Category Archives: Movies in Literature

Reading the Movies: Some Books for Cinephiles!

I’ve been asked by fellow-blogger Movieman0283 over at The Dancing Image to join him and a few others in writing a little something each on our favourite books on cinema. I don’t really know where to start so have reached for the first things on my shelves I could find that I could hold my hand on my heart and say ‘Yes, I really like this book!’ So, without further ado:

 

1. Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut (ed.)

Photo 8The first book to get on Hitchcock and the one that you’ll keep turning back to over the years. My edition, from 1969, is a snug size that I can fit into a broad pocket – much nicer in my opinion than the clumpy A4 editions that seem to be the norm for this book at the moment. I very much like the cover design too with a vertiginous swirl distorting Hitch’s face with the left side of his face darker than the right, much like Judy’s face appears at that moment in her apartment in VertigoThis book is simply jam-packed full of ideas about filmmaking – Truffaut got a great deal out of Hitch and follows him through his whole career chronologically. His famous contrast between suspense and surprise is in here but so too is his fascinating notion of ‘saving’ the long shot, with everything in a scene (what we would typically term the ‘establishing shot’), until it can be put to a purpose. It’s also fascinating to read as a marker of its time, the mid-60s (when the interviews were done.) Truffaut and the Cahiers gang had all made films but were still young and Truffaut’s admiration for the man he clearly considers THE master of cinema is palpable. Incidentally Hitch doesn’t come across as too enthused about Chabrol and Rohmer’s portrait of him as a Catholic filmmaker in their monograph. Here are Truffaut’s words on Hitchcock at the close of his introduction:

     If in the era of Ingmar Bergman, one accepts the promise that cinema is an art form, on a par with literature, I suggest that Hitchcock belongs – and why classify him at all? – among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoevsky and Poe.

     In the light of their own doubts these artists of anxiety can hardly be expected to show us how to live; their mission is simply to share with us the anxieties that haunt them. Consciously or not, this is their way of helping us to understand ourselves, which is, after all, a fundamental purpose of any work of art. 

 

2. The Women Who Knew Too Much, by Tania Modleski

large.snazal.comThere are of course many great books on Hitchcock that I could cite here but this is one that’s certainly had an effect on me personally. Modleski basically attempts to stand between the polar opposition of perspectives on Hitchcock’s view of women – that he was a misogynist (Mulvey) or that he was a proto-feminist (Wood.) She humorously undercuts Wood’s wish to “save” Hitchcock for feminism as auteurist romanticism, making it clear that her intention is to “save” feminism for film studies (or vice-versa.) She achieves this through the close study of Hitchcock’s position on women in seven films. Modleski terms Hitch “ambivalent” about women and – similarly to Truffaut above – suggests that his talent, and more importantly his value for a feminist “reader” of his films, comes from the clarity of his expression of his anxieties about women.

 

3. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era, by Matthew Bernstein (ed.)

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The Depth of Field series is a terrific one and I could just as easily have recommended the collections on Film and Nationalism and Movies and Mass Culture in this series. These collections bring together previously published work by some of the most important academic figures on the subject. The books are very well put together and the introduction is always authoritative.


4. Parallel Tracks, by Lynne Kirby

Photo 9A book on film with a truly innovative form in its discussion on the interrelation of the railroad and cinema as twin engines of the onslaught of modernity. It’s also a joy to read combining in all the right ways history, theory and textual analysis of the movies and the railroad. The kind of book I’d love to be able to write someday… 

 

5. “Film Europe” and “Film America”: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange 1920-1939, by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby (eds.)

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A groundbreaking collection that takes as its starting point a small period in the late 20s and early 30s in which there was a hope that a “Film Europe” could be established, with the nations of Europe combining forces in an attempt to match and compete with Hollywood cinema’s worldwide “Imperialist” dominance of cinema screens. While this hope ultimately failed the book uses this as a means towards discussing Hollywood world-dominance in the inter-war period in a manner that is refreshingly clear of hyperbole and that goes beyond the notion of a simple, top-down hegemony. This book is full of historical details on tariffs, embargoes and contingencies and definitely not one to take with you to the beach… But it goes beyond the details of economic exchange on this subject laid out so well in Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, putting as much emphasis on cultural exchange. It’s a difficult read but really worth the effort,  to get a strong, grounded sense of the globalism and transnationalism of cinema that was just beginning at this stage but that is now central to the medium; lest we forget that, for example, The Lord of the Rings was really a German film…

 

6. Fritz Lang in America, by P. Bogdanovich

Photo 5Fritz Lang, in my opinion, was a serious intellectual and you can learn a lot from what he had to say about his films. It’s necessary to take Lang’s specific historical details and his self-mythologising with a pinch of salt, but the essence of Lang’s views on cinema in this book are invaluable. 

 

7. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Photo 11I think we all get an attachment to the specific editions of books that we’ve read, but again I prefer this edition to the regular one with a colour photo. Ok, since I’ve written quite a bit on this book on this site I’ll redirect you to this stuff, of which I’m quite proud. First there is a segment from the opening of the novel here, then there is a piece of writing on that segment and its discussion of cinema here and finally there is a follow-up piece here. It’s all quite easy to read I promise!

 

8. Hollywood Modernism, by Saverio Giovacchini

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The film still on the cover is from Confessions of a Nazi Spy (WB, 1939) the first film, as the tag-line went, that dared to ‘call a swastika a swastika.’ It’s a fascinating film that strangely, considering its historical importance, still remains completely unavailable on DVD or VHS. I have a copy of the film on the now obsolete format of the Video-CD (VCD), which is probably quite rare and seems to be the only way this film has been released. Giovacchini’s book forcefully counters the myth that Hollywood cinema, and Hollywood culture in general, of the 1930s and 40s produced only vacuous mass entertainment and was completely unwilling to discuss politics and the problems of modern society. He draws attention to heated discussions over the nature of “realism” in the 1930s and the immense national strength and influence of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. I’ve written a little about the HANL in an essay on Meet John Doe (1941) here. Giovacchini’s book is a very enjoyable read.

 

9. Time Out Film Guide 2008, by Geoff Andrew (ed)

51Pybabto8L._SS500_You’ll notice I’ve put the 2008 edition here – this is no slight on the latest edition but just the edition I happen to have; it also has a rather lovely image of Penelope Cruz that I couldn’t resist having on my site.. Anyway, the Time Out Film Guide is without a doubt the best film guide on offer in Britain – I haven’t looked at that many of the US ones but they’d have to be pretty strong to compete. It certainly seems to be the guide with the most space for World Cinema. There are no star ratings and reviews don’t generally contain synopses – instead they offer acute observations and understanding of the films discussed, crammed into very few words. Reviews do generally make it clear if the critic liked the film but are so well drawn that you can come away from a review that slammed a film with so much detail that you feel you want to see the film anyway. This happened for me, for instance, when I read the review of Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997), which described the film as ‘a piece of shit.’ In this instance the critic got it wrong, by the way – hardly a great film but kind of weirdly enjoyable. But I’ll repeat that generally the reviews are uncannily accurate.

 

10. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson

coverpageI’ve been pondering over what should be my last book here and felt I couldn’t really leave this one out. Love it or hate it The Classical Hollywood Cinema is probably one of the most important books in film studies. Bordwell et al set out to define the characteristics of an “ordinary” film. Of course it is contentious to imply that Golden Age Hollywood set the “norm” for which all other kinds of cinema (0f the “World” or the “avant-garde”) become the aberration and risks simplifying matters. Yet within the specific context of mainstream American cinema, in the period of the Studio System and its “dream factory”, this model certainly has value. The research in this text is incredibly thorough and when reading through a chapter you occasionally get the sense that the information and ideas here are equivalent to the amount you’d get from reading ten other books. Bordwell’s blog on cinema Observations on film art and Film Art is also essential reading.

 

That’s as much as I have the energy for right now! By the way, they’re not in any order of greatness, of course… Please comment to let me know what you think of these choices, whether you’ve read the books or not – I love to hear what you guys think. And get reading!

Movies in Literature Part 4: Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Illusions’

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Above are a couple of pictures of Hank Mann, a silent comedian with a big moustache. I think these can serve as nice illustrations for the character Hector Mann in Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions. In fact online I find a description of this guy that reminds me a little of the silent comedian  that Auster lovingly constructs in his novel: ‘His junkyard-dog face was softened a bit by a huge paintbrush mustache, which emphasized his expressive, almost wistful eyes.’

In the first chapter of The Book of Illusions we meet our protagonist-narrator David Zimmer, an academic in Comparative Literature who has recently lost his wife and children in a plane crash. In the depths of his depression he turns the TV on to find a retrospective of silent comedy and becomes glued to the image of the long-forgotten Hector Mann. As an academic he, of course, can’t leave it at that and with the money from his wife’s life insurance he jet-sets it across the globe, planning to watch the surviving films, in various nations’ archives. 

The three short sequences selected below come from Chapter Two of the novel, beginning with Zimmer’s description of Hector Mann’s character and moving on to his description of a late Mann film Mr Nobody, the darkness of which is attributed to production difficulties and the fears of the coming of new sound technology. In Mr Nobody Hector runs the Fizzy Pop Beverage Corporation and is turned invisible by an assistant, who wants to take control of his company. This simple comic trope is given something of a philosophical turn in Auster’s hands..

*****

  Before the body, there is the face, and before the face, there is the thin black line between Hector’s nose and upper lip. A twitching filament of anxieties, a metaphysical jump rope, a dancing thread of discombobulation, the mustache is a seismograph of Hector’s inner states, and not only does it make you laugh, it tells you what Hector is thinking, actually allows you into the machinery of his thoughts. Other elements are involved-the eyes, the mouth, the finely calibrated lurches and stumbles-but the mustache is the instrument of communication, and even though it speaks a language without words, its wriggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code.

  None of this would be possible without the intervention of the camera. The intimacy of the talking mustache is a creation of the lens. At various moments in each of Hector’s films, the angle suddenly changes, and a wide or medium shot is replaced by a close-up. Hector’s face fills the screen, and with all references to the environment eliminated, the mustache becomes the center of the world. It begins to move, and because Hector’s skill is such that he can control the muscles in the rest of his face, the mustache appears to be moving on its own, like a small animal, with an independent consciousness and will. The mouth curls a bit at the corners, the nostrils flare ever so slightly, but as the mustache goes through its antic gyrations, the face is essentially still, and in that stillness one sees oneself as if in a mirror, for it is during these moments that Hector is most fully and convincingly human, a reflection of what we all are when we’re alone inside ourselves. These close-up sequences are reserved for the critical passages of a story, the junctures of greatest tension or surprise, and they never last longer than four or five seconds. When they occur, everything else stops. The mustache launches into its soliloquy, and for those few precious moments, action gives way to thought. We can read the content of Hector’s mind as though it were spelled out in letters across the screen, and before those letters vanish, they are no less visible than a building, a piano, or a pie in the face. 

  In motion the mustache is a tool for expressing the thoughts of all men. In repose it is little more than an ornament.

  He goes outside again and starts walking through the streets. The downtown boulevards are deserted, and Hector appears to be the only person left in the city. What has happened to the crowds and commotion that surrounded him before? Where are the cars and trolleys, the masses of people thronging the sidewalk? For a moment we wonder if the spell has not been reversed. Perhaps Hector is visible again, we think, and everyone else has vanished. Then, out of nowhere, a truck drives by, speeding through a puddle. Plumes of water rise up from the pavement, splashing everything in sight. Hector is drenched, but when the camera turns around to show us the damage, the front of his suit is spotless. It should be a funny moment, but it isn’t, and in that Hector deliberately makes it not funny (a long doleful look at his suit; the disappointment in his eyes when he sees that he is not splattered with mud), this simple trick alters the mood of the film. As night falls, we see him returning to his house. He goes in, climbs the stairs to the second floor, and enters his children’s bedroom. The little girl and the little boy are asleep, each one in a separate bed. He sits down beside the girl, studies her face for a few moments, and then lifts his hand to begin stroking her hair. Just as he is about to touch her, however, he stops himself, suddenly realizing that his hand could wake her, and if she woke up in the darkness and found no one there, she would be frightened. It’s an affecting sequence, and Hector plays it with restraint and simplicity. He has lost the right to touch his own daughter, and as we watch him hesitate and then finally withdraw his hand, we experience the full impact of the curse that has been put on him. In that one small gesture – the hand hovering in the air, the open palm no more than an inch from the girl’s head – we understand that Hector has been reduced to nothing.

  The screen fades to black. When the picture returns, it is morning, and daylight is flooding through the curtains. Cut to a shot of Hector’s wife, still asleep in bed. Then cut to Hector, asleep in the chair. His body is contorted into an impossible position, a comic tangle of splayed limbs and twisted joints, and because we aren’t prepared for the sight of this slumbering pretzel-man, we laugh, and with that laugh the mood of the film changes again. Dearest Beloved wakes first, and as she opens her eyes and sits up in bed her face tells us everything – moving rapidly from joy to disbelief to guarded optimism. She springs out of bed and rushes over to Hector. She touches his face (which is dangling backward over the arm of the chair), and Hector’s body goes into a spasm of high-voltage shocks, jumping around in a flurry of arms and legs that ultimately lands him in an upright position. Then he opens his eyes. Involuntarily, without seeming to remember that he is supposed to be invisible, he smiles at her. They kiss, but just as their lips come into contact, he recoils in confusion. Is he really there? Has the spell been broken, or is he only dreaming it? He touches his face, he runs his hands over his chest, and then he looks his wife in the eyes. Can you see me? he asks. Of course I can see you, she says, and as her eyes fill with tears, she leans forward and kisses him again. But Hector is not convinced. He stands up from his chair and walks forward to a mirror hanging on the wall. The proof is in the mirror, and if he is able to see his reflection, he will know that the nightmare is over. That he does see it is a foregone conclusion, but the beautiful thing about that moment is the slowness of his response. For a second or two, the expression on his face remains the same, and as he peers into the eyes of the man staring back at him from the wall, it’s as if he’s looking at a stranger, encountering a face he has never seen before. Then, as the camera moves in for a closer shot, Hector begins to smile. Coming on the heels of that chilling blankness, the smile suggests something more than a simple rediscovery of himself. He is no longer looking at the old Hector. He is someone else now, and however much he might resemble the person he used to be, he has been reinvented, turned inside-out, and spat forth as a new man. The smile grows larger, more radiant, more satisfied with the face that he has found in the mirror. A circle begins to close around it, and soon we can see nothing but that smiling mouth, the mouth and the mustache above it. The mustache twitches for a few seconds, and then the circle grows smaller, then smaller still. When it finally shuts, the film is over.

Movies in Literature Part 3: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Warning’

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                                        WARNING
                                                            from Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956)

                                        If your neighbour disappears
                                        O if your neighbour disappears
                                        The quiet man who raked his lawn
                                        The girl who always took the sun

                                        Never mention it to your wife
                                        Never say at dinnertime
                                        Whatever happened to that man
                                        Who used to rake his lawn

                                        Never say to your daughter
                                        As you’re walking home from church
                                        Funny thing about that girl
                                        I haven’t seen her for a month

                                       And if your son says to you
                                       Nobody lives next door
                                       They’ve all gone away
                                       Send him to bed with no supper

                                       Because it can spread, it can spread
                                       And one fine evening coming home
                                       Your wife and daughter and son
                                       They’ll have caught the idea and will be gone

Movies in Literature Part 2: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (continued)

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John Steinbeck comes across as, like many writers, somewhat ambivalent about the value of cinema. The short sequence from Chapter 23 of The Grapes of Wrath quoted in the last post is, however, far from a blanket condemnation of cinema. It closes with the suggestion that the light entertainment offered by mainstream Hollywood cinema has a value in helping those that ‘git enough sorrow’ to ‘git away from it’. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest checking this out here.

Nevertheless cinema surely loses the battle when pitted against oral storytelling, which is seen as connected to the people and to their Nation’s intricate, complex history. The difference is between two forms of ‘popular’ storytelling, the latter seen as following this word’s originary meaning, ‘of the people’, the former perhaps not so much..

The tale from the man who was a ‘recruit against Geronimo’ proposes a version of American history that we would not ordinarily hear – that of the sympathy that some soldiers apparently had for their Native American foe. The figure of the Native American man here seems intended as a point of identification for those suffering through the Depression. They likewise might have felt tall and strong like this ‘brave’ and yet had now been cut down ‘All tore to pieces an’ little.’ This identification is clear as the storyteller describes him as appearing to the soldiers ‘like a cross’, linking him to the Christian image of unjust sacrifice.

Steinbeck’s claim to a breaking-down of racial barriers through oral storytelling seems to serve in part as a means of differentiation of this form from cinema. Indeed this sympathy for the Native American, significantly, was absent from movie Westerns at this time. This notion of the importance and value of empathetic identification across barriers in a time of crisis, seen here, is central to this novel as a whole, where the principal barrier is not, however, race but that of class.. Steinbeck’s novel as a whole wants to show his characters as more than their poverty.. as human beings in a fuller sense than capitalism would dictate.

And it’s implied that movies on the Depression don’t offer this kind of empathy. While in the movie the rich couple are pretending to be poor, the poor guy who’s just seen the movie can’t remember the moral of the story – suggesting this was probably pretty banal. The Depression is seen to be exploited as a subject matter only in order to sell cinema-tickets.. It seems all the glamour of Hollywood remains intact in spite of the trouble that the rest of the US was facing.

Still, the paralleling of the ‘Injun’ and cinema as being both in someway bigger than us is intriguing. Perhaps it suggests that cinema has something innate within it that might still have some potential.. The potential to tell the kind of a big story that Steinbeck is trying to get at in his book..

By the by, I gather Steinbeck very much liked John Ford’s movie of the book. I recommend checking this out if you haven’t seen it yet..

Movies in Literature Part 2: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

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This novel came out in 1939. Steinbeck was trying to write, as he put it, a ‘truly American book’ – to speak to the people, through the troubles of the Great Depression. It’s a wonderful piece on that time.. One thing I like about this book is the way that it attempts to offer a “universality” that could speak to everyone, while at the same time remaining dispersive in its writing style.. It doesn’t assume that the poorest people, who were generally the least educated, only want to hear a good story..

The sequence below is from Chapter 23 of The Grapes of Wrath. This chapter has no relation really to the novel’s “story” as such and instead has a meditative, essayistic feel – it weaves its way through various amusements of the migrants of the Depression, moving from oral storytelling to cinema, then on to drunkenness, music, sex and religion. I’m quoting just the bits on storytelling and cinema – if you’d like to read the full chapter, please follow the link after..

*****

  The migrant people, scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement. Sometimes amusement lay in speech, and they climbed up their lives with jokes. And it came about in the camps along the roads, on the ditch banks beside the streams, under the sycamores, that the story teller grew into being, so that the people gathered in the low firelight to hear the gifted ones. And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation made the stories great.

  I was a recruit against Geronimo-

  And the people listened, and their quiet eyes reflected the dying fire.

  Them Injuns was cute – slick as snakes, an’ quiet when they wanted. Could go through dry leaves, an’ make no rustle. Try to do that sometimes.

  And the people listened and remembered the crash of dry leaves under their feet.

  Come the change of season an’ the clouds up. Wrong time. Ever hear of the army doing anything right? Give the army ten chances, an’ they’ll stumble along. Took three regiments to kill a hundred braves- always.

  And the people listened, and their faces were quiet with listening. The story tellers, gathering attention into their tales, spoke in great rhythms, spoke in great words because the tales were great, and the listeners became great through them.

  They was a brave on a ridge, against the sun. Knowed he stood out. Spread his arms an’ stood. Naked as morning, an’ against the sun. Maybe he was crazy. I don’ know. Stood there, arms spread out; like a cross he looked. Four hunderd yards. An’ the men- well, they raised their sights an’ they felt the wind with their fingers; an’ then they jus’ lay there an’ couldn’ shoot. Maybe that Injun knowed somepin. Knowed we couldn’ shoot. Jes’ laid there with the rifles cocked, an’ didn’ even put ’em to our shoulders. Lookin’ at him. Headband, one feather. Could see it, an’ naked as the sun. Long time we laid there an’ looked, an’ he never moved. An’ then the captain got mad. “Shoot, you crazy bastards, shoot!” he yells. An’ we jus’ laid there. “I’ll give you to a five-count, an’ then mark you down,” the captain says. Well sir- we put up our rifles slow, an’ ever’ man hoped somebody’d shoot first. I ain’t never been so sad in my life. An’ I laid my sights on his belly, ’cause you can’t stop a Injun no other place- an’- then. Well, he jest plunked down an’ rolled. An’ we went up. An’ he wasn’t big- he’d looked so grand- up there. All tore to pieces an’ little. Ever see a cock pheasant, stiff and beautiful, ever’ feather drawed an’ painted, an’ even his eyes drawed in pretty? An’ bang! You pick him up- bloody an’ twisted, an’ you spoiled somepin better’n you; an’ eatin’ him don’t never make it up to you, ’cause you spoiled somepin in yaself, an’ you can’t never fix it up.

  And the people nodded, and perhaps the fire spurted a little light and showed their eyes looking in on themselves.

  Against the sun, with his arms out. An’ he looked big- as God.

  And perhaps a man balanced twenty cents between food and pleasure, and he went to a movie in Marysville or Tulare, in Ceres or Mountain View. And he came back to the ditch camp with his memory crowded. And he told how it was:

  They was this rich fella, an’ he makes like he’s poor, an’ they’s this rich girl, an’ she purtends like she’s poor too, an’ they meet in a hamburg’ stan’.

  Why?

  I don’t know why- that’s how it was.

  Why’d they purtend like they’s poor?

  Well, they’re tired of bein’ rich.

  Horseshit!

  You want to hear this, or not?

  Well, go on then. Sure. I wanta hear it, but if I was rich, if I was rich I’d git so many pork chops- I’d cord ’em up aroun’ me like wood, an’ I’d eat my way out. Go on.

  Well, they each think the other one’s poor. An’ they git arrested an’ they git in jail, an’ they don’t git out ’cause the other one’d find out the first one is rich. An’ the jail keeper, he’s mean to ’em ’cause he thinks they’re poor. Oughta see how he looks when he finds out. Jes’ nearly faints, that’s all.

  What they git in jail for?

  Well, they git caught at some kind a radical meetin’ but they ain’t radicals. They jes’ happen to be there. An’ they don’t each one wanta marry fur money, ya see.

  So the sons-of-bitches start lyin’ to each other right off.

  Well, in the pitcher it was like they was doin’ good. They’re nice to people, you see.

  I was to a show oncet that was me, an’ more’n me; an’ my life, an’ more’n my life, so ever’thing was bigger.

  Well, I git enough sorrow. I like to git away from it.

  Sure- if you can believe it.

  So they got married, an’ they foun’ out, an’ all them people that’s treated ’em mean. They was a fella had been uppity, an’ he nearly fainted when this fella come in with a plug hat on. Jes’ nearly fainted. An’ they was a newsreel with them German soldiers kickin’ up their feet- funny as hell.

*****

My reading of this sequence can be found here.

The full text of the novel can be found here.

Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ (further continued)

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I found this intriguing comment on the sequence we have been looking at from The Moviegoer. It was posted beneath an article on the novel, on the New York Times online:

I grew up in New Orleans and attended college — or mostly didn’t — there as well. I’ve always thought the movie theater that Percy describes so well at the beginning of the book was the lonely movie theater next to the University of New Orleans on Elysian Fields. In Gentilly (where Binx lives).

Don’t bother Google Mapping it — it was replaced, pre-Katrina, by a Taco Stand (I think). I can’t remember what it’s name was.

It was a lonely little movie theater, not popular, not nice, not far from Lake Pontchartrain, and in fact I can remember when the wind was really whipping it up you could hear it shaking the walls of the theater unless you were watching some blood bath with supersonic Jet levels of sound.

I saw David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” there and this remains one of the frightening-est film experiences of my life. The film, the creepy guy down front, the howling wind, the absence of any real neighborhood life when the University wasn’t in session… it was, in its way, absolutely perfect.

Jude Bloom

I’m tempted to treat this comment as yet another text to be deciphered. There are certainly some interesting parallels with Percy’s writing as well as with my interpretation of Percy. I like that Jude emphasises the cinema as ‘lonely’ and talks of sounds as ‘shaking the walls.’ Both are examples that hardly only claim to affirm the literal reality of the setting as described by Percy. They rather stake a claim on the affirmation of its spiritual and psychological truth-value. 

Yet this might be saying too much. Jude’s comments here made me think a little about my last two posts on The Moviegoer. I noticed particularly that there seemed to be something close to contradictory in the fact that I first chose to describe the sequence as ‘beautiful’, then, after presenting it, to dwell on its negative criticism of cinema and moviegoing. After all what did I find beautiful? Of course it was the description of cinema: of the process of going to the cinema and of the pleasures one can attain from this. And how could the sequence give me these feelings about cinema (and Jude too, since he likewise concludes a criticism of the ‘not nice’ “real” cinema by stating that it was ‘perfect’) while seemingly at the same time attempting to undercut cinema’s worth?

I’m not sure I can claim to have a definitive answer to this question but I think it’s an important one to consider. It reminds me in passing of the protagonist narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground as he notes that ‘There is pleasure in a toothache.’ It’s perhaps that the very fact of touching on real experience, however dark this may be, can have a positive effect – of making it real to us. This may even perhaps be literature’s main purpose.

Alternatively and just as likely, however, tho admittedly somewhat more banal, is the possibility that Jude and I are quite simply choosing to read against the grain, adding to the text our own passion for cinema. We are taking the pleasure without the toothache..

A third possibility, also highly likely I think, is that Percy wants us to identify with his protagonist’s happiness, aligning our own pleasure with his, but also wants to suggest its problems on a perhaps more subtle, as yet only partially noticeable level. This might suggest an approach with therapeutic aims, hoping to cure us of our affliction.

These are just tentative thoughts and I imagine will remain this way for some time. Please let me know what you think. Reading one, two or three?! Or a combination of two or three of these readings? Or something completely different?

p.s. Jude’s comment can be read in full here. His excellent website Bloom Radio can be found here.

The original sequence from The Moviegoer can be found here. My reading of this sequence can be found here.

 

Movies in Literature Part 1: Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ (continued)

hoppermovie

 

The above painting is Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939.) It is well known that Hopper was heavily influenced by cinema in his painting style.. This painting actually depicts a cinema (the screen is on the far left.) I’ll get to this in a little while, but first let’s start with The Moviegoer (1960) and the short sequence from the last post, which opens Walker Percy’s novel. If you haven’t read this yet I suggest going back to it before reading this post..

It’s a strange and fascinating sequence. Not unlike much of the rest of the novel, which seems to flit from one idea to the next without any apparent narrative ‘motivation.’ The motivation is instead very much psychological and seems to serve the purpose of placing us squarely within the psyche of this man and thus the mindset of a moviegoer. Which begs the question, What does Percy think goes on in the mind of a moviegoer?

Well o.k., firstly I’d better warn you that I think the answer is ‘pretty dark stuff’.. He seems to be comparing movies and moviegoing to denial (1.) Acting like a soldier at hearing of one’s brother’s death would surely not really be a good idea.. Let it all out, that’s what I say. And the memory of this injunction and his apparent contentedness to follow it reminds our protagonist of a movie he saw in which a character up and leaves his whole life behind to start anew. Admittedly it’s blamed on amnesia, but this was a typical trope of post-WW2 film noir, usually with some relation (however metaphorical) to a wish to forget, i.e. deny/repress, the traumatic experience(s) of WW2. It seems rather that cinema has become our character’s method, in his adult life, of continuing this controlling of his emotions (2.)

There is something extremely perverse about the fact that our character says ‘It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake toward us.’ I guess a black sky might denote a lack of rain clouds (!) tho this is hardly our initial impression. Rather the character seems to be relishing in darkness which I would say is the darkness of depression; just as Churchill famously called depression his ‘black dog.’ I like the way in this sequence the real world seeps into the movies in the sound of the waves and conversely the movies blare out to the outside world from the sidewalk speaker. This interchangeability of the two spaces finds a purpose when we realise that pleasure in ‘the blackest sky’ outside is for our character only an extension of the darkened room of a cinema. Our character’s moviegoing is presented as not merely a pastime, but as something that envelops his life, a dark sky of depression and denial, which he seems to relish.

I think this is the point at which we can begin to compare this sequence with Hopper’s painting above. Here we equally have a dark, slightly depressive cinema, its audience, on the left of the image, pointedly male and in shadow. And the girl on the right of the frame could very easily be Linda, the secretary in this sequence of The Moviegoer, all dressed up, with movie-star glamour, but with no-place to go – solemn and pointedly abstaining from watching the film. In New York Movie she’s an usherette; in The Moviegoer she’s the secretary and girlfriend – in both cases money has something to do with the situation, tho it is not necessarily everything..

Percy and Hopper even both choose to define their ladies by the colour blue (the usherette wears blue while Linda likes to dance in the Blue Room); in both cases this is in contrast to the male black. That said, I don’t think either of these texts have a great deal invested in an overt feminist critique of patriarchy. Yet they can both be read as to some degree sympathetic to women’s struggles within patriarchy, each for example emphasising the woman’s negative emotions in her situation. In fact they register these emotions in very similar ways since the description of Linda in The Moviegoer could just as easily be that of this usherette, as she ‘stood by unhappily.’ The ‘standing by’ is essential here, pointing to the characters as being on the periphery, i.e. outside of patriarchy.

The most significant difference between these texts is that in New York Movie we remain within the cinema – the real world is really only a mysterious possibility, up the stairs.. Indeed, as already noted, the usherette looks like a movie-star.. She’s in a way not an entirely real person, still part of the dream, like a ‘real’ person in a David Lynch movie maybe (3.) (That’s not to say that there isn’t enough reality in her for us to register her unhappiness, as noted in the previous paragraph, however; just that she comes across as significantly more trapped within the movie world.) I’d say The Moviegoer offers some level of contrast to this. Linda forces the protagonist’s hand as she gets him to take her dancing. And the crashing of the waves create a racket that you can hear even from inside the cinema. The waves offer up something more elemental than cinema and also don’t really lend themselves to being perceived as merely a projection of the protagonist’s mind, as the black sky does..

Each perspective has its purpose. In the Hopper painting, we are trapped in the insular, unified world of the cinema. The faux-glamour of the orange lights above the patrons is parodied by the simplicity of the orange lights by the usherette. Yet at the same time these may not be the opposites we first take them to be. The added orange of the curtains add to the sense of the cinema as a unified universe. This speaks of  the way in which Hollywood cinema can suck us into its narcissistic self-reflexivity, without first warning us that we may never get out.. 

In contrast, Percy in The Moviegoer wants us to be aware of an alternative to cinema and to the life of a moviegoer, which as I’ve suggested is perceived as one of denial. We can see this reflected in the style of this sequence, and indeed the book as a whole, with each paragraph seeming to jump on from the previous without filling in the gaps. This is a style that is maintained throughout the book, so that while it’s easy to read for plot, it’s much more difficult to actually understand its ideas (tho well worth the effort..) This jumping-ahead is just like the idea of a kid acting like a soldier, denying past trauma rather than working it through – simply ploughing on ahead without reflection. Since the book rigidly follows the thoughts of its central character, we come to recognise the falsity of this way of living.

A good example of Percy’s wish to show the world outside of the Hollywood image can be seen in the aberration of this cinema to which the protagonist and his girlfriend go. We hear it was built in the hope that it would be one part of a suburb that would grow out to meet it. The suburb never grew and the cinema is instead an absurd ‘pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself.’ Thus on the macrocosmic scale we see this idea of jumping-ahead without thought. It is a cinema, yet it is the antithesis of the glamour that Hollywood promises. It represents a dream that went horribly wrong..

 

(1) Percy appears to be influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre who argues in Being and Nothingness that the individual chooses projects for himself which can be harmful but which allow him a sense of identity, of his ‘being.’ Acting like a soldier might be considered one such ‘project’ for our protagonist, aimed at denying his emotions, and moviegoing is a ‘determination’ of this project, meaning that it is another project determined by the first project. Sartre would have us believe that this acting like a soldier is also a ‘determination’ of yet another project that is broader still and that this pattern of ‘determinations’ will lead us back ultimately to the character’s failure to attain ‘Authenticity’, which is the first ‘determinable’ causing a string of ‘determinations.’ This failure to attain ‘Authenticity’ Sartre labels ‘Bad Faith.’ In The Moviegoer the protagonist dramatises this concept of having a project as he returns continually to a rather vague project, which appears important to him but which is never really explained, which he calls ‘the Search.’ Percy may have developed Sartre’s ideas in his own direction.. A very easy, helpful and trustworthy summary of Sartre’s Existential Psychoanalysis can be found here.

(2) Incidentally, in Paul Auster’s Oracle Night the central character, an author, describes a very similar scenario as appearing as a minor aside-story in Dashiell Hammett’s novel of The Maltese Falcon, which never made its way into John Huston’s film.. I think it’s not amnesia but a near-death experience that causes the character Flitcraft to change his life, but there is a similarly bourgeois conclusion and a similar existentialist emphasis on this hope for a change being false, a case of ‘Bad Faith.’ Auster’s fictional novelist then writes his own version of the Flitcraft story in which the man ends up getting himself locked inside an underground nuclear bunker with the only key that could get him out on a man who has just died on the operating table. It’s tempting to imagine that Auster was thinking of this passage from Percy’s novel.. Or even that Percy was thinking of this section from Hammett.. Other films in Percy’s novel are named but this one is not, could Percy be playing with the relationship between literature and film? And does Auster know this? Is Auster quoting Percy, quoting Hammett while thinking of Huston. The answer to all of this is very likely no. But it gives me more than enough pleasure that the possibility exists..

(3) Thanks to Todd Swift for his suggestion of a link to David Lynch in this painting, which can be found here.