For the two worst years of my life I was theater critic for the New Statesman. On the average, I saw three shows a week, often five, sometimes more, and remember from all that welter only two occasions with pleasure: Oliver as Coriolanus, Mostel as Bloom. The rest is a vast and miserable smudge of boredom. At the end of my two years sentence I took a vow never voluntarily to go to the living theater again—except to see friends perform, or for money. Yet since childhood I have gone quite as often to the movies, still do, and can see no possible reason to stop. It is not a question of quality: at one point I developed a passion for bad films; it took me a long time to come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that bad films were not as good as I thought they were. Instead, it is a question of the kind of response the movies elicit.
Theater-going is, above all, a social act, involved with booking in advance, dressing up, and eating an unspeakable, expensive meal before. You go, as Eric Bentley once remarked, for the company of the actors. You sit there in the half-light, sharply aware of them as people much like yourself, knocking themselves out to amuse you, fallible, anxious, often a bit pathetic. It takes the genius of a Mostel or an Olivier to go through that social barrier into the realm of compulsive illusion.
Yet even a second-rate movie can enter that world effortlessly. The cinema has, after all, all the conditions working for it. It is informal, casual, private. You sit passively while the stuff of dreams—the primal image of love, the fantasies of violence, loss, and anguish, magnified beyond all imagination, is acted out before you, usually in black and white, the color of dreams. It is the art of utter illusion, as purgative as a successful psycho-analysis, and far, far cheaper.
I exaggerate, of course. Yet the cinema, as Gorki noticed as early as 1896, has a curious knack of stirring things up:
It seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim.
This ability to disturb you obscurely yet profoundly is stronger in the cinema than in any of the more formal contemporary arts. It is also often stronger in good “commercial” movies than in most deliberately “art” products. It is stronger, that is, in the films of Nicholas Ray than in those of Satyajit Ray, in Shane than in Alexander Nevsky, in Rossen’s The Hustler than in Bresson’s Pickpocket. The reasons, I suppose, have something to do with the stars, the expensive professionalism, and the relatively simple points made within simple frameworks. Despite themselves, the dream-factories have turned out not so much dreams as myths for the commercial mass societies. Cooper and Fonda, Brando and Newman, Garbo, Dietrich, Monroe, and Signoret enter into some almost chemical relationship with the camera which, with only minimal encouragement from the script, can embody all that floating sense of isolation, displaced violence, yearning, and mobility which runs under all our overstocked, domesticated lives. By simply trying to gratify and glamorize our fantasies, the movies end up by defining them, recreating them for us in new terms.
The paradox is, then, that the closer a movie seems to stick to conventions and reality, the more freely it circulates in the fantasy world. That is where the protagonists of avant-garde abstract or “pure” cinema go wrong. They unchain the art from the clichés of the commercial story and obligatory popular appeal only to tie it ever tighter to the director’s exclusive, carefully defended subjective view of things. The results may be very brilliant, intriguing, and original, but they are curiously unmoving.
Style for its own sake and the preoccupation with technique, in short, are as much a distraction in movies as in any other art. When, during the worst period of Stalinism, Eisenstein was unable or unwilling, or both, to cope in his art with the society around him, he lapsed into the mildly allegorical grand opera of Ivan the Terrible. He presented not a creative interpretation of the world but the more trivial spectacle of himself as Great Stylist. For Eisenstein, as for most of the Russians, style always meant skill, drama, and invention in purely visual terms—a question of camera angles, cutting, montage. This is the inheritance of their great days in the silent beginnings of cinema, when each new technical discovery changed the language and possibilities of the art. In Europe, where the glamor of literature is still strong, style often means dialogue: witness those slightly self-indulgent scripts of Prévert and Pinter. In Hollywood, style often means simply the star; then the film becomes a vehicle for boosting the vanity of its principal actor, as in Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks. But in the really successful movie, style is all of these things and none of them. That is the cinema’s peculiarity and uniqueness. It is neither a way of merely looking at things nor of merely saying things; it is a way of being in things. It makes the eyes see, the ears see, the mind see. It is, to use the appropriate cliché, a totally existential art.
This uniqueness is the burden of John Howard Lawson’s muddled, illuminating, maddening book, Film: the Creative Process. Lawson insists that the cinema is not theater, not fiction. Instead, it is a product of what he calls “the audio-visual imagination” which, using images and sounds as its basic elements, works with its own special rhythm and structure. He feels that cinema, alone among the arts, can set its heroes meaningfully and critically into action at the same time as it defines and criticizes their environment. As a Marxist, this cheers him and fires his enthusiam; like Lenin, he believes that cinema is the great socialist art, a new opiate of the masses perhaps, to stir them, teach them, form them. Lawson has all sorts of qualities working on his side to make him seem sympathetic: that enthusiasm, for example, and his determination to worry away at the problems of movie-making until they reveal their specialness; the fact that he has already written the definitive book on script-writing; above all, he was blacklisted, stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and still apparently sticks by his Party principles. Like a tired old trout, the bourgeois liberal in me rises to the bait. But I can’t swallow it.
It doesn’t matter that his history of the cinema is absurdly slanted. Russia becomes the dominant force and everything else is downgraded accordingly: The Blue Angel, for example, is dismissed in four lines; Hollywood, after Griffiths, Chaplin, and Stroheim, is written off as utter decadence; even the Poles, who have emerged in the last few years as major film-makers, are given short revisionist shrift. Granted the Russians in their time did marvellous things; but that time, like their great creative outburst in literature, was over by the end of Lenin’s New Economic Plan; and that coincided roughly with the advent of sound. So he makes it seem as though artistically the cinema has advanced little in the past thirty-five years. More important, behind his critical evaluations of works—not, at best, particularly original—are all the old glib clichés of Marxist propaganda: the positive hero and social optimism, the emergence of the masses and the death of capitalism, even the chestnut about The Tempest being a critique of colonialism. And these platitudes poise a glum query over the rest: if he is that second-hand and naive in his basic premises (and I’m not saying Marxist premises are in any way naive; just his use of them), how much are his other insights worth? Oddly enough, they are worth a fair bit. Lawson is excellent on the specialness of the cinematic imagination and its distance from all the other arts, on the rhythm of filmmaking and the means by which conflict, climax, resolution and meaning are created in audio-visual terms. The hints are many, vivid, and often go deep; but I’m not sure that they add up, as he obviously wants, to much of a theory.
I’m even less sure that they need to. Theories were needed early on, when the possibilities of turning a low pop entertainment into a high art form were slowly being realized. Yet even the theories of Pudovkin and Eisenstein are less interesting than their practical analyses of how they actually got the effects. This is true of all the performing arts. There is only one convincing theory of tragedy—Aristotle’s—and nothing at all for Shakespeare, particularly from his time; even Dryden, fifty years later, didn’t get far. The method, instead, is practice and example. Once the cinema can be taken for granted as a separate art in its own right, there are no longer any theoretical rules; there are only good and bad movies. And the approach to them is by way of criticism, not theory.
This is where John Russell Taylor comes in. His Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear is a set of purely critical studies of six leading contemporary film-makers: Fellini, Antonioni, Buñuel, Bresson, Hitchcock, Bergman, plus shorter things on the New Wave boys, Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais. These men have only two things in common: excellence in their different ways, and the ability to take the art of film utterly for granted. For them, says Taylor, “the film was as natural a means of selfexpression, as much a part of the habitual furniture of their world, as painting or writing or music or architecture…[they] seem to me to create directly in terms of film, to wield what…Alexandre Astruc called the ‘camera stylo,’ the camera as a fountain-pen.” For Astruc that meant “that the cinema will break away little by little from the tyranny of the visual, of the image for its own sake, of the immediate anecdote, of the concrete, to become a means of writing as supple and subtle as that of written language.”
The degree to which Astruc’s predictions in 1948 have come true is implicit in Taylor’s book. There isn’t a touch of theory or prophecy in the whole performance. He treats each of his chosen masters as artists working in an achieved medium, using it for their own special ends, each with his own special quirks, each making his statements in his own special way. His analyses are detailed, witty, detached, and—despite his occasionally overbland urbanity; he doesn’t write for The Times for nothing—remarkably intelligent. He writes, in short, like a critic who doesn’t have to justify a thing about the status of the art; he simply has to get his values and judgments right. Since he is one of the two reliable film critics in London—the other is Richard Roud of The Guardian; both are regulars on Sight and Sound—the judgments are mostly very good; by which I mean I agree with him, except for his fashionable over-evaluation of Hitchcock and his unfashionable under-evaluation of Resnais. He is brilliant on the greatest of modern masters, Buñuel, and on Fellini and Godard, he puts Bergman sympathetically but firmly in his place, and makes startlingly good cases for those two old master bores, Bresson and Antonioni.
But there is one vital cinematic element that Taylor ignores in his cool discriminations: money. Of his group only Buñuel and Hitchcock have been men of the commercial cinema all through their careers, though Fellini has recently graduated to it. The rest keep their artistic control by filming rigorously, though relatively, on the cheap. Without that safeguard the merchants step in, delegating authority and responsibility to producers, editors, script-writers, camera-men, stars; the director has then to do his cynical damnedest to mark the end-product with his own personal signature. Yet cash is a potent ingredient in the cinema not only because the film is the most expensive, technological, and corporate of the modern arts, apart from architecture, nor because all those telephone number sums add to the popular glamor of everyone concerned in the business. For the average Hollywood man cash is a fact in the final criterion of excellence.
No one, for instance, could be more average than Kenneth Macgowan, who produced in Hollywood from 1932-46, and then lorded it over film studies at U.C.L.A. for ten years. Behind the Screen is his amiable, low-brow history of the industry, interesting because it totally and uncritically accepts the hard currency standard of values. For him, the two major problems of the art are two: cajoling the public and side-stepping the tax-man. Otherwise, a film is as good as its gross. As a history, his book is as dull as cold toast, but it packs in a good many fascinating facts about the financial structure of the big studios—who, even in their decline, still reckon in millions—and about the strange financial gags pulled by the stars: Elizabeth Taylor was paid $1,750,000, plus a hefty cut of the profits, for her absurd performance in that greatest of all absurdities, Cleopatra.
Everybody knows how deadening the cash nexus is: how good films get watered down and bold projects made timorous; how the taste of the ignorant slobs who run things (one of them said of Hays: “He is one of us. He is folks.” So much for the cinema as folk art); how Kitsch and violence become industrial products, and universal vanity buries all. All that is common knowledge, and if it wasn’t already, there is now Fellini’s 8 1/2 to prove it. Yet I wonder if there aren’t positive sides to all this stupidity. First, the vast investments and intricate technical proliferations of the big studios insure nearly always a certain professional perfection. Second, out of their need to filter their art through or around the meat-headed merchants who put up the money, the more imaginative and original directors have developed a certain healthy toughness of attitude. It is partly cynicism, but it is also partly moral hardness. Combined with that complete professionalism, it produces a specifically adult sense of reality—even if that reality is often violent and corrupt—a feeling for the inescapable brute facts of urban life, which keeps at bay the more fey self-indulgences artists are heir to. (Of course, I am not counting the professionals in sentimentality, nor directors like Tony Richardson, who have made a successful commercial gimmick out of borrowed artiness.)
Apply that hard adult realism to those continually evoked myths and deep fantasies and you have the curious worldliness and intense imaginative realism of the best films. Macgowan points out that 72 per cent of movie-goers are under thirty, 52 per cent under twenty. Maybe the final art of the movie is to inspire in an adolescent audience the myth of being grown-up.
December 31, 1964