Thursday, December 23, 2010

Some Came Running (2)

If in the twenty-first century we were to try to shoehorn Some Came Running into the famous Comolli-Narboni classification system, what category might we place it in?  What are the indicators that this film is fundamentally of its system ... or critical of it on level of form ... or perhaps critical of it on the level of "content," but even more skeptical in terms of its formal coherence?  I am unconvinced that we can ascribe fixed political significance to a work of art without any audience, engaging with and using the text.  But this is the sort of question that nags for a reason.  It presumes some kind of intentionality, or at least consequence, for the object in question.  When the dust of film history finally settles - in a few centuries or in a few years - the second nature of classical Hollywood's foundational status will be a very alien thing indeed.  How would one explain to the children of the 24th century the differences between Tashlin and Taurog, between Phil Karlson and Felix E. Feist, between Sinatra and Vince Edwards, between even MGM and Monogram?  Sure, the evidence of Hawks is on the screen.  But one must be primed to receive that evidence.  (The task could be greater - I imagine contemporary art, after the collapse of civilization, will be utterly incomprehensible to even the most tireless of Mad Maxian Vasaris.)

The broader legacy of Cahiers criticism - which is not necessarily the best possible legacy of its best work - entails a set of stances and polemics.  The positional of this criticism has frequently outshone the substance of the Cahiers' positions themselves - which is why, when people these days tend to talk about "auteurs" one is inclined to hear comments like, "The auteur is the ultimate producer of meaning in a film - and I do/don't agree with that."  (If I "don't," it's because "film is a collaborative art form.")  Thought gets replaced with a few protocols of taste and expression on the part of the critical viewer.  I would be happier, myself, if one were to redirect the line of questioning to something like, What questions in this body of cinema may we draw out?  (I am a firm believer that the brow height of one's object of analysis is almost completely irrelevant.  The worth of the question one asks is paramount.)  Because if the broad legacy of Cahiers criticism, and/or of formalist or auteurist criticism, is to find and appreciate "recognizable styles," what gets lost is the historical particularity of the dominant, classical Hollywood cinema.  The slightly hermetic, circular quality of this reaction - industry versus style, a rehashing of art versus commerce - somewhere gets forgotten in a ditch.  The particularity of Hollywood rose to the level of universal application, so much so that film aesthetics and history are almost always discussed in constant relation to industry.  (Not always in an explicit way, certainly not always in a politicized way ... but there you have it.) 

After the classical Hollywood cinema is long gone from the memory of those living, and exists only as it has been handed down (mutating) from generation to generation of viewers, what will be the point of picking out a recognizable style from this body of cinema, which will look fairly coherent against the contrasts of wider audiovisual media culture?  The whole of cinema will present a very different way of apprehending a "figure" (a style, a film, an author - an object to which we direct our concentration) and "ground" (the cinema, the society, etc.).  For the mid-century auteurists the inevitability of Hollywood cinema constituted its "ground," and this is how the entire polemic of authorial styles and "men of cinema" came to be negotiated at that particular moment - in France and in anglophone contexts.  But the cult of distinctive style, when ripped from the context of a culture and an industry and a tradition that helps produce it, quickly dissipates as a critical methodology.  If Vincente Minnelli is worth talking about - and he is! - it is not because his films ("his" films?) exhibit abstracted aesthetic merit independent of their context.  It is because his name and the work to which it is appended connects a number of threads in a vast network.  These threads of distinction under his very nomination (as author-figure) also connect to innumerable other names, protocols, and groupings.  And Some Came Running, to return to the example at hand, presents a series of sensual and intellectual passages, movements through eye and ear and mind which morph through different layers of "text," in and out of the "text," with considerable dexterity and richness.  I would not say it's an inexhaustible film, but it would take many more than my two viewings for me to get a sense of when it could be exhausted.

Dana Polan proposes that "widescreen composition serves as a signal of Dave's inability to open up to others, to let emotional engagement with other people into his life, and to even notice such people from within the protective space he has built up around himself."  The substance of this composition is - as Joe McElhaney has it - a balance between decor and actor.

If one looks at a lot of shots from Some Came Running, one sees the actors frequently cut off by objects (occasional bit part actors) in the foreground.  These objects are not obtrusive; the formal technique is not meant to be ostentatious in the way that might induce "distance" or "parametric style."  It stands in contrast to many films with big, multi-talented stars, where musical numbers or other show pieces might have the effect of a dramatic "blue screen," i.e., the star's the thing and we have a very explicit figure/ground distinction.  I think that Some Came Running's style of blocking and framing prompts one to contextualize the performances differently.  In a film full of characters with big personalities, and a few big stars, constantly embedding their bodies in weighty space helps to keep the film from seeming, well, "vehicular."  That is, the charismatic nodes of Sinatra-Dave, Martin-Bama, and also Maclaine-Ginny are maintained within the body of the melodrama.  While a viewer may be very keenly aware of the Rat Pack metatext here, the form works to finesse (not ignore) that sort of energy.

Upon the film's release, critic Richard Coe of the Washington Post criticized it for having "three vivid personality extensions, but not, I think, real acting."  It could be that the leads in this film do not offer "real acting" - and big movie stars have rarely ever offered this according to whichever conventions of "real acting" are en vogue - the best to be hoped for is usually more along the lines of a meaningful, rich, complex, audacious, or otherwise bold utilization of a star's image by the larger film itself.  Make the interplay between star and character like a mobius strip.  Consequently, regardless of how much or how little one might know about a star's "star text," the film itself - in this case Some Came Running - is highly readable as a study of expansive personalities.  The star excess that surrounds the film is implied by the narrative and the mise-en-scene as well.  But these latter don't "express" the star excess so much as work simultaneous to it, and with it, and with each other.  There is no beginning to this film (unless one means the running time), no origin or basis; its text is porous, a house with more thresholds than we can see from any one vantage point.


Anonymous said...


A really fantastic post and quite a nice Christmas present for those of us who like this sort of thing.

A couple of stray thoughts...

The emphatic noise about the "industry" or the system needing to be addressed in criticism might be because the visual or spectacular nature of the cinema meant that there was quite a bit of self-consistency/legitimization practice going on, and still going on but FORMALLY...that is, that people didn't need to hold councils of nicea to regulate cinema-dogma -- the dogma was up on the screen and certified by the public.

Taking the long view, you are right that individual styles won't matter much, except that what you are calling the network will be another construct -- due to the historical loss of a large percentage of the tapestry (the films that will be extant will be reverse engineered to tell the story of cinema) much as we have to use the films that have survived to imperfectly tell the story of 1900-1910. But scholars of the future will operate as usual with a profound sense of certainty.

Zach Campbell said...

Well-put comments, anonymous!

successwithusana said...

It won't have effect in actual fact, that's what I suppose.