There’s a curious moment in the recent film Paris, je t’aime.
Paris, je t’aime, you will recall, is the omnibus film about the city of light in which prominent directors celebrate the burg through stories set in each of its arrondissements. “Tuileries,” the short by the Coen Brothers is set in the Metro.
“Tuileries” opens with a shot looking down the long tracks toward a tunnel. Suddenly Steve Buscemi’s face slides into the frame from the left, first looking down at the tunnel, then turning toward the viewer, his eyes gazing into the lens in extreme Fuller-esque close-up as he looks to see if his train is on the way. There is a quick POV show of what he sees “behind” the viewer.
Then there is a cut to a long distance view of Buscemi from the other side of the tracks. In the distance we see Buscemi as we last saw him, bent over and looking in the distance. He uncrooks himself and turns to go sit down. The camera slowly zooms or tracks in for a second. Then the story, about Buscemi as a put-upon tourist abused by the locales, begins proper.
The curious thing about the long shot is that because of the shock of the extreme close up, we are hyperaware of where the camera was in proportion to Buscemi in the previous shot. But in the long shot, there is no visible camera. If in the first shot Buscemi was looking “through the camera,” in the long shot the camera simply doesn’t exist at all. But we the viewers just saw Buscemi via its agency. Where did the camera go? The shock of the cuts puts the viewer in the peculiar position of taking everything in the film suddenly literally.
One of the main goals of commercial filmmaking in the so-called classical Hollywood era was to avoid such camera consciousness. Occasionally, the camera would move or track or pan, but almost always such movements were “invisible” in the sense that the action being photographed was so vivid that the viewer was distracted from the operation of the camera. The lens was going where the narrative demanded it be in order to continue the tale with clarity. The viewer wants to see what is going to happen next, and rides the camera obliviously. One of the repellent features of modern academic film criticism to the average reader is that it creates self-consciousness about the camera, rendering it intrusive where it was suppose to be invisible.
Thus the Coens’ shot decisions appears to be self-defeating. The viewer is “taken out of the moment,” as movie biz people like to say.
But that’s nothing new with the Coens. They have done similar things from their first film on. Who can forget the tracking shot from above a saloon bar in Blood Simple in which the camera does a little hop over a drunk passed out on his stool? But such a sharp cut as the one found in “Tuileries” raises a larger question. Who in the film is doing the looking, the character or the camera? We leap from Buscemi’s POV to, so to speak, the film’s POV. We are both in Buscemi’s head and observing him simultaneously, the one thing that film can do that no other art form can. Thus the character’s POV, literal and figurative as the film progresses, gives way to the film’s attitude to Buscemi, at once both sympathetic and objective. It’s a matter of tone, a mysterious quality that we generally associate with a director’s vision.
Tone is at the center of a new approach to film studies that is beginning to make itself felt in a wealth of excellent books and articles. Well, it’s not exactly new, really, having roots in the work of the Movie writers from the early 1960s onward. And it’s not exactly sweeping the universities, as semiology, deconstruction, and other French imports did in the 1970s. But there is already a substantial body of work representing this new approach.
This field of film studies doesn’t have an official title yet, but it easily could be called Tonal Studies. As practiced by Douglas Pye, John Gibbs, George Wilson, Susan Smith, and Deborah Thomas, Tonal Studies, to put it very crudely, approaches a work of cinematic art as a series of choices, with achievements of, or fluctuations in, tone or mood providing the foundation for those choices, which in turn serve as a close reading of the film. The existence of tone implies that there is a speaker or author behind the work, but it need not necessarily be the actual, physical real world director.
The best introduction to Tonal Studies is the new, second issue of a Close-Up, edited by Pye and Gibbs.
A magazine-annual in book form published by the prolific Wallflower Press (and distributed in the United States via Columbia University Press), Close-Up offers film analyses based on directorial choices. “The centrality of tone to our experience of film is indisputable,” writes Pye, adding quickly that as “a means of focusing on the film’s address to the spectator it feels as though it should be indispensable to film criticism.”
The current issue sets forth some codifying ideas about Tonal Studies, first in the fascinating lead off essay by Pye, which scrutinizes tone in The Deer Hunter, Desperately Seeking Susan, Strangers on a Train, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and Some Came Running. It’s followed by Jacob Leigh’s excellent survey of three late Rohmer films, an essay that is especially good on Le Rayon vert. Finally, there is a fascinating study by Susan Smith of the unique use of the human voice in Hollywood cinema, with special emphasis on Father of the Bride, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Random Harvest. The utility of this approach is made clear. You see how films work, and you see how meaning is embedded not just in the dialogue, but in the decor, camera movements, and even the voice, which is sometimes at odds with the ostensible meaning of a moment.
It’s a pity that the paper or the printing process itself resulted in frame enlargement illustrations that are small and hard to see, but the exactitude of the descriptive prose of the contributors compensates, since they specialize in close readings of films, often going frame by frame. The emphasis is always on the movie as art object. In his lavish treatment of Some Came Running, Pye doesn’t cite the James Jones novel whence it came, and one wonders if Minnelli’s and the screenwriters’ deviations from the book might also offer clues as to the tone the director was aiming to achieve. Pye does cite Minnelli himself, however, from his memoir, in defiance of that brand of criticism that ignores authorial intentionality. Pye’s overall reading of Some Came Running is nuanced, detailed, and sensitive to fluctuations in tone that viewers are in fact likely pick up, but on which daily reviewer types often heap ridicule.
There are other key texts in the Tonal Studies canon. One might want to start with John Gibbs’s Mise en scene, which also includes an excellent descriptive bibliography of other books and magazines that generally use this approach. Also crucial are William Rothman’s The “I” of the Camera, Susan Smith’s Hitchcock: Suspense, Humor, and Tone, and Deborah Thomas’s Beyond Genre. Pye and Gibbs earlier anthology, Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analyses of Film has an impressive array of essays by various scholars.
Aside from writing by Robin Wood, especially in his book on Hitchcock, and the other Movie writers, the key early text is Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View, a book by philosophy professor George Wilson first published in 1986. Narration in Light contains some of the best analyses I’ve ever read of ** North by Northwest, The Searchers, and Rebel Without a Cause, among many other movies.
One of the things that intrigues me about Tonal Studies is its emphasis on directorial choices. This includes such things as where to put the camera, when to cut, and how to orchestrate the sound elements around a moment, among numerous other elements that make up a film. Different directors approaching the same material, in a remake say (Carpenter’s Halloween versus Rob Zombie’s, say), will choose different camera placements, make different edits, offer different sounds.
Yet there is a vast gulf between the tones of Hitchcock’s and Gus Van Sant’s versions of Psycho even though Van Sant replicated the original almost frame for frame, and used the same music cues. Yet Van Sant’s is odder, less realistic even though in color, campier, and in general more “gay” by making explicit the sexual identities of various characters.
Another comparison might be between Kubrick’s The Shining, which deviates greatly from the source novel, and the TV mini-series directed by Mick Garis, a “lesser” director but one more likely to be faithful to the source. Kubrick’s film twists the material into something strangely personal, as if he were re-imagining his real life as if it had gone in a wholly different direction, while also filling it with the types of scenes he is repeatedly drawn to, such as Jack and Lloyd in the bar, supplicant and officious servant. Kubrick’s hyper-realism, of setting and acting, makes the horror elements creepier, and he likes to play with audience expectation in a way that offends the horror geek. Meanwhile, Stephen King’s The Shining, is truer to the original, but is a rather typical TV movie sort of presentation, with lots of conversational padding, post-commercial scene-setting shots, and languorous pacing. If there is a tone, it is corporate. But SK’s Shining also makes Jack’s descent into madness clearer. Nicholson, as he prepares to dine on the scenery, seems crazy from the beginning. There is no moment where he ** decides to submit to the lure of the Overlook. SK’s delineates the process of succumbing to madness much more clearly.
Is there a correlation, I wonder, between directorial choices and the choices of the characters in the movie? Does the film’s account of a character’s major decisions dictate the handling of a film, as processed through the director’s point of view? As I think about it almost every movie pivots on a key decision by a character, after which the movie is “different.” Is that a place where “tone” resides?
Take The Godfather. At one point, Michael Corleone, the one son who has never wanted to be a part of the “family business,” visits his father in the hospital, but finds all the family’s hired guards missing. Realizing quickly that his father is being isolated so that a rival mob’s gunmen can take him out, Michael hides his father and enlists another visiting innocent to play act at being his father’s guardians, standing on the hospital’s front steps. A car pulls up. The men inside see Michael and his unwilling confederate standing in silhouette. They drive away. In the aftermath of this close call, the other visitor starts to shake uncontrollably and can’t light a cigarette. Michael lights it for him, and then gazes at his hands, as if wondering, Why can I do this and he can’t? At that moment, Michael realizes that only he can inherit the role of the Don, and in the very next sequence, icily and calmly he puts forth the plan that saves the family by taking out their opponents’ leadership. His subsequent experiences in Sicily both reinforce his ethnic roots, and give him a brief and tragic experience of marital bliss. Henceforth his trusts no one, and works coldly on behalf of his family. But it all started with that non-shaking hand.
Coppola links the film to this life changing decision by ratcheting down its warmth. Night, bridges, diners, the sound of trains all take over. This is the world Michael is entering as a consequence of his life-changing decision. There is a respite. The sunny world of Sicily offers an alternative. But it is a doomed alternative. The long hand of his enemies reaches into the sacred bed chamber and snatches away his bride. Henceforth, he is closed down, and the Family supplants the family. The world becomes gray and urban, the houses emptying as bodies fall. Suddenly the camera cannot seem to penetrate Michael’s mind as it did in the cigarette lighting scene. That Coppola was able to achieve this is amazing. He watches Michael’s identity virtually shut down.
Tonal Studies doesn’t go in for character decision making per se. It concentrates on director decision making. Bu might character decision making also be a fruitful avenue of study, especially if the two are linked? Decisions, at root, are about preserving the self. Bad decisions can derail or destroy the self. Good decisions enrich it. An enriched self is one with many identities, as Charles Schwenk shows in his book, Identity, Learning, and Decision Making in Changing Organizations, a volume that has a broad application to film studies in this area despite the fact that it is geared to corporate decision-making issues. For example, Michael Corleone had many identities: son, brother, soldier, college student, fiance. The consequence of his decision on the steps of the hospital is that he comes to concentrate on only one of his identities, impoverishing his self (though it doesn’t hinder the effectiveness of his subsequent decisions as the new Don). The decisions that the director makes to present, shade, and underscore the material of the film may follow from the richness of the characters and the decisions they make.
In the interests of tracking down more information about point of view and tone, I contacted two of the subject’s primary critics, Douglas Pye, who is also a long time contributor to Movie, and George Wilson, of Narration in Light. Both were generous with their time in answering basically the same set of 10 or so questions.
ADDED FRIDAY, 31 AUGUST: Directorial decision making is also a subject investigated with great detail by David Bordwell in his many books. But for various reasons, there isn’t much communality between those who practice tone studies and Bordwell’s work, which strikes me as curious. The debate over Bordwell’s approach to film evokes memories of the debates between psychoanalysts and Behaviorists, or philosophical attacks on Logical Positivism. Though I myself wrestle with aspects of Bordwell’s writing, I am drawn to it as much as I am to the work of the tone critics. In any case, I’ve added this paragraph in order to provide a foundation for the questions I ask the two writers about his work.
DOUGLAS PYE INTERVIEW
For starters, I’m hoping you can give me a few words about your background.
I began, many years ago, as a teacher of English in secondary schools and moved into teacher education … teaching film, alongside literature … at a time when a few teacher education colleges were developing some of the first film courses in British higher education. Film gradually took over from literature in my teaching and I also gradually moved out of teacher education as the college I was working in diversified.
Were you always interested in tone in movies or did the subject evolve over the course of your studies? Was there a particular moment when you realized that all these writers were all studying tone?
I don’t think I was always interested in it as a distinct concept … in some ways I think that I just took its importance for granted. In literary theory tone had been a very important concept (pivotal for I.A.Richards, for instance) and it was a central dimension of much of the British and American literary criticism that I’d read and been influenced by. In close reading of novels or poems you couldn’t escape tone. It was also very much part of the wider interest in narrative point of view that I developed from reading Henry James and other late nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction. When I became involved in film, these approaches and assumptions carried over to some extent. And although tone wasn’t often directly addressed as such, it was importantly there in some of the writing that influenced me when I started thinking about cinema in the mid-1960s … especially Robin Wood’s early work.
It was very much later that I started to formalise my thinking about point of view in film, and even later that an interest in tone led to a series of seminars on the topic, focused on a diverse group of movies. This was part of an informal film analysis seminar for postgraduates and staff that we run in the Department of Film, Theatre and Television at Reading. John Gibbs, who co-edited Style and Meaning and now co-edits Close-Up, was a founder member of the group when he was a research student. I think the impetus in relation to tone came out the fact that so many of the approaches and concepts that had been central to traditions of interpretive textual analysis had been discarded, displaced or actively rejected in the waves of theory that dominated ‘film studies’ from the early 1970s. In the way these things invariably happen, other people also started to think about tone around this time … look, for instance, at Susan Smith’s book, Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour and Tone, which actually has ‘tone’ in its sub-title.
Could you clarify the differences been tone versus point of view?
In ** Close-Up 02 I talk about this a little and deliberately don’t come to a decisive position. These are terms that we’ve evolved to talk about complex narrative effects that can’t easily be broken down into neat categories. So many of the terms we need to use, including words like ‘narration’ as well as ‘point of view’, can seem to name specific features of a movie but the more we probe them and the movie the more problematic and slippery their referents become. There’s a danger in treating analytical distinctions and concepts as though they were things in the world. I tend to use point of view as a master term for talking about the varied relationships a film implies to its action, characters, its traditions and spectator, and so tone becomes part of that. Other people take perfectly coherent positions that see tone as somewhat distinct. In fact what happens in analysis is that as you try to trace the ways in which, for instance, attitude and emotion are embodied by a film you find that they are pervasive, affected by many areas of decision-making and the interaction between them. So whatever solidity concepts like tone and point of view might seem to have had tends to dissolve. And that’s fine.
Does focusing on the director’s decision making process re-affirm, in the end, the director as author of a given film? How do we know that a particularly cogent edit wasn’t made solely by an editor, without the input of the director?
Movie making is complicated and highly collaborative … by definition films made in these ways can’t be thought of as ‘authored’ in the way that a novel normally is. An approach that wants to focus on detailed decision-making doesn’t need to commit itself to a view that the director actually made all the decisions that created the film (in fact it would be pretty mad to do so). We know how crucial the contributions of writer, cinematographer, editor and so on can be. Even so, in some areas of cinema, the primacy of the director has generally been accepted (think of the recent tributes to Bergman and Antonioni). That’s not to say that even there ‘authorship’ is uncomplicated, but it’s not generally contested. The big early battles over authorship were fought about Hollywood and were very much bound up (certainly in Britain) with attitudes to popular culture. It certainly doesn’t make sense, even in polemical terms, to affirm the director as author in a blanket way. But in the case of many films I have looked at in detail I think it does make sense to treat the director as the informing intelligence, the individual who oversaw and coordinated the different areas of decision-making but who was also responsible for the often complex interrelationships between elements that demonstrate skilful planning across the varied disciplines in film production. Skilled directors make decisions significant by making them work together. Victor Perkins writes in Film as Film that ‘film is a matter of relationships’ and it’s those relationships that detailed interpretive criticism focuses on.
How does, or ultimately how could, concentrating on tone change film studies in general?
Film Studies has many strands … there are lots of things going on that tone and related matters would be pretty irrelevant to. But I believe that various forms of well argued, detailed interpretive criticism need to be central to the subject and when you become involved in those activities you have to deal with matters such as tone and point of view because they force themselves on you as you experience and analyse films. The impetus behind the Style and Meaning volume and the Close-Up series was a wish to reclaim this territory. Detailed analysis also throws up quite difficult conceptual issues that need to be addressed theoretically and there’s now quite a lot of really incisive work on narration, point of view and related matters that is also responsive to the detail of films (George Wilson’s Narration in Light is a pre-eminent example … in fact, philosophers are currently providing a considerable body of interesting writing on film).
What does the “average viewer” get out of tone studies? How would this approach be utilized or applicable to a regular beat reviewer?
When we all watch movies we tend to engage quite naturally with tone … it’s a decisive factor in how we experience films, as it is in conversation, our reading of novels and so on. It’s also not at all uncommon for reviewers to refer to tone. It’s academic film studies that for a long time cut itself off from these matters. So writing about tone partly involves an attempt to re-connect with something we instinctively rely on as viewers and to say that, however intangible it might feel, it isn’t just ’subjective’ and can be sensibly discussed as part of a detailed criticism.
Tone studies bear a strong continuity with ’60s-era film criticism. At this late date, what would you say was valuable in the imported French theories of film in the ’70s?
I think you now have to consider not just imported French theory (and there were several strands in that, not just one), but later developments including the work of David Bordwell and his collaborators who were very critical (productively so) of some of the 70s paradigms and approaches. The overall landscape has changed completely. There have been very important developments in systematic film history and historiography, in the formalist analysis of film style (whatever its limitations, which I think are considerable). The period of ‘grand theory’ resulted in a greater degree of self-awareness about underlying values and assumptions in the study of film. The impact of ideological analysis has been pretty pervasive, and associated approaches to representation, especially in terms of gender, which completely transformed Hollywood studies in particular. Much of this work has been very productive.
It strikes me than an ideal exercise in isolating tone as an interpretive quality in a film might be a project such as comparing Hitchcock and Van Sant’s Psychos (and even perhaps the sequels that fell between them) … a fruitful path toward interpretation and evaluation. Or does one even need a “compare and contrast” approach? The in depth frame-by-frame close readings of specific films and moments from films may be illuminating enough.
I’m not sure about comparing the two Psychos … it could be productive but you wouldn’t know until you tried it. I’m also not sure about ‘isolating tone’. I want tone to be a central dimension of interpretation but as part of the process, part of the pattern of relationships you explore, not a thing in itself. In that sense I don’t think it can be isolated. Although certain elements of a film (such as music) seem often to have a large bearing on tone, it’s actually pervasive, a product of the dynamic relationship between many or all the decisions that make up the film. I think compare and contrast approaches can be illuminating … in teaching they can sometimes make certain decisions easier for students to ’see’. I base one chapter of the tone study on a comparison of two openings, although it’s not a process sustained through the detailed analysis. But whether a comparison is likely to prove fruitful is sometimes difficult to anticipate. I wrote some time ago about The Paradine Case and it was only in doing the detailed work that I began to see how closely it was connected in certain respects to Under Capricorn.
Unlike some of the other Movie critics you find some uses for David Bordwell’s work. Is there anything else in Bordwell’s writings that you find valuable besides a scrutiny of directorial decisions?
I touched on this earlier on. I’m not sure I directly draw on David Bordwell’s work but it’s so extensive and substantial that it’s always there as you do your own stuff. The historical work he and his collaborators did on Hollywood cinema, his systematic analyses of film style, just the range and seriousness of his writing, are very impressive. I found and still find his critiques of some ‘70s theory very helpful, and I often refer back to some of the distinctions between forms of narration in Narration in the Fiction Film. But I’m not the only one to find some fundamental problems at the heart of the work. So I’m very uneasy, for instance, about the attempt to separate ‘representation’ from ‘narration’ that underpins Narration in the Fiction Film and the pervasive attempt to think about style in almost entirely formal terms. These are part of the hostility to interpretation that Bordwell addressed directly in Making Meaning. Before that book appeared I wrote a short piece for Movie expressing some of my reservations and I still find the attempt to separate discussion of style from meaning to be logically untenable.
You contributions to Movie began with issue No. 20, when the format changes. Did you know the Movie critics in person or only as a force, and how did you all know you were compatible with each other?
I taught with Victor Perkins throughout the 1970s and when I wrote a piece on genre he encouraged me to submit it to the new format Movie that was being planned (this was 1975, I think). I then started to attend meetings of the editorial board and joined it a little later. I’d met some at least of the Movie writers before this in various ways. The Board had evolved from the very early days. Some of the original members didn’t attend meetings regularly because of commitments elsewhere and some new people (like Jim Hillier and Michael Walker) had previously been invited to join. Invitations were extended to people who were known to have at least some interests in common and who were sympathetic to what Movie stood for … it was very much a matter of personal contacts.
GEORGE WILSON INTERVIEW
Narration in Light was published in 1986. This is undoubtedly too broad a question, but have there been many changes in your thought about point of view since then?
I’m sure I’d want to change a lot of formulations if I went through the book systematically and thought through what I said on particular points. The large issue that I have thought and written about since N in L is this: how should the concept of audio-visual narration in fiction films be conceived? There is an article called “Le Grand Imagier Steps Out,” which is reprinted in the Carroll and Chee anthology for Blackwells, that describes my newer but still somewhat tentative views on the subject. Given those views, I am now more sympathetic to the position that almost every movie has an implicit audio-visual narrator, although, in standard films, the narrator is substantially effaced. But, whether we say that there is always such a narrator doesn’t seem to me the important question. The important question is: what is the nature of audio-visual narration in film?
How did you first come upon point of view as a subject for research?
I had written a number of the essays on particular films (e.g., the discussion of You Only Live Once) before I’d written much of anything theoretical or thought about doing a book. As I looked over those essays, it struck me that the strategies that I took to be crucial in many of these movies pertained to ‘point of view’ … at least if that concept was understood pretty broadly. I began to work from that intuition.
Point of view and tone appear to be used interchangeably by other writers. How would you differentiate been tone versus point of view?
For me ‘point of view’ in film has to do with the way in which a movie systematically structures the information it offers about the development of the story. Tone has to do with the emotional resonances that a film or part of a film expresses. But, two points here. This is just my sense of how I’d be inclined to use the terminology, and I don’t want to stipulate about how the terms should be used. Also, I think matters of tone and point of view are often significantly connected. Letter from an Unknown Woman is a good example of how this is so.
In the book you are careful to avoid necessarily attributing a film’s “point of view” to a director (at least if I read Chapter One correctly), while also being careful to acknowledge their contribution and the contributions of writers. If not the director, though, then whose POV are we seeing the film through? And if no one, does that make film “impersonal”? Does intentionality matter (i.e., the intentions of the filmmakers, solely or as a team)? Or am all I mixed up?
I think the best answer to this is still found in Victor Perkins’ chapter “Direction and Authorship” in Film as Film. In cases where the strategies of point of view (or other aspects of a films significance) depend crucially on the complex interrelations between different dimensions of the cinematic presentation, then it is highly likely (but not certain) that those interrelations were chiefly worked out by the director. This leaves lots of room for crediting, even in the relevant favorable cases, the great importance of the contributions of other collaborators. Even in those cases, however, I would be hesitant about saying that we are seeing the action ‘through’ the director’s point of view. Of course, a film can be set up, like Lady in the Lake, so that we are seeing the action through the Phillip Marlowe character’s point of view. But, in that sense, we normally are not seeing the action ‘through’ anyone’s point of view in a standard film. As many people have pointed out, the concept of ‘point of view,’ like the concept of ‘meaning,’ just has too many distinct but natural interpretations. The question of the importance of intentions to interpretation is very complicated. Let me say this much. If it turned out that Fritz Lang didn’t have in mind anything like the systematic unreliability that I impute to You Only Live Once, I would be extremely surprised. Given the character of the strategies I identify, I’m inclined to credit him with intending something like what I describe. However, even if I were wrong about this, it would not mean that the movie can’t be seen in detail along the lines I try to analyze. Just that possibility seems to me very striking.
Doesn’t focusing on the director’s decision-making process re-affirm, in the end, the director as author of a given film? And conversely, how do we know that a particularly cogent edit wasn’t made solely by an editor, without the input of the director?
As I say above, the elements and structures that I highlight may or may not be the result of ‘the director’s decision making process.’ But take a case where I would be inclined to say this is true, I’m uncomfortable about saying the director is the author of the movie in question. The director’s role is still quite different from the role of a person who has authored a literary work. Even in these cases I don’t want to seem to downplay the contribution of the people who ‘authored’ the screenplay. It is true that one often enough encounters a particularly striking device (a piece of editing, for example) where one is tempted to credit it to the director, and, as you suggest, this might easily be a mistake. This is why it is so important to look at systematic interrelationships that run through the film as a whole. You can still wind up giving too much credit to the director, but I think that the probabilities decline if you don’t focus on too few elements.
The chapter on You Only Live Once strikes me as a radical rethinking of Lang. Why do you think, though, that Lang has such an appeal to film scholars?
When I first wrote on You Only Live Once, I expected to find strikingly similar strategies running through a lot of his later work. So, I thought the essay did constitute a rethinking both of the movie and of Lang’s work as a director as a whole. Doug Pye has written some important articles on other Lang films in which the concept of ‘suppressive narration’ (his phrase) plays a crucial role in the overall narrational structures. However, I’d have to admit that my essay has not turned out to be as enlightening in this regard as I originally anticipated. In any case, Lang is certainly an unusually original and rigorous director.
The book seems to follow a quasi-Wittgensteinian practice, of analyzing how a film works, and then inferring “film practice” from that. Also, on page 50, the discussion of the kinds of questions that a film can raise about its characters, also strikes me as a Wittgensteinian position. You’ve taught and written on Wittgenstein: do you see any application of his ideas to cinema studies?
Yes, I have written on Wittgenstein, and he is a marvelous philosopher, but I haven’t seen much in Wittgenstein that has struck me as specifically helpful in connection with our understanding of film. Still, there are a number of excellent people who would disagree with me about this. Stanley Cavell is one, and it may be that I’m just missing some important possibilities.
Do you think that shifting attention to tone and point of view could significantly change film studies, and if so, how?
I think that there has been something of resurgence in interest in some of these topics. Obviously, I believe that this is a good thing. It is good to think through the issues in relation to more recent films. I don’t know how much this is likely to change film studies, but, of course, there are lots of perfectly valid projects that film studies quite properly encompasses. Overall, I would like to see a more careful deployment of argument and evidence in film discussions of all sorts. This just reflects, I guess, my training in analytic philosophy.
What does the “average viewer” get out of tone studies? And how could this approach be utilized or applicable to a regular beat reviewer or popular journalists?
I’ve been teaching for a lot of years, and naturally one gets a variety of responses from the ‘average’ and ‘not so average’ viewers in that setting. But a fair number of students are quite struck in a positive way by the fact that movies can have such a surprising richness and complexity. Some say, “I never would have dreamt that so much could be going on … especially in a Hollywood film.” I also believe that for many these movies serve as case studies for the delicate ways in which our perception of a course of action can be affected by what we do and do not notice and by the way in which we process the information we gain. Still, I have to admit that other students find such analyses boring and fussy. There can be a real resentment at the idea that mere entertainments are getting over intellectualized in this way. One hopes that the analyses get people to see the movie in a notably different way, and then one hopes that they enjoy the perceptual shift.
Tone studies bear a strong continuity with ’60s era film criticism, and certainly seems like an endeavor that is much more fruitful and more interesting to read. At this late date, what would you say was valuable in its competing approaches, the imported French theories of film in the ’70s?
I suppose that the rise of theory in the 70’s brought a useful self-consciousness about theoretical and political commitments that were sometimes implicitly presupposed in certain interpretative projects. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of sympathy with most of the theoretical commitments that were favored during the period. But, that is a very long and familiar story. I also don’t believe that there is a coherent cognitivist account that I can endorse, although I feel much closer to a range of cognitivist researchers. Maybe this is a point where I have been influenced by Wittgenstein … suspicious of the idea that fruitful theoretical frameworks are to be found very readily. I don’t have an argument for such a suspicion. It is probably a matter of my gut sense of the nature of the questions that interest me most.
Would an ideal exercise in isolating point of view as an interpretive quality in a film be to compare Hitchcock and Van Sant’s Psychos (and even perhaps the sequels that fell between them)? Or does one even need a “compare and contrast” approach, since the in-depth frame-by-frame close readings of specific films and moments from films may be illuminating enough?
It might be interesting to compare Hitchcock’s Psycho and Van Sant’s. I really just don’t know. I certainly do think that there is a range of comparisons and contrasts that one might carry out, but you can be concerned with a vast number of narrative and narrational parameters, and they will set the agenda for the comparative work you want to do. In one article, I compare Murder My Sweet with Fight Club because they both employ sequences in which we are shown certain narrative action taking place from an impersonal point of view where the sequences in question employ images that reflect the specific mode of perceptual experience of one of the key characters. It’s hard to know in advance just what range of films one would need to examine.
Your chapter on You Only Live Once also seems to suggest that movies do merit, require “interpretation,” contra the popular impression of Bordwell’s work. Bordwell seems to be something of a bete noire among writers on tone and point of view. Yet he seems to be in the same ball park, at least as far as scrutinizing directorial decision making. What do you find valuable in Bordwell’s writings?
I think that Bordwell’s anti-interpretative stance has been unfortunate and not in the end defensible. I have written at some length on this in the past (in the anthology on film and analytic philosophy edited by Allen and Smith for Oxford.) However, there is a great deal that I have found valuable in Bordwell’s various writings, and I really don’t know where to begin in making a list. He is a very important figure. I certainly envy him his vast knowledge of the history of film.
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