Essays (book reviews)
Authorship and Narrative in the Cinema: Issues in Contemporary Aesthetics and Criticism
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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?
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.
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)
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)?
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.
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.
book that subtitles itself “issues in contemporary aesthetics and criticism”
needs to involve itself with those issues.
© Adrian Martin January 1979