Essays (book reviews)

The ABCs of Classic Hollywood
by Robert B. Ray
(Oxford University Press, 2008, 392 pages)


At the end of 2009 on the ‘Notebook’ page of the Internet site The Auteurs, the mysterious B. Kite published his rousing ‘Petite Mannyfesto’ – in tribute to Manny Farber, who passed away in August 2008. Watch a film (any film) in extreme slow motion, this Mannyfesto advises; find the reams of ‘stuff’ that lie ‘between’ the usual pillars we notice, like plot, theme and characterisation. Explore, with an open mind, the strangeness of the filmic object, its ‘microworlds’; avoid reductive, superior opinion-mongering. Cut into a film ‘against the grain’ and trick yourself into seeing something in it, and saying something about it, that you never before imagined.


Manny Farber does not figure in the index of Robert Ray’s The ABCs of Classic Hollywood. This author may have other tutelary figures in mind – Walter Benjamin, Michael Taussig, Roland Barthes, Gregory Ulmer, the Surrealists – but he is part of the same broad, historic movement as Kite and his hero. I think of it as creative criticism. It is manifesting itself in many quarters at the present moment, from the scholarship of Murray Pomerance (The Horse Who Drank The Sky: Film Theory Beyond Narrative and Theory) to the belles lettres team at the French film magazine Trafic, from the growing army of Farber cultists to many an Internet site trading in frame grabs and haiku-like fragments in place of old-style analytical exegesis.


Wherever and however it happens today, creative criticism always begins from the sense of an impasse: the available methods of discussing film, highbrow or lowbrow, have congealed, become repetitious and stale. We need to re-energise or re-enchant (a favourite word among the creatives) our living relation to movies. And so we are obliged to invent forms of writing, or multimedia expression, that do not presume to substitute for the experience of cinema, but rather accompany particular films in a vivid, expansive, suggestive way.


Note that contraction in the book’s title: classic, not classical. Ray has, on a previous occasion, taken exception to the rather more empirical and scientific methods of David Bordwell and his colleagues. So this collectively composed book (making extensive use of student writing exercises) is not an attempt to define the house style of Hollywood classicism. Ray obviously takes the industrial canon of ‘classics’ on face value in his classroom; the aim of the enterprise is to grab the good old Hollywood films we thought we knew well enough already – Grand Hotel (1932), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Meet Me in St Louis (1944) – and reveal their unexpected sides and shades. Creative criticism is also a new form of ‘defamiliarisation’, although Bertolt Brecht is another name you won’t find in the index.


The trick is to never go in ‘totalising’ the movie from the word go: forego the plot summary, the overarching social context, the previous films of the auteur, the grand-slam theory of the cinematic apparatus, and so on. Just dive, blindly, into the microscopic details, the strange images, sounds, gestures or moments that stick in your head.  Well, not entirely blindly: as in the fertile literary experimentations of the Oulipo group, some element of ‘constraint’, some guiding structure is needed as a trampoline off which the flights of writerly fancy can spring. Hence the conceit of the alphabet upon which each section of the book is arranged: pick a letter, any letter … then find the word, or motif, or object, or ‘trigger’ in the film that will inspire you to investigate it. The order of the assembled fragments is then set, arbitrarily but also pleasingly: D for Dachshund in Grand Hotel, H for Halloween in Meet Me in St. Louis, O for Outside in The Maltese Falcon, Y for Yare in The Philadelphia Story … Much of the book is a delight to read, and frequently captivating in its tangents and raptures.


However, at the risk of seeming like a stodgy, uncreative critic, I would like to raise a few doubts and questions about Ray’s enterprise here. Firstly, the issue – which Bordwell posed long ago – of predictability, of paradoxical familiarity, in critical endeavours that pride themselves on cracking open the ‘microworlds’ of film. The decision to ‘look askance’, the Surrealist strategy of irrational enlargement, the probing of plot inconsistencies and incongruities, the compiling of lists … none of this is exactly new, after all, and even in Ray’s own work it refers to previous sterling efforts such as his 1995 book The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy. (No Farber, Brecht, or Deleuze in the new book’s index, but ten citations for Andy Hardy!) Genuine newness and inventiveness are, indeed, always a niggling problem for creative criticism. Writers like to belong to a tradition, and students like to please their teacher … and so the results of these ‘moves’, the dividends of these games, can sometimes lead to just the ‘same old song.’ The moment that creative criticism becomes a formulaic genre, it is no longer very creative – and The ABCs of Classic Hollywood teeters right on the edge of such generic calcification.


It would be easy to exhaust the entire space of this short review turning over the rich details of Ray’s introduction to this book – effectively, the only place where it grudgingly agrees to at all ‘talk theory’. In fact – and this is not the most attractive aspect of the creative criticism movement in general – Ray appears to be in flight from theory; it is theory which (in his account) has caused all the problems of poor writing and bad thinking. Theory as rigidly applied template, as politico-moral guardian of taste, as tidy explanation of all the world’s mysteries: who on earth would want that kind of theory? Alas, intellectual history (in film studies as elsewhere) has shown how completely theory-fanaticism can take hold of bright, young minds.


But is that all there is to say about the role of theory in cinema criticism? If we presume to dispose of it, what are we putting in its place, exactly? Like his mentor Gregory Ulmer, Ray demonstrates a magpie-like, sometimes Monty Python-ish attitude towards theory: he uses it only insofar as it serves him, in inspirational, bite-size pieces. But in fact, the book is almost nostalgic, between its lines, for the return of a certain balmy and expansively theoretical period of the 1970s: that wonderful, in-between moment when Barthes’s book S/Z showed us how we could ‘mine the codes’ of narrative (structuralist style) while also dissolving them in a ‘free play of the signifier’ (poststructuralist style). The recent grim diagnosis by the Australian ‘historian of ideas’ Ian Hunter concerning this ‘moment of theory’ in the humanities academy – that it can be boiled down to a simple, performative two-step between the plotting of a structure and the histrionic liberation of its ‘excess’  – would indeed find corroboration in the pages of The ABCs of Classic Hollywood. And this two-step again raises the spectre of predictability.


I support all attempts at creative criticism, and therefore I duly salute and admire The ABCs of Classic Hollywood – a book which is more fun than I have so far made it sound. Nonetheless, when recently holding forth in a lecture hall on the general topic of creative criticism, and our urgent collective need for it, a student’s question pulled me up short; he asked, ‘What are the limits of creative criticism? What is it that it cannot do?’ (This kid was obviously a budding philosopher.) It is a good, probing question, and one whose implications, I suspect, Ray himself has yet to face in his work.


My answer to that pesky student – I came up with it around three weeks later – was this: what creative criticism frequently does not manage to reach is a grasp of the overall logic of whichever film it addresses. We can forego totalisation at the beginning of the writing game, but we perhaps should not entirely avoid it at the end. In fact, the Surrealists already knew this in the early ‘50s: after collecting their zany irrational enlargements of Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941), they then collated their findings into something resembling a structural, thematic, logical, overall account of the movie. But with this difference from conventional criticism: the subterranean logic they uncovered could never have been arrived at by approaching their object in the usual, old-fashioned ways. Ray’s book stops before the true Surrealist dare, which is the challenge of such a visionary collation of the ‘data’; without that, the ABCs may simply remain just a lot of charming bits and pieces.


B. Kite could be of the same opinion. His Mannyfesto reaches a surprising point – exactly the same point Malcolm de Chazal reached 65 years ago when, on the island of Mauritius, he aphorised and theorised about our capacity for ‘plastic sense’ – where the louche impressionism of the critic-in-flight meets the solidity of empirical knowledge:


Farber had from the start the courage of his own impressions. Setting himself the paradoxical task of following the most elusive (and sometimes, it must be admitted, factually incorrect) sense memories with rigor led him to a place where extremes of objectivity and subjectivity become almost indistinguishable.



Postscript: In the Fall 2010 issue of Cineaste, there appeared a letter from Robert Ray in response to the above review; I urge readers of my piece here to consult it. This was my answer to Ray, printed in the same issue:


My apparently ‘snarky’ review of The ABCs of Classic Hollywood may not have let on how abundant my appreciation of Robert Ray’s work has been over several decades. But my doubts and questions about his latest book were genuine, and for a good reason. Although Robert seems keen to portray me as some Academic Cop reinforcing institutional protocols and pronouncing solemnly on his unfashionable misdemeanours, it is as someone who has worked outside universities for much of my life—and as a long-time practitioner myself of what I term creative criticism—that I engaged with his book, and found it wanting.


Of course, Robert is right to assert that he need not cite Deleuze or Farber if other writers serve his purpose as well or better; but that was not really my point. My sense of the limitation of the book—and it is only heightened by Robert’s letter—is that it is unaware of much that is happening in the world of film criticism today, and that it does not draw in the comrades that it could (thus failing to renew a creatively critical game that Robert has been playing, in pretty much the same way, for quite some years now).


I am a little dumbfounded when Robert asserts in his letter that ‘very few people have taken up the Surrealist project (or Benjamin’s or Barthes’).’ A decent perusal of the Web, across several languages, will quickly show that there are literally hundreds of high-level practitioners of creative criticism out there in the wide world, and many of them are taking their experiments into realms undreamt of by the belle-lettristes of an earlier generation (which is Robert’s generation, and mine too). 


So, for instance, the rendezvous between ‘termite criticism’ and ‘figural logic’ in cinema is not so weird or contradictory as Robert wants to makes out here. Like Robert, I am eagerly in search of ‘new realms of knowledge’ in and through writing about film; but for that, we all need to periodically shake up the ways and means of creative criticism, and not rest on our laurels.


© Adrian Martin December 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search