Monday, February 15, 2010

Nicholas Ray : Why this classical cinema?

One of the more interesting conceptualizations of certain post-World War II Hollywood film-makers comes from Joe McElhaney's The Death of Classical Cinema, an optimistic book despite its title. In the text he explores the late style of Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli, and Fritz Lang, choosing one film from each (Hitchcock's Marnie, Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town, and Lang's The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), reading each film as posing a crisis in classical filmic language. Moments of transition, in particular, become salient: doors, in particular, are of interest. On the one hand, they are invisible, as they are in all classical films: characters move through a door to a new space, and the cut (and thus, to a certain extent, the door itself) is elided as the machinations of the invisible style move on. At the same time, however, McElhaney finds that the door becomes charged with affect, and is seized by the cinephile - cinephilia is very important to his framework - as a highly visible moment. Moments of transition are not elided, but noticed, and in this respect the films gesture towards a kind of affective modernism (echoes of Hansen's "vernacular modernism" here, a concept McElhaney cites). And, as with all kinds of modernism, this one throws into doubt the value of the normative tradition from which it emerges.

We don't usually think about classical films as posing questions to us, at least not in their ideal forms: the style of classical films is meant to be functional, and is intended to stitch together a world of plenitude that we simply sink into. Most contemporary Hollywood films still more or less function in this way; I'd argue that every visually salient CGI effect in the latest blockbuster playing near you is ultimately intended to draw us into diegetic space, rather than out of it. In this respect, I take McElhaney's interest in these three directors as signaling a larger interest in classical (and perhaps even contemporary) films that, while ostensibly functional (you can just watch them as classical films for their stories, without noticing all this other stuff), nevertheless ask us: why move forward through this space? Why not another one?

In working on Nicholas Ray recently, I've seen affinities between his work and the film-makers McElhaney describes. Yet Ray's late 40s/1950s/early 60s films - the same moment in which the three directors above began their "late phase" - don't function as signs of "the death of classical cinema." McElhaney can read the late work of those film-makers as he does because their late style is relative to an earlier one in which the classical norms of their institution were not questioned. Ray had no late style: his career in Hollywood was not long enough. In part because of his unstable personality, and in part because of the conservatism and cowardice of the industry in general, his career in the industry was cut short. Further, all of his films - even the ones he attempted to make after Hollywood, including the indescribable We Can't Go Home Again - are perpetually youthful. This is obviously true of Rebel Without a Cause, and gloriously true of the first frames of They Live By Night ("this boy...and this girl...were never properly introduced to the world we live in") but it's more generally a sensibility rather than a content. In a sense, Ray never stopped making his first film: the search for a way to negotiate the strictures of the classical cinema was always just beginning, and because his films are expressive struggles rather than clean expressions, each asks us: why this classical cinema? Why not another one, which might look a little bit like this, if the story is told in this way? (Recall Ray's famous dictum, "if it's all in the script, why make the movie?")


In organizing my writing on Ray, I've found myself resisting the chronological, film-by-film approach to authorship. Such an approach would seem to suggest that the authorship of its filmmaker is a fully recoverable aspect of cause-and-effect film history, just lying there in the archives, waiting for its articulation. For many reasons, for reasons of time I won't go into just here, I do not think we can conceptualize Ray's authorship in this way. His films seem to me to be interventions into Hollywood history rather than merely reflections of a certain period of its existence, and for that reason I've seized upon cinephilia as a reading strategy to understanding his work. As Christian Keathley suggests, cinephilia's fascination with details in films can become the beginnings of a new way of writing film history - not necessarily against any other way, but simply a way that asks to be heard from a subject position that is not addressed in any other framework and is not reducible to currently existing paradigms of film form and style. I can't imagine a framework more suitable to exploring Ray, not only because cinephiles have loved his films for several generations, but because Ray so often describes his film practice in cinephiliac terms. For example: 

 If, after wrestling with ... everything else at work upon and within me as a director every hour of the day, I discover that little surprise ... that's the kind of accident I mean. It's a revelation ... a wonderful, magic moment, when I see it's there. - Nicholas Ray, "Ray's World According to Ray," in Film Comment 27, no. 5 (September-October 1991), 49.
These magic moments, I think, are our points of entry into thinking through how Ray asked us to imagine the potential of the classical Hollywood cinema differently.Like McElhaney's privileged film-makers, his films are expressive struggles, rather than expressions. But unlike them, the films are not laments: they're imbued with the utopic dimensions of Ray's 1930s work in the socialist theater and in architecture, and there's a certain optimism in all of his films, no matter how lonely or alienated they frequently feel.