family. Conveniently, the in-laws have never seen the wife (I Married a Dead Man, 1948) A man accused of murder has an alibi, to be provided by a woman he met in a bar and took to a show. Trouble is, she’s vanished. All the witnesses deny she existed (Phantom Lady, 1942).

The development of the action also presents intriguing reversals. The man gulled by the fake mail-order bride falls in love with her. People who claim not to have seen the phantom lady wind up dead. The woman trying to exonerate her husband falls in love with the real killer and dreams about him even after he has killed himself.

 

The game is afoot

Woolrich’s novels tend to rely on two basic plot patterns, both based on the hunt. In one, amateurs try to solve a crime and move from suspect to suspect. Our viewpoint is mostly tied to the investigators.  In the other pattern, a serial killer stalks a string of victims, and here Woolrich is more innovative. Normally, the serial-killer plot either concentrates on the killer’s viewpoint, as in the novels Hangover Square (1941) and In a Lonely Place (1947), or concentrates on the investigators, as in Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails (1949). A few constantly bounce the spotlight among all the parties—killer, victims, and investigators—as in Fritz Lang’s film M (1931) and Philip MacDonald’s novel X v. Rex (1933).

Woolrich by contrast emphasizes the victims’ viewpoints. The killer might appear only at the beginning and end (Rendezvous in Black) or get introduced at intervals in brief, objective scenes (The Bride Wore Black). Less space is devoted to the investigators, although they gain prominence as the crimes pile up. Woolrich puts his energies into building waves of suspense as one target after the other confronts death.

The shooting-gallery structure enables Woolrich to fulfill Mitchell Wilson’s demand that the thriller devotes its energies to showing what fear feels like. The 1940s interest in intense subjectivity of narration helps out here, and Woolrich sustains it in detailed description of victims’ reactions. In Black Alibi, Teresa is being stalked by an unseen figure.

Something else now assailed her, again from without herself, but of a different sensory plane than hearing this time. A prickly sensation of being watched steadily from behind, of something coming stealthily but continuously after her, spread slowly like a contraction of the pores, first over the back of her neck, then up and down the entire length of her spine. She couldn’t shake it off, quell it. She knew eyes were upon her, something was treading with measured intent in her wake.

This passage is part of a ten-page account of the woman’s wary progress through a night street, rendered wholly from her viewpoint.

Woolrich’s other basic plot pattern, the investigation of a murder, plays up the role of fear as well. His amateur detectives, lacking official firepower, are constantly facing danger from the suspects they track.

Fright was like an icy gush of water flooding over them, as from burst pipe or water-main; like a numbing tide rapidly welling up over them from below. [Deadline at Dawn]

In both of his favored plot schemes, the plunges into characters’ minds and bodies help fill out a full-length novel. If you play down other lines of action (professional police investigation, killer’s mental life), you need to dwell on the reactions of the victims or amateur detectives.

Yet this very emphasis is one source of the stylistic howlers. In expanding his suspense scenes, Woolrich’s prose sometimes fails him. Needing to spin out lots of words evoking an ominous atmosphere, he’s tempted to pileups like this:

And the path that had led me to it through the night had been so black and so full of fear, and downgrade all the way, lower and lower, until at last it had arrived at this bottomless abyss, than which there was nothing lower. [The Black Path of Fear]

Such rodomontade carries the 1940s emphasis on subjectivity to paroxysmic limits.

He recruits other techniques of popular storytelling. They keep his action moving forward through time and plunging inward into the unfolding scenes. And some can help mask story problems.

By hinging his story around a search for a killer or a victim, Woolrich’s plots tend create a string of one-on-one encounters. Rather than disguising the episodic quality of these, he sharpens them by breaking the action into distinct blocks. Those blocks are presented as a checklist agenda, Woolrich’s equivalent to the closed circle of suspects we find in the classic weekend-house-party detective story.

The Black Angel is a simple instance.

After an initial cluster of five chapters presenting Kirk Murray sentenced to death, we follow Kirk’s wife Alberta as she seeks the true killer. Her efforts are given in five parallel chapters, each indented and tagged with a telephone number. One that Alberta finds scratched out in an address book is presented just that way in the chapter title: “Crescent 6-4824.” Because at the climax she returns to one of the four suspects, another title gets recycled: “Butterfield 9-8019 Again (And Hurry, Operator, Hurry!).”

A more complicated example of modularity is The Bride Wore Black. It’s broken into five parts, each titled with the name of a victim. Each part contains three sections.

“The Woman” shows the vengeful bride launching a new false identity. The part’s second section, titled with the victim’s name, shows how the murder is accomplished. A third section offering “Post-Mortem” on the victim consists of documents and conversations among the police. Viewpoints are rigidly channeled as well. Each “Woman” section is handled in objective description, while each victim section presents the targeted man as the center of consciousness. The book could be mapped out on a spreadsheet.

The modular layout and rigorous moving-spotlight narration risk choppiness, yielding something like a set of short stories. But the tidy exoskeleton can make the plot seem rigorously organized, even while it masks problems of time and causality. And the very arbitrariness of the pattern creates a sort of meta-curiosity. Like the teasing tables of contents in 1920s and 1930s detective fiction, a Wooolrich checklist of suspects or victims makes us aware of a larger rhythm. How will this pattern be filled out?

An overarching unity is provided as well by the demands of a deadline (another Hollywood-friendly feature). Thanks to this classic device, Woolrich can use time tags to trigger anticipation and yield a sense of shape. Long before the husband in Phantom Lady gets accused of the crime, the first chapter bears the title, “The Hundred and Fiftieth Day before the Execution,” effectively dooming him from the start. Deadline at Dawn replaces chapter titles with illustrated clock faces to impose a strict structure.

Facing a ticking clock wedded to a clear-cut pattern, we become sensitive to variations among the modules. The victim-centered chapters of The Bride contrast the personalities and private lives of the male victims, along with Julie’s resourceful methods of murder, and the last chapter breaks the three-part format by inserting a flashback dramatizing the fatal wedding. Rendezvous in Black revives the shooting-gallery structure of Black Angel and The Bride, adding a schedule that sets each murder on May 31st of different years. Within this regularity (“The First Rendezvous,” etc.), viewpoints multiply gradually so that the interplay of characters’ range of knowledge becomes richer.

The modular structure shows up in milder ways. Black Alibi tags its chapters with victims’ names and concentrates on one woman’s terror at a time, with each chapter concluding with an exchange among investigators. Deadline at Dawn and Phantom Lady alternate scenes between two characters embarked on parallel investigations. Night Has a Thousand Eyes, in some ways the most ambitious of the books, embeds the checklist within the police investigation. As teams of cops trace parallel leads, their efforts are crosscut with the target under threat, waiting with his daughter and a cop.

A simpler, more poignant, rhyme-and-variations effect is supplied by a prologue and epilogue in I Married a Dead Man. The prologue’s first-person narration, set off from the central chapters’ third-person narration, finishes: “We’ve lost. That’s all I know. We’ve lost, we’ve lost.” An epilogue rewrites the prologue and yields closure: “We’ve lost. That’s all I know. And now the game is through.” In such ways, Woolrich brings the overt compositional symmetry of both “serious literature” and the puzzle-driven detective story into the thriller.

 

Sweating the small stuff

     

Henry James, 1913; Cornell Woolrich, ca. 1927.

By the 1920s, ambitious Anglo-American writers in both popular genres and “advanced” literature had fallen under the sway of a new model of the novel. Henry James had argued that if the novel was to be a true art form, it needed more compositional rigor, a patterned architectural solidity. He also advocated for a self-conscious control of viewpoint and a greater commitment to concrete presentation of action. (“Dramatize, dramatize!”) A little later, Joseph Conrad’s books had demonstrated the power of shifting viewpoints and multiple narrators, as well as an emphasis on the power of sight.

Popular writers of the nineteenth century, notably Dickens and Wilkie Collins, had already made use of some of these techniques, as did more highbrow efforts, like Robert Browning’s verse novel The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). But in the wake of James and Conrad, tastemakers erected these principles into strict norms for well-made novels. These precepts were set out explicitly in Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1922), and they were picked up in popular writing manuals as well.

Many mainstream fiction writers (and dramatists) took up the techniques promoted by the James-Conrad-Lubbock tradition. Middlebrow novels  employed block construction, played with multiple viewpoints, and included an explicit “exoskeleton” of labeled parts pointing up a self-conscious architecture. Joseph Hergesheimer’s Java Head (1919) spreads nine characters’ viewpoints across ten parallel chapters. Detective fiction wasn’t immune to the new methods. Conrad’s exploration of optical viewpoint has a contemporary counterpart in the Chestertonian grandeur of the mystery story “The Hammer of God” (1910). Father Brown is standing at the top of a church.

Immediately beneath and about them the lines of the Gothic building lunged outwards into the void with a sickening swiftness akin to suicide. . . . When they saw [the church] from below, it sprang like a fountain at the stars; and when they saw it, as now, from above, it poured like a cataract into a voiceless pit.

The writers of High Modernism revised the James-Conrad-Lubbock norms, pushing toward more difficult manipulations of time, viewpoint, and subjective states. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury assigns different narrational voices to its four-block layout, but these make the story world and the time scheme opaque. (Even if you master the stream-of-consciousness technique, you still have to figure out that one character is called by two names and two characters have the same name.)

Like many other writers, Woolrich pulls several post-James techniques into genre literature. His block construction, marked by strict times and viewpoints, along with his labeling of plot phases, owes something to this tradition, as well as to the clever construction of detective stories of the 1920s and 1930s (Ellery Queen, Anthony Berkeley, et al.). He borrows another narrative strategy as well: granular scene description keyed to a character’s sensations and feelings. We get a kind of hypertrophy of Lubbock’s “Show, don’t tell.” In reply to James, Woolrich in effect declares, “Overdramatize, overdramatize!”

In his uncompleted autobiography, Woolrich reflected on his early efforts to compose scenes. A man takes a hotel elevator, and instead of writing, “He got in, the car started; the car stopped at the third and he got out again,” the young Woolrich would pad the trip out to a page or more. This was amateurish, he thought at the end of his life. Yet this sort of expansion of action moment by moment is a hallmark of his 1940s novels. Perhaps it’s what Chandler had in mind when referred to Woolrich “getting deep into every scene.”

As we’ve seen, moments of terror and suspense are rendered in detail. So are the necessary touches of atmosphere. In The Black Path of Fear, the man on the run has told his story to Midnight.

When I’d finished telling it to her the candle flame had wormed its way down inside the neck of the beer bottle, was feeding cannibalistically on its own drippings that had clogged the bottle neck. The bottle glass, rimming it now, gave a funny blue-green light, made the whole room seem like an undersea grotto.

We’d hardly changed position. I was still on the edge of her dead love’s cot, inertly clasped hands down low between my legs. She was sitting on the edge of the wooden chest now, legs dangling free. . . .

The behavior of light, the insistence on color, the description of the characters’ postures and gestures—these are typical of Woolrich’s scenes.

Even the simplest action employs Lubbock’s “scenic method” to a disconcerting degree. To quote adequately would take pages, but some samples can suggest just how distended and detailed even minimally functional scenes are.

I reached out for a little lamp he had there close beside the bed and clicked it on. Twin halos of light sprang out, one at each end of the shade, and showed up our faces and a little of the margin around them. The shade itself was opaque, to rest the eyes.

Then I just sat back and waited for the shine to percolate through to him, sitting on the bias to him. It took some time. He was sleeping like a log. [The Black Path of Fear]

Any other writer would have retained just the first sentence and the last (but maybe not with the clichéd phrasing). Who cares about the design of a light fixture, or whether the shade rests the eyes? Yet Woolrich feels the need to show and tell as much as he has room for.

A woman comes to a Bowery bar looking for a murder suspect. After a page and a half of banter with the bartender, she finds her quarry hunched over a tabletop. Another page is devoted to rousing him.

He moved slightly, and I saw him looking downward at the floor around his feet. Looking around for something on that filthy place where people stepped and spat all day long. In a moment more I had guessed what he was looking for and I opened my handbag and took out the cigarettes I had provided myself with and held the package ready, with one protruding, as my first silent overture.

His eyes stopped roaming suddenly, and they had found the small arched shape of my shoe, planted there unexpectedly on that floor beside him, and the tan silk ankle rising from it. [The Black Angel]

It takes another page for the drunk to accept the cigarette, and three more for the woman to question him. But he’s too incoherent, so she parks him in a hotel and resumes questioning him the next day—a process that takes fifteen pages and includes detailed descriptions of the hotel room, the light filtering in, and the two characters’ shifting positions in space.

This writer has Roderick Usher’s “morbid acuteness of the senses.” Scenes are thick with smells and sounds. One virtuoso section of Rendezvous in Black is all noises and speech because our center of consciousness is a blind woman. Above all, Woolrich’s scenes revel in optical point of view.

 

Movies on the page


Sometimes the observer is imaginary, looking at things alongside the character. Detective Wanger enters a murder scene.

They seemed to be playing craps there in the room, the way they were all down on their haunches hovering over something in the middle of the floor. You couldn’t see what it was, their broad backs blotted it out completely. It was awfully small, whatever it was. Occasionally one of their hands went up and scratched the back of its owner’s rubber-tired neck in perplexity. The illusion was perfect. All that was missing was the click of bone, the lingo of the dicegame. [The Bride Wore Black]

Actually, the policemen are interrogating a boy whose father has been murdered. Presumably Wanger doesn’t take the huddle for a craps game. We’re given the mistaken impression of a novice observer who’s watching from a particular angle.

More often, it’s the character who occupies a definite station point, determined by foreshortening and perspectival distortion. The supreme example is of course the short story “Rear Window” (1942) whose original title was “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint.” One of his clumsy passages in another story tries for the same kind of positioning: “He turned and looked up, startled, ready to jump until he’d located the segment of her face far up the canal of opening between them.”

Woolrich’s interest in the geometry of looking, what can and can’t be seen, finds a natural home in eyewitness plots, of which there were several in 1940s film and fiction (and even radio). In “Rear Window,” the protagonist Jeff tracks his neighbor’s progress from window to window as if studying an Advent calendar. Woolrich strives to capture the exact geometry of Jeff’s field of view.

There was some sort of a widespread black V railing him off from the window. Whatever it was, there was just a sliver of it showing above the upward inclination to which the window sill deflected my line of vision. All it did was strike off the bottom of his undershirt, to the extent of a sixteenth of an inch maybe. But I hadn’t seen it there at other times, and I couldn’t tell what it was.

Jeff’s tightly focused attention contrasts with his neighbor Thorwald’s casual sweeping looks toward the courtyard. The climax will come when Thorwald realizes he’s been Jeff’s target, and Jeff sees in the murderer’s look “a bright spark of fixity” that “hit dead-center at my bay window.”

A similar effect occurs at the climax of “The Boy Cried Murder” (aka “Fire Escape”) of 1947, the source of the film The Window (1949). Buddy has been sleeping on a fire escape and is awakened by a murder he watches through a slit in the window shade. The woman comes toward him.

She started to come over to where Buddy’s eyes were staring in, and she got bigger and bigger every minute, the closer she got. Her head went way up high out of sight, and her waist blotted out the whole room. He couldn’t move, he was like paralyzed. The little gap under the shade must have been awfully skinny for her not to see it, but he knew in another minute she was going to look right out on top of him, from higher up.

Again, there’s a stylistic slip (of course she’ll be higher up if she looks out on top of him), but it’s a byproduct of an effort to capture a character’s optical viewpoint.

Sometimes that effort seems pure gimmickry.

I hurried down the street, and the intermittent sign back there behind me kept getting smaller each time it flashed on. Like this:

MIMI CLUB

Mimi Club

mimi club

I could tell because I kept looking back repeatedly, almost in synchronization with it each time it flashed on. . . . [The Black Angel]

Yet even the gimmick seems an effort toward a peculiar kind of vividness—that of a film. The passage imitates alternating shots of the woman looking and the withdrawing club sign. If Woolrich’s modular structure is indebted to strains in modernism and popular fiction, the dense, over-visualized scenes inevitably suggest cinema.

Woolrich worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for a few years and had a lifelong affinity for movies. The books often use cinematic analogies and metaphors, and the characters are frequent moviegoers. (In a 1936 story, “Double Feature,” a gangster takes a woman hostage in a projection booth.) Supposedly Woolrich spent his last years holed up drinking and watching old films on TV. No surprise, then, that some passages echo the look and feel of Hollywood scenes.

Granted, many writers, highbrow and lowbrow, were imitating cinema in Woolrich’s day. Some incorporated filmlike montage sequences to suggest dreams and stream of consciousness. But Woolrich goes farther than most. In Fright (1950), two paragraphs headed “Still Life” survey an empty room that shows signs of interrupted activity—a crumpled newspaper, a note, a burning cigarette, a swaying lamp chain. The passage mimics the sort of tracking shot over details we find in 1940s cinema, continuing for a page until it climaxes in a close-up panning over a body jammed against the door.

When a man realizes his beloved woman lies dead on the bed, a dash can imitate a cut:

But her eyes were still blurry with slee—

His hand stabbed suddenly downward toward the hairbrush, there before her. [Rendezvous in Black]

In Night Has a Thousand Eyes, a woman waits in her car while her father visits the telepath over a period of weeks. Each brief scene starts with the same imagery and phrasing, creating a string of rhyming “shots” across three pages.

I sat there waiting for him, cigarette in my hand, light-blue swagger coat loose over my shoulders. . . .

I sat there waiting for him, rust-colored swagger coat loose over my shoulders. . . .

I sat their waiting for him, plum swagger coat over my shoulders. . . .

I sat there waiting for him, fawn swagger coat over my shoulders. . . .

I sat there waiting for him, green swagger coat over my shoulders. . . .

I sat there waiting for him, black swagger coat over my shoulders, as I’d already sat waiting so many times before.

The modular approach ruling the books’ overall architecture gets carried down into the texture of scenes, creating parallel mini-blocks that convey the daughter’s anxious acquiescence to her father’s obsession.

Woolrich’s literary optics have strong affinities with cinema. We get an effort to mimic a subjective tracking shot as one heroine circles a garden.

The little rock-pool in the center was polka-dotted with silver disks, and the wafers coalesced and separated again as if in motion, though they weren’t, as her point of perspective continually shifted with her rotary stroll. [I Married a Dead Man]

Likewise, a woman approaching a man slowly tapers into focus.

She was up to him eye to eye before he could even take her in in any kind of decent perspective. His visualization of her had to spread outward in concentric, radiating circles for those eyes, staring into his at such close-range.

Brown eyes.

Bright brown eyes.

Tearfully bright brown eyes.

Overflowingly tearful bright brown eyes.

Suddenly a handkerchief had come up to shut them off from his for a moment, and he was able to steal a full-length snapshot of her. Not much more. [The Black Curtain]

This is just showboating, but it’s uniquely Woolrich showboating.

The same goes for a passage struggling to describe people at a bar as if they were framed in the flattening view of a telephoto shot.

There were eight people paid out along it. They broke into about three groups, each self-contained, oblivious of the others, but he had to look close to tell where the divisions came in. Physical distance had nothing to do with it; they all stretched away from him in an unbroken line. It was the turn of the shoulders that told him. The limits of each group were marked by a shoulder turned obliquely to those next in line beyond. They were like enclosing parentheses, those shoulders. In other words, the end men in each group were not postured straight forward, they turned inward toward their own clique. The groupings broke thus: first three, then a turned shoulder, then three again, then another turned shoulder, then finally two, standing vis-à-vis. [Deadline at Dawn]

Few writers would strive so hard to capture the exact look of figures in space. It will take another page for the viewpoint character to realize that a left-handed drinker has stepped out, because one beer mug isn’t empty and the handle is pointing in a different direction than the others.

It’s not hard to imagine such scenes as Hitchcockian POV shots. In Waltz into Darkness, Durand notices a colonel and his lady in the reflection of the “thick, soapy greenish” window of a café. At first the view yields a blob sporting “three detached excrescences”: a feather in a hat, a bustle, and “a small triangular wedge of skirt.” Eventually this monstrosity draws away “into perspective sufficient to separate into two persons.” Conrad’s “impressionism,” aiming to capture the limits of physical point of view, reaches a new height with Woolrich’s account of exact but imperfect vision.

 

Some provisional answers to my Woolrich questions run like this. The ingenuity of structure and the inherent fascination of the situations somewhat offset the problems of style. Most of his novels tap our primal interest in the hunt, and if things don’t always pay off neatly, the pursuit has enough detours, hurdles, and pitfalls to sustain interest.

And the writing isn’t totally disastrous. There are well-written passages in every Woolrich novel. Many of the howlers arise  from the keyed-up emotion he tries to squeeze out of every scene. Others stem from sheer overwriting and padding, and probably the habit Fisher notes of seldom revising. But other errors are a byproduct of his effort to put every bit of action starkly before us. Straining for sensory vividness lures him into clumsiness (“triangular wedge,” as if all wedges weren’t triangular).

More generally, in both virtues and faults, he displays a dogged, frenzied obedience to the narrative traditions he inherited, and an urge to innovate within them, however eccentrically. Henry James asserted that “a psychological reason is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial.” A Woolrich character puts it in a typically convoluted way: “Every time you think of anything, there’s a picture comes before you of what you’re thinking about.”


Beyond the books of Nevins and Renzi, valuable appreciations of Woolrich include Nevins’ essay in his collection Cornucopia of Crime: Memories and Summations (Ramble House, 2010), 53-71; Geoffrey O’Brien’s comments in Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, second ed. (Da Capo, 1997), 97-100; and James Naremore’s essay on his site, “An Aftertaste of Dread: Cornell Woolrich in Noir Fiction and Film.” For a topical overview of Woolrich’s output, see Mike Grost’s entry on him.

I took Steve Fisher’s account of Woolrich’s writing process from “I Had Nobody,” The Armchair Detective 3, 3 (1970), 164. The quotation from Jacques Barzun  comes from Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 561. The Raymond Chandler remarks appear in a 1949 letter to Alex Barris in Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. Dorothy Gardner and Kathrine Sorley Walker (Plainview, New York: Books for Libraries, 1971), 55. I’ve discussed Mitchell Wilson’s essay, “The Suspense Story,” The Writer 60, 1 (January 1947) at greater length in the online essay “Murder Culture.”  More generally, Woolrich’s narrative strategies accord with several I chart in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, including the notion of the Variorum.

Woolrich’s early, Fitzgerald-influenced novels reveal seeds of the style to come. A random page from Manhattan Love Song (1932) yields a scene of the hero talking to two women: “Instantly I saw a gleam of admiration light each of their four eyes.”

Astonishingly, Woolrich’s prose glitches don’t rate a mention in Bill Pronzini’s hilarious compilations of bad writing, Gun in Cheek: A Study of “Alternative” Crime Fiction (Coward McCann, 1982) and Son of Gun in Cheek (Mysterious Press, 1987). Pronzini tactfully limits his citations of the classics, only mentioning one Raymond Chandler line: “In spite of his weathered appearance, he looked like a drinker.” Pronzini can find no faults in my personal Style canon: Rex Stout, Donald Westlake (here and here), and Patricia Highsmith.

There’s more on these issues in the entry “The 1940s are over, and Tarantino’s still playing with blocks.” I discuss The Window in “The eyewitness plot and the drama of doubt.”

Cine-Vienna

The Third Man (1949).

DB here:

En route to Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato, Kristin and I paid a visit to this wonderful city. We wandered around, stomped through museums, ate tasty food, and saw a bit of the city’s film culture.

 

Visiting venues

Our first stop was the Austrian Film Museum. Founded in 1964 by the avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, the Museum has built up a collection of over 30,000 films. It contains a fine film theatre with features of the “Invisible Cinema” (above) that Kubelka and Jonas Mekas set up in Anthology Film Archive many years ago.

The Museum has been a pioneer in producing outstanding books and DVD editions devoted to an eclectic array of filmmakers (James Benning, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Straub/Huillet, Joe Dante). Exceptional as well are the Museum’s online offerings of films, clips, images, and paper documents.

Our host was our old friend, the ebullient curator Christoph Huber. Here he is with his colleagues Alexandra Thiele and Jurij Meden.

     

We didn’t have a chance to visit the classic Stadtkino in the same neighborhood, nor did we check out the highly esteemed Austrian Film Archive. But I did mosey down to the Gartenbaukino, a big, beautiful modernistic venue.

Built as a ballroom that occasionally screened films, the Gartenbau was made a permanent cinema in 1919. In 1960, after being redesigned by Robert Kotas, it opened as a showcase for widescreen motion pictures.

It’s now said to be the biggest theatre in Austria, with over 700 seats. Note the rising curtain, said to be a rarity these days.

     

The Gartenbaukino is equipped to project not only digital and 35mm but also 70mm. Managing Director Norman Shetler notes that it was the first Austrian theatre to boast large-format projection (for Spartacus) and was adapted for Cinerama as well.

More recently, the Gartenbau reactivated its 70mm equipment to show The Hateful Eight. The Phillips DP70 projectors now screen wide-gauge classics like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music. Picture and sound were excellent for The Dead Don’t Die, so I bet 70mm shows here are fantastic. Like the Stadtkino, the Austrian Film Archive, and the Film Museum, the Gartenbau is a venue for the city’s annual film festival, the Viennale.

 

Prater, not so violet

Plenty of movies have been set in Vienna, most notably The Joyless Street, Merry-Go-Round, Letter from an Unknown Women, and Amadeus. But for movie nerds the most flagrant example is The Third Man (1949). And Vienna hasn’t forgotten what this movie did for its local landscape, not least the amusement park set within the vast and beautiful park known as the Prater.

Said to be the oldest amusement park in the world, the Prater’s entertainment sector contains attractions that are shiny and enjoyable old-school rides: roller coaster, loop-the-loop, tilt-a-whirl, haunted house. There are shooting galleries, ice-cream stands, and even a Madame Tussaud’s.

But of course the looming attraction is the great Ferris wheel that Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) and Harry Lime (Orson Welles) share during their ominous reunion. I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who always expects Harry to try to throw his old friend out of the cabin.

     

The big wheel has been declared a site of European film culture and decorated with a more or less accurate image of the coy Lime.

My ride in the wagon was gentle and elating. I tried to replicate Harry’s POV on the “ants” below, whose lives, he says, can’t matter much.

     

A studio-based version of the Prater featured in the now mostly lost Josef von Sternberg film, The Case of Lena Smith (1929).

Oh, yeah–we also paid a visit to a street named for one of my favorite auteurs. See below.

Next up: Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato!


For information about Viennese film culture, thanks to Christoph Huber, his colleagues, and the indefatigable Ted Fendt. Thanks as well to Norman Shetler and two staff members at the Gartenbau cinema.  Christoph, by the way, is an exceptional critic. You’ll learn from reading his essays in Cinema Scope.

David Bordwell
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