by Bill Horrigan
Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 26-27
On the face of it, nothing could be more unexceptional or indeed more welcome than a series of monographs on some previously overlooked Hollywood careers. There is a market for such writings. At least they make available useful filmographies. At best they can provide a succinct and methodical account of the dynamic structure of an individual director’s work. The Hollywood Professionals (five volumes to date) contains generally accurate filmographies, and occasionally attention is called to some obscure but provocative-sounding film; so in these respects the series shows its value.
The problem is that it is only in these respects that any lasting value emerges. The individual monographs range from the unspeakably awful to the instructively deficient. While the respective authors are the ones who must bear the responsibility for their failures, in the longer view those failures are in some measure traceable to the series” general editor/producer, Peter Cowie. It is Cowie who is explicitly endorsing this level of criticism, maintaining as he does a format that militates against the production of any rigorous and attentive work. A more conducive setup would acknowledge the impossibility of sufficiently treating the extensive careers of three directors within the pages of a small paperback volume. The editor should avoid the problem either by reducing the number of directors per volume or by increasing the total allotment of pages. If these alternatives are impractical (and anyway are reformist measures in circumstances demanding more), then a third option would be for Cowie simply to contract better writers—ones who would openly acknowledge the imposed limitations and construct their work accordingly. As it now stands, and given the evident sensibilities of most of the writers in Cowie’s stable, the format only encourages their worst tendencies.
With the exception of John Belton’s Vol. 3 (on Hawks, Borzage and Ulmer) and to a lesser extent Vol. 4 (on Browning and Siegel), the series tries to avoid trading in auteurist assumptions. The introduction to Vol. 1 notes this outright. And it is everywhere apparent in the other volumes that the directors are to be essentially typified in terms such as, for instance, “an accomplished technician” (Hathaway); “a hard, fast and efficient worker (Curtiz); or “a master craftsman” (Walsh), and so on in comparable terms. Instead of arranging the director’s films in what might result in a productively relational perspective, the authors proceed by sketching in a few career/biographical specifics and, at the proper chronological junctures, stopping to remark on one especially “interesting” film before continuing on to the next. By paying attention, however cursorily, to the range of the directors” careers, the authors apparently think they are playing fair by the series title, i.e., that they are giving priority to the task of clarifying what it meant to be a pro in the Hollywood system.
Now it is clear that not every director is an auteur, but this has no absolute connection with the site—in this case, Hollywood—of the director’s practice. While it may be more of a challenge for a director to exert the force of his/her “preoccupations in Hollywood, it would be difficult to locate anyone, short of the likes of John Simon, who still today maintained this to be an a priori impossibility. Yet these authors—particularly of Vols. 1, 2 and 5—come close to this position. The circumstances are additionally peculiar in that they have chosen to write on these directors rather than others, meaning presumably that these directors are now “readable,” that they bear an identity, that they aren't only interesting as and reducible to a symptom of the system in which they worked.
Curtiz’ enormous output is held as a liability in his being regarded as an auteur. There is presumably
Even assuming this to be so, Curtiz could very likely have been situated as an exemplary contract director in a specific studio operation over a specific historical range, with such a reading taking into account his work in its intertextual relation to, at least, the rest of Warner Bros. products. But the monograph fails to pursue any such provisional line with any rigor. In fact, it could not have done so if it wanted, because much rigor would divert the author’s energy from what, essentially, he loves. In this case, we find not only a love of the director (although it develops into this when the primary love-object, the individual films, are lost sight of) nor even a love of the full body of the director’s work (no anarchic MacMahonism here) but simply a love of some films that happened to be directed by the same person.
Otherwise expressed, these volumes have been written not by an imagined average viewer but by the average viewer’s fanatical extension. They seem written by the fan of that film experienced as being “ordinary,” that film placed according to Christian Metz in
The fan’s preferred mode of speaking is simply to give voice to his/her opinions without feeling the need to make explicit the orientation of which the opinions are the inevitable extensions. This orientation is not made explicit because it is presumed to be common to everyone, to be “what everyone knows.” The ordinary film thus attains value to the degree that the spectator’s emotions are stirred, that s/he finds character motivation believable, that the film’s story is efficiently constructed (meaning that it constructs itself efficiently). Almost entirely, the weight is placed on the text’s affective dimension. And, the fan having turned it all back on his/her self, it remains there inaccessible to any critique that might diminish its right to demand his/her love. See, for example, Clive Denton on King Vidor:
Though some of these volumes are exceptionally debased examples, they are instrumental in the construction of what Metz calls the cinema’s
The separate monographs most clearly exemplifying this tendency are by Clive Denton on Henry King and King Vidor and are written in a prose style a notch or two above that found in an adolescent’s secret diary. On King, for example:
Denton’s work on King especially draws the little coherence it attains from his tendency to dwell on what King’s films have meant to him, how they have interacted in his own psychological formation and career. Such as it is. Thus there is this, opening the volume:
At least two points must be made here. First, there is Denton’s basic incompetence in tracing King’s career (and Vidor’s, for that matter) from a factual standpoint, which shouldn't be an unreasonable expectation to place, especially if no clear alternative is presented, such as the one Belton offers in his volume. The second point has to do with value judgments. There are certainly arguments to be made on their behalf—that they alert the reader to the critical and political biases of the writer, for example. But a value judgment is distinct from the un-self-critical subjectivism that Denton displays in clinical dimensions. His “values” are not traceable to any coherent system, unlike, say, those of Robin Wood, which do in form a system and are internally consistent.
Kingsley Canham, who wrote the work on LeRoy, Cromwell, Milestone, Curtiz, Walsh, and Hathaway, happily avoids these autobiographical impulses with which Denton’s work is riddled. He does attempt to keep in view both the production context—particularly that of the studio—and the films’ chronological interrelation. Yet for the most part he aspires to comprehend the films by means no more ambitious then retelling their narrative, intermittently adding a paraphrase of some especially “successful” stylistic figure. Ungrounded assertions are made to explain dismissing entire series of films, while uncritically adopting received ideas justifies rehashing the director’s most famous films.
The treatment of Curtis once again is instructive here. In his U.S. career alone, he made about 110 films, yet nearly half of the 44 pages of text are given over to four films (MILDRED PIERCE, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, CASABLANCA, and SANTA FE TRAIL). His final 29 films are virtually written off. An output as vast as Curtis’ is not, admittedly, easily accommodated in monograph format. But this hardly justifies the reduction of his career to a nucleus of films that are already the ones by which he has always been known. Rather then effecting a reevaluation, the volume blandly repeats what everyone knows. Curtis’s volume especially, but to a lesser extent the volumes on the other directors as well, tries to bring about a compromise between writing an individual’s history and analyzing an individual’s work. The exigencies of the format do not allow having it both ways or at least having it successfully both ways. The authors are forced to deal with an enclosed succession of facts/films comprising the director’s practice. Yet the impulse initiating this writing—a love for some films coincidentally signed by the same person—brings the narrative to periodic stops in futile attempts to restate, renew, that love.
John Belton’s Vol. 3 on Hawks, Borzage, and Ulmer views its project in terms markedly different from those of the other four volumes. He notes at the outset,
Instead of inserting facile paraphrases of his favorite works by the directors into a career summary, Belton proceeds by giving a very brief orientation to the director’s situation (i.e., his critical reputation) and follows this with explications of the purposefully delimited number of films chosen from across the full range of the director’s activity. He does attempt to specify thematic progression and consistency, but this attempt is pursued at the price of specifying the production context. Belton sees these directors instead as solitary artists creating masterpieces in their own private ateliers. This kind of retrograde auteurism is aggravated by the use of notoriously vague terminology, most evident in the remarks on Borzage, whose work Belton sees as embodying versions of “spirituality” and the “transcendent.” He also refers Borzage’s films to a “melodramatic form,” of which he assumes the reader has a clear conception. To be sure, various poetics of melodrama have been formalized, primarily from the standpoint of 18th-19th century theatrical practice, but the critical use of the term in relation to the cinema remains massively problematic. At one point Belton characterizes melodrama as a “genre.” He later cites Dickens, Ibsen, and Chekhov as exemplars of melodramatic literature, which makes one wonder what generic compatibilities in a strict sense obtain between Chekhov, Dickens, and eventually Borzage. Clearly one could perform a normalizing operation to bring three such disparate figures into the same class, but once having done so, it’s likely one would have only the least interesting things to say about any one of them individually.
But Belton’s volume still deserves a higher mark than the others, if only for refusing to indulge in dismissive evaluations of the director’s films. He wants at least to look at the films in some detail, and in comparison to the rest of the series. That represents a very noble aspiration. He understands, furthermore, that an auteurist study need not avail itself at every instant of the director’s entire body of work in order to make some valid soundings. He knows that such a study must avoid conflating the structures conjoining the films with the director’s real or imagined intentions. This distinction—between structure and intention—has been a standard one since at least 1972 (when it was strongly reiterated in the conclusion to Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meanings in the Cinema). As such, it would not need to be repeated here, were it not for the fact that two other monographs, aside from Belton’s, that explicitly want to perform auteurist readings—Judith Kass on Siegel and Stuart Rosenthal on Browning, both in Vol. 4. And in so doing, Kass consistently uses Siegel’s films as unmediated evidence of the director’s personal preoccupations. By far the longest and most detailed monograph in the series, the Kass study occasionally includes observations on filmic specificity, as does Belton’s, though they both place faith in certain stylistic devices as bearing an a priori coding). She habitually indulges in what could be called heretical or ecstatic auteurism, of which the following would be a representative utterance:
Whatever else this is, it is not the language of criticism, though it might be at home in the partisan arena of film reviewing. Inadvertently or not, Kane seems to find Siegel’s career instructive for the proof it gives that even psychopaths can make it big in Hollywood. Some surprise.
Considering all five volumes together, it’s arguable which tendency leads quicker to the inevitable deadend. They end up with loving the director in the guise of what the films induce us to imagine or believe him to be. Or they seem to be premised upon loving some films, which love becomes institutionalized with the happy discovery of their having a common director. Posing the question in these terms is not meant to suggest a disavowal of the text’s affective dimension should he forced, which in any case would be an impossible ideal, but rather to make a fundamentally different point. It has to do with the typical level of achievement attained in this series (typical here referring to the majority of the work, placed between Denton’s virtually worthless entries and Belton’s more provocative readings). I would ask, simply, why these volumes are not better than they are.
Given that the space Cowie permits for these monographs is hardly amenable to the comprehension of a long Hollywood career, is it still too much to ask that whatever attempt is made be done with rigor? In these volumes nothing is problematic, no real contradictions are acknowledged. The Hollywood in which these professionals worked corresponds to a particular signifying practice. That practice is evident in a specifically determined system of organizing graphic space, for example, or in a certain rapport maintained between spectator and spectacle by means of various cutting procedures—but these arguments are left altogether unexamined. Visual analyses are given marginal priority. In those rare instances where the specifically filmic is noted, it is invariably with the understanding that it is functional in the service of a novelistic conception of realism, which, by never being questioned, is implicitly identified with the cinema’s real vocation.
Such deficiencies are not, of course, peculiar to these volumes. Yet they are exactly the ones that analyses of the “ordinary” films made by these Hollywood professionals must take into consideration. The manner in which this five-volume series speaks is not, again, absolutely univocal or is so only to the extent that Hollywood is nowhere recognized as offering what amount to standard usage models. This ultimately serves both terms of the series’ title badly, “Hollywood” and “professional.” The potential value of the series ought to be considerable. But there’s no way it can be realized unless both terms of the title are given their due more then they've been thus far. If a group of individuals is going to be arranged under the rubric of “Hollywood professionals,” then someone at least had better point out that Hollywood refers, among other places, to an ideological intersection and that the “professionals” functioning there produce work bearing traces of that original location. It’s more than a day’s work for a film professionally to efface the marks of its own writing, and if any solitary and romantic-minded critic wants an object in which to channel love, them that estimable process might as well be it.