Train Loads of Ammunition

Philip Horne

  • Immoral Memories by Sergei Eisenstein, translated by Herbert Marshall
    Peter Owen, 292 pp, £20.00, June 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0650 0
  • A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema: 1930-1980 by Robert Ray
    Princeton, 409 pp, £48.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 691 04727 8
  • Suspects by David Thomson
    Secker, 274 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 436 52014 1
  • Cahiers du Cinéma. Vol. I: The 1950s. Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave edited by Jim Hillier
    Routledge with the British Film Institute, 312 pp, £16.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7100 9620 8

In his own words ‘a queer fish’, Sergei Eisenstein declares at one point in this 1946 memoir that he worked amphibiously, by extremes. ‘I create an arbitrary and capricious flood in my films. Then I endeavour to divide this flood with the dry beats of a metronome, according to its conformity with certain principles.’ Eisenstein’s dialectic of riot and order can stand as a prime instance of the way in which others have struggled to discipline, exorcise or justify their passionate relations with films. This powerful medium is still less than a hundred years old, its soundtracks less than sixty, its success with colour about fifty. We don’t yet know – or at least we don’t agree – how seriously to take it; but in its reduced form (television’s screens are on average 160 times smaller) most of us do take it somehow.

Eisenstein was aware of the possibilities of the cinema as just a powerful medium, an efficient technology, imposing certain hard conditions on its users but putting in their grasp a novel and attractive – to some an alarming – capacity to influence. The ‘certain principles’ with which, godlike, he attempted to ‘divide’ the ‘flood’, getting ‘conformity’ into its motions, had, that is, not only an aesthetic aspect but also a historically-determined direction: that of the Soviet revolutionary struggle. The passage of time diminished the appropriateness of the original direction, and in 1932 Eisenstein, having out-stayed his leave of absence trying to make Que viva Mexico!, found disfavour in the eyes of Russia’s most powerful viewer, Stalin. This was a quarrel, however, between a dictator for whom the cinema was straightforwardly an ideological tool and a brilliant, quirky director whose sophisticated aesthetics yet more than half allowed for a cinema of indoctrination. Eisenstein had already, in the late Twenties, expounded a theory about ‘the emotionalisation of intellectual concepts’: a systematised polemical (‘progressive’) distortion to take place in the processes of cinematic representation. The ‘arbitrary and capricious flood’ of 1946 precedes its dry division; in Eisenstein’s earlier scheme the ‘intellectual concepts’ are presumably the prime material which the process floods with affects. We could think better of Eisenstein for being inconsistent here, since two half-truths are better than one; and the earlier account is more officially presentable: but the divergence between the emphasis on film-making as empirical aesthetic analysis of things and as political propaganda using things can be seen as a central division among those who make, or take, films seriously.

This difficulty is distractingly compounded by all those less revolutionary film-makers supposedly seeking neither to analyse nor to propagandise, but ‘simply to entertain’ us. Such a claim ought to make anyone suspicious, and in these Immoral Memories Eisenstein sarcastically recalls his doomed project in 1930 to film Dreiser’s An American Tragedy in Hollywood: ‘Paramount’s bosses dreamed of making the “sensational” novel into “just another” (though dramatic) story of “boy meets girl,” without going into any “side issues”.’ The quoted phrases scarcely give the vigorous measure of Hollywood reactionary philistinism, a quantity of which its incarnation, the Russian-born MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, gives us a mouthful twenty years later, reported in Lilian Ross’s Picture. Mayer’s colourful words come from a more embattled epoch; at the time of McCarthy it’s inconceivable that any Soviet director should have been given a Hollywood contract in the first place; but we might note Eisenstein wanted to make it an exemplary American tragedy by ‘depicting the society and the morals that impelled Clyde to do everything he did’, whereas Louis B. Mayer wants to see ‘the good, wholesome, American mother in the home’ (that second comma registering how ‘American’ is to ring out against everything ‘un-American’). There had been a precedent for Eisenstein’s 1930 fiasco with Dreiser in Erich Von Stroheim’s with McTeague by Frank Norris, made into the ten hours of Greed in 1923 and then cut (by a studio that had merged to become MGM) down to a quarter of its length. Greed was another depiction of American society and morals, and an extravagant work of ‘art!’, and so was bad business. Films are almost always implicated either with the entertainment industry or with the state, for they require many more resources than the tools of writer or painter. As the Marxist Pierre Kast put it in 1951, in the second issue of Cahiers du Cinéma,‘the major problem is acquiring the wherewithal, and the restrictions implied by this have absolutely nothing in common with the kind of formal constraints imposed by the fugue, say, or the heroic couplet.’

Eisenstein’s strange, thrilling book, a montage of memories and ideas rushing in on him and ‘divided’ only into glinting, abrupt little paragraphs and obliquely-titled chapters, is so ‘free’ partly because it is a book, its ‘means of production’ just a pen and paper. After the frustration of three unmade Hollywood scripts, the disastrous hackings-down of Que viva Mexico! by its cinematically ignorant and over-suspicious producer Upton Sinclair, the disapproval of Stalin and ‘the years, following the Mexican trauma, when I could not make films’, the Stalinist proscription of Bezhin Meadow (1937) and prescriptions of Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1940-1945), the last unfinished, its second part suppressed for an unorthodox emphasis – after all this, Eisenstein had a heart attack in February 1946, and Immoral Memories is the work of his convalescence. In 1934 he had lamented the institutional and technological dead weight burdening the creations of the cinema – ‘the movie is heavy artillery with train loads of ammunition, while our colleagues of the pen are light cavalry’ – and now, approaching death, writes with the evident exhilaration of one released into a literary mobility limited only by the bounds of his imagination. ‘I began to write these memoirs with the sole purpose of giving myself free rein to drift in the vortices and whirlpools of free association,’ he announces, and though this sounds unpromising, his instinct for framing, timing, caricature and colouring restrains the book’s dazzle of spontaneity with the seriousness of one who has thought long and fairly deeply. The writing could not be said to show self-knowledge or wisdom, perhaps, and Eisenstein admits this, admits, even, its ‘completely shameless narcissism’: but, alertly translated by Eisenstein’s former student Herbert Marshall, it is a convincing demonstration of Baudelaire’s idea that ‘the convalescent, like the child, possesses in the highest degree the capacity to take an acute interest in things, even those that seem most trivial.’

In fact, most of the material in the book – the experiences of a Tsarist childhood and revolutionary adolescence, of military campaigns, theatrical collaborations and encounters with the famous across the world – has an intrinsic interest even without the sharp outlining and fierce dramatic manipulation by which Eisenstein makes it his own. The sensitive, sprawling Cocteau pauses unexpectedly in their talk, then explains that ‘you suddenly seem to me to be bathed in blood.’ Paul Eluard, Eisenstein’s guest, stands up during the swanky first night of La Voix Humaine to shout Merde! Merde! Merde! and be mobbed – in cartoon prose – by the dinner-jacketed audience of the Comédie Française (‘short fat little arms have seized hold of Eluard ... Eluard rolls with a heap of other bodies down the monumental staircase of the Grand Circle’). He reads Russian, French, German, English, American, Spanish and Japanese books – fiction, philosophy, politics, poetry, history, anthropology ... He sketches his uncle, the writer General Butovsky, in a pair of spliced punchlines.

In daily life, he was extraordinarily stingy. So stingy that he died of a heart attack on the day War Loans were nationalised in 1917. And he was no less stingy in his literary craft. He wasted no time, for example, in describing nature. ‘It was one of those dawns that Turgenev describes so inimitably,’ one could read among the other pearls of the general’s pen.

No such ill-worn banalities will do for the excitable Eisenstein, heated by a shot in an early colour film: ‘A blinding red carpet covers the whole area of the screen./A row of white chairs with red upholstery cuts across at a slant./Red exists!’

‘I want to describe how it feels to step for the first time on the soil of the film kingdom, Hollywood,’ Eisenstein tells us at the start of his memoir – but never quite does. This is a pity, but at least his phrase ‘the film kingdom’ aptly suggests both the magical power of Hollywood, and its less than democratic creative constitution. Robert Ray’s A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema: 1930-1980 (its title playing on a controversial 1954 piece about the French cinema by François Truffaut in Cahiers du Cinéma) is the work of an intelligent American lover of American films engaging partly with his political and ethical conscience and partly with the spectre of the influential English film journal Screen, in which the advanced thoughts of Marx, Freud, Althusser and Lacan are brought to bear on film-texts. Much of Screen can be fairly called joyless reading for those who like films, but its awe-inspiring insistence on the pervasiveness of the ‘dominant ideology’ and its puritanical emphasis on the capitalistic ‘economy’ of pleasure in which the spectator is involved have nonetheless cornered the up-market end of ‘Film Studies’. Ray’s instincts seem to oppose this, and his introduction says that ‘the contemporary critical project known loosely as structuralism’ has not only benefited film scholarship through its theoretical sophistication, but has also, through its spread of a disabling scorn about bourgeois notions of factuality, ‘brought historical studies of the cinema to a standstill’.

Fortunately ‘standstill’ overstates the case, and Ray’s own frequently impressive analysis of a number of Hollywood films shares many of its preoccupations with the two most striking works of the English critic who writes best about the American cinema. David Thomson’s magnificent Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (1975 – revised edition, 1980) and his lurid Overexposures: The Crisis in American Film-Making (1981) are the work of an intellectual who loves and distrusts films. Throughout Overexposures, he says, ‘I reproach myself for being captivated by the moving image.’ His desire to sacrifice neither his passion nor his integrity leads him to investigate the relations between an auteur (like Howard Hawks, director of The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo) in whose works he finds pleasure and the milieu from which those works, among many others, issue – the industry of which they form a part. Much recent theory has taken as its premise, and thus made difficult to ignore, the alleged fact of what Robert Ray calls ‘the obvious homogeneity of the American Cinema’, asserting that its occasionally concerted and more often inadvertent way of working to a single end must be the main item for critical consideration.

Ray and Thomson share a preoccupation with such ‘homogeneity’, and this produces a coincidence between A Certain Tendency and the new Suspects, a precious but valuable work on the borderline between fiction and criticism. Of Ray’s five main texts, analysed in terms of the tensions between American ‘mythologies’, four (Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather and Taxi Driver) furnish Thomson with important characters for his odd Nabokovian book, whose chapters are the interconnecting stories of fictitious people in American films, and whose narrator is George Bailey – the James Stewart character from It’s a wonderful life. The family romance is the construction George Bailey discovers in, or reads into, the plots of the films noirs concerned: incestuous, adulterous, murderous and paranoid impulses are shown variously manifesting themselves in a weave of themes and variations – making the work an imaginative piece of genre criticism. It is not a straight reading, however. The characters’ lives are extended before and after the action of their film, while the film itself is often distorted and darkened in the telling (George changes the end of Vertigo, for instance). Marriages that serve as happy conclusions break up soon after ‘The End’ under the stresses demonstrated before it and not satisfactorily dispelled.

Suspects takes off from the suspect idea that our curiosity about the characters in films impels us to fantasise about their past and future. ‘People in movies have a sensational now about them and a mysterious past.’ This is a tackily put insight, but a ‘mysterious past’ may have its value for our imagination in not being imagined by us. To imagine much beyond the scope of the film is a form of projection that may tell us about the projector but can only negatively – by exceeding it – tell us about the original framing of the film, its power of containment. The best films give us pleasure by recognising, and yet not simply indulging, our fantasies; and in this sense Suspects is a de-sublimation, a reduction of the original films through a basic unfaithfulness to their formal properties. Having said this, I should concede that the book vividly suggests in its multiplied plot summaries the parallel between the rules of Hollywood genre and the obsessional nature of fantasy, the simultaneity of departure towards the new with return, at heart, to the same old thing.

David Thomson, born in South London, now lives in San Francisco; and in one respect the book is more true of his adopted America than it is of Britain. Its people, including its narrator, are preoccupied, when reality makes demands of them, with their desire for ‘the melting life of fiction’. They see themselves as living in films, like Death Wish fan Bernard Goetz, or John W. Hinckley Jr thinking himself akin to Travis Bickle, the Taxi Driver: here Travis Bickle is the narrator’s son, and Thomson’s chapter on him acutely treats the ambiguous end of Scorsese’s film as a nightmarish, irreversible arrival on the screen where wishes are realised. ‘It was as if he had passed into a movie in which fact yielded to his fantasies, and the law became a pillow to his unhindered, unrestrained desire.’ Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is a brilliant exposition of the same argument, one whose truth we can sense from seeing less obviously insane Americans on game shows – or hearing them interviewed about their view of world events.

At the book’s best moments this process of inter-reflection between life and film, made a part of the half-deglamorised lives of screen characters, allows Thomson an intense perceptiveness about the ethical implications of film technique. Thus men tell Gilda Farrell (Rita Hayworth in Gilda of 1946) that she ‘should have been in pictures’, not as a wolfish line, but because of something about her – ‘it might be the way the light picked up the back of her head, or her trick of looking past people, so that they felt unnoticed, like a movie camera.’ The second suggestion catches beautifully the impact of that shot just off the eyeline, looking into the face of an actress who acts as if she were unaware of the proximity of her audience, though, really, both the actress and the audience know this is a fiction. For the first idea (our eyes on the back of her head) the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros reminds us in his glowingly honest memoir A Man with a Camera of the trick of the 1940s lighting-man to which Thomson refers – the placing of a ‘light behind to show off the stars’ hairdos and make them stand out against the background’. Almendros, a passionate advocate of natural light, roundly declares that ‘the result had nothing to do with reality.’ Thomson would agree, except that such shots had results in reality: many women carried their heads a few degrees differently, and the meaning of looking past someone was really affected by the cinematic convention.

Though packed with such aperçus, Thomson’s anxieties about the triumph of American films over the relations and responsibilities of real life are amplified out of proportion by the confusions between fact and fiction repeatedly generated by his chosen form. It actively prevents us from doing the work of discrimination that it giddily deplores our lost capacity for. As a text, it is too closed a system, so that when the ‘real’, in the person of the narrator’s wife, speaks at the end to correct her husband who ‘could not look at anything without suspecting its capacity for story’, the archly idiosyncratic singling-out of ‘story’ makes her sound all too like him. The gentle rebuke feels factitious in a way it needn’t have.

For all his admiration of Hawks and other American directors, David Thomson’s accounts of Hollywood are grounded in a sense of the seriousness of what has been possible elsewhere, in Europe and Japan. The secret knowingness of the shot which dwells on Gilda is in his view characteristic of American cinema, whose characters, he says in Over-exposures, lack ‘the all-around raggedness of people in Renoir and Rossellini films, for they are all slyly turned toward us for inspection – they have only that single face.’ There is some plausibility in the idea that the conventional system of American cinema means that most of its greatest films are in some sense studies of exhibitionism and voyeurism, where the elimination of ‘raggedness’ (as in the fantasy-calculations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo) becomes a part of the thematic content. More often, human unpredictability becomes tamed and stereotyped in, for example, the recurrent notion of ‘fun’ in doing ‘crazy things’.

This process of simplification is related to the industrial or commercial qualifications to the integrity of ‘artistic’ intention in most American films: Eisenstein said of the studio bosses he met in 1930 that ‘they are all gamblers,’ but Thomson points out the ways in which Hollywood has increasingly preferred safe bets – ‘nothing has betrayed American film more than its horror of mistake.’ Thus you can have a risky idea like setting a contemporary film among the culturally anachronistic Pennsylvania Dutch (as in the current hit Witness), only to dilute the recalcitrance of this ‘un-American’, camera-shy people – less by centrally casting the Hollywood star Harrison Ford (who acts excellently) as the marooned Philadelphia detective than by making the Amish heroine’s responses subtly not quite derive from the values of her own alien community, and by giving Thomson’s ‘sly turn’ towards the audience to the austere Amish characters.

Witness, which could have been moving, testifies to Hollywood’s unreadiness to respect the foreignness of foreigners; it films the radiant natural beauty of Kelly McGillis in collusive close-up even while she ‘pretends’ (as the technique implies, detailing her arousal) to keep her distance from Harrison Ford. ‘Boy meets girl,’ with Amishness a ‘side issue’. The death in a grain-tower alludes to Vampyr (1933) by the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, but comparison of Witness with Dreyer’s marvellous studies of puritanical communities in Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1954) only clinches Thomson’s analysis of the awkward gulf between artistic ambition and commercial acceptability which talented directors have to straddle in America.

In England we had Chaplin, Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton and many others who left for California: in France the Lumière brothers invented the cinema, and Méliès, Gance, Vigo, Renoir, Jean Gabin and many others remained. David Thomson remarks that in Britain ‘common sense has always impeded movies,’ and his high-soaring, highly ironic style has taken French rather than English roots. ‘Urban Cowboy is supposed to occur in Texas, and John Travolta is alleged to be a rugged oil-rig worker. Do we have to prove that implausibility is now a vital part of the entertainment?’ The mock-pompous ‘we’ in this rhetorical question takes us straight back to the Cahiers du Cinéma of the Fifties, from which Jim Hillier has compiled a fascinating, though tantalisingly selective and rather unenthusiastically introduced anthology in English. Hillier’s comprehensively-researched editorial matter is very suggestively informative, but its dry emphasis on identifying theoretical ‘positions’ in these influential but extravagantly unsystematic writers occasionally fails to do justice to their main interest for many readers: their having gone on to make the films of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. Their polemical stance as critics (with the exception of their brilliant mentor, the metaphysically-inclined André Bazin) was an attempt, ultimately successful, to create the taste by which their works as practitioners were to be relished; as Godard said, ‘all of us at Cahiers thought of ourselves as future directors.’ Their appreciations of films from Hollywood and elsewhere should then be read, as Hillier notes, in relation to their personal ambitions for the French cinema, and with their oeuvres in mind it is pleasant to reconstruct from these texts the gathering momentum, of emboldening consensus and stimulating discord, with which they approached their careers as film-makers.

Quite a few Cahiers essays written by Godard, Rivette and Truffaut have for some time been available in translation, and among the most interesting items in Hillier’s collection are those by Eric Rohmer, director of Le Genou de Claire, Ma Nuit chez Maud and Die Marquise von O. The seminal book on Hitchcock he wrote with Chabrol and published in 1957 is Rohmer’s only widely-known piece of criticism, an incisively ordered study which discovers in his subject something he himself was to create in his own film career with his elegant series of ‘Contes Moraux’ and now of ‘Comédies et Proverbes’: ‘a body of work that is varied enough to avoid being repetitious and unified enough to allow a homogeneity of approach’. The Rohmer we see in these newly-translated occasional writings on American cinema, Rebel without a Cause, Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia and the virtues of Cinemascope is apparently more passionate and explicitly Catholic and less methodical and ironically inscrutable than the Rohmer we might, at our peril, hypothesise from his best-known films. Nevertheless, the shape of Rohmer’s subsequent career can be seen in terms of the views put forward in the Cahiers pieces. The contingent institutional pressures on the artistic freedom of the cinema can be seen in the thoughts gathered here – not just Rohmer’s – to have been intelligently taken into account, and not, as is sometimes alleged, simply ignored by the proponents in Cahiers of the so-called politique des auteurs. Picking out from the American cinema the felicities of Aldrich, Ray and others and generously praising them, Rohmer was quite aware in 1956 of ‘the constraints exercised by the production companies on film-makers’, and that, as his colleague Kast had put it, ‘the major problem is acquiring the wherewithal.’ He has since then deliberately undertaken a career of films so rigorously planned and low-budgeted that he slips free beneath the level of these constraints. Nestor Almendros, who has photographed eight of his films, writes eloquently of Rohmer’s ‘characteristic principles of economy’ in every aspect of filming, aesthetic and organisational – a telling contrast with what work in America has shown him: that ‘in these big Hollywood productions waste is the order of the day. Time, energy, raw film are wasted.’ This creative parsimony yields Rohmer a surprising poise, a ‘natural’ beauty captured through his belief in existing light and direct sound: he escapes, as too few do, from the ‘heavy artillery’ and the ‘train loads of ammunition’ that limit the range of this industrial art.