Friday, 1 June 2018

Hawks and Foucault

This Wednesday, May 30, was the birthday of Howard Hawks (1896), who I regard as the greatest of all filmmakers. That is as good a reason as any to post this, something I wrote several years ago as part of a longer academic essay for a Hawks-project. Nothing came of it but now you get to read this part at least.

 Utopia and Heterotopia 

In Howard Hawks’s films there is usually very little sense of the larger world. There are exceptions. Contemporary politics is a part of His Girl Friday (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949) has an element of social critic, or at least satire. In Rio Bravo (1959) the main character is the sheriff in the town. But in general the world is kept at bay. (In El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), the other two films of the trilogy in which Rio Bravo is the first, the characters are not driven by any kind of duty to society.) It could be said that one aspect of Hawks’s films is escape. His characters are usually running away from society, their escape is both from the bourgeois world and from themselves, from their own pasts, and this is true for the men as well as many of the women. The groups that his films so often are centred around can be seen as being made up of drifters who have built their own communities, with their own rules and ethics. Rio Bravo for example is about four men who are more or less confined to the jail in their small town, since they are threatened by gunmen, but there is a sense that they are not just hiding in the jail because of the gunmen but that they are hiding from the world in general, and that Nathan Burdette (the leader of the gang) is just a symptom of this world. But it is not just the groups. The films which do not have these self-contained groups instead have individuals who are trying to escape, individuals who also tend to be self-contained, such as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946).

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep

So what they are escaping from can be summarised as the conventions and restrictions of ordinary life, and that includes marriage and family life. It is easy to imagine that Hawks’s characters would succumb to existential boredom if they were not in their self-contained worlds. They could not live in a safe and controlled environment; they must live with the elements, putting themselves at risk. In this self-created world they are working together, being dependent on one another, and are fearless in the face of danger.

Related to this need for escape and self-sufficiency is a utopian element, in that the spaces created by these “escaped” men and women are successful havens, where they are among equals. Hatari! (1962) in particular has this feeling of a perfect world, where people from all over the world come together. It is like a United Nations camp, with people from France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, the US (including a Native American) working in Tanzania. Hatari! is also unusually happy, since the dangers of the outside world do not intrude at all, whereas in most other films by Hawks it might at any moment disturb, restrain or even kill you. One reason why Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is in many ways the quintessential Hawks film is because it has all of these things in such a pure form.


It is tempting to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia when talking about Hawks’s films. Foucault describes heterotopias as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.” He calls them heterotopias because, unlike utopias, they do exist. He talks about various kinds of spaces that might be called heterotopias such as cemeteries, gardens and libraries, but also certain colonies. Foucault also suggests that a role of the heterotopia “is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” And this can also be seen in many of Hawks’s films.

See also my article about Hawks and Fred Zinnemann:

And my article about Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu:

Foucault discussed heterotopia in a lecture in 1967 which was then published as an article in 1984 called "Des Espace Autres" or "Of Other Spaces".

When Hawks made Hatari! Pier Paolo Pasolini came to visit as he was a friend of Elsa Martinelli, who acted in the film. I have always wondered how Hawks and Pasolini got along.

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