Friday, August 22, 2014

The Golden Age to the New Hollywood Era: Hollywood post-World War II



Hollywood’s Golden Age—an era bookended by the christening of sound motion pictures and the Supreme Court’s anti-trust verdict in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. —was a time of vast proliferation in terms of studio output and tremendous profit for a handful of vertically-integrated production companies who dominated the market. Even if per capita attendance never again reached the heights of the silent era (Pautz 83), the coincidence of monopolistic business practices and the prominence of cinema as the dominant form of media ensured that the Golden Age was the industry’s most profitable era (Dirks).


The fallout from the Paramount Decision necessitated change in theatrical exhibition and, as television began to replace the cinema as the dominant form of media, the Hollywood film industry was strong-armed into diversification. The Big Five and Little Three (who dominated as much as 99% of the annual movie market share in 1964) caved to media conglomeration for capital but saw their market shares consistently drop throughout the New Hollywood Era (Finler 40). This era saw Hollywood engage new practices in business and aesthetics partly in response to legislation (both theatrical exhibition and decency regulations changed due to the Supreme Court’s Paramount Decision and its overturning of its 1915 Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruling in 1952, respectively), but mostly to jockey for competitive edge. If cinema was to no longer be the dominant media platform, deviation from the Classical Hollywood Style in terms of content, form and business practice would vie to get audiences back in seats and to obtain fragmented pieces of the leisure dollar as modes of exhibition evolved.

The ramifications of the Paramount Decision are what ultimately changed the course of the Hollywood industry forever. The Golden Age of Hollywood was so prolific and profitable because of the stranglehold a handful of studios had on the production, distribution and exhibition arms of the industry. In 1948, the Supreme Court found the eight Hollywood production studios “conspired to and did restrain and monopolize interstate trade in the exhibition of motion pictures…and that their combination of producing, distributing and exhibiting motion pictures violated §§ 1 and 2 of the [Sherman] Act” (United States v. Paramount Pictures 131). This conspiracy demanded exhibition houses charge minimal admission prices, elevating quantity over quality. 

A significant portion of income for Production houses during the Studio Era came from block-booked lineups and major studios created B-movie units to round out pre-sold double bills with low-budget productions. As Hollywood studios retained the rights to production and distribution but no longer had control of exhibition, B-movies decreased in value. Exhibition houses demanded films of higher quality and B-units from the major studios were phased out. Production values (and costs) increased as a result of more discriminatory booking and the prolific number of Hollywood films (many of which, B-movies) produced during the Golden Age quickly dropped.

To capitalize on their smaller number of films, production companies began to distribute their big budget films through roadshow exhibition, protecting their assets by moving away from long-term contracts with movie houses. Studios travelled their elite programming and charged higher rental fees to independent theaters who, in turn, charged more per ticket for big-budget productions. Pouring huge budgets into roadshow features proved to be a gamble for production studios; while 20th Century Fox’s extravagant The Sound of Music surpassed Gone with the Wind as the all-time rental leader in 1965, the production costs of Cleopatra almost bankrupted the studio two years earlier despite being the highest grossing film of the year (Hefferman 424). This would not be an isolated event. Roadshow features were culturally safe (often historic, biblical or literary) to appeal to large audiences, epic in scope to present an awesome spectacle television couldn’t provide, but extravagantly—sometimes irreparably—expensive.

Higher rental prices may have, for studios, offset the loss from producing fewer films, but exhibitors had to innovate new strategies to fill seats as attendance declined into the 1950s. The advent of drive-in theaters captured new youth and family-oriented baby-boom markets, particularly in rural and suburban areas. Though something of a novelty, the drive-in created a new experience which juxtaposed the intimacy of a car’s private space with the camaraderie and spectacle of public entertainment. Films even became secondary as some drive-ins featured shuffleboard, miniature golf and dine-in areas. 

Pre-show drive-in shuffleboard
Inner-city theaters—once the hub of cinema in the Golden Era—struggled as “confiscatory rentals and extended first runs in large suburban theaters meant that last season’s hits began their subsequent runs in the inner city virtually played out” (Hefferman 419). These exhibitors stayed afloat by targeting specific audiences with their programming: they reran kiddie fare, played niche sci-fi and horror films to a growing cult of genre, and even targeted its ethnic crowd with social problem pictures (Hefferman 419). Niche programming became key for several small and second-run theaters and, although the Paramount Decision freed exhibitors from studio pricing, it wasn’t until another Supreme Court decision came in 1952 that exhibitors could take advantage of a new trend in foreign and independent cinema as the loosening of the Production Code made such a cinema of attractions possible.

The second Supreme Court decision that forever tousled the Hollywood industry as it moved toward the New Hollywood Era was the 1952 overturning of its initial ruling on 1915’s Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio. In order to consolidate concerns of state-mandated censorship boards following the 1915 ruling that denied the extension of First Amendment rights to motion pictures, and to repair a poor public image of Hollywood lasciviousness due to off-screen scandal, Hollywood executives forged a trade association to protect its economic interests. In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America began work on a Production Code which went into effect in 1930 and ran through Hollywood’s Golden Age. This self-policing found Hollywood studios willing to abide by zealous mandates against portrayals of miscegenation or sexual inference to prevent a bad apple from spoiling the bunch.


The Production Code prevented any major studio from exploiting indecency in an effort to elevate the cinema as legitimate in the public eye and, with vertical integration still intact, the Code was “enforceable because of the lock the five majors had on first-run exhibition. Film lacking a Code seal could not play in affiliated theaters. Barred from the lucrative first-run market, it was economic suicide for the majors to make films that would not be granted Code approval” (Schaefer 381-2). The Production Code was, therefore, more a matter of economic security than morality; studios abided by the rules to jibe with exhibition as well as to guard the public perception of trade credibility.

However, the judicial stance on decency changed, coinciding with the Paramount Decision. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas stated in 1948, “‘we have no doubt that moving pictures, like newspapers and radio, are included in the press whose freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment,’ opening the door for a challenge to motion-picture censorship” (Schaefer 382). This challenge would come four years later in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson which overruled 1915’s Mutual Decision, defanged the Legion of Decency and allowed theaters—now unbound by monopolistic tendencies—the freedom to exhibit edgier foreign and independent films without a Production seal.

Jack Valenti, MPAA President 1966-2004
With the Production Code increasingly difficult to enforce, censorship growing passé with evolving cultural mores, and new art-house and genre audiences to exploit, the major studios reframed regulation in the form of the MPAA rating system to again protect their economic advantage. A statement by MPAA president Jack Valenti in 1968 (the same year the new rating system went into effect) does rhetorical work in distancing the stance of the production studios from the now culturally unpopular connotation of “censorship” while preemptively self-policing to avoid government intervention. Valenti asks, “Can censorship cure the portrayal of violence in the media? …I would have a larger question. I would ask: Can censorship curb violence in the society? I think it’s a truism that movies are not beacons but rather mirrors of society” (Valenti 71). That is to say, censorship under the Production Code did not cure societal ills, but the new market could be legitimized. The resulting MPAA ratings system was the best of both worlds for the production studios: the R rating allowed grittier content forbidden on television and “became a gateway to the legitimate film marketplace: a code of production, distribution, and exhibition serving the major players in the industry” (Sandler 258). Just as it would have been “economic suicide” to release a film without the Production seal during the Studio Era, the MPAA phased out their X rating—bowing instead to censorship—to avoid legal injunctions preventing exhibition. The MPAA’s X rating would become New Hollywood’s economic suicide, while the legitimized R rating would become immensely profitable as it allowed for thematic and formal variations on the Classical Hollywood Style.

As exhibition increased its independent and foreign fare, and the MPAA legitimized boundary-pushing content with its R rating, the Hollywood industry saw audiences return as they altered thematic and formal content. The Godfather was one such success story which was “a critical and commercial smash with widespread appeal, drawing art cinema connoisseurs and disaffected youth as well as mainstream moviegoers,” pulling audiences away from their televisions and correcting a 7-year skid in box-office attendance (Schatz 292). What this statement presupposes is that, though the narrative tendencies for films which would come to be known as “blockbusters” were always at the forefront of studio concerns, art-house crowds and “disaffected youth” were significant audiences to consider. The success of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider in the late 1960s indicated to studios that genre revisionism with auteurist sensibilities could be profitable despite their shift from the Classical Style (Grainge 409). Though films of the Studio Era often had a distinct house style, directors—considered employees rather than artists—perpetuated an invisible style in both sound and visuals. As studios began to terminate long-term staff contracts following the Paramount Decision, it also grew increasingly difficult for a director to retain familial crews to develop a singular look. Films of the Classical Hollywood Style were, therefore, enterprisingly corporate and stylistically invisible.

John Cassavetes directing Faces with hand-held camera
The curio that was art-house cinema along with disaffected youth receipts led studio executives to take a gamble on the auteuristic tendencies of New Hollywood directors. Many of these directors employed distinct visual style and reflexive genre play which ran contrarian to Classic Hollywood invisibility. Robert Altman innovated overlapping dialogue through use of multi-track mixers, John Cassavetes experimented with handheld cameras, long takes and deliberate pacing and Woody Allen authored films of non-linear narrative, all on the studio dime. Where deviations from the Classic Style toward the end of the Studio Era came in the form of novelty to rival television viewership (the inherent reflexivity of CinemaScope and 3D), reflexive tendencies in the New Hollywood Era were framed as singular, artistic visions.

The profitability of the auteur style, however, was unsustainable despite the promise of a “new cinema” that came with corporate conglomeration at the end of the Studio Era. Horizontal integration would encourage the prominence of the blockbuster as synergistic output could incorporate returns throughout a wider media spectrum. Certainly studio executive always preferred homogenized entertainment in times of economic depression. Declining attendance in the 1950s encouraged safe, pre-sold releases and epics and musicals from pre-existing material dominated the box-office throughout the decade. Strangely enough, when the majors began being absorbed into corporate conglomeration—beginning with MCA’s takeover of Universal Pictures in 1962 during another studio depression—low-risk homogeny wasn’t their primary concern.

Michael Cimino amid shooting one-million feet of film for Heaven's Gate
In an attempt to reach a youthful audience with youthful leadership, the media conglomerates largely replaced studio dinosaurs with “brats” who also saw promise in the art-house and disaffected youth crowds. Noel King describes this New Hollywood as “a brief window of opportunity…when an adventurous new cinema emerged, linking traditions of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking with the stylistic innovations of European art cinema” (268). Such adventure from a wider pool of resources would also bankroll such big-budget auteur flops as William Friedkin’s Sorcerer in 1977 and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980—the latter bankrupting United Artists—to increased studio anxiety. Even “brats” like Francis Ford Coppola whose prior work had been highly successful at the box-office saw their directorial power fade. Much like the industry’s treatment of Orson Welles at the height of the Studio Era, the New Hollywood Era saw the climate grow tenuous between single-minded directors and big business.

Screenwriter William Goldman summed up the corporatization of the film industry by saying, “Most of the studio guys I’ve met are really smart, but they don’t care much about the movies. As slots, yes. As merchandising tie-ins,—oh my—yes. As theme-park rides, you betcha! And that’s the problem. They are mostly ex-agents or business school types. They care about slots and profits and product and Burger King cross-promotions” (King 271). On the surface, this is undeniably true: the entrenching of the high-concept blockbuster demands larger budgets to films of broad appeal with the promise of large returns across multiple outlets through horizontal integration and cross-promotion. The fallacy of Goldman’s quip is the presupposition that “film as film” has ever been a primary motivating concern among studio executives.

The Studio Era’s vertically-integrated control of exhibition and its shift to roadshow distribution weren’t about “film” any more than the Production Code (or subsequent MPAA rating system) was about morality. Blockbuster films of the New Hollywood Era may be high-concept and pre-sold (like the adapted epics of the 1950s), but they aren’t diametrically opposed to auteur cinema of the late-’60s and early-’70s: both were considered low-risk in their time and exploited a welcoming demographic. The diversification of media left the film industry with no choice but to invite corporate conglomeration. Legislation pulled the rug from their monopolistic strength in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the competition for post-World War II leisure dollars made it impossible for the industry to sustain itself as it had at the beginning of the Studio Era when, in 1929, it earned 83 cents of every entertainment dollar spent in America (Mintz). As public consumption of media evolved, Hollywood diversified its market into the New Hollywood Era. Any industry concern for “film as film” cannot be divorced from the shrewd economic practices which define its history.




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Works Cited


Dirks, Tim. “The History of Film: The 1940s.” Filmsite. AMC Networks, LLC., n.d. Web. 9 Aug. 2014.

Finler, Joel Waldo. The Hollywood Story. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Hefferman, Kevin. “Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968).” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 418-434.

Grainge, Paul, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

King, Noel. “‘The Last Good Time We Ever Had’: Remembering the New Hollywood Cinema.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.

Mintz, Steven and Sara G. McNeill. “The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture.” Digital History. Digital History, 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2014.

Pautz, Michelle. “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000.” Issues in Political Economy, Vol. 11 (2002): 70-87. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Sandler, Kevin S. “CARA and the Emergence of Responsible Entertainment.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 267-278.. 249-264.

Schaefer, Eric. “The End of Classical Exploitation” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 380-391.

Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 287-306.

United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. 334 U.S. 131. 131-180. No. 79. US Supreme Court. 1948. Web. (9 Aug. 2014).

Valenti, Jack. “The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.” Screening Violence. Ed. Stephen Prince. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 62-75.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

From Silent to Sound: Hollywood 1927-1931


Slapstick auteur Charlie Chaplin seems to inform the opinion of many film historians that the ushering in of Hollywood’s sound era was more of an end than a beginning. Douglas Gomery describes the shift as “tainted by an overlay of sadness in that Hollywood has been seen as preventing what might have been—a group of progressive filmmakers serving a working-class audience—adopting instead an overt profit-maximizing structure” (“Hollywood” 20). 

To Chaplin, a silent innovator who largely refused change (releasing both City Lights [1931] and Modern Times [1936] as essentially silent films in the sound era), the demise of the silent era was even more melancholy: “just when they perfected it, he said, it was all over” (Bogdanovich). Indeed, in terms of business practices, the introduction of sound strengthened the oligopoly, putting box-office revenue into even fewer hands through the Great Depression. However, although their product suffered in the early sound years as filmmakers needed to develop the technology and create a new visual language, sound film has endured not merely as a for-profit venture, but because it found powerful ways to integrate what was always a part of the theater-going experience into a new art form.


When Al Jolson pronounced “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, synchronous sound must have looked like another spectacle of attraction used by cinema since its penny arcade days. And, initially, a successful spectacle too: “attendance figures moved upward slightly when sound first took over, but the numbers radically dropped within the first eighteen months, and they’ve been dropping ever since” (Bogdanovich). Of course, in the era of the vertically-integrated system, overall attendance figures aren’t as important to production companies so long as their own seats are being filled. 

Sound became an expensive tool for the major studios to tighten their stranglehold on production, distribution and exhibition. Gomery says, “the popularity of the talkies enabled new companies such as Warner Bros. to rise to power and join the small list of major studios including Paramount, Loew’s, and other powerful corporations of the silent era, which not only retained but increased their power” (“Hollywood” 20-21). So it was business as usual for the major studios even if, in many cases, their casts of stars required some tweaking.

The sound era wasn’t kind, as many Hollywood stars found it difficult to make the transition from pantomime to dialogue, but audiences approached star vehicles in much the same way they always had. When audiences had to adapt from the cinematic length of shorts to features, Paul Grainge says, “audience concentration spans would stretch … in direct correlation with their worshipping of stars” (Grainge 93). The idolization of John Barrymore, Greta Garbo and Douglas Fairbanks was analogous to that of Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, only with additional sensory stimulation. The biggest studios protected their assets by holding large “stables” of actors under contract through the studio era.

However, if overall attendance diminished in the sound era, it’s likely due to how both audience experience of the theater space changed with the advent of sound and how this business model from the big companies limited opportunities for independents. As cinemas came into their own in the 1920s, “vaudeville acts and popular singers entertaining audiences while a reel was changed gave way to orchestras and Wurlitzer organs. Sound effect machines such as the Kinematophone became popular before up-market theaters began to expect specially prepared scores to accompany each film” (Grainge 96).

Balaban & Katz's The Chicago Theater (c. 1921)

Silent film was never silent, it was always accompanied with music from anything between extravagant orchestras in the largest chain theaters to pianolas at second-run theaters. Audiences went to the movies to be entertained, but not just by the film itself. In his analysis of a large, independent chain theater in the 1920s, Gomery states, “remarkably, one of the variables that did not count in Balaban & Katz’s rise to power and control was the movies themselves. Indeed, the company grew and prospered despite having little access to Hollywood’s top films” (“Rise” 105).

The cinema was a new form of entertainment accessible to the working-class, and it stands to reason that the sustained success of silent films (especially within the context of falling attendance of the sound era) had to do with not only the gala atmosphere of the biggest theaters, but the performance aspect in cheap second-run theaters. Mark Jancovich suggests that audiences weren’t initially smitten with synchronous sound pictures because silent “film showings were still associated with the presence of live music” (Jancovich 162).

American Federation of Musicians ad, Portsmouth Herald, 1 Oct. 1930
American Federation of Musicians ad, Syracuse Herald, 2 Sept. 1930

Not only did the introduction of sound to motion pictures leave many local musicians and vaudeville acts without work, the cost of upgrading synchronous sound equipment was often too much for smaller, independent theaters. If independents like Balaban & Katz could be highly successful without screening Hollywood’s major films, the major production studios found a way, with the advent of sound, to bolster their product by offering no alternative.

Vertically-integrated studios had the initial capital to pour into upgrading their theaters to be equipped with sound and, when they began to only produce sound films, independents and second-run theaters had a difficult time keeping up. “In many rural areas, cinemas closed and those cinemas that did stay open changed their practices,” meaning service took a back seat to concessions, and live entertainment was sacrificed to upgrade to sound equipment (Grainge 189). The business behind the transition to the sound era meant more than mere equipment, it changed the way American audiences experienced the theater. As the Depression waged on, the sound era took away from working-class audiences the appearance of luxury and live entertainment in exchange for talkies and popcorn. Total attendance may have decreased, but the “big five” ensured that the remaining attendees were in their seats.

Yet not everyone on the major studios’ payrolls was happy with the change. Sound film brought with it an aesthetic shift which, arguably, detracted from film’s artistry. Alfred Hitchcock lamented that “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” and the aesthetic montage innovations of artists like D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein support this theory (Chapman 93). A visual medium for which D.W. Griffith laid the groundwork, narrative silent film was “constructed through parallel editing … consist[ing] of shots of two or more separate but usually parallel locations interwoven to advance the film’s plot” (Bernardi 32). Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein extended the art of montage, proving silent film to be a new diegesis of lyricism, movement, attraction and narrative.

Donald Crafton says of Eisenstein that in, “probably referring to [Chaplin’s] The Kid (1921) he notes that the lyrical may coexist with the disruptive attraction” (Crafton 64). In furthering the discussion of how to understand this filmic language, Tom Gunning adds in his response to Crafton, “Eisenstein called … for a montage of attraction, and noted that, in this structure, elements of narrative could be introduced in such a way as to lose their usual claim to coherence and diegetic realism” (Gunning 73). Expressive pantomime acting, variations of shot length and juxtapositional montage allowed silent filmmakers to create a sophisticated visual language which could stimulate emotions and ideas. This language was raised to high artistry, but montage changed when sound took over.

Seventh Heaven (1927)


Coincidently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held their first Academy Awards presentation in 1929, the last year that silent pictures would be prominent in future Hollywood productions. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was presented with an award for “Unique and Artistic Production” in, tellingly, the only year it was ever awarded. Frank Borzage was presented the “Best Director, Dramatic Picture” award for his work on the silent feature Seventh Heaven, capping his tremendous run of moving, artistic silent romances (including Street Angel [1928] and Lucky Star [1929]). Two of the most artistically adventurous directors of their day, Murnau and Borzage advanced the language of silent film at Fox. These pictures are rich in the Kierkegaardian artistic virtues: the aesthetic, the moral, the religious and the dramatic. Borzage and Murnau were recognized within the industry as important film artists of their day and their silent pictures are considered canonical today.


Yet the lyricism these directors achieved through cross-cutting, expressive acting and mise-en-scene diminished in the early years of sound film. Borzage’s first sound film, They Had To See Paris (1929), feels clunky and uninspired compared to his string of silents for Fox. Takes are longer and more static, the pace is slowed due to the tempo of dialogue, and the compensational reframing and panning feel jarring. The early years of sound film treated dialogue as a gimmick rather than integrating it into the art form cinema had already established and, with the possible exception of Ernst Lubitsch, it took a number of years for even the most artistically recognized directors to recreate the graceful language cinema once had. These same years were needed for technology to advance in a way that allowed for camera and actor movement to be fluid with synchronous sound: They Had To See Paris also suffers—like many early sound features—as its acting is forcedly stiff, its characters talking at a microphone. The artistry of cinema may not have been “all over” as Chaplin rued, but the early years of sound film were a step back in terms of artistry.

However, if early sound films lacked a certain visual artistry in its early years, it advanced much of the work it was already doing in terms of creating an invisible narrative style that incorporated music. Silent film had already moved in its early decades from a style of cinéma vérité to that of narrative character subjectivity. Grainge said of the evolution of silent film, “initially placed before the shot in which dialogue took place, it became common for intertitles to come just after the character had begun to speak. This further enhanced the development of character subjectivity, the responsibility of narration transferring from the third person of the expository titles to the dialogue titles of individual characters” (Grainge 29-30). The transition to sound made this even more effective, as voice intonation became synonymous with character and took away the reflexivity caused by intertitles.

Furthermore, the music itself made sound features a more unified artistic product. Silent film is something of a misnomer as music was always performed alongside screenings. What synchronous sound allowed in the moving picture was not only incidental sound within the world of the narrative, but invisible score which could stimulate emotion in a very calculated fashion. The transition to sound “led to the development of non-diegetic musical scores, or the addition of music that was not supposed to represent sounds actually heard within the world of the film but rather acts as an interpretation of the action, implying menace, action or tragedy” (Grainge 188). The silent era saw scores being produced for movie-house orchestras for a cohesive dramatic experience, but the sound feature incorporated these elements into a single, unalterable unit. Such unity contributed to the strength of Hollywood’s invisible style as the music became less performance and more about influencing mood.

The transition to sound certainly changed audiences’ cinematic experience at the beginning of the 1930s. Major studios tightened their grip on the types of movies being made and where and how they would be shown. Luxurious, independent theaters were hurt not only by the Great Depression, but by the expense required for the new technological upgrade. Audiences had their options limited; not only did major studios help ensure their top product would be seen, second-run theaters and independents had trouble keeping up with the service and experience the theater once provided.

Artistry also took a back seat as top directors experienced a rough learning curve for both cinematic language and technology and, although new invisible camera methods were innovated, dialogue largely replaced Eisensteinian montage as a form of cinematic language. Yet sound proved to be more than a middling gimmick; music moved from orchestral and mediated to integrated and invisible contributing, just as spoken dialogue would, to the invisibility of Hollywood’s narrative style. Hollywood may have sacrificed some of its complex visual language with the coming of the sound era, but its tendency to invisible narrative structure grew stronger with the coming of sound.



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Works Cited

Bernardi, Daniel. “The Birth of a Nation (1915): Integrating Race into the Narrator System.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 29-36.

Bogdanovich, Peter. “1928: The Last and Greatest Year of the Original Motion Picture Art, B.S. (Before Sound).” Blogdanovich. IndieWire, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Jul. 2014.

Chapman, James. Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present. London: Reaktion Books, 2003.

Crafton, Donald. “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 61-71.

Gomery, Douglas. “Hollywood as Industry.” American Cinema and Hollywood: Critical Approaches. Ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 19-28.

Gomery, Douglas. “The Rise of National Theatre Chains.” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 103-119.

Grainge, Paul, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Gunning, Tom. “Response to ‘Pie and Chase’.” Hollywood Film History. Ed. Kevin Sandler. New York: Pearson, 2009. 72-73. 

Jancovich, Mark and Lucy Faire. “Translating the Talkies: Diffusion, Reception and Live Performance.” Film Histories: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 156-164.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Jason Goes to Production Hell: The Making of Freddy vs. Jason



Film producer Gary Sales sums up the allure behind—and the success often had in—making cheap, exploitation films in a 1982 interview with Variety. He explains his commercial success with slasher films of the era saying, “we realized that you need a product for which there is a ready-made market” (“Horror Pics” 20). Though strictly formulaic, the teen slasher films of the 1980s proved that the genre film can be produced economically and rake in profits. Few franchises understood this better than Paramount Pictures’ Friday the 13th series and New Line Cinema’s A Nightmare on Elm Street: the former saw a worldwide box-office gross of over $226m from eight films in the 1980s with a combined production budget of $19.9m (Bracke 314-315),; the latter grossed nearly $172m from five films throughout the decade on a budget $28.8m, earning a deficient New Line Cinema the nickname “the house that Freddy built” (The House that Freddy Built).

The overwhelming franchise success is almost exclusively due to their iconographic villains, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger and, as devoted fanbases financed the sequels, the concept of a crossover film began gestating in the late 1980s. After fifteen years of rumors, copyright exchanges, restructured production staffs, seventeen solicited scripts and massive rewrites, Freddy vs. Jason hit theaters in 2003 and became the highest grossing installment for either franchise.

The idea for a crossover film was not a new one. According to former Co-chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye, “Paramount did, at one point [in the late 1980s], approach us with the idea of doing a Freddy and Jason movie. But they basically wanted what we wanted—to license them the rights to Freddy Krueger and go off and make their own movie, which we were not anxious to do” (“Genesis”). By the early 1990s, both franchises had waned in popularity and, following unsuccessful short-lived anthology television spin-offs, Paramount Pictures gave up their distribution rights to the Friday the 13th franchise. Creator and director of the first Friday the 13th film, Sean S. Cunningham states that by 1991 he “reapproached Phil Scuderi [to whom rights reverted after Jason Takes Manhattan] and the original backers from Boston about getting the rights back to Friday the 13th so I could control the property, and I could control the money, and I could go to New Line and try to make Freddy vs. Jason” (Bracke 218).

Cunningham established Crystal Lake Entertainment after securing the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise and made a deal with New Line Cinema to begin development on Freddy vs. Jason in 1994. New Line would own the rights to a reported 17 commissioned screenplays by a dozen screenwriters at a cost exceeding six million dollars (Bracke 267). Though Cunningham calculated the iron was hot for the monster mash-up as New Line seemed disinterested in resurrecting the Nightmare series, development on Freddy vs. Jason came screeching to a halt in 1994 when New Line announced that Wes Craven would return to helm a post-modern take on Freddy. Refusing to give up on the project, Cunningham conceded to put Freddy vs. Jason on the backburner and resurrecting Jason for a concurrent renewal of interest with Freddy Krueger. Though it was never his intention to form Crystal Lake Entertainment or partner with New Line Cinema to make another Friday the 13th film, Cunningham co-produced 1993’s Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday with his true mission in mind.


The single most memorable and oft-discussed scene from an otherwise forgettable Jason Goes to Hell is its epilogue. After Jason has been defeated and the film’s protagonists walk off into the sunrise with their baby, a dog unearths Jason’s hockey mask and, in a Carrie-like moment, the film ends with Freddy Krueger’s claw reaching out of hell to grab it. Narratively anachronistic and apropos of nothing, the moment is a carefully conceived gag by producer Cunningham and director Adam Marcus that generated massive amounts of buzz amongst the fanbase.

Marcus recalls, “I called Mark Ordesky and Michael De Luca at New Line and asked, ‘Can we have the claw?’ And it was very funny ‘cause they were a bit covetous of it. They asked nervously, ‘What are you going to do with it? And why?’ But when we told them out idea, they flipped” (Bracke 268). At the first test screening, the “entire test audience got up on their feet and cheered,” and Cunningham finally sparked the interest at New Line he fought for (Bracke 269). Development began, and scripts started coming in by 1994, but with them, a new list of challenges.

Freddy vs. Jason’s journey from concept to screen was long and unconventional. As existing franchises, the high-concept to be sold to a ready-made market creates a unique set of challenges: fan expectations for both franchises must be considered, and the internal story-worlds must coalesce. A website built as a companion to The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia DVD has made available five of the seventeen screenplays licensed by New Line Cinema, each by different screenwriters or teams, including the final draft by Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift which was chosen for Freddy vs. Jason.

Each version represents unique challenges faced by the screenwriters to bring these two characters into an acceptable world with a narrative fans would enjoy. Yet, despite drastic differences in story and tone, certain narrative elements—namely, the presence of a cult of “Fred Heads” trying to resurrect Freddy Krueger and the use of a sleep drug—find their way into many of these screenplays. The similarities suggest someone at New Line was very enthusiastic about—if not outright coaching—certain story ideas from early in the developmental stage.

One of the first commissioned scripts, Lewis Abernathy’s Nightmare 13: Freddy Meets Jason, makes an earnest attempt at merging the two universes. The central conflict revolves around a “Fred Head” cult attempting to resurrect Freddy and a group of teenagers needing to resurrect Jason to battle him. Some coincidences are a little too convenient—Elm Street and Camp Crystal Lake are within driving distance, and any old teenager can easily bring the fiends back from the dead—but the ideas gained momentum. Of the several incarnations that followed, the basic premise from Abernathy’s original script is the closest of the runners-up to the final product.



Its problems, those New Line likely had irreconcilable issues with, are in tone and character. The screenplay’s third act resembles a later Nightmare on Elm Street picture in that its horror is traded for cartoonish humor. Future screenwriters like Peter Briggs were afraid to approach the material because its premise sounded like a WWE fight, and Abernathy’s version fuels this fear. Freddy and Jason have a physical boxing match in hell, officiated by Ted Bundy and attended by Lee Harvey Oswald, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Popeye. Another character battles a giant booger named “Boogerman” in “Freddy’s nostril cavern”: a far cry from the dark tone in the first act in which a mentally handicapped thirteen-year old girl is kidnapped with the intention of being raped (Abernathy 84).

Furthermore, his Jason Voorhees is not the Jason fans love. He becomes a pawn for the teenagers to defeat Freddy and is sympathetic toward their cause. He interacts with people and, though he doesn’t speak, drives an ambulance at one point and is much more approachable than his historical representation. Twisted humor is an important element to both franchises, but New Line wisely decided to move in a direction more snarky than slapstick.

One of the stranger early screenplays was conceived by Peter Briggs. Briggs gained notoriety after selling his adaptation of Dark Horse Comics’ Alien vs. Predator to Twentieth Century Fox (another multi-franchise “versus” concept which spent years in production hell) and was hunted down by New Line producer Michael De Luca in early 1995 to take a stab at the material. Though reluctant, Briggs accepted the proposal and wrote a treatment and eventually a screenplay not much interested in the existing Nightmare or Friday universes.


Briggs’s version of the story is that development worker at New Line, Wyck Godfrey told him “’what we want to do is something that is kind of like The Omen in tone, we want it to be dark and heavy’” (Diggle). And dark it is, if convoluted. His version of Freddy vs. Jason is something of a sequel to Jason Goes To Hell in that its protagonists defeated Jason ten years earlier. The tone juxtaposes millennial tension with fantasy horror elements as a centuries-old cult uses prophecies to resurrect Freddy and Jason who are now ancient evils. The screenplay is rife with hell imagery (one slug line reads “EXT. “PLAIN OF BONES” – HELL – ZERO HOUR”) and its stakes bring about the end of the universe (Briggs 12). When De Luca passed the screenplay up to Co-chairman Robert Shaye, Briggs was met with silence and was eventually told, “’it’ll cost twice as much as we’re prepared to spend,’” but one questions if a combination of Briggs’ tone and lack of interest in the franchise hurt his chances (Diggle).

New Line was closer to the formula they were looking for by 1998, as thematic devices and narrative events in Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s third draft of Freddy vs. Jason coincide with those in the final product. Unlike the attempts by Abernathy and Briggs, the Aibel/Berger screenplay doesn’t spend much of its narrative focus on outside characters (the “Fred Heads” of the former) or creating its own mythology (Freddy and Jason as puppets being controlled by an ancient underworld demon of the latter). The Freddy cult is still prevalent (just as it is in the Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift version which was eventually adapted), but it is a catalyst rather than the antagonist of central action.

Tonally, too, this version of the screenplay respects its fans and brandishes a similar humorous voice to the one the film eventually took on. Though the Aibel/Berger screenplay is also wise to respect franchise history without being a direct narrative sequel, what may have hurt its chances was that it is a little too post-modern in tone. Owing something to the meta tendencies of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and the self-referential treatment of Scream (1996), what is unique about Freddy and Jason in the Aibel/Berger screenplay is that they are understood as movie characters.

One character tells us in obvious dialogue, “Jason Voorhees is just a movie character. He isn’t real.” (Aibel 58) while another tells us, “I wouldn’t worry about Mr. Frederic J. Krueger. I’ve seen all the movies” (Aibel 19). It’s all a little too tongue-in-cheek, and presents logical anachronisms when they turn out to be real life characters with no explanation (David Goyer and James D. Robinson would run into similar problems with their version, A Nightmare on the 13th, in which Jason and Freddy are villains with established motives, but exist only in the protagonist’s head, later materializing).

Another faux pas that would surely have been worked out in a rewrite, but couldn’t have boded well with New Line development, is that this screenplay has Jason speak: a severe misunderstanding of the character. Nevertheless, the screenplay presents us with many elements in such a successful fashion that they would serve as an outline for the Shannon/Swift version: Freddy is trying to reenter the modern world by public consciousness, pharmaceuticals are developed for dream sharing, and the showdown eventually takes place at Camp Crystal Lake so that Jason can “pull” Freddy into the real world. Shannon and Swift would run with these elements, but construct them around a convincing universe rife with consistency of story logic. Perhaps too much story logic.

The first draft of Damian Shannon and Mark J. Swift’s Freddy vs. Jason clocked at 148 minutes and is careful to establish a credible universe heavy on expositional back story. “It was overly long and overly complicated and very, very dense,” says senior V.P. of Production at New Line, Stokely Chaffin. “This may be the American Beauty of horror films, but it’s not American Beauty and it probably shouldn’t be two-and-a-half hours long” (“Genesis”). New Line brought in David Goyer (who was already paid for a draft of his own vision of Freddy vs. Jason) to write an uncredited revision of the Shannon & Swift screenplay. 

Goyer was able to collapse scenes and characters which subsequently escalated the drama and intensity. Goyer’s consolidation brings the runtime down to 97 minutes without sacrificing Shannon and Swift’s vision. One of the expositional cuts, however, eliminated the much-explored “Fred Head” cult so popular in the project’s developmental stages. The backstory is established in a couple minutes of Freddy Krueger voiceover which establishes the premise that Freddy has been publically forgotten and can’t rise to power without people being scared of him. In Goyer’s rewrite it is Freddy himself who scours the depths of hell to find Jason to instill fear back into Elm Street’s populace. Unlike Shannon and Swift’s screenplay, Goyer’s rewritten prologue establishes this by minute three. Goyer’s revision of the Shannon/Swift screenplay was something that both New Line’s developmental team liked in terms of story, and Cunningham’s camp at Crystal Lake Entertainment found acceptable in terms of universe consistency, but the script wouldn’t be the only obstacle between concept and screen.

In 2000, New Line Cinema would undergo a shake-up in the upper ranks of executive production. Michael De Luca, longtime proponent of the project and friend of Sean Cunningham stepped down as President of Production at New Line, and it fell onto Co-chairman Robert Shaye to find a new production executive to tackle the project with enthusiasm. Shaye explains, “when we changed our head of production, we renewed this imperative to [new President of Production] Toby Emmerich that we had to find someone who is going to get behind this” (Bracke 271-2). The project fell to new hire Stokely Chaffin who nurtured the promise De Luca saw in Shannon and Swift’s treatment, and would be the keystone in connecting with David Goyer to polish the project. Chaffin also interviewed dozens of directors before finding the perfect match of enthusiasm and experience in Ronny Yu.



Principal photography began in September 2002, and the film was released in August 2003. The production budget of $32 million was restrictive, though helped by much of the film being shot in Vancouver, Canada. Highly unusual and the source of much of the production hell Freddy vs. Jason experienced is the fact that nearly $7 million—over twenty percent—of its $32m budget was spent on ten years of script development. 

The investment would pay off for New Line, as the film’s nearly $115 million worldwide box-office pull outperformed every film from either franchise by leaps and bounds. Freddy vs. Jason is a unique Hollywood success story which spent years in development hell despite an early green-lit concept, iconic characters and a built-in audience. Ultimately it is the push and pull between Sean Cunningham’s rulebook of unbreakable universe rules and New Line’s commitment to story which met the expectations of fans from both franchises. The iconic pop culture status of Freddy and Jason exponentially compound the built-in audience of the typical slasher film and, though the road to bringing the two together was far from smooth, the box-office receipts prove the developmental investment was worthwhile.




===============
Works Cited

Abernathy, Lewis. Nightmare 13: Freddy Meets Jason. Film script. NightmareOnElmStreetFilms.com. 12 Feb. 2014.

Aibel, Jonathan and Glenn Berger. Freddy vs. Jason (third draft). Film script. 1998. NightmareOnElmStreetFilms.com. 30 Jan. 2014.

Bracke, Peter M. Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. London: Titan Books, 2005.

Briggs, Peter. Freddy vs. Jason. Film script. NightmareOnElmStreetFilms.com. 15 Feb. 2014.

Diggle, Andy. Peter Briggs Interview. AliensCollection.com, 1996. Web. 17 Feb. 2014. <http://www.alienscollection.com/andydiggle.html>

“Genesis: Development Hell” (supplementary material on DVD release of Freddy vs. Jason). 2003. DVD. New Line Home Video, 2004.

“Horror Pics a Crowded Path to Boxoffice, But Lucrative.” Variety March 3, 1982: p. 20.

The House that Freddy Built. Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz. New Line Home Video, 2006. DVD.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Gender War in the Comedies of Preston Sturges

To confine the classic era of screwball comedy between the years 1934 and 1942 as many scholars do (Duane Byrge in The Screwball Comedy Films, Wes D. Gehring in Screwball Comedy: Defining a Genre) not only canonizes Howard Hawks as the genre’s innovator, but leaves the best films of Preston Sturges in a chronological purgatory. True, during the Second World War some of the genre’s key tropes began to change out of historic necessity. The wearing-on of the Great Depression made it difficult for audiences to continue to identify with aristocratic, leisurely madcap couples without a certain resentment, and the realities of war’s effects on the American psyche made it increasingly difficult for audiences to accept the small-town, political-minded crackerbarrel hero’s naiveté. Further, newfound independent desires of women born out of their unprecedented shift to the workplace were followed by their counterparts on screen. Gender roles perpetuated by Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey and Frank Capra with the onset of the screwball comedy (itself “supplant[ing] the cracker-barrel figure in American humor”) began to equate the comedic male with the anti-hero (Gehring 6). But despite the moral difference between these two types of comedic male, in terms of gender studies the point is moot: hero or anti-hero, the male is still the central figure.

Women have an increased agency in these screwball comedies, but it is doled out with a condescending share of skewed worldview, illogical at best, hysterical at worst. Unlike the comedies of Capra and Hawks, the films of Preston Sturges (late to the screwball party, but innovator of a his own brand of anarchy during the war years) are not only unafraid to knock masculinity down a peg but offer their female characters an agency rivaled only in that other female-oriented genre, melodrama. Where traditional romantic comedies and melodrama both tend toward reestablishment of patriarchal ideologies in their resolutions, Sturges’s films appear uninterested in the status quo. Though owing to the screwball tradition, the comedies he wrote, directed and in many cases produced once the American war effort was in full swing subvert traditional gender roles even within the genre. His screwball comedies before America entered the war, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story subvert patriarchy though frustration of their male characters and an application of the female gaze. His wartime films, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero express female independence by mimicking the societal prominence of women and subjecting masculinity to roles conventionally delegated to women: domesticity and mother worship. His postwar comedy, Unfaithfully Yours suggests war has changed gender roles and patriarchal reestablishment (as represented by the male gaze) is no longer possible in his newfound jolted world. Through both characterization and formal technique, the romantic comedies of Preston Sturges present an increased agency for its female characters who author their destinies while holding influence over their male counterparts.

There is a certain liberation in the comedic genres for both genders. Male representation historically holds a monopoly on the tragic hero as patriarchal ideologies allow only men to write their own destinies and take on efficacious adventure. Women, according to the patriarchal view, are placed in domestic settings; heterosexual love their only adventure. Women aren’t excluded from tragedy, only their agency within it is. Therefore, the feminized version of tragedy—the melodrama—still lacks potency of cause-effect individualism. Female “weepies” are exercises in victimization, positioning “the spectator as powerless to avert the catastrophes they enact, and in fact produce those tears out of that powerlessness” (Rowe 41). If George Cukor’s The Women and John Stahl’s Imitation of Life suggest female agency through female-centered narratives and sheer screen time, the women’s power is undermined by domestic ideologies. These women still define themselves by their relation to men.

The narrative comedy, conversely, often subverts gender conventions. Comedy’s anarchy disrupts authoritarian hierarchy. What it reestablishes (though often still patriarchal, as the films nearly always end in romantic marriage, established sexual roles, female domesticity and male dominance) is the “Oedipal story, or the formation of the couple”: a victory for the male character (Rowe 44). Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth seems similar in thematic structure to Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story, only McCarey’s take resolves with the male lead embracing his ex-wife after admitting the error of his ways. The trajectory is solely male as the wife desires nothing but reconciliation by the beginning of act two. Similarly, Howard Hawks’s My Girl Friday gives narrative agency to its male lead who rescues his ex-wife from marrying his rival, only to remarry him. Domestication is the lone result even for a successful businesswoman, and the film’s very title views the woman as possession. The men of screwball comedy achieve autonomy over their father and, though often made a fool of along the way, find their own success and identity in family. This doesn’t offer women the same autonomy—their role is well-established as domestic. Traditional screwball comedy of the prewar era placates the appearance of female independence that arose out of the 1920s. These women are granted limited agency and romantic adventure, but the films reinstate a patriarchal ideology which ends in female domestication. Screwball comedy plays with gender in a way which raises question as to who wears the pants in the relationship (literally, as Katharine Hepburn’s character would attest in Bringing Up Baby). Only in Preston Sturges’s prewar screwball comedies, female agency doesn’t end with marriage.

Even by the strictest definition, Sturges’s two films immediately preceding American intervention in the war, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, certainly quality as screwball. They are both domestic narratives structured around leisure and wealth which present their male leads (Henry Fonda’s Charles and Joel McCrea’s Tom, respectively) with a great deal of gender- and social-frustration. Capitalism has done right by the men in these films. The new love interest of Claudette Colbert’s Gerry in The Palm Beach Story, Mr. Hackensacker comes from a family of big oil (or “The Erl King” as his private yacht reads). In fact, she has only found her way to divorce through the handsome cash gift from a rich, leisurely and nearly-deaf Wienie King. Gerry’s husband, Tom seems to be the only male finding difficulty in his finances and this is the sole problem with his marriage. However, this “problem” is narratively structured in Sturges’s screenplay in an unrealistic fashion through screwball tropes. Tom’s financial problems aren’t a result of working-class drudgery; instead, Tom takes on a leisurely occupation of “inventor”, trying to sell his conceptualized suspended airport rather than working his fingers to the bone. The film presents very real domestic problems of finance, but paints Tom as a screwball character whose life is defined by leisure and whose profession is not recognized as serious employment. Gerry subverts patriarchal ideology as the males’ only power is in wealth. Hers lies elsewhere. Male gaze is thwarted as Claudette Colbert is often covered in a long overcoat or oversized men’s pajamas. At one point, as Hackensacker is lavishing gifts upon Gerry, Colbert is wearing a long skirt, long-sleeved blouse, white gloves and a wrap hat which covers her neck. Hackensacker unironically asks, “aren’t the sleeves a little short?” as if to suggest the power of female allure rests somewhere beyond nudity.

"Aren't the sleeves a little short?"


When a man appears to leer at Gerry from a train bunk, she subverts this look by stepping on his face for a boost into the upper bunk. It’s a none-too-subtle symbol employed by Sturges which suggests perhaps power is not held in the male gaze, but he is captive to it. The slapstick of the scene mocks patriarchal values, just as when Tom falls down the stairs and embarrassingly has his pants (a symbol of manhood) ripped off in the apartment hallway. The male, as symbol of patriarchy, is mocked while women refuse to be objectified.

This stifling of screwball comedy’s patriarchal values through frustration of the male lead is much the same for Charles in The Lady Eve. Charles is heir to an ale fortune which, though he has no interest in the venture, has provided a leisurely life as an ophiologist, exploring the Amazon for snakes on his father’s dime. Any conflict, including romance, seems mere triviality in Charles’s life as his identity is not defined by his employment. Hollywood’s traditional male-dominated heroic genres from adventure to detective/mystery and tragedy of historical epic have equated male autonomy with occupation. The wealth and leisure that comes along with the structure of screwball comedy often eliminates this professionalism. Genre roles are twisted and female agency is gained in part because of this disallowance of male identity through occupation. Yet, as Gehring argues, if the “goal of the genre [is] to bring the joy of childhood’s spontaneity to an adult [male] grown brittle,” the increased female agency owing to the genre’s male frustration is tempered by the common screwball representation of women as hysterical (Gehring 10).

The male learns that life in an irrational world must be conquered by a dose of craziness—a craziness the female must embody. So, in a case of two-steps forward, one-step back, the female in screwball comedy is an agent of her destiny and filmic action, but it comes with a condescension that, while technically a case of role-reversal, women acting in the position of men must also be illogical. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant’s comic rigidity is contrasted by a real questioning of Katharine Hepburn’s sanity. Yet these roles are shifted in Sturges’s prewar screwballs. Gerry leaves Tom in the first act of The Palm Beach Story, leaving a note for him proclaiming it her only “logical” option, but it is the male characters who are the eccentrics: The Wienie King bankrolls strangers and Tom builds unfeasible airport models. There is strength in Sturges’s female leads and a notable buck to Hollywood’s trend: Claudette Colbert and Barbara Stanwyck not only play the characters that primarily pull the strings in their narratives, they also each receive top billing. The same cannot be said of the female leads in Twentieth Century, It Happened One Night or His Girl Friday.

In addition to Sturges subverting patriarchal ideologies through mocking masculinity, he employs thematic and formal tools that deny power to male gaze and suggest a female gaze in his prewar screwball comedies. This subversive take supplants assumed patriarchal power by making the female leads authors of their own destiny. Elizabeth Abele argues:

Though the narrative and the gaze in a screwball comedy may attempt to follow traditional male patterns, the screwball heroine continually subverts them. Though she presents herself as a prospective object of the male gaze, she rarely remains motionless or stops talking long enough to conform to the fully objectified position. (Abele)

The women in Preston Sturges’s screwball comedies are keenly aware of the power of their sexuality so, while they acknowledge a gaze, they use it to their advantage. "I was broke, too when I was about your age, but I didn't have a figure like you've got,” the Wienie King tells Gerry in The Palm Beach Story. “I had to use my brains,” as if a financial success story carries with it a patriarchal bias as well as a testament to masculine logic. Only this logic is character specific; we don’t see these patriarchal ideologies play out in Sturges’s screwball or post-screwball narratives. True, his male characters are defined by modern, gender-specific frustrations, but the female characters are near-equals and never (thematically or formally) is their power merely sexual. It is usually the male characters’ narrow views within the narrative, not Sturges’s voice, which rings patriarchal and, in the end, untrue. The Wienie King is not the only character in The Palm Beach Story who must surrender to Gerry’s ascendancy: Tom is constrained by both his patriarchal views and his masculine lack. “$700 ...Just like that? ...Sex didn’t even enter into it?,” Tom asks, confounded by his wife’s capability and certain of her infidelity when Gerry is gifted a large sum of money. According to Tom’s ideology, sex is a woman’s only power, just as provision is only a man’s duty. His confusion and frustration are drawn out of a recognition that his wife (having remained faithful) was able to accomplish what he could not, and when his business dealings finally do reap their reward, it is again due to Gerry’s manipulation.

Gerry was always the driving agent from the beginning of their marriage (in a pre-credit montage, we see that Gerry has bound her twin sister in order to trick Tom into taking her hand at the alter), and the two renew their vows at the end of the film only after Gerry is able to take credit for every one of Tom’s supposed achievements. Furthermore, Gerry’s success is not one built on Tom’s patriarchal values of honesty and hard-work, but conniving deceit and recognition of gender and youth as a tool. Antiestablishment, indeed. And while Gerry spends the entire picture concocting what appears to be a life of domesticity, the film makes very clear that Gerry has no desire to be a housewife. She can’t cook or sew, and has little inclination to care to do so. The domestication of women, a conventional assumption within patriarchal ideology, is inverted in the world of Preston Sturges. Though women may desire marriage—by social pressure or other—the domestication that occurs in Sturges’s comedies results in the metaphoric castration of husbands.

Just as Sturges avoids patriarchal screwball tendencies which “celebrated the sanctity of marriage, class distinction and the domination of women by men” through his narrative themes, his work seems tuned into progressive female representation—and female spectatorship—as his formal work is often neutral in terms of gaze (Sklar 188). The camera work Sturges chooses to employ is highly economical, a slave to the screenplay, and spends no time lingering on its females condescendingly or lasciviously. Male characters are certainly drawn to the sexual mystique of their female counterparts, but it is often represented by the female’s power over him. In The Lady Eve, we get a rare point-of-view shot from Henry Fonda’s Charles. Jean has already asserted her power, telling him “you’ll have to kneel down,” so Charles looks up, a slave to the one his desires, and the shot is distorted to symbolize Charles being drunk on perfume (her allure). Sturges’s most explicit example of literal female gaze comes in The Lady Eve. As women vie for Charles’s attention, Jean pulls out a pocket mirror and watches his every move.



We see the action through her mirror—a pictorial representation of the female gaze—and Jean narrates over her voyeuristic display. This agency is a rare example that flies in the face of Kaplan’s theory when she argues, “men do not simply look; their gaze carries with it the power of action and of possession which is lacking in the female gaze. Women receive and return a gaze, but cannon act upon it” (Kaplan 31). Quite the contrary, Jean’s voyeurism and narration assert her power over Charles who becomes an objectified pawn in her control. Jean’s power is even omniscient as her narration dictates how Charles will act: “Look at the girl over to his left. Look over to your left, bookworm, there’s a girl pining for you. A little further, just a little further, there.” In a film which already undermines patriarchal ideologies, Jean’s female gaze through Sturges’s formal technique present us with a female who is in control of her actions and desires as well as the actions of others. It is not simply a case of a woman stepping into the role of men in which women are still objectified; Charles becomes the objectified and Jean’s desires, whether romantic or financial, are met solely through the power of her own action.

When men aren’t being bested by their female counterparts, Sturges’s own symbolism and wordplay suggest implicitly what the Production Code wouldn’t allow explicitly. Sturges’s suggestiveness is usually in the same vein of his mockery of masculinity: despite the charade of patriarchal order, women hold the power in domestic relationships. Kay Young argues screwball comedies are unique in that women are given agency in active roles without playing “masculine” leads. A symbolic castration is present in these strong female roles as “the American man of screwball comedy retains his sexual organ but comes perhaps to wonder just what to do with it” (Young 196). This is very much the case of Charles in The Lady Eve who is content staying in his cabin with his pet snake locked up. The Wienie King in The Palm Beach Story is seemingly rendered impotent by age, yet made his fortune in the sausage business. Masculinity is neutered as Sturges refuses his male leads to define themselves by profession, renders chivalry archaic (Hackensacker of The Palm Beach Story laments, “Chivalry is not only dead, it’s decomposed!”) and symbolically removes their libido. If prewar screwball comedies sought to reinstate patriarchal ideologies to keep women in a domesticated role, Sturges refuses them by offering his female characters increased agency while decreasing male power. As the role of women would become more socially visible with the onset of the American war effort, Sturges’s female characters, too, would grow more independent.

The American workforce took a hit as men went off to war, and the number of working women increased from 12 million before the war, to 18 million by 1944 (Campbell 100). These women attained a disposable income (with little product during the war time on which to spend it) and an independence from domesticity they hadn’t seen before. Film attendance, now more female than ever, “continued to grow and be strong throughout this era. Between 1942 and 1945, Americans spent 23% of their total recreational dollar on films (compared to 2% today)” (Pautz 71-72). These working-class women could identify with the strong, independent characters they saw on screen. While the female leads in many screwball comedies were wealthy heiresses, how much more could these women identify with a Gerry Jeffers or Trudy Kockenocker? These young working women were “suddenly transported into a realm of excitement, prominence and wealth ... the women in the movies had the same objective as the middle- and working-class female inhabitants of Muncie, Indiana” (Lent 331).

The questions of female agency and the domestication of men become more clearly defined as Sturges’s work progresses out of the screwball genre. Unlike conventional screwball comedy which at least tempers demasculinization with beautiful men (Cary Grant may have been forced into a woman’s robe in Bringing Up Baby, but he was still Cary Grant), the increased power of women in Sturges’s films is coupled by emasculated male leads represented by milquetoast, comedic anti-hero Eddie Bracken. Bracken became the perfect face for Sturges’s American masculinity during World War II. The humor in his nebbish portrayals subverts traditional patriarchy while a now more-female audience is empowered through masculine mockery.  Cary Grant he is not.

As World War II works its way into American consciousness, Sturges intrinsically links military service with masculinity. Eddie Bracken’s Norval Jones and Woodrow Truesmith, too, recognize the patriarchal importance of civic duty, but both characters are denied the opportunity to become a patriot on the battlefield: Norval a 4-F rejectee breaks out in “bumps” as a nervous wreck; Woodrow has been discharged due to chronic hay fever. It is no coincidence that each of these Bracken characters is denied the possibility of war hero due to trivialities. The conditions themselves become laughable, much to their characters’ chagrin for, much like everything else in the Sturges universe, the incidentals of fate hold authority over either patriarchal intentions or feminine subversion. Perhaps coincidence is the great equalizer. This doesn’t prevent the women from trying, however for, like Jean in The Lady Eve, teenaged Trudy and Emmy in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek continually get the best of their father, Constable Edmund Kockenlocker who is a symbol of both patriarchy and justice in the town. Trudy’s night out is full of the excitement and decadence Lent spoke of in discussing the desires of the newly independent female working-class (all in the name of patriotism, mind you), but the consequence of pregnancy after a night of dancing, drunkenness, revelry, and a sham marriage is very real and calls for a new kind of hero: a demasculinized Norval, the virgin father of six who devotes his life to a woman named “Kockenlocker.”

Like Hackensacker in The Palm Beach Story, Norval is a sucker for the feminine mystique. And, like Gerry, Trudy isn’t hesitant to lord this power over her admirer, as unpolished as he might be. Again, marriage is desired by the female lead but again she rejects conventional domesticity. Norval admits to taking home economics classes throughout his high school career just to be near Trudy, and it becomes evident that Norval is the more successful homemaker. Trudy becomes the agent of Norval’s misadventures which include taking on a false identity, jailed on (and guilty of) several criminal charges, homelessness and hiding on the lam, all of which leading up to (and somehow narratively compatible to) marrying into the position of presumed father of Trudy’s sextuplets. Norval has greatness “thrust upon” him, and doesn’t have time to be a reluctant hero. He becomes the public scapegoat who must inversely take on the shame Trudy would were her indiscretion revealed. It’s a sophisticated gender role reversal which doesn’t seek to moralize in regards to drunken fornication, but toward the hypocrisy of small-town haughtiness. The film certainly isn’t patriarchal, but is a farce on the feminine desires of the melodrama as well. Norval gets marriage without a domesticated wife and kids without consummation. Trudy gets protection, but not romantic love. The genre rift goes both ways as the film “makes clear that Trudy would never have married Norval but for her pregnancy. She doesn’t give this ungainly clunk the time of day when her mind’s on romance” (Jacobs 298). So unconventional family rules the day when marriage is a consolation anything but romantic or patriarchal.

If male frustration is ignited in screwball comedy by coupling the modernity of urban landscape with female agency, Sturges shifts the setting to small-town America—conservative values in tow—for his two greatest examples of patriarchal obstruction. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek risked chiding the war effort, for it is the anonymous soldier who impregnates Trudy. And just as Norval goes through a gender role reversal, playing societal scapegoat for the castigation a female would likely receive, he also goes through a masculine role reversal, becoming town hero though denied the possibility of military hero or sexual potency. Bracken’s Woodrow in Hail the Conquering Hero is, too, heroized despite deceit, caricature, and military impotence during a time when war made the man. Only rather than rebelling against the father, it is the other half of the Oedipal complex that defines Woodrow: mother worship.E. Ann Kaplan argues, “the domination of women by the male gaze is part of patriarchal strategy to contain the threat that the mother embodies and to control the positive and negative impulses that memory traces of being mothered have left in the male unconscious” (Kaplan 205). If Sturges’s strong female characters don’t already eschew domination by the male gaze, Hail the Conquering Hero must be considered an anti-patriarchal text as its hero, Woodrow embraces mother worship—a philosophy endorsed by both servicemen and the community.

We are told Libby is Woodrow’s life-long love, only he shows little interest throughout the narrative. He appears genuinely relieved when Libby admits to have taken a fiancé in Woodrow’s absence. “That’s marvelous,” Woodrow tells her, calm for an instant. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day. At least I don’t need to worry about you.” It isn’t the only instance where Woodrow’s machismo is challenged. When he explains his dilemma to the Marines on his train ride home, he tells them of Libby (though concerns of her are always secondary to those or his mother) saying, “it’s not only my mother, I’ve got a girl. I mean, I did have.” “What did you tell her?” asks Sgt. Heppelfinger, “You was going in the navy?” This jab at Woodrow’s effeminate stature and nebbish behavior insinuates the possibility of homosexuality: a challenge to the patriarchal masculinity Kaplan argues the male gaze tries to prevent. Yet when the truth of Woodrow’s charade comes out, the most trustworthy man in town, mayoral candidate Doc Bissell comes to his defense saying, “if tenderness toward and consideration of one’s mother was a fault, it was a fault any man might be proud of.”

That the film’s resolution reunites Woodrow and Libby is secondary to the fact that he has made his mother proud and gets to return home to her on an assumed permanent basis. Though the agency of the film certainly rests with its male characters, the feminine influence over their agency challenges Kaplan’s patriarchal strategy. As women held down the home front, they metaphorically shed their domestication. Bracken’s Norval and Woodrow represent the jolted male who returns from war to find his gender roles reversed. Traditional concepts of masculinity are tempered by the agency of girlfriends and mothers and Norval becomes the perfect husband because “he can do all the housework.” These films suggest the shared (if not displaced) domesticity and leveling of gendered power is a good for women.

But power, in the Sturges universe, had shifted with the war. The traditional screwball comedies which urged reestablishment of patriarchal ideologies was never embraced by Sturges. In both theme and form, Sturges acknowledges the desire of the male gaze, but refuses it any leverage. From a Lacanian pretext, one would expect a film like Unfaithfully Yours to be rife with male gaze as much of the narrative takes place in a man’s head. After coming to suspect his young, attractive wife may have committed adultery, virtuoso symphony conductor Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison) spends the entire second act of the film imagining three different ways to confront his wife, Daphne with his newly discovered knowledge of infidelity: an elaborate murder of his wife and framing of supposed co-conspirator Tony, a melodramatic martyrdom in which Alfred nobly pays Daphne $100,000 to leave, and a duel in which Alfred demand the three play a game of Russian roulette until satisfaction is achieved.



Yet this postwar comedy presents us with Sturges’s most frazzled male lead: this third scenario played out in Alfred’s head ends quickly, as Alfred shoots himself in the temple. Formally, these daydreams play out like three different patriarchal genres: horror, melodrama and chivalric romance. Yet Alfred is not only the gazing voyeur but omniscient author of these scenarios. Never one for superfluous camera work, Sturges employs a rare technique emphasizing point of view. As we enter each reverie, the camera long zooms all the way into Alfred’s pupil. In these three daydreams, Alfred holds sole agency and takes on the patriarchal role ascribed to the male lead in each parodied genre, but such masculine grandeur is thwarted when Alfred must carry out his plan in the real world. Alfred’s apartment is turned into shambles through slapstick before all three of his plans fail him in the face of his wife.

A careful combination of Linda Darnell’s sophisticated performance as Daphne and Sturges’s screenplay and form suggests a female gaze trumping Alfred’s agency. Darnell subtly works minor variations into the different portrayals of Daphne which Alfred fails to recognize. In the scenes that take place in Alfred’s head, Daphne “says only the lines that he imagines she would say; and she responds exactly the way his mind thinks she would respond. Of course, she came out as still as a dummy, because she was allowed to say only what was in his mind” (Pirolini 141). Alfred is another of Sturges’s highly patriarchal characters whose hubris fails to recognize his wife’s true agency. Daphne is no “dummy,” she plays into Alfred’s patriarchal ego with a sublime touch absent in Alfred’s imaginings of her.

At the film’s resolution, Daphne tells Alfred, “I know what it’s like to be a great man, that is I don’t really but having so many responsibilities... so much tenseness... watching out for and protecting so many people.” These words, though bearing no truthful testament to anything we’ve seen of Alfred’s character, illicit his response which informs us of Daphne’s intentions. After the reconciliation, Alfred desires to again lavish his wife with riches, asking “will you put on your lowest cut, most vulgarly ostentatious dress with the largest and vulgarest jewels that you possess?” Alfred speaks to Daphne as if she was his possession, but Daphne’s sly manipulation of her husband shows the audience who is in control. Even when Alfred’s phallic imagery gets upgraded from small conductor’s wand to pistol, he renders himself useless in his own mind by losing at Russian roulette. Like the man who has returned home from war to find his patriarchal power impotent in a changed world, any fulfillment of male gaze is granted through the grace of the woman who perceives her own power. Sturges’s male leads grow from patriarchally frustrated in the prewar years to emasculated and destitute at war’s end.

As screwball comedies shifted during the war years and male leads became more anti-heroic, the comedies of Preston Sturges stepped away from traditional patriarchal ideologies that so many screwball comedies sought to reestablish. Female characters not only find increased agency at a time which paralleled female independence in the United States, Sturges couples this female power with formal techniques which suggest a female gaze. For Sturges, masculinity is never associated with capability, and even in his comedies which feature male leads, they fall victim to the feminine power of Oedipal binds. Sturges’s comedies offer subversive gender representation which question patriarchal ideologies. Though his films often end in (actual or presumed) matrimony, the gender roles Sturges employ far from purport domestic stereotype. Sturges’s female characters are never fixed stereotypes. While it would be a stretch to call his films feminist, the combination of female agency and male emasculation defy patriarchal categorization. Marriage is a given—for the best in the societal view of Sturges’s world—but the seemingly patriarchal trappings don’t reestablish the male as the sole proprietor of authority. Women author their own destinies in Preston Sturges’s romantic comedies and men are bound to their agency.



===============
Works Cited

Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Gehring, Wes D. Screwball Comedy: Defining a Film Genre. Muncie: Ball State University Press. 1983.

Gamman, Lorraine. “Watching the Detectives: The Enigma of the Female Gaze.” The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture. Ed. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment. Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1989. 8-26.

Jacobs, Diane. Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera. New York: Methuen, 1983.

Lent, Tina Olsin. “Romantic Love and Friendship: The Redefinition of Gender Relations in Screwball Comedy.” Classical Hollywood Comedy. Ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 315-331.

Pautz, Michelle. “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000.” Issues in Political Economy, Vol. 11 (2002): 70-87. Web. 23 Nov. 2013.

Pirolini, Alessandro. The Cinema of Preston Sturges: A Critical Study. Jefferson: McFarland &
Company Inc., 2010.

Rowe, Kathleen. “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter”. Classical Hollywood Comedy. Ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New York and London: Routledge, 1995), 39-59.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. New York: Random House, 1994. 175-194.

Young, Kay. Ordinary Pleasures: Couples, Conversation, and Comedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. 2001.

Click Here, Nimrods...

Historiological Metafiction and Redemptive Violence in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained

The resolution of a Quentin Tarantino film, traditional thought would have us believe, is never as fun as the getting there. How else can one explain the appeal of an over-four-hour runtime for a two-part movie its very title spoils in Kill Bill? His still-most-renowned film, a game-changer for independent cinema, Pulp Fiction is a crime film the opposite of The Big Sleep. Where the quintessential noir makes us overlook jumbled, nebulous puzzle pieces so long as a big picture comes into focus, Pulp Fiction is a film of vignettes apropos of nothing, whose ending even the most ecclesiastical fan would stumble over in explaining what, exactly, it amounts to. But that won’t stop him from being able to recite Jules Winnfield’s assassination scripture, recall a benign conversation about a cheeseburger or recreate the steps of Vincent and Mia’s dance sequence at every wedding he attends. Pulp Fiction is an iconic mission statement overtly remembered for its punchy dialogue, visceral violence and fragmented style. Only what becomes clear as Tarantino’s oeuvre develops—and a barrage of aping, wanna-be indie auteurs fail to recognize—is neither these stylistic decisions nor the allusions to the films he cherry-picks is what breathes life into Frankenstein’s monster. The postmodern seal marking Tarantino’s filmography is less mélange and more mad-scientist criticism. His films, as referential as they can be, are not to be read as nostalgia, parody or (despite Grindhouse’s pitch) merely homage. True, they percolate an unmistakable reverence and rapture of exploitation violence, but not for the sake of spectacle alone. Heir to Penn and Peckinpah, Tarantino treads the fine line between embracing the kineticism of film violence and glorifying it. The resulting work, as Tarantino enters the self-proclaimed end of his directorial career (at least, he teases, as far as narrative, theatrical film is concerned), has evolved into an intensely-focused formal and thematic diatribe on the role of violence in American culture, film history, and the slippery grounds where to two coalesce.

Interesting then, for one who’s early career is remembered for fast-talking characters epitomized by spontaneous rage of fits-and-starts, Tarantino’s 21st-Century work (or, perhaps more significantly, post-9/11 work) is characterized by slow-burning, obsessive, tight-as-a-drum revenge tales. The Kill Bill films are episodically-structured genre experiments loosely modeled after François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black. In this sense, it is the Tarantino project most like Pulp Fiction. It riffs on French New Wave tropes and filters them though the “big three” grindhouse subgenres in the Tarantino universe: the Spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation, and the Kung Fu film. Funny then, when Tarantino tries his hand at a straightforward exploitation flick in Death Proof, the results are none of these, but half giallo, half carsploitation. If film history has overlooked and condescended to the exploitation genre film, Tarantino’s oeuvre has gone out of its way to legitimize it. Tarantino’s films seem to argue the exploitation film gets a lot right in terms of pruriency lacking in “legitimate” cinema. If academia has self-righteously overlooked what Pauline Kael refers to as “honest vulgarity”, Tarantino embraces kitsch as the lifeblood of the genre film and refines it into his own brand of film as film criticism (Kael 24).

More than merely a cinema of piecemeal derivation, Tarantino creates something new through reworking old genre tropes. If Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown were game-changers for independent cinema it was because they reappropriated hip grindhouse aesthetics to the American mainstream culture by way of snappy dialogue—even if their resolution, by comparison, seemed inconsequential. If Kill Bill and Death Proof were more blatant genre experiments which began to establish revenge as a key motivator in the Tarantino treatise, they, too, exist out of time. It is only with Tarantino’s two most recent films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, has he tasked his work with some heavy lifting so his erudite stylistics are matched by historical and cultural relevance. These two films, cut from the same cloth, show Tarantino’s take on violence come full circle; violence is spectacle and reality, binding is freeing, redemptive and atrocious. Through their strict ties to genre, the historical revenge fantasies, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are astute, self-reflexive works which undo traditional examination on violence in film by subverting historic and filmic paradigms. They blur the lines between our fragmented historical memory and ideological myths through the very act of intertextually exposing them. Tarantino’s postmodern tendencies make ambiguous the role of violence in film’s moralization, thereby clarifying how a disconcertion for and embrace of redemptive violence can coexist in American society.

Dana Polan describes Tarantino’s intertextual work by saying, “there’s a post-modern genealogy here in which the classic American films noirs are reworked by New Wavers like Godard and Truffaut which are then themselves reworked in a film like Pulp Fiction” (Polan 20). This same case could be made for Tarantino’s appropriation of that other uniquely American genre. Django Unchained (and Inglourious Basterds, formally) are American Westerns of reimagined Spaghetti Westerns which are redacted classical American Westerns. Formally, Tarantino’s cinematic style owes a great debt to Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci (who directed the original Django in 1966). Much of Leone’s style is punctuated by extreme close-ups and point-of-view deep-focus long-shots. Often these two go hand in hand, where rapid cross-
cuts elevate the urgency in climax, and the juxtaposition of traditional Western long-shot and immediate, threatening (or vulnerable) close-up magnifies violence. Take, for instance, the climactic showdown in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, where dramatic tension is elevated through editing. The three-way graveyard duel is a rapid montage of facial close-ups, point-of-view shots behind guns, and a back-and-forth of mise-en-scène compositions in various circular long-shots. These edits and compositions are not narratively imperative; to the contrary, they can be disorienting. But the effect of the montage coupled with the score’s crescendo punctuates the violence when shots are finally fired.



Compare this to the opening scene in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The film opens in extreme long-shot of a French dairy farm under a Nazi-occupied countryside. One of the scene’s principle characters, Perier LaPadite is introduced in low-angle medium-shot and immediately cuts to an over-the-shoulder point-of-view from one of LaPadite’s daughters as she witnesses danger approaching in the distance. The disquiet of LaPadite’s interrogation by “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa is accentuated by a montage of low-angle empathy, high-angle savagery, slow-zooming facial close-ups and static, inanimate close-ups all in a very restricted space. This Leonean montage is a language of violence and terror. It is, perhaps, even an allusion to a scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in which Angel Eyes enters Stevens’ house and after an extended, uneasy stare-down montage, shoots Stevens, telling him to “sit down and eat.” Both scenes erupt in brutality after a torturous elongation of the mundane. Likewise, the power of Tarantino’s scene is not in the massacre or the escape, but in the dreadful silence of the elephant in the room. This isn’t to say Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns aren’t explosively violent—they can be. Only this brutality is matched with a filmic language of anxiety and dread in its quiet spots as well. Tarantino ups the ante as his montage and mise-en-scène, in a departure from his early work, speak louder than the spoken word.

If Sergio Leone’s montage establishes a language for the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Corbucci has a less subtle gimmick. Corbucci employs a self-conscious, visible formal tactic of rapid zoom at least twenty times in his 1966 film, Django. Usually the zoom immediately precedes graphic violence, though other times it is used for characterization in terms of epiphany or reaction. Two of these rapid-zooms occur in the iconic shootout which reveals the Mitrailleuse machine gun hidden in Django’s coffin. These zooms magnify his vulnerability, sitting one man against an army of bandits. Later, Corbucci’s technique mirrors gun violence as this purposely visible camerawork infiltrates a character’s space.

Tarantino utilizes two such rapid-zoom cross-cuts in Django Unchained which double as homage to Corbucci’s much-loved trademark as well as develop character depth. Both come at key moments of thematic epiphany for central characters, both as direct results of unfathomable violence, and both reactionary. The first follows the scene in which Calvin Candie, while touring Django and Schultz around his plantation, learns his slave and Mandingo fighter, D’Artagnon has escaped. D’Artagnon is found hiding up a tree from Candie’s hunting dogs, called down, reprimanded and humiliated by Calvin. The dialogue makes very clear that D’Artagnon is property intended for the sole purpose of absorbing and dispensing physical violence. As if this vulgar disregard for life weren’t dehumanizing enough, Calvin capitalizes it by mocking him for not knowing the meaning of the word “reimburse.” This pressures Schultz to act. He stands up and offers to “reimburse” Calvin by buying (and, presumably freeing) D’Artagnon. It is here Tarantino utilizes a rapid-zoom (even more rapid than Corbucci’s uses) and couples it with a “whoosh” sound-effect, to symbolize Calvin being hit by a brick wall. Calvin is astonished by Schultz’s compassion (as if these characters would express it in those terms), and this formal device brings with it a thematic understanding of Calvin’s character. The chasm between these two worldviews is widened as D’Artagnon is then fed to the dogs.

The second use of rapid-zoom occurs as Django gets physical confirmation that his wife, Broomhilda is indeed on Candie’s plantation. Candie’s “house nigger,” Stephen explains to Calvin that Hildi also ran away, was recaptured, and placed in a “hot box” for punitive measures. Django seethes, fearing Candie’s dogs attacked his wife and, in a montage more viscerally violent than physically violent, we see a frightened, naked Hildi pulled from the solitary confinement of a sweatbox. An over-the-shoulder point-of-view shot showing Stephen’s perspective as Django’s epiphany marks Stephen—even more than Candie—as Django’s nemesis is recorded through rapid-zoom. As written in Tarantino’s screenplay:

REVENGE MUSIC PLAYS
as we move into a Sergio Leone CU [close up] of DJANGO'S FACE. (Django Unchained).

Granted, Tarantino writes his screenplays for his own direction, but it is telling that the visual language of the Spaghetti Western is so defined he considers “Sergio Leone close-up” a legitimate film term. Telling, also, is his appraisal of “revenge music” as a genre. This is more of an intertextual stylistic reference—perhaps even a cue for Tarantino to scour his soundtrack collection (Django Unchained lifts ten pieces of music from 1966-1971 Italian genre films; Inglourious Basterds, nine from 1965-1974)—but becomes more than the sum of its parts. More than merely homage, Tarantino’s work in many ways surpasses what Kael might rightfully refer to at kitsch in many of these Spaghetti Westerns. Yet such barrage of audio and visual intertextuality also defies the conventional postmodern reading as pastiche.

Fredric Jameson calls pastiche, “the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language” which is devoid of politic or moral because it is a “neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives” (Jameson 17). This may very well be true in Pulp Fiction, where pop culture references are self-congratulatory and ambiguity is part of the spectacle. Yet the thematic depth of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained is more than referential. The violence is contextualized—personally and culturally—through history, and the films’ politic and moral, though ambiguous, is far from neutral. It’s no accident these two scenes—arguably the ones in which the film most specifically addresses the evils of slavery—are the ones Tarantino chooses to inject this postmodern film effect, reminding us through their very insertion amidst some of the film’s ugliest violence we are watching a film. Yet, in Inglourious Basterds, the most viscerally violent scenes (again matched with self-referential film effects of freeze-frame, flashback and on-screen titles) are not parody of history so much as of film. The introduction of the “Bear Jew” comes in a torturous scene that conspicuously mirrors The Dirty Dozen, a film loosely based on historical events, reappropriated into a role of Jewish vengeance. But contrary to Jameson’s analysis, these postmodern tactics align more with Linda Hutcheon’s theory of historiographic metafiction.

Hutcheon’s postmodern theory allows for a “self-conscious dimension of history” which “works to situate itself within historical discourse without surrendering its autonomy as fiction” (“Historiographic Metafiction” 3-4). This loaded pastiche still denies the absolutism of Modern thought, but makes a contextually compelling argument about the role of history in the present. Inglourious Basterds is a brazen, postmodern reaction to Robert Sklar’s lament for America’s historical amnesia. Sklar states, “historic memory in the late-twentieth-century American society appears to hang in midair, suspended between too many pasts and no past at all,” negatively connoting the cultural power of movies is diminished without a concrete ideological uniformity (Sklar 358). “Around this time you could ask whether you’re real or fictitious,” the Nazi Major explains as a rule to actress Bridget von Hammersmark while trying to guess the name written on the card on his forehead in the tavern game sequence of Inglourious Basterds. “My native land is the jungle, I visited America but my visit was not fortuitous to me ... When I arrived in America, was I displayed in chains? Am I the story of the Negro in America? Well then I must be King Kong,” the Major declares triumphantly. This reverse allegory capitalizes Tarantino’s play between the historic and fictitious and, while he chooses to reference a film which historically struck a chord with what Sklar refers to as an ideology of “public consciousness,” Tarantino’s decoding of King Kong as metaphoric (and literal, as the very opening sequence of Django Unchained displays the Negro in chains at the fortuitousness of the white man) suggests that a film can be postmodern and learned while exhibiting the cultural power of historic memory. The violent revenge fantasy of Tarantino’s historiographic metafiction gets at universal truths as “the intertexts of history and fiction take on parallel (though not equal) status in the parodic reworking of the textual past of both the ‘world’ and literature” (Politics 4).

Sklar’s insistence that the demystification of American myths in popular cinema has led to “nostalgia and amnesia” (358) reads concurrent to the Jamesonian postmodern theory to which Hutcheon refers when she states, “the prevailing interpretation is that postmodernism offers a value-free, decorative, de-historicized quotation of past forms and that this is a most apt mode for a culture like our own that is oversaturated with images” (Politics 94). If the insinuation is that reappropriating history and referencing film in the context of these metafictitious films is valueless, it doesn’t make sense that Tarantino would argue “there's two types of violences in [Django Unchained]: There's the brutal reality of the violence that slaves lived under, under the slavery laws, 245 years. And then there's the violence of Django's retribution. And that's movie violence” (Interview). Certainly Tarantino isn’t daft enough to suggest the slave violence in his film is non-fiction documentary, but his delineation is intriguing given both his self-reflexive misrepresentation of history and the fact that the difference between these “violences” isn’t distinguished formally. Additionally, these unapologetic historical divergences don’t merely subvert history, but film history as well.

Django Unchained incorporates an extended sequence suggesting the first emergence of the Ku Klux Klan (an historic anachronism by seven years) which represents its members not only as bumbling oafs, but as recipients of the terror they historically doled. Compare this to another filmic genesis of the Ku Klux Klan, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (itself an historic anachronism by six years), and it’s no secret what Tarantino is doing: if the historical presence of the KKK marred the face of American history for a definable era, how much more did Birth of a Nation mar the face of racial representation in film history through subliminal appeal to the public consciousness and an establishment of film’s narrative language? Inglourious Basterds reimagines Adolf Hitler being blown up in a burning movie theater for crying out loud; film history is history, genre is a language and film (literally, in Basterds) is a weapon.

Though Tarantino adopts postmodern tendencies (specifically through intertextualism), his moral is far from Jamesonian. His historical reimaginings don’t suggest, as postmodernism might, that history is provisional. True, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds refute that language or action has value without history as a constructed narrative, but the films are underlined by an American metanarrative which Tarantino doesn’t seek to rewrite. Inglourious Basterds has characters make literal reference to Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, but is itself a formal reference to the American propaganda film Hitler—Dead or Alive; the former—still banned from public exhibition in Germany—more than partially responsible for director Fritz Hippler being sentenced to two years in an Allied internment camp, the latter—a relic of the victors—is mostly forgotten kitsch. Inglourious Basterds gives representation of a fictional Jewish propaganda film as a critical assertion that film holds historical power.

Violence is inseparable from history and film history, and Tarantino recognizes this through the filmic language he employs. These films work both as an agent for and critique of history. Through historiological metafiction, Tarantino has achieved what Marc Ferro describes as the rare strata of film which “is no longer merely a reconstruction or a reconstitution, but really an original contribution to the understanding of past phenomena and their relation to the present” (Ferro 163). Tarantino expresses this thematic interplay through the language of the Western genre—itself a barometer of concurrent ideologies. Tarantino acknowledges in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, “there's no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made and the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade than Westerns” (Interview). Hollywood Westerns grew in moral complexity, fittingly, as John Ford returned from making World War II documentaries. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre simulates the war experience of a man displaced. Ford’s own The Searchers moves beyond simple black-hat/white-hat morality, as racial integration demystifies established Hollywood tendencies and Native Americans started to be looked at with a sympathetic eye. Wide-eyed dreams of manifest destiny that typified the 1950’s suburban boom correspond to the American Westerns’ return to frontier taming in the epic How The West Was Won, and by the time the Vietnam conflict, political assassinations and civil rights resistance came to a boil in the late 1960s, revisionist nihilism broadened America’s signature genre in films like William A. Graham’s interracial Cry for Me, Billy, Sam Peckinpah’s violently iconographic The Wild Bunch and Budd Boetticher’s late A Time For Dying.

As Hollywood Westerns began to question established ideological myths through disillusionment in the socio-political climate, Italian filmmakers appropriated Hollywood’s fertile genre to legitimize or subvert an overturned nation’s conflicting tenets before they could take root. Italian Westerns “drain the myth of any pioneering doctrine whatsoever, and in so doing remove the ambiguity (some might say subtlety) inherent to the Hollywood genre,” but the violence remains (Fisher 58). Since the frontiers aren’t rife with civilization, the Spaghetti Western, skeptical of authority, caught between zealous sects of fascism and communism, retains its outlaws amid nihilism and desolation. These Italian renderings “kicked up the violence and the surrealism and the brutality” (Interview) because violent Nazi resistance, as well as the “ongoing blood feud between fascists and communists in Italy presented both sides with legitimating historical reference points for the escalation of violent tactics as the 1970s dawned” (Fisher 74). The outlaw hero trope the Hollywood Western helped create was lived out through rural Italian desperados, whose own histories began appearing in their nation’s new Western language. This isn’t to say Hollywood Westerns instructed Italian history, only that Italian filmmakers were able to formalize their nation’s struggle—concurrently rather than with the benefit of hindsight—through the language of Western genre.



All of which begs the question: What cultural symptoms or ideologies does Tarantino reflect through his use of Western language and its violence? The possibility of postmodern violence even being ascribed cultural, ideological meaning speaks favorably to Hutcheon’s theory of historiographic metafiction. The opening sequence in Leone’s For A Few Dollars More is an extreme long-shot of anonymity. It is a point-of-view from a sniper, only with no hint as to the culprit or his victim. The result is an absurdist nihilism in which violence is happenstance. Tarantino structures an almost identical scene in Django Unchained, though the thematic implications of its moral tone differ greatly. When Schultz begins training Django as a bounty hunter, the scene opens with the same elevated point-of-view behind a rifle in extreme long-shot, only we aren’t afforded anonymity. Schultz talks Django through the assassination process, reassuring his victim is a criminal. He even pulls out a handbill to give the criminal a face before the bounty is fulfilled. Tarantino takes this one step farther: despite the kill in extreme long-shot, we inexplicably hear the voice of the victim’s son as he witnesses his father’s death. The child questions the circumstance of which he has no context shouting in anguish, “Pa? ...Pa!” Though Django harbors tremendous unease and will stop at nothing to find his wife
(further allegorized through a bastardized version of the Siegfried epic), Tarantino suggests he still needs instructed that this form of violence is indeed redemptive—that perhaps this violence is not only learned, but unnatural.


The violence in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained may dabble in the absurd, but it is not nihilistic. Corbucci’s nihilistic Navajo Joe shares thematic implications with Django Unchained—the protagonists of each are abused, marginalized minorities seeking vengeance for their wives and race—but the presentation and intention of the violence differs. Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds, like Navajo Joe, demands vengeance in the form of body count, yet the brutal scalpings in Corbucci’s film are performed by the enemy. Tarantino even apes the Spaghetti Western trial-by-fire tradition of having both Aldo and Django captured by their enemies (Django even tortured), just like Joe. But when it comes time to dispense vengeance, Tarantino’s wider socio-historical purview is telling in its ambiguity. Where Navajo Joe singlehandedly takes on an entire band of brutal criminals, each kill (many of which presented again with Corbucci’s rapid-zoom) shows us the grisly faces of the aggressors. Even as Joe carries out his cathartic finale, he is the underdog; though his vengeance is complete, he’s not exactly victorious: no one walks away. Joe’s closing moment is heroic—almost Christ-like—as the town is free from bandits and has its money returned. When Shosanna has her vengeance on the leaders of the Third Reich, the stakes are much more ambiguous. Nothing in the filmic language accuses Tarantino of being a Nazi sympathizer, but there are no close-ups of the victims. Nazis are shot in the back and anonymously scream in terror as they realize they are locked in the theater which comes to resemble (not coincidently) a furnace. This anonymity isn’t of the extreme long-shot variety as in For A Few Dollars More, this kind highlights the perpetrators as our “heroes” grow sadistic. Shosanna is something of a martyr, but a ghastly one inverted by hatred. Her closing monologue to the Nazi party isn’t one of healthy catharsis or detached political strategy; the “face of Jewish vengeance” is a maniacal spectre.


Equally haunting is the closing scene of Django Unchained where Django’s horse steps to a perverse victory dance as it appears Django has now shaken his demons. But at what price? Django despises Stephen, seemingly, for something more than putting his wife in a sweatbox. He hates him choosing self over his people; for fully embracing the role of house-nigger for preservation over righteous freedom. He hates Stephen for being a slave who found the lives of others dispensable for his well-being and, perhaps, because the role hits close to home. Django puts on a charade of his own during his visit at Candieland and, though a free man, opts not to let Schultz intercede for D’Artagnon. The avenue of Schlutz and Django’s ploy demands—perhaps orchestrates—a Mandingo fight to the death (the violence of which transcends exploitation and genre and might be the clearest example of Tarantino coming full circle, representing trauma rather than violence as aesthetic cool) and Django, like Stevens, accepts a measure of harm against his own people for personal gain. Worse, Django employs it without the threat of a sweatbox. Django Unchained presents us with a deep, ambiguous hero who, in his freedom, again takes on the role of slave to his own vengeance. One which doesn’t end with the death of Candie, but with the death of Stevens positing whether this black-on-black violence is served with more than an ounce of self-hatred.

Aldo Raine’s coda is less ambiguous and outright dastardly. The final scene of Inglourious Basterds is perhaps its most gruesome as Col. Hans Landa is pinned to the ground after Raine and Utivich break something of a gentlemen’s agreement (pun intended) and carve a swastika into his forehead. Thematically, it’s not too dissimilar from Navajo Joe carving symbols into the foreheads of Duncan’s gang members (despite the significant fact the Basterds’ vengeance, unlike Shosanna’s, is self-righteous and often once-removed from Nazi terror), but the visual representation differs greatly. Navajo Joe’s violence is cross-cut with rapid-edits typical of Corbucci’s visual style. His scenes of knife violence are either off-screen, in profile, or suggested through editing. Raine’s brutality is less punitive and more perversely gratifying. Not only is his behavior during the savagery calm, collected and even smug, Tarantino films the carving in a stagnant, close-up in one torturously long take. Like the Mandingo fighting scene in Django Unchained, this graphic violence transcends exploitation. Tarantino begs the audience to cringe rather than derive pleasure from catharsis. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained each present us with familiar genre language structured as a revenge tale, only by the time the characters’ catharses are fully realized, they have become the monsters they sought to vanquish.



In Tarantino’s universe, there is no sacrilege. The violence of a rewritten Holocaust or American slave narrative is valid because fiction is where we find our catharsis. Unlike Steven Spielberg who contemporarily grapples with these same themes of Jewish vengeance and the ills of slavery in Munich and Lincoln, Tarantino removes himself from the weight of history by denying it overt representation. Lincoln’s slaves are nonentities (as are Schindler’s Jews) so the marginalized—even when the source of sympathy—remain marginalized. Such is the case when history is told through archetype in a commercial narrative medium; historic ideological representation is difficult when individualistic. Filmic historical representation whitewashes historic memory as it is easier for audiences to cheer for an ideological myth than it is to translate historical context as presently applicable. Tarantino’s characters, too, are archetypal, but by pulling the rug of historical representation he refuses language the monopoly on history without denying it—as postmodern theory would—grand narrative. Tarantino’s fictionalization allows a representation of trauma usually kept at arm’s length in historical narrative. These traumas are as empirically historical as they are ideologically mythical and Tarantino doesn’t care much to differentiate between the two. The appeal and power of fiction is in its capacity to understand the present through its past. Ideological mythologies are the language of the American Western and, just as Italy sought to establish a cultural identity through the tropes of the Spaghetti Western, Tarantino’s Westerns use fiction to grapple with and transpose history to the modern zeitgeist. Revenge became Tarantino’s thematic obsession in tandem with America’s cultural embrace of the role of victim post-9/11. Not only did a nihilism seep into the nation’s ideological fabric through an unprecedented trauma which defined a decade, it was followed by a tangible, obtainable revenge. Tarantino’s revenge fantasies come with a cautionary tale: history is written by the victors. Yes, there is victory in Shosanna and Django’s stories, but at what cost? These systemic traumas are relieved and relived through the catharsis of cinematic violence but, just as Americans were forced to act in a self-righteous war on terror, Tarantino’s warns catharsis recycles into further atocity.

The audience knowingly grins when Landa asks “what shall the history books read?” as if Tarantino’s historiological metafiction poses this question in the past tense. But that doesn’t tell the whole tale. Tarantino’s historical reimaginings aren’t postmodern relativity but systemic, sociological explanation of our current political state using history as a reference point. What shall the history books read? Ask the Western: they’re written by victors but preserved through cultural ideology. The films don’t purport to recall historic memory, but transform it. The trauma deeply rooted in America’s scars live presently through Tarantino’s use of genre language. The resulting catharsis, through fiction and violence, unites us through our nation’s sacramental hurt and ideological narrative just as Tarantino’s postmodern pastiche unites myriad multicultural, intertextual film histories to breathe as a cultural organism.





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Works Cited

Ferro, Marc. Cinema and History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

Fisher, Austin. Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. P. O'Donnell and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 3-32.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late-Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 1991.

Kael, Pauline. “Zeitgeist and Poltergeist; or, Are Movies Going to Pieces?” I Lost It At The Movies. Boston: Atlantic—Little, Brown, 1954. 3-27.

Polan, Dana. Pulp Fiction. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. New York: Random House, 1994.

Tarantino, Quentin. Django Unchained. Shooting Script. Undated. The Weinstein Company Guilds. 30 Dec. 2012. <http://twcguilds.com/assets/screenplay/django/screenplay.pdf>

Tarantino, Quentin. Interview with Terry Gross. Fresh Air. Natl. Public Radio. NPR.org. 2 Jan. 2013. <http://www.npr.org/2013/01/02/168200139/quentin-tarantino-unchained-and-
unruly>

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