Bad movies, overinterpreted.
Movie Love in the Fifties by James Harvey Knopf, 464 pp., $35 IF YOU PICKED UP a copy of James Harvey's last book, "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood," you have a notion of what he prizes in movies: wit, skepticism, independence, feistiness, joie de vivre, mystery, and sexiness. In his new "Movie Love in the Fifties," Harvey writes about a decade--a long decade stretching from the noir thrillers of the late 1940s to the early 1960s--in which a newly pious popular culture frowned on the qualities his previous book celebrated.
Movie Love in the Fifties by James Harvey Knopf, 464 pp., $35 IF YOU PICKED UP a copy of James Harvey's last book, "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood," you have a notion of what he prizes in movies: wit, skepticism, independence, feistiness, joie de vivre, mystery, and sexiness. In his new "Movie Love in the Fifties," Harvey writes about a decade--a long decade stretching from the noir thrillers of the late 1940s to the early 1960s--in which a newly pious popular culture frowned on the qualities his previous book celebrated. "Movies in general in the fifties seemed to get blander and safer--like American life in general," Harvey declares. "If you had any doubt that the movies had 'lost something,' as people used to say, the late show could settle them. The wry and intelligent sort of comedy so happily rampant in the thirties had disappeared, surviving only--in a mostly ironic form--in the noir thrillers. But they weren't surviving so well either. Toughness and irreverence, those onetime Hollywood specialties, seemed to be losing out to a kind of national sanctimony." One form of 1950s movie sanctimony was the traditional piety of flag, faith, and family that the 1960s counterculture would mock into submission. But the cultural voice of the movies in the 1950s was hardly monolithic. The crisply pressed traditionalism of the suburbs was challenged by a competing piety of reformist uplift. Stanley Kramer, Dore Schary, and others produced a cascade of liberal "message films" that sermonized against alcoholism, racial and ethnic intolerance, McCarthyism, the nuclear menace, and corrupt union bosses. These movies were no less earnest and self-satisfied than their tradition-minded alternatives. And even that 1950s traditionalism itself was not without its ambiguities. This was the era of the sensitive and scene-stealing rebel manchild--the era of Brando, Dean, and Clift. While movies like "The Blackboard Jungle" or "The Wild One" might overtly endorse social conformity and public order, such overt meanings were susceptible to subversion by charismatic young Method actors who, as Harvey observes, made "everyone around them (especially if they were older) seem radically less authentic." Harvey is not the kind of critic who sees movies as a pretext for opportunistic social criticism. He delights in movies for their own sake, and he favors detailed scene-by-scene, even shot-by-shot, analysis "to follow the movie as it moves and changes and makes its points in front of us." In its grid-search thoroughness, this approach matches the one he used in "Romantic Comedy." That book was seldom tiresome, because Harvey was writing mostly about movies he liked--and that his readers were apt to like or to think they might like. In "Movie Love in the Fifties," applied to a much higher proportion of bad, mediocre, or forgotten movies, Harvey's fine-grained formalism feels like over-refinement. Entire chapters are devoted to painstaking analysis of movies by Robert Siodmak or Max Oph ls so obscure you won't find them on the shelves of the snobbiest specialty video store in the coolest part of town. Jim Jarmusch couldn't identify some of these movies if Jean-Luc Godard stood in front of him with their titles written on his forehead. For many reasons, some touched on by Harvey, Hollywood was at an ebb in the 1950s. With the disintegration of the studio system, the patient cultivation of acting and screenwriting talent became more difficult. And Hollywood made some ill-advised responses to the challenge of television, like the flattening, wide-screen Cinemascope format, or the production of lavish historical epics and biblical pageants. OTHER REASONS are probably to be sought in larger-scale cultural changes. Harvey shrewdly observes that the shallow consumerism and earnest do-goodism of the Eisenhower-Stevenson decade seemed to be mirrored in movies that were either devoid of self-awareness or inflated with self-importance. The end result was too many movies either too dumb or too sanctimonious to laugh at themselves. But Harvey appears to feel obligated to salvage some good from the decade, something commendable, coherent, and thesis-worthy. What he comes up with is the notion, hardly new, that unsung director geniuses were slyly subverting the formulaic schlock that they were being handed to direct by philistine suits at the studios. With a jump cut here and a camera hung from a ceiling there, these formalist "termite artists" were transmuting generic dross into stylized, aestheticized gold. These directors produced, Harvey claims, "almost a new kind of Hollywood movie, establishing in the climate of general decline and dwindling box-office revenues a different relation with its audience, subverting at times just those securities in the audience--the reliance on narrative logic and linearity, on psychological realism, on the invisible camera and the self-effacing filmmaker--that the classical cinema had carefully built up." The leading exemplars of the type are Douglas Sirk (who made "Written on the Wind," "Imitation of Life," and other popular melodramas) and Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause," "Johnny Guitar"), two Hollywood journeymen now almost universally acclaimed by American film intellectuals as expressive masters unappreciated in their own time. "What the two men had most strikingly in common," writes Harvey, "was their latter-day 'rediscovery.'" Another thing they had in common was that their movies were not very good. Both are overdue for a long interval of reneglect. An interesting study in cultural history might be written about how their reputations rose to their current heights among American movie snobs. One reason is American intellectual self-loathing. Nobody in America seems to have "rediscovered" Ray and Sirk until the French had first. Harvey recounts how he himself found both Sirk's "Written on the Wind" and "Imitation of Life" "unredeemably bad" when he first saw them, before his eyes were retrained by the auteurists. (An irony in the docile American concurrence in the French auteurists' lionization of American journeymen is that French directors acquired such prestige among Americans in the 1950s and 1960s largely because Hollywood was making such bad movies at the time.) "Nicholas Ray is the cinema," Godard pronounced, but it's worth noting the obvious point that these French critics spoke French, after all, and had little idea just how bad the dialogue and line readings were in the American movies they revered. "Imitation of Life" really has such lines as "Hold on to your dreams!" In place of dramatization and characterization, it has characters "explain" themselves, as when the sharpie agent Allen Loomis says, "I am a man of very few principles, and all of them are open to revision." There is no dramatic irony here: He is not revealing a flawed self-conception destined to be undermined by on-screen action; he is explaining how his character is to be understood by the moviegoer. Then, too, these French critics started with the theory that the director is the true and only author of a movie--and in time-honored French intellectual style, went out in search of evidence to support their thesis. Inevitably, they were attracted to those directors and movies with the most exclamatory and intrusive directorial techniques and the most idiosyncratic and conspicuous directorial signatures. To the French mind, these manifestations of directorial aesthetic intent somehow proved the artistic unity and supremacy of the directorial vision in filmmaking. But because they never realized how bad the underlying material really was, they failed to understand how powerless these supreme "authors" were to preserve their "unified" artistic visions from being fatally compromised by bad scripts, bad acting, and the like. AMERICAN CRITICS, on the other hand, should be able to see that these American directors lacked either the personal creative juice or the authority (especially in pre-production) to save movies that were, finally, schlock meant for very broad and undiscerning audiences. Harvey argues that it is precisely the ability of these directors to redeem hackneyed content that confirms their greatness as artists. But granting (with qualifications) that both Sirk and Ray possessed a flair for visual design, does that really confirm their artistic greatness? Or does it con-firm, instead, their artistic limits? Even with their considerable visual imagination and technical sophistication, these directors could do no more than elevate assembly-line tear-jerking kitsch into handcrafted tear-jerking kitsch. Doesn't it then follow that these directors are, finally, not great artists? Aren't they, rather, skilled and resourceful craftsmen indistinguishable from all the other highly trained and aesthetically sensitive Hollywood craftsmen--the film cutters, sound engineers, production designers, and so on--who collaborate in the production of a movie? It may be wrong, by the way, to call the design sense of Ray and Sirk "formalist." Their pictorial arrangements and set-ups are seldom motivated by purely formal intentions. Instead of viewing the action dispassionately, their cameras tend to perceive it through the medium of their characters' emotions, and this projection of human emotion onto outside events is probably better understood as "romanticism." UNFORTUNATELY, however, Ray and Sirk--and all the rest of the journeyman Hollywood directors of the 1950s--harnessed form to emotional content in such literal-minded ways that the effects are just plain corny. In "Imitation of Life," for example, Lana Turner's character, a Broadway star, delivers a sort of "Who Am I? What's It All About?" soliloquy while looking at her reflection in the vanity mirror in her backstage dressing room. Is it conceivable that such an obvious device is actually a knowing aesthetic prank? ("I had Lana do the introspection monologue in front of, get this, a mirror!") Harvey seems to imply as much. He argues, plausibly, that Sirk knew his stories were insipid. But then he goes one step further, arguing that Sirk devised a style that let his contemporary audience in on the secret that he knew he was directing trash--which permitted these audiences to, in effect, indulge their guilty pleasure in these mawkish, overdetermined sobfests on their own terms, while at the same time smirking at themselves for enjoying them. I don't believe it for a minute. Yes, 1950s audiences could snicker at a movie that aimed too low--but with the complicity of the director? Harvey himself, recall, rendered a contemporary verdict on Sirk as "unredeemably bad," not "so bad it's actually good." Even more far-fetched is the idea that Nicholas Ray was ironically distanced from his own movies. The problem with "Rebel Without a Cause" is not that it glorifies solipsistic, angst-ridden teens wallowing in self-pity. The problem with it is that it seems to be directed by a solipsistic, angst-ridden teen wallowing in self-pity. It actually makes you wish it had been directed by a pandering cynic. A startling fact revealed in "Movie Love in the Fifties" is that the retired Sirk himself confessed that he was embarrassed by his sumptuously decorated popular melodramas of the decade. He told Harvey in one interview that he hadn't watched most of his films since he'd made them. Asked why, the German-born director answered: "Because you don't like them. Because you get depressed." Harvey tries to write this off to Sirk's "surprising lack of egotism." Then, he tries to soften the clear--and heartbreaking--meaning of Sirk's categorical judgment: "About the films he showed some ambivalence, sounding almost dismissive." Obviously, Harvey liked and admired Douglas Sirk and means well. But he finally patronizes him: apologizing for the director's aesthetic judgment and violating his artistic dignity. In overprotecting Sirk's Hollywood output, Harvey undermines Sirk's consoling conviction that if he had enjoyed the creative control of an independent artist--instead of being a hired hand at the unapologetically anti-highbrow Universal Studios in the blah 1950s--then he would have made real masterpieces. WHAT IS THE BEST that can be said about Hollywood in the 1950s? Some of the greats--Ford, Hawks, Welles--were still at work and still making the occasional late career classic. Harvey writes insightfully about one, Welles's 1958 "Touch of Evil." (Oddly, given his subject, he writes just as much about Welles's breakthrough films of the early 1940s, "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons.") Film noir and the European directors associated with that postwar style really did expand the expressive range of film technique while preserving some of the bracingly unsentimental spirit of movies from a less pious era. Alfred Hitchcock was still in his prime, and Harvey devotes much space to "Vertigo" and "Psycho." And Billy Wilder owned the decade, from "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950 to "The Apartment" in 1960. Harvey passes over Wilder in silence, presumably because Wilder was too literary, too opinionated about people and life, too talky to fit neatly into his thesis about the rise of postclassical cinematic formalism. And Wilder's camera, very un-postclassically, never called attention to itself. There is finally something suspect about the whole idea of cinematic "formalism." Painting began its march toward abstraction and formalism in the second half of the nineteenth century in part because its traditional representational functions had been usurped by the new craft of photography. But cinema isn't threatened by photography. Cinema is photography. In any case, in the name of this formalism, Harvey has neglected many good movies. And he has favored with his own refined connoisseurship too many bad movies. It's less than those good films--and more than the bad ones--deserve. Daniel Wattenberg is a writer in Washington, D.C. November 26, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 11
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