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Parker Tyler: A suave and wary guest

Parker Tyler, photograph by Maya Deren.

Much that he says will disturb, horrify, enrage: there is no great audience yet prepared for an approach such as his, even to literature or to life, still less to the movies.

Iris Barry, Preface to The Hollywood Hallucination, 1944

DB here:

This entry continues a series begun here and continued here, here, here, and here.

Well said the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood no sooner was Karel seated in the Round Table than the impossible happened. There before him stood a fairy prince and one of those mythological creatures known as Lesbians. Won’t you join our table? they said in sweet chorus.

When he went over with them he saw the most delightful little tea-pot and a lot of smiling happy faces.

A little girl with hair over one ear got up close and said I hope you won’t be offended but why don’t you dress in girls’ clothes?

The Lesbian said yes your face is so exquisite we thought you were a Lesbian in drag when we first saw you and for two long hours they insisted that he would do better for himself as a girl.

He must have fallen asleep for he awoke with a start and saw a nice fat old bullfrog beckoning to him. . . .

The opening of The Young and Evil, a 1933 novel by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, gives a fair sample of what is to come. Its world is that of Greenwich Village Bohemians and their gay/ straight flirtations, affairs, and emotional double-crosses. The style is softcore Djuna Barnes, with a hint of Gertrude Stein. Ford was only twenty, Tyler was twenty-nine, and they had already made names for themselves on the New York literary scene. The Young and Evil was refused by publishers in America and England and wound up being printed by the Obelisk Press, a Parisian firm known for erotica.

In 1934, Tyler published Modern Things, an anthology of verse by T. S. Eliot and other contemporary writers, including Ford and himself. One of Tyler’s contributions, a free-verse piece called “Hollywood Dream Suite,” ends with the image of box-offices blown up. Tyler declared that his poetry aimed to transmit love through “a dream-convention” and “Rimbaudian hallucination.”

Early on, then, Tyler followed out threads–homosexuality, gender masquerade, dreaming, hallucination, mythology—that would guide his journey through Hollywood movies.

Gore Vidal noticed. In his 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge a widow carries forward her husband’s mission to write the definitive book on 1940s American cinema. Myra’s guide is to be Parker Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947). She writes in her diary: “Tyler’s vision (films are the unconscious expression of age-old human myths) is perhaps the only important critical insight this century has produced.”

Vidal’s treatment of Tyler is partly respectful, partly mocking—in other words, a bit camp. Myra was a best-seller (and in salaciousness went far beyond what Ford and Tyler had done), but its public surely had never before heard of Harrison Parker Tyler and his 1940s criticism. Vidal is said to have claimed: “I’ve done for him what Edward Albee did for Virginia Woolf.”

If so, the effect didn’t last. Tyler published essays and books on film, painting, and literature, and he continued to write poetry. My sense is that his fame, given a slight boost by the 1970 reprinting of Magic and Myth and The Hollywood Hallucination (originally 1944), was fading. Early on, he had associated himself with a gay/Surrealist avant-garde by co-founding with Ford the little magazine View. At the same period he endorsed experimental cinema, supporting the efforts of Maya Deren and life-partnering with poet and filmmaker Charles Boultenhouse in 1945. He championed the European classics and the American mythopoetic cinema. But when the New York artworld began celebrating the rise of underground film, sanctified by the presence of superstar artist Andy Warhol, Tyler was dismissive at book length, calling the new films childish. Far ahead of his time in the 1940s, he was felt to be retrograde in the 1960s, at least among my crowd of cinephiles. He died in 1974.

 

Joining the Rhapsodes

The Glass Key (1943).

He’s still an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries. James Agee and Manny Farber are still celebrated as great critics, most visibly by volumes in the Library of America series, and Otis Ferguson occasionally attracts some minor tributes. I’ve been surprised how many people have written me to say they were unaware of Tyler’s work.

That may be partly because he didn’t straightforwardly accept the premises of what I’ve been sketching as the Otis Ferguson tradition. As a reviewer for The New Republic between 1934 and 1942, Ferguson staked out a defense of Hollywood cinema based on its capacity for focused narrative presentation, driven by graceful movement, smooth continuity, and broad realism. I’ve suggested that James Agee and Manny Farber elaborated this premise by looking for moments invested with vivid emotion, poetic transcendence (Agee’s specialty), and expressive details, either narrative or pictorial (Farber’s).

Tyler tries something different. He’s not a realist but a surrealist. What Agee and Farber praised as “accuracy” or “authenticity” scarcely concerns him. And story–at least, the story the film pretends to be telling–doesn’t matter to him so much. The very first chapter of his first book is titled, “The Play Is Not the Thing.”

Then there’s his language. Reviewers of the time objected to it, which as one put it, “bears only a haunting resemblance to English.” It’s true that phrases like “Hepburnesque Garbotoon” are likely to disturb a New Yorker editor. But it’s partly this hectic prose, far less conventional than his poetic diction, that gets him into my Ecstatics club. He can riff with the best, although in just intonation and with minuet gravitas.

Veronica Lake, for instance, not only plays a ghost but looks like one.

Although she is living, I have found something suggesting fright about her even in those roles in which she pretends to be a usual biological phenomenon. For instance, if there was ever a mannequin gangster, he was Alan Ladd in The Glass Key, and if he ever reached for the upper crust and took down a mannequin moll to load his mannequin gat for him, she was Veronica Lake. What in a less preternatural atmosphere might pass for restraint is in Miss Lake simple lack of animation; one is startled that she can talk.

Here is Tyler on Sinatra’s appeal to the jitterbug.

It somehow partakes of the schoolgirl’s dream that a voice dripping with the most nectarish sauces should originate in a diaphragm over which the suitable screen would seem to be a large school initial surrounded by a sweater.

Or on Chaplin, in a passage published the same year as Agee’s tribute to silent comedy:

How well we know the image of Charlie in flight—turning a corner somewhat like a sailboat, frantically holding onto his hat and pivoting on the immobile axis of one foot, while the other leg, lifted high and bent, poises for the next stride, with the hand holding the cane at arm’s length to maintain balance.

In a passage of simple eloquence that recalls Agee, Tyler meditates that even the fabricated piety of Song of Bernadette may legitimately evoke a world without killing and maiming.

Peace, the normal pace of life, the relaxing rhythm of alternate rest and activity, the ritual embodied by all elaborately arranged movie scenes of sentiment, were these not supernatural indeed in a world paced by war and perpetual social crises? Sometimes the silence in the movie theater seemed fabulously exempt, and, as we snuggled into our seats, feeling that we in American cities were safe from bombs, the sense of some unnatural taboo might well have invaded us. Those actors on the screen, so careful and conscientious, privileged to choose an exact pace, allow an exact pause to dissolve, and never hurry. . . they seemed to have a supernatural leisure, to exist in the fabulous, sublime time of art.

All criticism is performative, but taken with my other Rhapsodes, Tyler makes 40s movie talk a three-ring circus. It’s time to reread him.

 

Mirror, mirrors

The Stranger (1946).

Tyler wasn’t in direct dialogue with Agee and Farber, but his work has a strong connection to one of the intellectual trends of his time (and ours). That is what we might call reflectionism—the idea that popular culture in some manner reflects the state of a society.

If movies are a mirror, what do they reflect? The simplest position is that they, like other mass media, reflect the tastes of their audience. Whether the filmmakers share those tastes, or cynically play to them, Hollywood films’ form and content answer customers’ demands. Usually, the audience’s taste is held to be of surpassing vulgarity. In the 1940s, this view was very common among intellectuals, shaped, as I suggested in an earlier entry, by Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch.”

A more sophisticated view is that movies reflect something broader—a current Zeitgeist, the spirit of a time, the pervasive mood of the moment. Thus: Americans were feeling ultra-patriotic during World War II, so the moviemakers catered to them with movies that demonized the enemy and sanctified the American Way. Sometimes you get a different Zeitgeist argument: Movies that don’t obviously reflect dominant feelings actually reflect them in their refusal to talk about it. Hollywood offers “escapist” entertainment to make people forget their troubles. As presence or absence, the Zeitgeist is embodied in the films.

Another version of reflectionism holds that films don’t embody passing moods but more enduring features of a society, something like national character. In the other arts, this is a long-standing explanation for certain traits, like the “heaviness” of German composers versus the “lightness” of French ones. Early historians of cinema saw German Expressionist films or Swedish landscape films as reflecting each country’s temperament. From this angle, Hollywood movies can be said “reflect” American optimism, practicality, and reverence for private property, along with more questionable values like the superiority of men to women and whites to other groups. This position was revived in more sophisticated form during the 1940s, when anthropologists like Ruth Benedict and sociologists like David Riesman tried to put the concept of national character on more secure foundations.

During the 1940s, yet another version of reflectionism became salient. Movies didn’t merely embody mass tastes, or current concerns, or national character. What was being reflected was something partly hidden, even denied. (Probably an X-ray machine would have provided a better metaphor than a mirror.) According to this view, a society’s anxieties, concerns, and unresolved problems find their way unwittingly into art.

The criticism associated with this view has come to be called “symptomatic,” because it treats films as involuntary expressions of things that society either ignores or actively represses. What we find are not obvious endorsements of tastes and values but the traces of something more disturbing. The critic needs to decipher those traces.

For example, in 1946 Siegfried Kracauer suggested that Shadow of a Doubt, The Stranger, Dark Corner, and other thrillers betray a fear of the neighbor next door and a fascination with psychological destruction. He infers that “inner disintegration, whatever its stages, has actually become a widespread phenomenon.” However chipper moviegoers might seem on the outside, they are fearful deep inside. Ultimately, Kracauer suggests, they fear the planned economy of the postwar years and associate it with Nazi totalitarianism.

Other instances of symptomatic reading draw more heavily on psychoanalysis. Freud’s influence had been growing in America since the 1910s and influenced literary interpretation, most famously in Ernest Jones’ Hamlet and Oedipus (1910). Freudianism became particularly influential in the 1940s. It furnished both a popular explanation for how nations like Germany could “go mad” and a therapeutic technique that might help troubled people and traumatized veterans. It’s not surprising, then, that books like Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites’ The Movies: A Psychological Study (1950) would hinge their case for recurring character types on the Oedipus complex and other syndromes. Such interpretations are quite different from other forms of reflectionism, for these features wouldn’t be consciously acknowledged by makers or viewers.

 

Hallucinations, chimeras

By focusing on recurring character types and plot schemes, the symptomatic approach intersects with another trend of a reflectionist tint. Since the early part of the century, anthropologists who studied the myths of different cultures were finding surprising common elements among them. Sir James George Frazer, in his monumental collection of studies The Golden Bough (1890-1915), traced a great many myths, including religious ones, back to fertility rituals. The idea was applied to literature by various scholars in the 1910s, most notably in Jesse Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920). Frazer’s cross-cultural search for recurring story patterns gained popularity later in such works as Lord Raglan’s essay “The Hero”  (1936) and Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

Maud Bodkin’s book Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934) merged myth and psychoanalysis. She tried to explain the recurrence of myths by appeal to Jung’s model of mind. Bodkin saw plot, characterization, and even poetic imagery as presenting symbolic patterns that replay ancient stories and rituals, themselves embodiments of universal psychic processes. Jungians like Bodkin proposed that those patterns were inherited across generations and became embedded in our brains. In a more purely Freudian spirit, the critic and theorist Kenneth Burke believed that archetypes endured because as symbols they satisfied our unconscious appetites. Either way, one could imagine a synthesis of psychoanalysis and mythic interpretation.

As a fellow traveler of avant-garde New York painters and poets, Tyler was ready for such a synthesis. Freudian theory and mythology played a strong role in French Surrealism, and American painters and poets followed suit. View and its contemporary little mag Chimera owed a great deal to the Surrrealist émigrés who poured into New York during the 1930s. Abstract Expressionist painters copied the spontaneous approach to creation that Surrealists had tried with their “automatic writing.”

Tyler thought that psychoanalysis and myth studies could illuminate popular culture, specifically movies. But he embraced no orthodoxy. He refused the patient explication of Jones and Bodkin and the theoretical flights of Burke. Nothing could be further from his project than the systematic method of Wolfenstein and Leites, who canvassed “all the American A-films with a contemporary urban setting which were released in New York City for the year following September 1, 1945.”

Tyler makes no pretense of statistical precision or conceptual rigor. For instance, he appeals to a Freudian premise that I don’t find in most of the reflectionists, the idea that a dream involves displacement of one image or element by another. But then he freely extends the idea of displacement to the audience, to the shifts in camera position, and to other realms. Throughout his work, he stirred intellectually fashionable ideas into a powerful brew that risked tasting like moonshine.

He likewise had no axe to grind. Unlike Kracauer, Barbara Deming, and others, he didn’t tsk-tsk. Tyler the critic liked movies, even when they were wildly distorting the world. Where others saw a grim mirror, he saw a sumptuous mirage.

 

Showing off

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

For some it will be a tale of a boy and his dog. For others it will be much more.

Rated G for those who think it’s a tale of a boy and his dog, R for those who think it’s much more.

1970s cinephile joke

Tyler’s work is distinctive for other reasons. He did review films occasionally, but only for little magazines and literary quarterlies. He had an academic tone, but was not an academic; he was a freelance writer. Apart from writing articles, he wrote books on film–something neither Agee nor Farber did. The chapters develop his ideas unhindered by length limits, and he freely dwells on plot twists and endings. Still, his two major books have a reviewer’s air of contemporary coverage because he develops his ideas almost completely out of 1940s cinema.

The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947), however rambling they may seem, knot around several key ideas. Basic to Tyler’s concerns, I think, is the nature of cinema as an art. High art in any medium, he says, requires that a single person’s vision deliberately control the shape and implications of the work. A few films, mostly made outside America, meet this standard. Hollywood doesn’t. American movies are group products, industrially manufactured and often casual and sloppy.

This view might seem to put Tyler firmly among the intellectuals who disdained mass culture. But he refuses to condemn American film.

Hollywood is a vital, interesting phenomenon, at least as important to the spiritual climate as daily weather to the physical climate. . . . These judges [high-culture critics], unaware of the ritual importance of the screen, its baroque energy and protean symbolism, are unwarrantably summary, basically uneducated in the movie medium.

Hollywood films, aimed at the great public and allowing them a creative role as an audience, amount to something like a modern folk art, though one managed by adroit bureaucrats.

“Protean” is a key word in the passage. In the silent period, a Griffith or De Mille could impose his vision on all of cinema’s appeals, but by the time talkies came in, movies were closer to revue productions. Modern Hollywood, Tyler thinks, is show-offish. Anything—sets, costumes, performances, dialogue, fancy photography, even “realism”—is now a selling point. Dr. Tyler diagnoses Hollywood with an acute case of narcissism. It’s endlessly fascinated by everything it does, and it invites us to enjoy its self-absorption.

Purity of form, in either classic or avant-garde art, must, he says, often slight qualities like “fullness or depth of feeling” and an adventurous use of the medium. These are things that Hollywood is very good at achieving. Hollywood, banal though it usually is, gets so taken up with itself that it’s always looking for something new to conquer, trying out gimmicks for their own sake. In the process, it arouses our emotions and reveals some important capacities of cinema generally.

Take the process of studio production. It’s not perfectly regimented. At each stage, the writers, producers, director, actors, and editors are adding or subtracting elements, sometimes at whim. The result Tyler finds curiously “cubistic,” and a very mixed bag. As the film goes along, details pop out at the expense of the whole, and a scene teems with digressions, loose ends, and momentary attractions. “Many a shot is a kind of three-ring circus, a contest for attention between the make-up man, the dialogue writer, and the star’s personality.”

Hollywood’s narcissism shows up in another way. It’s always replaying its own attitudes and activities in the movies themselves. Dorian Gray’s fate in the film of Wilde’s story is that of every movie leading man, declining from young god to ugly old man. Or consider how the moguls treat the revered art of the stage. As everybody knows, Hollywood grinds up plays to suit its own formulas. Tyler takes as his example the movie adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace. Here we are invited to enjoy the fun of unmanning the drama-critic protagonist. Bad enough, says Tyler, that he encounters his fear of impotence on his wedding night and so must constantly shoo off his bride. Worse, he’s bound and gagged and must listen to a bad play recited by a would-be playwright, who happens to be a cop.

To top it off, in the original stage version, the critic hates movies. So Hollywood punishes him by trapping him in his worst nightmare: what he’d regard as a bad film, the one we’re watching, and liking. The movie capital exacts its revenge on New York snobs.

 

Did they or didn’t they?

My Favorite Wife (1940).

Because of its urge to grab and flaunt whatever works, the Hollywood movie, Tyler claims, is a cinema of moments. Adorno thought that popular culture broke down traditional artistic form. Tyler grants the point but then scrutinizes the result: a texture pocked with gaps. The method of production creates “crevices for whatever there be in actor, dialogue, writer, cinematic trick shot, or directorial fantasy to creep through and flower.”

A prime example of a crevice is the way films elide a basic fact: Did they have intercourse or not? He and she are alone together in a parlor or bedroom. If we’re in the lush countryside, perhaps they are caught in the rain and take shelter. Fade or dissolve. Later, they’re dressed as before, but something has happened.

     

A contemporary film would show us the Act. Thanks to strict censorship, American studio movies of the 1930s and 1940s can’t do that. Yet entire plots can pivot around this Morality of the Single Instance. Can anyone believe that Irene Dunn, marooned on a desert island for seven years with Randolph Scott in My Favorite Wife (1940), didn’t try out the horizontal mambo? Here and in many other films, the couple struggle to dissuade others from thinking they did it. But we can never be sure. You can call this Hollywood’s absurd prudery, but Tyler enjoys it. By having it both ways the movie liberates our imaginations. It’s as if there’s one plot for one audience segment and a second, more obscure one for the spectator who wants more.

The star personas, the camerawork, the music, the twists and inconsistencies of the story all activate “a perverse play of desires,” but these aren’t infinitely open-ended. Tyler believes that there are limits on our recasting of the material we’re given. Among those limits are the fantasies that Hollywood has already woven for us. Our associational field is composed of the other movies we’ve seen, the fan magazines we’ve read, the larger funhouse of mass entertainment.

We submit to all this pinball-game impurity because it arouses some fundamental feelings. A film may lack the unity and power of a genuine work of art, but the illusionistic power of the medium and the hot materials churned together achieve a kind of “super-art.” Anybody can see through Hollywood’s tricks, but it’s harder to recognize that they touch on essential concerns.

It is artifice. But beneath all these incredibly transparent artifices. . . is the ultimate fact of human lives, human desires, human movements, human etiquette.

Sometimes sheer motion releases bursts of feeling, as in the sleigh ride in A Woman’s Face, which kindles terror independent of the story situation. But other ultimate facts go deeper.

 

The big charade

Pride of the Yankees (1942).

The super-art of Hollywood movies has many “transparent artifices” that we spontaneously embrace. Start with the actors, whom Tyler considers central to the Hollywood hallucination. (He almost never mentions directors.) Are the stars acting? Mostly not. They are playing a charade.

In a charade you’re assigned a word, name, catchphrase, or title. Without using sound you must pantomime clues that lead your team to guess the answer. For Tyler, this is what goes on in a film. We know the actor is really Gary Cooper or Joan Crawford, and we must intuit what’s going on in heart and head on the basis of the performer’s approximate mimicry. A charade depends partly on fixed signs, like tugging your ear to indicating that this clue sounds like the secret word. Actors likewise emit stereotyped signs of emotion—the furrowed brow, the smile that fades.

In a game of charades, when your friend mimics a ballerina or a tennis player, you never forget who he or she is. And the charade-player’s personality will inform the mimicry: a book-lover will try to associate famous novels with the clues. Similarly with movie stars. They pantomime the plot as required, but they often impose their own star personas on the role. Gary Cooper, playing Lou Gehrig as the script demands, sooner or later reduces the ball player to “Gary Cooper again.” But this narrowing of dramatic possibilities (every film character becomes a variant of some star’s persona) is compensated by “the fun, the plain lack of seriousness in the cinema charade.”

There’s more fun in store, because charades depend on associations. The weird, silly guesses that your team members venture are essential to the pleasure. This is what happens when we watch a film, Tyler thinks. Like members of the charade-performer’s team, we engage in “a fluid guessing game.” Hollywood filmmakers coax us to summon up a welter of more or less disconnected meanings and feelings. Once you notice these hovering implications, they can become as amusing as watching your teammate, assigned to pantomime Bangkok, stray into the naughty bits. In fact, straying into the naughty bits, such as the Morality of the Single Instance, is exactly what Tyler expects the wise critic to do.

The idea of the charade extends to voices as well. Close your eyes while watching a movie, and you’ll conjure up “an independent medium of artistic illusion,” he says. This is presumably one reason that American movies became more of a mélange after the coming of sound. The voice not only enhances the star’s “charade silhouette,” but it allows a new realm of accessory pleasures, perhaps veering off from the machinations of the plot.

Sometimes the voice overtakes the actor, as in the case of Frank Sinatra, who at the time was known as The Voice. “The Voice is the ventriloquist; Frank is the glamourized dummy.” For Tyler, Lauren Bacall’s smoky intonation (with its “special, fire-extinguisher kind of charm”) becomes a blend of Dietrich, Garbo, and Mae West, with a dash of jive singer Ella Mae Morse (of Cow Cow Boogie fame). “Here was Miss Morse’s looping contralto lyricism lassoed into tacit, sophisticated prose.”

Tracing out this penumbra of associations is part of the critic’s role in the charade. So is noting that both Bacall’s role and her debut performance in To Have and Have Not perfectly reenacted her audition for a studio part and prefigured her role as the new leading lady in Bogart’s offscreen life. The Hollywood hallucination turns constantly back on itself, so that our imaginations are encouraged to play among other manufactured images, both onscreen and off.

Tyler is prepared to risk a lot, as when he asks of Frankenstein’s monster: “Does he not ghoulishly reappear among us as the physically, mentally, or socially deformed ex-soldier?” But sometimes he is alert to the moment when the crevices open not into the world of movies but into our world. Yet this isn’t authenticity of the sort prized by Agee and Farber.

For instance, he notes that many of the wartime combat films include actors who haven’t yet fashioned a star image. (This reflects the fact that many of the biggest male stars signed up for service and the studios thrust fresh faces before the cameras.) Tyler finds something moving in the way the camera records these beginners’ fear of failure on three levels—as characters facing a mission, as actors trying to prove themselves, and as Los Angeles draft fodder.

Some of the most convincing acting in Hollywood has been by young men in the roles of military novices. . . . These young man, indulging in their waxen make-believe but virtually heroes as yet only in the Madame Tussaud sense, could measure in their imagination the spiritual cost of offering to sacrifice their lives if and/or when called upon for actual fighting. . . . Granted they were ambitious actors, they could intuit an odd parallel in the less familiar and less desirable training of a soldier preparing to go to the front.

 

Somnambules and Good Villains

I Married a Witch (1942).

The Hollywood charade offers a fairly small repertory of roles, and a good part of Tyler’s first film book is devoted to tracing them out. For men there is the pure Hero, the innocent hick who initiates drama only because of ignorance or lack of worldliness (think again of Cooper, or Fonda). There is the Lover, with his all-too-human faults. There is the Benefactor of Mankind, the inventor or scientist.

Most interesting is the Good Villain, “the sympathetic bad man.” As either a gangster or a beloved rogue like Raffles or Don Juan, he is a vigorous figure who attracts our admiration. He expresses his desires and emotions through direct action. He violates the law, but he can’t understand why he deserves punishment. To some extent neither can we. Tyler thinks that the source of the hero’s flaw is kept vague (bad luck, social conditions), the better to abandon us to our own imaginings.

Then there is the Bad Hero, a rare figure in Hollywood because the need for a happy ending can’t endow him with the stature of the flawed, fated protagonist of classic tragedy. Tyler finds that some films try to create a Bad Hero out of a Good Villain. The roguish Charlie Kane of the early reels becomes the more rigid Charles Foster Kane, a titan facing a purportedly tragic destiny.

Women have their charade roles too. The silent era was dominated by the Vamp and the Canary (the fluttery virgin), but sound cinema brought a new category, the somnambule or sleepwalker. This is the woman who floats through the film in suspended animation, dreamily prepared for sexual consummation. She may be an exotic import, like Garbo (the woman of passion) or Dietrich (the carnal woman). Domestically we have the “neurotic somnambule” in Bette Davis, the showgirl (Hedy Lamarr), and the stripper—the “minimum role” for a somnambule. Mae West, Tyler ingeniously proposes, combines all these and adds a dash of the female impersonator.

Wolfenstein and Leites’s 1950 book proposes blander, sterner stereotypes of movie characters, such as the Good Bad Girl. These play out the Freudian skit of Daddy, Mommy, and Me. Tyler’s repertory of types seems to parody those in advance, while he looks for more cryptic clues and a murkier sexual pathology. The male roles are aggressively masculine, a response, Tyler says, to “female sexual excess.” At the limit, Frankenstein’s monster is a lumbering symbol of rape. Meanwhile, the somnambules are hypnotically prepared by men for sexual surrender. Even the willful Scarlett O’Hara is enraptured by the Technicolor presence of Ashley Wilkes’ clothes, accent, and head.

Tyler’s second book, Magic and Myth of the Movies, adds to the catalogue by considering comedians and clowns. They openly exploit sexual uncertainties. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Danny Kaye play uncertain males who are cowardly and effeminate; yet mysteriously they lust after women. The female clowns in their turn are brashly masculine, as seen in raucous Betty Hutton and homely Martha Raye.

In short, Tyler is no orthodox Freudian, stepping through the Oedipus tango with flat-footed literalness. He takes psychoanalytic ideas poetically, as a way to illuminate the subterranean currents gushing through a movie. He plays with weird possibilities as if constructing his own dream out of them. No quick summary will do justice to his mulitplying fantasies, but suffice it to say that our critic does all he can to expose the crevices.

In Of Mice and Men, for example, why not admit that George is Frankenstein, possessing a creature he controls sadistically, while Lennie is the monster who seeks not love but rape? Or that George is the dominant male, Lennie the pliant female in a vaguely homosexual couple? In Double Indemnity, why does Neff record his confession for Keyes? Their friendship has an edge of male rivalry; the plug-ugly Keyes is clearly no gal magnet. As for Phyllis, who breaks up the couple…well, maybe she doesn’t use sex to get the money but rather uses the money to get sex. And why does Mildred Pierce not understand what every audience member does—that her daughter is a spoiled bitch? Is it not best to think of the film as Mildred’s wish-fulfillment dream, expunging a second husband and a wretched child from her life so she can return cleansed to her first husband, whose name she has never surrendered?

Psychiatry pervades 1940s film plots, as if Hollywood were eager to show that even apparently ordinary citizens can nurse murder in their hearts. So Tyler feels warranted in amping up the industry’s narcissism. Unlike the mass-culture scolds, he’s not laying bare the dark soul of American culture. He’s shocking and amusing himself, and us, with all the ways the critic can “reveal a weightier entertainment value in films than Hollywood itself is aware of.”

Barbara Deming was annoyed at such frivolity. Couldn’t Tyler see that his Hollywood heroes “lack a dynamic relation to society”? And that his Single Instance lovers are cut off from a meaningful community? Deming wants to castigate Hollywood for its clichés, but Tyler finds in those clichés something sincere, poetic, and agreeably sinister. By treating interpretation as a game rather than a denunciation, he’s able to suggest of Arsenic and Old Lace: “Itself a spoof of macabre monster movies, this film contains an inner dimension of zany fun within an outer dimension of zany fun.”

 

Schlemiels, schlimozzels, and other medicine men

Turnabout (1940).

The Hollywood Hallucination treats the idea of film as dream both more and less seriously than the academics did. Tyler’s followup book does the same thing with the idea of myth.

From his earliest writing on film he compares stars to the ancient gods and goddesses. This isn’t just because they are worshipped by the multitude. The stars, he claims, fulfill long-lasting needs not met by contemporary religion. People like us, they are somehow immortal. On the screen they live and die and live again. Like the Homeric gods, they disguise themselves to us. They become cowboys or detectives, queens or saloon-girls; but we recognize them every time. They reenact their roles, so that each film becomes a ritual akin to ancient drama. Our gods, symbolically slain or beatified, populate stories that are magical invocations tailored to a modern Christian society.

Myth, Tyler explains, is “a basic, prototypic pattern” that reveals “imaginative truth.” He’s aware of Frazer, and he acknowledges that much of religion has a source in pagan tales and rituals. Like Bodkin and Burke he finds that myth presents archetypes that speak to basic human desires. Speaking to those same desires is Hollywood’s business, so the correspondence is enticing.

So far, so academic. But Tyler can’t leave it at that. A secular society refashions new myths, he claims. The movies give us, for example, the archetype of the absent-minded professor or inventor. The bumbling success of the awkward scientist, mocking efficiency but also proving that even fools can flourish in a democracy, is no less a myth, for Hollywood’s purposes, than is Diana the virgin huntress (often incarnated, incidentally, in Katharine Hepburn).

Tyler’s favorite ancient myth in modern clothes is that of the medicine man. Far, far back the king was the all-powerful figure. Eventually he split into the ruler and two other figures: the medicine man and the fool. Modern clowns share both functions. As fools, they make light of serious matters and seem “immune to normal human feelings.” They behave obtusely, without alertness or social grace. But they also heal us by making serious things bearable. They are scapegoats who take on our vices so that we may laugh at them. And they have emotional depths. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp may wear a constant mask, but he is a real human who suffers like Pagliacci and then can start fresh, with a jaunty shrug and wriggle.

Tyler’s breathless presentation plays loose with comparative mythology studies, but he defends his critique as no less of a farrago than the phenomenon he’s studying—the results onscreen. In his “psychoanalytic-mythological approach,” he explains, “I have only been obeying Hollywood’s own law of fluidity, of open and ingenious invention.” Once more American movies, as both less and more than a traditional art, demand a vision free from rigid doctrine, either Freudian or Frazerian. The films’ dream logic exhibits energies that rework archetypes unpredictably.

Just as 1940s films turned toward presenting psychoanalysis, so did they dabble in magic. Angels, ghosts, witches, and other supernatural creatures flit through the lives of ordinary folks. Why? Partly because these creatures permitted filmmakers to revive the cinema trickery of films’ earliest years, the hallucinations of Méliès et cie, and marry them to current conventions of comedy and melodrama.

Thus Turnabout, derived from the erotico-comic-fantasy mind of Thorne Smith (Topper), allows modern special effects to let a couple swap bodies in a gender masquerade with roots in superstition. The husband “mimics a certain type of homosexual” and the wife becomes “the horsiest variety of female.” Alternatively, the wispy Veronica Lake (again!) in I Married a Witch renders the father-daughter incest plot all the more piquant. When she and her father are vacuumed into separate wine bottles, spirits infused into spirits, modern special effects revive the ancient motif of imprisoned genies.

These fairy tales are perverse but still comic. How does magic slip into more dramatic genres? Tyler’s Exhibit A is The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s based on the ancient superstition that a person’s soul can be captured by an image. In this film Tyler finds a fascinating blend of all his favorite themes. We have Narcissus in Hurd Hatfield’s beautifully vacant face, “a passive, dreaming mask.” Hollywood practices its usual blunt-instrument surgery by turning Wilde’s tale of love as an aesthetic pursuit into a romance between Dorian and “a doll-faced chit.”

But the film compensates by creating “the first male erotic somnambule who is a beauty.” Dorian becomes an image, drifting through his mansion as if a ghost himself. The painted portrait, sensationally tawdry, conjures up the iconography of Dracula and other creatures of the night, while Dorian’s decay sums up the fate of every matinee idol. As ever, Hollywood recruits myths both old and new, magic and superstition from all eras, in order to present a cascade of arresting moments that tease us toward other images, other stories in its treasure house.

From all these sources Hollywood feeds its narcissistic energy. It can tailor myths and superstition to suit its stars and scenarios. But it will curtail the somber side of myth. Imbued with Christian values, in which the Son of God redeems suffering, Hollywood is committed to the happy ending. The drama’s context is social, not cosmic; the conflicts involve not morality and unsettling self-knowledge, but merely law, custom, and proof. Is our hero guilty as charged? Will boy get girl? Who is the real killer? What does “Rosebud” mean? Social harmony outweighs tragic fate.

As a result, the Hollywood ending, fully foretold, doesn’t accumulate much power. Once more, genuine art’s demanding purity of form is replaced by the compulsion to show off. The movie story is just a jumping-off place anyway, so the wrapup can be perfunctory. Films like Suspicion tease us because they force us to ask about the real action, the stuff underneath and between the scenes. (Didn’t Lina deny Johnny her bed when she began to suspect him?). The movies can therefore get by with a phony resolution. “When reality and entertainment are thus held identical, all endings are purely conventional, formal, and often, like the charade, of an infantile logic.”

 

The man of the self-made myth

Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

For critics of the 1940s, including Agee and Farber, Griffith and Chaplin towered over the American silent cinema. When Griffith died in 1948, he was a purely historical figure. But Chaplin was still a public presence. His first two sound films, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) had found wide success and, along with a sound edition of The Gold Rush (1925), still circulated in revival houses. The Great Dictator (1940) split Chaplin into three: the Hitlerian Hynkel, the Jewish barber who resembles him, and Chaplin himself, pleading with his audience for tolerance.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947) signaled that the world’s most popular film character was forever gone. The silent era that American critics revered was now definitively over. What, then, to make of a film that turned the Tramp into a cynical killer of lonely women? Farber praised Verdoux in passing, and Agee wrote three long and admiring reviews. The most extended tribute came from Tyler, who devoted an entire book to the actor and his persona. Chaplin: Last of the Clowns (1948) was at the time a paradoxical pendant to Chaplin’s career.

The book offers a more lyrical, diffuse meditation than we get in Hallucination and Magic and Myth. Fragmentary and repetitious, it surrenders to rhetorical questions and the last refuge of the undeveloped idea, the three forlorn dots of ellipsis. I confess myself mystified and bored by several stretches of it. Still, the book is studded with bons mots, and it gives Tyler the chance to expatiate on Charlie the Tramp, Chaplin the comedian, and Charles Spencer Chaplin the man, and the myths they all forged together.

The idea of Chaplin as mythmaker was already in the air, since it was easy to take many of the films as chapters in a continuous saga. Soon after Tyler’s book appeared, another poet, Robert Payne, would publish The Great God Pan (1952), treating Chaplin as a reincarnation of that pagan deity. Tyler, adhering to the idea that myths were both ancient and recent, gave Charlie a more complicated genealogy. He finds that the Tramp blends several varieties of clown.

He is another medicine man, transmuted into a fool who will serve as a scapegoat for all our ills. Like the hunchback or mute jester, he is physically flawed, with big feet and small size. Charlie is also Pierrot, the white-faced clown seeking love but doomed to betrayal. He’s Pagliacci too, the clown who suffers while making us laugh. But thanks to cinema Charlie has gone beyond his predecessors. The others perform in a sacred space, before the tribe or on a stage, but his shoes carry him into Life, our time and place as captured by the camera. Once there, he can disrupt situations we know—a city street, a spa, a roller rink, a theatre performance, or a movie set. To the last of the clowns, cinema offers the world as a stage.

Charlie’s legend is paralleled by Chaplin’s no less mythical life. A biographer tells us that early in life he fell in love with a girl named Hetty, who was carried away from him in a car. This is all Tyler needs to get started. Hetty becomes the first in a long chain of displacements, those beautiful young women who aroused Chaplin’s desire in life and in his stories. Courtesans drive away in limousine comfort in A Woman of Paris and Monsieur Verdoux, but just as often women are destitute, crippled, or abused. In both life and art Chaplin suggests Quixote, who hopelessly idealizes Dulcinea, but his mesmeric control over his leading ladies adds another myth, that of Svengali and Trilby. He adapts his legend and his life to modern times with imagery of the city, of machinery, of industrial capitalism and Nazi dictatorship. Throughout it all, Charlie’s dream of perfect love failed in Chaplin’s private life as well as in his art.

We’ve already ventured into psychoanalytic territory, but Tyler is fearless in finding poetically shaded Freudian scenarios as he pries loose bits from Chaplin’s life and welds them to the films. Young Charlie learned pantomime from his mother, who loved to mimic their neighbors. His father, a failed music-hall performer died a drunkard when the boy was five. “The father-rival had failed in his duty,” and the son would succeed.

Succeed at what? Making a lot of money, attracting admirers worldwide, and conquering women. But it’s all incomplete, Tyler thinks. Gradually Chaplin was forced to scrutinize the dream that Charlie pursued. The Tramp eventually found love, but the artist did not. So in Verdoux Charlie becomes the suave lady-killer, a new version of Pierre in A Woman of Paris and all those Lotharios who stole the girl from the Tramp. Now, instead of losing the woman, Charlie as Verdoux wins her, brutally: “The man of the world enjoys the woman and passes on, leaving her ruined. The ideal becomes the cast-off plaything.”

Alternatively, near the end of the book, Tyler considers reversing chronology and treating Verdoux as not the end but the beginning of the Tramp saga.

Let us presume Verdoux concealed more than one possibility in his dudeish person; let us assume this possible ego was as desperate as Verdoux but that he did not have Verdoux’s vulgar adventurism, that he rejected the idea of victimizing women; that he was constrained to leave home and family, say farewell to the actual dream cottage, and become—not a murderer—but the genesis of Charlie the Immaculate.

I say: Charlie, perhaps, was not born full-blown; that he had a past like anyone else. . . . Verdoux is . . .  how Charlie came to be.

The book ends here.

Kracauer was outraged, and in a review called the author a self-indulgent narcissist and the book “disturbingly fictitious.” Tyler might have agreed. The surrealists spoke of “irrationally enlarging” the films they saw. Tyler rummages through his imagination to generate another Chaplin saga, one that satisfies the hunger that the movies have aroused in him and that, not incidentally, lets him demonstrate once more criticism as a performance art.

 

Mamma’s precious boy

Gung Ho (1943).

The spectator must be a suave and wary guest, one educated in a profound, naïve-sophisticated conspiracy to see as much as he can take away with him.

Parker Tyler, The Hollywood Hallucination, 1944

What, finally, do we do in the movie house? Ideally, we join the game, play into the charade. Professional critics are too jaded to take a hand. “We must be the ghosts amid the reality of artistic fantasy.”

Once we play with suavity and wariness, we aren’t wholly at the mercy of the mirage. As in the Chaplin book, Tyler offers himself as evidence. “Yes, I have made up a collective myth of my own, and I confess that in so doing I have plagiarized Hollywood exhaustively.” Let’s take him at his word and track one of his self-made fantasies.

Alongside his 1934 poem “Hollywood Dream Suite” in Modern Things, Tyler published “Address to My Mother.” The brief lyric ends:

you dying, that the earth say so, but/ I, always pausing,/ feeling the weak quiver/ my eyes straight at you//know a, no monument, no/sign, but closed eyes you//having lost your flesh before: live;

This elegiac sentiment is echoed in Magic and Myth, which is dedicated to his father and “the memory of Eva Parker Tyler, my mother.”

Mother, coincidentally named Eva, in some sense equals the movies, as we good mythomanes discover. Look at the hypothetical example of guilt Tyler supplies in Magic and Myth: the scenario of a little boy raiding the jam jar when Mom comes in. Recall as well that Tyler saw the wellspring of Chaplin’s pantomimic genius in his urge to imitate, and please, his mother.

Then we come upon the gentlest passage I know in Tyler’s 1940s criticism. It celebrates the moment in Gung Ho! (1943) in which a select platoon of Marines is berthed in a submarine headed to a deadly confrontation with the Japanese. The men sweat and quarrel in the claustrophobic heat. They strip to the waist and stretch on their bunks. Trained to move, they must “sit tight—and simmer.” The situation has, Tyler says, “peculiar and suggestive poetry.”

For as we see the naked, perspiring flesh of these youths, softened by the coincidental presence of their identification tags necklacing their chests, their military mold is visibly relaxed, as though the heat of the closed submarine caused to melt the less resistant metal of war that has becomc part of their bodies even as it has forced them to remove the rigid encrustation of war, their unmelting military paraphernalia. The spirit of war seemed to have reduced them to one substance. . . .

Passive as babies, they begin to show their worry and fear. Each knows that he may die in the battle to come.

They were returned to a state of childhood, and for these boys it was naturally to that state when, depending on their mother’s benevolence, they were accustomed to ask bounty and loving protection from her. So their faces assumed that mask of innocent and pure appeal that little boys wear specifically to attract and compel the good will of their mothers. There is something infinitely calculating and hypocritical about this automatic mask. . . . But the impulse to appeal to something is very strong; hence by the metaphoric bridge of the submarine as a womb they reach their mothers and through their mothers an image of overhanging nature, to which, as the blue sky, warm sunshine, and invigorating air, from which they are now farther away than ever, they make a humble appeal, automatically dictated by the type of innocent guile they practiced on the maternal being—their spontaneous charade of being mamma’s precious boy to whom nothing can be denied.

Above all, I think, we must linger upon Tyler’s account of Mae West. He pays tribute to “the scandalous sway of Miss West’s hips—it reminds me of nothing so much as the motion of a cradle: it is hypnotic, soothing: a finished and flawless equilibrium. . .” Admittedly, Mae is cruel to her offspring. In appropriating the style of the female impersonator, she robs that figure of his comedy, “leaving him only his pathos.” Still, in that gesture Mae also enacts

the one supreme sacrifice of female nature: the mother’s recognition and condonement of the homosexual flaw in her son! This, of course, almost never happens in life; that is why it had to happen at least once in art.

That passage occurs in The Hollywood Hallucination, which bears this dedication:

To the memory of my mother, that golden nature whose image so often illuminated with me this side of the movie screen.


As with Farber, a zesty discussion of Tyler’s contribution to American film criticism is offered by Greg Taylor in Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999).

Neal Pearson offers a detailed publication history of The Young and Evil, along with a biography of Charles Henri Ford, on his site. Tyler recalls Ford and their “naughty novel” in his massive biography The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew (Fleet, 1967).

Tyler’s and Boultenhouse’s papers are housed in the New York Public Library. I have not consulted them, but I hope that someone else will and write a book on Tyler.

My synopsis of Myra Breckinridge is not exactly straight, so to speak, but I tried to avoid spoilers.

The crack about Tyler’s style comes from D. Mosdell’s review of Magic and Myth of the Movies in Canadian Forum 27 (August 1947), 118. “Hollywood’s Terror Films” and “Portrait in Film,” Kracauer’s review of Chaplin: Last of the Clowns, are reprinted in Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture, ed. Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson (University of California Press, 2012), 41-46 and 188-190.

Richard Maltby offers his own treatment of the Single Instance in “‘A Brief Romantic Interlude’: Dick and Jane Go to 3 1/2 Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema,” in David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 434-459.

Tyler asked Henry Miller to write the preface to The Hollywood Hallucination, but the publishers (justifiably) rejected it. The text, in which Miller gets the title of Tyler’s book wrong, is still worth seeking out as a rant. See “Original Preface to ‘Hollywood’s Hallucination’,” in Sunday After the War (New Directions, 1944), 39-56.

In support of my suggestion that there are affinities between Kenneth Burke and Parker Tyler, I’d invoke the title essay in Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form (Louisiana State University Press, 1941), 1-137. A good overview of trends in literary criticism of the period is Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Armed Vision (Knopf, 1948).

Deming’s critique of Tyler’s social irresponsibility comes in “The Close-Up of Love,” Partisan Review 12, 3 (Summer 1945), 393. For a thorough account of Deming’s work, see Albert Moran’s “A Poetics of Film-Audience Reception? Barbara Deming Goes to the Movies,” in Karina Aveyard and Albert Moran, eds., Watching Films: New Perspectives on Movie Going, Exhibition, and Reception (Intellect, 2013), 55-68.

Tyler’s source for Chaplin: Last of the Clowns and its psychobiographical musings is Gerith von Ulm’s Charlie Chaplin: King of Tragedy, purportedly based on documents and information supplied by Chaplin’s valet Kono Toraichi. Tyler’s book resembles in some ways Vladimir Nabokov’s great 1944 critical study Nikolai Gogol (New Directions), which Tyler would probably have known. Nabokov’s urge to expand on the images he finds in his author seem to prefigure Tyler’s more extravagant extrapolations. Nabokov’s book ends with a quarrel between himself and his editor and a mischievous timeline peppered with irrelevant, possibly fake events.

I discuss the tradition of symptomatic interpretation in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. I’ve registered my reservations about reflection-based and Zeitgeisty interpretations in Chapter 1 of Poetics of Cinema and here and here.

Stage Fright (1950).

Manny Farber 1: Color commentary

Manny Farber, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.

DB here:

This entry is part of a series on 1940s American critics. The earlier installments are here, here, here, and here. Because of the complexity of Farber’s career, I’ll devote a second entry to him shortly.

 

Emanuel Farber is the most currently celebrated critic of my three Rhapsodes of the 1940s. He is the cinephiles’ favorite, and his tastes, his ideas, and his prose have had enormous influence. His collected writings, edited by Robert Polito in a bulky Library of America edition, come festooned with praise from Scorsese, Schickel, Corliss, Wolcott, Sragow, Rosenbaum, and William Gibson. “The liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country ever produced,” notes Susan Sontag.

Out of many candidates, here’s a specimen of how Farber carried the controlled ecstasy of the 1940s critics into the 1960s. A 1969 essay on Hawks describes His Girl Friday:

Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty labels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, outmaneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.

The outpouring of words, the piling up of adjectives and modifying phrases, the ellipsis (no time to spare for ands, let alone periods), and the sideswipe reference to modern painting all bear the signature of a critic who knows how to make enthusiasm infectious. Even the repetition of bravado within the same sentence, which looks like an amateur gaffe, rings with its own—well, bravado.

He’s no less adept at the honorable American craft of hilarious grousing. Where Agee gave us elegant, if sometimes tormented, efforts to be fair to all, Farber can be fed up in the Mencken mode. He picks Larry Rivers, Dave Brubeck, and Twelve Angry Men as examples of the new middlebrow confidence man.

The figure who is engineering this middle-class blitz has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful nonconforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation. The brains behind his creativity are those of a high-powered salesman using empty tricks and skills to push an item for which he has no feeling or belief. Avant-gardism has fallen into the hands of the businessman-artist.

In all, Farber bequeathed us thirty-five years of good dirty fun. But his keen intelligence was launched during the era that preoccupies me at the moment: America in the 1940s.

 

Big hands

Farber’s career falls, almost too neatly, into periods. From early 1942 through 1946, he reviewed films for The New Republic and published occasional art criticism there and elsewhere. Then he stopped writing for over two years. In early 1949 he signed on at The Nation, taking over after James Agee left. (“He made sure I got the job and I made sure I lost it.”) He reviewed film and some visual art until January 1954. For other venues he wrote longer pieces, many of them now famous. After another hiatus (1954-1957) he resumed writing film criticism, often with Patricia Patterson, before stopping altogether in 1977.

His most influential work starts in the Nation phase, from around 1950 on. He began to celebrate B-level crime films and hard-guy studio directors (Hawks, Walsh, Fuller, Siegel). As his purview expanded, he came up with labels like “Underground Film” and “White Elephant Art” and “Termite Art.” Then came his dense appreciations of Godard, Fassbinder, Michael Snow, and other 1960s and 1970s filmmakers, as well as extended essays revisiting action directors of the classic era.

The dominant image of Farber’s tastes didn’t arise by accident. When he compiled his essay collection Negative Space (1971), he included only two pieces from the 1940s proper and a few from 1950. In at least one case (“John Huston,” a portmanteau piece from 1949 and 1950 reviews), he revised what he had originally published to reflect his rethinking of Huston’s value. The anthology relied heavily on recently published pieces. His longer-form pieces like “The Gimp” (1952) and “Underground Films” (1957) set the tone and framework for the collection.

The writing he selected for Negative Space reinforces another aspect of Farber’s image: the aesthete cowboy. Farber had played football and baseball in high school and, instead of turning his painting skills to commercial illustration, he became a carpenter, a trade that sustained him for decades. He seems to have been at home in the pugilistic Abstract Expressionist circles of the 1950s. Clement Greenberg claims to have bested Farber in a fistfight, although Farber scared him. (“He could have beaten me up. . . . He had big hands.”) Years later Andrew Sarris reported that Farber nearly clobbered John Simon at a critics’ meeting.

In print, Farber punched at all weight levels and liked to work in close. He said that Agee “paid out tribute like a public-address system.” He called Sarris “a boneless Soupy Sales,” and found Susan Sontag “catlike” and possessed of “a confidence that her knowledge is all-purpose (if contracted, she’d show up in Vietnam).” The man who admired tough noirs declared Rock Hudson a Mother’s Boy and confessed: “I don’t understand the belt people get out of overwrought feminine pictures.”

Like anybody who cares about classic or modern films, I’ve learned a lot from Farber. In this and the next entry I want to put him in the context I’ve been sketching in the previous three entries in this series. I want, through him and Agee and Tyler, to grasp some possibilities of American film culture in the 1940s. In their usually tireless denunciations of the weekly fodder, what did these smart people think film had been, was, could be? What, to put it abstractly, were the aesthetic prospects of Hollywood cinema?

That means focusing on his early career. Rather than pinpointing traces of what would come later, a task admirably executed in Polito’s introduction to the Library of America volume, I pretend for most of these two entries that late Farber never happened. That is, I’m considering a very young man trying to make his way in the New York scene at a moment of cultural ferment.

We’re so attuned to late-phase Farber that turning to this hero’s apprentice work may seem to court disappointment. But from the start the writing is racy and engaging, and not so densely impacted as in his late phase. Moreover, he has long been considered our critic most sensitive to the look of the movies. By rummaging first in his youthful art reviews, we can get a better sense of exactly what his criticism owes to the visual arts, modernism in particular. The result, which I’ll present in the followup entry, wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

 

Warming up

Piet Mondrian. New York Boogie Woogie (1941).

Farber had trained at art schools in California before he married another art student, Janet Terrace. After living for a while with Farber’s brother in Washington, D. C., the couple moved moved to Greenwich Village. In January 1942 Farber’s first art review for The New Republic appeared. When Otis Ferguson left the magazine for the Merchant Marine, Farber took his place as film reviewer. He had just turned twenty-five.

Once ensconced, he found himself alongside two of the most formidable critics on the cultural scene. Clement Greenberg and James Agee, both born in 1909, were only eight years older than Farber, but they had a big head start. They overshadowed him, both at the time and for decades afterward.

Farber was reviewing visual art for The New Republic before Greenberg began doing the same at The Nation, but Greenberg was far more famous. He had published two major essays in Partisan Review, then the Bible of the progressive literati. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) had kicked off the mass-culture debate that would surge through the next two decades. Showing the same knack for sharp-edged synthesis, Greenberg’s 1940 essay, “For a New Laocöon,” made a strident case for abstract art as the culmination of ambitious western painting.

Greenberg asserted that painting had for centuries been dominated by other arts, notably literature. Modern art had lifted the veil and revealed painting’s unique conditions of existence. From Courbet and the Impressionists to Cézanne and the cubists, painters had come to recognize that painting’s power lay not in telling stories (“illustration”) or portraying the world as photography could capture it (“illusion”). At last the painter, secure in knowledge of “the opacity of the medium,” could create new visual experiences solely through line, color, and form. Purism was the painter’s duty.

Greenberg benefited from a vacuum in America’s popular and elite press. While abstract art was widely accepted in Europe, most American critics were ignorant, hostile, or both. Many major magazines had no art critics on their rosters. Academics focused on earlier eras, and journalists either ignored or mocked abstraction and the other major movement of the period, surrealism.

Greenberg, an amateur painter, had no scholarly training in art. Most of what he had to say was old news to painters and scholars in the modernist camp. He derived most of his ideas about technique from lectures by the influential émigré Hans Hofmann. But Greenberg told a good story, and he treated modern art as initiating a new epoch in the history of visual expression. The progress of painting, loosely tied to changes in social structure, led inevitably to the defiant austerity of abstraction. As a subtle reader, brilliant polemicist, and shrewd packager, Greenberg managed to get the intelligentsia excited about one major wing of new art.

The readership of Partisan Review numbered only about eight thousand, but they were the right eight thousand. In late 1942, Greenberg expanded his campaign to the pages of The Nation. There, as the magazine’s first art critic, he ceaselessly promoted  “the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great.” By the end of the decade, the painters Greenberg came to champion—Pollock, de Kooning, and a few others—would be recognized as modern masters, and he would be hailed as a prophet.

Farber’s views were partly in harmony with Greenberg’s. Like most critics, he took abstract art and surrealism to be the primary trends of the moment, and he valued the emerging Abstract Expressionists highly. He saw problems with “illustration,” especially that which was as melodramatic as Thomas Hart Benton’s. He could talk about picture planes and fidelity to materials with the best of them. But his criteria were pluralistic and his analytical categories surprisingly traditional.

Contra Greenberg, Farber’s reviews discuss pictures in relation to their subjects as well as their techniques. He analyzes compositions with art-school finesse, pointing up triangular designs and strategic symmetries. He doesn’t concentrate wholly on abstract art, and he respects representational masters like Max Weber and Utrillo (in a startlingly gushy review). Above all, Farber values feeling. Where Greenberg asks if a painting falls into step with the march toward purism, Farber looks for emotional expression.

In several passages we can read a covert dialogue with Greenberg, but they also represent Farber’s distinct aesthetic. Snippets from his 1942 reviews add up to a manifesto pleading for the importance of emotion—that of the artist, and that of the viewer.

The artist depends on his emotion and the accidents that accrue from it.

The really important part of the painting—the feeling that the artist wanted.

The essential function of painting [is] the honest individual emotion put down forthrightly without too much regard to the weight of centuries of painting already done, and conventions already explored.

The artist is supposed to react emotionally to his environment in color and line, if his audience is ever to.

Weber [The Rabbi, 1940, right] always pushes a gesture, a stance, or simple area of color to its fullest emotional presence. There is never any doubt of what you feel from any spot in his canvas.

Extreme morbidity dominates John Flannagan’s sculptures.

[Tchelitchew] manages to convey his gloom no matter how badly he paints. . . . There’s a place for a wider scope of emotion in painting, and this Russian artist shows how moving and universal extreme introspection can be in painting. 

[Chagall’s] greatness is in expressing himself completely and freely into everything he paints.

I have yet to see a painting which reminds me of [picture] planes, and I’m sure that Rousseau wasn’t feeling planes when he painted tigers.

By 1945, Farber has become perfectly explicit.

The purist argument inevitably starts by narrowing painting down to a matter of designed line and color on a flat surface instead of showing that design is constantly driven, controlled, and ordered by the expression.

Art criticism had always sought a balance between analysis of the painter’s craft and a consideration of how the craft conveyed meaning and feeling. The result gives evidence of the artist’s personality. Farber’s adherence to this traditional view didn’t block him from appreciating new art. It simply allowed him to treat all art as potentially exciting.

In order to appraise how well artists achieved expressive form, Farber mobilized his unique gifts as a writer. His style, alternately probing and slangy, could make subject, theme, design, and emotion come alive. In a Fletcher Martin picture “a horse tosses a cowboy sky high, but the painting is done with ease and no weight thrown around. The wise handling of rhythmic line and feathery color is enough for this artist to get across the action.” As for Goya:

When his pictures were allegorical, Goya moved from naturalism to supernaturalism, to goats, donkey-people, chinchilla rats, and the witches and brownies (nice witches), and in either approach there is the definite human imprint, the unmistakeable earmark of man. It is a matter of detail, of his driving deeper and harder into the idiosyncratic detail, so that it is realized at its most knobby, crooked, or bent likeness.

And, not for nothing, there is sheer representational skill: “Goya could draw a bull out of this world.”

But when an overblown concept created chaotic form, as with Benton’s war series “Year of Peril,” Farber called foul.

His painting now is apt to be Jesus on the cross, being harpooned from the ground by fascist goons and from the air by the light of a Messerschmidt. . . . There are a dozen different dominant colors in this painting and no relationship between any of them. They cross each other out. The conception is one of disunity since each form is dissociated from the others in the picture.

In German, a Farber is a dyemaster, and Farber lived up to his name in being especially sensitive to color’s contribution to the viewer’s response. Greenberg famously misunderstood Mondrian’s theories and ascribed to New York Boogie Woogie colors it didn’t have. By contrast, Farber licks his lips when he tells of Chagall’s lemon suns and raspberry patches of ice. The “testicle-like fruit” in a painting glows like gold velvet, and Farber often notes “color rhythms,” the ways in which a single hue varies in shade. In one painting Milton Avery expands “the vividness of the main color—the St. Patrick’s Day green of the wall—by a scaled off series of dulled, almost dried greens.” When an artist fails at color, as most watercolorists do, Farber calls the results anemic “for both pictorial and emotional reasons.”

 

Eyedropper esthetics

Greenberg, implacable foe of mass culture, denigrated certain painters as “comic-strippers.” But if like Farber you’re looking for feeling in art, why not try the comics? After all, cartoons are designed to elicit a laugh. If they’re really good, they’re not just reliant on the dialogue or the caption; they have to be drawn funny. Just as Agee brings to Monsieur Verdoux analytical techniques characteristic of literary criticism of his day, Farber tries out traditional art-historical perspectives on the most vulgar form of popular imagery.

His virtuoso 1944 column on comics displays a connoisseur’s delight. As with film, comics’ age had given way to mediocrity—even as a youth Farber was looking grumpily back at the old days—but while deploring the current adventure and soap-opera strips, he finds time to praise Bushmiller’s Nancy (with its characters bearing “identical fire-plug shapes, two-foot heights, inch-long names”), The Bungles Family (with their memorable noses), and the almost completely forgotten Silly Milly.

Silly Milly is drawn in typical McGovern style, as though by a wind current, and has a prehistoric animal for a hair-do, a very expressive, giant-size eye, and a perfectly oval profile. It is one of those comics with animated décor, like “Smoky Stover,” with adjoining family portraits shaking hands, and one that tries for laughs in every part of the box. . . . It is one of the most sophisticated of comics, smart-alecky, corny, sloppy and half unlikable, but produces its eyedropper of humor each day, without fail.

Another form of popular illustration is practiced by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada.  Clement Greenberg calls him limited in talent but fairly skillful, chiefly because he sensed the power of black and white “as sheer color.” Farber, the practiced artist, explains the starkness of Posada’s design as partly necessitated by scale (the bigger pictures are “the size of a slice of bread”) and method (cutting in type metal leads to “closed, mean forms” and “staccato movement”). He doesn’t forget subject matter either, offering a casual inventory of Posada’s lurid scenes.

He was especially interested in showing executions and murders, which he depicted at the moment when the murderer’s knife was on its way through the victim’s throat, or just as the firing squad had emptied their guns. But he also leaned heavily on fires, collisions, accidental deaths, and he did two good illustrations of what the end of the world might look like.

Lyonel Feininger was one of the few serious painters who took up comic-strip art, and perhaps that knowledge led Greenberg to dismiss him in a few lines. In the same amount of space, Farber conjures up the unique Feininger look:

A make-believe world like that of a little boy’s fairy story, with its scratch-lined, bug-like people, scalloped bridges, Toonerville trains, streets and houses like those in the movie “Dr. Caligari,” four-masted schooners (than which there are none more wondrous) in candy green seas under the inevitable yellow moon like a child’s scissor cutout of the letter C.

In exactitude Farber outpaces Greenberg. Whenever the two reviewed the same shows and books, comparison favors Farber’s lively, funny analyses. Greenberg predictably yields up gaseous generalizations and stern pronouncements about the inevitable future of painting or, more ominously, the historical fate awaiting the painter he’s reviewing. Consider the two men’s handling of William Steig’s morose little book The Lonely Ones. Steig was later known as a cartoonist and author of children’s stories, but in the mid-1940s he was making a reputation as a satiric artist along the lines of Saul Steinberg.

Greenberg takes Steig’s drawings as capturing the way that modern people use personal confession as a weapon. They admit their loneliness but also seek pity in a self-aggrandizing way. Although Greenberg praises Steig for conveying ideas sharply, he concludes that what Steig gives us are cartoons, and thus “not quite art.” His drawings rely on stereotyped imagery and don’t meet modernist criteria. Line “is not felt for its own sake”; everything is given in comic-strip symbols, like raised eyebrows for surprise. Accordingly, Greenberg doesn’t bother to analyze Steig’s technique.

Farber drills deeper. He diagnoses Steig’s first book, about neurosis, as less disturbing than this new volume, which teeters toward psychosis. Farber grants that Steig sometimes falls back on comics technique, but in his best work his line has expressive qualities. It “defines sharply and cold-bloodedly the very crux of a crushing moment, the core of a disturbed personality.” Even when he’s not portraying people, his work is shot through with anxiety. There could hardly be a more unpromising picture than this.

But Farber explains:

In the rendition of Nerves (a ball balancing precariously on the edge of a table) perspective, tilt of the table, light and line all contribute to the fact that the ball will surely fall off, but when? In this particular drawing it is interesting to notice the details, which are so few and so unobtrusive as to go usually unnoticed—the conception of the unnaturally shaped shadow under the table is highly erratic and sprawling in contour, recalling the loose, watery, uncoordinated state of the nervous breakdown. This is in contrast to the sharp, ordered, concrete world of the table. Steig shows you the eerie, unsubstantial level to which the ball is about to plunge. The drawing of the table is equally interesting, because it carries, despite its unswerving realism, the feeling of the underprivileged little people that infuses everything that Steig draws.

You won’t find, I think, anything as fine-grained in Greenberg’s 1940s reviews. Farber the practicing artist finds emotional qualities in what Greenberg discusses, vaguely, as style and concept. Farber agrees that Steig’s line isn’t “felt for its own sake”; it’s felt for feeling’s sake. If he can get this much out of this simple drawing, you can imagine what he can do with Cézanne, Mondrian, and Robert Motherwell.

 

Farber’s unpretentious emphasis on feeling as carried by form allowed him to do what the other Rhapsodes managed in their own fashion: to simply sidestep the mass culture debate and face popular art straightforwardly. Farber’s blunt acceptance of images, high or low, on their own terms is given great force by his style, a world away from the inflations of Greenberg and the obiter dicta of the Partisan Review cohort. Farber’s colorful commentary—form plus feeling, scrutiny of detail, combustible diction—would become even more stirring when he moved to film reviewing.

This series continues here.


I owe immense thanks to Kent Jones for expansive email conversations about Farber (and Agee). Thanks as well to Jim Naremore for corresponding with me on some particular points, and to my long-time friend and colleague J. J. Murphy, who helped me understand the 1940s art scene. In addition, Kent’s just-published essay “Critical Condition” bears directly on matters discussed in this entry and the whole blog series.

Deep thanks as well to Patricia Patterson for permission to reproduce the photograph of Farber surmounting this entry.

Indispensable to anyone writing about Farber, or film, is the superb Library of America collection edited by Robert Polito, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. His art reviews remain uncollected. A bibliography is available in the catalogue Manny Farber (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1985), n.p. I’m grateful to Eric Dienstfrey for his help in rounding up these items.

I’ll supply some more references and links for Farber’s film criticism in the next installment. Here, though, I must signal the vivid memoir written by Janet Richards, Farber’s first wife.  Common Soldiers: A Self-Portrait and Other Portraits (Archer Press, 1979) includes recollections of their years in New York and their time with Farber’s family.

Useful surveys of American abstraction and its context are Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting (Praeger, 1970) and Dore Ashton, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (University of California Press, orig. 1972). The major player in that game was Clement Greenberg. “Towards a New Laocöon” is included in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Vol. 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 23-38. My quotation about the necessary direction of pictorial art is from “Review of an Exhibition of Andre Masson,” 99, and the observations on William Steig come from “Steig’s Gallery: The Lonely Ones,” 137-138.

On Greenberg, the standard biography is Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg (Scribners, 1997); Greenberg’s report on vanquishing Farber is on p. 82. (“He was so neurotic. He could’ve beaten me up.”) A less adulatory account is Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2006). Greenberg’s “New Laocöon” essay implicitly draws on sources including Sheldon Cheney, A Primer of Modern Art (Boni and Liveright, 1924) and Expressionism in Art (Liveright, 1934) and James Johnson Sweeney, Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting (University of Chicago Press, 1934). A primary influence on Greenberg was the teaching of Hans Hoffman, sampled in Search for the Real, ed. Sarah T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr (Addison Gallery, 1948).

One last note. Janet Richards records in her autobiography the couple’s trip from California across the country. Driving through Wisconsin, they stopped by my home town.

We thought then we would live in Madison, a lovely small college city. We even rented a room with a stove and a sink in it. But after Manny had been to the Labor Council and discovered that the wages in Wisconsin for second year carpenter’s apprentices were too small even to pay our rent, we left Madison.

If Madison’s 1939 wages had been higher, the fate of American film criticism would have been very different.

Lyonel Feininger, Angler with Blue Fish II (1912).

I am a camera, sometimes: TIM’S VERMEER

DB here:

Sometimes you sense that a film is made especially for you, and you expect to enjoy and admire it well before you see it. This happened, I guess, with millions of people and films like Star Wars, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. I didn’t share those viewers’ hopes, but I knew from advance publicity that I would be keenly interested in the new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer.

Why? It involves Penn & Teller, two demigods of mine; it’s about art and technology; and it investigates the possibility that a painter used optical devices to create glowing, mysterious images. In the process, it reawakens the controversy around David Hockney’s thesis in Secret Knowledge that many old masters were employing lenses and mirrors to render nature with unprecedented richness.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was the most intellectual fun I’ve had at the movies in the last year.

It’s hard to explain technical stuff clearly, and even harder to dramatize it so that audiences are engaged. Tim’s Vermeer teaches you a lot about art, technology, and human will and skill. The personality of the central figure makes the tale engrossing and funny, often suspenseful, and at moments a little wistful. At the same time you get to study one of the greatest paintings in the western world in a thoroughly unpretentious way.

There, I’ve made my recommendation. Stop now if you want your experience completely unsullied. But you’ve perhaps read other reviews, and nearly everything I mention in what follows is mentioned in at least one of those. Sony Pictures Classics has kindly put the screenplay online, so there really are no secrets if you’re determined to know it all. I want merely to convey some of the excitement the film gave me. It explores a fascinating problem in art history through one man’s patience, ingenuity, and determination.

 

The Darkened Chamber

Tim Denison, a wealthy software innovator, is a polymath—musician, tinkerer, and fan of art. He is not a painter, but he works with images constantly; part of his fortune derives from Video Toaster and other postproduction software. He comes across as articulate, avuncular, and gifted with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

In 2001 Tim learned of two recently published books, Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and Vermeer’s Camera, a more academic investigation by Philip Steadman. Steadman made a strong case for Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura in painting his pictures.

The camera obscura is a box that uses a small hole and lens to project an image of the scene outside the box. The image appears, inverted and flopped side to side, on the wall opposite the lens. Project the image onto a drawing surface, and you can trace it, although it’s difficult and requires a lot of practice.

The photographic camera is such a device, using film stock or a chip to fix the image. Amateurs used portable camera obscuras for some centuries before photography, and there’s evidence that Canaletto and other major artists employed them. A camera obscura (or “dark room”) can be any size, and it’s possible to set one up as a booth in a parlor. This is what Steadman suggested Vermeer did. Features of the paintings, such as perspective convergence and certain visual distortions, were characteristic of camera obscura images.

Hockney made bigger claims. He proposed that use of the camera obscura, along with convex mirrors and other optical gear, went far beyond Vermeer and a few other image makers. Caravaggio, for instance, seemed to him a master of staging tableaux vivants in his cellar and then copying what his array of gadgets yielded—in effect, creating a photographer’s studio.

Hockney’s proposals created a storm of controversy, with art historians, optical scientists, and cultural critics driven to fury. A common ad hominem complaint was that Hockney didn’t draw well himself and used photography to help him, so he would naturally denigrate a draftsman of genius. You can see some links to the debate in this entry’s codicil.

Steadman, a historian of architecture, used the perspective presented in the paintings to calculate the dimensions of the room and the placement of the camera obscura, and as a result he could measure the size of the projected images, which uncannily matched the size of the finished paintings. Tim took another direction.

By reflecting the camera obscura image into a hand mirror that he could position just above the picture in progress, Tim found that without training or talent he could copy a scene with astonishing accuracy. He started without a camera obscura, just using the hand mirror to paint an image from a photo of his father-in-law. The result encouraged him to go farther—much farther.

Tim’s Vermeer documents Tim’s painstaking process. He used 3D mapping to plot the space shown in The Music Lesson. He then built the room and furnished it with life-size replicas of the furniture and fittings. He ground authentic versions of the pigments and lenses used in Vermeer’s era. He even found models to stand, fixed in place by clamps, while he painted, with infinitesmal slowness, the image caught by his lens and hand mirror. By trial and error he found that adding another mirror helped even more. He was painting from a three-dimensional scene, as captured on a camera obscura.

The entire project consumed 1825 days. Documentaries always document more than they intend to, and part of the film’s attraction is its portrait of a man driven to the limit to test his hunches. His presence adds a human narrative to what could have been considered a dry academic debate. You have to wonder what Herzog would have made of this multimillionaire spending years trying to replicate a masterpiece.

Tim’s obsession yielded a remarkably exact version of the scene done entirely by hand, eye, and optical devices. The film shows Hockney and Steadman approving Tim’s picture as a valid “proof of concept,” as he calls it.

The film is carefully clear about what Tim’s demo didn’t prove. He hasn’t shown that Vermeer did it this way. We have in fact no written documents concerning how Vermeer produced his pictures, so our inferences are based wholly on the paintings and the historical circumstances. For example, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, celebrated microscopist, lived in Delft at the same time and served as executor of Vermeer’s estate. But no documents indicate that they discussed lenses, or even knew one another.

Nor has Tim proved that he’s as good as Vermeer. Hockney insists that paintings are marks and “machines don’t make marks.” Vermeer’s touch may be inimitable and owe nothing to optics.

And Tim hasn’t supported Hockney’s suggestion that there’s no other way Vermeer could have gotten his distinctive look. Admittedly, thanks to perceptual psychologist Colin Blakemore, Tim found that Vermeer’s pictures include visual phenomena that aren’t available to our unaided eye, such as fine gradations of light on a pebbly surface. Still, perhaps Vermeer was familiar with optically generated images and imitated them, freehand, in his pictures. Perhaps he used a camera obscura simply as inspiration and a guide to visual discovery.

What Tim has shown is that a simple knowledge of how light behaves in mirrors and lenses–knowledge that was available in Vermeer’s milieu—could enable someone to produce images of extraordinary accuracy and detail, if he or she were willing to expend a hell of a lot of time and trouble.

Lawrence Gowing suggests that to Vermeer the drudgery that Tim underwent was exhilarating.

It was in the camera cabinet perhaps, behind the thick curtains, that he entered the world of ideal, undemanding relationships. There he could spend the hours watching the silent women move to and fro.

Maybe Vermeer was, as Tim suggests, an ancestor of today’s CGI geeks, toiling over his picture for days and weeks, though without the benefit of pizza and Mountain Dew. There are thousands of such people today. Were they around then too? Was Vermeer the first keyboard monkey?

 

The outsider’s risk

Here are some objections to the Hockney-Steadman-Denison line of argument. I don’t think they’re insurmountable.

There are always crank theories around. But although the public discussions of Hockney’s thesis came close to calling him nuts, it’s worth listening to an artist’s conception of how another artist might work—especially when the skeptics aren’t practicing artists themselves. Hockney isn’t proposing the sort of numerological theories we get, say, in the film Room 237, or the “secret geometries” line of argument that prove that every line and mass proves the artist was a Rosicrucian or a Freemason. Hockney’s theory may be wrong, but it’s not wacko.

Denison is a naïve dabbler from outside the art world and lacks certified expertise. Again, it’s not a matter of who floats an idea but how valid the idea is. Why couldn’t a computer-graphics expert come up with enlightening ideas about pictures? Craftsmen in any domain often spot fine points that lay people can’t.

Besides, insiders can be mistaken. Forgers have long fooled connoisseurs. The Smiling Girl picture above was shown as a Vermeer at London’s Royal Academy in 1929, but now it’s regarded as a fake.

It’s too easy. If this were all there were to painting lifelike pictures, you might say, any kid could do it. Well, not many would have the patience. Tim spent 130 days painting the picture and he nearly gave up. It was stressful, hard on his back, and strewn with unexpected obstacles. He had to take frequent breaks. Freehand drawing is a lot easier, not to mention faster. Although Tim is no painter by training, he clearly has a careful eye and extreme fine motor control in his fingers. I, who can scarcely draw a straight line with a ruler, couldn’t do what he did.

It’s too hard. Tim’s painstaking dabbing is laborious, others might grant, but it’s donkey work. His conception of art is “difficulty of doing,” but there are lots of things that are hard to do, like building ships in a bottle, and they aren’t art. But all art requires discipline, and in those times experts labored for days over bits of the canvas that hardly anybody would notice. As a craft, painting is inherently hard, but we can scarcely imagine the amount of energy invested in the voluptuous images of Vermeer’s period. Damien Hirst can whip up high-priced paintings fast for today’s market, but conditions at that time would slow him down. He’d probably have to catch his own shark.

It’s too reliant on technology. But art has used mechanical devices for centuries. The best examples, very relevant to Vermeer, are all the drawing aids associated with perspective, including not just straightedges and protractors but complex gadgets like Durer’s famous converging-string setup that allowed him to draw curved volumes.

Such devices are shortcuts to deploying the geometry of the system. As Steadman says in the film, “Perspective is an algorithm.”

Later eras have given us much art dependent on technology, from tubes of oil paint to Hockney’s own Polaroid- and iPad-assisted imagery. And of course film and video art wouldn’t exist without machines. Hockney puts it well from the standpoint of the practicing painter:

[Raphael] would have wanted to make as vivid a portrait as he could. As a professional painter, he had a job to do and would have used all the tools at his disposal, including, if he thought they would help, lenses. He would not think, “I’m a great artist at the height of the Renaissance who should disdain such methods.”

Hockney and Steadman report that practicing artists they’ve encountered have been far less hostile to their ideas than art historians have been.

It insults greatness. I suppose this is what Susan Sontag meant by saying, “If David Hockney’s thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra.”

Actually, the copying of a camera obscura image isn’t as mechanical as one might think, but even if it were, would it be devastating? We allow photographers, with their mechanisms for intercepting light rays, the status of great artists.

The objection rests on a valid point. We do need to know something of how an artwork was made in order to understand and judge it. But in this case I don’t think that discovering that Vermeer used mechanical aids would minimize our appreciation of the pictures. It might, however, change our sense of how he relates to the traditions that followed. This change in our understanding is something Hockney and Denison hope to bring about.

It dispells the mystery. This is the toughest argument to counter because it assumes that we want mystery in our art. It seems to me ultimately a religious way of thinking about art. I’m enough of a rationalist to hope that in any area, research can turn some mysteries into puzzles, then turn puzzles into problems, and maybe solve some of the problems.

There’ll always be a residue of questions we can’t answer. Given the feeble progress we’ve made in understanding art, no one should worry. We researchers nibble at the edges, and the Big Mysteries aren’t going away any time soon. In the meantime, we can ask whether Tim, along with Hockney, Steadman, and others, has answered some worthwhile questions about how Vermeer made his pictures.

 

My wish list

Here are some matters that a longer film would probably have been able to tackle. I’d love to see a version that did.

How does Vermeer fit into the broader history of art? The painting traditions in which Vermeer worked—genre scenes, portraiture, perspective–aren’t articulated in the film. In addition, the use of the camera obscura by other painters could be brought out. Perhaps the assumption is that Hockney covered that territory.

Still, to avoid certain accusations, it might have been better to grant that artists blend talent, training, and hard work with selective knowledge of what earlier artists have done, and what rivals are up to. E. H. Gombrich emphasizes the various factors involved: the tasks that artists undertake, their tools, their techniques (including inherited visual patterns, or schemas), the problems inherent in a project, and the artist’s circumstances, such as competition with other artists and the fluctuating tastes of their audience.

The exactitude of Vermeer’s interiors, for instance, is in tune with contemporary Dutch paintings of household routines (so-called genre painting) and of still-life paintings of foods glistening on a tabletop. There was a taste for meticulous presentation of everyday life at the time, and this probably impelled Vermeer toward his unique brand of realism. Was he trying to top his rivals? The film suggests that his delicacy and precision surpass what’s on display in contemporaries like Pieter de Hooch.

What counts as realism? Vermeer’s pictures look fantastically accurate, and have for some time. But he selects only certain dimensions of reality to capture. Other painters focus on movement, which is all but absent from Vermeer’s images. There’s a snapshot quality to Baroque representations of figures in action, which look scarily realistic. And many other painters render details that impress from a distance or even close up; Jan Van Eyck is probably the most famous.

What about the lenses and mirrors? Tim goes to great lengths to mimic the features of Vermeer’s room and to mix paints as he might have. The film is mostly silent, though, about his optical devices. What focal lengths were the lenses in camera obscuras? We know that different focal lengths render perspective in differing ways. Some of the distortions commentators have found in Vermeer’s picture seem to proceed from wide-angle coverage. Moreover, Tim’s hand mirror and convex mirror seem to be modern ones. Are these enough like what Vermeer would have had available?

Did Vermeer alter the perspective projection he obtained? Many painters who calculated perspective felt free to adjust it or confound it for the sake of expressive effect. Famous pictures are full of inconsistent vanishing points, often masked by figures or items of setting. Tim’s painting obeyed what his camera gave him, but perhaps Vermeer adjusted his image. Consider, below, some details from Vermeer’s picture (left) with Tim’s (right). (Ignore color differentials, since the reproductions of the original vary so much.)

     

Did Vermeer fiddle with what the camera showed? I’m not thinking so much of the disparities in the placement of the figures above, which are probably to be expected; we’d be shocked if Tim’s setup worked exactly the same as Vermeer’s. I’m more concerned with the way in which Vermeer seems to have cheated perspective with respect to the reflection.

It looks as if Tim tried to match the reflection, but to do that he had to have his daughter turn slightly to the right. Yet Vermeer’s young woman faces the mirror head-on, while the reflection shows her in high-angle three-quarter view. Was the mirror slightly tipped on the left edge? And did it hang out from the wall slightly more than in Tim’s chamber? I wonder if Vermeer simply wanted to have it both ways–a head turned squarely away from us, a reflected face that wouldn’t be gazing straight out but rather pensively downward. Classic pictures often contain such expressive compromises with geometrical exactness.

Do we overrate the clean image? Tim, coming from the computer-graphics world, seems to have accepted the current assumption that the most faithful and attractive image is razor-sharp. He’s fascinated by the undeniably exact textures on the fabric and the wood and plaster surfaces. He thinks that Vermeer ‘s images resemble “a video signal” and that they glow like the images on a movie screen (that is, nowadays, a digital image).

But Tim’s High-Def aesthetic plays down some of painting’s traditional resources, notably sfumato. And art historian E. H. Gombrich notes that Vermeer’s precision retains “mellowed outlines” and doesn’t seem harshly photographic. Going back to the details above, to my eye, Vermeer’s image isn’t as sharp as Tim’s. The faces  are sketchier, and the shadows have softer contours.

Gombrich and others have made much of the crucial role of suggestion and incompleteness in painting, especially paintings that are seen at a distance. Our perceptual systems fill in dashes and blobs with specific features, but Tim’s algorithm may chop too fine. The difference should give comfort to the people who emphasize Vermeer’s idiosyncratic paint handling. It would be worth seeing if Tim thinks he could recalibrate his pictorial mesh to soften the image somewhat.

 

Problems and solutions

Tim’s Vermeer is an entertaining lesson in how rational inquiry into the arts proceeds—posing a problem and then using inference and evidence to frame possible solutions. The film also shows how a problem usually has many facets, which sometimes have to be dealt with piecemeal.

A piecemeal approach is particularly pertinent to reconstructing Vermeer’s methods. Many art historians would grant that he, like others, might have used a camera obscura to imagine or sketch out the basic composition of the piece. But the crucial later phases of painting would have been carried out by eye and hand unaided. What is characteristic of the Hockney—Steadman—Denison  line is they try to indicate how much of Vermeer’s practice can be accounted for by optical aids.

Assume that Vermeer used a booth-type camera obscura. That device could yield general contours. Steadman charted other features of the camera obscura that show up in the master’s paintings, such as variable focus, light scattering, and perspectival distortion characteristic of lenses. He went on to build a scale model of the room depicted in The Music Lesson and other pictures, and showed that Vermeer might have used a booth-type camera obscura. With the cooperation of the BBC, Steadman built a life-size model of the system he discovered.

Reading Steadman’s brilliant book when it appeared, and then visiting his website where things are spelled out a little more, pretty much convinced me of his argument. But I didn’t think much about lighting or color.

Vermeer’s “mellowed outlines” are often given by minute shadings of tonality rather than firm outlines. Yet when you’re in the booth, it’s so dark that you can’t determine color accurately. This is where Tim Denison comes in. What sort of optical device could yield such gradations of color?

Tim discovered that a small mirror mounted on a rod over the drawing surface would allow an artist to build color patches, as well as masses and contours, by slightly shifting her gaze from the mirror’s reflection of the camera’s image to the picture being made. You’ve achieved the right tonality, Tim points out, when the edge of the mirror seems to disappear. In this image, the disc you see isn’t clear glass but rather a mirror reflecting the camera obscura’s image, which is outside the frame.

Dim light in the booth doesn’t matter because both the image and the color you match are illuminated uniformly. The result, in the film, shows a remarkable degree of similarity.

But the optical projection remains a bit pale and lacking in detail; more concentrated and focused light is needed. Teller’s film shows how Tim hit upon the idea of focusing and brightening the camera  image by projecting it onto a concave mirror rather than a flat plane. A mirror is also a projecting surface, and its reflection can amplify the camera lens’s image. With this array of lenses and mirrors, you don’t need to work in darkness and you don’t need a barrier between you and the scene.

     

At this point, Tim’s demo has demolished the darkened chamber itself. Maybe this is what Vermeer actually used, although if he wanted to hide his methods, the booth with its wall or curtain would have been preferable.

Another lesson in rational inquiry: Controlling for variables can encourage anomalies to pop out. In drawing the harpsichord in the picture, Tim had assumed straight edges, which he outlines with a ruler. But in painting the undulating seahorse motif on the surface, he discovered that his lens rendered the motif as very slightly curved. When you check the painting, you find that Vermeer’s motif does the same thing.

 The curve, which Tim dubbed “The Vermeer Smile,” is characteristic of the distortion yielded by a lens. Your eye and brain don’t see it that way, however, and painters working freehand would automatically make the seahorses prance in a straight line. 

In short, just as Vermeer’s lens may have allowed him to make discoveries about the behavior of light, Tim’s lens gave him a new insight into Vermeer’s art.

 

Photography without film

Suppose we buy the whole package. Assume that Vermeer used Tim Denison’s hardware. What then does his art consist of?

In Film Art: An Introduction we distinguish four areas of cinema technique: mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound. Editing and sound aren’t relevant to Vermeer (though Eisenstein might make an argument for “montage” operating within the master’s “shots”). But the other techniques are, if we imagine him making unmoving movies—that is, photographs.

Mise-en-scene involves what is photographed. Vermeer controls the setting, picks the props, and costumes, and arranges the lighting. He determines the color within the scene. He also stages the action, although there isn’t much movement. Gombrich calls his paintings “still lifes with human beings.”

Cinematography has an equivalent in Vermeer’s art too. He must select a lens for the camera obscura, and he has to focus it. Most commentators agree that painters who used the device focused on different areas of the scene as they needed to paint them. Vermeer doesn’t use film, of course, but he does have paint, and the properties of that medium have to be taken into account. In Tim’s words, as he sits brushing in tiny strokes, “I’m a piece of human photographic film.”

Vermeer also has to frame the scene, which is a bit tricky because the camera obscura doesn’t yield a rectangular image but rather a circular one. Here is Steadman’s reconstruction of the camera’s visual output, flipped to match the painting and reproduced in black and white.

Vermeer has to crop the projected image in advance, much as a cinematographer today has to visualize the image’s final shape as seen on the viewfinder or monitor.

Staging and framing in The Music Lesson yield an unusual composition. What’s the subject of the painting? The woman playing? She’s turned from us, seen from afar, and quite decentered. True, she’s reflected in the mirror. But Steadman shows that this mirror is ambiguously drawn. It also seems to be angled so as to conceal the opposite end of the room—a ploy familiar to scholars of early cinema, when such tipped mirrors hide the movie camera.

Thanks to the oddly empty space in the left half of the picture, our attention drifts often to the empty space separating window, furniture, and people. Vermeer is in effect painting the journey of light hitting various surfaces. The streaming sunlight endows a patch of the rug, the bottom of the viola, and the upholstery tacks with a glow and brightens the woman’s sleeve. Then it thins into a more diffuse illumination before hitting the jug as a brilliant pictorial climax.

Perhaps he’s painting how air looks.

Vermeer’s zones of choice and control overlap with those of a photographer or a filmmaker. Or those of an illusionist. As stage magicians, Penn and Teller know the classic putdown: “Aw, they do it with mirrors.” The film might be their answer: “Yeah, and it works.” They and Tim Denison have created a landmark film that ponders the interplay of science, tools, and artistic creativity.


Special thanks to Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics and Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray of Sundance Madison. Thanks as well to Kristin Thompson, Diane Verma, and Darlene Bordwell for conversations about the film.

The controversy over Hockney’s theses can be traced in the Wikipedia entry The Hockney-Falco Thesis. My quotation from Susan Sontag comes from Wyatt Mason on ArtKrush. The camera obscura image of The Music Lesson comes from Philip Steadman, Vermeer’s Camera, p. 123, as does my Lawrence Gowing quotation (p. 165). I’m grateful to Steadman on many levels, not least because his website encouraged me, in 2002, to set up the one you’re visiting now.

For further information on the general research area, see Martin Kemp, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat. Kemp corresponded at length with Hockney, and portions of their exchanges are included in Secret Knowledge.

Gombrich’s comments on Vermeer come from Chapter 20 of The Story of Art. His classic Art and Illusion elaborates his account of inherited pictorial schemas and their revision across history.

Hockney has defended the film and explained further. Kurt Anderson has offered a valuable overview of the making of Tim’s Vermeer in Vanity Fair. Several video interviews cast light on the process as well. Here Teller, Penn, and Denison discuss the film with Kent Jones at Lincoln Center. David Poland sits down for a 30-minute interview with Penn and Denison. Philip Steadman discusses how Tim’s ideas build on his book in this University College London video.

Jonathan Janson’s site offers good coverage of the film’s reception, here and here.

One reviewer considers Tim’s theory “wackadoodle” but misunderstands it, saying that “Vermeer might have created his masterpieces by putting his models in a camera obscura.” Then he told them scary stories in the dark, I guess. More attentive reviews of the movie include one by Peter DeBruge in Variety and another by Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter.

You know Penn and Teller as conjurors and hosts of the show Bullshit! (My favorite episode: the animal mind-reader.) Be sure to read their books too.

Team Vermeer: Standing: Philip Steadman, Teller, Tim Denison. Seated: David Hockney, Penn Gillette.

PS 12 March 2013: Painter Jane Jelley has proposed a way that Vermeer could have made his pictures using a camera obscura but without mirrors. She reports success replicating that method herself. Her article and some background to her experiment are available here. I thank Ms. Jelley for writing me with this information. The controversy continues, which makes me happy.

How to write: Professor Westlake is in

Donald Westlake in 2001. Photo by David Jennings.

DB here:

There can be no question of my doing justice to the writing of Donald Westlake, also known as Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and other cover names. For background you can go to his fine site or to Wikipedia, or this warm appreciation by Michael Weinreb. Here I just want to pay brief tribute to a writer who, like Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, seemed incapable of composing a bad sentence. Elmore Leonard gets deserved recognition as a laconic master of language, but Westlake was no less skillful. In some ways he was more ambitious and audacious.

He was astoundingly versatile. He wrote straight novels, erotica, and science-fiction, but fame came to him when he worked in three registers: terse toughness, wry comedy, and straight-up farce.

As Westlake he wrote psychological thrillers. Best-known, I think, is The Ax (1997), about a downsized executive eliminating the competition for jobs that might come up. Also as Westlake, he wrote comic crime novels. Many of these center on a gang of inept working-class thieves led, if that’s the word, by the hapless John Dortmunder. As Richard Stark, Westlake wrote very hard-boiled novels about Parker (no first name), an utterly emotionless professional thief, and his sometime assistant Alan Grofield.

Westlake rang many variations, both high and low, on the heist formula, and his plotting was fastidious. He made one story do for two novels by telling it from different viewpoints (Slayground and The Blackbirder, both 1971). The plot of one Dortmunder novel, Drowned Hopes (1990), was so complicated that it left interstices for Westlake’s friend Joe Gores to fill in an intersecting novel, 32 Cadillacs (1992).

Nearly all the Stark books have a strict four-part structure. Part one takes place in the present, leading to a crisis. Parts two and three flash back to what led up to the book’s first chapter. Part four finishes up the action left hanging in part one. This pet pattern was both a trademark and a self-imposed constraint that Stark-Westlake had to overcome in every book. Today’s young fiction writers could learn construction from these trim, no-nonsense tales.

At the moment, though, our topic is style. Here is the opening of Stark’s The Mourner (1963).

When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away. The asthmatic hit the carpet, but there’d been another one out there, and he landed on Parker’s back like a duffel bag with arms. Parker fell turning, so that the duffel bag would be on the bottom, but it didn’t quite work out that way. They landed sideways, joltingly, and the gun skittered away into the darkness.

There was no light in the room at all. The window was a paler rectangle sliced out of blackness. Parker and the duffel bag wrestled around on the floor a few minutes, neither getting an advantage because the duffel bag wouldn’t give up his first hold but just clung to Parker’s back. Then the asthmatic got his wind and balance back and joined in, trying to kick Parker’s head loose. Parker knew the room even in the dark, since he’d lived there the last week, so he rolled over to where he knew there wasn’t any furniture. The asthmatic, coming after him, fell over a chair.

The economy is remarkable. There’s no explicit indication that we’re in a hotel room, or that Parker has been waiting for the invasion. This is in medias res storytelling, a Stark specialty. (Many of the novels begin with a “When…” clause.) In a couple more paragraphs, Parker gets the advantage and knocks out both men. “The asthmatic went down, hitting furniture on the way.”

The faintly amused tone here (being caught by “a duffel bag with arms,” kicking a man’s head “loose,” falling over a chair) is stronger in the Stark novels centered on Grofield. He’s a semi-professional actor who goes in for theft to finance his small-town theatre troupe. Parker is introverted, stoic, and borderline sociopathic, while Grofield is laid-back, good-natured, and quick with backchat. The opening of The Damsel (1967), parallel to that of The Mourner, shifts toward the deadpan comedy of the Dortmunder capers.

Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window. He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there. Gray skirt, blue sweater, blond hair, and long tanned legs straddling the windowsill.

But this room was on the fifth floor of the hotel. There was nothing outside that window but air and a poor view of Mexico City.

Grofield’s room was in semidarkness, because he’d been taking an after-lunch snooze. The girl obviously thought the place was empty, and once she was inside she headed striaght for the door.

Grofield lifted his head and said, “If you’re my fairy godmother, I want my back scratched.”

Opening one eye, then the other: The micro-action is as vivid as Rod Steiger or Eli Wallach playing up to us in a Leone film. The tone has changed too. Words like “snooze” wouldn’t show up in a pure Parker novel, I think. And now we get some scene-setting, but that’s because the wounded Grofield, flat on his back, can’t give us a tour of the room through physical action. What replaces Parker’s tussle is sexy banter. After the woman finds a suitcase full of cash, she gets suspicious. Grofeld explains: “I wear money.”

Finally, here’s extravagant burlesque from a non-Dortmunder story, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974). The plot, about a practical joker who is thrown into prison among hard cases, is preposterously enjoyable, but again it’s the style that arrests, and convulses. The protagonist is accompanying Eddie, a demented ex-officer after they’ve broken out of the joint, sneaked onto a military base, and settled down in the mess for dinner.

“Speaking of landing on mines,” he said, “that reminds me of another funny story.” And he proceeded to tell it. Soon our food came, and so did the wine, but Eddie kept on telling me his reminiscences. Friends of his had fallen under tanks, walked into airplane propellors, inadvertently bumped their elbows against the firing mechanism of thousand-pound bombs, and walked backwards off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier while backing up to take a group photograph. Other friends had misread the control directions on a robot tank and driven it through a Pennsylvania town’s two hundredth anniversay celebration square dance, had fired a bazooka while it was facing the wrong way, had massacred a USO Gilbert and Sullivan troupe rehearsing The Mikado under the mistaken impression they were peaceful Vietnamese villagers, and had ordered a nearby enlisted man to look in that mortar and see why the shell hadn’t come out.

It began after a while to seem as though Eddie’s military career had been an endless red-black vista of explosions, fires, and crumpling destruction, all intermixed with hoarse cries, anonymous thuds, and terminal screams. Eddie recounted these disasters in his normal bloodless style, with touches of that dry avuncular humor he’d displayed during our hour at the bar. I managed to eat very little of my veal parmigiana–it kept looking like a body fragment–but became increasingly sober nonetheless. A brandy later with coffee, accompanied by a Korean War story about a friend of Eddie’s trapped in a box canyon for nine days by a combination of a blizzard and a North Korean offensive, who kept himself alive by sawing off his own wounded leg and eating steaks from it, but who later died in Honolulu from gangrene of the stomach, didn’t help much.

It’s a challenge to a novelist to tell us something funny is coming up and then to make it much funnier than we expect, turning it into a crescendo of slapstick violence. It’s partly the appositional phrases, which pile up mishaps, and partly the mock-heroic word choices. Would you (or I) come up with epithets like “endless red-black vista” or “gangrene of the stomach”? Could we pull off that satiric stab of a massacre occurring “under the mistaken impression they were peaceful Vietnamese villagers”? Extra-credit assignment: Diagram the last sentence. Could we write something so complicated and impeccable?

By these standards, most of our novelists, beach-book maestros or middlebrow bestsellers or literary lions, don’t cut it.

Many films have been drawn from Westlake’s books. Made in USA (1966) and Point Blank (1967) are probably the most famous, but both are very free treatments. Closer to the brusque Stark spirit is The Outfit (1974), while the French version of The Ax (2005, by Costa-Gavras) is quite watchable. I haven’t seen the recent Parker, with Jason Statham, yet. Sad to report, the several Dortmunder movie adaptations don’t make me laugh much. But Westlake had no illusions: “A movie is not the book it came from and in almost every case it shouldn’t be the book it came from.” Westlake wrote screenplays too, notably The Stepfather (1987) and The Grifters (1990).

He died in 2008. He seems to have been the most easygoing, unpretentious writing machine you’d ever want to meet. The University of Chicago Press is republishing the Stark novels in handsome uniform editions, and there remain many other Westlakes that deserve unearthing. Read them for pleasure, for the smooth carpentry of their plots, and their cunning simplicity of style.


The top image, by David Jennings for The New York Times, is taken from the official Donald Westlake site, now maintained by his son Paul. My quotation from Westlake about adaptations comes from Albert Nussbaum, 811332-132, “An Inside Look at Donald Westlake,” Take One 4,9 (1975), 10-13. This postal interview, conducted by a prisoner at a penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, includes some insider information on Godard’s Made in USA.

The Outfit (1974), from the 1963 novel of the same name by Richard Stark.

David Bordwell
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