Friday, 11 April 2014

Theory readings #1 - Robert Warshow and "The Gangster as Tragic Hero"

When theoretical texts are discussed or criticised it is usually through the use of another theory, on whether it contradicts or agrees with some other text. But for me it is when a text is criticised on its own terms, from within, that it becomes interesting and meaningful. Under the heading "Theory readings" I aim to engage with some theoretical writings (loosely defined) on their own terms, and see where that will take me.

The above paragraph, somewhat amended, is from an earlier post of mine called Theory readings - an introduction. This post is the first such engagement; about the writings of Robert Warshow and in particular the article "The Gangster as Tragic Hero".

Warshow was born in New York in 1917 and he died from a heart attack already in 1955, the same year as James Agee (who was eight years older than Warshow). Warshow was a code breaker during the Second World War and after the war he became a writer for the journals Commentary (where he was also an editor) and Partisan Review. He was then regarded as a member of the "New York Intellectuals", together with people like Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt and Lionel Trilling. Warshow's father was from Russia and a member of the Socialist Party, and even run for Congress, but Warshow himself was more of a social democrat and very unfavourable towards communism, particularly because of Stalinism and the way too many communists often followed the dictates from Moscow rather than think for themselves. Warshow's particular interest as a writer was popular culture; the way it formed, and was formed by, society. He wrote about books, comics and theatre but the popular art form he was primarily focused on was film. Film, or movies as he always said, was for him "the most highly developed and most engrossing of the popular arts, and which seems to have an almost unlimited power to absorb and transform the discordant elements of our fragmented culture" he wrote in 1954. But unlike many others who wrote about film from the point of view of their impact on society he was not hostile towards the movies, or afraid of them. He loved films, and he disapproved of those critics who are concerned about "those elements he believes to be affecting or expressing 'the audience' rather than what he himself responds to". He wanted to take film seriously and "legitimise it". And he felt that he had "developed a kind of 'theory' of the movies, and would expect this theory to emerge" in his writing although he did not want to do any book that could be called "a theoretical work". These quotes above are from an application that he made for a Guggenheim Fellowship, with the aim to write a book about films. That book never came to be because of his early death, but in 1962 most of his writings were published in The Immediate Experience - Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture.


His two main essays on film and society are "The Gangster as Tragic Hero", first published in Partisan Review in 1948 and "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner", also first published in Partisan Review but in 1954. Another good but lesser known essay is called "The Movie Camera and the American", first published in Commentary in 1952. In "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" Warshow makes the argument that in USA happiness and cheerfulness is more or less a nationally prescribed state of mind (with " an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful" as he puts it) and he argues that in the US, and in Russia as well, it is considered dubious, perhaps even unpatriotic, to be unhappy in public so feelings of unhappiness must be kept hidden from view. But the happiness is constantly reinforced by popular culture. "Nobody seriously questions the principle that it is the function of mass culture to maintain public morale, and certainly nobody in the mass audience objects to having his morale maintained." And he feels that even "sad" films serve this purpose, when "death and suffering" are used as "incidents in the service of a higher optimism." However, unlike many others who discussed the impact of mass culture on the people, he did feel that there were pockets of resistance. Among the examples he gives that do not participate in this upbeat cheerfulness are jazz, soap operas (on radio, not TV, since this is 1948), certain comedies, such as the anarchy found in the films with the Marx brothers, and, above all, the gangster films. The gangster film, he claims, "has been a consistent and astonishingly complete presentation of the modern sense of tragedy." The force, and the subversiveness, of the gangster movie comes from the fact that they are about men who pull themselves up from the gutter and reach fame and glory, i.e. they are the embodiments of the American dream, but this then ends in isolation, paranoia and death. The American dream is shown to be a nightmare, and through the common "experience of art" the audience can live vicariously this American dream that seem unattainable to them, and then they can enjoy the gangster's demise at the end, the punishment of success. The gangster "is what we want to be and what we are afraid we might become."

Tony Camonte, aka Scarface, in Scarface (Howard Hawks 1932)

Warshow also discussed the character of the gangster, and his relationship to the city. "The gangster is a man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club./.../ for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it" but it is not the real city for "[t]he real city, one might say, produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster" and he likens them to the tragic heroes of Shakespeare. "Even to himself, he is a creature of the imagination." he says of the gangster and as an example he mentions Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy 1931), who speaks about himself in third person. (His famous last words are "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?")

In the end, when the gangster lies dead, shot by the police or another gangster, the audience can take comfort in the fact that although they, like the gangster, also strive for success theirs is unattainable. This "dilemma is solved because it is his death, not ours. We are safe; for the moment, we can acquiesce in our failure, we can choose to fail." (Warshow does not say so but in a way it could be said that the gangster dies for the audience's sins.)

The ending of The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh 1939). 

It could be said that Warshow overstates the case for mass culture optimism. During the 1930s there were many gloomy films about the depression, beyond the gangster films, and after the war cynicism and despair where more or less mandatory in American cinema and literature, not least in the films that are now often called "film noir." That is not a term Warshow uses himself because he was of course not aware of the fact that some decades later this would be invented as a catch-all term. So some of the films he talks about, such as Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway 1947) was for him gangster movies but are called film noir today. It is also worth mentioning John Ford, whose post-war films are filled with a general feeling of sadness and regret. Even when his films end in success they are emphasising the loss that comes from the sad fact that a battle was even needed. If you watched They Were Expendable (1945), Ford's film about the war in the Pacific and possibly his greatest achievement, and did not know who won the war, you would probably think that the US lost it. Such is the mood of the film. In Peter Bogdanovich book-length interview with John Ford (from 1967) he suggested that Ford's films are about "the glory of defeat" but you could also say that they are about the desolation of victory. (Warshow was not particularly fond of Ford though; he thought he was aiming towards seriousness and visual beauty in a way that distracted from the stories. An artist rather than a storyteller.)

Another point against Warshow is whether it really is "the function of mass culture to maintain public morale". For one thing that depends a lot on how you define "function", "mass culture", "maintain" and "public morale". Does "maintain public morale" mean "keep people happy and content"? If that is so, how come mass culture is so often criticised for making people violent, discontent and predatory, rather the opposite of happy and content? And if mass culture has this function "to maintain" how come so much of it, even according to Warshow, does not maintain this morale? And how is "mass culture" different from "high culture"? If one thinks that mass culture maintains public morale, whatever that is, cannot it equally be said that high culture, for example Henry James and Johann Sebastian Bach, also do this? Wherein lies the difference? Or do The Heiress (William Wyler 1949) "maintain public morale" among those who watch it but if they were to read the novel Washington Square by Henry James instead (on which The Heiress is based) they would not be maintained? How would this function work? No, this is not Warshow's strongest argument.

The later article "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner" continues Warshow's discussion about the gangster (he is "the 'no' to that great American 'yes' which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives.") and then compares the gangster to The Westerner, who Warshow sees as in many ways the opposite of a gangster, even though they both carry guns. It is sometimes said that this article is about the Western as a genre but that is not really correct. It is more accurate to say that it is about a certain recurring character in many Western films. It is a very good article, but it will be dealt with in a later post.

For those who want to compare with other, similar writings, one obvious place to start is the work of Siegfried Kracauer, who however can be rather elitist and patronising at times, not least when he writes about "little shopgirls".

Friday, 4 April 2014

Bergman and taxes

That Ingmar Bergman was a monumental person has been exemplified many times, in many different ways, and that he was regarded as such around the world. But his overwhelming importance was of course largest in Sweden, a country which is rather small, population-wise, and very centred on Stockholm. He was a constant presence everywhere, inescapable, even children too young to have seen his films were aware of him. (In my thesis I suggest that he was one of a handful of national father figures that Sweden had, others being the prime minister Tage Erlander, in office 1946-1969, and the radio- and TV-personality Lennart Hyland.) He was not just artistically involved but also politically, having connections with the Social Democratic Party, a party which had been in power since 1932, often alone, sometimes in coalition. In 1976 however a major collision occurred.

On January 30, 1976, Bergman was at Dramaten (the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm), rehearsing a play by August Strindberg, when two policemen came to take him in for questioning for suspected tax evasion. There is some confusion as to what exactly happened at the theatre but Bergman was taken to police headquarters and questions for hours. The issue centred primarily on the company Persona Film AG, based in Switzerland to handle Bergman's international finances, including a cooperation with Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, which never happened, and Bergman's other company Cinematograph, based in Sweden. Bergman had liquidated Persona Film after Riksbanken (Sweden's central bank) had wondered whether it was legitimate but the Swedish tax authorities were convinced that Bergman owed a lot of taxes because of his dealings with these companies and had alerted the police that he must be apprehended before the case reached its statute of limitations. After being questioned his passport was confiscated and he was forbidden to leave Stockholm, he was not even allowed to go back to Fårö. If convicted he risked up to two years in prison. He had had problems before, in 1975, but he had won his case in a lower court. Now the problems had come back with a vengeance.

A nightmare sequence from Wild Strawberries (1957)

It was not only Bergman who was investigated but several of his friends and actors, including Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow. Bergman's lawyer Sven Harald Bauer was also indicted. But two weeks after the arrest at Dramaten a new attorney was assigned to the case and after a few more weeks of investigations and deliberations he concluded that Bergman had not committed any crimes and the case was dismissed. It was appealed against but the appeal was dismissed. This was in the end of March 1976.

The tax authorities were not pleased though and continued to demand that Bergman paid back taxes, and quiet a lot of it, over a million Swedish crowns. This too was eventually dismissed and in the end Bergman had to pay only an additional corporate tax of SEK 150 000. And that was the end of the affair. The cases against his friends and actors were also dismissed.

During all this time Bergman himself was hospitalised, having suffered a severe nervous breakdown after the first questioning at the end of January. He was eating a number of medicines that kept him calm and the demons at bay. But after months of being in this sedated state he suddenly got angry and decided to fight back, and he wrote a letter to one of the biggest daily newspapers attacking the police, the tax authorities and the Swedish state (which was at this time more or less synonymous with the Social Democratic Party). He said that he had always been a committed social democrat, and that he had always felt that Sweden was the best of all countries to live in, but now he had second thoughts. (Personally he also felt that he was betrayed by Olof Palme, who had been prime minister after Erlander stepped down, and was fairly close to Bergman.) He declared that he was leaving Sweden. After travelling to Los Angeles, Paris and investigating Norway and Denmark, he settled with Munich, Germany, and stayed there for about six years.

As can be imagined the press and mass media in general were filled with articles, open letters, debates, opinions and anger. Anger at how a person could be so humiliated and tormented this way or anger that the rich and famous always tried to get away from their responsibilities. Bergman had in the late 1960s been criticised by left wing artists, writers and politicians for his "bourgeois" values and they were of course thrilled by this new offence that Bergman had apparently committed. Internationally the case also generated massive attention; a combination of bewilderment at the wayward ways of the tax authorities and sympathy for Bergman. Even the Soviet newspaper Izvestia wade in, seeing it as typical of the capitalist West that it would interfere with the life of an artist, preventing him from working in the peace and quiet he deserved. And Olof Palme was concerned with the bad press that Sweden was getting, from everybody it seemed. Bergman also received many invitations from abroad. Producers, politicians, mayors, filmmakers and film institutes from all corners of the world wrote him and suggested he moved there.

It was not only Bergman who was in the spotlight for tax reasons in 1976. In March that year Astrid Lindgren, the author of children's books such as Pippi Longstocking, Mio, My Son and Ronia the Robber's Daughter, wrote an attack on the tax system in the form of a satirical fairy-tale that was published in one of the largest newspapers in Sweden (the same one as Bergman had his piece published, Expressen). The origin of the story was that she had found out that she was paying 102% in taxes on her income from the previous year. Like Bergman she was also a social democrat but now she had had enough. The finance minister, Gunnar Sträng, made the unfortunate decision to publicly ridicule her (what did she, just a writer of children's books, know about politics and taxes he wondered). Considering that Lindgren was perhaps the most beloved person in the country it is no surprise that this backfired, especially since she was right and he was wrong.

How much these two cases mattered at the general election in the autumn of 1976 is of course a matter of speculation but the Social Democratic Party lost that election to a center/right coalition. For the first time in 44 years the party found itself outside of government. Whether Bergman and Lindgren got some satisfaction out of this I do not know.

Speaking of Astrid Lindgren, I have long felt that Ridley Scott should make a film based on one of her fantasy books, especially Mio, My Son. It has been made into a film before, Mio in the Land of Faraway (Vladimir Grammatikov, 1987), a Swedish-Norwegian-Soviet co-production with Christian Bale in his first role, but it deserves a new version.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The fog of authorship

In a previous post there was an image from Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer 1955), and as it is a great image I will post it here again. But not because it is great but because it appears in another film, made three years later by Leo McCarey, whom I wrote about last week. It is not just a similar image (or rather shot) but the very same identical shot. It is a useful reminder on the need to remain cautious before asserting credit (or blame) for scenes, shots and ideas in individual films.

McCarey's style of filmmaking is different from Fleischer's in many ways, and one is the visuals. McCarey was most at home in the Academy ratio and he was not interested in landscapes or cityscapes. His camera is usually indoors and focused on the actors. Fleischer on the other hand was one of the great CinemaScope stylists and had an interest in striking compositions, outdoors and indoors, that McCarey had not. Or rather, his compositions are of a different kind. So it is not surprising that, when Rally 'Round the Flag Boys (1958) became McCarey's first film in CinemaScope, he, or more likely the studio, felt obliged to add some visual flavour by borrowing a shot from another film and another director. This does not undermine ideas about authorship, it is just that since this habit of borrowing is common enough we should not be too sure about who is responsible for individual shots and images in a given film.

Another cause for caution is censorship, a problem that is, or at least was, common enough in most countries. For an example that recently came to my attention, look at The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall 1946). It was the only film to which Raymond Chandler wrote an original script, and it is a good script, but it gets all weak and abrupt in the last few minutes, obviously so. This is because the US Navy had objections about the script so the ending was rewritten. There is a murder in the film and it turns out that the killer is a sailor, an ex-serviceman who suffers from a mental illness after the war. Or at least it does in the original script, the one the Navy did not like. After it was rewritten another person is blamed for the murder, more or less at random, in the last scene. There are a few interesting things about this. Not necessarily that the US Navy objected but that they were even asked, and that their opinion mattered so much that the film was altered. Another is that to some extent it does not matter. I have seen the film three times, with a time lapse of many years between the first and second viewing, and when I saw it the second time I thought I knew who the killer was, i.e. the sailor, because that is the way the film is structured and that is what makes sense, up to the last minute. I had completely forgotten about the weak ending. When I saw it the third time I had not forgotten the ending, but I did not care about it. For all points and purposes it is the sailor who is the killer. I was curious about that ending though so I did some digging and found out what happened to the script and why the ending was like it was. Ultimately the way the finished film ends does not matter, you can easily disregard it and stay with the original ending, as I did, even if you do not know the circumstances.

The Blue Dahlia is perhaps the work of Chandler (and should be included when his writing is discussed) but he was annoyed by some changes that George Marshall, the director, did, and how the visuals worked. But that is a director's prerogative. So The Blue Dahlia has several authors, and who had the most definitive influence on the finished film is a work for a thesis. (It can also be enjoyed as probably the best of the films that Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake made together, but more about them in a later post.)

This post is related to three earlier posts (this, and this and this). It is one of the great things about blogging, the ongoing, endless sprawl of connections and links.

Incidentally, Chandler also contributed to the script for Strangers on a Train, but that is unmistakably a Hitchcock film. I should also add that there is nothing unusual about re-using footage from previous films as was done in Rally 'Round the Flag Boys. It happens with some frequency, now as well as then.
2014-03-31 I added a sentence to emphasise my point that this does not undermine the idea of authorship, only that we cannot know for sure who is responsible for each individual shot or image in a given film.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Leo McCarey

There are two sides to Leo McCarey. The first one is him being one of the most important comic filmmaker of all time. He made shorts with Charley Chase. He put Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together and was the, to use a contemporary term, show runner for most of their silent films as Laurel & Hardy (he wrote and directed many of them as well). He directed Duck Soup (1933), the best of the Marx brothers' films, and it was he who devised some of their most memorable scenes such as the fake mirror sequence (a routine with a long history). In addition he directed Mae West in Belle of the Nineties (1934) and Harold Lloyd in the fine The Milky Way (1936). Some claim that with The Awful Truth (1937), which McCarey wrote, directed and produced, he "created" the persona of Cary Grant that is known today but although The Awful Truth was important Grant had been building himself up over time, and in Topper (Norman Z. McLeod, 1937) the Cary Grant who combines wackiness and elegance was more or less in place. So The Awful Truth was important, and Grant is much better in it, but not groundbreaking. Besides his filmmaking McCarey also had an encyclopedic knowledge of humour (if you mentioned a joke he could say when it first was made and by whom) and a theoretical view on how humour works, ideas which he put forward in articles and essays.

The second side is as a profound humanist, a maker of some of the most moving films ever made, such as Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) and Love Affair (1939). The McCarey of whom Jean Renoir said that he "understands people - better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood." He was loved by most people, and Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin were among those who praised him and his work. He was Irene Dunne's favourite director and even Maria Ouspenskaya spoke kindly of him.

McCarey lost his way somewhat after the Second World War. The causes were several, including suspected alcoholism, addiction to painkillers (after a car accident that nearly killed him), and a sense of writer's block after winning a remarkable number of awards and being the most highly paid man in the whole of the United States in 1944. After having made at least a film a year until 1945 he made only five more films after the war. Of those five films one succeeds, and very much so: An Affair to Remember (1957). But it is significant that it is a remake of his earlier Love Affair. The other four films are the decent but dull Good Sam (1948), an amiable comedy called Rally 'Round the Flag Boys (1958) and two films on which McCarey had severe problems. On the first one, My Son John (1952), the leading man Robert Walker died during the shooting and McCarey had to borrow scenes from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), in which Walker also starred, to fill out the gaps. Walker's character is killed in the film but only because the actor had died, not because that was McCarey's intention. On the second problematic film, Satan Never Sleeps (1962), he got into a fight with William Holden, who played the lead, and when the studio took Holden's side McCarey walked away. Somebody else finished the film and McCarey never directed another film. An ignoble end to a once brilliant career.

But those final years cannot undo what had gone before. When he was at his most inspired he had few equals. His style of filmmaking was rather unique. He would come up with a general idea for the film, often based on his personal life, and then during the making of the film he would improvise constantly and making it up as he went along, together with his cast and crew. He would always have a piano on set and he would play on it whilst thinking up ideas, and then when he had a good one he would get back to filming. Often he would just say to the actors how a scene would begin, and then let them do whatever came natural to them. He would film it all, often in one take, and being as curious as anybody else as to what would happen. He would also tell one actor or two to do something, but not tell the others, and so let them improvise a response. This means that when a character looks surprised in a film by McCarey in all likelihood the actor playing that character is just as surprised. This is one of the true wonders of his films, these unguarded moments of genuine emotions.

McCarey was not shy of having the actors look into the camera, at the audience. The example above might be the most devastating of them. The old couple in Make Way For Tomorrow, one of the saddest of films, are having a special evening on the town, a few precious moments alone. Or almost alone. Just as he is about to kiss her she turns and looks at us, as if to say "Kindly go away and let us have this moment for ourselves." I do not know if it was her idea, or McCarey's, but it does not matter. The weird feeling of shame, for intruding upon them, is there.

McCarey's way of filmmaking also affected the structure and pacing of his films, in that they are often a progression of what I call emotional set-pieces rather than a more conventional narrative. The films do have a forward motion but it is not the story that is the main concern but the emotions of the characters. The sequences in which these emotions are expressed are often so rich and nuanced they became like short movies in themselves of either hilarious comedy or heartbreaking sadness and/or tenderness. Examples of this are plenty but perhaps the best is the visit to the old grandmother in Love Affair or the scene in Going My Way (1944) when Father Fitzgibbon, the old priest, tells the new priest Father O'Malley that he has understood that O'Malley has been sent to replace him. Or rather, he does not tell him, he let it be understood in a roundabout way, because he cannot bring himself to say out loud the truth; that he is too old to remain in his post and is not wanted anymore. Then he starts to cry and walks away, out of the room and out of his beloved church.

This way of making the films led James Agee to make the observation, when writing about The Bells of St Mary's (1945), that a film by McCarey is "distinguished for leisure and spaciousness, for delight in character and atmosphere, for it use of scenes which are inserted not to advance the story but for their own intrinsic charm." This scene for example, from Bells of St Mary's, where McCarey just told them to try and box.

The old priest in Going My Way, Father Fitzgibbon, was based on a priest that McCarey had known well. In the next film, The Bells of St Mary's, the nun played by Ingrid Bergman is based on McCarey's own aunt, also a nun. The Awful Truth is based on McCarey's own marriage. Make Way For Tomorrow, a film about loneliness and generational conflict that was an inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), McCarey made after the death of his father. These are some examples of how personal the films were, and how McCarey used his art to deal with his own life. Allegedly his wife used to asked him, when she saw the films, what the different scenes were meant to represent. ("When was that, darling?" she would ask.) If you want to know what McCarey was like you can look closely at Jerry Warriner, the character Cary Grant plays in The Awful Truth, because he based him on McCarey. What should also be mentioned is the sense of religiosity and spirituality that imbues several of his films.

McCarey was once one of the most honoured and celebrated of any filmmaker, and an internal auteur. The trio of films he made between 1937 and 1939, Make Way For TomorrowThe Awful Truth and Love Affair, constitute the pinnacle of his achievements. Although he is not a household name anymore among cinephiles he is not forgotten and in the history of film his position is secure. Here, finally, is a scene from Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), where an English butler finds himself in the Wild West. There is no gunplay or fistfights here, but something much more spellbinding.

I have never been able to watch My Son John, which is usually considered a disaster. But it has its defenders, for example Jonathan Rosenbaum who has called it "great but deranged". Some have suggested that it is the result of a conflict between McCarey's natural artistic sensibilities and the forced anti-communist theme. I have not mentioned Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), McCarey's anti-Nazi film, because it has been so long since I saw it but I think it might very well be classified as "great but deranged" as well. It certainly takes black humour to some surreal extremes. As for Satan Never Sleeps, while McCarey hated the finished film it has its moments. The three people it is about, played by Holden, Clifton Webb and France Nuyen, are treated with warmth and humour, and there are several fine scenes. But as a whole it is rather weak, muddled and obvious, especially the last 15 minutes or so.

For a deeper analysis of The Awful Truth see Stanley Cavell's book The Pursuit of Happiness. For a book about the life and career of McCarey see Wes D.Gehring's Leo McCarey: From Marx to McCarthy (which is not as good as one would have wanted). The quote from Rosenbaum about My Son John is from his book Essential Cinema. The quote from Agee is to be found in Agee on Film Volume 1.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Theory readings - An introduction

I have sometimes been accused of being anti-theory. I can understand why, considering I have criticised, sometimes venomously, most flawed theory I have come across ever since my undergraduate days. But that is not the whole picture. While being impatient with bad theory there are theories I like and I have also developed some theories of my own, for example on lighting, on queer characters in post-war cinema, on our relationship to storytelling and on how we appreciate films. My post using Max Weber to discuss the way we approach film history can also be said to be a theory. So I am not anti-theory. There are plenty of things that are very good and even inspiring, like reading Jean Epstein ("The cinematic feeling is therefore particularly intense. More than anything else, the close-up releases it. Although we are not dandies, all of us are or are becoming blasé. Art takes to the warpath."). But there are others I like as well, and I have written a lot about André Bazin (most recent post here).

When I say bad theory I mean for example theories that are too speculative to be useful, theories that proclaim to be true for all films or are based on the assumption that everybody in the audience will react in the same way, as if such a thing was possible, or theories that are based on misconceptions or misunderstandings on how films are made and/or how they work. A lot of theories also seem to be by disillusioned Marxists wondering why the promised revolution never appeared and putting the blame on popular cinema, or popular culture in general. (The function of many theories also seems to be to advance the career of the theorist rather than to say anything illuminating about film.)

Three years ago I wrote a post on some problems with the film theory canon, how texts are too often treated like gospel when they might more accurately be considered a sign of their time; not necessarily saying anything meaningful about cinema. Sometimes the person who wrote a particular piece has moved on and might even be embarrassed by the ideas put forward at a younger age. Writing is often done in haste, perhaps against a deadline, and there is not always time to think through what one is saying. It also often happens that one might be caught up in an idea without considering if it actually works, or makes sense, or whether it is contradicting another point one has already made. When reading a theoretical text (any text) these are things to consider. It also often happens that theories are based on the writer's memories of the films under discussion, memories that are not to be trusted. In Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema many of her descriptions are wrong, i.e. what she says happens in the films do not actually happen. Whether such mistakes are important or not in a general sense is debatable, but they might undermine the arguments made.

There is another thing to remember and that is that famous texts and ideas are often oversimplified and/or misunderstood and/or undermined even by the friends and followers of the theory. When Deleuzians are explaining the movement-image and the time-image they usually say "The movement-image is classical Hollywood and the time-image is post-war European art cinema." But that is not really what Deleuze is arguing. They might as well explain it by saying "The movement-image is French poetic realism and the time-image is Hollywood films by, for example, Orson Welles and Joseph L. Mankiewicz." which is as correct as the previous summary, but also equally narrow. The reason they chose the former explanation instead of the latter is probably because they do not really accept Deleuze's distinction and try to make it more in line with their own preferences.

The crystal-image. A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1949).

When theoretical texts are discussed or criticised it is usually through the use of another theory, on whether it contradicts or agrees with some other text. But that is not really critical thinking, that is compare and contrast. For me it is when a text is criticised on its own terms, from within, that it becomes interesting and meaningful,  Under the heading "Theory readings" I aim to engage with some theoretical writings (loosely defined) on their own terms, and see where that will take me. The first one, published soon, will be about Robert Warshow and in particular his essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero.

The Epstein quote is from a text he wrote in 1921 in Bonjour Cinema called "Magnification" (or "Grossissement").
All four posts about Bazin are here: #1, #2, #3 and #4. My post on Deleuze is here.