The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minnelli, by Joe McElhaney
McElhaney doesn’t really posit a definitive death of classical cinema (one can just imagine how the publishers wanted this title), but rather an important shift that took place within classical cinema during the so-called art-film era of the 1960s. McElhaney goes on to present the different definitions of “classical” according to Bordwell and others, as well as different approaches to what “art” or “modernist” film means. He chooses the three filmmakers contained within the title because of films they each made around 1960 that problematize traditional classical cinema by virtue of shifts that they embody at the time with a more modernist shift was taking cinema in another direction. Classical cinema didn’t die here, as McElhaney notes, since classical cinema is still alive and well as we speak. These films were made by directors from the classical era who did not make films like Godard, Fellini, etc., but who did adjust their styles. McElhaney wants to define his stylistic terms stylistically, not historically, a specific and careful way to go about it. McElhaney’s initial example of Godard’s Contempt persuasively sets the stage for the historical context of the shift, and an exemplar of it. This film is Godard’s most commercial, featuring multi-national financing, widescreen Cinemascope, and a major star (Brigitte Bardot). It more-or-less features a three-act narrative structure, but its many idiosyncrasies set it apart as distinctly modernist. Fritz Lang appears as a fictional version of himself in the film, which also contains “classical” imagery such as the diegetic source material of Homer and the movie posters on the back lot at Cinecittá studios in Rome. McElhaney observes that among the posters from Hitchcock, Hawks, and Ford films is one for Godard’s own Vivre sa vie, equally as dilapidated. All of these references, self-reflexive to varying degrees, are not mere signposts or tributes but rather markers of classical cinema’s decay as well as that of Godard’s own films. Contempt came out in 1963, arguably at the height of Godard and the French New Wave’s popularity. The hegemony of the classical shift is waning at this point, but so also will the new influence of modernist cinema, if not already in 1963. (See Truffaut and company’s ostensible selling-out by shifting from formally innovative films “back” (?) to a more mainstream formal mode. Unfortunately, although McElhaney defines “modernist” film somewhat (Ozu, Tati, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Rivette, Bresson, and Godard), it’s not clear just what “art film” is. He describes it briefly as a movement, “like classical Hollywood, [that] largely conforms to a group style consisting of a greater attention to realism, a less tightly causal method of organizing narrative, and characters that are often ambivalent, less able to drive a narrative strongly forward as they are in classical cinema” (8-9).
“In particular, all three of these filmmakers rely on aspects of story construction, characterization, performance style, and stylistic details and iconography, which have some relationship to the world of melodrama…”(10).
“Furthermore, the very nature of the films that Lang, Hitchcock, and Minnelli are producing during this period, and the historical implications that these films raise, are in many ways consistent with how modernism is defined–specifically, the notion of a crisis of form or language that the artist acknowledges and then absorbs into the world itself” (11).
“Even if The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Marnie, and Two Weeks in Another Town do not, in many respects, conform to the Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson’s model of the modernist film, they nevertheless remain strongly modernist in impulse if not entirely in form as they struggle to give birth to a new type of cinema [sic]” (11).
“Within Deleuze’s system, all three filmmakers who are the subject of this book are placed somewhere between classical cinema and modern cinema” (12).
“For Bordwell, Deleuze demonstrates ‘how uncritical adherence to historiographic tradition can disable contemporary work.’ When measured against the kind of formalist and art historical approach Bordwell himself practices, Deleuze’s history of cinema must indeed seem somewhat trite. I question, however, whether Deleuze is even attempting to write a conventional history of cinema and at the very least I hope that the example of this book suggests that Deleuze’s work is available to be used in ways more productive than Bordwell’s reading allows for” (12).
“…I feel that auteurism as it was practiced in the 1950s and early 1960s was more varied and nuanced than it has often been given credit for…” (13).
“The victories of auteurist critics are, claims Elsaesser, ‘snatched from the jaws of common sense'”(15).
“Many of these young directors [from the New Hollywood cinema] were formed by the cinephilia and auteurism of the previous two decades, their work (like that of the French New Wave earlier) filled with citations from the world of favored films and filmmakers of the past: Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), for example, lifts footage directly from Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) as part of its final sequences… In interviews it was often de rigeur for these directors to proclaim their admiration for most of the same figures that the New Wave had already ‘discovered,’ whereas (particularly in the case of Scorsese), the New Wave and European art cinema began to be part of this history, available to be cited and absorbed into film practice: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) simultaneously draws on Bresson and Godard as well as John Ford, Hitchcock, and Lang” (16).
“That cinephilia can ever be thoroughly and seriously reborn without the concept of images being traced to some kind of agency or intervention is unlikely. This sense of agency need not necessarily be the film director and indeed the cup tot the film star has been a central aspect to cinephilia since early in the cinema’s history. In spite of claims that auteurists are fixated on directorial style to the exclusion of other elements, a concern with the actor has not been absent from much of the film criticism that will be central to this book” (17).
“…I want to emphasize the relevance of these ostensibly old-fashioned testament films to the moment in which they were made and, by extension, their ongoing and contemporary relevance. Throughout the three chapters, the work of filmmakers associated with modernist or art cinema will be repeatedly invoked (Godard, Resnais, Antonioni, Fellini, Fassbinder), not to systematically set them in opposition to Lang, Hitchcock, and Minnelli, but instead to draw connections as much as differences and to complicate the temptation to read these films in terms of the simple notion of classical cinema in decline” (19).
“One key question that will be addressed here, then, is how modernist cinema deals with this issue of the secret beyond the door in comparison with classical cinema. To what extent is modernist cinema caught up in many of the same fascinations of space and movement as classical cinema and to what extent does it break with or overturn them? And in what ways are Lang, Hitchcock, and Minnelli part of a classical tradition and to what extent do they equally complicate it? (25).
“This study has attempted to show that the analysis of figures such as Hitchcock, Lang, and Minnelli is not simply one that involves the celebration of auteurs. It also involves the study of forms, of discourses, and of histories that helped to define that perpetually shifting and ambiguous term classical cinema. But as I hope is abundantly clear throughout this text, I also love these films and the work of these filmmakers, and a primary motivation here was to convey that enthusiasm, to extol, to proclaim, to hector, and to force the reader to see something that may have been overlooked or misunderstood, to use a certain basic impulse behind cinephilia for the study of something I hope also has broader historical implications. I conclude, then, on an optimistic note not only of evoking the perpetual and evolving impulse of cinema, but also of the perpetual and evolving impulse of cinephilia” (212).