[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.
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.
James Agee once complained of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out and John Ford’s The Fugitive that they used allegory “wrong end to”—that is, imposed their respective allegories on reality rather than coaxing them to “bloom from and exalt reality.” That was in 1947; and it is worth noting that Agee still managed to judge the films among the best of the year, endeavors whose aesthetic and moral seriousness he could value even as he quarreled in very basic terms with their conception, attack, and (the Ford, at least) ideological content.
Agee’s “wrong end to” stayed with me. The phrase itself has a colloquial terseness about it (a cracker-barrel nugget from the critic’s Tennessee past?). But more important, it speaks for a kind of essential differentiation that needs making with regard to a lot of films, allegorical and otherwise. I recall it particularly whenever I come up against a movie that appears to have been made with an especial resolve to achieve a high degree of resonance, ambiguity, stylistic complexity—and failed. In some cases this seems to have occurred as a direct result of the moviemakers’ dead-setness to be distinctive; in others, because of a fundamental confusion of form with formula, style with technique. The film may be redolent of earnestness, intelligence, even a certain order of misdirected imagination. But it does not breathe.
Self-consciousness is not the enemy. No one is more self-conscious than Josef von Sternberg, yet Sternberg triumphs precisely by forcing the viewer to accept the absoluteness of his outrageousness, to abandon all hope of getting a fix on any landmark outside the terrain of the director’s imagination. His every gesture—with light, texture, puppetlike deployment of acting personnel—is made with the idea of defining and celebrating a private world. Contact with his exultation and his pain is utterly direct: we touch his films through our eyes and ears, but our hands are in the wound.
Rouben Mamoulian and Lewis Milestone (to cite two examples from the same time-frame and, for a while, the same studio) display a selfconsciousness at once comparable and quite dissimilar to Sternberg’s. Every bit as deliberate in their artifice, and nearly as extreme upon occasion, they never cease—even at their most satisfying—to be academic in design and intention. Their ingenuity can be entertaining, but it remains distant and precious.
Mamoulian keeps faith with the triviality of his ostensible subjects; he dresses them to advantage, but he does not transcend them; he can be bright and clever, but when his material is turgid (Blood and Sand) or intractable (We Live Again), so will his film be. Milestone tends to reach for more avowedly “important” subjects, but even as he displays a classical appreciation of key cinematic principles—visual unity of foreground and background planes (All Quiet‘s soldiers-to-be in their classroom while troops drill outside the window), linking camera energy to character energy (admiringly tracking Adolphe Menjou’s Walter Burns through the roaring print shop), the possibilities for syncopation in camera movement and montage (countless troops tracked laterally as they march into all-embracing battle—the concept almost invariably obtrudes itself before the spectacle: and the concept is cut-and-dried.
Two movements from a single sequence in All Quiet on the Western Front describe the limits of Milestone’s sensibility—indeed, of his integrity. When enemy troops charge the German trenches, a lateral track along a barbed-wire barrier is synchronized with the collapse of charging men as they come into camera-range; it is as though the camera itself were a machine gun (the previous shot was of a machine-gun crew opening fire), and when the Germans’ counter-attack is photographed in the same manner a few moments later, a lucid statement is made about war as a machine indifferently chewing up lives.
But midway between these shots comes a spate of hand-to-hand combat. Milestone again tracks, this time from a slightly raised camera position looking down into the trenches. As his camera arrives at each defender’s position, an enemy soldier likewise arrives to leap in on his opposite number. Unlike the camera-as-machine-gun-fire ploy, this shot lacks organic, intrinsic logic; or, more accurately, it is based on a logic at variance with that controlling the rest of the sequence. The careful synchronization of camera’s-arrival with enemy-soldier’s-arrival is entirely a function of the desire for distinctive spectacle. The moralist behind the camera has been displaced by an obscene choreographer. Technical bravura has outrun stylistic sense. And style is conscience—even conscience in default.
Ironically, Milestone’s most satisfying film may be the flagrantly ersatz-Sternberg The General Died at Dawn, where the very relentlessness of the director’s (not-inconsiderable) visual and editorial imagination emphasizes how much style has to labor to make up for wanting substance. Such a description might apply also to an authentic Sternberg film—except that style becomes substance for Sternberg: beauty wrested from tawdriness, profundity from apparent shallowness, out of rage against an outside world that has devalued beauty and erected false canons of truth and relevance.
The Milestone is clearly more an exercise in sleight-of-hand for its own cheeky sake. And yet it is weirdly moving. Its expressiveness does not reside in the garbled Odetsian pretensions toward a political consciousness, but rather in that relentlessness of decorative imagination, which inadvertently communicates the despair of a wiseacre with nothing to say and a great deal of talent with which to say it—an emotion that, handily enough, rhymes with the cynical romanticism of the film’s characters.
If this inadvertently disclosed despair is moving in Milestone’s case, it is chilling when distilled out of such artifacts of the “Film Generation” era as The Thomas Crown Affair and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The technological razzledazzle of the new cinemobility has opened so many routes to dead ends. There is a real sense of loss at the end of Thomas Crown, but not because Crown has eluded love as well as retribution in the form of a diligent insurance investigator, nor even because Steve McQueen has done a bunk on his stellar pairing with Faye Dunaway: That a pretty toy like a plane should render Crown/McQueen inaccessible, a jet trail against the cold blue, as Dunaway tips her well-coifed head in double defeat, seems confessionally appropriate in a film where the bright and shiny momentum of so many recent Oscar contenders (Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde; McQueen, The Sand Pebbles; Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby, Haskell Wexler, In the Heat of the Night) and the split-screen embellishments of Pablo Ferro come to absolutely naught. That naught is what we get in place of style, and it is death to the soul.
At least Thomas Crown frankly acknowledged disenchantment as its subject (remember “The Windmills of Your Mind,” likely to remain the bleakest theme song ever to win an Academy Award). George Roy Hill’s and William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy is one of the most definitively devious movies ever made. The film milked laughs (some of them very good ones) by undercutting several generations’ worth of reverence for Western superheroes; simultaneously it sneaked around the back way to turn its protagonists into the sort of heroes acceptable in the hipVietnam War age. New styles sought to replace the old at every level. Note the plural there: we’re talking styles/fashion, not style/aesthetic substance.
Burt Bacharach’s la-di-da melodies and Conrad Hall’s desaturated colors and long-lens softness were cosmetically appropriate to the film’s evasiveness. Hill/Goldman/Hall dodged into sepia-toned stillwork for Butch, Sundance, and Etta’s New York idyll, shrewdly avoiding a lot of period expense, but also substituting this New Wave–y mannerism for cinematic subtlety in catching the mood and makeup of the trio at that point in time. The device also prepared for the ultimate evasion: ending the movie with the heroes lunging into sepia-toned freezeframe—a miraculous intercession to save viewers from watching them blasted to pieces by the Bolivian army; myth made painless. That so trendy a technique should provide the film with its poster-art apotheosis was damningly apt. This was the new sentimentality that congratulated itself on denouncing sentimentality.
Other sentimentalists were willing to pay the price for immortality. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, made the same year as Butch Cassidy, likewise ended on a freezeframe, and one that took even more advantage of new technological means to extend the director’s vision: the Bunch is seen in heroic near-silhouette riding our of a Mexican village, then the image freezes and slowly recedes into the depths of the frame, whose edges are then filled up with an out-of-focus, luminous verdure. This is a memory, now heightened by a nostalgia that the intervening hour and more of screen-time has created the legitimate possibility of: the Bunch riding out of a ravaged community that has taken on the yearning, ironic identity of Eden. They and we and Peckinpah have earned the transfiguration by registering every ensuing spasm, every fall.
Likewise, Richard Lester and the other Goldman, James, remade Butch Cassidy surreptitiously (commercially sneaky of them, aesthetically honorable) as Robin and Marian, and exacted the full measure of emotional pain in the romantic triangle (Rob–Marian–Little John) and physical pain in passing out of a blighted, anachronistic life. A grave-seeking arrow disappears into the infinite whiteness of an empty screen—which whiteness is subsequently revealed to have remained real-life space after all, when the camera descends to discover its closing image, three apples gone to rot.
Indeed, among contemporary commercial filmmakers, only Alan J. Pakula equals Lester’s instinct for the absoluteness of screen-space; while Pakula espouses the stately rhythms of a Murnau, Lester more often makes eloquence of frenzy. He seems to know that the sophisticated lenses, sensitive emulsion, and agile machinery of the modern cinema can catch beauty with such ease, the responsibility to be worthy of the medium is awesome. From the snowfields of “Ticket to Ride” in Help! to the out-of focus shimmers of light and color framing the microcosmic Juggernaut, the extreme busyness of his films and frames has always been deployed against nothingness.
Death goes hand in hand with narrative continuity, each frame displacing the one that went before. It’s that or a blank screen. The onset of narrative extinction is both forestalled and measured by formal memory. We respond to correspondences between shot setups, scene structures, movements, colors, lines of dialogue, inflections, intonations, anything for an earnest of coherence. This was; in mutated form, it recurs; but it will end.
That a particular generation is called upon to invent an artform is partly an accident of history. When, say, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock defined their own world views on celluloid, they also helped define the cinema as a medium of ambiguity, and how can we now sort out which way cause-and-effect was running? Any detail of a film’s composition, any impulse of energy it may contain and batten on, is finite, susceptible of isolation and scrutiny; but with Bergsonian perversity the organism will yield its true character only if left alive, whole, and in motion. The finite is part of the whole; its meaning ripples in its context, and it, of course, is part of the context of all the other finites. (We call it mise-en-scène.) Lang and Hitchcock found generic homes where, to an extent, plot and formulaic characterization congenially masked the deeper meanings of their styles. Like Poe’s purloined letter, they could be so casually open as to be undetectable in their subtlety.
Along come other generations. Lang’s and Hitchcock’s ambiguities have become cinema classicism, doped out in articles, studied in film schools (they have film schools now). Guys who were “just telling a good story” (to borrow from another auteur) have, in fact, coined a whole language, grammar, and syntax. And languages being what they are, somebody else wants to speak it. Different somebodies.
Eyes of Laura Mars was released in the summer of 1978 amid a saturation ad campaign, played multiple showcases for a few weeks, and dropped out of sight to await a reprise on pay TV. It was easy to dismiss as a producer’s package (Jon Peters), a marker-researched gratification kit in wrapping paper by Vera. The director, Irvin Kershner, hadn’t made a good movie in years, and the ones he had made (A Fine Madness, Loving) suggested he was miscast for either tawdry sensationalism or—an admitted possibility, given the material—a probing, advisedly voluptuous critique of media chic.
The film was built around the kinesthetic excitement of Laura Mars’ profession, fashion photographer, and the proposition that she has locked into the perceptions of an unknown psychic twin who was going around murdering people—eventually, the people in Laura’s photo spreads, and in her personal and professional life. In eerie symbiosis, Laura seemed to supply the killer with both motive and victims, while he provided her, through their shared vision, with the inspiration for her trendy, Helmut Newtonish art. And oh yes, the victims got it through the eyes with an awl. How intrinsically “cinematic” can you get!
Intrinsic, schminsic. Kershner bent himself to the task of devising nifty juxtapositions of characters and their reflections in mirrors, pretexts for models to freezeframe into photogenic poses, montages in which the scream of Laura’s auto-wind camera dubbed in the cries of the victim whose murder was concurrently taking place. Exciting? Wrong. Programmatic as hell. We got point-of-view shots ad nauseam, the killer on the prowl with Laura having her involuntary look-in, till we learned the pattern well enough to be teased by variations. That early sunlight gilding Laura’s loft—is it just a time-of-day effect or a signal that the murderer, whose POVs are orange-ringed iris (!) shots, is nearby? A character is tracked along the sidewalk by floaty subjective camera—nope, it’s OK, just cops surveilling one of the likely victims, except Haha! a minute later, spike goes the assassin.
Dimly perceptible beneath this cattle-prod technique was the awesome symmetry of Fritz Lang’s designs for a Mabusian universe, Hitchcock’s Chinese-thumbscrew rhythms, the once-suggestive conceit of the doppelgänger, formal intuitions of inextricably shared guilt, the inescapable complicity of auteur, character, and viewer. How far Kershner was from comprehending or caring about such things could be measured by the final, lethal encounter of the psychic twins (slip in an interim generation there: strong self-destruction-by-proxy echo of Chabrol’s Le Boucher), wherein the killer switched psychopathic syndromes so rapidly (in a much-edited sequence that suggested the actor had had to try on several separate readings) that the anything-for-a-resolution ineptness became overtly hilarious.
Within a few months we would have reason to assume that someone, after all, had known what he was about in sounding those echoes: the initial screenwriter, John Carpenter, several stages removed from Eyes‘ realization. Carpenter’s own Halloween establishes an unverbalizable but completely compelling connection between its teenage female protagonist and the murderous male interloper from the hometown past, simply by photographing a virginal Jamie Lee Curtis walking away from us singing a song about a secret love, with the dark-jacketed shoulder of “The Shape” sidestepping into foreground right.
Carpenter’s feeling for the dynamics of frame-space is evident from the opening shot, an extended take through the eves of a murderer-to-be; indeed, from the main title shot itself, a glowing jack-o’-lantern growing ever bigger in one half of the Panavision frame while the other half remains black, available for … anything. Virtually every shot contains corners, apertures, black holes potentially fillable by a white ghost of a face; and the ever-drifting camera eve (superb Panaglide work by Ray Stella) may be just the neutral, conveniently mobile recorder of the scene, or an inhabited point of view, an indicator of the one direction the vulnerable characters ought not to proceed in. No forms have been imposed here, no stylistic tradition invoked to cover for a lack of stylistic conviction on the part of the filmmaker. Style is absolute, personal, and direct. You get it in the eye, and it can scare the shit out of you.
Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma are, like Carpenter, certifiably children of the movies. They acknowledge this explicitly with film clips and reconstituted quotes, implicitly by raiding the genres and specific classics for narrative structures. Scorsese is arguably more personal leading us through the Metro musical redivivus of New York, New York than through the actual precincts of his youth in Mean Streets. He grafts Hollywood classicism (Boris Leven set design and A.S.C. superstars) onto the ostensibly ultracontemporary, raucous, real-life art-experience of a rock concert in The Last Waltz: from Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera position at the back of the hall we see another camera crew riding a boom behind the act onstage, and we want to cut to that angle and he does and it’s a glorious frisson, yanked into the movie to ride Minnellian crane with the Bad and the Beautiful.
We see the first scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the baking-red Gone With the Wizard of Oz memory of Monterey, and say Yes, it was right to do that, the last scene on the last soundstage at Columbia, and if it had been the last soundstage in the world it would still have been right. Cut to present-day Alice singing out her cracking heart somewhere under the palm fronds of Socorro, and those fronds are flattened back by the prop-wash of the helicopter that is carrying the camera that is photographing the scene; and it’s not vapor-trail-in-a-Western or tire-tracks-in-the-middle-of-the-Crusades, somehow it’s part and parcel of Alice’s own energy: the hovering presence of the movie-in-the-making is validation, not violation, of the movie we see.
De Palma’s Carrie trashes the senior prom to a fare-thee-well and then, from outside the gym, we watch the doors swing open at no corporeal touch and the silhouette of Carrie all but float out of the fire. Unlike many of his hommages, this De Palma memory of Nosferatu‘s Max Schreck moving toward the final act of his supernatural career feeds right into the dynamics of the present film, retroactively cuing us, if we have not appreciated it heretofore, that De Palma has been developing his own quasi-Murnavian world: the kid bicycling in and out of separate visual fields among the telephoto-compressed trees, the dream suitor materialized outside Carrie’s screen door.
In Phantom of the Paradise, Phoenix’s star number astonishes the movie audience as much as the one in Swan’s rock palace. “Our love is an old love, baby”: the mesmerizing performer in the beam of light guided by the “director” whose intervention has created the circumstance, the opportunity, the event. A star is born; and, for all the flagrant elbow-in-the-ribs quotesmanship of the movie, the media magic lunging from straight to satirical, parody to pastiche, the emphasis on Jessica Harper’s too-muchness during her earlier audition, this scene is valid. Indeed, it would not be valid without those ferocious tensions to shape and propel it into the sudden, exquisite stillness suspended around Phoenix’s song.
That, for me, was De Palma at the peak. For all their isolated coups, Obsession finds the quotation marks locked too firmly in place and The Fury is sheer decadence, the negative prototype of the film d’auteur: stylistic razzmatazz segment by segment, finally brought down by a blithe unconcern for its own logic-system. (“Mommy, if the boy could float in midair a minute ago, why did he get killed falling off the roof?”) We get isolated tours de force, wishfully justified by continuity-markers from other De Palmas: horrific breakdown-of-the-nuclear-family jokes, Amy Irving barefoot in a robe, a girl freaking out in an upstairs room. Has De Palma OD’d on energy?
“Energy” has become the new cliché of film criticism, which is a damn shame since the cinema is a medium of energy and energy is what that Eisenstein definition was all about. “Energy” as a cop-out for mindless noise and jitter is reprehensible. But energy, sans quotes, can be lucid, multivalenced, aesthetically informed, and beautiful in ways unique to cinema.
Steven Spielberg misapplies it in 1941, but illuminates the world and his medium with it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Close Encounters is, like any other good movie, about mise-en-scène, the transliteration of energy. “The sun sang to me last night,” an old derelict beams. The dissonant but regular chant on a mountain inIndia is echoed on the toy flute of anIndiana boy, while his mother finds herself painting an odd rock formation into all her pictures and a newly-ex power company employee (he’s chasing a new power) looks for it in rumpled pillows and bowls of mashed potatoes. Form finally compels its own content. Music becomes light, gesture, mathematical formula, the patterns described in space by celestial craft in motion. The metamorphosis of reality, the rediscovery of possibility, the translation of idea into visible action: what movies do: why movies exist. The foremost pleader of the UFO cause is played by one François Truffaut, movie director.
This is energy as style, style as energy. It’s radiant because it’s been defined by a cinematic sensibility: What Spielberg’s seeing and the way he sees it are one. Unfortunately, some filmmakers approach their medium not as a way of seeing, but as a way of showing. They seek to travel on found energy rather than generate their own.
If writer John Carpenter’s cinematic vision was betrayed by director Irvin Kershner’s by-the-numbers realization of Eyes, Richard Brooks as writer-director of Looking for Mr. Goodbar seems at war with himself. The film fairly shrieks antinomy from the opening juxtaposition of color motion pictures against black-and-white stills. Its protagonist, played by Diane Keaton, is represented as leading two lives, “St. Theresa by day and swinging Terry by night,” the separate roles a strobelike contradiction/intensification of each other.
Brooks also tries to play subjective experience off against objective reality, and soon fastens on mirrors (and their variants: photographs, paintings, closed-circuit TVs in the singles bar) as indices of this—this and every other form of disassociation going down: estrangement (onscreen character plus reflection of offscreen character only nominally occupying the same screen-space), calculated hypocrisy, the interchangeability of victim and user roles, reality vs. illusion, ostensible reality (“Who said I wanted to spend the night anyway?”) and concealed truth (the reflection of a turned-away face that reveals hurt and disappointment). It’s thoughtfully put together for us, but the would-be stylistic complexity keeps resolving into doped-out case history; we don’t discover truth, we keep finding the template; the signposts don’t direct us along a journey, they pin us down, we jumpcut from one to the next.
Terry Dunn’s story fits a case-history format, but Keaton’s heroic performance keeps her a self-aware, thrillingly whole human being no matter how much the people around her—and Brooks’s forms—seek to schematize her. And yet it would be preposterous to suggest (as many nevertheless have suggested) that the actress achieved this without a quite independent director of several decades’ professional experience noticing, or having something to do with the achievement. Plot says that the character will die, and the film itself terminates with strobelike black-and-white stills of her, blinking erratically, growing smaller, fading; yet Terry Dunn lives, over and above any meaning designed to contain her. It is as though the director, appalled and fascinated by Terry’s case, had died in her stead, through his film. “Our love is an old love, baby”: Richard Brooks has achieved a more legitimate expressiveness than ever before, by playing out the passionate schizophrenia of his point of view—to the end. The showing of one case history became the inadvertent seeing-through of his own, as it were. The whole movie was a big mirror he may not have knowingly set in place. Style vs. “style.” Style won.
At last year’s Oscar ceremonies, Francis (Ford) Coppola wound up the presentation of the Best Director award by advising his audience that they had no idea, no idea at all yet, what movies could do, what the wonderfully sophisticated technology of the future was going to make possible. The advance plug for Apocalypse Now came through loud and clear, but when the film itself emerged after years of gestation, production, and delay, its complexity proved to consist, as in early Coppolas, of restating the same public-domain perceptions several times over. American Zoetrope became Omni Zoetrope, but Coppola the tomorrow-the-world supertechnologist proved inadequate to translate the world of Conrad the stylist to the screen. A journey to the Heart of Darkness? We’ll drop the light level reel by reel. Literalists can’t be stylists: the textural richness of 70mm dissolves does not automatically make for visual poetry, and resonance implies more than mixing twenty-seven layers on the soundtrack. Apocalypse is geophysically deep, aesthetically thin.
Coppola aspires to be Godfather to the new American cinema, but 1979 ended up belonging to the modest Robert Benton, grand old man of the children of the movies. Kramer vs. Kramer is knocking audiences out of their socks, not only because of its deeply felt characterizations and movingly generous vision of human relationships, but also because its impeccable frames and astute editorial rhythms define and deliver more kinesthetic energy than any ten Apocalypse Nows and Black Stallions. Benton’s triumph is gratifying as a rebuke to so many trivializing lightshows, and as a consummation of the virtues of American narrative classicism.
Benton had directed only two previous films. Bad Company was a haunting study in frontier mise-en-scène every bit as beautiful as the later, more conspicuously rapturous Days of Heaven. If Bad Company was a meditation on the lost innocence of the Western and Romanticism, The Late Show seemed just as much a meditation on the L.A. private-eve genre. Charles Rosher’s color cinematography caught the soft breath of California heat without getting fussy about it; and there was a conversation between Art Carney and Bill Macy at a shoeshine stand whose behavioral and cutting rhythms seemed a miraculous marriage of Seventies laidbackness and Forties “invisible editing.” I had the opportunity to ask Benton whether he was deliberately going for a Forties style of cutting there, as opposed to the equally apt emphasis on visual integrity in Bad Company. He may not have heard the note of compliment: “Yeah,” he said, thinking of the long-take sequences in Bad Company, “that was my fault. I didn’t shoot enough coverage. Well, it was only my first film….”
Style takes care of its own.
Film Comment, March-April 1980
Copyright © 1980 by Richard T. Jameson