Women in Film Noir III – The Hollywood Tradition of the “Strong” Woman

Film noirs use of two diametrically opposed archetypes to illustrate acceptable and unacceptable desires, ambitions and social behaviour in women conforms to a long tradition of representation in Hollywood of the “strong woman”. The strong woman is a figure whose desires, ambitions and behaviour runs contrary to acceptable social norms. The figure of the strong or active woman can be located in two other distinct Hollywood genres: the screwball comedy and the melodrama. These genres include characters and situations similar to film noir. As Wes D Gehring explains ‘In many ways – particularly female domination – screwball comedy of the 1930s and early 1940s anticipates the more sinister woman-as-predator film noir movies of the 1940s’.1 Screwball comedies feature a strong, active female who is ‘never merely an item of exchange between two men; she is also presented as a desiring subject’.2 Similar to film noir, these films articulate a tension between the active individualism of the female and the needs of the community. David R Shumway notes that screwball comedies ‘suggest that spunky, strong women are attractive but that their submission is required for the romance to be consummated, for marriage to take place’.3 Screwball comedies assert that the socially-legitimatized institution of marriage is the correct arena for romance and sexual relationships and that this perfect state of affairs can only be engendered by the submission of the female figure. Whereas screwball comedies find humour in this situation, film noir’s mood is much darker and more fatalistic. This change in attitude is most likely attributable to differences in American society after World War Two.4 Frank Krutnik notes ‘The cycle of ‘screwball’ films continued until… America’s entry into World War II promoted a new social and cultural agenda which made the ‘screwball’ emphasis upon frivolity and individual eccentricity problematic’.5 After WWII the zany, saccharin-sweet characters of screwball comedies were out of touch with the general Zeitgeist. This appears to be reaffirmed by the fact that the genre’s golden period (1934-1944) is said to finish the year that two archetypal film noirs, Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet (Dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1944), were released.6

Like film noir and screwball comedy, melodramas also feature ambitious, strong women who attempt to surpass their social and economic situation. The tension between the ambition and desires of strong women and patriarchy is also resolved in similar fashion to film noir in that a structure of society contains the threat by the film’s resolution. Jeaine Bassinger explains that after the strong woman gets on top in the melodrama they struggle ‘with themselves and their guilts. Finally, society [overcomes] them. They [go] down struggling, [find] “true love”, and [prepare] to resume life’s struggle in a state that [is] acceptable to society’.7 The narrative resolutions of film noir, melodrama and screwball comedy all share this repressive conclusion. In film noir the strong woman is often killed off (Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears falls off a balcony), arrested (Veda in Mildred Pierce (Dir. Michael Curtiz, 1945)) and occasionally married or coupled off in a secure relationship (Vivien in The Big Sleep and Gilda in Gilda). In screwball comedies and melodramas the strong woman is contained within the institution of marriage – which sometimes takes the form of re-marriage as in The Awful Truth (Dir. Leo McCarey, 1937).

Film noir’s representation of women is therefore a continuance of the way Hollywood deals with the strong, desiring woman. In Double Indemnity this heritage is explicitly referenced in the film’s dialogue, its mise-en-scene and the casting of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the central roles.8 When Walter Neff first meets Phyllis Dietrichson he explains how to spell his name “Two Fs, just like The Philadelphia Story”. The Philadelphia Story (Dir. George Cukor, 1940) is a classic screwball comedy and, if it weren’t for the film already showing that Walter ends up being shot, it would be hard to discern which genre one was watching because both of the leads were synonymous with the screwball comedy genre. Walter’s reference to The Philadelphia Story could also be interpreted as a verbal acknowledgement that the romance between the two leads is an explicit souring of the screwball comedy narrative. The visual style of Double Indemnity also refers directly to The Lady Eve (Dir. Preston Sturges, 1941). In The Lady Eve Barbara Stanwyck plays the money grabbing Eugenia ‘Jean’ Harrington who seduces the shy snake-expert Charles ‘Charlie’ Poncefort-Pike for money and revenge (though she ultimately falls in love with him and they get married). In one scene, Jean seduces Charlie by asking him to hold her ankle for her. This scene is replicated stylistically in Double Indemnity when Phyllis (Stanwyck) flirts with Walter and shows him her ankle bracelet tactilely. Walter holds Phyllis’s leg in a pose identical to Charlie’s in The Lady Eve. This overt visual reference further illustrates that Double Indemnity, and film noir, is a continuance of Hollywood’s preoccupation with, and representation of, the strong woman.

1 Wes D Gehring, Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance, (London: Greenwood Press, 1986), p. 60.

2 David R Shumway ‘Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage’, in, Barry Kieth Grant, (ed), Film Genre Reader II, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), pp. 381-401, p. 386.

3 Ibid p. 391.

4 Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street, (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 58.

5 Ibid, p. 12.

6 Gehring, Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance, p. 73.

7 Jeaine Bassinger quoted from Robert C Allen, ‘Film History: Theory and Practice – The Role of the Star in Film History [Joan Crawford]’ in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.), pp. 547-561, p 557.

8 Stanwyck and MacMurray were Screwball Comedy regulars who had previously starred together in Remember the Night (Dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1940).

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Ed Guerrero on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)

This is a brilliant excerpt from Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. If you are interesting in the representation of race, or Hollywood in general, I highly recommend this book. This excerpt surveys the representation of race in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967):

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s narrative epitomizes the standard Hollywood “problem picture” formula, rendered in the production values of the slick 1940s, big-studio style associated with its principal white stars, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Problem pictures usually present the audience with a communal “problem” completely stripped of its social or political context, reduced to a conflict between individuals, sentimentalized and happily resolved at the picture’s end. Ultimately aimed at box-office profits by shaping films into standardized consumer products, this narrative formula was distilled from a long-established strategy of ideological containment that allowed Hollywood to stay current, keeping abreast of the contemporary social and political climate and simultaneously upholding the status quo and containing all insurgent political impulses. By introducing topical political issues into stable, easily recognized and consumed genres, narratives, and plot structures, Hollywood’s conservative ideology [remains un-] challenged.

 

…The specifics of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s plot are those of a gifted and famous thirty-seven-year-old black doctor, head of the World Health Organization, who falls in love with the twenty-three-year-old daughter of millionaire white liberals… The integrated couple returns to San Francisco from a romantic interlude in Hawaii to confront the girl’s parents with an untimatum: either consent to the marriage by nightfall or the girl will be permanently alienated from her parents, and the doctor, the ebony saint that Poitier always portrays, out of personal dignity will break off the relationship and leave.

 

…By making the black man an eminently qualified and desirable suitor at the top of a professional class to which only the smallest minority of blacks could possibly belong, and by locating the narrative in the exclusive domain of the wealthiest stratum of white society, the film reduces the social dimensions of racial conflict to that of mere contrasts of skin colour while completely avoiding the historical, cultural, and economic legacy of what it means to be black in America. So, because Poitier portrays a black who diligently strives to be white, and because there is no representation whatsoever of the black world in the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? makes no connection with the contemporaneous struggle raging on a grand social and political scale outside the theatre. What conflict there is in the film is transposed from race into a conflict between black generations, reflective of the surrounding “generation gap”, as Poitier tells his father that he will not submit to the self-limiting boundaries of his father’s generation. In a reversed, contrasting gesture that frames the dominant white perspective as the solution to the race problem, Spencer Tracy works out his conflict with his daughter and lapses into platitudes about love conquering all, thus leading the film to a standard sentimental, romantic conclusion. By limiting the range of emotional experiences to simple expression of sentiment worked out by the use of predictable narrative conventions, Hollywood restricted its political vision and masked its conservative assumptions about race, passing them off as consensus. This narrative formula has served the studios well beyond this specific film, which amounted to Hollywood’s last attempt to explore integrationist theme within the frame of its status quo politics.(1.)

 

1. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, (1993), pp. 76-78.

Postmodernity and the Concept of the Cyborg

Identity is a central issue in postmodernism and many theorists and artists have argued that identity is ‘infinitely mutable rather than being based on some essential nature’.(1.) An important concept is the subject in a technologically advanced capitalist society. Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg is an investigation into, and formulation of, an identity which refuses binary opposition. Haraway uses the term Cyborgs because it means a Being which is part human and part technological construct. The technological aspect is important because to Haraway ‘communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools [enabling the] recrafting [of] bodies’.(2.) Haraway states ‘neither Marxist nor radical feminist points of view have tended to embrace the status of a partial explanation: both were regularly constituted as totalities’.(3.) According to Haraway Marxism and radical feminism, both “Modernist”(4.) in their belief in political emancipation, insist on essentialist, rationalizing understandings of identity. These organizing systems, grand narratives, according to Haraway, tend to exclude oppositional and marginal discourses (voices) dominating and or excluding “others”. Haraway asserts that these rationalizing forces offer ‘unity-through-domination’.(5.) This domination or violence, according to the anti-essentialist postmodernist position, is what led to ‘Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags’.(6.) Haraway asserts that the Cyborg rejects ‘identity grounding’ because the Cyborg would be unafraid ‘of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’.(7.) The Cyborg is a chimera, a mixture, a hybrid. The Cyborg isn’t a Being defined by either/or – the binary construction of identity found in rationalizing “Modernist” grand narratives – but a Being defined by both/and. The Cyborg, as Malpas explains, ‘is a means of challenging those dualism that shape modern accounts of identity’ such as self/other white/black male/female: the Cyborg potentially offers ‘heteroglossia'(8.) A term originating from Mikhail Bakhtin, heteroglossia is the coexistence of multiple meanings, connotations, within one word, phrase, utterance, and in the case of Haraway’s Cyborg, a Being. Haraway’s ‘cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self’, an ‘organism’ according to Haraway, both social and private.(9.) To Haraway the Cyborg is a positive inhuman, a required irrational response to the rational project of Modernity and the Enlightenment.

Haraway sees the “techno-sciences” as a positive vehicle enabling a polysemic identity. However postmodernist theorists vary on the nature of science and the potential it offers. A central criticism of techno-science comes from Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard notes that ‘the development of techno-sciences has become a means of increasing disease, not of fighting it’.(10.) One such instance of science increasing disease is the over-prescription of antibiotics which has lead to the production of “superbugs” which are resistant to nearly all forms of medication. The MRSA bacterium mutated from the common bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus because of the over-prescription of antibiotics and is responsible for the death of 1,593 people in the UK in 2007 and is a growing epidemic due to an ‘increase from 51 to 1,652 deaths between 1993 and 2006’.(11.) The techno-sciences are primarily motivated by its own continuing evolution and as Lyotard notes ‘doesn’t respond to a demand coming from human needs’.(12.) The techno-sciences are ‘determined by the pragmatic logic of the markets rather than the overarching dream of a universal human good’ and therefore a part of ‘a system whose only criterion is efficiency’.(13.) The techno-sciences are explicitly linked to enabling the continuing domination of Western capitalist society.

Terminator3-09

If we engage and willingly enter into a symbiotic relationship – recrafting our bodies through science in Haraways’ words – with the techno-sciences, as the Cyborg requires, then we cannot truly be sure that the increasingly dangerous production of superbugs will not ensure that we must retreat fully into techno-science, departing from our biological identity, and succumbing to the nightmarish vision of the Robot. The Robot, and the problem of techno-science and potentially the Cyborg, is that it is programmed in computer logic which reduces identities into workable, reproducible logarithms and mathematical commands; a language of mechanical efficiency programmed to serve capitalist markets. The totalizing force of computer logic seems to be similar if not identical to the rationalizing systems of thought the Cyborg was not meant to be. The tyranny of Modernism is replaced by another tyranny; the tyranny of androgyny. The binary of either/or is replaced by both/and of the Cyborg. Rather than a positive, both/and seems to be a synonym of, and the road to, a homogeneous mass which covers and entails everything; the Cyborg comes to be another totalizing force, the Cyborg offers unity-through-domination. The Cyborg is a world of “anything goes”, a concept which seems to reproduce the very essence of capitalist culture. Lyotard notes the ‘realism of money’ or “anything goes” concept ‘accommodates every tendency just as capitalism accommodates every “need” – so long as these tendencies and needs have buying power’.(14.) The variety and eclecticism of the Cyborg’s Being is only facilitated by the continuing domination of the markets: ‘the apparently borderless postmodern world is so only for the Western elites who have the wealth and power to travel, consume and freely choose their lifestyles’.(15.) The Cyborg “myth” is an identity reliant on money, an identity determined by the financial power of the individual. A financial power which determines the constituent parts of the Being’s self; the Cyborg screams “You can wear any style you want – as long as you buy it”. The Cyborg is a reified or alienated Being, removed from the potential of opposition, it is unable to oppose the capitalist society it is borne from; the Cyborg rather than enabling difference seems to disable difference. By being both/and there seems to be a lack of space for the “other” to define itself and although the already dominant white middle-class may wish to remove any site of binary opposition the Islamic, Afro-Caribbean, working class or Eastern “others” may prefer the “violence” of binary opposition to the androgyny which the Capitalist West offers. Without this space for opposition, this no-man’s land, and difference an individual or subject cannot possibly show ‘the contradictions [a] culture contains… represses, refuses to recognise or makes unrepresentative’ and therefore becomes a cog, a robot mindlessly serving postmodernist capitalist society.(16.) Haraway’s Cyborg, a prime example of postmodernist thinking, seems to produce a problem concerning oppositional thinking in relation to the cultural dominant capitalism. The Cyborg by refusing to engage with depth – preferring to play in the shallow pool of images and depthlessness – renders itself either irrelevant in engaging with capitalism or, as I have argued, complicate with the totalizing drive for inhuman efficiency and capital. To create an oppositional grand narrative is said to be taking ourselves towards building another Auschwitz however without opposition to the totalizing force of capitalism we seem to be just as guilty, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, of building, to use the hyperbole of postmodernism, another Gulag. What postmodernism must allow, and which the Cyborg doesn’t, is space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

borg

The concept of identity is central to postmodernism. Haraway’s Cyborg is an anti-essentialist theory of identity which refuses binary oppositions and ideas of naturalness. The Cyborg, being part organic part techno-science, is conceived by Haraway as a positive irrational defence against rational excluding discourse. The Cyborg, a chimera, which allows heteroglossia is seen as a concept allowing both/and rather than either/or. Although Haraway sees techno-sciences as a positive, I argued that the development of techno-sciences has facilitated dangerous diseases rather than aid humanity and therefore union with technology must be approached with cynicism regarding its intentions. A further reason to be cynical is that techno-science is implicitly linked to its role in enabling the continuing domination of western capitalist society. Entering into communion with the cyborg is to recraft ourselves into a world of computer logic – a totalizing force. I noted that the hybrid nature of the Cyborg is facilitated by capitalist society and therefore the the Cyborg is complicate with the dominating rationale of the markets. The Cyborg doesn’t offer space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

 

1. Simon Malpas, The Postmodern, Oxon: Routledge, (2005). p. 74.

2. Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 2269-2299. p. 2284.

3. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

4. Modernist and of the Enlightenment.

5. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

6. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 1612-1615. p. 1610.

7. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2275.

8. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 78.

9. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2284.

10. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1612.

11. MRSA: Deaths decrease in 2007, (National Statistics Online), http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1067, [Accessed 21 January 2009].

12. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’. p. 1614.

13. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 39.

14. J F Lyotard in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

15. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

16. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 30.

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.

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.

 

The Debt to, and Divergences from, Hollywood Cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo

Hollywood cinema is a set of generic codes and conventions. These codes and conventions act as motifs which the viewer can understand and identify with. Hollywood cinema is spit into genres such as westerns, musicals and romantic comedies. These genres all adhere to conventions such as ‘clarity… unity… goal-oriented characters… and [narrative] closure’.1 The aim of these conventions is to ensure that the viewer can understand a film, its characters their aims and ambitions and the problems put before them, without difficulty which would inhibit the ability for everyone to potentially engaging with the film [Due to the sheer financial cost of making a film the need to ensure that people understand the narrative is important and this reason marks every Hollywood product].

A Bout de Souffle (1959)

Jean-Luc Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures, this statement is indicative of the French New Wave Philosophy. The French New Wave were a loosely connected group of directors (and critics) who asserted that low-budget (B-Movies) American Cinema, often thought negatively as a wholly commercial product, can be equal to the traditionally venerated European Art-house cinema.2 The French New Wave treated Hollywood cinema with the same respect as Art-house cinema because they believed that Hollywood directors were also capable of creating individualistic pieces of art. Godard includes the dedication to Monogram Pictures because he wants to verbalise the influence Hollywood has had on cinema.

The star system is another aspect of Hollywood that Jean-Luc Godard alludes to in A Bout de Souffle. The central character the iconic looking Michel Poiccard imitates the physical mannerism of film star Humphrey Bogart by rubbing his lips with this thumb. Humphrey Bogart was a classic figure of film noir and Poiccard’s imitation of his mannerisms indicates that he believes Bogart to be a model of masculinity. The Hollywood star system ensures that ‘audiences do not just appreciate a stars’ performance on-screen; they also consume the public image’ which fans also attempt to imitate ‘the attire and mannerism’.3 The audience does this because they believe the personality the star exudes is the idea. Poiccard appropriates the mannerism of Bogart in an effort to become that ideal of masculinity. Again Godard is foregrounding the debt to Hollywood. What this allusion does is introduce the idea that France’s youth are being influenced by the cultural output of Hollywood and this cultural influence adds weight to the French New Wave assertion that commercial cinema is as important as Art-house cinema.

 

 

(A lack of emotional connection. As Poiccard looks at Patricia she can only look at herself, and her own emotional performance)

 

Jean-Luc Godard pays homage to Hollywood in A Bout de Souffle, but he also upsets the central principles of Hollywood cinema. Godard’s film represents a significant divergence from the continuity editing system, The basic purpose of the continuity editing system is to establish a smooth continuous flow from shot to shot.4 The graphic, rhythmic, spatial and temporal relationship is edited so as to look smooth and uninterrupted. The movement from shot to shot is edited so that at all times an aspect of a shot, such as ‘shapes, colours, tones of light or dark, or the direction or speed of movement’ is graphically matched to its corresponding shot, thereby ensuring a sense of aesthetic continuity.5 In A Bout de Souffle Godard uses the jump shot to create a sense of anxiety and dislocation. In a scene where Michel is explaining the physical aspects of Patricia he loves the camera jumps from shot to shot. The viewer becomes dislocated, unable to grasp the scene’s location: Godard is using the jump shot to replicate the character’s sense of isolation. Both Patricia and Michel are isolated from the culture they belong to, Michel is a criminal and Patricia is in a foreign county, and they attempt to find friendship in each others company. This attempt is futile because Godard refuses to use the shot-reverse-shot technique which would signify their connection; the jump shot ensures that both Michel and Patricia remain isolated individuals even when in each others company. The form of the jump shot ensures the characters in A Bout de Souffle remain isolated individuals without any hope of deep meaningful connection. This sense of isolation is repeated in the scene where Patricia and Michel making love, yet they still struggle to connect and ultimately remain isolated. Although they both constantly talk to each other they barely look at each other. Patricia looks past Michel as he talks to her, the scene then jumps to Michel alone looking into his reflection. This signifies the failure in communication that typifies Michel and Patricia’s relationship.

 

The Mise-en-Scene is also an indicator of the barrier between them; Michel puts on a dressing gown which contains vertical stripes while Patricia wears a tip with horizontal stripes, essentially they are going in different directions. Godard is communicating a sense of distance and isolation between the sexes and the editing technique of the jump shot communicates this perfectly. Because Godard doesn’t use the continuity editing system he Is able to communicate the sense of fragmentation and isolation through the form of the film. The continuity system advocates seamlessness between shots, but seamlessness would not be adequate as a tool to illustrate the fragmented and isolated experience that Godard is trying to communicate in A Bout de Souffle.

 

Tampopo (1985)

 

The western is a heavily stylized and conventional genre which relies on the regular and recognisable to create a frame through which narrative is communicated smoothly. Narrative is transmitted principally by the use of motifs, such as the six-shooter, the saloon, the isolated homestead, the prostitute and the drifter. The western genre (and most narratives) positions good against evil, civilisation against individualism. The film theorist Leo Braudy explains that directors use genre films, such as the western, because of their ‘ability to express the warring traditions in society and the social importance of understanding convention’ in essence a genre is a prefabricated framework in-which the auteur can explore and challenge assumptions and conventions.6 Juzo Itami uses the western genre because of its highly stylized from; he does this to foreground the highly stylized nature of Japanese tradition and etiquette. The tradition and structure of the western genre is repeatedly alluded to in the start of Tampopo. The character of Goro, dressed in a cowboy hat and shirt resembling John Wayne, represents the individualistic force that helps society thrive by teaching lessons learnt while in the wilderness. The first scene of Goro and Gun’s story starts with an exposition shot which introduces the isolated nature of the noodle bar. Inside the noodle bar generic bad guys, all dressed in black leather, loiter around, installing a sense that the good are outnumbered. Goro, as the traditional western hero, fightings to defend Tampopo’s honour. He walks outside for a fight, an allusion to the traditional fistfight outside of a saloon that features in many westerns. Itami constructs a world filled with stereotypical characters, actions and plot sequence. Itami does this not only as homage to the genre and tradition of the western but also as a device to get the audience thinking about traditions, structure and etiquette. Itami uses the structure of the western genre to make the viewer aware of the standards that are automatically accepted in genre, tradition and the closely allied etiquette. This point is illustrated in a scene in which a large group of Japanese women are listening to a teacher explain the etiquette of eating spaghetti. She explains that while you are eating spaghetti you should not make any noise whatsoever. Her advice is contradicted by a European-looking man’s noisy slurping of spaghetti, the whole group then comically attempt to create as much slurping noise as possible in order to mimic the European-looking man’s way of eating. Here Itami is exposing that we only eat the way we do because we are to taught to, etiquette and tradition is just a collection of arbitrary rules imposed by the past on the present and future. Itami is engaging critically with the tradition and etiquette of Japanese food culture by exposing it. In Tampopo Itami seems to be criticising those who use tradition and etiquette to stand in the way of enjoyment and pleasure that can be taken from food. He illustrates this point in a scene containing several Japanese businessmen. Most of the businessman order the same meal so as not to highlight their own and their business partners’ ignorance concerning foreign food. The youngest businessman breaks the rules of etiquette by attempting to sit down before his elders and by ordering extravagant food. The camera cuts to below the table to show the youngest businessman being kicked repeatedly in the ankle. Tradition demands that the youngest businessman order the same food as his elders but he doesn’t. Itami illustrates that tradition and etiquette can stifle personal pleasure and enjoyment by requiring the individual to adhere to a set of rules opposed to experimentation and freedom. Genre is at times a constrictive entity that imposes an ideology on film-making, hindering personal expression; yet Itami uses generic conventions and expectations as a structure in-which to foreground assumptions and expectations. Itami places the cowboy next to the cook in Tampopo and illuminates how we accept, and create, tradition.

Both Breathless and Tampopo pay homage to certain aspects of Hollywood cinema. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless alludes to the strength of the Hollywood star system. Michel Poiccard’s attachment to and appropriation of the myth of Humphrey Bogart highlights the cultural influence America and Hollywood has upon France. Michel Poiccard appropriates Bogart’s mannerism in an attempt to create a person he believes the pinnacle of masculinity. Godard continues his homage to Hollywood as he dedicates Breathless to the B-movie studio Monogram Pictures. Godard seems to be highlighting that American cultural output is a highly influential force that is shaping the younger generations of 1950’s France. This could indicate that individuals are no longer seeing themselves as citizens of a singular nationality; instead individuals see their own personality as a fragmented performance alluding to contrasting cultural influences. In Breathless Godard seems concerned about the American influence. Both Michel and Patricia attempt to have a meaningful relationship relationship but find it impossible to communicate. This is signified by the use of the jump cut which leaves both characters isolated when speaking. Breathless seems to illustrate that the increased globalization of art and culture in fact leaves the individual more isolated and more alone than before. The nature of Hollywood’s influence on France seems to be both positive and negative. Hollywood offers the youth of France new heroes and systems of thought yet at the same time ensuring their isolation and loneliness. Juzo Itami also pays homage to Hollywood in his film Tampopo. Itami alludes to the western genre both by appropriating its narrative structure and iconography. In doing this Itami can highlight the structured and highly stylized nature of Japanese culture. Itami concentrates on illustrating how food etiquette is constructed. Because Itami is able to play with the structure of the western to create something new, the rules of etiquettes also seem open to play. Itami also criticises those who use tradition to hide their own ignorance in Tampopo, yet the films central message seems to be that the fulfilling enjoyment that good food brings is central to good hearty relationships. Both Breathless and Tampopo allude to the powerful cultural influence of Hollywood. They also use aspects of Hollywood cinema to create and illustrate aspects of their own culture. The constant allusion to Hollywood cinema seems to indicate that to make cinema is to instigate a dialogue with ones own culture and surrounding cultures, and in this way we are not totally isolated but connected by art and cultural products.

 

1Full quote ‘clarity (viewers shouldn’t not be confused about space, time or events), Unity (cause and effect connections are direct and complete), goal-oriented characters (they are active and invite identification), and closure (loose ends are tied up, often through romantic union).’ [M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007) p. 312.]

2Phil Powrie & Keith Reader, French Cinema: A Student’s Guide, Oxon: Arnold Publishers, (2002), p. 21.

3M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, p. 356.

4David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Third Edition, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990) p. 218.

5David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 210.

6Leo Braudy, ‘The World in a Frame: Genre: The conventions of Connection’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen, (ed) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), p. 448.