Archive for the 'Film and other media' Category
How are contemporary movies, even this weekend’s releases, indebted to earlier traditions? Sometimes Kristin and I tackle this question. We’re not (I hope) trying to impress you as connoisseurs of esoteric knowledge. We’re definitely not trying to play down a movie’s originality by yawning and shrugging and murmuring “We’ve seen it all before.” Instead, as historians of film forms and styles, we’re interested in the ways that current movies reconfigure techniques that have been circulating across cinema history.
A lot of those techniques involve storytelling. So we’re obliged to study narrative conventions and innovations across the decades. And since cinema isn’t sealed off from other media, we’re curious about how films borrow narrative devices from other arts. The borrowing isn’t only one-way, of course; cinema has influenced storytelling in other media too.
Mystery and suspense stories have long attracted people who study narrative (“narratologists”) because such fictions depend almost completely on storytelling subterfuge. True, other genres can include false leads, or misleading ellipses, or questionable flashbacks, or strange point-of-view switches. But mystery-based plots require them in a way that science-fiction or romance plots don’t. In mystery stories, characters keep secrets from each other and the author must keep secrets from the audience as well.
Which brings us to Gone Girl.
Detective stories and thrillers are one-off demos of narrative trickery, so studying them can teach us something about how we understand stories. We’ve made a stab at showing this elsewhere on this site (see our codicil). But now comes a flagrant instance of narrative manipulation that has set people talking ever since Gillian Flynn’s novel was published.
That novel and the film she wrote and David Fincher directed throw into relief how popular narratives revise devices from earlier traditions. As narratologists in training, we’re keen as well to understand how the film creates its particular effects. I can’t answer all such questions here, but I offer some thoughts on the film’s storytelling strategies, with notes on how those adapt earlier ones.
Of course beyond this point there are spoilers for Gone Girl. I also heedlessly spoil Leave Her to Heaven, both book and film.
Two plots for the price of one
The domestic thriller usually involves a couple living together—a husband and wife, or in modern times a pair of lovers. The conflict might center on them or on a third threatening figure. A very common option focuses the plot on either a murderous husband or a murderous wife.
Gone Girl, both novel and film, starts with a classic murderous husband situation. Amy disappears. She has made her husband Nick discontented and angry, and he has started an affair with one of his students, Andie. Thanks to a crucial ellipsis in showing the first day, what Nick has been doing during Amy’s disappearance is skipped over. When Amy vanishes, apparently leaving a pool of blood behind, Nick is the prime suspect.
If your plot centers on a murderous husband, you have a choice. You can let the audience in on his plans, as in Rage in Heaven (1941), Conflict (1945), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), and, much more recently, Safe Haven (2013). But Gone Girl doesn’t unequivocally show that Nick has killed Amy, or even plotted to kill her.
The second alternative for handling a murderous-husband situation is to keep it mysterious, chiefly by confining us to the wife’s range of knowledge. This ploy was made famous in Francis Iles’ novel Before the Fact (1932) and in Hitchcock’s adaptation Suspicion (1941). The premise is: I think my husband is trying to kill me. The 1940s crystallized this plot format in films like Secret Beyond the Door (1948) and Sleep, My Love (1948), and it survived for decades, in films from Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) to Side Effects (2013).
The first half of Gone Girl uses Amy’s diary entries to present the familiar arc of suspicion. The Dunnes’ marriage frays and she becomes increasingly frightened. Just before their fifth anniversary she buys a gun for self-defense. In her last entry she records her fear that he will kill her.
Nick looks pretty guilty at first, but with the whiff of doubt, another convention kicks in. That’s the one that film scholar Diane Waldman has called the “helper male.” If there’s another man nearby able to rescue the wife and play the role of a future romantic partner, then the husband is likely to be exposed as villainous. Examples are the Hollywood version of Gaslight (1944) and Sleep, My Love. If no helper is visible, then we’re likely to have a plot based on the wife’s misperception of the husband, as in Suspicion and Secret Beyond the Door. In Gone Girl’s first half, Amy seems to have no recourse to a helper male. This fact might dissolve some suspicion attached to Nick. Maybe, some viewers might ask, Amy was indeed abducted by a third party?
So much for the convention of the killer husband. A second type of domestic thriller, rarer than the first, centers on a homicidal woman. She shows up in the great Vera Caspary’s novel Bedelia (1945; made into a British feature in 1946) and in such films as Ivy (1947), A Woman’s Vengeance (1948), and Too Late for Tears (1949).
An especially shocking 1940s specimen of the killer wife is the cool, irresistible Ellen Berent in Leave Her to Heaven (novel 1944, film 1945). At first, Ellen wishes no harm to her husband Dick; she just wants to eliminate anybody with whom she’d have to share him. She lets his little brother drown, and, fearing that her unborn child will come between them, she flings herself downstairs and induces a miscarriage. Eventually, though, she turns her wrath on Dick. (Ellen’s most extreme tactic I’ll save for later, as it looks forward to Gone Girl.)
What is exceptionally clever about Gone Girl, again both novel and film, is that its second half replaces the murderous-husband schema with a revelation of Amy as a spider woman. Angry with Nick’s failure to sustain the role of the man she wants him to be, she has elaborately prepared an apparent murder that will lead police to suspect him. Here Flynn revives an old reliable of mystery plots, the faked death.
Amy has dovetailed three sets of clues for the police. There are clues she leaves in the treasure hunt, a little-girl game she obliges Nick to play every anniversary. This time, though, the hints point to uncomfortable aspects of their relationship. A second array of clues—imperfectly cleaned bloodstains, obviously faked signs of abduction, big credit-card purchases in his name—make Nick seem a lying killer. Then there is Amy’s faked diary, which she arranges to appear at just the moment that would harm him most. The diary entries initially coax us toward the Suspicion situation, seeming to provide a record of a wife’s growing apprehension of danger.
Knowing that a dead body will clinch the uxoricide case against Nick, Amy initially considers doing away with herself and letting the corpse be found in the river. Interestingly, this vindictive-suicide motif is the extreme tactic Ellen Berent pursues in Leave Her to Heaven. She poisons herself and sets up her sister Ruth, who’s in love with Dick, as her murderer. Like Amy, she has left a damning testament behind: a letter that will lead the police to arrest Ruth. Like Amy, Ellen has dropped a judicious trail of clues prepared well in advance.
So Flynn’s novel and screenplay shrewdly couple two thriller plot schemes, the murderous husband and the lethal wife. As an extra fillip, once Amy has been robbed by the desperate Jeff and Greta, she calls rich Desi Collings and convinces him of the threat Nick supposedly represents. In effect, Amy re-launches the lethal-husband scenario and recruits Desi as her helper male. Of course in most such plots, the helper male rescues the woman from peril. Here she is the peril.
Thank you, Mr. Griffith
So far I’ve talked mostly about what I called, in an earlier entry and in an online essay, the story world. But I couldn’t keep clear of two other dimensions of film narrative: plot structure and narration. I’ll talk about these more now.
I’ve indicated that Flynn’s novel breaks fairly neatly into two halves, splitting when Amy reveals that she hasn’t been kidnapped or killed. (“I’m so much happier now that I’m dead.”) The film, though, is a little less tidy.
As recidivist readers of this site know, Kristin has proposed that for decades Hollywood feature films have tended to break into several distinct parts that don’t fully correspond to the three acts of screenwriting manuals. The core structure for a normal feature involves four parts. Kristin labels these the Setup, the Complicating Action, the Development, and the Climax, with a brief epilogue tacked on. They’re determined by turning points that alter the goals that the characters pursue, and they tend to run twenty-five to thirty minutes or so.
Kristin argues in Storytelling in the New Hollywood that short films can delete a middle chunk, and long films can iterate one. For instance, she finds that Amadeus has two Development sections. Picking up on this, I proposed in The Way Hollywood Tells It that The Godfather (a very long movie) has not only two Developments but two Complicating Actions.
The film version of Gone Girl offers an interesting extension of the basic pattern. The film runs 144 minutes without credits. I divide up the first 126 minutes according to major turning points.
Setup. After the prologue close-up of Amy, she goes missing and Nick begins to conceal things from the police (roughly the first half hour).
Complicating action, in which the main character conceives a new goal. Now that public opinion casts Nick as the killer and Andie becomes another secret he must conceal, he must try to convince all he’s innocent. He fails. Boney summarizes the case against him at about 60 minutes in. Then he discovers the luxury goods stuffed into his sister Margo’s shed and he realizes that he’s been set up.
Development, in which backstory is provided, the protagonist confronts more problems, and many delays are set up. As Amy drives away from town and assumes a new identity, her Cool Girl monologue confirms for us that she has framed Nick. She hides in the motor court and strikes up an uneasy friendship with Greta and Jeff. While Nick engages Tanner Bolt as attorney and learns of Amy’s earlier framing of O’Hara, Amy calls Desi Collings for help. Nick has agreed to go on Sharon Schieber’s show.
Once we learn that Amy has faked her diary and loaded it with lies, we follow her stratagems after the first day. Gradually her life on the road syncs up with the progress of Nick’s situation, so that via crosscutting they eventually watch the TV coverage simultaneously.
Development sections tend to run a little long, and this one needs a chunk of backing-and-filling to explain Amy’s scheme. This part ends, I think, around the 104-minute mark, when Andie at a press conference confesses her affair with Nick while Amy accepts sanctuary at Desi’s lake house. Now Nick must take the initiative and fight back, while Amy must concoct a new plan for her new circumstances.
Climax: Here a plot culminates in success or failure, goals definitely achieved or not. Nick does well in his Sharon Schieber interview, but almost immediately the police discover the loot in Margo’s shed and confront him with the diary. He’s arrested. It’s his darkest moment so far. Meanwhile, Amy has become Desi’s prisoner. But Nick’s TV performance has convinced her that he’s ready to resume playing her ideal man. Accordingly, with typically surgical preparation, she kills Desi and returns home, announcing her escape from sex slavery. She comes back at about the 126-minute mark.
Were this a normal film, things would end here, with the couple restored; we’d need only a gloating tag showing humiliated police. Amy’s revelation of her scheme at 65:00 would then become a neat midpoint. But the film has almost twenty more minutes to run.
Is this section a protracted epilogue? Some viewers seem to take it as such, and to find it draggy, but it’s structurally necessary. I think it’s fruitful to see Gone Girl as having two climaxes.
Two climaxes for the price of one
The double climax in Gone Girl, I think, occurs because the film has a tandem structure from the start. The first hour alternates scenes involving Nick’s search for Amy with brief flashbacks triggered by shots of Amy writing in her diary. The diary supplies what we initially take to be exposition about their meeting, falling in love, getting married, losing their jobs, and moving to Missouri. These past scenes are sandwiched in between present-time scenes of the inquiry into Amy’s disappearance. The Griffith of Intolerance, not to mention the Christopher Nolan of The Prestige, would enjoy the extent to which book and film rely on large-scale crosscutting between protagonist and antagonist.
The duplex story lines lead to two turning points, one assigned to each major character. At 65 minutes, Nick’s discovery of the fancy purchases in Go’s shed changes his goal: He now must prove that Amy has set him up. At the same juncture, the revelation that Amy is on the road sets up her new goal of escape—at first, she thinks, to suicide but then to a life free of Nick, who seems safely en route to the death house.
Given the dual line of action, we have a first climax that puts Nick in jail and shows Amy killing Desi, which ends her flight. Her return provides a first phase of resolution for the overall action: Back home, she spins a new narrative for the media, one in which she “fought her way back” to her husband.
But we don’t have full resolution. Nick still has the goal of proving that Amy faked her disappearance, and now he must also show that she murdered Desi in cold blood. In addition, his rage against his wife’s frame-up threatens to make him the homicidal husband she painted in her diary. Will he be driven to kill her, as he sometimes indicates he’d like to? Meanwhile, Amy’s goal of reunion isn’t fully achieved. She still must evade punishment (Boney the cop is suspicious) and she must also persuade Nick to back up her rigged story of his abusive and spendthrift ways.
So a second climax shows Amy thwarting Nick’s goals. She blocks his efforts to reveal the truth and won’t allow a divorce. She retained Nick’s stored semen when they were trying to conceive a child, and she has impregnated herself. She will keep his son from him if he tries to make trouble. Nick accepts her frame-up and the couple become, as he says in their final TV interview, “partners in crime.” If you assume that Nick is the film’s protagonist and Amy the antagonist, we have that rare mainstream movie in which the antagonist wins.
Some critics have called the book and the film Hitchcockian, and film geeks will notice the midpoint giveaway as similar to that in Vertigo. More generally, the complicit couple exemplifies the transfer-of-guilt dynamic we find in Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and other of the Master’s films.
But this last quality isn’t unique to Hitchcock, or Flynn-Fincher. In Leave Her to Heaven, Dick becomes an accomplice to Ellen’s act of drowning his brother. He keeps quiet for the sake of the child he thinks she is carrying. As a result, the novel gives us a passage that could come straight from Gone Girl, on the page or on the screen.
And she said in serene and level tones: “But you lied to protect me, so—we share the guilt. That binds us together. We can never escape that now.” After a moment she added: “So we must go on together, wearing a mask for the world, being honest only with ourselves.”
Look who’s talking, or not
In both film and novel, Gone Girl’s large-scale plot patterns—the wedged-in diary entries, the ABAB attachment to characters, the cross-stitched timelines—are enhanced by choices about narration. I take narration to be not only voice-overs sound but the moment-by-moment flow of story information. That flow is regulated by cinematic techniques, orchestration of point of view, and kindred strategies.
Now we encounter some differences between film and literature as storytelling media. For instance, in the novel the parallel plotlines are rendered in first-person narration, alternating accounts from Nick and Amy. Amy’s fourteen diary entries are motivated as the sort of things one enters in a private journal, whereas Nick’s aren’t presented as him telling anyone his tale. When Amy’s diary is revealed as a hoax, she continues to recount events, and still in present tense, as if she couldn’t shake the habit. Nick, however, continues to tell us what happened in the past tense. This sort of difference is rather hard to achieve in film, unless you have two continual voice-over narrators. This option Flynn and Fincher decline, probably in the interests of clarity.
Both the alternation and the variation in tense have a long novelistic past. Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) switches between chapters in third-person narration in the present tense and chapters in first-person past. The device of alternating viewpoints was picked up in twentieth-century modernism (notably Faulkner’s books) and popular genres as well. A simple example is Philip MacDonald’s 1933 mystery, X v. Rex, which switches between first-person letters written by a serial killer to the police and third-person accounts of the efforts to track him/her down. Somewhat fancier is Anita Boutell’s Death Has a Past (1939), which takes a series of scenes transpiring across one week and sandwiches among them bits of a confession written by the killer afterward—“flashforwards,” in effect.
To go back to Leave Her to Heaven, Ben Ames Williams’ original novel alternates chapters filtered through the consciousness of husband, wife, brother, and sister, although all are treated in the third person. At about the same time, mystery writer Bill S. Ballinger gained notoriety for alternating chapters told from two characters’ viewpoints in two different time frames. Examples are Portrait in Smoke (1950) and The Tooth and the Nail (1955), the latter of which also toggles between first- and third-person discourse. More recently, in novels like Rebel Island (2007), Rick Riordan has intercut first- and third-person chapters.
Journals and assembled documents have been one standard way that classic novels have been organized, and shrewd writers have exploited many possibilities. I think of the moment in The Woman in White (1860) in which a long and engrossing account written by a character in peril is revealed, only at the end, as being read by her adversary. More specifically, a major Flynn trick—the discovery that the diary mixes reliable accounts of events with false ones—has one major precedent. It occurs in a famous 1938 mystery novel that, for once, I will not spoil by naming. Here the diary in the first section is intended to be found by investigators and to cover up the identity of a killer.
This isn’t to call Flynn unoriginal; she has come up with a new variant of these narrational conventions. The point is simply that once you work in the realm of the mystery thriller, you will probably be seeking out ways to mislead the reader, and some of those stratagems will have a kinship with your predecessors. More generally, all narrative traditions exfoliate. Storytellers are constantly experimenting with new ways to engage us, and it would be surprising if two authors, both bent on achieving similar effects, didn’t occasionally hit on similar devices. Just as Flynn welded together two domestic-murder plot premises, she recast traditions of shifting, unreliable narration.
In the novel, the two first-person accounts, Nick’s and Amy’s, restrict our knowledge to each one’s perspective. Which isn’t to say that each is transparent. Nick will sometimes report his dialogue with the speech tag, “I lied.” This teases us to wonder what he’s holding back from the cops. Interestingly, confessing lies makes him a more reliable narrator, because he’s confiding in us. This has the effect of making us trust his claims about wanting children, not beating up Amy, and so on. By contrast, Amy’s chipper narration seems completely open about her feelings, but many of those entries are revealed as part of her murder masquerade. Her unreliability, though, seems chiefly confined to the diary entries; once she’s on her own, she seems to be reporting her sociopathic reactions sincerely.
Because the novel restricts us to the two main characters, we can’t know what’s happening outside their ken. Something similar happens to the attached viewpoints in Leave Her to Heaven, in which Dick and Ruth only gradually learn how his wife Ellen plotted to make her death seem to be murder. In adapting the novel to film, screenwriter Jo Swerling respected the novel’s systematic attachment to characters to a surprising extent.. First we are mostly with Dick, but at crucial points we’re given blocks of scenes organized around Ellen. Unlike the book, the film version shows us her executing her plan to implicate Dick and Ruth in her death. Here, for instance, Ellen puts arsenic in the sugar bowl that Ruth will use to sweeten Ellen’s coffee.
The film Gone Girl doesn’t give Nick a pervasive narrating voice as the book does, and we aren’t wholly restricted to his range of knowledge. On several occasions we watch the police making discoveries that he’s not aware of. Crucially, we see them find the diary some days before they tell him about it. As so often happens, mainstream film introduces some unrestricted narration, which yields suspense rather than surprise. Amy narrates the eight diary entries which introduce flashbacks, some of which turn out to be false ones. But once she finishes her Cool Girl monologue after the big turning point, we don’t, I think, hear her voice-over again.
Nick’s voice-over enters only twice, with carefully symmetrical effect. The film’s first shot is a close-up of Amy turning toward us as a hand strokes her head. Nick’s voice talks of wanting to split open her skull, unspool her brain, and find the answer to married folks’ perennial questions. “What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other?”
Most broadly the shot has the effect of rendering this beautiful woman mysterious. It also suggests a violent impulse in an uncaring, obtuse male—the sort of scenario that would lead to the murderous-husband plot that hovers over the film’s first hour. The final shot of Gone Girl repeats the close-up, and Nick asks his questions again but adds, “What will we do?” Now we know how devious that brain is, and how much justified anger the man speaking may be feeling toward her. Perhaps, after the movie ends, he will be ready to kill her. The two shots, unanchored in story time, bracket the movie with the central duality that the plot and the narration will enact: a potentially murderous man and an innocent-appearing but lethally dangerous woman.
There’s much more to be said about the film and the novel. I haven’t touched upon Flynn’s subject matter—what we might call Yuppies 2.0, the brain-entitled Net-enabled cool kids—and her theme of marriage as a struggle to play the role your partner cast you in. Issues like these have ingeniously set readers talking about marriage’s putative dark side and how men can feel “picked apart” by dazzling, demanding women. For my money, the presence of this brilliant, beautiful Crazy Lady, another legacy of the 1940s, favors Nick’s side of things. He’s a weasel but not as dangerously nuts as his wife. Your mileage may vary, for reasons I attribute to Hollywood’s perennial urge to cover every bet on the board.
We’d also want to consider the novel’s style, which offers caffeinated versions of Product Placement Realism and Vivid Writing, in both male and female registers. The screen version loses this aspect of the novel, and we get instead Fincher’s calm, polished direction. Too many shots of vehicles pulling up to buildings, I suppose; but if everybody laid out scenes as slickly as Fincher does we wouldn’t complain so much about our movies. I admired in particular the virtuoso sequence accompanying Amy’s Cool Girl monologue. Her eloquent rant runs underneath a crisp replay of her scheme and then supplies a montage of her trip and her change of identity, with glimpses of female types illustrating her diatribe. This passage is a good example of the crackling pace of the movie, which, thanks to smooth hooks and concise exposition, rushes along at just the speed of our comprehension.
Consider as well the economy of a single moment, when Greta and Jeff steal Amy’s money. At one level, the couple serves purely a plot function, one typical of a Development section: new problems, often overcome, serve to delay the climax. (Another plot construction would have had Amy simply lose her money and call Desi right off, shortening the movie by quite a bit.) The confrontation in the motel also serves a thematic function, contrasting Amy’s sheltered life with another social level she both detests and fears, as well as giving us another couple to compare with Amy and Nick. (Interestingly, in the Greta-Jeff pairing, it’s the woman controlling the man.) The moment I have in mind, the instant when Greta slams Amy’s face against the wall and says, “I don’t think you’ve really been hit before,” fulfills even more purposes. The whack (a) shows that Amy’s new identity is easier to see through than she thinks; (b) reminds us that her diary reports of being beaten by Nick are false; and (c) engenders a certain sympathy for her, invoking the classic woman-in-peril situation. This tight packing of implication and emotion into an instant is characteristic of classical studio storytelling. It exemplifies the unfussy efficiency celebrated by Otis Ferguson and Monroe Stahr.
My purpose here has simply been to indicate that we can usefully understand any plot as a composite of possibilities that surface in other plots. In a way, I’m revisiting ideas floated in my Shklovsky/Sondheim entry months ago. Again, this isn’t to put down Gone Girl as formulaic. Instead, it’s to suggest that any narrative we encounter in the mass-market cinema (and probably in other forms of filmmaking) is part of an ecosystem, a realm offering niches for many varieties—including hybrids.
Thanks to Kristin, David Koepp, and Jeff Smith for conversations about Gone Girl.
For comprehensive accounts of mystery and detective fiction, visit Mike Grost’s encyclopedic website. Relevant to today’s entry is my web essay, “Murder Culture,” and my entry comparing Safe Haven and Side Effects. Film Art: An Introduction includes a section on various forms of the thriller in Chapter 9. And don’t get me started on the relation between Gone Girl and one of my favorite domestic thrillers, Double Jeopardy.
The distinctions among story world, plot structure, and narration that I use here are explained in two other items: the chapter, “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative” in Poetics of Cinema, available on this site; and the analysis of The Wolf of Wall Street illustrating that argument.
Diane Waldman outlines the role of the helper male in her article “‘At last I can tell it to someone!’ Female Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s,” Cinema Journal 23, 2 (Winter 1984), 29-40.
For more on four-part plots, go to Kristin’s entry here and the essay “Anatomy of the Action Picture.” I’ve argued in another entry that popular novels can be built upon the four-part structure Kristin outlines, and it’s interesting to compare them with film versions that follow the same template. My examples were The Ghost Writer and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher version). I think that Flynn’s novel is built on a five-part armature roughly comparable to that of the film. As for double-climax plots, I argue in The Way Hollywood Tells It that In Cold Blood is another instance of this structure.
A more intricate use of diary narration in film is Nolan’s The Prestige, which derives from the even more intricate deployment of it in Christopher Priest’s original novel. We discuss the film in Chapter 7 of Film Art: An Introduction, and there’s a bit about the novel here.
Why so much emphasis on the cat in the film of Gone Girl? I suspect it’s at first a place-holder for the vanished Amy. Nick strokes the kitty as he strokes Amy’s head in the opening and closing shots. Seeing the cat tiptoe near broken glass (“You haven’t got a clue, have you?”) provokes Nick to solve the final clue in the treasure hunt. One shot, after Amy has returned, includes both wife and cat perkily welcoming Nick to breakfast. The cat is oddly matched eventually by the robot dog that Amy orders in Nick’s name. As a result, when Ellen Abbott gives Nick a robot cat, we have matching mechanical pets. Sort of like the human couple at the end.
The Ascension of Christ, panel from the Vyšši Brod Altarpiece, ca. 1350. Convent of St. Agnes, Prague.
Kristin and I are in Prague for about a week, in connection with two lectures I’m giving Wednesday and Thursday.
In the meantime, we’ve met with friends. After we arrived we had a lively dinner with Radomir Kokes, specialist in Czech silent film. Last night we met with Petra Dominková and Vaclav Kofron, translators of the Czech editions of Film Art and Film History, and Michal Bregant, head of the National Film Archive (and who also contributed to the translation of Film History). During that enjoyable evening we learned, among other things,that film lovers of Michal’s generation took the train to Hungary to see American films that didn’t make their way into their country.
Later, meeting with Radomir and our principal host Lucie Česálková , we learned of their robust, long-lived journal Iluminace, which publishes film research in both Czech and English. The most recent issue is devoted to studies of film festivals.
So far we’ve spent the rest of our time visiting museums. Prague is bursting with rich collections of European art from all eras. Today (Tuesday) we went to one of the major venues, the Convent of St. Agnes, which houses a vast array of Bohemian medieval and early Renaissance painting and sculpture.
There were plenty of images to give us pleasure. One of the most spectacular set of items was a series of fourteenth-century altar panels representing the life of Jesus. Each one gave what seemed to me a fresh interpretation of the major episodes–annunciation, nativity, etc.–but especially striking was the one devoted to the Ascension. After being resurrected, Jesus is lifted to heaven; but contrary to what we usually see, the action is represented “offscreen.” All we see are Jesus’ feet, as above. A nice touch Kristin noticed: He left his footprints in the earth.
I’m drawn to such peculiar treatments of conventional material. There were some other instances in other Prague galleries. Take this piercing image of the mockery of Jesus, in an unidentified Netherlandish painting from the first half of the sixteenth century. The torturers are blowing a cowhorn at Christ, banging a pot, pressing a stool against his head, thrusting a rod into his mouth, and spraying him with a flit gun.
Most remarkably, at the bottom of the composition one man fills a basin with what seems to be shit, while another man dips a cloth in it, as if preparing to apply it to Christ’s face. The suggestion is reinforced by the wizened man on the far right holding his nose.
Such visceral images remind you that holy pictures can be pretty ornery. They also remind you of Jan Švankmajer, that great Czech animator. So far, there’s no museum dedicated to him, but following Petra’s suggestion we did visit the Karel Zeman Museum, just off the Charles Bridge. It offers enjoyable attractions tracing Zeman’s career, with emphasis on Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1958). Kristin hopes to write at greater length about the museum and Zeman later this summer.
Tomorrow: Off to the world-renowned archive to watch Czech silent films. Who knows what we’ll find?
Thanks to Lucie Česálková and all her colleagues for making our visit possible. Thanks also to Michal Bregant for a correction in the original posting of this entry.
Kristin and I wrote about Švankmajer’s remarkable Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) in the latest edition of Film Art. At the Zeman Museum we discovered a beautiful 2013 book on the filmmaker, available here.
DB at the porthole of Nemo’s Nautilus in the Zeman Museum.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
The Hollywood Hallucination treats the idea of film as dream both more and less seriously than the academics did. Tyler’s followup book, Magic and Myth of the Movies, 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 the book. Still, it 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, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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’ Golden 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).