Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


The late Stuart Byron once wrote that even John Simon would understand the greatness of Hatari! were he forced to see it ten times. And, after my fifth viewing on Saturday night, I must say that I’m starting to come around to the film's considerable charms.

In a way, Hatari! throws up more obstacles for the Hawksian than for the lay viewer. Hawks’ penchant for recycling familiar dialogue and situations from his previous films starts to take on a ritualized, automatic quality at this point in his career. And the careful interweaving of events that was so impressive in Rio Bravo has given way in the space of one film to the most naked, barely motivated setups, as if Hawks no longer cared a whit about hiding behind the curtain or pretending that events are motivated by forces within the film universe.

Maybe I’ve just gotten used to this stuff, maybe it doesn't bother me so much at this point in my life, I don’t know. Anyway, I come here to praise Hatari!, not to bury it. What struck me most forcibly on this viewing is that, in place of the genre mechanisms that he formerly used as backdrop and jumping-off point, Hawks riffs off of a downright Bazinian conflation of fiction and documentary. Hawks had often revealed in the past his interest in process, in taking a bit of extra screen time to show how things work. (The night before my Hatari! screening, I saw the less distinguished Land of the Pharoahs, the main point of interest of which is watching Hawks and art director Alexandre Trauner practically build a real pyramid over the course of the movie.) But never before or after would Hawks devote so much effort to documenting a real activity – capturing wild animals – or suggesting that the actors playing the hunters were actually performing the job on screen. The characters who climb into specially designed land vehicles and head out on the plains of Tanganyika in search of game are doing exactly the same things as the film crew. Even the most credulous viewer will grasp that Hatari! is its own making-of documentary, a film about the fun of being an actor sent to Africa to camp out and chase animals.

John Wayne’s character, Sean Mercer (maybe Hawks and his writers were thinking of Sean Thornton, Wayne’s character in The Quiet Man – in El Dorado, Hawks would give Wayne the name Cole Thornton) swings toward the harsh side of Wayne’s familiar Hawksian persona. Is this because Wayne could not hide his irascible nature under the duress of wrestling rhinos to the ground? It looks like cinema-vérité when Wayne shoves Valentin de Vargas away during a particularly arduous capture, saying “We don’t need help here.” In any case, this edge of cruelty carries over to Wayne’s inhibited romance with Elsa Martinelli: one notably humiliating verbal skirmish, in front of a group of hunters, leaves Martinelli crestfallen. In reaction to Wayne’s less socialized behavior, the pressure that the group places on him to consummate the romance is correspondingly more direct and angry than in other Hawks films: not since Red River has Wayne come in for such contempt from his Hawksian cohort.

Martinelli, an appealing actress who plays her character, Dallas, a little more daft and wide-eyed than most Hawks heroines, also follows an atypical Hawksian character arc. Dallas is probably closest in conception to Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee in Only Angels Have Wings, in that she is largely marginalized by the neglect of the male protagonist, and can assert herself only through the self-defeating gesture of departing in tears. But something interesting happens to this Hawksian archetype in Hatari!: she finds an identity of her own, as a surrogate mother to animals. Biology asserts itself in a way that is unusual for Hawks: not only does Martinelli exhibit a maternal instinct rarely depicted in his films, but she also descends the food chain and joins the animal kingdom. Falling back on her own resources as romance disappoints her, she is absorbed into nature in the course of her maternal duties, covered in mud, water, paint, oblivious to human interaction. And, just as strangely, her transformation increases her appeal to her hesitant lover and to the group in general. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Martinelli gives her baby elephants a bath in a nearby lake while Wayne secretly follows with his gun to protect her, looking on with obvious admiration. Hawks does not seem uncomfortable with this exaggeration of traditional sex roles, though his career as a whole more often illustrates his pleasure in men and women crossing the gender divide.

One of the best scenes in Hatari! (which is constructed in an unusually modular fashion – it would not have been hard to relocate or excise scenes in the editing room) is a peculiar variation on a bit of blocking that Hawks used two decades earlier. After his capture of 500 monkeys using a rocket and a fishnet, Red Buttons’ Pockets haunts the compound’s common room, drunk and maudlin, asking the other hunters to tell him the story of his triumph over and over again. Wayne and Hardy Kruger are absorbed in a card game, but know that Buttons has earned the right to disturb their recreation, and so do their best to humor him while they play, describing the majestic rise of the rocket as if reading him a bedtime story. I flashed on the completely different scene in His Girl Friday in which the reporters in the news room alternately ignore Molly Malone and taunt her with throwaway wisecracks while they play cards. In both cases, the card players are confronted with a larger-than-life character: Buttons and Molly Malone are out of a different and more expansive movie, emoting theatrically and gesticulating wildly. And in both cases, the card players react with swallowed-up naturalism, muttering about the game under their breath, clearly establishing themselves on a behavioral level that is quieter, faster, more unstressed than the one occupied by their stylized interlocutors. Starting with dissimilar character dynamics and story objectives, Hawks exhibits the same instinct to create a gap between levels of abstraction, and to exploit that gap to heighten the illusion of realism.

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Late Hawks: Anthology Film Archives, June 4 through 15, 2008

Anthology Film Archives' much-anticipated Late Hawks series began yesterday, and continues through June 15. An article I wrote on the series is up at the new Moving Image Source site.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

His Girl Friday

I have a long-standing pet theory about Hawks' comedies that I'm starting to question. The theory is that the comedies contain two different kinds of characters, pitched at different levels of abstraction: one more plausible and naturalistic, the other more stylized and exaggerated. And that the films document the perplexity of the more naturalistic characters as they are confronted by refugees from a different and wilder movie.

One reason the theory is appealing is that Hawks' dramas clearly depend for their effect on the manipulation of multiple levels of realism. Hawks creates genre-based expectations using story, decor, secondary characters, etc., and then encourages the lead actors to play the movie faster, smaller, more casually than the setup leads us to expect.

I recently revisited His Girl Friday, no doubt the greatest Hawks comedy, for the first time in decades. (I watched it eleven times between 1973 and 1985, then gave it a long rest.) His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby (which I saw not too long ago) are the comedies that best support my old theory. But now I'm not so sure that the concept holds up.

Obviously Hildy Johnson would be the more scaled-down, psychologically readable character in my schema, and Walter Burns would be the creature from the House of Fiction. But, even in the first big duel between Walter and Hildy in Walter's office, one notices a great deal of choreography: stylized, balletic moves that seem designed to show off artifice. Hildy slips out of Walter's grasp with split-second timing; Walter knows when Hildy will throw that pillow at him, and at what angle. Surely there's a sense in which Hildy and Walter inhabit the same plane of abstraction, not different planes. Both actors play-act openly; and our pleasure comes from watching and sharing their delight in having pulled it off, or sometimes their amusement at not quite pulling it off.

Bruce Baldwin, Hildy's suitor, is really only slightly more plausible a lover than the absurd Miss Swallow in Bringing Up Baby. If we divide the film into opposing aesthetic principles, one more realist and one more fantastic, then Bruce has to follow Hildy into the more realist sector, and we must then account for her bizarre desire to settle down with this "paragon," who no less than Walter beckons Hildy into the realm of burlesque.

Instead of trying to justify such a bifurcation, it makes more sense to me now to view Hawks' comedies more in the way that I view his dramas. In other words, less in terms of one set of actors opposed to another, and more in terms of the actors working and playing together, opening up a gap between themselves and their genre-identified environment, and amusing themselves by acknowledging that gap.

Still, somehow there is a difference between the comedies and the dramas: all Hawks commentators have puzzled over it. It occurs to me that most adventure-based genres don't interfere very much with Hawks' desire to create the kind of idealized characters he enjoys. He evokes genre mostly with background elements and introductory passages; his actors perform their genre duties while both having fun and projecting Hawks' idea of what he'd like people to be. Whereas comedy, at least to the extent that it comes with genre coding, seems to require that actors behave in an eccentric or outrageous manner. This is a potential issue, because Hawks likes his characters to embody his ideals.

In my post on Bringing Up Baby, I talked about how the film seems to be split in two by these impulses: the need to create clear genre signals with goofy characters; and the desire to enjoy the company of ideal characters. I believe that this tension is what gave rise in my mind to the idea that Hawks' comedies are built around the formal conceit of the collision of characters from different kinds of movies.

Judging from interviews, His Girl Friday seems to have been a conscious effort on Hawks' part to tone down the unreality of the comic hijinks in Baby. The tensions within the earlier film have been reduced, or at least made less conspicuous. Modern audiences can admire and emphathize with Hildy Johnson in a way that they cannot with David Huxley.

There's a quietly stunning moment in His Girl Friday where Hawks shoots the works on two brief closeups of Hildy, eating lunch with Bruce and getting off a few wisecracks at Walter's expense: "He comes by it naturally - his grandfather was a snake." The background of the restaurant is suddenly dense: dark shadows overhead, bit players in motion, cigarette smoke. Hildy is eating her food, enjoying the ambience. The shots would work perfectly in a Hawks drama - in fact they look a bit like Only Angels Have Wings, the other Hawks film shot by Joseph Walker - and take their place with the many other idyllic interludes in bars and cafes in Hawks's work, evoking the pleasures of social intercourse. Bringing Up Baby couldn't have accommodated such images - it isn't drama-friendly enough.

But the comedy-vs.-drama tensions of the earlier film haven't been eliminated altogether. Hawks and his writers (credited Charles Lederer, uncredited Ben Hecht and Morrie Ryskind, maybe others) devised a two-part structure in an attempt to balance the film's comic and dramatic needs. In the first section of the film, Hildy is firm in her desire to leave the newspaper business behind, and the film slowly sets up the pleasure-giving mechanism of the Earl Williams case. There is lots of fast dialogue and good comic business in these early scenes, but there are also daringly slow, pregnant passages: not only the celebrated scene where Hildy interviews Earl (precisely pitched between cynicism and empathy, readable either way), but also the remarkable, very long dead spot after the reporters torment Molly Malone, with bad conscience killing dialogue, leaving only the sparse ambience of the news room to fill the movie until Hildy's return.

The first section ends with the Earl Williams prison break and Hildy's instinctive reenlistment as an investigative reporter. This scene, invested with considerable weight by Hawks' framing and decoupage (Hawks holds a medium shot of Hildy as the news room goes wild, then tracks behind her as she casts her lot with the newspaper life), takes much of the suspense out of Hildy's dramatic arc. She will continue to resist her fate after this, but the filmmakers won't take her nearly as seriously. The second section of the film is a comic elaboration of the consequences of Hildy's backslide, and a mere coda from the point of view of dramatic development. Walter Burns, who has heretofore lurked in the film's margins, seizes center stage, now that the preeminence of his world view has been established; and Hildy begins to function as little more than one of his imps. As if to confirm the ascendency of the Walter principle, the second half is punctuated with as many affronts to decency as Hawks and the writers can fit in. The ending, with Hildy once again disappointed and humiliated, is probably best understood in terms of this current of nihilistic comedy: the tour that Hildy has signed up for is a lot of fun (in fact, it's where all the fun in the film is), but she cannot expect justice and dignity there.

It's an odd place for a Hawks hero to wind up, and there are moments along the way where the ego-negating farce isn't a perfect fit for the level-headed gal who sat in that dreamy restaurant. The question is not so much whether she would fall for the devil again, but whether she would keep the plot spinning by putting up token resistance after her fall.

Does this difficulty in reconciling characterization with the principles of farce constitute an imperfection? It feels that way at times. Do I wish the imperfection were eliminated? I don't think so. Without the introduction of farce, Hawks wouldn't have a logical path that he can follow to the point of chaos. Maybe the spots where the two aesthetic planes don't quite meet are the price we pay for the excitement generated by bringing them together.

David Bordwell recently posted an interesting account of His Girl Friday's critical standing over the decades.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Scarface: MOMA, December 16, 2007

It's always been hard for me to have an informal relationship with Scarface, because its legend looms so large in my filmgoing life. (I am talking about the original 1932 version. I will never get used to having to make that clear, just as some religious people probably bristle to think that "Madonna" might no longer mean the Virgin Mary to everyone.) When I began reading film literature, commentators often cited it as the greatest work of Howard Hawks, who has always seemed to me the greatest director in cinema history. (These days, I believe that it's more common for critics to give honors to other Hawks movies - Rio Bravo especially.) It was unavailable for screening for decades, like other films owned by Howard Hughes, and could be seen only at clandestine 16mm screenings until the 80s. And, once seen and assimilated into the canon, it became a touchstone, a key test case for what might be termed moralistic criticism. Every time I wonder whether a movie is getting too much pleasure from the exercise of power or violence, my thought process makes an obligatory stop: "But what about Scarface? What does this movie do that Scarface doesn't do?"

All Hawks' films work off of a genre background that creates expectations about how formally, how quickly, how emphatically scenes will play. And then the execution happens more casually and rapidly than expected, creating an illusion of realism, and releasing energy. Depending on the genre, different aspects of Hawks movies can become part of the genre background; and in Scarface I have the feeling that whole chunks of the movie, even scenes with important characters, exist primarily to establish its genre credentials. Despite an amusing reflexive bit in the first shot - in which a janitor bats impatiently at the elaborate Sternberg-like decor, trying to clear the set for Hawksian use - Scarface doesn't truly announce its Hawksian intentions until the violence starts flowing freely. But then the film knocks us back in our seats: not with especially graphic violence, but with the speed and frequency of the mayhem, and also with the directness of its presentation of such frightening material.

The exhilarating effect is hard to deny. What does Hawks do to prevent our celebrating the violence? I'm not really sure that he does anything. Certainly he does not spare us Tony Camonte's cruelty, or hide his crudeness and unattractive qualities. Neither is he much interested in condemning him, despite the studio's many distracting attempts to placate the Hays Office by inserting socially responsible commentary. One feels that Camonte interests Hawks the most as a character in the scenes where he plays parent and teacher to his team of hoodlums, revealing a childlike nature that is comically inadequate to grasping moral issues, and that makes him, if anything, more sympathetic to the audience.

One notes that the thrill of the violence doesn't prevent the film from making an honest account of human suffering. For instance, there is no sense of reversal or contradiction when a brutal shooting scene ends with a barrel of beer rolling into a basement apartment and presumably killing one of its offscreen inhabitants (we hear the wailing of a woman as the scene ends). In general, it doesn't seem that we need to identify with Camonte or his men to appreciate the violent scenes: in fact, the audience probably wouldn't mind much if one of our monster/protagonists met his end amid the sensory overload.

But the joy of combat is represented as well as its human cost. The most exciting and perfectly realized scene in the film, in which Camonte and his minion Rinaldo score a machine gun from the gang who is attacking the restaurant in which they are eating, is very similar in tone to the final shootout with the Burdett gang at the end of Rio Bravo - our excitement at the onscreen violence is intentionally conflated with Camonte and Rinaldo's adrenaline rush from being under fire. The fact that the protagonists are lawmen in Rio Bravo and ruthless gangsters in Scarface does not seem to be a key factor.

The conclusion I draw is that Scarface gets away with giving us enormous pleasure from unspeakable actions because it promotes in us a sense of intellectual and emotional mobility. It does not have to romanticize violence or violent people to get its effects; it does not have to create a narrative that denies us one perspective or another on the violence. In this context, our thrilled response to killing registers simply, a fact among other facts.

You probably won't read this in time, but Scarface screens again at MOMA on Sunday (tomorrow), December 16 at 2 pm.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Bringing Up Baby

I saw Bringing Up Baby 12 times in my first 15 years of film-buffery, and then let 20 years go by before my13th viewing last week. My first impression this time around is that there are two films in there, fighting with each other.
  1. One film is about play: play with genre, play on the set. The first scene, in the museum, pushes the "screwball" aspect of screwball comedy so far that it becomes almost nightmarish. Characters like Huxley's fiancee exist only to amuse us with how far comic conventions can be pushed; and Huxley himself is at this point no more than a wink that Cary Grant and Hawks are giving to the audience. Every time the film threatens to wind down, Hawks finds some old vaudevillian to strut and fret through some well-honed bit of business; like Huxley, they tend to mix up the names of their own characters and the ones they are addressing, as if the problems of the set and the problems of the fiction were the same. When the plot depends on a coincidence, Hawks has the actors throw it in our faces. The nakedness of the contrivance is a source of humor in itself - as, for instance, when assorted human and animal characters march in single file into the jailhouse for the climax.

  2. The other film is about people. Hawks here introduces us to his distinctive take on the comedy of power and powerlessness: he likes pushing the protagonist's loss of control into the realm of humiliation, and then, in a compensatory gesture of equal force, he shifts the focus to the humbled protagonist's recovery of his dignity and power - sometimes via detachment, sometimes via exasperation. In the other corner, Susan Vance is explictly amoral, in rebellion against every rule society is selling - and extremely feminine, her strategems couched in the language of girlish seduction, her threat coded as the threat of femininity. Somehow Bringing Up Baby seems more explicitly about sex than other screwball comedies: partly because the focus remains squarely on the boy-girl thing, and partly because Hawks pushes Susan's antisocial qualities so far that it's easy to imagine her breaking the Hays Code as well.

The two films seem to fight with each other because they have different agendas for Huxley, who is a complete nincompoop in the genre-play movie, and a plausible, if displaced, Hawksian hero in the character-based one. One feels the pull even in the presentation of supporting characters: for every Catlett or Ruggles who underlines the screwiness of the film's premise, there's a Hawksian delivery boy murmuring "Don't let it throw you" as he makes his exit.

I don't think this conceptual conflict is a particular virtue. But the film is simply dazzling in the scope of its comic inspiration. Hawks' repertoire of comic modes seems unlimited: he gets laughs with shock cuts and by holding on to master shots, with classical cutting and by withholding the classical cut, with well-staged physical humor and with offscreen sound gags. The film seems improvised to a large extent, but not quite in the style of other improvised films: it's as if Hawks shot and cut the film to enhance the actors' efficiency and mental quickness. Hepburn in particular riffs with Robin Williams-like density.

As is his wont, Hawks pushes the project's comic concept to logical extremes, and Susan's feminine energy leads inevitably to apocalypse in the final scene. (It could be noted in passing that Hawks was happy to build his next comedy, His Girl Friday, around runaway masculinity.) The exaggeration of the movie's chaotic tendencies could be seen as another aspect of genre play, but I prefer to see it as Hawks creating a suitably existential setting for the rather poignant dilemma of his displaced hero.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Thing from Another World: MOMA, June 17

My first mission as a young cinephile was to absorb the filmography of Howard Hawks; as a result, I often find that I've practically memorized a Hawks film, yet haven't gotten around to revisiting it in decades. It can be a lot of fun to bring one's more mature sensibility to bear on a film that's part of one's DNA.

I saw The Thing from Another World last week at MOMA for the first time in 21 years, and found it even more brilliant and organic than before. This time around, I was struck by how political the film was, and how completely the politics were a function of form. Hawks and his scriptwriters (Charles Lederer and the uncredited Ben Hecht) conceive the movie as a struggle for supremacy between two genres: the fairly new 50s sci-fi genre, and the adventure/action genre that his protagonists improvise. In the movie's rendering, the sci-fi genre is intrinsically liberal: the scientists are consumed with the wonder of extraterrestrial life, think only of making a mutually enriching contact. But the protagonists are soldiers whose instincts, even before the Thing's agenda is clear, are conservative: assume the worst, be armed, head off catastrophe. The struggle between genres is not just a nuance: scenes are built around the collision between different styles of acting, different ideas about where the plot should go. (The genre conflict peaks in the hilarious scene where Carrington, the head scientist, declaims in theatrical terms the urgent need to keep the Thing alive, only to be hustled unceremously out of the frame when commanding officer Hendry mutters under his breath, "Get him out of here.")

The film's stand is unambiguous: the conservatives have the correct opinion in every dispute, the conservatives win in the end and can afford to be generous to the defeated liberals. One cannot legitimately call the film fascist. Not only does Hendry talk a good game about not enjoying giving orders, but the film demonstrates its openness in action, most concretely in the very funny plot thread in which soldier Dewey Martin, who comes up with most of the film's good ideas, eventually stops waiting for Hendry to rubber-stamp his decisions, with Hendry's approval. The film enjoys deflating the cult of authority.

More than any director I can think of, Hawks depends on genre for his effects, needs to play against an established genre backdrop. He devotes a fraction of his cinematic resources to building up genre presence, but the bulk of his resources to executing dialogue and action in a casual style that explodes the genre mood, releases the potential energy in the genre abstraction. Todd McCarthy's bio of Hawks mentions that RKO was puzzled about why a powerful director like Hawks wanted to waste time on a cheap sci-fi thriller. I'm not surprised at all: I can imagine Hawks thinking, "Cool! A new genre to play with!"

Godard (or was it Truffaut?) once called Hawks the most intelligent of American directors. It seems like an odd comment at first: Hawks certainly does not give the most intelligent interviews among American directors. But The Thing illustrates the point beautifully: Hawks felt empowered to construct an entire movie around a series of problems that are solved on-screen, quickly and without fuss.

The Thing will screen again at MOMA on Sunday, June 17 at 3 pm.

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