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Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Chapter 3 | Three Dimensions of Film Narrative new pdf!

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error” new!

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'Film industry' Category

Caught in the acts

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

DB here:

If you’re interested in how films tell stories, I think that you’re interested in several dimensions of narrative. Those include the story world (characters, settings, action), narration (how story information is parceled out as the film unrolls), and plot structure (the arrangement of parts).

Plot structure matters because a movie’s parts, like parts of a song or a symphony, help shape our experience. Just as a “curtain line” makes us return after intermission, a cliff-hanging climax to a TV episode makes us tune in next week–or click to continue, if we’re binge-watching. Accordingly, storytellers reflect on how to chop up and lay out sections of their plots. Novelists fret over chapter divisions, TV writers massage their scripts to allow for commercial breaks, and playwrights map action into acts.

The idea of act-structure has passed into commercial screenwriting as well. Just when that happened is hard to say, but certainly by the 1980s scriptwriters consciously broke their screenplays into big chunks. That trend was largely the result of Syd Field’s 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, although some of his points had been anticipated in Constance Nash and Virginia Oakley’s Screenwriter’s Handbook (1974). From these books came the idea that a feature film script had a three-act structure, measured by time segments (30 minutes/ 60 minutes/ 30 minutes). The prototype was a 120-minute film, with each script page running about one minute of screen time. Field fleshed the model out by noting that “plot points” at the ends of acts one and two turned the conflicts in a new direction. Although other writers argued for other templates, and Field’s model was refined (what’s the “inciting incident” in Act One?), versions of the three-act model still rule the international film industry.

Field presented his anatomy as an analysis of hit films like Chinatown and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He suggested it as a template for a successful plot. As Field’s book gained prominence, his guidelines gave production companies an heuristic for triaging submissions. Now a story analyst could simply check pages 25-35 and 55-65 for turning points, and “incorrect” scripts could be discarded immediately. (But see P.S. below.) Through a feedback cycle, the Field model became a guide to both screenwriters and industry decision-makers. Inevitably, the whole thing got mocked. The day-by-day structure of Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang parodies Field’s scheme, and it closes with a self-conscious epilogue. “So,” says the narrator, “that’s pretty much that….”

To what extent, though, was the three-act structure employed in earlier eras? Field’s original edition drew its examples from current hits, but he implied that classics would display the same underlying architecture. Kristin, in Storytelling in the New Hollywood, claimed that four parts were more common than three, and she supported her analysis with examples from films from the silent era and the classic studio years.

But film analysis depends on your perspective. In any movie you can find patterns different from the ones I find, and each of us can make persuasive cases. It would be valuable to know whether American screenwriters in the studio system consciously worked with an act-based model. If they did, what assumptions did they make about the length and organization of each act?


Some poor sucker of a screenwriter

Steven Price’s new book, A History of the Screenplay, surveys the practices of screenplay composition in America and Europe. It traces the early years of outlines and scenarios through the continuity script of the silent years, the sound screenplay, and postwar European models, up to the New Hollywood and contemporary standards. It’s a fascinating study and sure to set a benchmark in our understanding of the conventions of screenwriting. For the 1930s and 1940s in America, Steven shows that filmmakers used two formats, either the “master-scene” one or a format involving more explicit instructions about camerawork, lighting, and other aspects. But he finds little direct evidence that screenwriters of the studio era consciously applied a three-act structure.

For some time, I’ve held the same view. I couldn’t find any script draft broken into acts. Some veteran screenwriters admitted using a three-act model in plotting, but their testimony came long after the era. So, for instance, Philip Dunne refers to three-act organization in his 1940s screenplays, but he makes the claim in an interview published in 1986. Billy Wilder says he “wrote [Charles Boyer] out of the third act” of Hold Back the Dawn (1941), but the remark comes in an interview given decades later. There’s always the possibility that older writers, newly aware of the Fieldian template, were projecting it backward onto their work—assuring us that they conform to contemporary standards, or even asserting precedence.

Similarly, we can’t rely too much on secondary sources. True, screenplay manuals, from at least 1913 onward, have recommended a three-part structure, purportedy corresponding to Aristotle’s idea that a plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But this rests on a misunderstanding. As I’ve mentioned before, Aristotle isn’t talking of acts; ancient Greek plays didn’t have act divisions. And almost none of the manuals use the term “acts” to describe the parts.

Richard Brooks’ novel The Producer (1951), about a weak-willed executive trying to do the right thing, offers some hints along similar lines. He mentions that a screenplay should run to 120 pages, confirming the canonical length that Field proposes. Likewise, Brooks obliquely appeals to Aristotle.

Some poor sucker of a screenwriter has to create a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the dialogue.

Perhaps there’s an intentional irony in the fact that Brooks’ Hollywood exposé is itself broken into three parts, labeled “The Beginning,” “The Middle,” and “The End.”

Unlike many authors of manuals, Brooks was an established screenwriter, and we might expect his novel to refer to acts. It doesn’t. But Lewis Herman, a minor scribe with three screen credits (including Anthony Mann’s Strange Impersonation), does. His 1952 manual declares that a feature-length film is built upon “a three-act theme outline.” The context suggests that the Hollywood studios demand this as a step toward developing a full screenplay. Herman usefully illustrates the outline with a hypothetical example.

Still, manuals or novels aren’t ironclad sources for studio practice. Better would be contemporaneous evidence from memos, story conferences, and similar unpublished documents. Claus Tieber has done extensive research into such sources and has found no discussions of three-act structure. I’ve found a few, but they’re fairly sketchy.

Overseeing Casablanca, Hal Wallis told Michael Curtiz, “The Epsteins have agreed to deliver the film’s ‘second act’ the following day.” Darryl F. Zanuck mentioned the “last act” in correspondence about Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront. Supposedly John F. Seitz asked Preston Sturges about the flashback structure of The Great Moment: “Why did you end the picture on the second act?” As I noted in an earlier entry, David Selznick’s papers record a story conference on Portrait of Jennie in which Jed Harris remarks: “The second act–he must get the picture back because that’s all he’ll ever have of her.” He adds that at this point the film “is about 1/3 gone.” This suggests that some practitioners thought of the parts as roughly equal in length. (Kristin’s model proposes that this was the case.)

It may be, of course, that three-act structure of some sort was so ingrained in studio writers’ habits that they didn’t have to discuss it explicitly.  Field was addressing aspiring screenwriters who wanted inside knowledge, but as intuitive craft workers, the old contract writers wouldn’t be likely to spell out rigid rules about length and dramatic patterning.

Since corresponding with Steven for his book, I’ve found that one screenwriter explicitly invoked three-act structure in his working notes. And I’m embarrassed not to have noticed it earlier.


Coupling, recoupling, and Joe Breen

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham.

NICOLAS: Marriage has its phases–its acts–like anything else. This is another act, that’s all.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, screenplay for Infidelity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood career was mostly a fiasco. Thanks to temperament, a mentally disturbed wife, bouts of breakdown and alcoholism, and an implacable industry, he worked his way down the hierarchy to unemployment. From July 1937 to his death in 1940, he earned screen credit for just one film, Three Comrades (1938). He also started, but didn’t finish, the best Hollywood novel I know, The Love of the Last Tycoon (aka The Last Tycoon)I think it spells out some features of the Hollywood aesthetic with special vividness.

In early 1938 Fitzgerald began a screenplay for MGM producer Hunt Stromberg (right). Given a title, Infidelity, Fitzgerald came up with a script centered on a dead marriage. What has turned happy young lovers into a polite, numb couple? An extended flashback shows that two years earlier the husband Nicolas re-met his former secretary while his wife Althea was abroad taking care of her sick mother. The secretary, Iris, spent one night at Nicolas’ luxurious home, and it’s implied that they had sex. At breakfast, Althea returned home unexpectedly and found Iris at breakfast. After this, Althea remained married to Nicolas, but simply lived with him in detached ennui.

Back in the present, to ramp up his mood, Nicolas decides to hold a party in the country estate he had more or less abandoned. At the same time, Althea rekindles her friendship with a former suitor, Alex. She can’t arouse herself to passion, though, and Alex leaves her. As she drives more or less hysterically to the estate where the party is in full swing, Nicolas is wandering through his mansion among the shrouded furniture.

At this point, because of objections from the Production Code office, Stromberg halted Fitzgerald’s work on the screenplay. Aaron Latham’s biography tells us that Fitzgerald had planned to present a reconciliation, in which a photographic trick presents Althea seeing herself as Iris and thus forgives Nicolas. But this ending would suggest that the husband’s sin went unpunished. Fitzgerald suggested an alternative, but this too was rejected by Joseph Breen. He tried to redraft the script later in 1938, but the project dissolved.

Fitzgerald had systematically studied Hollywood releases, even filing plot synopses on index cards. Accordingly, the Infidelity screenplay we have shows an awareness of 1930s storytelling conventions: montage sequences, wordless scenes, and revealing visual detail. We learn that Nicolas’ ardor is cooling when we notice that he has stopped opening Althea’s letters. Fitzgerald’s acquaintance with current trends led him to a thumbnail characterization of Althea’s friend Alex:

He is the type played by Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth–handsome, attractive, worthy, thoroughly admirable, but somehow too heavy in manner to grip the sympathy of an audience if playing opposite a man of charm.

Occasionally, voice-over dialogue in the present is matched with images in the past, in the manner of Sturges’ “narratage” in The Power and the Glory. (See our entry here.) And the large-scale flashback structure, leaving a key action in the present suspended for nearly an hour, anticipates a mode of construction that would be common in the 1940s.

Despite its up-to-date air, the plot of Infidelity creaks a bit. It relies on a great many coincidences and introduces rather late a major menace, a sinister surgeon who seems slated to play the disruptive role of George Wilson in Gatsby. But what’s of special interest to us is a schedule of work that Fitzgerald sent to Stromberg during the planning stages.

Fitzgerald groups his scenes into clusters, and alongside each one he notes a date on which he expects to complete it. Since each scene usually runs only a couple of pages, the groupings present a feasible day-by-day timetable. These clusters of scenes are gathered into eight “sequences,” labeled with Roman numerals. In the 1930s, a “sequence” meant, according to screenwriter Frances Marion, “a series of scenes in which the action is continuous without any break in time.” Each of Infidelity‘s sequences presents a unified phase of the action and is more or less continuous in time, although there are some ellipses as well.

Here’s the news: Fitzgerald’s timetable assembles the sequences into acts. Sequences I through IV are labeled “FIRST ACT 45 pages.” Sequences V through VIII are labeled “SECOND ACT 50 pages.” Sequence VIII is continued to form “THIRD ACT 25 pages.”

The first act  establishes the loveless marriage and launches the flashback. While Althea is away, Nicolas re-encounters Iris. Meanwhile, as Althea and her mother are on their way home, they conveniently run into her old beau Alex. Their departure for the United States ends this setup. In the screenplay Fitzgerald has typed: “The First Act may be said to end here.”

The second act develops the conflict to a point of crisis. Althea returns a week early to find Iris at breakfast with Nicolas. She resigns herself to a loveless union. Back in the present, he plans the party and at the instigation of Althea’s mother Alex starts to woo her. But he abandons Althea, and by chance she’s found by Dr. Borden, whom she starts kissing. In the notes for Sequence VIII, Fitzgerald cryptically ends the act on an alternation between the couples:

CUT TO husband and back to old beau [Alex]

[Alethea] with beau [Alex]

Crisis with beau and switch [to the surgeon, Dr. Borden?]

CUT TO husband

After presenting this alternation in scenes, the manuscript concludes:

Full shot of a bedroom, large and luxurious like everything else in this house. Soft lighting, everything covered with cloth or canvas.

Nicolas Gilbert is standing in the middle of the floor.

Close shot of Nicolas.

This is presumably the end of the passage labeled “CUT TO husband.” In the Stromberg schedule, this last portion marks the end of Act Two. Act Three isn’t in the canonical version of the screenplay.

A couple of final points about the structure. Although the screenplay is estimated at 120 pages, its proportions don’t conform to the Field paradigm. At 25 pages or minutes, the third act is short. This is a characteristic of both modern and older Hollywood climax sections. But Act One was projected to be very long at 45 pages, and Act Two approximates it at 50. Fitzgerald’s layout is perhaps more characteristic of a stage play, which can afford a longish exposition and equivalent second act. In the script version we have, both acts run equivalent page lengths.

Fitzgerald may have expected some trimming and compression at later stages. In The Producer, Brooks’ protagonist notes that a 120-page script would usually be cut down to 90 minutes because exhibitors wanted films at about that length. It’s true that few films of the studio era run to two hours.

Set aside brute measurements. What, in Infidelity, makes an act a coherent unit? Not a specific span of time. Act One breaks off partway through the flashback, and Act Two ends before the evening party does. The first act ends when we know a crisis is coming: Althea is returning home early and hasn’t told Nicolas, whom we’ve seen flirting with Iris. Act Two ends at another high point. Nicolas confronts the emptiness of his life without his wife, and nearby Althea is heedlessly making love to a stranger with dubious designs. We could easily imagine the script as a stage play, with a curtain ringing down on each of these teasing situations.


In sum, we have  one clear-cut case of a studio screenwriter laying out his plot in three acts. We can’t generalize from a single instance, of course, and we would need many more pieces of evidence to consider this a widespread writing strategy. Perhaps Fitzgerald isn’t typical. Did his relative inexperience as a screenwriter make him rely on a theatrical template that others could do without? Did he employ it more as a rhetorical device to convince Stromberg that the plot was firmly constructed? Still, taken with the reminiscences of Dunne, Wilder, et al. and the sketchy mentions we have in production records, the Infidelity project suggests that some conception(s) of  three-act structure were operative in the studio period.

Needless to say, we’ll need even more evidence before we can begin to consider whether the filmmakers’ craft practice matches the structural patterns that today’s analysts disclose in the films. The search continues!

The Fitzgerald outline is reproduced on pp. 161-162 of Aaron Latham, Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood (Viking, 1971). This book is not only a stimulating account of the novelist’s Hollywood years but also a helpful view of the movie colony’s culture. My discussion relies upon the version of Infidelity published in Esquire 80, 6 (December 1973), 193-200, 290-304. It is available in a digitized version here. The original manuscripts are in the University of South Carolina library.

Philip Dunne’s remarks about three-act structure are in Pat McGilligan, Backstory (University of California Press, 1988), 158. Billy Wilder’s remarks come in George Stevens, ed., Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Knopf, 2006), 316. (In the same interview Wilder claims that Some Like It Hot has four acts.) Richard Brooks’ The Producer (Simon & Schuster, 1951) is worth reading for its almost documentary survey of the process of production at the period. Lewis Herman’s Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting for Theater and Television Films (World, 1952) is an unusually detailed guidebook.

On Wallis’ memo about Casablanca‘s second act, see Marshall Deutelbaum, “The Visual Design Program of Casablanca,” Post Script 9, 3 (Summer 1980), 38. For Zanuck’s comments see Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox, ed. Rudy Behlmer (Grove, 1993), 173, 226. Seitz’s remark to Sturges about The Great Moment is quoted in James Curtis, Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges (Harcourt, Brace, 1982), 172. There’s more discussion in our blog entry on The Great Moment.

I take Frances Marion’s definition of “sequence” as a bundle of scenes from her How to Write and Sell Film Stories (Covici-Friede, 1937), 373. Tamar Lane offers a comparable definition in his New Technique of Screen Writing (McGraw-Hill, 1936), 123. Interestingly, Lane adds that some scenarists think of each sequence as moving toward a high point, like an act in a play; but this seems only a rough analogy, and the comparison entails that a script would have several more “acts” than three. Steven Price suggests that the “sequence” as an extended script segment emerged in the silent period and hung on in some sound screenplays; see A History of the Screenplay, especially 63, 115-116, and 153-157. At the same time, “sequence” could refer to a single brief segment, as in “action sequence” or “montage sequence.”

Thanks to Steven Price and Claus Tieber for correspondence about act structure. Claus has a relevant case study of Grand Hotel, “‘A Story Is Not a Story But a Conference’: Story Conferences and the Classical Studio System,” in Journal of Screenwriting vol. 5, no. 2 (2014): 225-237. More generally, I’m grateful to researchers at the Screenwriting Research Network for what I’ve learned from their conferences in Brussels in 2011 and in Madison in 2013.

Other entries on this site have considered act structure. Kristin explains her model, based on goal formulation and injections of new information. She expands on this as it affects character subjectivity and point of view.  I illustrate her model with reference to what is supposedly the most wayward and narratively fragmented modern genre, the action picture. I offer some general reflections on how the four-part structure informs not only current films but best-selling novels. For a more general discussion of the dimensions of film narrative, you can download this chapter from my Poetics of Cinema. Also, too: there’s the precept that form follows format. Finally, I consider modern trends in screenplay construction, including act structure, in The Way Hollywood Tells It.

After a while you see the triplicate scheme everywhere. In Case History of a Movie (1950), p. 30, Dore Schary says that Charles Schnee turned in the script of The Next Voice You Hear in thirds. Acts? I’ll have to get back to you.

P.S. 19 May 2014: In reply to this post, Greg Beal comments that my discussion of rejecting screenplays based on Field’s plot points is inaccurate.

Having employed hundreds of readers over the past 25 years, many of whom also read for various production companies and agencies, I have never witnessed nor heard of a single person doing what you describe.  In fact, readers/story analysts, typically the initial gatekeepers at agencies, production companies and studios, can’t actually discard scripts at any point as they are required to write coverage, which usually includes a multi-page synopsis of the submission.
Most likely, if the above did occur, it might have been among newly minted execs, who might have known little more about scripts than what they read in Field’s Screenplay. Of course, most execs would have simply read the coverage and not even bothered to pick up the script, let alone turn to pages 25-35 or 55-65.

My claim was, I now think, an overstatement. I should not have suggested that the absence of canonical plot points would be sufficient to doom a screenplay. Naturally, I realize that the analyst would still be obliged to write fuller coverage. I meant simply that the Field template could set up expectations that the script wasn’t written to standard. Other factors would surely be taken into account in a final decision. The larger point, that three-act structure along Field’s lines shapes analysts’ judgment, remains to be determined.

My most concrete evidence for the saliency of the three-act, plot-point model in this production context comes from two manuals by story analysts. T. L. Katahin’s Reading for a Living: How to Be a Professional Story Analyst for Film and Television (Blue Arrow, 1990) recommends that analysts look for three acts, including a ten-page initial setup followed by a development and two further acts that forward the protagonist’s goals. But Katahin doesn’t propose exact page counts for further twists.

More specific is Jennifer Lerch’s 500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader: Writing the Screenplay the Reader Will Recommend (Simon and Schuster, 1999). In following the three-act layout, she suggests that Act One, the setup, be consummated between pages 20 and 30 (ideally consisting of two scenes 10-15 pages each). Act 2, as per Field, is said to run long, up to pages 80-90, and typically consists of four to eight sequences (each 10-15 pages or so). This act is said to lead to a point of no return, the pivot-point for Act 3.

Lerch, who was a professional story analyst for the William Morris Agency for eight years, claims, “Your script’s setup can literally make or break your project in the Hollywood Reader’s eyes, particularly at some companies that instruct readers to stop at page thirty of a script if it looks substandard. You may have a great second act and climactic sequence, but Hollywood will never see it unless you give it a savvy setup” (91). Passages like this one led me to think that the Field template weighs quite strongly in analysts’ judgment. But I’ve never supervised story analysts, so I welcome Greg’s expert comment on the matter.

P.P.S. 20 May 2014: More information on Fitzgerald’s Infidelity screenplay and its act breaks. In a letter to Hunt Stromberg dated 22 February 1938, Fitzgerald wrote:

The first problem was whether, with a story which is over half told before we get up to the point at which we began, we had a solid dramatic form–in other words whether it would divide naturally into three increasingly interesting “acts” etc. The answer is yes. . . .

This point, the decision to sail, also marks the end of the “first act.” The “second act” will take us through the seduction, the discovery, the two year time lapse, and the return of the old sweetheart–will take us, in fact, up to the moment when Joan [later, Althea] having weathered all this, is unpredictably jolted off her balance by a stranger. This is our high point–when matters seem utterly insoluble.

Our third act is Joan’s recoil from a situation that is menacing, both materially and morally, and her reaction toward reconciliation with her husband.

Evidently the timetable reprinted in Crazy Sundays was prepared after this letter was sent. This letter is printed in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Scribners, 1994), 348-349.

P.P.P.S. 30 May 2014: I always enjoy getting correspondence from readers, and I must catch up by noting some other responses I’ve received. David Cairns, whose wonderful blog Shadowplay is always worth checking on (his latest post is on Hannibal, the TV show), writes with this comment:

I can’t find it at present, but Billy Wilder’s dictum “If there’s a problem in the third act, the solution’s in the first act,” appears, I am sure, in Maurice Zolotow’s biography of the great man. Published a couple of years before Syd Field. 
In Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, PS discusses his troubles with the script of Remember the Night, and how he solved the second act. 
Of course, Sturges was a Broadway playwright and it would be natural to him to break a story into acts (though not necessarily three). But so were many others — I would question whether the influx of playwrights with the coming of sound perhaps changed the structural approach of Hollywood screenplays? 
I couldn’t find the Zolotow Wilder biography either, but when I do I will check. The only point I’d make in advance is that it would be better to have Wilder’s testimony at the time, rather than in the 1970s. But David’s memory of Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges has not played him false. One of the funniest passages in the book involves Remember the Night:
When I had him [the DA played by Fred MacMurray] take her up [to the mountains] moved by charitable impulse and the Yuletide spirit, it expired from galloping eunuchery. So I thought of a novelty. The district attorney takes her up to the mountains for the purpose of violating the Mann Act. This has always been a good second act. It is an act enjoyed by all, one that we rarely tire of, and one not above the heads of the audience. In Rain, for instance, the preacher started to reform her and ended up laying her like a carpet. (p. 288)
As David indicates, the reference to the second act is clearly meant to apply to theatre practice, but it would be natural for Sturges, stumped for a middle stretch for his plot, to make the analogy. Sturges also niftily puns on “act,” implying not only a dramatic segment but coitus (“it is an act enjoyed by all”) and even a law enacted. For readers too young to know what the Mann Act is, check here.
Like David and probably other readers, I’ve wondered whether the idea of a screenplay’s acts stems from the playwrights who came to Hollywood in the 1930s. Again, if that’s the case, it’s strange that we find so little evidence of it.
Another correspondent, Soren Schoff, writes to point out that Victor Freeburg’s The Art of Photoplay Making (1918) makes occasional reference to three-part dramatic construction. In this, Freeburg is in accord with those writers I mention who map this scheme onto Aristotle’s precept about beginnings, middles, and ends. Freeberg does mention that in a stage play the “beginning,” or “premise,” often coincides with the first act (p. 247). But he doesn’t follow through with this and equate the middle with the second act, and so on. In fact, I think, he can’t do so because many of the plays he takes as models, such as Shakespeare’s, have more than three acts. Freeburg finds the three basic parts–what he calls premise, complication, and solution–to be an undergirding structure, not a format that coincides with act breaks in plays (or presumably screenplays).
In addition, it’s worth remembering that Freeburg’s book isn’t a manual of practice but rather an analytical treatise articulating an aesthetic of the cinema. His prescriptive remarks are by way of sketching preferred ways of achieving artistic effects like unity. In this respect his book is in the tradition of Aristotle’s Poetics, as the title’s phrase “Photoplay Making” impliesFor more practical advice on “the practical side of plot building” (n.p.), Freeburg recommends Epes Winthrop Sargent’s Technique of the Photoplay. As an early academic effort to study film, The Art of Photoplay Making is still very much worth reading. It’s available, as Soren points out, online.
Thanks to David and Soren for writing.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941).

Back in THE Place

View of Hong Kong harbor from the Convention and Exhibition Centre. Above, the flag of the People’s Republic of China; below, the Hong Kong flag bearing the Bauhinia emblem. According to official protocol the national flag must be larger and be mounted more prominently.


“For us, Hong Kong will always be the place.”

Chuck Norris, The Octagon (1980)

DB here:

After missing two editions because of some minor health problems, I’m back in Hong Kong for their annual festival.  As customary, it kicked off with the Filmart, now the biggest film market in Asia. It gathers producers, distributors, and financiers for discussions and dealmaking. There are panels, equipment demos, and displays of media items for sale. There’s the Hongkong-Asia Film Financing Forum, a competition that funds planned projects. (This year’s winners are here.)

Some booths are huge. The TVB display was towering, dwarfing the TV chat show being shot underneath.

Since its founding in 1997, Filmart has been so successful that it spawned an umbrella event. The Hong Kong Entertainment Expo, now in its tenth year, is a jamboree for the international entertainment industry, including music and digital entertainment of all sorts.

Filmart is now very big. This year it packed in over 760 exhibitor stalls from over 30 countries (including Brunei and Malta). It attracted over 6500 attendees, and most, unlike me, were there to buy and/or sell films, TV shows, and video games.

National film organizations use Filmart to coax production into their territory. Government agencies like KOFIC can put producers in touch with prime locations and service firms.

The opening reception was graced by Chief Executive C. Y. Leung, who while extolling the rule of law in the territory did not mention the recent violent attack on a major journalist. A characteristically blank-faced Leon Lai looked on. In the crowd, you might also meet Bruce Lee, or at least his avatar.

On the market floor, a Chinese vampire squared off against Donnie Yen, immortalized by Madame Tussaud.


Who would win in a face-off? The movie is probably being shot as we speak.


China ahead

Out of Inferno (2013).

The big news this year was, as ever, mainland China. By any measure it just keeps growing. Back in 2012 it became the world’s second-biggest market, yielding $2.74 billion in box-office grosses. (US and Canada were at $10.8 billion.) In 2013 Chinese grosses were $3.6 billion, a growth of 25%. (North American grosses grew only about 3%.) In tandem, the number of exhibition sites expanded hugely. China added over 5,000 screens in 900 new multiplexes, yielding a total of 18,195 screens. That is still remarkably few for such a populous country; North America has over twice that number. So we can expect still further growth. More generally, another sign of the times was that last year Asia-Pacific became the most lucrative region outside North America, and of course China is the centerpiece of that.

You see the China syndrome in the films as well. For several years Hong Kong producers and directors have partnered with mainland talent and business groups. Two of last year’s best Hong Kong films, Johnnie To Kei-fung’s Drug War and Wong Kar-wai’s Grandmaster, epitomize cross-border initiatives, mixing HK and PRC stars in stories that hold appeal for both audiences.

A new wrinkle: Now even films that might seem purely of Hong Kong interest credit major Chinese companies as coproducers, and they may feature mainland stars. Tim Youngs, local HK film expert, suggests that because some big-budget Chinese films haven’t succeeded in Hong Kong, mainland investors may be interested in financing  small films that will catch on in the territory.

Yet some films persist without mainland financing. An example I saw at Filmart is the modest indie Dot 2 Dotby first-time director Amos Why.

The story is rooted in local history and geography. Chung, returning from Canada to take a job in a design firm, recalls how much he enjoyed connect-the-dots puzzles as a boy. Now he discreetly puts up speckles on walls, marking sites that were significant to him and his city. Xue, a young teacher, discovers them, puzzles them out, and draws out the abstract patterns that Chung embedded in them. When he spots her graceful graffiti he determines to find who has cracked his code. What gives the story contemporary currency is the fact that Xue has emigrated from the mainland and is teaching Mandarin to Hong Kongers, and she is played by Meng Tingyi.

Dot 2 Dot interrupts its lovers-at-a-distance plot with images from Hong Kong’s past. Xue’s supervisor, an elderly teacher, and Chung, a nostalgia buff who treasures his childhood comics, recall moments in local history, such as when the Daimaru department store closed after a gas explosion. The émigré Xue, in finding her way around this imposing city, comes to appreciate its past. Eventually we learn through a degrees-of-separation device that both Chung and Xue have shared Hong Kong kid culture–two dots, in effect, waiting to be connected in adulthood. Those interested in allegory could see here a claim that for decades, China’s modern popular culture has been imported from Hong Kong, and that fact fosters cross-border bonds.

On a bigger budget there are other more or less “pure” Hong Kong films–in tone and genre, despite mainland backing–being made. Even the cockeyed English title Out of Inferno (2013) brings back the 1980s and 1990s, as does the premise. Two brothers dedicated to firefighting fall out; one (Lau Ching-wan) becomes obsessed with his job, the other (Louis Koo) leaves to form a company specializing in modern fire-protection equipment. When a skyscraper catches fire during a party demonstrating the equipment, Koo and Lau’s pregnant wife, along with many others, are trapped inside. The brothers must reconcile, inside and outside, to save innocent lives. In short: Towering Inferno + Backdraft + Johnnie To’s Lifeline. Indeed, certain shots and the very presence of Lau Ching-wan, recall To’s genre masterpiece. So what’s new? Well, it’s set in Guangzhou and it’s in 3D.

Out of Inferno comes to us co-funded by the HK company Universe and the mainland company Bona. It grossed about US$2.6 million in Hong Kong and over $20 million in China, which says all you need to know about the relative power of the two markets.

Nobody I respect seems to like this movie. Most critics have written off the directors, the brothers Danny and Oxide Pang, as hacks. Kozo’s review at LoveHKFilm states the case against. Granted, the film is routine in many ways and can’t match Lifeline, but I enjoyed its almost unceasing bursts of clear, cogent action. I began to realize that one benefit of a firefighting movie is that rooms can explode, ceilings and floors can collapse, and elevators can stop or plunge–at any time, whenever you something to goose a scene. After all, it’s a fire, right? Who can predict what a fire will do? In 3D, many shots were splendid, and I will watch Lau Ching-wan doing sullen integrity in nearly anything. Still, Tim Youngs alerts me (so I alert you) to another action-filled firefighter movie, As the Light Goes Out–not screened at Filmart, not yet available on disc, and with more admirers, at least in my vicinity, than Out of Inferno.


 A future for Retro

The White Storm (2013).

Universe and Bona, who seem to team up for blockbusters, offered a more delirious example of the Hong Kong flavor in The White Storm, which also screened at the Filmart. It’s another exercise in mixing. We have Bullet in the Head: three boyhood friends undergo a harrowing trip to wilder Asia, expending much sweat and tears, and even more blood. We have Infernal Affairs too, with the deadly game of undercover work and the possibility that a Triad mole has infiltrated the police. The three buddies consist of the familiar pairing of Lau Ching-wan and Louis Koo, along with the ever-dependable Nick Cheung as the apparently weakest member of the trio.

Unusually long at nearly 140 minutes, The White Storm (the title refers to the heroin plague that has descended on Hong Kong) is really three movies in one. The first centers on Koo in the now-familiar role of the cop who wants to come in from the cold. After a frantic drug bust gone wrong, he’s forced to return to the underworld and lead his comrades to a Thai kingpin. The second stretch takes place in Thailand. There after a savage assault on the dealer’s compound, our three are captured. The dramatic weight shifts to Lau, who must choose to kill either Koo or Cheung. His decision gains complexity because we know something he doesn’t about his partners’ loyalty. The film’s last portion returns to Hong Kong, with a few surprises and a bloody casino finale.

While building suspense in the Infernal Affairs mode–will the gang discover the mole in their midst?–director Benny Chan also tries to recover the searing romanticism of Woo’s heroic bloodshed films. As far back as The Big Bullet (1996) he showed a flair for shocking, precise action, and his Jackie Chan vehicle New Police Story (2004) is an exhilarating piece of work. Benny Chan shows his skill in each of the three sections’ violent set-pieces. Add in the 1980s-1990s Hong Kong excess–bodies thrown into pools of crocodiles, a sexy transsexual, outrageous haircuts–and you have an almost purely retro exercise.

Another throwback is the shameless but stirring tear-jerking moment in which the three men comfort Cheung’s dying mother. She thinks that Lau is her son, back from study abroad with his buddies. They spontaneously accept her delusion, each pretending to be another member of the trio. The film’s play with false identities turns melancholy, and in comforting her the men apologize, obliquely, to one another. Chan’s use of singles and two-shots deftly traces out the flow of feeling, as the men exchange glances and Cheung starts to weep in shame.



The old Hong Kong cinematic energy resurfaced in another, stranger film, Fruit Chan’s new release The Midnight After. It’s based on a popular internet novel by Pizza (yes, you read that right). The premise is apocalypse, the time is now. A minibus driving from downtown Hong Kong to the New Territories passes through a tunnel and emerges into an urban landscape from which everyone seems to have vanished. A mass extinction? An evacuation? A time warp? The mystery deepens after we get an occasional glimpse of dark figures in protective gear monitoring the frantic efforts of the survivors to make sense of their fate. Some of the passengers die–crumbling to bits, suffering giant boils, bursting into flame. Even a compassionate bicyclist is drawn into the desperate struggle for survival.

A Hong Kong director often asks us to take his or her film as reflecting a general mood in the territory. Fruit Chan says:

It feels as though Hong Kong is suffering the worst of times. People’s lives, people’s businesses and the political climate are all seriously depressed. The impact hit us harder than anything else in the past century. Through The Midnight After I’d like to tell the est of the world something about the problems that Hong Kong faces in this period of social upheaval.

The tone, as well as the plethora of familiar landmarks, may give the film some local resonance. More broadly, the film also joins a tradition of horror-fantasy that hearkens back to classic Hong Kong movies about the supernatural and even dystopian exercises like The Wicked City (1992). The latter was rendered with typical Tsui Hark brio, though, and The Midnight After is more sober and straightforward, at times perilously close to flat. Nor does it have the conciseness and growing creepiness of Chan’s Dumplings (2004).

I didn’t find The Midnight After particularly compelling. The characters are viewed from the outside and don’t solicit much sympathy; they’re mostly collections of types and tics, including a mysterious young woman who is given I-may-be-a-demon treatment by the expedient of momentarily billowing hair. As usual when a Cantonese film doesn’t know what else to do, it sets its characters screeching, quarreling, running around, and punching. Moreover, I couldn’t figure out what made the unfortunate victims die in different ways. And what’s behind the mysterious watchers? My friends say: “There aren’t any rules.” Maybe they’re right. But it’s fairly easy to pile on mysteries in your plot; the task is to tie them up in the end.

To be fair, we don’t really have the end. The film adapts only the first part of Pizza’s cybernovel, so perhaps everything will get straightened out in a sequel. What matters, for better and worse, is that many  Hong Kong filmmakers still resort to Reboot mode.

You can read the trade papers’ Filmart daily publications here. Also visit Film Business Asia for many articles on deals announced at Filmart. Peter Martin reports on a panel on the Asian industry at Twitchfilm. Perhaps most important, Patrick Frater of Variety signals an important upcoming change in PRC distribution policy.

My information on the 2013 growth in Chinese screens is gleaned from David Hancock’s survey in of world exhibition in IHS Media and Technology Digest no. 504 (September 2013), 9-12. Additional information comes from Jeremy Kay’s CinemaCon report in Screen International and Patrick Frater’s account of screen expansion in Variety. Derek Elley offers a very thorough analysis of the contemporary Chinese industry in “Mainland Cinema’s New Maturity,” in Film Business Asia.

The trailer for Dot 2 Dot is here. Kozo, as you’d expect, has a nuanced review of The White Storm.

In other welcome news related to The Place, Grady Hendrix is back with Kaiju Shakedown. The inital entry is a full-blooded overview of the career of mystery auteur Jeff Lau.

P.S. 1 April 2014 (HK time): This entry has been revised to correct my original claim that Dot 2 Dot had some financing from the mainland. Director Amos Why wrote to explain that despite the credited participation of two companies based in Beijing, there was no investment from Chinese sources; the funding came entirely from Hong Kong. I thank Amos for the correction.

Smoke from a towering inferno? The creeping miasma of The Midnight After? No, just a low-lying cloud settling on Central after a rainstorm.

Agee & Co.: A Newer Criticism

 Saul Steinberg, “Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Highbrow”; Harper’s Magazine, February 1949.


DB here:

This entry follows on from an earlier one about 1940s film criticism. Ideally, that should be read first. Fussbudgets who want deep background should go here and here.


The 1940s was a golden age of American arts journalism. Apart from Edmund Wilson, who had been at it since the 1920s, poets Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, and W. H. Auden offered their thoughts on literature to a broad public, and so did the novelist Mary McCarthy. Professional critics included Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Irving Howe, and, near the end of the decade, Leslie Fiedler. Clement Greenberg reviewed art for The Nation and Harold Rosenberg did the same for Art News. Virgil Thomson wrote weekly music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune.

Securely anchored in East Coast publications, these critics put on display scathing wit and sibylline prose. Thomson wrote after a concert: “Both theatrical experience and poor eyesight are probably responsible for the Toscanini style.” Mary McCarthy skewered Cocteau’s play The Eagle has Two Heads:

Grandiloquent and lurid in the old-fashioned royalist mode, this story of a poet and a queen suggests that the attic of Cocteau’s mind was never as smart as the downstairs: a schoolgirl was there all along reading romances and trying on costumes.

This waspish, refined intelligence held the arts to high standards. Apart from Barzun’s open admiration for detective stories (but not those brutish tough-guy ones), almost nobody paid attention to mass culture. Indeed, most intellectuals were agreed that it was dangerous.

This wing of the New York intellectuals–made of gays, Greenwich Village Bohemians, immigrant-family Irish and Jews denied access to Ivy League colleges, left-leaning traitors to the upper class–was firmly on the side of modernism and against everything that made the Old Guard, the WASPS with three names like Van Wyck Brooks and Mark Van Doren, nervous. But they still had enough of the genteel tradition in them to treat great art with a stiff solemnity. The byword of Partisan Review, the principal platform of the artistic left, was Seriousness.

Enter James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. They wrote criticism with a zany gusto that nobody else imagined possible. They didn’t telegraph their punchlines; sometimes you couldn’t be sure that there was a punchline, and sometimes there seemed to be too many. As for popular culture: They seemed, with reservations, to like it a lot. They liked being unSerious, which only lent greater oomph to the moments when gravity was demanded.


Neither dead nor red

Stalin at the 18th Party Congress (1939) by Sergei Gerasmov.

In spite of all these defects you feel in the Soviet Union that you are at the moral top of the world where the light really never goes out.

Edmund Wilson, 1935

 In the 1940s, every intellectual was expected to answer two questions. What do you think of Communism? What do you think of popular culture?

The Depression had convinced many writers and artists that only a version of left-wing politics could overcome the crisis induced by capitalism. The rise of Fascist parties around the world intensified the fear of right-wing dictatorships. To many intellectuals the Soviet Union seemed the best alternative, especially since its apologists assured the world that it was a democracy. But Stalin’s sweeping purge of 1934-1938, highlighted by the murderous charade of the Moscow trials, made many lose faith in the USSR. Soon came the 1939 non-aggression treaty between Russia and Germany, a sign that Stalin was ready to compromise with Nazism.

But dimming faith in the USSR didn’t automatically wipe out socialist ambitions. Apart from the Communists, who followed the Moscow line, there was a daunting array of left parties: Social Democrats, Socialists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party. Fine-grained differences in doctrine led to constant quarreling. Some intellectuals adhered to one line or another, but many hopped around or simply participated casually, agreeing to donate money or attend meetings or write an article without worrying about ideological consistency.

When the US entered World War II in 1941, many intellectuals saw it as a necessary step in destroying Fascism.  Now that Russia was an American ally they often quieted their reservations about Stalin’s regime. At the war’s end, however, politicized intellectuals began to believe that history had proven them largely wrong. Business and labor had cooperated to defeat German and Japanese imperialism. Despite Marx’s predictions, capitalism had lifted the living standards of millions of people. The United States was comfortable as never before. American democracy, while imperfect, was still the best chance for mass participation in governance.

Smaller-scale reforms would always be needed, not least the recognition of equality for African Americans; and some form of democratic socialism might still be achieved. But on the whole, the American way of life seemed the best hope for the future. “The chief cultural phenomenon of the decade,” noted the poet John Berryman, “has probably been the intellectuals’ desertion of Marxism.” By 1952, Partisan Review declared that democracy was “not merely a capitalist myth but a reality which must be defended against Russian totalitarianism.”

Defending American democracy, however, didn’t include defending its popular culture.


Mass art as mass delusion

The Homecoming (1945) by Norman Rockwell.

There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting or degrading qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them.

Marshall McLuhan, 1947

Today, when everybody unselfconsciously finds something to like in the entertainment industry, it’s hard to imagine the climate seventy years ago. Then there was a Serious debate about whether mass media were simply machines of social control. From Communists to anti-Communists, the intelligentsia was largely united in the belief that “mass culture” was at best a bland source of solace and at worst a cruel manipulator of the desires of an unhappy populace. Many very smart people considered Laura, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and Mickey Spillane novels the signs of a society sinking into comfortable degradation.

Already during the 1930s, left intellectuals had worried that mainstream entertainment in the US was corrupt. Not only was the working class victimized by its rulers, but it was fed junk. The most influential articulation of this view was probably Clement Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. According to Greenberg, the great age of modern art, from the 1910s to the early 1930s, had showed the power of self-conscious formal experiment. Cubist painting, the novels of Joyce and Gide, the poetry of Eliot—all had challenged the audience to expand its horizons. But to this avant-garde there was counterposed a rear guard, a debased and easy art that produces “unreflective enjoyment.” Greenberg didn’t spare the Soviet Union from his complaint: Stalin’s Socialist Realism had created its own version of kitsch, in the cinema no less than in other arts.

Greenberg’s article was followed by many others, notably Dwight Macdonald’s 1943 essay “A Theory of ‘Popular Culture.’” The common complaint was that now high art was more threatened than ever before by the rising tide of kitsch. For many intellectuals, it wasn’t just that popular music, comic books, movies, and pulp romances were bad art. They were bad in a dehumanizing way, turning people into more or less mindless consumers of a collective daydream. Mass culture, as it was usually called, was a huge threat to intellectual diversity and political progress. Conseratives and newly anti-Communist liberals turned their firepower on the products of Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and the magazines and paperbacks filling the corner drugstore. For many, political criticism became cultural criticism, with a strongly moralistic tint.

The all-engulfing flood of mass media required analysis, reflection, and judgment. How best to understand it? Some writers, following Greenberg’s strategy, used arguments about the achievements of the avant-garde to lambaste mass culture. Others drew on psychoanalysis, which was becoming more prominent in American life. Soon writers were claiming that a whole society had a superego and repressed impulses, and the seething roil of a nation’s inner life was reflected in popular culture.

Social scientists began commenting as well. Anthropologists turned their observational technique on American culture, and sociologists sought to use media to understand the group dynamics of wartime and postwar society. Other academics, brandishing the tools of what was emerging as “mass communication research,” tried to sample and measure the collective delusions promoted on the radio or the movie screen. Émigrés associated with the Frankfurt School merged these strategies with large doses of post-Hegelian philosophy. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) seemed to propose that American capitalism had turned audiences into chortling morons.


Stuck in the middle with Middlebrow

Harper’s Magazine (August, 1967).

Several of these writers had decided by the mid-1940s that Greenberg’s straightforward opposition avant-garde/ kitsch was too broad. A four-part model seemed more adequate for describing cultural activity.

There was Folk Art, a genuine and spontaneous product of the people. Amish furniture, Appalachian folk songs, and black spirituals would be examples. Some observers included jazz and the blues as well. The Folk artists went about their business unbothered by other trends.

There was Highbrow Art, exemplified by the modernist avant-garde, past  (Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Stravinsky, Picasso, et al.) and present (perhaps best exemplified in Abstract Expressionist painting).

Then there was Lowbrow art, the anonymous products of the culture industry—radio shows, mystery and romance fiction, pop music, and most movies.

And there was something called Middlebrow Art. The term had become fairly common in the 1930s, and 1940s commentators spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what it described.

Certainly, it involved class. If High Art was consumed by the Bohemians—other artists, museum curators and concert performers, young rebels, and above all college professors and students—Middlebrow Art was aimed at the middle classes, the professional people who aspired to join the sophisticated crowd. The Middlebrows put reproductions of Renoir on their walls, Tchiakovsky symphonies on their turntables, and expensive, unread editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets on their coffee tables alongside Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly.

Most critics agreed that the Middlebrow impulse poached on other realms. There was pseudo-folk Middlebrow art like WPA murals, Carmen Jones, and “Rhapsody in Blue.” More annoyingly, Middlebrow artwork swiped ideas and techniques from High Art, then sanded off the spiky edges in order to attract an untrained audience. Dwight Macdonald invoked Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed Brechtian theatrical techniques to tell a jes’-folks tale, and The Old Man and the Sea, a simplification of Hemingway’s faux-naïve style ready-made for the Book of the Month Club. Middlebrow made crude art smooth, hard art easy.

True, the new media had disseminated the great achievements of the past more widely than ever before. Recordings and broadcasts of classical music, films about painting and theatre, radio and magazine discussions of art and literature were now part of everyday life in America. Faulkner and Joyce were available in cheap editions. But this greater accessibility didn’t guarantee understanding. According to legend, after finishing Fantasia, Disney exclaimed, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven!” The same film turned Stravinsky’s ritual of virgin sacrifice into a battle of dinosaurs.

Nervous about falling out of style, the Middlebrow mind tried to keep up with the contemporary avant-garde. A Lowbrow magazine would simply ignore Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or (if it was Mad) satirize them. By contrast, Life’s famous 1949 profile of the artist anxiously responds to the challenge of Highbrow taste. Pollock is “a shining new phenomenon of American art” and may become “the greatest American painter of the century.” Yet there’s no attempt to explain why his work is significant. The work’s value is appraised in cash terms (one painting is worth $100 a foot) and the results are mocked, timidly. Against the critics’ praise is set the verdict of the common man. “He has also won a following among his own neighbors in the village of Springs, N.Y., who amuse themselves by trying to decide what his paintings are about. His grocer bought one which he identifies for bewildered visiting salesmen as an aerial view of Siberia.” Life has hedged its bets (he might be great) while allowing a reader to say, “Aw, hell, my kid could paint that.”

For such reasons, many intellectuals decided that while Lowbrow culture was a danger, the real foe was Middlebrow culture. The 1952 Partisan Review symposium identified the threat: “Do you think that American middlebrow culture has grown more powerful in this decade? In what relation does this middlebrow tendency stand to serious writing—does it threaten it or bolster it?” If Lowbrow culture ignores High Art, the Middlebrow betrays it.

There were obvious problems with conceiving Mass Culture as a united front of Lowbrow and Middlebrow. What about the great popular arts of earlier eras? Dickens, Poe, Tolstoy, Twain, and many others taken as High Artists today wrote for popular audiences. What in our age prevented a widely beloved play or painting or novel from being good, even great? Then there was the issue of bad faith, as Auden noted: “Whenever the word Masses is used, we must read the words ‘myself in weaker moments.’”


Hollywood: The worst of Low and Middle

Rainbow (1944): The Nazi invader threatens to kill Olga’s baby.

At the core of mass culture lay Hollywood movies. T. S. Eliot had already denounced “the encroachment of the cheap and rapid-breeding cinema,” and by the 1940s no American could ignore films.

They were everywhere. Although Hollywood cut back production somewhat during the war years, many shows were double features, and most theatres changed their bills twice a week. Hits were revived and recirculated. In cities energized by war work, some theatres ran twenty-four hours a day. Now that people had more money to spend, attendance hit new levels. In this age before television, 85 to 90 million Americans, about 60 % of the population, went to the movies each week. Today, it’s around 25 million per week, out of a much bigger population.

The mass media carried synergy and recycling to a new level. A novel (published in hardback, reprinted in paperback) could become a movie (promoted in magazines, with product tie-ins), then a radio show. The cult of stars grew, with popular actors constantly visible on billboards and in magazine ads. After Gone with the Wind, a bestseller like The Robe or Forever Amber stirred frantic anticipation of the movie to come. Producers bought books before publication, and studios commissioned books and plays to be written so they could be turned into movies.

What was a poor intellectual to do? Back in the 1920s the critic Gilbert Seldes had championed slapstick comedy as a mixture of Folk Art and quasi-avant-garde challenges to genteel taste. But that was before Hollywood had turned filmmaking into a factory driven by finance capital and pumping out formulaic stories. After Griffith, Chaplin, and von Stroheim—the touchstones for all intellectuals interested in film—there was little to like in the studio product. The foreign film had provided Caligari, other fine German films, and Soviet masterworks, above all Potemkin; but the rise of Nazism and Stalinism had stamped out those creative impulses. At the end of the 1930s, Dwight Macdonald had denounced Stalin’s cinema as a form of kitsch at least as sinister as Hollywood’s.

Western intellectuals had no access to production in the Axis or Axis-dominated countries, and they were hard pressed to find much to admire in current American cinema. Some tried to study the Hollywood film as a reflection of the American character or social anxieties or certain persistent myths of romance and getting rich. But with few exceptions, the product of the studios was unrewarding as art. What wasn’t Lowbrow belonged firmly to the Middle (Wilson, The White Cliffs of Dover, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives).

After the war, André Bazin and other French critics would start to forge an aesthetic of the Hollywood sound cinema, but American writers did not think so abstractly. Agee, Farber, and Tyler worked more pragmatically to search out cinematic creativity in their time. All shared a trust in the Standard Story of the evolution of film art, from Griffith through the silent masters to René Clair in the early sound era. Yet they weren’t hobbled by nostalgia; they reacted with immediacy to the cinema of their moment.

They set themselves apart from the larger debates of their age by shrewd flanking strategies. For a start, they by and large avoided declaring political allegiance. Agee once declared himself a Communist “by sympathy and temperament” but in the next breath attacked the worker-idolatry of Soviet propaganda. Farber had, according to reports, tried to sign up in the Communist Party in the 1930s, but he doesn’t seem to have joined the print polemics on any side. Tyler seems to have been non-aligned as well, although he indulged in occasional caustic asides about Hollywood’s social commitment. He noted of Meet John Doe‘s purported celebration of democracy, “At this point in planetary affairs, American democracy becomes the theoretical right to hold a job and vote every four years for a new president.”

Although Agee and Farber wrote for left-liberal publications, they often went out of their way to support films that would be considered retrograde. In a famous review, at the height of American solidarity with the Soviet defense of the homeland, Farber charged the Russian war film The Rainbow (1944) with naked cruelty. He also declared Birth of a Nation, despite its prejudices, the greatest film yet made.

Likewise, all three detoured almost completely around the Mass Culture controversy. You can find some snobbish asides about Middlebrow culture here and there (later Farber charged that Agee was a middlebrow critic), and Agee and Tyler did flirt with calling some Hollywood films folk art. Basically, though, they didn’t fight on that terrain. Agee spoke out against the “priggishness” of social scientists’ critiques of thrillers like The Big Sleep. Perhaps these movies did “mirror” society, he admitted, but denunciation of American cinema as social symptoms missed the fact that such films were “relatively intelligent, accurate at least to something in the world, and entertaining.”

I realize also that on its most careful level, as practiced by Dr. Siegfried Kracauer or Barbara Deming, this sort of analysis is of interest and value, dubious as I am about a good deal of it. But to me the most sinister thing that happened during the movie year [1947] was just this kind of analysis.

He was worried that these bleak cultural diagnoses were being seized upon by “club women and the nastier kinds of church pressure groups.” On all the evidence I’ve seen, Farber and Tyler would have agreed.


Culture in the totally administered society

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

If under present conditions we cannot stop the ruthless expansion of mass-culture, the least we can do is keep apart and refuse its favors.

Philip Rahv, 1952

More generally, all three critics seemed to understand that the best way to show that American cinema had artistic dimensions was to present their case in precise, urgent, sometimes giddy prose. They were connoisseurs, making distinctions and discriminations of fine degree. And they found God, or the Devil, in details. In mounting those lines of defense, they risked condemnation by the most intellectually intimidating critic of the culture industry, Theodor W. Adorno.

Adorno believed that in modern times, true art could only present itself as opposed to easy reception. As a Marxist, he held that economic processes—the division of labor, the obliteration of use value by exchange value, among other factors—made the harmony sought by classic art impossible. For hundreds of years art works participated in a market system, and even the very greatest achievements could bear the traces of social strain. (One Adorno article is titled “Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Alienated Masterpiece.”) Traditionally, an artwork aimed for totality, but today the true artist can express only the inability to achieve harmony. Art’s value lies “in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity.” The formal dissonance of the artwork reveals its refusal to reconcile itself to capitalist demands. Some modernist art, such as Schoenberg’s atonal pieces and Kafka’s novels, achieved this refusal, but even much avant-garde music, painting, and literature fell short of registering the strains of contemporary life.

The culture industry, as characterized in Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, becomes the ultimate expression of capitalist rationality. As companies crank out commodities, Hollywood, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley pump out synthetic art works. Mass art’s smooth surfaces are a grotesque parody of the unity struggled for by the great artists of the past. Form and content are harmonized in an ersatz, conformist way. Neither avant-garde nor classic art, the standardized mass-marketed products offer no resistance to easy pickup. The music “does the listening for the listener.” Virtually by definition, the entertainment industry couldn’t create art of value.

This is too brief an account of the culture-industry thesis, but two points are especially relevant to our film critics. Adorno argues that the popular artwork concentrates not on the whole but the part. Classic artists struggled to find a unity specific to each piece, but mass culture has made overall formats—the three-act play, the formulaic  movie plot, the pop song—so generic that the only strong effects arise from isolated moments. An arresting plot twist or a sudden chord change stands out and has a brief impact. But by slotting itself into the set pattern, the little jolt simply confirms the validity of the prefabricated format.

But surely there are major differences among these products? No two pop songs or movie melodramas are identical, and new styles or formats emerge from time to time. Here comes the second point. Adorno claims that the differences we detect are fake. Each product of mass culture is “pseudo-individualized.”

For one thing, the innovations are still very limited; jazz, Adorno wrote in 1941, is confined by its harmonic and metric schemes. Moreover, even innovation tends to confirm the standardized format. “The constant need to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions.” He suggests that in jazz, a “wrong” note is registered momentarily as a fresh detail but the listener’s ear immediately corrects it. As for film:

Orson Welles is forgiven all his offences against the usages of the craft because, as calculated rudeness, they confirm the validity of the system all the more zealously.

There’s no escape. Just as an automobile or a breakfast cereal uses trivial differences to stand out from the competition, so too do songs and stories. Forms are formulas, novelties are minor and fleeting, and any deviations confirm the norm. Our three critics, by distinguishing subtly between this film and that, often on the basis of scenes or details, have fallen into the mass-culture trap.

It’s easy to call this position humorless (no gags in genuine art) and elitist (“Everyone’s a sucker but me”) and to insist that those who write favorably about mass culture are on the side of right, i.e., the People. But this is just labeling. What if Adorno and Horkheimer’s diagnosis is correct?

In my experience, there’s no arguing with Culture-Industry accounts like this on their own terms. Point to a film that exhibits what you take to be rich form, and the skeptic will say: “Call that complex? It’s just a variant on the same old thing.” Point to a ripe detail in a scene, and you’ll be told it’s just pseudo-differentiation. If Ulysses and Schoenberg’s Erwartung are your prime examples of valid art, His Girl Friday isn’t going to measure up—let alone Rhapsody Rabbit.

It’s more productive, I think, to point out some historical and conceptual difficulties. For example, Adorno and Horkheimer generalize too fast from the model of heavy industry and mass production. It’s true that the culture industry utilizes division of labor and hierarchies of control. But this isn’t specific to modern capitalism, as we know from artists’ ateliers in earlier times. Titian, Brueghel the Younger, Rembrandt, and other painters supervised employees who specialized in rendering certain stretches of a canvas. Those workshops, in a prefiguration of movie facilities, were called “studios.”

Going further, Kristin and Janet Staiger and I tried to show in The Classical Hollywood Cinema that film production can’t be standardized to the degree that high-output manufacture is. It’s an error to consider Hollywood an “assembly-line” system. No two movies are as much alike as two Fords rolling off the line at River Rouge. Hollywood employs an artisanal mode of production, in which each worker adds something distinctive to the result, and the “product” is a complex blend of overlapping and crisscrossing contributions. Marx called this mode of production “serial manufacture.” Instead of rigid standardization, differentiation in various degrees is at the base of the system, and all of those differences aren’t blueprinted via central command.

Another difficulty comes, I think, when we recognize just how stringent are Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s standards for valuable art. The bar is set excruciatingly high. “Telling a story,” Adorno noted in 1954, “means having something special to say, and that is precisely what is prevented by the administered world, by standardization and eternal sameness.” So fresh and authentic stories are impossible? Most of us aren’t prepared to narrow our experience so drastically.

More theoretically, Adorno’s insistence that the true modern artwork must be sui generis, related to tradition only in labyrinthine dialectical ways, seems to me implausible. It puts him close to Croce’s view that each artwork is irreducibly unique. By contrast, I’d argue that art works good or bad, classic or avant-garde, owe a great deal, and quite openly, to norms, styles, genres, and other traditions. It doesn’t take anything away from modernism’s bold innovations to recognize that in many cases artists like Joyce, Picasso, Woolf, Conrad, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg “took the next step” beyond the state of play at the time. Where does radical change shade off into pseudo-differentiation?

It will also come as news to Orson Welles that Hollywood “forgave all his offenses.”


Toward a criticism of popular art

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

If you like to keep warm in your neighborhood theatre these days or have to review movies for a living, you can find something good in any film.

Manny Farber, 1946

Did Agee, Farber, or Tyler read Adorno or Horkheimer? Dialectic of Enlightenment wasn’t translated into English until 1972, but the Frankfurt School’s ideas were circulating in their milieu. (Adorno’s 1941 piece on popular music influenced Macdonald’s “Theory of ‘Popular Culture’” essay.) In any case, my three critics outflanked the mass-culture debates through simply diving, quite self-consciously, into popular material—something very few intellectuals were willing to do. Their sensitivity to nuance and detail carried a force that we seldom find in the Frankfurt School writers.

Plunging into the material had a particular importance at this moment. During the 1940s, criticism became technical to a degree never seen before. I haven’t found any piece by Adorno and Horkheimer that troubles to analyze closely a single product of the culture industry. Writing on Mahler or Berg, Adorno gets more concrete, but he never dismantles a simple jitterbug tune. As “social philosophers” rather than critics, he works at a level of generality that exempts him from looking closely. This refusal stands out in contrast to what was happening in the American artworld of the time.

Most apparent was the flourishing of the New Criticism in literary studies. During the 1930s Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others in America had picked up ideas of “close reading” from England. Those ideas were disseminated to universities across America in Brooks and Warren’s 1938 textbook Understanding Poetry and its successor Understanding Fiction (1943). Literary history, the survey of authors and their times, was being displaced by the scrutiny of a single poem or story as an isolated work. In calling his time “an age of criticism,” Randall Jarrell complained that this craze for technical analysis was sapping the energies of both poets and critics, but it has maintained its hold as a model of how to understand literature.

Something comparable was happening in criticism of the visual arts with vivacious descriptions of painters’ strategies. Earle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition (1943), for example, revealed large-scale principles of design underlying paintings that sometimes seemed a jumble of colors and planes. In the context of weekly reviewing, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, and others probed details of color and paint handling. Farber, in his guise as art critic, can be positively fussy in anatomizing the layout of a Léger and the candy-box spectrum of a Chagall.

Musicology, long geared to rigorous analysis, was finding new layers of patterning in both classic and modern works. Heinrich Schenker’s formalism of earlier decades provided a basis for this inquiry. The rise of various musical avant-gardes employing complex compositional procedures, as in serialism, demanded ever more sharply focused studies of form. While Adorno and Hanns Eisler were denouncing kitsch music in film soundtracks, musicologists were dissecting Objective Burma!, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Best Years of Our Lives, and other scores.

I’m not arguing that our three critics conducted such microscopic analysis of movies, though Tyler, operating at a book-length stretch, probably comes closest. But they do burrow into the fine grain of American films to an unprecedented degree. For example, Agee, when he started writing his Nation column in 1942, declared that he would “feel no apology for whatever my eyes tell me.” Here he is praising Huston for a moment in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Treasure’s intruder is killed by bandits; the three prospectors come to identify the man they themselves were on the verge of shooting. Bogart, the would-be tough guy, cocks one foot up on a rock and tries to look at the corpse as casually as if it were fresh-killed game. Tim Holt, the essentially decent young man, comes past behind him and, innocent and unaware of it, clasps his hands as he looks down, in the respectful manner of a boy who used to go to church. Walter Huston, the experienced old man, steps quietly behind both, leans to the dead man as professionally as a doctor to a patient and gently rifles him for papers.

Thanks to steady looking, Agee can argue that the film has a novelistic power to delineate character, but without words, just through framing and physical action—in other words, through the “clean, direct” expression that Otis Ferguson had thought characterized American studio cinema. That conciseness finds its echo in Agee’s style, which packs characterizing details into adjectives and homely metaphors; one phrase, “a boy who used to go to church,” sketches a man’s life history.

Just as the New Critics punctured gas-filled generalizations about poetry by exposing the nuances of syntax and metaphor, Agee, Farber, and Tyler provide, in a roundabout way, an answer to the critics of mass culture. Through their precision of observation and the contagious enthusiasm of their rhetoric, they showed that blanket denunciations of entertainment missed areas of vitality and creativity, tendencies toward expressive form and emotional force. Sometimes those accomplishments fit the canons of high art, sometimes not. And at moments these critics trace an aesthetic specific to the Hollywood sound cinema.


Not all intellectuals condemned the culture industry utterly. The sociologist David Riesman argued that modern mass culture housed a great many levels, each with its own criteria and artistic ambitions. He dared to claim that there was good art at every level. Moreover, he suggested, the audience was often more aware of the qualities on display than the critics were. In a gesture that anticipates today’s academic study of fandom, Riesman proposed:

The various mass audiences are not so manipulated as often supposed: they fight back, by refusing to “understand,” by selective interpretation, by apathy. Conformity there surely is, but we cannot assume its existence from the standardization of the commodities themselves (in many instances a steadily diminishing standardization) without knowledge of how individuals and groups interpret the commodities and endow them with meanings.

Individuals and groups used media products in a variety of ways, Riesman claimed. The individual’s peer groups might even set up taste structures that could run against the ones offered by media industries. Jazz aficionados, both amateurs and critics, discerned styles and genres not acknowledged by the record companies. In a quiet knock on the High Art standards of literary academics, he suggests that “taste exchange” among fans and critics constitute “the Newer Criticism.” He might almost have been talking about the Internet.

Or, in another way, about my three writers. If we think of Agee, Farber, and Tyler scooping out of mass art something that they could defend, we might consider each a “peer group” of one. They undertook to test their own personal histories and “taste structures” against the churn of commercial cinema. What they devised, suitably sharpened by the pressure of their writing styles, were three idiosyncratic versions of a Newer Criticism.

This series continues here.

In preparing this entry, I’ve benefited from conversations with my colleague Jeff Smith and my long-time friend Noël Carroll, whose Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford University Press, 1998) reviews many of the issues here.

My quotation from Virgil Thomson comes from Music Reviewed 1940-1954 (Vintage, 1967), 75. The Cocteau dig is in Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962 (iUniverse, n.d.; orig. 1956), 109.

A good introduction to the “cultural left” of the 1930s and 1940s is James Burkhart Gilbert, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Modernism in America (Columbia University Press, 1993).  My Edmund Wilson epigraph comes from page 88. In Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), Paul R. Gorman traces trends of 1930s and 1940s cultural critique back to earlier decades. Macdonald’s 1938-39 attack on Stalinist cinema is reprinted, with strategic alterations, in Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969), 191-249.

I’ve emphasized what we might call the Partisan Review cohort of New York intellectuals, but there were others. Peter Decherney (in Hollywood and the Culture Elite) and Dana Polan (Scenes of Instruction) have documented the emergence of a more academic, largely East Coast, film culture during the 1920s and 1930s.

John Berryman remarks on “the desertion of Marxism” in “The State of American Writing, 1948: Seven Questions,” Partisan Review 15, 7 (July 1948), 857. The same symposium is the source of the question about the threat of middlebrow culture, p. 855. Abundant reflections on the turn away from Communism and toward cultural critique can be found in a later symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture,” Partisan Review 19, 3 (May-June 1952), 282-326; 19, 4 (July-August 1952), 420-450; 19, 5 (September-October 1952), 562-597. My Philip Rahv epigraph comes from the first installment, p. 310, and the quotation from David Riesman is from the same place, 311-312. For more on Riesman’s position, see The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (Yale University Press, 1950), especially 311-367.

Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is available online here, and in printed form in Collected Essays and Criticism vol. I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22. Dwight Macdonald’s essay on mass culture was revised and expanded twice, but the one I refer to is the original, “A Theory of ‘Popular culture,’” Politics 1, 1 (February 1944), 20-23. An earlier and seminal defense of popular culture is Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts (Dover, 2001). (I discuss him here.) My quotation of McLuhan comes in “Inside Blake and Hollywood,” Sewanee Review 55, 4 (October-December 1947), 715.

A widely-read satiric account of the Brows is Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper’s Magazine 198, 2 (February 1949), 19-28. The Saul Steinberg illustration up top prefaces that essay. Lynes offered a followup in “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow Reconsidered,” Harper’s Monthly 216, 8 (August 1967), 16-20; I’ve taken the other cartoon illustration from that piece. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (Free Press, 1957) remains a useful collection of 1940s pieces. Interestingly, a 1945 article by Theodore Strauss declared both Agee and Farber highbrow critics writing “over-complicated” prose. See “No Jacks, No Giant-Killers,” The Screen Writer I, 1 (June 1945): 7; here.

The quotations from Adorno come from Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Englightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford University Press, 2002), 102, 103; Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 17-48; and Adorno, “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Sherry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press 1991), 31. See also Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 290-304; Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (1947).

For one example of the painter acting as “producer” heading a studio of craftsmen, see Peter van den Brink, ed., Brueghel Enterprises (Ludion, 2001). Glancing through the ten variants of Breughel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs that were churned out by his son’s studio (pp. 59-79), the reader might ask how to distinguish this process from the “pseudo-differentiation” Adorno and Horkheimer attribute to the modern culture industry. Remarkably, it seems likely that the son never saw the father’s original work but rather worked from a sketch the father left behind–a shooting script, we might say.

Not all Marxist philosophers of art were as stringent as Adorno. See, for example, Arnold Hauser, “Can Movies Be ‘Profound’?” Partisan Review 15, 1 (January 1948), 69-73. Hauser says yes.

Randall Jarrell’s objections to the technical bent of New Criticism are formulated in his 1952 essay, “The Age of Criticism,” in Poetry and the Age (Vintage, 1953), 63-86.  For an influential example of the sort of analysis that arose from new compositional procedures in music, see René Liebowitz, Schoenberg and His School, trans. Dika Newlin (Philosophical Library, 1949). Analyses of film scores include Lawrence Morton, “The Music of ‘Objective Burma’,” Hollywood Quarterly 1, 4 (July 1946), 378-395; Frederick Sternfeld’s “The Strange Music of Martha Ivers,” Hollywood Quarterly 2, 3 (April 1947), 242-251 and “Music and the Feature Films,” Musical Quarterly 33, 4 (October 1947), 517-532, on The Best Years of Our Lives.

Nearly all material I’ve mentioned by James Agee and Manny Farber comes from their Library of America collections (here and here). Agee’s remark about being sort of a Communist is made in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Ballantine Books, 1960), 225. I’d also recommend Agee’s “Pseudo-Folk,” Partisan Review 11, 2 (Spring 1944), 219-222. Incidentally, the sooner The Nation, The New Leader, The New Republic, and Partisan Review are digitized, the better for understanding American cultural history. My quotation from Tyler about democracy and Meet John Doe is in The Hollywood Hallucination, 185.

The gods of Irony have a good time. Norman Rockwell, the very embodiment of kitsch for the 1940s mass-culture critics, has enjoyed a rehabilitation as a “serious” artist. The most recent sally is Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Christopher Bentley provides an enlightening review.

For an account of the theory of sound cinema developed by Bazin and his peers, see Chapter 3 of my On the History of Film Style.

Life (8 August 1949).

Otis Ferguson and the Way of the Camera

From The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, p. 15.


DB here:

The genre of the movie review doesn’t encourage writers to exercise their curiosity. Writing to deadline, a reviewer must issue a snappy, not to say snap, judgment after one viewing. (Maybe even on DVD or a private Vimeo site.) This doesn’t mean that all reviewers lack curiosity, but the demand for quick and brief appraisal leaves them little opportunity to ask questions they can’t answer. At the same time, probably many reviewers do lack an interest in probing a film more deeply; that’s why they liked becoming reviewers in the first place. I once met a film blogger who said a good review should be no more than 100 words long.

Being researchers primarily, Kristin and I have the luxury of approaching films differently. For one thing, we write long, because the web gives us the freedom to do so. For another, we practice a criticism of enthusiasm, as the Cahiers crew used to call it. We write about what we like or admire or find intriguing. We turn back to old films and try to give a boost to recent films, often little-known, that we think deserve attention. We skip over the films we think bad (as well as many good ones we just don’t have space to consider). We want to steer people to movies, old or new, we’ve found stimulating.

Often what provokes us is a film that lays down a challenge. Often we ask what we can learn about cinema from this or that film. What does the film suggest about the potential of the medium, the resources of a tradition, some intriguing formal or stylistic strategies, or just the creative choices open to filmmakers in certain times or places? What can you do today with a Crazy Lady thriller? How does a film like Gravity balance the coherence of a classical narrative with the sensuous novelty of an experimental film? What does a recent release reveal about the conventions of cop movies or rom-coms or martial-arts films–and the ways those conventions can be revised or challenged? How does a director devise new staging strategies, or revive old ones?

In short, we often try, on the basis of the movies we see, to build up a storehouse of ideas about cinema’s artistic possibilities. On many occasions, our blog entries are film analyses, not reviews. Often we try to know the film as intimately as possible–something that surprisingly few critics aim to do. We try to develop our curiosity by suspending the reviewer’s demand for a swift verdict and admitting that even drab and mundane movies may have something to teach us.

It’s refreshing, then, to turn from today’s film reviewing to that of the 1940s. It’s partly academic duty: I’m writing a book on Hollywood storytelling of the period, so one purpose is to discover rareish films that haven’t made it to the canon. Another purpose is to see if my hunches about 1940s film culture are borne out. (More about those hunches in an upcoming entry.) Yet another purpose is just to revisit the people I read in my youth—notably James Agee and Parker Tyler, but also Manny Farber and, most belatedly, Otis Ferguson.


The Ferguson touch

Of these critics Ferguson remains the least known today. That’s a pity, because he was an exceptional writer. His flowing prose, at once slangy and fastidious, could twist syntax into funny and eloquent shapes. Here he is on Stokowski conducting Fantasia.

As a background and continuum for this there is the noise and motion of an orchestra assembling and tuning up, than which there is nothing more fascinating, nothing more exciting with promise in the world. But over and above this, on some kind of promontory and silhouetted in awful color is Dr. Leopold in a claw-hammer coat, leading with expression that only falls short of balancing a seal on its nose an orchestra which made that part of the sound-track yesterday in shirtsleeves and is at the moment out for a cigarette. I rarely bray aloud in the theatre, as this is rude and also may get you into an argument with men who have muscles in their arms, but when Dr. L yearned out over the strings to the left of him in a passage for horns (which are in the center when they’re there at all) and the bedazzlement of color yearned sympathetically from baby-blue to baby-something-else, I released a short one.

Mind you, Ferguson adores Disney and Fantasia in particular. Very soon after the passage quoted, he says this of the film:

Dull as it is toward the end, ridiculous as it is in the bend of the knee before Art, and taking one thing with another, it is one of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world.

Ferguson wrote mostly for The New Republic, concentrating on jazz, literature, and the theatre before settling in as the weekly film reviewer in 1934, at age twenty-seven. He soon became an editor there. He continued with the magazine until early 1942. In a remarkable convergence, Farber replaced him as film reviewer for NR, and Agee started writing for The Nation later the same year.

Writing for The New Republic didn’t give Ferguson a bias toward films of leftish social comment. He welcomed liberal films but insisted they be vibrant and engaging as films, and even reactionary messages didn’t automatically make a movie bad. “I can see at the start that this film, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, is going to cause me a lot of grief, first because from a social point of view it is execrable, second, because it is a dashing sweat-and-leather sort of thing and I like it.” Why like it? It is less about British imperialism and more about showing how men pull together, portraying “the rough satisfaction of combining finely with all the others to make the thing work, to go off smoothly.” A few years later he found the film “just as politically incorrect and marvelous as ever.” He asked that his fellow leftists “stop demanding a ten-reel feature on the Rise of Western Imperialism and look around to see what can be done with pictures.”

Maybe you, like me, hear some of Agee’s lilt and Farber’s barrelhouse slang in Ferguson’s sentences. Whatever the extent of his influence on them, he belongs to the same vein of journalistic demotic that made the 1940s the first, perhaps the only, great age of American movie criticism. In Ferguson’s case, that’s partly because like his peers he remained open to being surprised by the “strange and beautiful” movies he met. He was also curious as to how they achieved the qualities he most respected.


This motion and this air of life

A good critic, I think, traffics in ideas and information as well as opinion. More than most critics today, but like Agee and Farber, Ferguson had some definite ideas about what best suited the film medium.

Ferguson liked his movies straightforward and clean-edged. He admired some foreign imports, but sheer artiness on the Soviet-European silent model, he noticed, had become a cliché. He used his review of Three Songs of Lenin as an occasion to deplore “pure cinema.” Instead of discussing Vertov’s film, he fills his column with a hypothetical city symphony, telling of desolate streets waking to a fusillade of rapid editing. “You cut in the big dynamo wheels, all the wheels, all the powerhouses, wheels and wheels. Rah, montage.” Ferguson’s sentences, each phrase an imagistic burst, rise to a fast-cut climax.

A kid coming out of the door of the mean house, with pennies for a loaf of whole-wheat, and running past the feet and in front of the wheels, and tripping on the broken cement, falling, smack. Close-up of the head showing a splash of blood spreading on the mean stones, and flash to the apartment house, up, up, to a window, in through the window to the cream being poured into the coffee, being drunk in bed, in silk pyjamas, spilling, a splash of coffee spreading on the silk pyjamas.

Any good? I’m afraid not. But it is pure cinema.

Ferguson realized that by the early 1930s the montage style was already an anachronism, as conventional as a gavotte. What, then, was a more adequate alternative?

For one thing, an unpretentious plot that maintains a clear “line” (one of his favorite words). That line should drive forward rapidly but without fuss or jitter. Ferguson started reviewing soon after Hollywood filmmakers were mastering a dramaturgy appropriate to the new demands of talkies. Any novel or play, he realized, could now be molded into a fresh, sprightly shape.

If there is any one thing that the movie people seem to have learned in the last few years, it is the art of taking some material—any material, it may be sound, it may be junky—and working it up until the final result is smooth, fast-moving, effortless…Whoever started the thing in the first place, Hollywood has it now, and Hollywood speaks a different language.

This glide-path storytelling depends on a certain naturalism of behavior and appearance. As a medium, film can render the behavior of typical, fully realized human beings. In an important essay of 1940, “Life Goes to the Movies,” Ferguson noted that the actors seen on the screen continued to bear the traces of the lives they had led before coming to Hollywood. Glamorous they might be, but men like Pat O’Brien and James Cagney “were in so many instances a part of common life just yesterday that they haven’t had time to forget it, dress it up, and bury it.” A film by Lang or Ford or Milestone imbeds within a dynamic plot many work routines, character exchanges, and “life in action and at mess and horsing around.”

When [the miners of Black Fury] were working, or chewing the fat, or drinking their pitiful nickels away in the bar they were no strangers to you…[They were] so cleverly worked into a story-pattern of cause and result, environment and hopes, that they were neither symbols nor foreigners but people you knew and hoped the best of. You knew their work and their dinner table, their mean streets and threadbare pleasures; and everything about it was simple and just-so, through the medium of the most complex and expensive art on earth. 

The word Ferguson finds for this quality: honest.

Along with his concern for unassuming naturalism in characterization and behavior, Ferguson likes his details. Come to think of it, reviewers always like details—things they can single out as either well-judged or overbearingly symbolic. (Mentioning them also shows that the reviewer is sharp-eyed.) Details come in two varieties: those that nuance the main line of the drama, and those that aren’t integrated dramatically. Stray bits can be an object of the reviewer’s scorn, but Ferguson, like Agee and Farber (and Bazin), particularly prizes moments that show life leaking in around the edges of the script.

One appeal of classic Hollywood cinema is that while the action thrusts forward energetically, there can be time for irrelevant bits that suggest a world beyond the mechanics of plot. In Foreign Correspondent, Hitchcock can decorate his intrigue with side details:

He loads his set with them without loading down his action; and because everything and everybody aren’t direct accessories to the plot, so many mechanical aids, you get the effect of life, which also has its dogs and casual passers-by who are real without having anything to do with any plot you know about.

The smooth, naturalistic storytelling Ferguson values is incarnated in another quality, one as important for him as for the pioneering tastemaker Gilbert Seldes (The Seven Lively Arts): Movies should move. Static talking scenes are of less value than drama translated into action. This doesn’t mean that every scene must be a fight or a chase, only that the scene should project a flow of physical activity in which skilful performers realize the story concretely. Melodrama, gangster films, comedy light or slapstick—all find their ultimate expression in charged motion, big or small. The stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera sits at one extreme, but at the other is a moment (“a minor thing, too”) in The Little Foxes:

Herbert Marshall has come out to lean his weak fury against the bannister. Bette Davis has come home from the battle-line, entering from the door across the space below, preoccupied and busy with gloves and stuff, to take five steps, six, seven (we know he is there, we are waiting) and another step and, stop. The dramatic part of the scene lifts up like a full chord in the orchestra, and we think, it is this woman who has looked up with her hard nervous eyes to find this object of hate.

Ferguson had another reason for singling out The Little Foxes. He had watched it being filmed, and he had information to impart.


Knowing how everything is done

Ferguson’s criteria for good cinema deserve to be analyzed in more depth. (Colin Burnett does that job skilfully here.) And I would happily quote his prose for a long time. But my topic today is critical curiosity, and Ferguson shows himself curious about something that chimes with my interests, and maybe yours too.

Agee famously declared that he didn’t want to know how movies were made, fearing that it would make him too forgiving. “My realization of the complexity of making any film would be so much clarified that I would be much warier than most critics can be in assigning credit or blame.” By contrast, Ferguson seems to have thought that grasping the complexity of moviemaking could only enhance your appreciation of the artistry—while, admittedly, making you more merciful. While his contemporaries were sensitive to film style and form to an unprecedented degree, he really wanted to know, with exactitude, how movies were made.

This impulse fits his critical credo. In writing about jazz, he assigned the critic two tasks: “(1) to spread knowledge and appreciation of his subject among those who don’t know but might learn about it; (2) to encourage those who are doing the work and tell them how it is ‘coming over,’ with as little bias and as much understanding as possible.”

He goes on:

And that is quite a task, requiring a constant and humble passion to know everything of what is being done and how everything is being done; and just as steady a passion for learning how to explain this so that it will somehow mean something to the performer and his audience alike. The best people I have discovered to learn about music from are actual musicians, who would not be found dead in the kind of talk used to describe their work.

What did Ferguson mean by knowing “everything of what is being done and how everything is being done”? The passage admits a lot of interpretations, but it surely includes the sort of insider skills he delighted in explaining in his jazz essays and reviews. Likewise, he asks the film critic to acquire, as fully and subtly as possible, not just wide viewing, sensitive scrutiny, and book learning–but also craft knowledge.

From April to June of 1941—what a year to pick—Ferguson was in Los Angeles. Editorial infighting “banished” him there, Malcolm Cowley tells us, but Ferguson was more upbeat:“The paper is sending me to Hollywood to see if there is one.” He filed reviews, interviews with the likes of Fritz Lang and Garson Kanin (a Ferguson favorite), and longish essays on the mores of the colony. He learned the iron grip of distribution, the venality and corruption behind the scenes, and the weary compromises, the cry we still hear today: “I made that one so I could make them give me this one.”

But he kept his spirits up. He loved LA’s drive-ins, low rents, open-air produce markets, and, ironically for us, its absence of smog. (“The air is pure and that’s all there is to it.”) Ignore the professional naysayers: “It is as possible to live in Hollywood quietly, sanely, and pleasantly occupied with whatever it is you do, as it is in New York, which is the best city I know.” He defended his temporary home in a gentle demolition of Edmund Wilson’s sneering diatribe against writers unfortunate enough to live in California and to write for the movies.

Ferguson valued work in any realm, and he realized that movie people toiled very hard, six days a week from nine till six and beyond. To keep your head above water, he wrote, “you work like hell.” The result of all that hustle could be quite good, thanks to everyone involved. (“The best piece of ‘direction’ in the picture might have been suggested by a grip.”) Still, as so many before and after him, he saw that the ambitious director could steer a project toward excellence. His encomium to the Little Foxes staircase scene continues as an homage to William Wyler:

But it is actually the man who devised this much, to put her in the center of the screen, to warn us in advance, to give us that sense of an even count up to the point of collision, and then, seven, eight, collision. And that man is the director; it is in a picture like this that you can see him at work.

Ferguson’s chance to see the director at work was recorded in “The Camera Way Is the Hard Way,” an article he wrote for The National Board of Review magazine. He visited the Little Foxes set while Wyler and company were filming a very simple scene, and he marvels at how complicated and tiring the process was.


Four cameras in one

Zan and Addie are arriving in a carriage to have breakfast, and Zan’s Aunt Birdie greets them from an upstairs window. Zan calls up to her and asks if she could skip the difficult middle part of a piece she’ll be playing tonight. Birdie refuses to let Zan off and starts down to help the girl rehearse.

That’s it. According to Ferguson, the morning on the set has been spent trying out some angles and dialogue lines, and the afternoon will undertake to shoot everything in the scene. The scene is chiefly expository and lasts less than a minute in the final film, but it will take many hours to shoot.

For his article, Ferguson supplied the (rather rough) diagram seen at the top of today’s entry. He also supplied the dialogue as best he recalled it, along with the characters’ names. (Apparently Addie was called Queenie in the script.) He notes that the shots were taken out of continuity: the shots of the carriage occur early in the final sequence, but they filmed later that day, so he labels them as setup III. Although the passage has no moving shots, two high-angle setups were taken from a camera crane.

As I trace Ferguson’s steps, I’ll add some comments of my own.

Ferguson’s shot breakdown doesn’t include the two shots that start the scene: Zan and Addie’s arrival, seen from inside the estate’s gate, and an initial low-angle view of Birdie greeting them with “Good morning, darlin’.”


The first isn’t notated in Ferguson’s diagram, and the second corresponds to his Ground Camera IV setup. The scene’s third shot returns to the first setup, showing Zan swinging open the driveway gate and calling up to Birdie.

Zan: Good morning, Aunt Birdie. Is your headache all better?

Ferguson has this line spoken during a different camera setup, but the finished film includes it here.

Birdie: Oh yes, it’s all gone.
Addie: Good morning, Miss Birdie.
Birdie: Good morning, Addie.

This is Ferguson’s Ground Camera III setup. It’s not angled quite as he diagrammed it; but of course he wasn’t looking through the lens. Moreover, he doesn’t mention that it has been shot with a wide-angle lens, creating a vivid foreground plane framing a distant one–a strategy typical of The Little Foxes.

Zan: I’m going to stop a minute, Addie. You drive the horse in.
Addie: Your mama will be waitin’ to have breakfast with you, baby, and she ain’t nobody keep waitin’.
Zan: All right, Addie.

Wyler completes his composition by bringing Zan into the vacant space (presumably her position 2). Now two planes of action become three. Some years later André Bazin analyze this deep-space and deep-focus imagery with some precision, but Ferguson puts it his own way. “We see Queenie start to preach the law and are not conscious that as her law keeps laying down we have fallen back to see the whole group.”

Addie: Hnh! (Drives horse out of frame.)

The momentary foreground blockage “wipes away” the depth composition and covers the cut to a new angle; no need for exact matching of Zan’s position in the next shot.

Zan: Aunt Birdie, guess where we drove this morning.

This is Ferguson’s setup labeled Boom Shot I. ”The first thing is established: the audience must know where it is, who is talking to whom.” Today we’d add that this establishing shot relies on the classic shot/reverse-shot schema that uses OTS (over-the-shoulder) framings.

Birdie: To Lyonnet!
Zan (off): Uh-huh.
Birdie: Oh, darling, was it beautiful? But of course it was. It was.…

This is the complementary reverse angle to the previous setup, taken from Ground Camera IV. Ferguson: “As we see Zan looking up, we instinctively raise our eyes to see that it is Birdie in the window.”

Birdie (off): …always beautiful this time of year.

As we heard Zan offscreen in Birdie’s shot, now the cut overlaps Birdie’s line so we see Zan’s reaction (Boom setup II). Ferguson was sensitive to this reaction-driven editing. “One of the first things in making a word effective is in showing its effect on someone–so after the cutting room has got through, we see Birdie as Zan is speaking to her, Zan as she hears Birdie.” The reverse-angle on Birdie gave her to us as a single (and not, say, with Zan’s shoulder in the foreground, the mate to the high-angle shot before). Similarly, the answering shot presents a high angle on Zan, putting us “between” them. This is a standard option for shot/ reverse-shot cutting when one character is higher than the other.

Zan (taking a step forward): Aunt Birdie, I’ve learned the Schubert.…

Zan takes up position 3 in Ferguson’s diagram. Her step forward takes advantage of the pause after Birdie’s line.

Zan: …for tonight. (Birdie is a bit distracted for an instant.)

For a brief moment, Wyler’s shot catches Birdie no longer listening to Zan, as if she were wishing she could see Lyonnet again. Later we’ll learn that Birdie’s husband keeps her home because of her alcoholism.

Zan: …I…(Birdie looks back to Zan.)

Again, Wyler’s cutting emphasis reactions, so that new lines of dialogue don’t line up with cuts on the image track. Eisenstein called this “wickerwork” patterning.

Zan: …can play the whole thing.—Except the middle. Oh, couldn’t we skip the middle? Maybe Mr. Marshall wouldn’t know.
Birdie: No, we couldn’t! I’ll come right down and play it right through for you. You wait now! (Birdie ducks out of window.)

As often happens, a return to the establishing setup signals the end of the scene. Wyler could have returned to the tight low-angle reverse on Birdie, showing her ducking back into her window, but this framing keeps Zan and her fretfulness in play, while we’re still able to grasp Birdie’s abrupt withdrawal from the shot.


The classical way is the hard way

Watching this scene filmed over many hours, Ferguson was struck by two ideas that would become central to discussions of classical Hollywood style decades later.

First, he noticed the intense labor that goes into the presentation. Contrary to today’s multiple-camera practices, the crew used only one camera, so there was the need to shift the beast among four setups, each one of which had to be lit. Then the actors had to repeat their lines over and over, sometimes when they were on camera, but just as often when they weren’t.

Each different take was run over several times, with waits for adjustments, with actors getting weary enough of the hundredth “Good morning, Aunt Birdie,” to stumble a little as they went on from there.… Each different shift of anything at all, let alone the whole camera, involved a hundred adjustments down the line, with all those batteries of great and small lights on their shaky, grotesque stands dragging their tangle of cables behind, with the microphone equipment and its tangles, screens and flats and scrims and broads and dobos [gobos?] enough to start a new language, with carpenters tacking on a board to cover and painters putting on a touch to bring up an outline. 

Always an admirer of honest, painstaking work, Ferguson notes that his diagram seems complicated and that if you follow it out shot by shot, as we have, “you will not want to be a movie director again.”

Ferguson makes a second crucial point. We don’t notice either the style or all the work that went into it. Indeed, the very point of that work is to make the images flow smoothly, as if naturally belonging together. (Of course we would look up at Birdie, as Zan does, and then look down on Zan from Birdie’s vantage point.) Hollywood’s old adage, “Never let style distract from story” (still heard today) is clearly echoed in this passage:

This business of repetition, changes, repetition, changes: you don’t see it in the picture, but they were not just playing leapfrog. In fact, 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!

For the last fifty years or so, people have started their analysis of the classical continuity system with the recognition that the simple and apparently invisible effects are actually sustained by intense work and finely judged choices. By visiting the set, Ferguson saw how even a simple expository scene required enormous effort and patience on the part of dozens of artisans and artists. Combining skill and will, the craft of cinema has its own demands. As if constructing a Hollywood Tao, Ferguson realized that the Camera Way is a hard road, but it pays off in the assured, effervescent flow of action, movement, and emotion that he prized.

We’ve nuanced these ideas considerably since Ferguson’s day, but he deserves credit for bringing them into sharp focus just as American studio cinema was embarking on a new era. And his critical policy of enthusiasm owes something to his recognition that even a bad narrative film is damned hard to make. Thanks to his curiosity about how everything is done, he helped readers appreciate cinema as an art owing a good part of its power to craft.

Ferguson trafficked in ideas and information as well as opinion. He was enthusiastic and eager to learn more and impart what he learned to his readers. To me, that makes him a great critic.


Ferguson was born in 1907 and was raised on a Massachusetts farm. He left high school to join the navy, where he served overseas. He came home, finished high school, and went to Clark University on a scholarship. His writing talent eventually landed him jobs at the New Republic. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine. He was killed in the Mediterranean in 1943 when a radio-guided bomb struck his ship.

This entry is part of a series. The series continues here.

Two collections of Ferguson’s work have been published. The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson (Temple University Press, 1971) has been my main source for the material I’ve covered here. Also of importance is In the Spirit of Jazz: The Otis Ferguson Reader (Da Capo, 1997), which includes essays on music, theatre, and film, as well as memoirs and unpublished pieces. Particularly interesting are his pieces on his seafaring days, filled with the sort of expertise that comes out, unshowoffishly, in his remarkable reviews of films like Captains Courageous. Malcolm Cowley supplies a lively and informative memoir of Ferguson in the foreword to In the Spirit of Jazz.

Here’s Ferguson’s parody of For Whom the Bell Tolls (“In a word, show me the way to cojone”). Kent Jones compiles some fine Ferguson quotes on the Criterion site.

Nearly all sources on Ferguson reprint the same photograph. I haven’t found a better alternative, so here you are.

David Bordwell
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