Sunday, 30 January 2011

Ellipsis and Occlusion in Rear Window


I provide here a link to my first academic article to appear in print, 'What We Don't See, and What We Think it Means: Ellipsis and Occlusion in Rear Window' (The Hitchcock Annual, Vol. 16. New York: Columbia University Press. 2010: pp.77-101). Thank you to the editors of The Hitchcock Annual, Sidney Gottlieb and Richard Allen, for their permission to republish the piece online.

An extract from the article to give a sense of what it's about:

In the line from Rear Window that inspired this essay’s title, Lisa instructs Jeff to “tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means.” David Bordwell has said that this line “concisely reiterates the film’s strategy of supplying sensory information [...] and then forcing Jeff (and us) to interpret it,” and furthermore that, in this sense, “every fiction film does what Rear Window does.” The line is similarly cited by Richard Maltby to help make the point that “when we remember a film we [...] tell ourselves what we saw, and interpret it. The result is a story.” It is easy to see why these words might be alluded to in illustrations of the processes by which we understand film, given that they combine the visual, narrated, and interpretive aspects of filmic storytelling and viewing in a pleasingly economical way. If we are serious about using the line as a metaphor for the spectator’s activity, however, it is worth pointing out that what it does not include is any acknowledgement that what we don’t see in a film also plays a very important role in our sense of what we “think it means”.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Encounters With Moments: Before Sunrise

Partly because I'm currently reading the fascinating Film Moments: Criticism, History, Theory, it has occurred to me that one nice ongoing project for this blog might be to occasionally point to some particularly striking critical attempts to describe cinematic moments, along with an image or two which evokes them. Sometimes I may offer my own description of these moments, at other times not. Either way, I intend the series to stand as a tribute to one of the prime tasks of the film critic - as Victor Perkins put it: "to articulate in the medium of prose some aspects of what artists have made perfectly and precisely clear in the medium of film". As any film critic knows, this process constitutes an always challenging, and often exhilarating, experience (as Girish, with the help of Stanley Cavell and Christian Keathley, begins a discussion about here).

It seems strangely fitting to begin with an instance of a critic finding that words in fact fail him when faced with a moment he especially prizes: Robin Wood, speaking of a scene from Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) in his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film. Wood's admittance of failure here is a touchingly honest reminder of the difficulty of our endeavour when we try to put into words the ineffable.

Wood writes,

"I have to confess, at this point, to a failure: even on first viewing I told myself that I would 'one day' analyze in detail the scene in the listening booth of the record store, in which nothing happens except that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy either do or don't look at each other, their eyes never quite meeting. After a dozen viewings I abandoned the project. I suppose one might try an elaborate system of charts and timings, annotating 'direction of the gaze', when and how long each looks (or doesn't)... which would demonstrate nothing of the least importance. With no camera-movement, no editing, no movement within the frame except for the slight movements of the actors' heads, nothing on the soundtrack but a not-very-distinguished song that may vaguely suggest what is going on in the characters' minds and seems sometimes to motivate their 'looks' ("Though I'm not impossible to touch / I have never wanted you so much / Come here"), the shot seems to me a model of 'pure cinema' in ways Hitchcock never dreamed of (not merely 'photographs of people talking', but photographs of them not talking), precisely because it completely resists analysis, defies verbal description. All one can say is that it is the cinema's most perfect depiction, in just over one minute of 'real' time, at once concrete and intangible, of two people beginning to realize that they are falling in love."

A number of years ago I attempted my own partial account of this moment, focusing on one aspect of it in particular, in this piece comparing Linklater's movie with Minnelli's The Clock (1945). Yet neither Wood nor I have captured its essence; both despite and because of its simplicity, it remains elusive, "at once concrete and intangible".

I look forward to revisiting other instances of critics trying to do justice to their encounters with moments. The amazing thing is that, sometimes, we almost succeed.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Sex, Rom Coms, and Final Couples


In a 1948 article called ‘The Argument of Comedy’, Northrop Frye made a playful aside suggesting that “the average movie of today is a rigidly conventionalized New Comedy proceeding towards and act which, like death in Greek tragedy, takes place offstage, and is symbolized by a final embrace.” It is certainly true that, thanks to the Hays Code, Hollywood movies made between approximately 1934 and 1967 were generally required to abstain from sex in order that “pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing”. Thus, since marriage in narrative so often comes at the end rather than the beginning or middle – if, that is, we’re talking about happy marriages (it’s so hard for actual depictions of wedlock not to become melodramas!) – a final couple happy ending did indeed very often serve the function Frye suggests. Film critic James Harvey has a blunter way of describing this narrative pattern: “the delayed fuck”.

Of course, this didn’t stop classical films from letting our imaginations wander, with ellipses between scenes sometimes offering tantalising hints of hank panky. In the excellently-titled article ‘A Brief Romantic Interlude: Dick and Jane go to 3 ½ Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema’, Richard Maltby spends a great deal of time explaining that a single shot of an airport tower in Casablanca (1942) intentionally left contemporary audiences the option of constructing two opposed interpretations of what exactly Rick and Ilsa get up to in Rick’s room.

However, regardless of the extent to which a studio-era movie might flirt with its possibility, the eschewing of sex was nevertheless for the most part necessarily maintained (at least as far as the final couple is concerned: heroes and heroines were frequently suggested to have had sexual relationships with ‘unsuitable’ partners). This meant that what a final kiss often symbolised was indeed, to a significant extent, activities proper to the marriage bed, which could only take place after the camera stopped rolling. I’ve always felt that Teresa Wright’s hat falling from her head in the final shot of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) gives a particularly nice indication of this.

More subtle at least than, say, North by Northwest’s infamous concluding images.

Of course, the absence of sex is particularly important for genres such as the romantic comedy, which are so much about sex. As well as knowingly nudging audiences in the ribs in the manner of North by Northwest (1959), classical rom coms could also make jokes about the narrative structures that the Code’s moral prescriptions so often led to. For instance: I Married a Male War Bride (1949) sees its couple wed about two-thirds of the way into the film, only to continually frustrate their attempts to consummate the marriage until the very last seconds. Meanwhile, Lover Come Back (1961) marries its couple in order to allow them to have sex, then divorces them, then has them remarry once again in the final scene whilst Carol (Doris Day) is in labour with their child; “Now that’s what I call cutting it close!” comments an onlooker.

But what of romantic comedies made after the fall of the Code in 1968? Some commentators predicted an explosion of sexual activity that would effectively put the genre out of business by ridding it of the sense of frustrated desire that so often served as its central motivation. And for a while during the 1970s the genre did indeed seem to be in bad health, with only a few movies by directors such as Woody Allen keeping the comic battle of the sexes waging. Of course, this changed in the 1980s when there began appearing a trickle, and then ultimately a flood, of comedies that have come to be called the ‘New Romances’; by the 1990s and 2000s the genre was back to the level of popularity it enjoyed during the height of the studio period.

Yet many critics have suggested that these new romantic comedies are peculiar precisely for the fact that – despite the lack of moral censorship, the centrality of sexual desire to the genre, and the rise of post-60s permissiveness – they feature barely any sex. Pat Kirkland for instance asserts that in modern films “sex is an activity indulged in only by non-central characters”, and Tamar Jeffers McDonald suggests that such rom coms “have to find ways to explain why sex is not happening”.

It is certainly true that there exist films like, say, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) or Serendipity (2001) which ensure the sexlessness of their central relationships by keeping their couple far apart for most of the film’s running time, and, in the process, imbue their endings once again with the kind of meanings Frye identified. This pattern has, however, been greatly overstated, as I have discovered whilst watching copious contemporary romantic comedies over the course of my research. Though it is true that we seldom actually see couples having sex (the ellipsis once again becoming handy in this respect), sexual relationships are nevertheless extremely common between modern (unmarried) romantic comedy heroes and heroines, meaning that sex is by no means something reserved until after a final fade-out.

Thus, for prurient posterity – and in the style of something a pre-internet 12-year-old might construct – I offer a brief list of the times at which some contemporary romantic comedy final couples have sex:

A Lot Like Love – 4 minutes in
Fools Rush In – 12 mins
Speechless – 13 mins
Housesitter – 15 mins
What Happens in Vegas – 17 mins
Pretty Woman – 29 mins
Down to You – 30 mins
Splash – 35 mins
Failure to Launch – 40 mins
The Back-Up Plan – 42 mins
Lucky You – 44 mins
Along Came Polly – 47 mins
Shakespeare in Love – 47 mins
Sliding Doors – 50 mins
Happy Together – 53 mins
I Could Never be Your Woman – 55 mins
Head Over Heels – 56 mins
Something’s Gotta Give – 1 hour
The American President – 1 hour
America’s Sweethearts – 1.05
Mannequin – 1.07
When Harry Met Sally – 1:07
Overboard – 1:16
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – 1:23
Chasing Liberty – 1:24

Needless to say, there are infinitely more examples than these – the above list consists merely of moments about which I happened to remember to make notes during viewings.

While it’s convenient for critics to speak of the perverse chastity of modern rom coms (it helps reinforce the sense of the genre as a whole as conservative), such assertions don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. Now severed from its earlier function of symbolising “an act which [...] occurs offstage”, this, then, is one unambiguous way in which the final couple has changed its ideological meaning over time.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Final Couple


The fantastic tag-line for Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth (1989) is "Can a nice girl from Long Island find happiness with a mass murderer?" This has little relevance to this post other than the fact that the line suggests (somewhat misleadingly, as it turns out) that this film may bring together conventions from two genres which together provided me with a term that became central to my PhD thesis: the 'final couple'. Since this is a phrase I'll likely be bandying about on this blog, I thought I would introduce it.

Not that it needs much in the way of introduction, being already fairly self-explanatory. The final couple is essentially my term for the-romantic-couple-as-ending: the moment just prior to the conclusion of so many films at which 'boy gets girl'. Since it is routinely considered such a standard feature of Hollywood happy endings, I chose this convention as the focus for my thesis, and dedicated myself in large part to investigating the flexibility of this seemingly most inflexible of tropes.

In her excellent book Men, Women, and Chain Saws Carol Clover coined the term ‘Final Girl’ to refer to the heroine of the slasher film, a female character who ultimately survives the killer’s murderous rampage, and often dispatches him. While it clearly has its origins in very different traditions than those with which my thesis is concerned (focused as my work is mainly on romantic comedies and melodramas), there are nevertheless a few ways in which the conventions of the ‘Final Girl’ and the final couple are suggestively related.

(1) Obviously referring to endings in its very wording, the term ‘Final Girl’ also particularly refers, in its own way, to a type of ‘happy ending’: the killer’s threat eliminated (or at least temporarily overcome), this indomitable character may go on living her life.

(2) Just as we will usually be able to predict the putative outcome of a slasher film by quickly recognising who will likely become the ‘Final Girl’ (often distinguished, says Clover, by features such as her virginity and her tomboy appearance), so in a romantic comedy will we virtually always be able to predict which characters will make up the final couple. This fact has similar significance for audience expectations and thus narrative drive in both genres, as I explore in the thesis in relation to closure in romantic comedy.

(3) The sexual politics of the end of a slasher film (a male violent/sexual threat to women having been overcome by a resilient female) constitute a very different treatment of similar ideological issues addressed in the image of the final couple. Whereas sexual difference in the slasher film requires a fight to the death, in the romantic comedy it may be overcome through a far safer ‘battle of the sexes’ which tends to result in an either utopian or uneasy union. That the ‘happy ending’ of the slasher film usually constitutes a woman managing to rid herself of a man, rather than uniting with one, is indicative of the different approaches used by two genres working through comparable ideological terrain. As Robin Wood says, looked at ideologically, genres are seldom discrete, but rather “represent different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions”.

Though I don't investigate the parallels much further than this in the thesis, there is more to be said about the relationship between these two 'final' conventions - something I may well attempt here in the future.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Endings and Beginnings


Let us take, as a very simple example, the ticking of a clock. We ask what it says: and we agree that it says tick-tock. By this fiction we humanise it. […] Of course, it is we who provide the fictional difference between the two sounds; tick is our sound for a physical beginning, tock our word for an end. […] Within this organisation that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future.

Since the aeon ago that I last wrote an entry here, many things of significance for me and for this blog have taken place.

Back in August, on the day of my last post, the literary critic Frank Kermode passed away. In his seminal book The Sense of an Ending, whose first sentence gave this blog its name, Kermode speaks of the essentially contingent nature of time as seen in its true form: chronos – successive, passing time, unordered and unmeaning. This kind of time he contrasts with kairos: time as experienced in narratives, “filled with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relationship to the end”. “Normally we associate ‘reality’ with chronos,” he goes on, and “in every plot there is an escape from chronicity, and so, in some measure, a deviation from this norm of ‘reality’”. Because, says Kermode, we “need to show a marked respect for things as they are”, it is common for us to distrust the apparent neatness of kairos – an impulse he suggests lies behind many modern authors’ flights from conventional plotting.

Despite such skepticism, however, there will always remain a fundamental need to temper the arbitrary chronos of reality, meaning that the human mind is unavoidably destined to “make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle”. Thus craving “organisation that humanises time by giving it form”, argues Kermode, “we make up adventures, invent and ascribe the significance of temporal concords to those ‘privileged moments’ to which we alone award prestige”.

A week ago today I submitted my PhD thesis on the subject of the Hollywood 'happy ending'. I have been thinking about the subject of endings on and off since at least 2004, when I began writing my undergraduate dissertation (a version of which can be read here), and I now find that this task is finally over; for now. I applied the last full-stop to my conclusion on Christmas Eve, an hour-glass Advent having provided me with an artificial, but bracingly blunt, countdown.

There is nothing objectively significant about the fact that I completed this project in the year which saw the death of a man who had exerted so much influence upon my thinking. I never met Kermode and, while his writing has been important to me, my familiarity with his body of work barely extends beyond The Sense of an Ending itself. Nevertheless, I was saddened by the passing of a mind that had expressed many ideas which, almost forty years later, would become so key to the workings of mine. Furthermore, I could not help but be struck by what is, in point of fact, no more than the most unimportant of coincidences. “What human need can be more profound,” asks Kermode, “than to humanise the common death?”

So: a finished thesis; a finished year; a finished life – all, to greatly differing degrees, offering “fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems”.

A central plank of my understanding of happy endings is that they are simultaneously beginnings, containing specific promises of continuation – provisions for the future. The span since my last post has also been rife with personal beginnings, origins. I have moved from one town to another. I have seen my first article appear in print, in The Hitchcock Annual. I also had my first piece published in a book – an edited collection called Happy Endings and Films that grew from a conference on this subject held at the University of Caen Basse-Normandie in 2009 (read it here). Equally, the completion of my thesis marks the start of the next stage of my career – a beginning which, given the current crisis in higher education (caused in part by another "privileged moment", the replacement of one government by another), points towards a very uncertain future indeed.

To invoke one of the most common ways in which we use temporal concords to “make up adventures”, the New Year’s Resolution: one of my plans for meeting this future is to return to this blog. I intend to use it to share some writings which did not ultimately make it into the thesis; I plan to make more public the work I have had published elsewhere; I aspire to be less precious about new pieces aired here, allowing myself to vent half-thought concepts, moments of transitional thinking, which will hopefully in turn lead to more frequent posting.

In short, I plan to return, with a renewed vigour provided by one particularly striking ending, to what Kermode called “the lesser feat”.