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Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Style vs. ‘Style’: The Good, the Bad, and the Whatever

[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1980]

Junior high-school memory (Art class? English? Doesn’t matter): “art = form + content.” Sez who? Sez the teacher, who does not want to be bothered with picky questions about art, won’t say anything about form that she can’t test you on via the multiple-choice method, and wants to read essays only on what the poem is about.

Does style come into this anywhere? Oh, sure. Somewhere, vaguely, grudgingly. “The author’s style”—that is, his way of doing things; sort of a signatory manner. Nice to have, but apparently not so necessary as form and content. Consoling words, form and content: art sounds evanescent, indefinable, but form and content smack of industry and consumerism. Style is something extra, a conversation piece, maybe even frivolous, like a car cigarette lighter or power windows. You could get where they wanted you to go without it—to the pragmatic, this-will-be-good-for-you-and-prepare-you-for-life meaning (or “message” as the student mind, quick to psych out the priorities, swiftly translates it). A piss-poor destination, to say nothing of how it scants the pleasures of the trip.

YES – Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, ‘The Wild Bunch’

Huge title card: “THEN—”. Followed by: “Content, as I see it, is a series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience.” Sergei Eisenstein, you are so right! (I wish I liked your movies more.) Shocks as content—the junior-high equation trembles, previously secure elements threaten to swap sides. What Eisenstein theorized about cinema goes for writing, too: words as shocks; shocks arranged in a certain sequence. Words call up images and the images recur, mutate, cross-refer as the words extend in linear space and the reading experience extends in time. “Content” is not content; “the meaning” is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, stripmining through “the story” to get to “the themes.” “The meaning” is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon’s gravity. Content is what happens, from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one’s life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.

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Review: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

I was going to put Looking for Mr. Goodbar on my end-of-the-year list as “Best Film of 1967.” But although Richard Brooks’ self-consciously flashy techniques are at least that dated, I think even a decade ago his shallow, cheating approach to both subject and audience would have been seen for what it is. Several times in the course of the film, Brooks segues his narrative line into a surprising but dead-end sequence that—after a shock-cut back to reality—proves to have been a fantasy of the main character, Terry Dunn. The first couple of times this happens, the audience has no basis for regarding the sequence as fantasy, since Terry is never portrayed as a woman who can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Even later, the audience picks up on the cutaways to fantasy only because by now it is on to Brooks’s tricks. Never does the device have any integral bearing on the film’s theme or style.

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