Archive for the 'Film criticism' Category
Dawn of Planet of the Apes (2014).
The silly season always seems to catch me off guard. This time I got the word in a New York Times feature, “The Moviegoers.”
Here two writers, Frank Bruni and Ross Douthat, conduct an email conversation about recent films. You may have thought that the Times already has a large stable of movie reviewers, headlined by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott. But mainstream movies are very accessible (as opposed to, say, serial music or Baroque architecture), so nearly everybody has something to say. And because nobody knows what counts as expertise in movie reviewing, why not bring on two of the commentariat? Once you become a public intellectual, what you say about anything is interesting.
Granted, both participants in the dialogue, Frank Bruni and Ross Douthat, have been movie reviewers. Mr. Bruni wrote for the Detroit Free Press, and Mr. Douthat currently covers film for the National Review. Through some process yet unexplained, these movie reviewers became second-string social and political pundits for the Times. That would seem a step up, so why put them back in the reviewing game?
The rationale is supplied in the series introduction, which talks of the plan to discuss “movies, pop culture, television, and other real-world distractions.” The Times style guardian might want to pause on the last phrase: Are these phenomena distractions in the real world (as in “real-world opportunities”)? Or are they distractions from the real world? I think the writer means the latter, which translates into this: Politics is the important stuff, mass art is a lightweight diversion. And we all need diversion, especially a newspaper aiming to attract readers under fifty.
So we have two Op-Ed columnists taking a break from serious matters in order to shoot the breeze about summer releases. In “Two Thumbs Up…Yer Arse.” Charlie Pierce, our fouler-mouthed Mencken, has exposed some curious assumptions about poverty displayed in the Moviegoers’ first round of chitchat. What interests me here is another aspect of the column, which showcases one standard move that many reviewers make.
The problem for serious people like Mr. Douthat and Mr. Bruni is this. If movies are “real-world distractions,” why spend any time talking about them? More specifically, why should political pundits talk about them? The obvious answer: Somehow these products of popular culture open a window into what’s really going on. Mr. Douthat:
In this sense I do think moviemakers are tapping into the American psyche, but I also think they’re replicating a flaw of the American political debate. I’m not sure we’ll get very far by painting the rich as morally hopeless people who must be subverted, vanquished, overtaken.
And when Mr. Bruni asks, “Tell me about the trend that made you happy, and (speaking of political allegories) whether you like ‘Apes’ as much as everyone else,” Mr. Douthat replies:
There was something poignant about watching “Apes” against the backdrop of the mess in the Middle East and of the war in Israel and Gaza, because it’s a disturbingly good allegory of reciprocal mistrust, asking the right questions about how peace ever reigns when combatants can’t bring themselves to forgive error, to take the first step, to turn from the past and focus on the future, to start afresh. It’s a disturbingly good allegory about corrupt leaders, too: how they whip up fervor in the service of their own ambition; how we rise and fall based on the clarity and wisdom with which we choose them.
You may want to reply that if this is what the Times wants, you will undertake to supply them with 3000 words of it every day at reasonable rates. But put aside the banalities about politics. I’m interested in the suggestion that movies can bear traces of the national psyche, or reflect national debates we’re having right now, or provide inadvertent “allegories” of contemporary history.
These ideas enjoy an astonishing popularity. They are staples of movie journalism. The trouble is that they don’t hold up.
Reflections on reflectionism
That mass entertainment somehow reflects its society is, I believe, the One Big Idea that every intellectual has about popular culture. The notion shapes the Sunday Times think piece about how the movies of the last few months capture the current Zeitgeist (or one a while back). It informs the belief that we can define periods in American popular art by presidential eras–Leave It to Beaver as cozy Eisenhower suburban fantasy, Forrest Gump as an expression of Clinton-era post-Cold-War isolationism. Reflectionism may be the last refuge of journalists writing to deadline, but it’s also found in the industry’s talk about itself. “Oscar Best Pic Contenders Reflect America’s Anxieties,” Variety announced last winter.
The threat of circularity. Behind this Big Idea is an assumption that cinema, being a “popular art,” tends to embody some state of mind common to the millions of people living in a society. The very idea of a massive mind-meld like this seems implausible. America’s anxieties and our national psyche? The anxieties of the 1% are not yours and mine, and I doubt that even you and I share a psyche.
The argument easily becomes circular. All popular films reflect society’s attitudes. How do we know what the attitudes are? Just look at the films! We need independent and pretty broadly based evidence to show that the attitudes exist, are very widespread, and have been incorporated in films. And it won’t do to simply point to the same attitudes surfacing in TV, pop songs, mass-market fiction as well, because that just postpones the problem of correlating the attitudes with groups of living and breathing people.
Critics seem to assume that if a film is successful at the box office, it must reflect the audience’s inner life. Yet the sheer fact of a movie’s popularity doesn’t prove that these attitudes are out there. Just because Spider-Man (2002) was a huge success doesn’t mean that it offers us access to America’s national mood or hidden anxieties. People spend time with a piece of mass art for many reasons: to kill an idle hour, to meet with friends, to find out what all the fuss is about. After the encounter, consumers often dislike the art work to some degree, or they remain indifferent to it. Since people must buy the movie ticket before they experience the movie, there can’t be a simple correlation between mass sales and mass mood. You and lots of others may be suckered into going to a film you dislike, but just by going you’ve already been counted as among those who support it. Doubtless many people enjoyed Spider-Man. But it’s very difficult to say how many.
And did all of the patrons who enjoyed it do so for the same reasons? That remains to be shown, and it’s hard. We know that a movie may appeal to several audiences at once, packaging a range of appeals. In fact, it’s a strategy of the film industry to produce movies that contain fuzzy messages, contrary attitudes, and something for nearly everybody. Must we find reflections of cultural needs in every aspect of a movie that might appeal to somebody?
Movies are narrowcasting. The film audience is a skewed sampling of the population. According to industry statistics, about one-third of Americans over the age of two never go to the movies, and another ten percent go once a year.
Another 40% go “occasionally”–less than once a month. It turns out that the heavy moviegoers, those going once a month or more, are currently just 11% of the population. Take Dawn of Planet of the Apes. Assuming an average ticket price of $8 and no repeat viewings, at most about 25.5 million Americans and Canadians have seen the movie. That’s about 7% of the countries’ total population. We would need to tell a pretty full story about how the mental life of 350 or so million people gets into movies seen by a thin, self-selected slice of the population.
Moviegoers are atypical of the population in other respects. Since the beginning, Hollywood cinema has catered to the middle class. Moviegoers have been younger, better educated, and better-off economically than non-moviegoers.
The real mass medium of our time is network television (as radio was before). On one night, a single episode of The Big Bang Theory can attract 19 million viewers. A film that had that viewership across an opening weekend would take in over $150 million. That is $50 million more than the latest Transformers movie garnered at its debut. If Messrs. Douthat and Bruni want to take the national temperature, they should watch TV–ideally, the ads on the Super Bowl (shown to 112 million viewers).
Actually, you can argue that television really is a more reliable barometer of mass tastes, not just because of its prevalence but because TV viewing depends on recidivism. People may not know they’ll like a movie before they attend, but they tune in to shows that have proven to satisfy them. Still and all, mass taste is not the national psyche.
The long road from the White House. A primary prop for reflectionists is politics. Talk about an American film of the 1950s and sooner or later someone will invoke the reign of blandness that was (purportedly) the Eisenhower administration. But why do we assume that the population’s mind set switches its course whenever a new President is elected? Many voters stubbornly adhere to the same values election after election; others vote in order to throw out a rascal and aren’t at all satisfied with the newcomer.
There couldn’t be a direct tie between elections and moviegoers’ attitudes. About thirty percent of today’s audience consists of people too young to vote. The most reliable voter turnout is among the over-forty-five set, which until recently constituted only about twenty percent of moviegoers. Of course, maybe movies reflect the attitudes of non-voters, or people who are indifferent to politics. But then why identify periods of political history with periods of movie history?
Reflectionists have always been reluctant to offer a concrete causal account of how widely-held attitudes or anxieties within an audience could find their way into art works. What precise story could we tell to explain how changing the occupant of the White House can affect popular culture? How exactly does a party platform or a candidate’s charisma or the new administration’s policies seep into Hollywood movies for the multitudes?
Movies’ crystal ball. If there ever were a dominant mood at large in the land, it would be very difficult for that mood to find its way into a current movie. There’s often a lag of several years before a script gets to the screen. Many of the films released in 1997, though read as responding to current crises, were bought as projects in 1993 and 1994. Dawn of Planet of the Apes was begun in 2011, written through 2011-2012, and began shooting in April of 2013–all before the current standoff between Israel and Hamas.
Maybe the moviemakers are somehow in touch with political forces before they crystallize? One critic has proposed that films can have this prophetic power. Puzzled that no Obama-era movies had emerged by 2012, J. Hoberman suggests that the most “Obama-ite” ones came out before Obama was elected:
The longing for Obama (or an Obama) can be found in two prescient 2008 movies—WALL-E (the world saved by an endearing little dingbot, community organizer for an extinct community) and Milk (portrait of another creative community organizer—not to mention a precedent-shattering politician who, it’s very often reiterated, presented himself as a Messenger of Hope).
This is nearly a miracle. Somehow these filmmakers sensed that Americans (well, 53% of the people voting) were yearning to be led by a community organizer. But how specifically could the filmmakers have arrived at that prescience? In fact, they would have had to be long-range prophets. Milk began as a 1992 project, and the final version of the script was prepared in 2007. The Pixar adepts started talking about WALL-E in 1994 and began drafting scripts in 2002. Why don’t we ask filmmakers to predict our next president right now?
Pick and choose. Of all the films of the summer, Bruni and Douthat settle on a few. Of all the hundreds of 2008 films, two presage Obama. This selectivity is typical of the reflectionist approach, which typically ignores the range of incompatible material on offer.
If 1940s film noir reflects some angst in the American psyche, how to explain the audience’s embrace of sunny MGM musicals and lightweight comedies in the same years? The year 1956 saw the release of The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, Giant, The King and I, Guys and Dolls, Picnic, War and Peace, Moby Dick, The Searchers, and The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. Pick one, find some thematic concerns there that resonate with social life of the time, and you have a case for any state you wish to ascribe to the collective psyche. But take any other movie, or indeed the industry’s entire output, and you have a problem. One alternative is for us to find that the films share common themes, but these are likely to be of an insipid generality. Or we could float the rather uncompelling claim that several hundred films reflect hundreds of different, and contradictory, facets of the audience’s inner life.
Consider the source. Of course filmmakers sometimes deliberately include political comment. But then the film is “reflecting” the purposes of its particular makers, not the mass public. The filmmaker may claim to be tapping the Zeitgeist, but it’s really the Zeitgeist as she or he understands it. It’s not the public expressing itself spontaneously and unselfconsiously through the movie.
Movies use a lot of collaborators, and they may have varying agendas. The most powerful players are inevitably going to shape the initial project in specific, often personal ways. The preoccupations of the screenwriter, the producer, the director, and the stars necessarily transform the given idea. And these workers, living hermetic lives in Beverly Hills and jetting off to Majorca, are far from typical. How can the fears and yearnings of the masses be adequately “reflected” once these elites have finished with the product? Maybe some violence in American films gets there not because the crowd secretly wants it but because Hollywood creators compete in pushing the envelope. Once more we need a story about how widespread opinions get incarnated in the work of an unrepresentative group.
In sum, reflectionist criticism throws out loose and intuitive connections between film and society without offering concrete explanations that can be argued explicitly. It relies on spurious and far-fetched correlations between films and social or political events. It neglects damaging counterexamples. It assumes that popular culture is the audience talking to itself, without interference or distortion from the makers and the social institutions they inhabit. And the causal forces invoked–a spirit of the time, a national mood, collective anxieties–may exist only as abstractions that the commentator, pressed to fill column inches, invokes in the manner of calling spirits from the deep.
Primate see, primate do
This isn’t to say that society has no impact on films. Of course it does. But we understand that process best by taking film as film.
Film critics serve us best when they explore how a film uses the medium to yield its effects. Critics can enlighten us about how filmmakers work with their givens (subjects, themes, genres, artistic traditions, star personas) and generate an experience shot through with meanings, feelings, and ideas. We should recognize that a large part of any movie is the result of will and skill, not the passive reflection of vague social turmoil. There will be some unintended effects too, of course, but we can try to understand those as coming from specific conditions of production practices, traditions, and creative options.
One first step, for example, would be to consider Dawn of Planet of the Apes as following the plot pattern of the revisionist Western.(Spoilers follow.) The humans, like settlers in the west, need resources held by the apes, who live in self-sufficient harmony with nature. They wish others no harm. A well-meaning emissary from the humans, Malcolm, leads a team into ape territory to tap an energy source. Thanks to Malcolm’s promises of peaceful coexistence, humans and apes become friendly. But other members of Malcolm’s team don’t trust the apes and provoke violence. There is also the brooding ape Koba, who wants revenge for his mistreatment in experiments. The peace treaty is broken by both sides.
Koba, Caesar’s friend and rival, escalates the war with the humans when he discovers the cache of weapons. While Caesar tries to keep Koba from fomenting rebellion, Malcolm must try to restrain the humans’ leader, Dreyfuss. This is a familiar duality: the unruly tribal brave hot for vengeance who must be disciplined by the wise chief, and the sensible lieutenant who tries to restrain his rapacious superior.
The science-fiction premise has been shaped to fit the familiar pattern of liberal Westerns, in which blame can be placed on weak, cowardly, vengeful, or power-hungry individuals who block well-meaning leaders from finding peace. The classic equivocation of Hollywood film (there’s always an element that says, “Yes, but then there’s…”) is well summed up by the ambivalent to-camera glare of Caesar that begins and ends the movie: Angry? Sorrowful? Defiant? Implacable? Your mileage may vary.
The political themes are sculpted in another way, through family parallels. Caesar has a wife, Cornelia, and a son, Blue Eyes. Malcolm has a wife, Ellie, and a son, Alexander. The prospect of peaceful coexistence between human and ape is encapsulated in the two families’ growing fondness for each other. The parallels are sharpened by contrasts. Alexander comes to accept the apes, while his more rebellious adolescent counterpart Blue Eyes temporarily aligns himself with the false father Koba—only to prove himself loyal to Caesar at the climax.
By contrast, Dreyfus and Koba are lone males, without women or offspring. Granted, we are allowed some sympathy for both: Koba has been mistreated by humans, and Dreyfus has lost his family in the collapse of civilization. Still, Caesar is morally superior to both because he has lived in each world harmoniously. Before the final battle, the wounded Caesar gets to recall his first human family, typified by his father figure, on video.
Onto the settlers vs. Indians plot, then, is grafted what film scholars have called a “family adventure” pattern, one that became prominent in the 1980s and 1990s with E. T.: The Extraterrestrial, Jurassic Park and other films seeking “four-quadrant” success. The result is more made-in-Hollywood archetype than grassroots allegory.
My sketch is Film Studies 101 and needs plenty of nuancing. To go further we should consider how this movie, or any movie, puts flesh on its plot bones. How does the film handle point-of-view and exposition? How does it generate sympathy or antipathy? How does it create character conflicts both external and internal? Does it accord with the sharply contoured plot architecture characteristic of US studio filmmaking (and maybe popular literature too)? If I were trying to do a finer-grained analysis of Dawn, I’d try to understand how the Western and family-adventure templates intertwine with these factors and gain force as the film unfolds.
The point would be not to suggest that these plot patterns reflect the attitudes or anxieties of the audience, let alone a national psyche. Rather, the patterns are chosen by the filmmakers because they have proven emotionally appealing to at least some viewers (and apparently in cultures outside the US). And they can be fashioned to accord with contemporary norms of moviemaking. Instead of passive reflection, we have active creation.
It isn’t all controlled by the filmmakers. Like all actions, filmmaking can have unintended consequences. If some members of the audience respond in the way the filmmakers wanted, so far, so good. If the results are gresped in ways that the makers didn’t expect or prefer, that comes with the territory too. Mass-market filmmakers take inherited forms and tweak them in new ways. The audience, in its turn, appropriates what it’s given, sometimes in predictable ways, sometimes in unpredictable ones. No national psyche is needed for this process to keep rolling.
Instead of reflection, better to think of refraction, the bending and reconfiguring of social themes under the pressure of filmmaking traditions. We understand mass-market films better when we see them as, sometimes opportunistically, grabbing material from the wider culture (whether that material reflects mass sentiment or not) and transforming it through narrative and stylistic conventions. That transformation, or rather transmutation, is central to the artistry of popular entertainment.
Movies are worth studying for themselves, not just as channels for Op-Ed memes. Critics who are sensitive to the art, craft, history, and business of cinema will be able to enlighten us about all aspects of a film, including its political ones.
Jeff Smith’s new book, Film Criticism, The Cold War, and the Blacklist: Reading the Hollywood Reds examines how critics of the 1950s found allegories of resistance to HUAC in movies made at the time. It’s a good reminder that this sort of reflectionist criticism goes back pretty far.
In tune with Jeff’s argument, in an earlier entry I argued that reflectionist readings of popular cinema intensified during the 1940s. But our best critics pushed back. Parker Tyler proposed that movies don’t so much reflect social myths as they invent their own, and he suggested that the process follows the zany logic of dreams. Otis Ferguson, James Agee, and Manny Farber mostly avoided Zeitgeist explanations and talked about films’ implications in relationship to art, craft, and other media and artforms. I survey their work in a series of recent entries: on Ferguson, on Agee, on Farber (here and here), on Tyler, and on their originality, their cultural context, and their legacy.
The pie chart come from the MPAA report on 2013 moviegoing, p. 11.
For a wide-ranging and skeptical examination of one aspect of this topic, there’s Alan Hunt’s article, “Anxiety and social explanation: Some anxieties about anxiety,” Journal of Social History 32, 3 (Spring 1999), 509-528.
Peter Krämer developed the concept of the family adventure film in contemporary Hollywood. See his “Would You Take Your Child to See This Film? The Cultural and Social Work of the Family Adventure Movie,” in Steve Neale, ed. Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (Routlege, 1998), 294-311.
If there’s an allegory in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, perhaps it’s a Bolshevik one. Josef Stalin was known as Koba, which would make Caesar a Lenin figure and Rocket a stand-in for Trotsky. (I doubt that the conservative Mr. Douthat would welcome this reading.) If the reference is intentional, it provides a good example of how a Hollywood film simply seizes cultural flotsam willy-nilly, perhaps to give intellectuals something to ponder. As Christopher Nolan explains of his Batman trilogy: “We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks.”
Parts of today’s sermonette are pulled from an essay published in Poetics of Cinema in 2008. That essay also charts areas of control that filmmakers and audiences enjoy. Another entry on this site dealt with these questions in relation to The Dark Knight and, again, the good, grey Times.
Daumier: Types Parisiens (1840-1843): “Ah, I can see my street, there’s my house, there’s my garden and my wife, I can see Laurent – Oh, I have seen too much.”
Honoré Daumier, Exposition des Beaux-Arts, 1869.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been worried about those critics who must suffer the indignities of film festivals. I became aware of the hazards when I saw this exchange on Indiewire about James Gray’s The Immigrant:
Critic: Do you see this as your most emotional work?
James Gray: I don’t know, I mean I hope so. I know this sounds phony but I don’t start out on a project going, “I’m going to make an emotional work,” you know what I mean? You try to tell the story directly and honestly and with passion…
(A server interrupts to make sure we’re OK and leaves.)
Gray: I love France, I love the French, I’m ready to go home. Three days it took me to get my underwear back from the laundry. Also the worst concierge service in all of human history. I had tickets for all these guests of mine, and they said “Oh, we’ll slip it under your door,” and like seven hours later they lose the…anyway, I’m sorry.
Critic: No, no. Getting a glass of water at this hotel takes half an hour.
Gray: Yeah, it’s like scaling K2.
Mr. Gray, they say, is an amusing guy, so perhaps his complaints were wry jokes. I hope not. These slights and discomforts deserve to be recorded. They might seem minor to someone not professionally employed to fly to Cannes, but they’re typical of the hazards critics submit to for our sake. Curious, I looked into the recent adventures of some high-profile writers.
In all, critics bear their indignities with remarkable aplomb. They are unfailingly generous with praise when things are going well. Take the communiqués of Meredith Brody. Her encounters with famous people (luckily for us, she knows everyone) mingle with tales of fashion and delectable dining. As one who misses old Hollywood, I’m pleased that the festival scene has its Hedda Hopper. Here’s a bulletin from Telluride:
With the kind permission of Steve Ujlaki, dean of the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television, I was able to join his table for dinner at Rustico at 6, down a lovely plate of veal with mushrooms, and still make Serge Bromberg’s 7:15 “Retour du Flamme.” . . . It took me a while to find Alice Waters’ rented house, tucked away at the top of a steep street, but inside I find great wine, charcuterie, cheese, bread, chocolate, and refugees from the festival’s starriest party, to which I hadn’t been invited. . . .
I told Alexander Payne I was sad that they hadn’t scheduled an additional screening of the 1965 Italia film “I Knew Her Well” that he’d introduced night before last. . . . And maybe he was pulling my leg, but he said something about it being scheduled at some cinematheque in his home state of Nebraska, where he lives part-time. . . . Tom Luddy arrived in a dazzling Russian constructivist cashmere sweater, which his wife, stylist Monique Montgomery, had found at the Alameda Flea Market. He was thrilled that Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida had so enjoyed their first visit to Telluride that they’d become lifers.
And from Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato:
Walking back from “La Grande Illusion” last night, I run into Haden Guest (of the Harvard Film Archive) and Rani Singh of the Getty Institute, on the way back to their hotel. Days ago I told Haden I wanted to introduce him to Steve Ujlaki, Dean of the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television; it turns out they met accidentally on their own, in a fascinating-sounding wine bar, although they didn’t get around to actual introductions. I realized it must be Haden Steve and Jackie were talking about when they said that he was elegantly dressed, “in a pork pie hat and linen jacket.” I confirm this by showing him pictures of them from the amazing dinner we’ve just shared.
I frustrate both Haden and Rani by describing the meal and not being able to tell them the name of the restaurant. That’s something that annoyed the hell out of me when I was regularly writing about restaurants and people would tell me they’d just been to a place I would love and then be unable to tell me its name or address. I can show them a picture of the façade of the place, but it’s hard to read the sign. . . . A last lunch at Bertino: prosciutto e melone, straw and hay with sausage sauce, tagliatelle with ragu. Only a glance at sparkling wine (dare not) and a heavily-laden dessert cart (better not).
The churlish will object that the films screened get little discussion in these flavorsome pieces, but that misses the point. The function of most festival reviewers is to function as a DEW system, or a first filter. They must signal those buzzworthy films that if we’re lucky, we’ll see a few months or years hence. Their task is to predict the winners. (Indeed, their coverage helps create the winners.) Given that the films will be over-discussed in the months to come, why not share with us the more ephemeral joys of the festival atmosphere–the parties, the food and drink, the networking, the celebrity bons mots?
When it comes to evoking la dolce vita of the festival circuit, no one surpasses Mark Adams of Screen Daily/ Screen International. Consider his 2012 description of the annual Arabian Nights party at the Emirates Palace Hotel at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
The party aims to replicate – as only a five-star hotel can do – the desert experience, and is set up with food-stands a-plenty as well as singing, dancing, a Western-style DJ (very popular), shisha pipes – for those who partake – and even chill-out seats out on the sand with the possibility of a close encounter with a camel.
In fact this party has developed into a must-go-to events for festival regulars, with an elegant and laid-back vibe that is a perfect counterbalance to the excitement of the opening night bash and the champagne excesses of the Moet & Chandon event.
Champagne excesses? Tell us more, especially the classy parts.
The nice thing about the Moët & Chandon bash is that it is delivered with a certain class. The champagne was chilled and tasty, the asparagus risotto delicious and the delicate desserts delightful. Plus there were fire-eaters, a dancer sprayed silver and a woman dancing in an oversized birdcage….
But while the Moët party was certainly a classy affair – and with a strict invite list it keeps things modest but classy – it all rather pales when you head back into the Emirates Palace hotel and its cavernous golden corridors, gleaming hallways, splendid domed foyer and sheer sense of confident opulence….
Gold and marble are the key aspects to the hotel. Much has been written about the gold ingot vending machine in the foyer, but love it or loathe it there is no denying the sheer visual impact of the building, which was designed by architect John Elliott, and which opened in 2005.
Forget the 1.3km of white sandy beach, the private marina and the two helipads…the Emirates Palace hotel is all about scale. It is 1km from wing to wing (100 hectares total area); there are 102 elevators (I’ve only used two) and 1002 chandeliers, and some 5kg of pure edible gold is used per year for decoration on desserts.
At a period when people are losing their jobs, not getting jobs, losing their savings, finding themselves unable to save, and generally suffering from a depressed economy and a failing social-services system, it’s entirely appropriate that Adams spare a thought for those less fortunate than his hosts.
Sadly that self same edible gold on some very nice strawberriess at a Swedish reception was the nearest I’ve come to getting my hands on the real thing. . .
He’s quite aware that not every venue can splash out this way. The Transylvania Film Festival gamely makes do.
Even the faded and empty Continental Hotel on the edge of the square was being used for a costume exhibition that seemed to fit perfectly into the crumbling main entrance hall of the hotel, with its musty smell and peeling, once-grand ceiling.
And Adams reminds us:
Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but even movies are reflecting the stark fact that expensive hotels are beyond the reach of many, and camping or caravanning are other options. Camping was very much the thing in Cannes opener Moonrise Kingdom. . . .
Still, even if you stay in fine digs, there are those hazards. Without hesitation Adams throws a spotlight on the dangers of being a festival-going critic–plagued by officious doormen, long queues, and chattering cinephiles. Even the weather sometimes fails to cooperate.
After stints at the Venice and Toronto film festivals let me tell you, my capacity — let alone enthusiasm — for queuing is pretty much depleted. Yes, getting there nice and early does guarantee you a seat but standing in line is an intrinsically wearying pursuit as you stave off boredom by waving to friends, checking e-mails and becoming more and more annoyed as sly folk cajole or charm their way into the line ahead of you. . . .
At Venice this year, most of the early press screenings (which sometimes mixed in members of the public) were held at the cavernous Darsena cinema. With 1,300 seats available there’s always a good chance you’ll get in, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a variety of ruses tried by some to force their way into the queue at an earlier point. Some try the old ‘friend holding a place’ routine; others adopt the ‘phone glued to ear and not really aware there was a queue’ policy, while some are just plain rude.
Mind you, it was so hot in Venice that the outdoor queue was rather wearisome, though at least the security folk didn’t snaffle water and liquids of any kind as they did in Cannes this year. Oddly there were three queues set up for the Darsena depending on your badge — from priority daily press through to periodicals — and all were let in at exactly the same time. . . .
Toronto favours long, winding queues that weave back and forth, like being in a bank or an airport baggage drop-off. In the case of screenings at the Bell Lightbox this also involves going up escalators, marshalled by grinning volunteers and festival folk with annoying headsets. But while frustrating they are quite well organised — until you are left outside a film that is late starting due to a digital problem, and have to put up with film folk around you pontificating on every film they have seen.
Fortunately, you can get away from the grind occasionally. Unlike Brody, who sandwiches her gustatory adventures between screenings, Adams favors a vacation. Even during R & R, however, he’s on the job, passing along his musings on cinema.
Time for a well-earned holiday with friends and family down in the bakingly hot Tarn region of southern France. Blessedly it is an area not favoured by hordes of British tourists but — rather sadly — it lacks a plethora of multiplexes to catch up on the latest film fare.
There was not even a local film festival to overlap with my trip, unlike a holiday in Umbria a few years ago, where a tiny and picturesque hilltop town was staging a Mike Leigh retrospective. And no, much as I love Mike, I didn’t hang around to catch his appearance.
While floundering in the pool, tanning in the 37 degree heat, sampling the delightful variety of Gallic wines and sweating on a baking-hot tennis court were all fine distractions, let’s face it, you can’t beat a good movie.
I wrote the foregoing a year ago, but I decided not to post it. I thought that the trend I’d spotted had faded. Film critics seemed to have given up their scintillating travelogues for the humdrum task of discussing movies. But a recent report from Anne Thompson made me decide to revive the old piece. A couple of days ago, Thompson took off for Karlovy Vary.
I flew from LA to Paris en route to the 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) on a 500-seat double-decker Air France A380 that is the largest passenger aircraft in the world. Lufthansa and Emirates Airlines also fly them. It’s the smoothest, quietest flight ride I’ve ever had, you barely noticed the plane taking off.
I walked, “Snowpiercer” style, through the economy steerage, up the curved staircase at the tail and back through business and first class, which features ten full sleepers. The three-year-old jumbo jet had video footage of three live cameras mounted on the nose, belly and tail.
So far, so good. But where are the eats?
Later that night I ran into Gibson and his long-time publicist Alan Nierob in the VIP basement lounge of the Grand Hotel Pupp, as the opening night party raged through many rooms above, with lavish spreads with everything from roast beef, aspic and deviled eggs to tongue-melting fresh sword steaks grilled on demand. He [Mel] showed me his latest movie-star tattoo.
On cue, Meredith Brody posts a culinary comment.
ps: two things: I know it would be kinda a busman’s holiday, but did you see any movies on the plane? AND tongue-melting sushi?!
As if in reply, Thompson’s second day report features more tastiness and adds a picture and a comparison of film to–what else?–food.
I interviewed achievement-award-winner Mel Gibson on video (we’ll post soon) before the official festival dinner at the Grand restaurant. I nibbled at a paté of duck liver and fois gras with cherries and beetroot as I chatted with the city Mayor (who runs a film club) and the Czech Minister of Culture, who is a rare Roman Catholic in a country of post-Communist atheists….
I’ll report anon on what I do see–of the 200-some films on display are a tempting smorgasbord of the best of the international festivals.
I think I speak for other readers: Festival critics, we know you face moments of despair. But make the sacrifice. Soldier on. Tip us to strong sweepstakes entries. (Thompson on Calvary: “This will make many critics’ ten-best lists.”) And don’t spare us lifestyle details.
Full disclosure: Kristin and I have praised Lillooet Fox‘s waffles at VIFF.
Ali–Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, 1974). 35mm frame.
A moment comes when everything is exactly right, and you have an occurrence—it may be something exquisite or something unnameably gross; there is in it an ecstasy which sets it apart from everything else.
Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, 1924
This is the final entry in a series of blogs on major American film critics of the 1940s: Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. The entries are offshoots of a book I’m writing on Hollywood storytelling at the period. Some readers have assumed that these are portions of or trial balloons for the book. Actually, I conceived them as free-standing pieces that I could refer to in the finished book, just to save time. But they have taken on a life of their own, and perhaps I’ll make a e-book out of them some day.
Today’s entry offers three things. First, I summarize the arguments I’ve made in the preceding entries. Then I trace the afterlife of Agee’s work and the subsequent writing of Farber and Tyler. Finally, I offer a few general reflections on their legacy.
The case so far
This blog series was probably even more forbidding than the one called Pandora’s Digital Box because it wasn’t on a topic of current interest, and it was more academic-historical than reportorial. The entries were conceptually denser than what I usually offer, and they were certainly long. So probably a summary would be helpful, even for those brave souls who read the originals. If you haven’t yet read them, maybe this will guide you.
The prologue to the series was my late 2013 entry on Otis Ferguson (left). Ferguson, a critic for The New Republic between 1934 and 1942, laid out some terms for appreciating Hollywood sound cinema. The well-wrought movie would be “smooth, fast-moving, effortless.” It would display an honest, unshowy naturalism about how people behave–particularly how they do their work. It would integrate revealing details and moments of emotional impact into an arc of clean, cogent action, both physical and dramatic. An example is given here, from Fitzgerald’s Love of the Last Tycoon.
What makes all this possible, Ferguson maintained, is a discreet technique.
The very reason you don’t see it is its own justification: you are not conscious of camera or effects, for the little bit flickers past in the final version and you are conscious only that a story is starting as you follow. Only!
Although the mechanics might be invisible to the audience, Ferguson thought that critics should be more curious. They should possess “a constant and humble passion to know everything of what is being done and how everything is being done.” As a jazz critic, he knew the tricks of the trade, and late in his career he visited Hollywood to watch filmmakers like Wyler and Lang at work. This is one way to appreciate honest craft: “The camera way is the hard way.”
Ferguson left film reviewing in 1942 for the Merchant Marine and was killed early in World War II, but three other critics continued on his way—although they did so in their own, idiosyncratic fashion. They were James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler.
Some of what Ferguson had proposed was already commonplace among critics who were movie-friendly. They recognized film as a popular art, considered it primarily a visual medium communicating through movement, and rejected the artiness associated with Russian and avant-garde film. Hollywood’s admirers put story first and—though people like to think Farber originated this—recognized that the liveliest film was often the unpretentious comedy or melodrama. Prestige pictures, especially literary adaptations, were no guarantee of vitality.
My three critics accepted these premises but, like Ferguson, they went further. They wrote criticism that was pungent, slangy, creatively ungrammatical. They accepted the advantages of minor genres but pushed very hard against highbrow tastes. They had an eye for technique as it might work in privileged moments to convey character or the taste of reality. And they freshened up the familiar faults-and-beauties rhetoric of reviewing with paradox (Farber), a drama of decision (Agee), or an inversion of what a reasonable person might expect (Tyler).
In the first series entry I called them the Rhapsodes, by analogy with the ancient reciters of verse who, inspired by the gods, became carried away. My purpose was to emphasize the offbeat, passionate force of their prose. But of course they weren’t really carried away. They were wholly in charge. They were seeking to differentiate themselves as personalities while conveying something of the punch and sway of the movies themselves.
As prose artists, they broke with the urbane, murmuring tastemongers of their day, as well as with the thinkers who populated the highbrow journals. In those journals, partly because of a disenchantment with Stalinism and its antagonism to avant-garde experiment, there emerged a new high culture centered on High Modernism and its heirs.
For the Serious elite, Hollywood films were the most threatening face of Western mass culture. Manufactured in bulk and jammed down the throats of the unwary multitudes, movies were a betrayal of authentic art—a turn away from both the authenticity and spontaneity of folk art and the revolutionary force of the avant-garde. The result was, inevitably, that movies could only be kitsch, either lowbrow, or worse, middlebrow. My second entry in the series suggested that the Rhapsodes detoured around the arguments about mass culture.
At this period, new methods of “close reading” had emerged in literary studies, musicology, and art history. Obviously film critics couldn’t examine their “texts” as minutely as critics of other media could; there was no home video, and no way to study current releases on viewing machines. Still, within the constraints of the time, these critics managed to subject films to scrutiny. And their probing of particular shots and scenes was a powerful counter to the vague denunciations of the Partisan Review crowd.
Focusing on the planning and labor of production—specifically, the shooting of one scene in The Little Foxes—became Ferguson’s preferred path to close reading. His successors found other ways. Agee was since his youth a film fan who, otaku-like, wrote imaginary screenplays flaunting sheer technique. This sensitized him to the what and the how of filmic creation. Farber, trained as a painter, brought a concern with fastidious craft, pictorial design, and emotional expressivity to his thinking about films. Parker Tyler, a Surrealist poet, had an eye for slippery detail that would allow him to expand, associatively, from an image or dramatic conflict or story premise to some quite surprising implications.
Agee (right), I argued in the third entry, possessed a Romantic sensibility. Both outward-looking and introspective, he hoped for radiant revelations from cinema; he also dramatized, in his hesitant probes, the difficulty of finding them. His fiction and nonfiction sought “the illusion of embodiment” and the piercing moment of emotion, both of which cinema could provide. His short reviews in The Nation throughout the 1940s often only hinted at these qualities, but his longer pieces develop these ideas further. He offered a sort of New-Critical interpretation of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and stylistic commentary on the visual strategies of John Huston.
Agee’s contemporary and sometime rival Manny Farber has become famous as the most pictorially sensitive critic of the time, one who brought his awareness of modernist painting to bear on movies. I argued that this standard view needs nuancing. For one thing, modernism in the approved sense of the period—basically, abstract painting as praised by Clement Greenberg—didn’t get full backing in Farber’s art reviews, which I considered in the fourth entry. He was receptive to all manner of representational art as well as abstraction, and he was in a rather old-fashioned way committed to emotional expression. Farber was also, contra Greenberg, completely open to popular graphic art, including comic strips.
By the time he came to movies, Farber was able to focus more acutely on visual detail than Agee did. Over a few years of reviewing for The New Republic (1942-1946), he moved toward vivid evocations of space in cinema. Yet these, I argued in the fifth entry, didn’t reflect the ideology of modernist painting. Farber agreed with Ferguson that Hollywood was committed to smooth storytelling. He thus believed that film was an appropriate home for the “illusionism” and “illustration” that the Greenberg school condemned in modern art.
It was only later that Farber saw Hollywood as converging with modern painting, and he found that trend objectionable. He wrote in 1950:
Directors, by flattening the screen, discarding framing and centered action, and looming the importance of actors—have made the movie come out and hit the audience with almost personal savagery.
Shadow-boxing with Agee, Farber objected to John Huston’s crowded, self-consciously composed frames. Throughout this period, Farber adhered to Ferguson’s aesthetic of crisp, lean storytelling that didn’t call attention to itself.
Parker Tyler didn’t worry about storytelling, smooth or otherwise. Instead, in the Surrealist tradition of “irrational enlargement” of moments in the films he saw, his books The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947) looked for crevices in the polished surface of Hollywood narration. Chopping plots to bits, he sought mythic and Freudian reverberations in the most mundane pictures. And as a gay man he had no hesitation about twisting and spindling the gender implications of everything he saw.
Serious thinkers called Hollywood a dream factory, but Tyler went farther; he re-dreamed what was on the screen. He celebrated the “baroque energy and protean symbolism” of stars (really charade performers), stories (with their evocative imagery and conventional closure), and special effects (harking back to primitive magic). My previous entry tried to show how, in finding scandalous entertainment value in Hollywood, he was driven to scrutinize the films with a sensitivity parallel to that on display in Agee and Farber. Working at book length, he could develop his claims more fully than a reviewer could, on a scale appropriate to the Hollywood Hallucination itself. At the same time, the dandyish sprezzatura of his critical performance made him no less a conjuror with the English language than were his contemporaries.
The making of celebrity criticism
At Land (Deren, 1944).
I wish I knew more about how these three critics, all based in New York, got on with each other. Farber and Agee were friends, but did they go to movies together? Did they meet at MoMA screenings? Both reviewed Maya Deren’s 1946 screenings of her films in Greenwich Village. Very likely Tyler attended those as well, as he performed as an actor in At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time.
Mostly we have to rely on the published record. Farber at this period never mentioned his counterparts, though in later decades he had plenty to say about Agee. Tyler, similarly, ignored the others until in 1971 he called Agee America’s greatest film fan. In 1946 Farber wrote an insulting review of Deren’s work, which may explain why Tyler ignored him ever after.
Agee was more generous. He mentioned Farber occasionally, and sometimes he carved out a Farberian sentence: “[Stage Door Canteen] is a nice harmless picture for the whole family; and it is a gold mine for those who are willing to go to it in the wrong spirit.” (Paraprosdokian again.) Agee also refers directly to Tyler when speaking of Deren’s film lyrics. In the year that Tyler postulated Hollywood’s starlets as somnambules, Agee seems to have picked up the cue, speaking of his beloved Elizabeth Taylor as having “a natural-born sleepwalking sort of guile.”
In the short run, Agee had the most influence, but it came posthumously. His reviews had a specialist following in the 1940s, but he ceased writing them in 1950, and for the rest of his life he concentrated on screenwriting and a novel. He died from a heart attack in 1955. After A Death in the Family won the Pulitzer Prize, the 1958 publication of Agee on Film prepared the way for a stream of review collections.
During the 1940s two of the major British reviewers, James Agate and C. A. Lejeune, had gathered their movie journalism in book form, and even in the US, critics-at-large like Mark Van Doren and John Mason Brown had bundled their film reviews with their literary essays. But Agee was, as James Naremore has pointed out, the most famous American literary figure to review movies at the period. The anthology of his articles not only enhanced his standing but gave film journalism a new stature. Mass-market periodicals, political magazines, and even literary quarterlies (the Reviews Kenyon, Sewanee, Southern, Hudson, et al.) decided they needed movie coverage, and a new generation of writers came forward.
It took a little while for publishers to sense that a market was there, but in the 1960s anthologies formed a solid genre. Between 1960 and 1973, I count over twenty collections of reviews by Hollis Alpert, John Simon, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Raymond Durgnat, Judith Crist, Renata Adler, Dwight Macdonald, Andrew Sarris, Herman G. Weinberg, Graham Greene, Richard Schickel, William S. Pechter, Rex Reed, and Vernon Young. That doesn’t include the mixed cinema-and-literature bundles by Susan Sontag, Penelope Gilliatt, Wilfred Sheed, and others. Doubtless the output was boosted by Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies (1965), which became something of a best-seller. Drowsing over TCM revivals, some geezers still look back longingly at this era, “when cinema was worth fighting about.”
Tyler and Farber were in a position to benefit from the anthology genre. Both had continued writing about film and other things. After leaving The New Republic, and while still writing art criticism, Farber reviewed films for The Nation (1949-1954), Cavalier (1966) and Artforum (1967-1971). He wrote long-form essays for venues as varied as Commentary, Commonweal, and Film Culture. From these later pieces came nearly everything that he included in Negative Space (1971), the anthology that introduced him to the auteurist generation. “The Gimp,” “Hard-Sell Cinema,” and “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” along with other long-form pieces on Hawks, Walsh, and Preston Sturges, came to define the Farberian ethos and aesthetic.
Tyler too wrote on other subjects, notably avant-garde literature and painting. Always the practical free-lancer, he could turn out copy to order. He produced slim but informed monographs on French painters for a series at Doubleday. The picture book Classics of the Foreign Film (1962) was in tune with America’s emerging interest in French, Italian, and Swedish imports, and it inspired many a Baby Boomer cinephile. Yet Tyler could pursue rarefied interests no less copiously: a biography of poet Florine Stettheimer (1963), a study of heroes in literature (Every Artist His Own Scandal, 1964), a monumental, gossipy life of Pavel Tchelitchew (1969).
He was quick off the mark with his own essay collections. Only two years after Agee’s anthology, Tyler put out The Three Faces of the Film (1960). He updated it in 1967 and followed with Sex Psyche Etcetera in the Film (1969). The long out-of-print Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies were reissued in 1970. In 1971 Tyler added to the British edition of Magic and Myth a long introduction that staked his claim as the originator of dream-oriented film interpretation.
After writing, with Patricia Patterson, essays on avant-garde cinema and New German Film, Farber ceased writing in 1977 to devote himself wholly to teaching and painting. Some of his paintings bear a close relation to his film criticism. Tyler too continued as a creator, writing surrealistic poetry, but he didn’t let go of cinema. He stirred up avant-garde ire with Underground Film: A Critical History (1969) and proposed a curious account of cinema’s poetic powers in The Shadow of an Airplane Climbs the Empire State Building: A World Theory of Film (1972). At the same time, as sexual mores were changing, he wrote frankly and amusingly about all varieties of eroticism in Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1973) and followed it up with A Pictorial History of Sex in Films (1974). This last book displays some of the most lubricious photo pairings and captions you’ll ever see.
The pad as playpen
Reflections on Black (Brakhage, 1955).
The two men’s late work intertwined in fascinating ways. Tyler’s style became simpler but more loquacious, even pedantic. (“Perhaps in passing a definition of the aesthetic content of the term tact may be given.”) Farber’s writing became more impacted and hermetic, jammed with adjectives and bursting with pinwheel associations that force you to either pause or skip on. Ozu’s “rigidly formalized, quaint homeliness,” he says, is “a blend of Calvin Coolidge, Blondie, and Mies’s neo-plastic esthetic.” I see the Mies, and sort of see the Blondie (but is it the mundane domestic crises, the wisdom of woman, the locked-down camera positions?), but on the Cool Cal reference I give up.
The most intriguing comparisons between Tyler and Farber, though, aren’t stylistic. Each man devoted more attention to European cinema and the avant-garde, and in ways that echo their 1940s concerns.
The renaissance of the foreign film in the US after World War II seized Tyler’s attention, though in a typically contrarian way. In a 1950 essay he objected to the “cheap melodrama” of Open City and the “mere surface naturalism” of Bicycle Thieves. Instead, and long before it became a critics’ darling, he picked out Rules of the Game as a brilliant work, at once social satire and tragicomic morality tale. He also found Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles an ingenious reworking of the Oedipus myth, one that exploited “a poetry of the deposed and vengeful matriarchic spirit.”
In the years that followed, Tyler would construct a European counter-tradition to Hollywood. It’s seen in its most schematic form in Classics of the Foreign Film. The table of contents seems to be cycling through the 1960 film-buff canon, from the MoMA classics (Caligari, Last Laugh, Potemkin, Metropolis, Jeanne d’Arc) to the postwar imports (the Neorealists, Rashomon, Ugetsu, Hiroshima, mon amour, Wild Strawberries, L’Avventura, La Dolce Vita). But Tyler sifts through the Greatest Hits for imaginative and poetic resonances, not realism or, at the other extreme, the “free-form ambiguities” of Last Year at Marienbad and Jules and Jim.
He retrofits official classics to his interpretive tastes. In Throne of Blood he finds primitive magic; Maedchen in Uniform is “a chaste ode to sexuality.” The book revises his 1950 views of the Neorealists, but on his own terms. What’s valuable in Bicycle Thieves is not its realism but its function as “a lucid moral fable”; it even bears the ancient stamp of “an initiation rite.” Even the most naturalistic work may harbor form, artifice, and poetic evocation, and it is these that make something a Tylerian classic.
In the early 1970s, he revisited current European cinema, along with contemporary Hollywood, and found defiantly unchaste odes to sexuality. His books on sex and gender onscreen return to the polymorphically perverse themes that he found in 1940s Hollywood. He continued to read against the grain, so that The Great Escape and Husbands become “homosexual mystery stories” and The Damned becomes a gay charade. Yet now filmmakers, as if they had read Tyler’s first books, were flaunting scandalous desires. With a jaundiced delight he surveyed the vicissitudes of the erotic instinct in Senso, I Am Curious (Yellow), The Last House on the Left, and scores of other films, high, low, and very low. The Pictorial History of Sex in Films suggests an aging connoisseur of erotica proudly opening his filing system and exhuming some prize images while offering outrageous commentary. (“Taped down or strapped down, when your transsexualized doctor has dildo rape in mind, you’re in for it.”) The book, in short, is a scream.
Ironically, the Freudian dimensions Tyler discerned behind the Hollywood charade were being paraded not only in mainstream commercial production but in the Underground. Making a piquant subtext overt was liberating for Hollywood, which was perhaps too repressed for its audience’s good, but it steered the avant-garde toward self-indulgence and frivolity. The 1950 article defending Rules of the Game praised the experimental films screened at Cinema 16, but he issued a warning.
The danger of the experimental cult is formlessness and lack of a wide artistic culture. It needs discipline and more intellectual power.
Tyler thought that 1960s filmmakers ignored his warnings. Underground Film: A Critical History examines the emergence of Warhol, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow and others in relation to the “classic” avant-garde. Tyler’s book is not a complete demolition—his list of “the central canon of avant-garde into Underground” includes many 1960s classics, from Harlot to Star-Spangled to Death—but it does plead for artistic standards, sophistication, and “firmness of outline.” Underground films , he argued, achieved their distinctive shapelessness by prolonged, free-form improvisation, usually in some loft. Thus was born the “pad film,” a playground for the infantile exhibitionism of early Warhol and the “boredom unlimited” of Wavelength.
Worse, all the narcissism, erotic symbolism, and camp lurking in the crevices of 1940s studio films took center stage in Underground films. “The slant on which I had first concentrated was now taking hold with people who made films rather than with people who looked at them.” Joe Dallesandro and Jack Smith, Taylor Mead and Paul America, Edie Sedgewick and other purported Superstars were in their druggy haze mocking the gods and goddesses of the classic years. In this negation, Tyler believed, the filmmakers were abandoning their responsibility to their tradition, and to history as a whole.
By the time he died in 1974, aged seventy, he had shaped that history. Many of the motifs he wrote about in Hollywood films became tropes of the American avant-garde. The somnambule, the vacant, succulent man or woman who drifted through Hollywood movies, reappears in so many 1940s films that P. Adams Sitney borrowed Tyler’s formulation to describe an entire genre of “trance films.” Similarly, it may be that Gregory Markopoulos’ exploration of classical myth and Kenneth Anger’s fascination with magic (that is, magick) owe something to Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies. Perhaps Tyler was more of a conduit for ideas circulating in artistic culture than a point of origin himself, but there remain some striking affinities between the 1940s-1950s American avant-garde and Hollywood. Is Brakhage’s Reflections on Black not a sort of film noir?
Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, 2004. Photo by Gabe Klinger.
Manny Farber remained largely uncaptivated by the postwar foreign-language influx. He praised a portmanteau release of three Pagnol, Renoir, and Rossellini shorts (Ways of Love, 1950), but he had no sympathy for Miracle in Milan (“moronically oversimplified”) or Rashomon (“slow, complacent, Louvre-conscious, waiting-for-prizes”). Tyler’s favorites, The Rules of the Game and Les Parents Terribles, go unreviewed by Farber, along with releases by Fellini, Visconti, Mizoguchi, Clair, Carné, and many others diligently covered by his contemporaries. The reason is, as usual, taste.
The worst Hollywood B has more cinematic adrenaline than most English or French movies, and no one is more eclectic than the English director Olivier, reactionary than the Frenchman Pagnol, victimized by easy sensibility than the Italians De Sica and Rossellini.
Farber’s distaste continued into his early and mid-1960s pieces. Godard offered “complex boredom,” Fellini treated bit players as “wasteful clutter,” Red Desert was “a silly film.” The 1967 New York Film Festival offered him a bleak buffet of new European entertainment characterized by “the character who is no deeper, no more developed, prepared, explained than the people in fashion advertisements.”
But soon Farber discovered Warhol and Michael Snow. The Underground films that Tyler found shallow and narcissistic seemed to Farber, in 1968, adventurous. Warhol, surprisingly, earned Farber’s prize adjective: his close-ups were “virile.” Thereafter Farber found Wavelength “a pure, tough forty-five minutes” and Joyce Wieland’s films reminded him of Manet and Caravaggio.
Farber’s interest in the avant-garde, coinciding with his new assignment as film critic for Artforum (1967-1972), seems to have led him to reappraise recent Europeans. Soon, with Patricia Patterson, he was writing career appreciations of Godard, Buñuel, and Fassbinder (whom he considered akin to Warhol). Later, the two would champion Herzog, Duras, and Straub as well. He planned, but didn’t complete, a book on the new Munich filmmakers.
What joined the worthwhile Europeans to the American experimentalists was a concern with fresh articulations of space. Farber’s critical calling card became his claim that a self-conscious sense of space, in both literal and metaphorical senses, was a defining feature of contemporary cinema.
By the end of the 1940s, Farber asserted, Hollywood’s concern for intricate visuals had begun to overtake narrative clarity and expressiveness. This was one thrust of his critique of Huston, Stevens, Kazan and other Gimp/White Elephant stylists. Now an image with “more grip per square inch than ever before” was ruling both Hollywood and alternative cinemas. In The Graduate, Persona, Red Desert (below), and other films, “the design play becomes as important as the story theme. As seldom happened in pre-1960s naturalism, the movie is constantly drumming a pattern in which dominant and subordinate are contested.”
Against this trend Farber sets filmmakers who define a particular space for each project. Chabrol finds a “measured flow” for La Femme infidèle, while Touch of Evil presents an allegorical space of disorientation and grotesquerie. Fassbinder uses “flat, boldly simple formats. . . Fassbinder’s intense shadowless image is not like anyone else’s.” Most exemplary is Godard’s career, “a movie-by-movie exploration of one image or another.”
In a curious way, Farber’s concern with framed space crops up at the same time that Tyler criticized the passive Underground camera for ignoring the potential for editing to create new forms of space (and time). But Farber grants that a film’s space includes more than the field of view on the screen. It encompasses the actor’s performance (“psychological space”) and “the area of experience and geography that the film covers.” As for negative space, he redefines that 1940s concept as a sort of synthesis of what the filmmaker supplies and what the spectator adds. I take this as a metaphorical parallel to the solid masses and tacit relationships that the term summoned up for Hans Hofmann and his acolytes.
Another twist: While Tyler was publishing a great deal on post-Impressionist painting, Farber gave up art criticism for art practice, but focused his art-historical sensibility upon films. Scattered through the late essays are dozens of references to painters both classic and modern, something we almost never find in his 1940s film writing. It’s as if Hollywood’s expressive naturalism made it proudly distinct from other visual arts. Now, with filmmakers fretting over the look of each shot, Farber characterizes both weak and strong directors by analogies with Rothko, Johns, Vermeer, and other masters of plastic values.
For Farber, then, the dynamic interplay of painting style and cinematic style had altered since the 1940s. Yet the war and the postwar era remained Farber’s point of departure, even for reviews of recent releases. The Wild Bunch yields “a virile ribbon image”; Kaspar Hauser reminds him of Sturges; one moment in Taxi Driver echoes Odds Against Tomorrow, and another turns Travis into Cary Grant. Like Farber’s references to old comic strips, these create a constant dialogue between Old Hollywood and contemporary cinema.
Farber stayed in touch with the 1940s in another way. Before he ceased writing in 1977, he and Patterson signed tributes to Hawks, Walsh, Siegel, and Fuller that blended his Gimp-and-Termite arguments with the new sense of directors as impresarios of space. In a way, these essays show the writers joining the auteurist debates of the period. At the same time, these pieces tie the directors to artistic traditions outside movies: Walsh and Brueghel, Siegel and Robert Frank.
The Human Comedy (Brown, 1943).
The classic avant-garde versus that of the Underground; the postwar foreign imports versus the New Eurocinemas of the late 1960s. These realignments gave Tyler and Farber fresh prominence. By focusing on their beginnings I may have given short shrift to their later, greater fame. But there’s also a value, I think, in seeing that their “mature” positions, as people tend to remember them, have sources in the earlier years.
In those years they helped forge a sense of an aesthetic of the American film. The reach of their imaginations and the sheer dazzle of their prose made a case, against all the skeptics who disdained Hollywood as a factory of mass delusion, that something deeply artful was at the base of studio cinema.
They deplored much of what they saw as routine and shabby. But they also found, where no one else had noticed, poignant expression (Agee), unassuming pictorial intelligence (Farber), and cracks opening onto myth, black magic, and sexual fantasy (Tyler). They raised our awareness of conventions, not in a crudely demystifying way, but by treating them as enabling depth, vigor, and impact. In a tradition that always swung between artifice and realism, Hollywood filmmakers found new methods of artifice and new approaches to realism, and our critics responded in sympathy.
These writers activate so many aspects of the classics, and they draw our attention to striking films now largely forgotten, that I’m surprised that they didn’t flag things that pop out for us. They mostly missed the stylistic revolution of deep focus, the long take, and camera movement. They missed what seem to us obsessive plot patterns—the man on the run, the woman entrapped, the way homicide smashes domesticity, the doubts and guilts that assail the protagonists of war pictures, home-front pictures, even neurotic comedies. They never heard of that academic standby The Crisis of Masculinity, and they didn’t notice the way postwar drama thrusts women back into the kitchen. Tyler is sublimely indifferent to directors altogether (except Welles and avant-gardists), while Agee and Farber largely neglect Preminger, Mann, Siodmak, Sirk, Fuller, Minnelli, and Ophuls.
You can argue that they also missed the soft side of Hollywood. Agee can spare a tremor of sentiment, and Tyler can respect even the saccharine religiosity of Song of Bernadette; but Farber, the critic most suited to our tastes today, usually presents himself as the toughest guy in the back room. Before The Human Comedy (1943), a nearly plotless, no-villains slice of small-town life, he is a hanging judge. He doesn’t mention that it’s narrated by a dead man, a trick that arrests our attention in a post-Sunset Boulevard world. He ignores the film’s direct appeal to the home front: the action centers on a telegraph office through which most war news comes, and that news is mostly about boys who won’t be coming back. Farber finds, with some justice, that MGM’s marmalade treatment smothers Saroyan’s fantasy and eccentricity.
Agee seems to have registered the appeals of the thing more acutely. Writing in The Nation, he labels Saroyan a “schmalz-artist,” but that’s a characteristically mixed call, praising his sweet nature while objecting to his mawkishness. Knowing that the intelligentsia will despise The Human Comedy, the contrarian Agee musters some support for it, savoring the soft clink of horseshoes at dusk. Meanwhile, his anonymous Time review goes all the way unchecked: “The Saroyan touch leaves nothing ordinary; the film is electric with the joy of life.” You have to wonder whether the pathos of boys growing up without their father, and the naïvete of boys who can’t read wandering in awe through the town library, got close to Agee’s own memories.
The Hollywood Reporter called The Human Comedy “the best picture this reviewer has ever seen,” and Variety declared, “This is one of the screen’s immortals.” I’m not trying to echo that praise, although the film seems to me reasonably good, even somewhat daring. It’s just that it’s unashamedly sentimental, and sophisticated cinephiles have to make a special effort to enjoy it. Ten minutes into it, you get a lump in your throat, and you may feel like a sucker. It hits us below the belt again and again, and this is part of Hollywood too.
Farber taught us to admire the tough, cynical side of the forties. Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon don’t plead for tears. But we may have learned the lesson too well. If today more people enjoy Hawks than Ford, or Walsh than Clarence Brown, or His Girl Friday than The Shop around the Corner, that’s partly because our tastes favor hard-boiled aggression (look at our current pantheon, from Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson) over modest virtue (Wreck-It Ralph, We Bought a Zoo). Agee and Tyler were better attuned to the tender side of Hollywood movies .
I’ve also considered these three critics as providing worthwhile efforts at cinematic “close reading.” Since I’ve been promoting that angle for many years, I know it looks like special pleading to trace it back to the 1940s. In my defense, I’d add that at the same time, analysis showed up even more vigorously in Paris. André Bazin and his cohort, kept from Hollywood releases for many years, were flooded by the pent-up stock of American movies. Primed by what they’d read, and gifted with exceptional intelligence, they noticed the new Hollywood stylistics of long take, deep space, and narrative complexity.
There is nothing in American film criticism of the time to match the understanding of narrational principles we find in Claude-Edmonde Magny’s Age of the American Novel: The Film Aesthetic of Fiction between the Two Wars (1948), or the stylistic subtlety of Pierre Bailly’s meditation on the values of the lengthy, static shot in Welles and Hitchcock. French critics discovered that what Yanks called melodramas could be considered in the Gallic tradition of film noir. While Tyler was psychoanalyzing Chaplin, and while Agee and Farber were quarreling about Huston, Bazin was writing analyses of Welles and Wyler that were unprecedented in their depth and precision. Christophe Gauthier notes that France’s ciné-clubs held many prints, in both 16mm and 35mm. As a result, Bazin, Rohmer, and their comrades could re-watch the films and study them to a degree that the Americans couldn’t.
A good portion of what we take for granted about Hollywood artistry of the 1940s stems from French cinephiles who considered scrutinizing films to be as natural as explicating literary texts. Perhaps my Americans would, under more favorable conditions, have done the same. After all, Ferguson was keen to watch scenes being shot, and Agee wrote absurdly detailed screenplays. Tyler acted in films and lived for decades with filmmaker Charles Boultenhouse. When Farber began teaching at UC San Diego, he tickled the analytical projector like a needle-dropping DJ.
The other risk I’ve run is attributing too much to critics, here or elsewhere. If there hadn’t been films that pushed the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, even the cleverest reviewers couldn’t have written so fruitfully. Without Sturges and Welles, Huston and Wyler, Hitchcock and Wilder, Wellman and Walsh, Lang and Preminger, Mankiewicz and Val Lewton; without perversities like The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Salome Where She Danced and Turnabout; without ambitious pictures like Citizen Kane and The Story of GI Joe alongside dozens of sturdy programmers, the Rhapsodes would have had little to work with. The cascade of overpowering, exuberant, piercing, and crazy films of the 1940s surely pushed them to go all out. Great criticism can flourish, it seems, when there is great cinema.
Thanks, as ever, to Kent Jones and Jim Naremore for information and feedback. I’m grateful to Judith Noble for information about Tyler’s relation to Maya Deren. Thanks as well to Christophe Gauthier for information about screenings at postwar French ciné-clubs, and to Kelley Conway for acting as liaison. Finally, thanks to Gabe Klinger for the photo of Farber and Patterson above.
Apart from Tyler’s books, these collections have been my principal sources for the critics I’ve considered: The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson (Temple University Press, 1971); James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, ed. Michael Sragow (Library of America, 2005); and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, ed. Robert Polito (Library of America, 2009). Agee’s review of The Human Comedy is in Time (22 March 1943), 54.
My characterization of critical commonplaces about Hollywood is drawn from a variety of sources. Some of them may be found in the writings of Gilbert Seldes, whom I’ve discussed elsewhere. Others emerge in writers who became prominent somewhat after my Rhapsodes. See Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (Atheneum, 1962) and Vernon Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (Quadrangle, 1972) and The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, ed. Bert Cardullo (University Press of America, 1990).
No less interesting, but impossible to cover here, are the British reviewers. C. A. Lejeune and the somewhat younger Dilys Powell wrote shrewd, unsnobbish pieces about 1940s cinema that are still worth reading. See Lejeune, Chestnuts in Her Lap, 1936-1946 (London: Phoenix House, 1947) and The C. A. Lejeune Film Reader, ed. Anthony Lejeune (London: Carcanet, 1991); and The Golden Screen: Dilys Powell—Fifty Years at the Films, ed. George Perry (London: Headline, 1990) and The Dilys Powell Film Reader, ed. Christopher Cook (London: Carcanet, 1991).
The breeziness of the English style can be disarming; Powell admits that she was late for the press screening of Citizen Kane and missed the opening line, so the rest of the movie was fairly opaque to her. Their cozy pieces make a sharp contrast with the harder-edged American critics I’ve discussed.
The other major specimen of BritCrit of the period, notable then but largely forgotten, is James Agate. Agate was a bluff theatre critic and memoirist who took pride in knowing nothing about cinema, an admission as charming as it was accurate. Reviewing for the fashion and gossip mag The Tatler, Agate filled column inches with chitchat, smoking-room mockery, and anecdotes radiating self-regard. He liked walking out of films partway through and revealing surprise endings. (He referred to Kane’s boyhood sled frequently.) The reviews collected in Around Cinemas (two series, Home and Van Thal, 1946, 1948) remind me of Nabokov’s line, “Nothing is more exhilarating than Philistine vulgarity.”
There were more specialized and serious film writers at the period in Britain, notably at Sequence (1946-1952), but that journal deserves discussion on its own. Somewhat parallel was French criticism of the period, which is surveyed in Antoine de Baecque’s La Cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 1944-1968 (Paris: Fayard, 2003).
Farber’s painting career is covered in two catalogues: Manny Farber (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985) and Manny Farber: About Face (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003). Both include biographical information, and several essays in each volume discuss the relation of Farber’s painting to his film criticism. Cahiers du cinéma published an extensive interview with Farber on the same topics, in special number 334-335 (April 1982), 54-65, 130. See also Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1983 essay “Thinking About (Personal) History Lessons: The Movie Paintings of Manny Farber,” Rouge (2008) and “They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber,” on Jonathan’s site.
Tyler’s early ideas about European imports and the American avant-garde are drawn from “Movie Letter: Lament for the Audience—and a Mild Bravo,” Kenyon Review 12, 4 (Autumn 1950): 689-696. Thanks to the Net, you can listen to a precious recording of a 1953 panel discussion on “Poetry and the Film,” which brought together Tyler, Deren, and others, including a boorish Dylan Thomas, at Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. A transcript is on Paul Cronin’s site The Sticking Place.
Agee reviewed a 1946 program of Maya Deren’s films, and she replied with a letter to The Nation. As I indicated in an earlier installment, Farber reviewed the same program and called the films “lesbianish” and “pansyish.” Deren was, rightly, angered, and asked the editors of The New Republic to publish her reply. After several go-rounds, they agreed and her scathing letter to the editor appeared in the issue of 16 November 1946. See The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works Vol. I, Part Two, “Chambers: (1942-1947), ed. Catrina Neiman (New York: Anthology Film Archive, 1988), 382-385, 410-417.
Farber took another dig a few years later, when he noted that the bandit’s sword in Rashomon “somehow rises (Maya Deren-fashion) as if it had just had a big meal of sex hormones” (Farber on Film, 377). In 1956, Deren talked back to Farber’s essay, “The Gimp”: “Mr. Farber is not writing a criticism of Citizen Kane. He is having a tantrum.” See Maya Deren, “The Village Voice Pieces,” Film Culture no. 39 (Winter 1965), 46-49.
The Bazin essays I’m alluding to are “La technique du Citizen Kane,” Les temps modernes 2, no. 17 (1947), 943-949; “William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing,” Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties, ed. Bert Cardullo (Routledge, 1997; orig. 1948), 1-22; and Orson Welles: A Critical View, trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum (Harper and Row, 1978; orig. 1950). The Pierre Bailly essay, “Avis aux usagers du plan fixe,” is in Gazette du cinéma no. 4 (October 1950), 7. For more on French stylistic analysis of the period, see the third chapter of my On the History of Film Style.
The vertical illustration of Tyler and the bust comes from Three Film Portraits by Charles Boultenhouse.
From Parker Tyler, A Pictorial History of Sex in Films (1974).
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).