Exploring Noir – Chandler on Noir

raymond-chandler_1234883c

Writing in 1947 to the producer of Double Indemnity (1944) – which Raymond Chandler co-wrote – Chandler asserts his belief that film noir (a term coined after this letter, Chandler uses the vague term “mystery story”) is a style or stylistic mood rather than a form of film or literature based on common narrative elements. Film noir is a genre of film whose essential features are predominantly visual and stylistic. Chandler writes:

 

Back in 1943 when we were writing Double Indemnity you told me that an effective motion picture could not be made of a detective or mystery story for the reason that the high point is the revelation of the murderer and that only happens in the last minute of the picture. Events proved you wrong, for almost immediately the mystery trend started, [referring to film noir] and there is no question but that Double Indemnity started it… The thing that made the mystery effective on the screen already existed on paper, but you somehow did not realize just where the values lay. It is implicit in my theory of mystery theory writing that the mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call “the olive in the martini”, and the really good mystery is one you would read even if you knew somebody had torn out the last chapter. (1.)

 

1. Raymond Chandler in Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader 2, New York: First Limelight Editions, (1999), p. 4.

Narrative Signposting in French Connection II

French_connection_ii

Commonly the construction of a compelling narrative utilizes a “signposting” device in order to draw-in or hook the audience. One signposting technique entails offering a glimpse of the difficulties a character will encounter in their forthcoming narrative. In French Connection II (1975), “Popeye” Doyle’s fish out of water status is alluded to in the first few scenes after his arrival in Marseilles. As this is a sequel, and in its narrative style character-driven rather than action-driven, the foregrounding of the ensuring difficulties overtly allude to the first film’s story. On the streets of New York, Doyle understands the language, culture and customs of the people he encountered on the streets. However, in Marseilles he doesn’t speak the language, nor understand the way things are done.

In French Connection (1971) Doyle, shaking a club down, drags a suspect violently through the bar into the toilets. The suspect is in fact an undercover cop and the display performed to ensure the verisimilitude of the undercover cop’s cover. This elaborate scene indicates the knowledge and savvy Doyle, and his fellow agents, have in breaching the inner-ring of criminal associations. This scene, and Doyle’s general street smarts, is alluded to in French Connection IIbut inverted to communicate that Doyle is currently out of his depth and, in the upcoming narrative, will have to learn fast to adapt to the surrounding culture – So that he can succeed in his mission in bringing back Alain Charnier (Frog One) to American shores and American justice.

 

The most important early contrasting scene, which alludes to both Doyle’s former street smarts and current cultural alienation, comes after an explosion. The suspect, who easily evades the French police, is chased after frantically by Doyle. The foot chase ends with Doyle catching up to the suspect and attempting to wrestle him to the ground. However, the suspect, and the reason why the French police made no real effort to apprehend him, is a undercover police officer. Doyle’s chase exposes the undercover police officer to a criminal boss and the undercover police officer is killed. This scene comes very close to the beginning, similar to the contrasting one in French Connection, and is utilized to indicate how Doyle is currently out of his depth, it also facilitates and signposts the forthcoming narratives direction – that of Doyle’s growth and adaptation to Marseilles’ cultural climate in order to finally bring down Charnier.

The Anatomy of a Chase

This video is an interesting inside look at the construction of the car chase in The Seven-Ups(1973). Something to note is that the car-chase took four weeks to complete and that the editor takes four hours of raw footage and only selects ten minutes for the finished film.

The Seven-Ups Car Chase Clip

Here is a clip from the film The Seven-Ups (1973), a classic cop film featuring a good car chase, styled somewhat similar to Bullitt (1968). I am writing an article about this film, therefore I thought I would share a video of the film – I can’t say how easy this film is to get but if you can borrow it I would recommend it. Enjoy:

Excerpt from Janey Place’s Women In Film Noir

big_combo

As well as exploring some central – and no so central – film noirs I will also run a side-by-side series of articles exploring the representation of gender and sexuality in film noirs. Here is an interesting introduction of Janey Place’s evocative essay ‘Women In Film Noir’. I will explore this essay in the future however I thought this excerpt was interesting in it self.

The  dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion n Western culture. She is as old  as Eve, and as current as today’s movies, comic books and dime novels. She and her sister (or alter ego), the virgin, the mother, the innocent, the redeemer, form the two poles of female archetypes.

Film noir is a male fantasy, as is most of our art. Thus woman here as elsewhere is defined by her sexuality: the dark lady has access to it and the virgin does not. That men are not so deterministically delineated in their cultural and artistic portrayal is indicative of the phallocentric cultural viewpoint: women are defined in relation to men, and the centrality of sexuality in this definition is a key to understanding the position of women in our culture. The primary crime the ‘liberated’ women is guilty of is refusing to be defined in such a way, and this refusal can be perversely seen (in art, or in life) as an attack on men’s very existence. Film noir is hardly ‘progessive’ in these terms – it does not present us with role models who defy their fate and triumph over it. But it does give us one of the few periods of film in which women are active, not static symbols, are intelligent and powerful, if destructively so, and derive power, not weakness, from their sexuality. (1.)

Janey Place, ‘Women in Film Noir’, in Women in Film Noir, (ed) E Ann Kaplan, London: BFI, (1989), pp. 35-68, p. 35.

Exploring Noir: Where The Sidewalk Ends

In the coming weeks and months I will be exploring some “film noirs”, sometimes focusing on just the film and others on how it fits within the noir catalogue. Some will be classics, others relatively unknown and even some thought not to be noirs.

Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Otto Preminger is often cited as an important director in film noir’s high period. This reputation was established in the “masterpiece” Laura (1944). This film is often regarded as Preminger’s best early period film and one of the greatest film noirs. Although I will explore Laura at another time this article is concerned with a lesser known – or praised – film which Preminger made using many of the same actors that starred in Laura. Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) is often seen critically as less impressive – although it was praised at it release for its entertainment value – however, even if it isn’t as important as Laura in the film noir catalogue it isn’tdeserving of being overlooked critically. In this article I will explore the interesting formal features of the film and the striking psychological exploration of guilt, redemption, determination and being “hard-boiled” through the anti-hero protagonist Det. Sgt. Mark Dixon.

The film revolves around the cynical Dixon’s attempt to solve an out-of-towners’ death at the hands of an illegal gambling den’s owners. Dixon is warned, due to regular complaints concerning his violent temper, that if he utilizes “rough tactics” once more then he will be “back in uniform” walking a beat. However, while questioning an uncooperative witness Dixon’s character flaw re-emerges and the consequence is that Dixon kills the war-hero Paine. The subsequent narrative is Dixon’s attempt to deflect guilt away from him onto the gambling den’s owners.

An interesting formal element of Where The Sidewalk Ends is the establishment of a shady, unsavoury mood by the initial inhibition and refusal of an establishing shot which would locate and identifying the gambling den characters. A large collection of men surround a table yet the direction ensures they remain initially an incomprehensible crowd, adding to a mood of suspicion and unease.

sidewalk2sidewalk1

The direction then slowly reveals that the game is rigged. Every gambler, other than the out-of-towner seems in on the scam. Although the out-of-towner attempts to leave with $19K winnings, he is found later dead, stabbed in the heart: the house always wins. Another technique in establishing a dark atmosphere is the use of interplay between dark and light. Shadow is used in one scene to produce a silhouette around every face, almost communicating a dark aura that exudes from the pours of every individual trapped in this tense atmosphere of hate and despair.  

sidewalk11sidewalk101

Where The Sidewalk Ends is also shot primarily at night, adding to the atmosphere and feeling of claustrophobia – because everything is enveloped, choked by darkness. The city scenes are also left without much lighting, only a few sparse streetlights and windows are lit. The darkness is claustrophobic and the desperate isolation soul destroying. Where The Sidewalk Ends drips with a dark atmosphere. Janey Place and Lowell Peterson explain that film noir’s:

moods of claustrophobia, paranoia, despair, and nihilism constitute a world view that is expressed not through the films terse, elliptical dialogue, nor through their confusing, often insoluble plots, but ultimately through their remarkable style. (1.)

This film’s shady, dark atmosphere is represented in its cinematography.

The anti-hero protagonist Dixon is a compelling character. His father was an infamous criminal, something the mobsters refer to, and this fact, Dixon’s questionable heritage, haunts him. Dixon seems to overcompensate his disappointment and shame by engaging in rough tactics, hoping at every turn to be able to punish any criminal. He also desires to be punished; if the mobsters despise him and fight him it names him as a cop, an enemy – the polar opposite of his father. This fracture in Dixon’s character leads him, in the pressure of the filthy dark world of New York City’s underbelly, to develop distinctly sadomasochistic tendencies. Every punch dealt-out is the assault and destruction of his father’s legacy. Paradoxically, every blow received is like an emotional connection to, a surrogate replacement of, the loving attention due to Dixon from his father.

sidewalk3sidewalk4

In a fight with Paine – an interesting name – Dixon smiles a sadomasochistic smile after receiving a hard punch or two: the smile is seemingly a response to the pain and the anticipation in dishing out some punishment.  The consequence of his action, and his character flaw, soon pulls Dixon towards a his potential destruction. As Paine lays on the floor Dixon notices Paine doesn’t get up. Dixon kneels down, simultaneously the camera draws towards his panic-stricken face. This close-up allows us to examine and identify with Dixon’s horror and fear as he realises he had just killed Paine.

The character of Paine is also interesting as he was formerly a war hero who fell into crime and grifting, an indication of the loss of self suffered after world war II – a motif often recurring in film noirs. Down-and-out former heroes are just as often encountered where the sidewalk ends as professional criminals and hoodlums.

Understanding that he is staring into his own destruction Dixon attempts to steer the investigation, and suspicion, away from himself and onto the Scalise gang. His attempts in fact place pressure on the innocent cabdriver, and father of Paines’ wife Morgan, Jiggs Taylor.

sidewalk6sidewalk82

In a scene where Dixon and his partner question Morgan the direction is interesting. Dixon turns his back away from Morgan and towards the camera. Lighting a cigarette his mood intensifies as he struggles to deal with the guilt. The direction is important as it continues to allow us to identify and examine Dixon’s guilt. A guilt intensified by placing an innocent face in the whole case and the pain is noticeable – though only to the audience.

In another scene the direction illustrates how Dixon attempts, at a distance, to inhibit, “get in the way”, of the investigation. Physically he is in the middle of it all as well: not only because he is the murderer, but also because of his attempts to steer the investigation away from himself, Jiggs and onto Scalise’s hated gang. Interestingly the central antagonist, and head of the mob, Scalise was set up in business by Dixon’s father, and is therefore the heir and adopted son of Dixon’s father. This fact aggravates Dixon and explains his desire to destroy Scalise: the rival and symbol of Dixon’s dislocation and alienation from his father.

The role of Morgan is very important symbolically in Where The Sidewalk Ends. The character of Morgan offers potential salvation and redemption to Dixon; an escape from the edge of the sidewalk and the gutter than runs by it. Morgan is an escape from the cynical world of gambling dens and isolated alienation – even though that is where he encounters her.

sidewalk72sidewalk9

The restaurant scenes and Morgan’s company offers a safe port away from the dark storm brewing outside in the city and inside Dixon’s mind – although the city still intrudes through phone calls. Morgan also offers an introduction, an invitation, into the domestic sphere. Dazed and confused after a fight, Dixon heads for Morgan’s house – a safe port of domesticity to set his head straight. The love, care and warmth of Morgan offers Dixon something better than chasing two-bit criminals. Morgan is an offer of salvation but it is also an offer Dixon knows he cannot accept with the guilt of Paines’ murder hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles.

Just before Dixon has his final confrontation with Scalise Dixon writes out a confession – to be opened in the event of his death. In this scene he draws a blind down to block out the malevolent glow of the city. Dixon’s act protects Morgan from the place that he feels is corrupting. This paternalistic, loving heterosexual relationship offers a way out and a reawakening of Dixon’s humanity. Dixon has something more to protect other than his reputation. Something more to drive him to truth and justice other than a complex relationship with his father’s legacy and the sadomasochistic pleasure he derives punishing symbols of his father.

sidewalk12

The conclusion of the film allows Dixon his escape into domesticity. Although it is slightly disappointing that Morgan forgives Dixon, the murderer of her husband, it establishes that it is truth which sets Dixon free to engage in a loving relationship with Morgan. The truth sets Dixon spiritually and emotionally free. In the closing scenes we can see the film form illustrating the important symbolic nature of Morgan. As Dixon stares into Morgan’s eyes the camera cuts to a close-up of her face. As she replies that she will give him “every chance” in the world she is shot with high-key lighting and soft focus. The high-key lighting sets her apart from the rest of the film, which is shot in low-key lighting. The soft focus is more interesting: it gives Morgan a bright white aura: the direct opposite of the dark aura which exuded from every individual in the beginning of the film. Where The Sidewalk Ends is an interesting film through its adept cinematography and its striking exploration of issues such as the psychological pressure of guilt, determination, redemption and being hard-boiled.

 

1. Janey Place & Lowell Peterson ‘Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir’ in Alain Silver & James Ursini, Film Noir Reader, New York: First Limelight Edition, 1996, pp. 65-76 p.

A Couple of Squared Circles, Sarris and Kael – Part II

Part Two: ‘Circles and Squares’ – Pauline Kael

II

Pauline Kael’s acerbic reply to Andrew Sarris’s ‘Notes on The Auteur Theory in 1962’ starts by examining the basic method or concept of the proposed auteur theory. Kael explains:

Sarris has noticed that in High Sierra (not a very good movie) Raoul Walsh repeated an uninteresting and obvious device that he had earlier used in a worse movie. And for some inexplicable reason, Sarris concludes that he would not have had this joy of discovery without the auteur theory.(1.)

Kael is asserting that the auteur theory venerates directors who repeat uninteresting and obvious devices. The supposed “joy” of the auteur theory, to Kael, is the celebration of a director’s usage in a bad film of a technique used in another earlier worse film. Kael also takes exception at the tone that Sarris uses in relation to the importance of the auteur theory in examining a director’s work as an organic whole. Kael asserts:

In every art form, critics traditionally notice and point out the way the artists borrow from themselves (as well as from others) and how the same device, techniques, and themes reappear in their work. This is obvious in listening to music, seeing plays, reading novels, watching actors; we take it for granted that this is how we perceive the development or the decline of an artist.(2.)

As Kael notes artists have always re-used older material. Leonardo di Vinci reused several sketches in many of his paintings and reputedly used a sketch of a young man as a template for the face of the ‘Mona Lisa’ – even though the Mona Lisa was based on a woman. What Kael seems to be asking is whether this is really a good criterion for the critique of film. Although noting the continued development of increasing technical ability, or competence in Sarris’s words, over an artist’s lifetime is important it is not often the only criterion of judgement. To Kael, a better area of critique, and the ultimate function of a critic, is ‘perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see’.(3.) To Kael, Sarris concentrates on what is established, unoriginal in a work and ignores new ideas, one-offs and innovations. Kael asserts that the auteur critic only identifies how a film relates to a director’s past canon or filmography and ignores the new elements: what is “important” and makes something a new or original film.

Kael proceeds by exploring the three premises or criterion of judgement that Sarris sets out. Sarris’s three premises are:  

  1. The technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.(4.)
  2. The distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value.(5.)
  3. Interior meaning… the tension between a director’s personality and his material.(6.)

To Kael the “outer circle”, or first premise , of a director’s basic technical competence, is either a weak premise, a commonplace attitude of artistic judgement – and therefore the auteur theory is not as radical or as “fresh” as it seemed to be as a critique of film in 1962 – or a complete misunderstanding of the necessarily talents required for the production of art. Kael notes ‘sometimes the greatest artists in a medium bypass or violate the simple technical competence that is so necessary for hacks’.(7.) Kael explains further that ‘the greatness of a director like [Jean] Cocteau has nothing to do with mere technical competence: his greatness is in being able to achieve his own personal expression and style’.(8.) Kael seems to arguing that although technical competence is important to a director its use as a criterion of judgement “misses the point” in the evaluation of director’s ability to make art. Cocteau once remarked that the only technique, in any art, one needs is the technique you invent for yourself and in relation to this Kael argues that ‘if [a director] can make great films without knowing the standard methods, without the usual craftsmanship of the “good director”, then that is the way [the director] works’.(9.)

The second criterion, and according to Kael the actual premise of the auteur theory, relates to the director’s distinguishable personality. Kael, in characteristically sardonic and bitchy style, explains that:

Traditionally, in any art, the personalities of all those involved in a production have been a factor in judgement, but that the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgement. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?. (10.)

In essence Kael is arguing that the distinguishable personality of a director is a poor choice for criterion of judgement. One may be able to more distinctly distinguish the gaudy, accidental, clumsy hand of a second-rate director than the light, delicate hand of a first-rate director but it does not, or should not, indicate the better director between the two. Kael goes on to add:

When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not mush else to watch. (11.)

Kael is asserting that the touch of a director – the evident touch – is an indicator of a poor film or at least a symptom of boredom and apathy towards the film’s narrative. If we can distinguish the director’s personality then it is not really a ‘part of the texture of the film’ and therefore it overrides and dominates the film itself.(12.) Kael also criticises Sarris’s second criterion of judgement, and the auteur position in general, by arguing that ‘it is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good; it indicates you are incapable of judging either’. Kael asserts that this form of analysis and criticism is similar to attitudes to fashion labels ‘this is Dior, so it’s good’.(13.) Kael position is that the auteur theory cannot, once a director is given the title of auteur, discriminate between the director’s good and bad work – especially if the director fulfils the criterion or premises of the auteur theory.

The third premise, or inner circle, is, according to Kael, ‘the opposite of what we have always taken for granted in the arts, that the artist expresses himself in the unity of form and content’.(14.) To Kael the auteur theory glorifies “trash”, ‘the frustrations of a man working against the given material’.(15.) The conflict of a director’s style with the content is what produces great art to the auteur, or at least to Sarris, but to Kael is it a weakness of a film. According to Kael if a director does not unify his style, the form, with the content of the script, then the director does not produce good art. Kael explains:

Their ideal auteur is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that’s handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots. If his “style” is in conflict with the story line or subject matter, so much the better.(16.)

The consequence of admiring the directors who shove style up a script’s crevasse is that ‘the director who fights to do something he cares about is a square’.(17.) This statement is related to Sarris’s criticism of Ingmar Bergman’s later work which Sarris felt had declined due to the absence of any progression of ‘technique’ which directly related to Bergman’s ‘sensibility’.(18.) Kael responds harshly – rather too angrily for a really rational debate – but does pose an interesting question wondering whether ‘writer-directors are disqualified by [the] third premise?’.(19.) Kael sums up her criticism by wondering why the auteur theory prefers certain commerical films – a saving grace of the auteur theory some will say. Kael expands on this point by asserting that ‘those travelling in auteur circles believe that making [a] purse out of a sow’s ear is an infinitely greater accomplishment than making a solid carrying case out of a good piece of leather’.(20.) Kael’s harsh criticism of the auteur theory continues into the very last vitirolic paragraph when she argues:

These [auteur] critics work embarrassingly hard trying to give some semblance of intellectual respectability to a preoccupation with mindless, repetitious commercial products… They’re not critics: they’re inside dopesters.(21.)

The auteur critic, according to Kael, prefers products made out of inferior products: mindlessly repetitious commercial films. Kael’s article is an angry, sardonic, reply to Sarris’s auteur theory – she even questions whether an auteur critic is a critic at all –  she has highlighted some problems and flaws in his conception of the primary criterion of judgement an auteur critic makes. In my next article (part III) I will conclude by examining both Sarris and Kael’s position. I will indicate where I feel both critics have got things right and got things wrong.

1. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 666-679. p. 667.

2. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 667-668.

3. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

 4. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 650-665, p. 662.

5. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

6. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.

7. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

8. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 669.

9. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 670.

10. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

 11. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 671.

12. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 672.

13. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 673.

14. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

15. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, pp. 674-675.

16. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

17. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 674.

18. Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, pp. 662-663.

19. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 676.

20. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 678.

21. Pauline Kael, ‘Circles And Squares’, p. 679.

Future Worlds: Sport Culture and Costume in Rollerball

Future Worlds: Rollerball (1975)

In order to create a critique of society a filmmaker will tend to focus upon a certain aspect of society or a social practice. In Rollerball sport is used as the vehicle for the film’s narrative. Rather than extending one particular sport to social dominance a new sport, a combination and synthesis, of several of the most popular sports in America, is developed. Costume in Rollerball is an important aspect in establishing the sport and the futuristic setting. The helmet is a direct replication of the NFL helmets worn in the 70s. The pads also replicate the image of American football athletes. The use of rollerskates produces a similar image, style of movement and tempo found in ice hockey – evidenced in the repeated “bodychecking”. The gloves the Rollerballers’ use, to pick up the ball after it is shot out of a cannon, are identical to contemporary baseball’s outfielder’s glove. The Rollerballer’s costume is a patchwork of several important parts of major American sports.

 rollerball

The controllers of the dangerous sport, and society, are several multi-national corporations who provide essential utilities – such as energy – and are altogether under the command of an ultimate ‘Executive Directorate’: some shady controlling corporate power something similar in essence to the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo [Grand Council of Fascists]. I have read the shady Directorate as something like a facsist group in relation to what Franklin D. Roosevelt said concerning the strengthening of the anti-trust laws:

The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism; ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.(1.)

In the future world of Rollerball a grand council of corporate power has assumed total control over social practices, such as sport, and everyday life itself. Corporate power even extends to the ability to revoke a marriage and to take a persons’ spouse without question. In order to establish this sense of corporate cultural control the traditional national anthem is replaced with a “corporate anthem” and every member of the audience willingly stands and places their hand to their heart. The future world of Rollerball, a state dominated by fascistic corporations, is explored through the setting of sport. The sport is established by costume and the allusion to the most popular contemporary American sports. Rollerball, often seen as an anti-sport film – incorrectly as the last image is of the protagonist Jonathan E. finishing the game by scoring then walking away in disgust – creates a critique of the way corporate-media and power is welded to produce and provide the ability to dominate and control society and social practices.

(1.) Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Appendix A: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting Recommendations Relative to the Strengthening and Enforcement of Anti-trust Laws”, The American Economic Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Part 2, Supplement, Papers Relating to the Temporary National Economic Committee (Jun., 1942), pp. 119-128, p. 119.

The Ideology of Realism: Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism

In my previous article about Andre Bazin I explored his claims that the ontology of the photograph and film – ontology being the essential essence – is its ability to represent life as it appears. According to Bazin, film is inclined to, and again best when, realist in aesthetic. In a series of articles I will examine Bazin’s position on film however I came across an excerpt of Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism (an online copy of which can be found here) which I felt was interesting as it came from the opposite position. In this article I will explore their claims that the aesthetic of realism is a reliance on the status quo and an aesthetic implicitly reliant on ideological cultural dominants.

In the examination of Comolli and Narboni’s paper it is important to note that they are Structuralist in outlook, in contrast to Bazin who was a staunch Humanist, and they therefore perceive the realist aesthetic differently. This is immediately evidenced when Comolli and Narboni explain that film is partly a ‘product, manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labour [Money] to produce… a commodity, possessing exchange value… governed by the laws if the market’ as well as ‘an ideological product of the system, which in [the Western world] means capitalism’.(1.) Film is made to be sold. Film is an art that is also primarily a source of income and export: film is explicitly a commercial product. However film, according to Comolli and Narboni, is also implicitly the product of the ideology that dominates the field, or place, it was constructed in. A film-maker, according to Comolli and Narboni, cannot change the economic circumstance, or system they find themselves in [if they could would it be the film business anymore anyway?]. One may ‘deflect it, but not negate it or seriously upset its structure’.(2.) An example of this “deflection” may be found in the music industry where the Arctic Monkeys, and several other bands, initially gave away free CDs and allowed their music to be downloaded for free. They originally refracted the “rules” or logic of the music industry however they didn’t change the system itself as after a period of time, and a rise in popularity, they returned to the normal procedure of selling music. For Comolli and Narboni film ‘is determined by the ideology which produced it’.(3.)

As I explained in my article ‘Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image’ Bazin believed that film provides a reproduction of reality and although Comolli and Narboni may permit that film does reproduce reality when they say ‘this is what a camera and film stock are’ they hold a diametrically opposed view of what “reality” really is.(4.) Comolli and Narboni explain that ‘the tool and techniques of film-making are a part of [the] “reality” themselves… [Reality] is nothing but an expression of the prevailing ideology’.(5.) The realist aesthetic does not reproduce “the way things are”; it is in fact, at most an explicit and at least an implicit, a reproduction of the dominant way of seeing. Comolli and Narboni explain their position when they state ‘what the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant world’.(6.) To use a similar image that Bazin utilized, film does not blow-away the “dust” of regular perceptions and conceptions but rather relies upon and reproduces that “dust” which has settled upon our way of seeing things. The realist aesthetic reproduces the way we experience the world, and the way we experience the world is defined by cultural dominants: and one major cultural dominant, of which Comolli and Narboni are particularly concerned with, is ego-centred capitalism.(7.) In Comolli and Narboni’s words:

When we set out to make a film, from the very first shot, we are encumbered by the necessity of reproducing things not as they really are but as they appear when refracted through the [dominant] ideology. (8.)

Realism is a reproduction, on the screen, of the ideological structures/world we encounter in “everyday” life. The realist aesthetic fails to comprehensively challenge or explore the structures of the dominant forces and world-view in society and art – which cannot challenge or explore sexist, racist or fascistic ideologies – is a blank critique and an utterly redundant social activity; art without the ability to challenge or explore social attitudes is not really art at all. According to Comolli and Narboni to stop film art from just becoming the “tool” of the dominant world-view ‘the film-maker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”‘ and, if they are able to achieve that; the film-maker may be able to ‘sever’ or ‘disrupt’ the ‘connection between the cinema and its ideological function’.(9.)

To Comolli and Narboni just simply reproducing reality ensures one relies on the assumptions found in “everyday” life. They argue for the utilization of techniques which upset the viewers ability to accept the supposedly unadulterated reality of the world depicted. The use of jump-cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960) could be argued to facilitate this sort of alienating technique. There are many films that are naturalistic or realist in aesthetic that, at least appear, to transverse and critique society and this is a definite critique of Comolli and Narboni’s position. A lack of examples and instances in film of the realist aesthetic is also another critique I would level against their article – however It should be understood that the article is intended as theory rather than “practice”. Rather than quickly explore the counter-arguments a critic who favours the realist aesthetic would raise I will leave that duty to Bazin, whose position I will continue to explore in the coming weeks and months.

 (1.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, in (Ed) J. Hollows, P. Hutchings, M. Jancovich, Film Studies Reader, London: Oxford Uni Press, (2000), pp. 197-200, p. 197.

(2.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(3.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(4.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(5.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(6.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(7.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(8.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(9.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

A Couple of Squared Circles, Sarris and Kael – Part I

 

Part One: ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’ – Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris, influenced and inspired by the politique du auteur, produced his “notes” not as a manifesto but rather a clarification of the auteur issue. In 1950s-60s America, auteurism was not well-received by screenwriters and the many other people who collaborated in film production. However, Sarris felt that several articles constructed “straw-men” or clichéd versions of auteurism. In reaction to this Sarris decided to produce his article on the auteur theory. In this article I will explore Sarris’s ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’ however in my next article (part two) I will explore Pauline Kael’s criticism of Sarris’s defence and definition of the auteur theory. In the next article I will also conclude and explore the strengths and weaknesses of both articles. 

I

 An outcome, or implication, of the “Auteur Theory”, according to Sarris, is the belief that ‘the weakest Ford is superior to the strongest King’.(1) The worst John Ford film is held to be ‘invariably superior’ to the best, or most enjoyable, Henry King film.(2) Sarris wryly notes then that ‘by auteur rules, the Fords will come up aces as invariably as the Kings will come up deuces. Presumably, we can all go home as soon as the directorial signature is flashed on the screen’.(3) There are no good or bad films, just good or bad directors. This ‘inflexible attitude’, as Sarris notes, seems counter to commonsensical notions of a films’ worth. After noting these consequences of the auteur theory Sarris notes however that he intends to praise the auteur theory.(4) Beyond these problems for the auteur theory Sarris argues that a positive aspect of the auteur theory is that is is a ‘critical device for recording the history of the American cinema’.(5) Sarris goes on to explain:

the auteur theory is the only help for extending the appreciation of personal qualities in the cinema. By grouping and evaluating films according to directors, the critic can rescue individual achievements from an unjustifiable anonymity.(6)

Directors’ minor films, due to the focus the auteur theory puts on exploring a directors’ total catalogue, are evaluated and analysed beyond their popularity and apparent, or immediately evident, importance or interest. Films are re-analysed and re-criticised continuously in relation to a director’s canon. To Sarris this is an important element of the auteur theory and one that replicates the way critics’ treat literary figures such as Shakespeare and artists such as Van Gogh. Another reason why Sarris embraced the auteur theory is that it is an account of film which does not, and in some ways rewards, directors in a constrictive environment such as the Hollywood studio system. Sarris explains that in the auteur theory ‘there is no justification for penalizing Hollywood directors for the sake of collective mythology’.(7) The pressures of Hollywood and its funding system should not be used to penalize and disqualify Hollywood directors from the “pantheon” of directors or auteruism. A Hollywood director may not be allowed to choose their subject matter – they may hate making gangster films – or the leading star, but they do, according to Sarris, author the film the same way a non-Hollywood director does. [For this example we must assume unfairly that all non-Hollywood director are given total freedom over their subject matter].

The auteur theory has, according to Sarris, three central premises. Sarris explains ‘the first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value’.(8 ) The ability of a director to organise or implement their “vision” requires technical competence. To Sarris to be an author of a film technical understanding is required. Knowing which technique, method, suits one’s aims best is the basic level of competence that Sarris asserts is required to be evaluated as a director. Sarris argues that ‘if a director has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, he is automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors’.(9) This position is summed up by Sarris when he states ‘A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in an [evaluative system]’.(10) Technical ability is, according to Sarris, the ability to organise a film with some degree of clarity and coherence.(11)

 

Sarris explains ‘the second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value’.(12) Sarris continues that ‘over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style’ which the auteur theorist asserts ‘serve[s] as his signature’.(13) The similar shooting style of John Ford’s domestic screens, and the death valley vistas, could be cited as a signature of Ford’s direction. Sarris argues that:

An expert production crew could probably cover up for a cimpanzee in the director’s chair. How do you tell the genuine director from the quasichimpanzee? After a given number of films, a pattern is established.(14)

The continued utilization of the same concepts/techniques – worked through, altered, re-analysed, mocked, readjusted – is of critical importance to the auteur critic because it facilitates the ability to analyse over a period of several films the growth and development of a director’s technical competence and the emergence, and continued influence, of a director’s world-view.

The third premise of Sarris’s auteur theory is more obtuse and a bit more difficult to define. Sarris explains that:

The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.(15)

The third and ultimate premise, indicating that it is according to Sarris the most important essential criterion of the auteur theory, relates to the meaning or outcome produced from the tension, or difficulty, a director encounters and overcomes in the production of film. Sarris seems to acquire a rather mystical note here arguing that an important criterion of judgement is “internal” in a visual medium but he explains his position better when he notes that internal meaning springs from the ‘intangible difference between one personality and another’.(16) The third premise of the auteur theory is that the internal meaning, to Sarris that certain something about an individual that is produced in everything they do, is produced by the director’s attempt to create a whole from significantly desperate and opposing meanings and influences. Internal meaning is the combination of contradictions; the director’s word-view combined, meshed with the film’s subject matter and all the other contributing factors of the film. A meaning and outcome ultimately derived from the director.

Alfred Hitchcock is seem as a prime example of an auteur and Sarris would agree because Hitchcock satisfies all three of the auteur theory criteria. Hitchcock was a competent technician and his films contain similar techniques played with time and time again – sometimes hitting other times missing. And all of Hitchock’s films retain an aspect of his distinguishable personality. Sarris would assert that Hitchcock is an auteur because the continued utilization of certain film techniques, film form, which are in-line with, and rely on, Hitchcock’s personal/internal interpretation of the psychology of cinema viewers. Hitchcock authors his films. The three “circles” of Sarris’s auteur theory are technical ability, personality and internal meaning.

(1) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 650-665, p. 650.

(2) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 651.

(3) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 651.

(4) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 651.

(5) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 660.

(6) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 660.

(7) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 660.

(8 ) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

(9) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

(10) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

(11) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 664.

(12) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

(13) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.

(14) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 664.

(15) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.

(16) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.

Short Note Concerning Action Driven Narrative

Action driven narrative is central to most films. The first thing that tends to happen to a film script is that the dialogue is reduced significantly. Film primarily is a visual medium and therefore actions automatically replace speech when something of significance has to happen. The essential character traits of a film’s protagonist is communicated and connected to the “agency” they have. Agency, that is; the ability the protagonist seems to have in controlling, shaping or driving action forward. As the protagonist does this they ‘reveal who they are in terms of their motives, their strength, weakness, trustworthiness, capacity to love, hate, cherish, adore, deplore, and so on. By their actions do we know them’. (1.) In other words actions are louder than words in communicating character; it is not what a character says but does that determines the reception and understanding of their character. In Man On Fire (2004) the protagonist Creasy’s actions and paternal relationship with Pita indicates his capacity to feel – as contrary to his own perceptions concerning himself. And his morality and strength of character is communicated by his attempts to revenge the kidnapping and assumed death of Pita. The action shows Creasy’s calloused heart warm up and ultimately catch on fire as he is unable to prevent Pita’s kidnapping. Pita teaches Creasy that it is alright to live again and her kidnapping pushes him over the edge into spiralling vortex of revenge and retribution. The films narrative is centred around the emotional journey of Creasy and his actions, and the action sequences, are that which communicates this journey – especially as he remains quite tight lipped throughout the film.

 

 

 

(1.) H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction To Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2006), p. 124.

Discourse Ideology Myth: Hollywood’s Geographical Location

The Hollywood myth is well-known. Hollywood is a place of dreams. Celebrities dine in expensive restaurants. Fashion boutiques reflect the money, effluence and aura in their outrageous designs. Red carpet is always just a barricade away. Your footprints stalk those famous names on the floor. This surgery enhanced smiling glamorous Hollywood myth is sold like sugar sweetening millions worldwide. Yet even this myth seems openly a myth. Quietly, whispering – though sometimes louder – in our ears we hear the resonating truth and we acknowledge that Hollywood & Vine is not Hollywood; it’s up those fair hills. Beverly Hills is the real geographical location; Beverly Hills is that Hollywood myth of fashion boutiques and celebrities. The Hollywood myth exists but is just a few miles away…

 

This honesty concerning the “truth” of the location of the real Hollywood is an extension of the myth. Hollywood, the proper Hollywood, is in Hollywood. Hollywood isn’t the light, bright, young and beautiful of Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is smoke and mirrors which distracts us from concentrating on Hollywood’s real element. Hollywood the place is the proper Hollywood as it’s filled with industrial-like complexes, studios, sound-proof booths, sound stages, offices and all aspects of the real capitalist process of film-making. On contemplation we understand that this is the real Hollywood: an industrial complex. The myth of Hollywood and the smoke and mirrors of Beverly Hills are used so that the real commercial industrial nature of Hollywood isn’t foregrounded. Hollywood is an industrial complex that produces cultural items – a factory of language but still a factory. We wouldn’t argue that an Ironworks is to be found in the dirt and sweat on the worker’s brow or the workers homes – signs of it true but if we asked for directions and were given this answer we would be angry and lost. The Ironworks would be explained as the physical location: the factory floor or site of production. The Hollywood myth like the continuity system attempts to hide or refract the signs of the mechanical production so as to communicate a more financially viable and sustainable magical atmosphere that doesn’t raise questions or at least subdues them.

 

Domesticity and Mise-en-Scene in Juno

Juno (2007)

The language of cinema is composed of opposites. In Saussurian terms things are defined by negatives. The film Juno creates a sense of domesticity by positioning a house with a minimalist style as opposite. The domestic scenes of Juno’s family are opposed to the adopting parents’ more stylised and organised home. Conversely the adopting parents’ scenes are opposed by Juno’s family domestic space. The warm cluttered space is posited as not the colder organised space. The colder organised space is communicated as not the cluttered domestic space. These opposed spaces communicate the different lifestyles and characters of the two families. The two spaces seem to indicate the feeling of pre and post child rearing.

In this scene we see the composed organised nature. The fireplace creates a structure that is mirrored by the tables frame. The houses’ ordered and symmetrical nature is even mirrored in the body language of the central actors – the hands sit in a closed and defensive position. Every aspect of the mise-en-scene communicates the organised and ordered.

The domestic space of Juno’s house is shot with an orange tanned hint. This communicates warmth, as opposed to the cool bright light of the organised space of the adopting parents’ home. Even the shot position indicates a sense of disorganised – or at least something of a laissez-faire attitude – as we view over the shoulder with the head still popping in the scene occasionally. The sense of the domestic is further communicated by the collection of photographs sat in disorder, this is opposed to the ordered paintings and ornaments that fill the adoptive parents’ home.

Future Worlds: Violence As Release Valve in Running Man

Running Man (1987)

 

In the future world of Running Man we are shown a repressive society that uses the violent show of “Running Man” as a release valve to exert the pressures of living under a repressive regime. The film uses simple diametrically opposed classes of society, with their own lighting codes, to communicate clearly the conflict in the society. The dystopia is communicated by the contrasting mise-en-scene of the upper-class day scenes and the under-class night scenes. The day scenes are full of natural light and the streets are uncluttered and open. People are allowed to sit, wonder and go as they please. This is the opposite of the night scenes.

  

The night scenes portray the have-nots of the future world of Running Man. In the night scenes we see the under-class living in a polluted and cluttered area. The people are fenced in and contrary to the day scenes there is no casual idolatry admiration for architecture. The masses are penned in and huddled, their only source of light the brightly coloured television screens. The night scenes also consistently include the large television screens indicating the extent of the media’s influence on the masses.

 

In the introduction of Running Man we are told that the government has complete control of the cultural output of the society and that all television is highly censored. If all television is censored then we must assume that violence is allowed because of some controlling value it contains. The use of violence is a cathartic one. Violence is used to burn out the passions of the people so that they have no emotional strength left to challenge the wrongs committed by the oppressive government. Running Man playfully conjures up a society dominated and controlled by violent television. The use of violence as a controlling cathartic force is ironic in Running Man as the film is of the action Sci-Fi genre. Concerns about the corrupting nature of violence in film and television are well documented and Running Man is attempting to play with this notion by creating a world where violent television has enslaved America. Violence has morally corrupted America and it is now a fascist state. The punchline of the Running Man joke is that the destruction of the media controlled state is caused by the superhero protagonist’s ability to dish out equal amounts of pain, gore and brutality against the individuals that ensure the cathartic state of the masses. The future world that Running Man creates becomes a fertile ground in which to jest at the concept of violence as corrupter and as violence as a force through which freedom is gained.

Future Worlds: The Use of Colour and Lighting in Total Recall

Along with many other article styles i will be running a short look at the production of setting in Sci-Fi. Here is the first of a short run that will include Alphaville (1965), Running Man (1987) , Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Total Recall (1990), Blade Runner (1982), Westworld (1973) and maybe some others (if you’re lucky?).

 

Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall contains two central lighting motifs which communicate a definitive sense of place. Setting is important in Total Recall. Mars serves a plot function both as the conductor of Quaid’s dreams of a different future and as the site of his repressed past. In the Earth scenes thelighting is primarily the classical naturalistic white lighting which produces soft clear features and a sense of cleanliness and neutrality. The clean lines are important in the first part of Total Recall in producing a sense of clinical perfection at odds with Quaid’s dreams of a dirtier, rougher life as a pioneer travelling on the troubled red-planet Mars.

 

The Earth phase’s lighting creates a sense of an expansive nature, a conquered clinical world. A world not physically suffocating like Mars but spiritually suffocating. Although some of the clean cut lines of Earth are thrown into relief by the scenes containing Quaid’s escape from the company agents to Mars it is not until Quaid arrives proper in Mars that we witness a world opposed or opposite to Earth.

 

The colour red floods nearly every scene situated on the planet Mars. This produces both a sense of setting but also a seedy dirty environment. Richter’s face is illuminated by the bright redness of Mars’s continuous timeless glow; his character is defined by that mechanical, artificial, electronic glow emitted by neon lights in the claustrophobic Mars’ Streets. The doors behind Richter are also tinted by the redness of Mars, the structure of Mars defines him and more importantly his actions and character. The setting of Mars defines both the characters and the structures that surround and define them.

Every aspect of the mise-en-scene is defined by the redness of Mars. Total recall uses the rather overt, extravagant lighting techniques to imbue the scenes with a sense of place. Another affect of the use of red is that it imbues all the action with a seedy, aggressive, passionate and lusty atmosphere which helps communicate the moral vacuum that Mars signifies. The choice of lighting and colour in Total Recall communicates the atmosphere of both Earth and Mars and is very affective at foregrounding this.