Essays (book reviews)
Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema: Issues in Contemporary Aesthetics and Criticism
Introduction: This was my first published piece, in the Australian magazine Cinema Papers, issue of January 1979. I was 19, and had just dropped out of university education; I got the writing gig through my teacher-mentor (and faithful, life-long friend) Tom Ryan. Although the tone of the piece is somewhat righteous and finger-wagging – a typical “get with the program” rhetorical pose of the time – it raises at least one issue in film aesthetics that, all these years later, I am still trying to resolve: the gap between thematic and formalist approaches (one can easily read my own ambivalence, poised as I was between traditionalist and progressive identifications). As for the book under discussion – its authors later became prime specialists in Blake Edwards, and Lehman did marvellous work on Zalman King – it makes for instructive reading today as a transitional (and, to my knowledge, never reprinted) text, although it has been little referenced in the intervening years. Its context of aesthetic theory is one I did not exactly appreciate or give an entirely decent account of in this review, because it did not look like anything that was new or radical in the late ‘70s. But the book is also of its time in a very charming, media-archaeological way: its “frame captures” are meticulous, finely-textured pencil drawings! [June 2021]
In the past decade of the 1970s, film criticism has undergone major changes. Each new approach has ushered in another, each one bringing with it considerable theoretical material from other disciplines: semiotics, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and so on. The result, particularly evident in UK’s Screen journal, is that every approach ideally needs to be integrated with those related to it. Thus Stephen Heath, for instance, calls for a grand synthesis of all the radical criticism so far developed, a system he titles the cinematic machine. The super-intellectual effort required for such a task is daunting – if, indeed, such a synthesis is desirable, or even possible.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that some critics have felt the need to specialise. William Luhr and Peter Lehman provide such a specialisation. Indeed, they see their aesthetic analysis as the necessary prerequisite to any other critical work: “Only when the nature of the object itself has been precisely established can it be fruitfully related to larger constructs” (p. 14); “Other constructs – social, political, psychological, and so on – are worthwhile, but beyond the specifically aesthetic concern of this work” (p. 42).
Luhr and Lehman work in the traditional area of mise en scène analysis, a minute discussion of how the various elements of cinematic style – composition, lighting, décor, movement of camera and actors, etc. – cohere into a unified expression of the film’s fictional world.
The long chapters on two John Ford films, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Searchers (1956), painstakingly trace the recurring motifs in their directorial design: the use of doorways, association of characters with certain times of day, changing positions of characters in the frame to spatially indicate the change in their relationships, and so on. For those who have any regard for these films, the analyses provide fascinating insights into their seemingly inexhaustible complexities.
Similarly, the auteurist account of Ford’s developing concerns as revealed in the body of his work will be of interest to admirers of the director, though Luhr and Lehman insist – rightly, I believe – that deciphering patterns of coherence between or across different works by the same author is only a secondary aesthetic concern.
However, anyone coming to the book without a prior regard for Ford is likely to find the overall project somewhat puzzling. In their introduction, the authors explain that they picked these films for analysis simply because they provide examples of “effective” films in the narrative tradition. The analysis seems to imply a great deal more – that they are, in fact, masterpieces.
Presumably, within the a more traditional arena of criticism, that evaluation would be worth stating upfront and then being put under scrutiny by the analysis – as Robin Wood does, brilliantly, in the piece on Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) in his 1976 book Personal Views: Explorations in Film [expanded edition 2006]. This is eloquent of a central confusion in Authorship and Narrative’s method. Luhr and Lehman appear to find it enough merely to outline the precise symmetry of motifs and associations, “the ways in which the work functions as an artistic unit” (p. 14).
But a doorway is just a doorway, no matter how many times it appears, or whichever director decided to put it there in the shot. The point is precisely what that motif expresses, and how well or badly it achieves this end.
This is Wood’s great strength as a critic: the way he constantly strives to evaluate the worth of a film’s realisation, the way it works itself out. Luhr and Lehman’s chapter on The Searchers is better than the one on Liberty Valance in this respect, because their description of its pattern of ellipses directly entails a discussion of how we can – or cannot – read the psychology of the main character, Ethan (John Wayne).
The authors are shy when it comes to identifying themes. Yet if one is committed to working in a traditional mode of criticism, that is always the foremost question: what is this film about? This leads to: how does it say it? How well is it said?
In the classical narrative cinema, formal operations always stand for something else. They represent an idea (or a cluster of tightly interrelated ideas); the world of the fiction embodies something and is charged with meaning.
An alternative critical approach radically counterposes to this the notion that form – the material construction of the film – is important in itself, leading to a new revaluation of the output of independent filmmakers that focuses on the film-work itself. This is a direct challenge to – often a dismantling of – the traditional assumptions of narrative cinema. Luhr and Lehman try to sit astride both worlds.
The non-narrative challenge should ultimately lead to a more precise evaluation of the narrative cinema. Both, ultimately, share the same formal attributes (mise en scène, editing, sound, and so on) and skill in both lies in the configuration of these attributes, for whatever purpose. Such an evaluation cannot help but highlight the genius of men like Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and their peers … (pp. 295-296)
The phrase “for whatever purpose” ignores the fact that the purposes are opposed: in narrative cinema, form (ideally) disappears under the illusion mounted by the fictional world; while, in alternative (or however we wish to label it) cinema, form moves to the foreground and works against the production of a fixed, coherent, readable meaning (or theme in the traditional lit-crit sense).
Even if we choose, as critics, to work in the familiar world of evaluative criticism, this book brings up problems that cannot be easily ignored. The analysis in the book restructures films, in Barthes’ phrase, into “blocks of meaning”; i.e., patterns of coherence carefully described as they are seen to be at work. The result of this – and indeed virtually all mise en scène criticism in a particular tradition – is to pick out the “striking images” (and, less often, sounds) from a film, make a case around them, and then conveniently forget the dross.
But, as Raymond Bellour has observed, the most profound tendency in the classical narrative film is towards repetition – and redundancy. Even a suspenseful masterpiece like Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) has plenty of deliberately flat, in-between bits to help us unwind/unbind as viewers.
Mise en scène critics have a field day with low/high angles or elaborate crane shots. But what can they say about that most common figure of film language, namely the merely functional, even dreary old shot/reverse shot pattern that cuts from actor A speaking in mid-shot to actor B speaking in mid-shot? Which is not to say that the reverse shot structure is never complex or expressive (quite the contrary) but that, in the vast majority of cases – and especially in television production – it is the moment when cinematic style shrinks to zero.
Why is this technique so prominent in narrative film? A theory needs to be evolved that reaches beyond traditional criticism. If this is not the task Luhr and Lehman set themselves, then they might reasonably be expected to recognise and refer to the problem.
The second half of the book, on narrative, is naïve and disappointing. The authors appear dismayed over the “much needless controversy” around the subject. Their solution, in line with the book’s first half, is to argue that the story is simply one formal element that the director may use to communicate his or her “vision” – although, as noted, they are reluctant to speak of an auteur’s thematic viewpoint and discuss instead the “elaborate formal patterns that intertwined with narrative action and had much more to do with the film’s aesthetic than the ostensible narrative” (p. 182).
Hitchcock, for instance, is seen to “provide a film that works expertly as narrative and thus ensure his ability to finance films, while at the same time to produce cinematic masterworks whose impact far exceeds that of the narrative elements in them” (p. 185).
Luhr and Lehman, in order to make such statements, have managed to ignore most of the interesting and important work done on narrative throughout the modernist 20th century. The writing of Roland Barthes, Vladimir Propp, Christian Metz, Gérard Genette, and Bellour (among others) goes uncited.
This is not to say that a critic has to refer to everyone who has previously discussed the same topic (an impossibility, certainly, in this instance). But in this case, it means that the certain key questions are simply not explored: what are the rules or codes of narrative? How does a narrative situate the viewer in a certain position of knowledge and pleasure (or unpleasure)?
The long comparison of various versions of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story on film with Robert Louis Stevenson’s original 1886 novel serves to point out that significant changes can be wrought upon a similar storyline – “extensive and essential differences”. The aim is finally to eulogise the “creative process” – the ways in which different artists, whatever their worth, will necessarily produce individual variations on a pre-existing plot line.
The study of narrative carried out by others has aimed precisely to see what structures and effects exist in the act of narrative irrespective of the particular narrator, be it John Ford or Tex Avery. What makes this part of the book so shallow is that the authors see narrative as something utterly unproblematic – merely the events of a story – and ignore the real theoretical issues at stake.
Any book that subtitles itself “issues in contemporary aesthetics and criticism” needs to involve itself with those issues.
© Adrian Martin January 1979