Sunday, December 29, 2013

A case study in "Parody", "Artistic motivation" and "Laying bare the device."

The following extract comes from Chapter 2: Story Causality and Motivation pp.21-23, David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Modes of Production to 1960, (London: Routledge, 1988.)

Artistic motivation can emphasize the artifi- ciality of other art works; this is usually accomplished through the venerable practice of parody. Hollywood has, of course, never shrunk from parody. In Animal Crackers (1930), Groucho Marx shows up the soliloquys in Strange Interlude, while in Hellzapoppin (1941), Olson and Johnson mock Kane's Rosebud sled. In *My Favorite Brunette (1947), Ronnie Johnson tells Sam McCloud he wants to be a tough detective like Alan Ladd; McCloud is played by Alan Ladd. Parody need not always be so clearly comic. At the climax of The Studio Murder Mystery (1929), the Hollywood montage sequence is parodied when the director explains at gunpoint what will happen after he kills Tony: 'Quick fade out. Next, headlines in the morning papers.' The following exchange from The Locket (1946) parodies the already mannered conventions of the psychoanalytic film of the 1940s. The doctor's wife has just returned from a movie.
Nancy: I had a wonderful time. I'm all goose pimples.
Dr Blair: A melodrama?
Nancy: Yes, it was ghastly. You ought to see it, Henry. It's about a schizophrenic who kills his wife and doesn't know it.
Dr Blair (laughing): I'm afraid that wouldn't be much of a treat for me.
Nancy: That's where you're wrong. You'd never guess how it turns out. Now it may not be sound psychologically, but the wife's father is one of the ...
Dr Blair: Darling, do you mind? You can tell me later.
When an art work uses artistic motivation to call attention to its own particular principles of construction, the process is called 'laying bare the device.' *Hollywood films often flaunt aspects of their own working in this way. In Angels Over Broadway (1940), a drunken playwright agrees to help a suicidally inclined man get money and thus to 'rewrite' the man's 'last act.' The playwright then looks out at the audience and says musingly: 'Our present plot problem is money.' In von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922), the susceptible Mrs Hughes reads a book, Foolish Wives, by one Erich von Stroheim. In His Girl Friday (1939), as Walter starts fast-talking Hildy into staying with the newspaper, she begins to mimic an auctioneer's patter; this not only mocks Walter but foregrounds speech rhythm as a central device in the film. The show-business milieux of the musical film make it especially likely to bare its devices. The 'You were meant for me' number in Singin' in the Rain (1952) shows Don Lockwood staging his own spontaneous song; the way he sets up romantic lighting, mist, and backdrops calls attention to the conventional staging of such songs. An even more flagrant baring of this device occurs in 'Somewhere there's a someone' in A Star Is Born (1954).

Classical films are especially likely to bare the central principle of causal linearity. In *One Touch of Nature (1917), when the hero succeeds as a baseball player, an expository title dryly remarks: 'In the course of human events, we come logically to the deciding game of a World's Series.' In The Miracle Woman (1931), a despairing writer is about to commit suicide because, having received a rejection slip from Ziegler Company, he exclaims: 'I've tried them all from A to Z. What comes after Z?' He hears an evangelist's radio broadcast and resolves to try again: 'What comes after Z? A!' *A Woman of the World (1925), contains an amusing image of the story's own unwinding. Near the beginning of the film, two old women sit on porch rockers gossiping and knitting, with their balls of yam smaller each time we see them. At the film's end, the camera shows the chairs rocking, now empty, and the yarn all gone.

Hollywood's use of artistic motivation imputes a considerable alertness to the viewer: in order to appreciate certain moments, one must know and remember another film's story, or a star's habitual role, or a standard technique. To some extent, artistic motivation develops a connoisseurship in the classical spectator. Yet most artistic traditions show off their formal specificity in some way. We must ask what limits classical cinema imposes on artistic motivation. Generally, moments of pure artistic motivation are rare and brief in classical films. Compositional motivation leaves little room for it, while generic motivation tends to account for many flagrant instances. Indeed, baring the device has become almost conventional in certain genres. Comedies are more likely to contain such outre scenes as that in The Road to Utopia (1945), in which Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, mushing across the Alaskan wilds, see the Paramount logo in the distance. Likewise, the melodrama is likely to contain a shot like that in The Fountainhead (1949), in which two characters stand at opposite edges of the frame while the woman asserts: 'This is not a tie but a gulf between us.' In His Girl Friday, Walter can describe Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) as looking like Ralph Bellamy, but in Sunrise at Campobello (1960), no one notices FDR's resemblance to the same actor.

Preston Sturges's *Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) permits us to watch compositional motivation take artistic motivation firmly in hand. The opening scene of the film is silent and is announced to be from Harold Lloyd's The Freshman. But this fairly overt reminder of the work's conventionality is undermined by the covert insertion of shots not from the original film. These interposed shots, filmed by Sturges, show a businessman watching the football game. The businessman is compositionally necessary, since he will offer Harold a job in the next scene, but remotivating The Freshman's opening to create a smooth causal link between the two films tones down the silent segment's distinct, palpably conventional qualities.

The classical cinema, then, does not use artistic motivation constantly through the film, as Ozu does in An Autumn Afternoon (1962) or as Sergei Eisenstein does in Ivan the Terrible (1945). It does not bare its devices repeatedly and systematically, as Michael Snow does in La region centrale (1967) or Jean-Luc Godard does in Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980). Compositional motivation for the sake of story causality remains dominant.

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