Monday, February 08, 2010

'Deep, Genuine Moral Tones;' and Other Varieties of Twaddle

Rebecca Prime's fine essay, "Cloaked in Compromise: Jules Daissin's Naked City" (found in the endlessly fascinating 2007 anthology "Un-American" Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era) contains a survey of contemporaneous critical reactions in the American press to Rossellini's Rome:Open City (1945). Very rarely have so many specimen of very fine sounding nonsense been amassed in one place. We discover, thanks to the legendary New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (a popular bunching bag for both Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, and a noted inferior to such contemporaries as Otis Ferguson, James Agee, and Manny Farber) that Rome: Open City demonstrated "hard simplicity and genuine passion" and not "the slickly manufactured sentiments of Hollywood's studio made pictures." One of Crowther's contemporaries, the not-so-legendary Lee Morris opined "People under the oppressor's heel aren't apt to say, 'I want to be entertained. I don't want anything serious. No ideas, now.' They begin to think straight about basic values. And so does their art." The absolute faith in the hard and fast binaries of the genuine and the manufactured, of moral seriousness and slick entertainment, rather astounds me. Not that such sentiments have disappeared completely from the critical commonplace (though I can't imagine anyone aside from a particularly guileless press agent making such broad and confident claims about any public's fondness for 'basic values'), but at least one would expect them to be expressed a little more apprehensively now. But I'm left pondering what the distance between their lofty sentiments, and mine (and maybe yours) means. The quotes above make me think about my particular distance from the sophisticated rubes who wrote them, but also the extent to which their sensibility might contain a kernel of grace worth preserving.

Pierre Bourdieu famously claimed that all tastes are in fact matters of distaste (though I find such ideas already loudly implicit in Kant's notion of "communities of taste," but I digress), but though the terms they use to articulate their standards repel me, I'm left wondering how much my actual positions and preferences differ from the naive, dated liberal humanists of the era. After all, though I keep words like "authenticity" and "sincerity" banned from my critical lexicon on the grounds they tend to be something worse than useless as critical concepts, I'm not totally lacking in sympathy for the aesthetic and ethical qualities those terms were meant to get at. And in the specific case of a movie like Rome: Open City, I share their admiration if not the grounds upon which it was based. My sense of distaste is for what the sensibilities of those critics threatened to exclude more than for the films they embraced.

Crowther contrasted Rome: Open City to "slickly manufactured sentiments of Hollywood's studio made pictures," which leads me to think about my own favorite Hollywood movie of 1945*: Edgar Ulmer's Detour, a poverty row film noir which is as stripped of the normal commercial comforts of Hollywood cinema as Rossellini's masterpiece. And surely, much of what I love about Detour has to do with its considerable distance from "slickly manufactured sentiments." I also admire the movie's "hard simplicity," which in this context means a gnarled grace, where the extreme poverty of means reduces the film to the purity of Ulmer's feverish mise-en-scene. As far as "genuine passion," I'm not sure if genuine ever enters into it, but what makes Ulmer's movies so fascinating is their go-for-broke quality, the complete emotional overdrive of every moment which you could call passion, or you could call hysteria.

Not that Crowther or his contemporaries noticed any qualitative similarities at the time. Part of the pleasure of Detour is its utter disreputability, the fact that it seems disengaged from anything like good taste or decent humanist values. But in its way, it has as much to say about its own moment in history as Open City does about the chaos of occupied Rome. Made by Edgar Ulmer, a Jewish emigre working in Hollywood, Detour evinces a feeling of profound dislocation, and a sense of fatalism which seems to speak to Ulmer's particular historical situation. The fact that the movie, made in the cheapest studio sets and backlots, takes place in hellhole motel rooms which look perfectly cast for their part, and expressionist night clubs which have a way of becoming untethered from any discernible physical reality, only seems befitting for the expression of a man cut loose from the fortunes and profound misfortunes of history.

Much of my admiration for Detour comes from the feeling that it doesn't simply want to entertain me (it wants to leave the viewer feeling throttled and confused), and is at heart as deeply serious as any historical nightmare one can imagine. In other words, I value the movie for many of the same middlebrow reasons Lee Morris valued Rome: Open City. Yet, no one in 1945 placed any value in Ulmer's movie, and if Bosley Crowther and Lee Morris ever bothered to see it (as it was a poverty row release, few if any critics at the major dailies would have screened the movie), they would have likely been outraged at the notion that it was in any way aesthetically comparable to Open City. So whatever surface sympathy between their critical standards and mine shatters upon contact with actual movies.

Rome: Open City continues to impress today because some of Rossellini's images bear the burden of history, capturing movement in ways that seem radically uncomposed and automatic. The famous scene of Anna Magnani chasing after a truck carrying her partisan boyfriend possesses the same unsettling texture of truth as, for instance, the famous photograph of a little boy in the Warsaw ghetto holding his hands up as Nazi troops move him about by gunpoint. (A connection once suggested by one of Godard's cine-essays.)

In contrast, every image in Detour connotes the overdetermination of Ulmer's intentions.

But though the texture of their images differ, both Ulmer and Rossellini worked out profound fabrications of history, specific responses to the contingencies of their moments.

In another piece Prime cites, Crowther wrote "feeling that pulses through [Open City] gives evidence that it was inspired by artists whose own emotions had been deeply and recently stirred" resulting in a movie possessing a "deep, genuine moral tone." It's unlikely that anything more than a paycheck stirred Edgar Ulmer to make Detour, and one thing that measures the difference between myself and Crowther is his insistence on overrating the importance of intentions. But also, I sense a linguistic chasm, so that what I think I mean when I use words like "moral," or "simplicity" or "passion" differs a great deal from what Crowther thought he meant. Ultimately, the reason Crowther's words strike me as so naive, even though I share a similar belief in a moral core to great films, is the difference of what that core amounts to (well, that, and Crowther had no sensitivity whatsoever to film form). Crowther, an old fashioned humanist of old fashioned liberal leanings, seemed to imagine art as a kind of smart, open minded Anglican minister, well spoken and dressed proper with just the right degree of indulgence in rumble tumble rhetoric and not a bit more. The out of control, more than a little ragged and mad soapbox evangelicalism of Detour naturally offended New York Times notions of human virtue, but such qualities keep Detour in close contact with reality as the rest of the 20th century came to define it, and thus continues to assert an urgent verisimilitude in the same spirit as the most powerful moments in Open City, while Crowther's writings read like the fatuous, well-intentioned anachronisms they always were.

*It should be noted, however, for accuracy's sake, that Crowther composed his review for Open City's US release in 1947.

No comments: