Bright Lights Film Journal

On the Incomprehensibility of Timely Films Past Their Time: Or, A Signing Fool Watches <em>The Singing Fool</em>

“Not frustration of a desire of the subject, but frustration by an object in which his desire is alienated and which the more it is elaborated, the more profound the alienation from his jouissance becomes for the subject.”

A hypothetical: I find myself identifying with a work of art. I imagine myself the creator — I feel inspiration, or triumph, or pathos, at the sublimity of the performance. When fully engaged, I want to be the art; I want whatever subjectivity I can muster to turn onto its own self as a beautiful object. Yet I am continually stopped short by my distance — I am not the artist, I am not the art, I am an “I” separated for the moment from that which I perceive, and thus I come to understand how I will be continually disappointed at the very instants of my ecstasy. As a consolation for this loss, I hope to believe that it is this removal, and not the art itself, which reduces me to tears, for in that idea I could regain some creativity which would be otherwise lost in desperate submission to that which confronts me. If imitation is flattery, then flattery is the consolation prize of my subjecthood. That it might be my own pained awareness of a separation from the art I wish to enjoy which so excites me is a thought that shapes all of my response to art. Perhaps the emotional response I find in art is the response of finding myself.

An actual: In a scene in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007), when Mathieu Amalric drives, and the camera looks up at his beaming face and whipping hair, and when U2’s “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” comes rocketing up through the theater’s speakers, I feel thoroughly alive and present. I feel a part of the film. I feel as on top of the world as Amalric’s character was. I feel for a split second the shadings of a desire to be united with the screen in front of me — not to be in Amalric’s shoes, or be the film in the projector, or be the technician of such a beautiful sequence, but to be the entire psycho-mechanical apparatus that film theory describes.1 But on reflection, and this is the stumbling block for my essay, I realize at this moment that I feel as others feel; I realize that my sublime experience of this particular scene is choreographed, that I have been activated, as it were, by the effect of cinema that is meant to affect all viewers equally. We have all of us been reached out to in this moment, and we can all more or less acknowledge the invitation. And for this reason, the scene in fact refuses the particularity of a call to “me” (and, furthermore, this refusal engenders my disappointment). To put it more strangely: if you have seen the film, then you have seen this scene, although it is certain that you have seen it in a way that is different from your seeing of the other scenes, since you have seen this scene in the same way that everyone else has. The knowledge that I must share this scene with others mitigates the otherwise very personal ecstasy I had felt. The scene of Amalric driving stands out; it is calculated to reach us as individuals, and yet it can only do so if it calls out to everyone.

I could give many more examples of the illusion of presence that I momentarily experience as an ecstatic response to cinema, and I imagine that if I did give other examples, there would be certain readers who might feel an overlap of recognition (“oh yes, the leaves in The Conformist” or “ah, Gazzara’s cigarette in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”). But I should not do so, since it seems to me that any such description of the shared emotional impact of a particular artistic image or cinematic effect begins from an individual, personal, subjective place. What I am left with, and what I struggle with, is a distinction between those components of a film that an audience understands as being comprehensible to everyone and those components of a film that an individual viewer feels are meant solely for him or herself. What happens when I intentionally mistake a film’s signification, overemphasizing an irrelevant detail and ignoring those aspects that consensus suggests are most important? There is, of course, a proud tradition of just such a practice, what we call a queer reading, or a reading “against the grain,” or a cultural poetics/new historicism. But I am thinking of an even more exaggerated version of this, not based on “interpretive communities” or identity politics, but based on wholly private mythologies, like responding to a film based on what one had for breakfast (imagine Proust sneaking a madeleine into the theater). Or, thinking about how the same process of misrecognition might be unintentional, how can I fulfill my responsibility to a film that lies wholly outside of my own sense of myself? The perception of one’s “outsideness” in the face of a range of film practices and narratives has been the source of much film theory of the last two decades, which has focused on issues and challenges of difference including cultural or national unfamiliarity, language barriers, race, gender, class, genre reception, art vs. narrative films, and a historical divide that occurs when confronting the archive of historical films. The anxiety of any critic watching a film from another culture or time is (or should be?) that their lack of culturally-specific knowledge will forever lead them astray. To sidestep this anxiety somewhat, I want to focus on the issue of a historical divide, which each of us faces today. I define the historical film as a film “not of my own period” — a film which precedes me.2 I think about this as Roland Barthes did of his mother, of whom he wrote “that is what the time when my mother was alive before me is — History.”3 Likewise, in examining films that existed (“lived”) in a time before me, I find myself able to recognize how they are cinematic, but not why; I am able to apply my expertise to the mechanics of the shot and edit, but not to the meaning; I am able to see the film surface, but not the film significance. Despite my sense of failure at fully comprehending such films past their time, I am astonished at these films’ ability to exist before me and yet still offer something to me. This seems only possible if we take the issue of incomprehensibility into the critical account of cinema spectatorship. As with the Lacan epigraph I began with, I recognize how with historical films it is not my own desire that is frustrated (there is not a change in “me”), but rather the object which changes, which actively frustrates me. The only recourse I can see is to examine the object ever more presently, fully. No doubt Lacan would say that this is the way to madness.

I take for granted the intuitive difference between an individual’s idiosyncratic response and an audience’s shared reaction: in the former exist images, tropes, or narratives that could only speak to the individual (as when a character’s living room happens to have a pattern of wallpaper remarkably similar to yours), and in the latter exist images, tropes, or narratives that seem destined to speak to the universal (as when a character grieves over the death of a loved one or gains a great sum of money). The one could only speak (accidentally) to the individual; the other can never (intentionally) be fully private. Between these two poles of accident and intention lie a whole network of film signs that, I argue, are up for grabs, or are what I term “incomprehensible.” I recognize, when speaking of a film’s “intention,” that I place myself on dangerous ground. From the New Critical notion of “intentional fallacy” to the manifold reactions against auteurism, contemporary critics are predisposed to look askance at unthinking attributions of intentionality to a text’s author or director. By “intention,” though, I mean not the author or director’s actual intention, but rather the intuition a viewer might have that some intention has been made manifest. In other words, the whole notion that a narrative film is recognizably “comprehensible” — that it is “trying to do something.” This is locating intention in the space between a viewing subject and film object, which is to say that intention becomes a negotiable quality rather than a preexistent truth to be discovered. My presumption is that historical films in particular provoke viewers today to simplify the dynamic of spectatorship; I feel more of a sense of personal confrontation with older films than I do with new releases. I am numbed watching The Visitor (a film about a man with my career that was shot in my neighborhood), while it is impossible to wrap my head around Irene Dunne. The two tasks are 1) to understand how the materiality of film practice is what makes film today tend toward “incomprehensibility,” and 2) to understand how the intention of films might change as they age and shift in the address they offer.

The Singing Fool

Recently, my friend and mentor Nancy K. Miller asked for technical help preparing a clip from a 1928 Al Jolson vehicle, The Singing Fool (Lloyd Bacon), which she wanted to show as part of a talk on Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir, according to her diary, was moved to panicked tears by Jolson’s singing of the film’s marquee song “Sonny Boy,” and Miller was interested in why Beauvoir pretends, in her memoir, otherwise. Looking at The Singing Fool for the first time, I felt a glimmer of the emotional response one has when faced with truly good art (perhaps a glimmer of what Beauvoir felt), but I knew immediately that I was in fact looking at all the wrong things. Jolson’s numbers bored me, the plot seemed uninteresting and rambling, the camera work mostly flat-footed. I caught myself continually losing track of the narrative, baffled instead by the sight of a dancing table, or pondering the indecent gesture of a handkerchief’s lipstick stain, or wondering at this sudden child’s surprise appearance. Rather than risk interpretation, which would almost certainly require navigating an argument about the film’s melodramatic structure and a discussion of audience reception, I will risk something different in taking The Singing Fool as an example of the incomprehensibility of historical film.

The Singing Fool, Jolson’s next project after the immensely successful landmark The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), is about the rise of Al Stone, a singer-songwriter who gains glory, and the girl, only to be betrayed in his affections and find himself reduced to a shambling poverty. After staging his comeback, the film closes with Stone being forced to perform his hit song “Sonny Boy” moments after discovering that his young son, yanked from him by a vindictive ex-wife, has died. I am aided by the near-disappearance of The Singing Fool, and if I resuscitate a film that is probably better left to film historians, it is because I want to bring back some of the images that seem to me to be most incomprehensible, but that I know (or of which I need to believe) must have had some clear value at the time of their filming. Not that The Singing Fool has a challenging narrative; most of the film’s themes — such as marriage and infidelity, fatherhood and innocence, success and failure — very much intend to make sense (to the point, for modern eyes, of cliché). Likewise, most of the sets and props follow along with my experience of the world — there are toys in a child’s room, a piano in a bar, streamers during a New Year’s Eve party. In order to even discuss these images in a non-narrative way, then, I must practice a kind of pretend naïveté and reduce the specificity of these images to a general signifying function (a character hugging another signifies “love”).


Against those examples of an “intentional sense” are numerous examples of what I see as “accidental nonsense.” What does it mean when a character complains “there’s a fly in my beer”? Or why do shadows loom so large yet so un-lifelike? Or why do we see a man give a black cat a giant joint of meat, assuring us that it is kosher?

None of these moments are marked as surreal, and yet they stand out from the other clearly signified images. Indeed, The Singing Fool has glimmers of brilliance, including what could well be the earliest use of subjective camerawork in the opening scene. One later scene strikes me as particularly careful. Thinking his son is asleep, Stone gets into an argument with his wife. They are surprised to see that Sonny Boy has overheard them and has come to their bedroom door to investigate. The child is framed by the doorway, separating the two parents in depth. This is a recognizably cinematic shot, using camera placement and angle to contribute to the meaning of the scene and to suggest important visual correspondences between the three characters. However one scene (and seven shots) later, the camerawork seems nigh haphazard; notice the weirdly looming horse shape lurking behind Stone and son.


How can viewers make sense of a film that so carefully uses plane screen space to create meaning in one moment, and then disrupts all of this careful organization moments later? Is this simply bad filmmaking, or does the horse’s shadow carry some secret meaning? If I do not state the obvious (that this is bad filmmaking), then it is because I am stuck with deciding first whether these particular combination of light and shape were intentional, and secondly whether the effect of their intention merits praise or not. I cannot seem to get past the first issue.

Between “intentional sense” and “accidental nonsense” might be the compromise category of “accidental sense” — a place to locate the future value of historical film and to account for the way that viewers negotiate with historical films to make sense of them. In The Singing Fool, there is a long sequence at the end where Stone puts on blackface after his son’s death and sings “Sonny Boy” for the third time. This presents such a challenge to me because the film seems not at all to notice its engagement in racist caricature, and yet at the same time it provides images than seem to counter that claim. As a modern viewer (that is, one responsible to cinema in a different way), I find the attitude of the film impossible to read. Take these images:

In an earlier scene, Stone had awakened this black man by tickling his nose with a feather. Is this condescension or consciousness? Is the black valet’s witnessing of blackface a mark of his consciousness (and a bracketing of Jolson’s blackface as only theatrical “performance”), or is he there in the background for viewers to see how closely Jolson resembles blackness? In short, is the black valet there for Jolson to be compared to or contrasted to?

Or am I not just wrangling the film text into a new meaning to avoid the clearly racist subtext?

The black valet, like the horse shape, is a material object of the film’s world, but an apparently unimportant one. As an “object,” though, the valet and horse serve as incomprehensible signifiers, standing in for the nonhistorical viewer. These are the objects that viewers today are projected into; these are the negotiable quantities that make the film and the viewer intelligible to each other.

To move back to the film in general, the question is “how are we to know what to look at?” Would it be terribly old-fashioned and apolitical to suggest that the current complexes of theoretical engagement can only answer the question (or only try to answer it) from the side, beginning with something like a mute formalism? One way of analyzing the film’s movement is to see how it is structured around Jolson’s vocal performances. These musical numbers link the narrative elements together at the same time as they stand outside of narrative, slowing down the plot’s progression in order to pause on Jolson’s skill as a vocalist. This of course became a feature of the musical film, alternating between a rapid exposition and an unhurried performance. In The Singing Fool, the manipulation of filmic time, and the abandonment of the classical editing principle of concision and economy, suggests one way of calculating “what matters,” as each number punctuates the narrative’s movement through to its conclusion.

The disjunction between narrative and vocal performance is on sloppy display in The Singing Fool, which further slows things down by allowing Jolson plenty of time for throat-clearing. Invariably, the film works to build a sense of anticipation for the musical numbers by having Stone first banter about how he is going to sing a song in a few moments. Preceding the first number, for instance, is a conversation Stone has with his piano player, Bert. Jolson’s character, as the comic who wants to be sentimental, claims this is the “first time I’ve ever sung a ballad in my life.” Bert, giving him an incredulous look, seems as if he is actually going to refuse, and it takes some back and forth until he finally cues the band. The effect of all of this is to prime the spectators, predisposing us toward eager anticipation. Even once Stone has become a success and owns his own nightclub, he still continues to appear before each number to inform us that he is about to perform. At one point he makes a dramatic spotlight appearance in an alcove above the club’s dance floor, only to tell his audience that he is just about ready to come down and sing a song, which he promptly does in the next shot. The effect is nearly ravenous; Jolson’s attitude is continually pleading: “Hold your horses,” he says, begging the audience for just the smallest human moment before he gives us his all — “Now don’t go away anybody ’cause I’m going to sing a thousand songs tonight.”

Another feature of this planned time-wasting, bridging our anticipation of the upcoming musical performance with the visual sight of Jolson not performing, are the verbal tics that are part of Jolson’s idiolect. One of these is the “wait a minute, wait a minute” with which he continually assuages the wild audience and tries to beg for a moment of time. The other is Jolson’s famous catchphrase “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” The promise of future wonder seems to be the most significant aspect of a Jolson film; we are always beyond the moment of ecstasy, even when we have yet to have the object of ecstasy presented to us. Furthermore, each song is bracketed not only by a long introduction from Jolson but also by a wild, concluding response from the audience. These are over-the-top, wildly ecstatic — throwing coins, flowers, hollers — as Stone claims, “I’ve never heard anything like it.” Stone’s incredulity at the response unsettles me; here is an overwhelmed man shaken to his core.

All of these delaying tactics make our eyes wait, and so we have nothing to do but look. I find myself impatient, frustrated by Stone’s blabbing for a few minutes about how he is going to perform if we would only “give him the chance.” Jolson plays this in a thoroughly self-deprecating fashion, joking with the audience that he will soon “spoil” their good time by singing. I am distracted instead by the logical hole — Jolson needs us to stop applauding so he can do something to make us applaud. Throughout The Singing Fool, the applause overwhelms the performance; the response precedes the stimulus. Demonstrating the appropriate response, before there is even motive to do so, may be our only entrée into historical film. Do you like the film? I don’t know — does it like itself? Being asked to think about our response before there is something to respond to flips the expected order of events — flips history, flips causality, flips comprehension. To return to Lacan, Jolson presents himself as the object of desire, and this object of desire is itself frustrated. “Not frustration of a desire of the subject, but frustration by an object in which his desire is alienated” — the films says this: as viewers, our (the subject’s) desire for Jolson’s voice is not frustrated (not “hurry up and sing, dammit”), but rather Jolson’s voice (the object) is itself frustrated (“I’ll sing when I’m good and ready and until then you must wait and fantasize”). The viewer is tricked into dealing with frustration by a preparatory applause.


All of this culminates in the final scene, a variant of “the show must go on.” These kinds of musicals use the back-stage trope of the pit orchestra’s cue that goes unanswered. Here, Stone is supposed to perform his hit song, but in a reversal of the beginning of the film, he wants to do something other than a sentimental number. The stage manager finally is able to send him out, with the dubious advice that he will “feel a lot better” about his son’s death (literally five minutes earlier) if he sings “Sonny Boy.” Shuffling out, Jolson asks the conductor to play the opening cue, and after shots of the audience clapping in anticipation, the conductor leads the orchestra through the opening bars three more times before Jolson finally begins. In between each of these aborted introductions we see Stone reflectively pause. I think I understand that we are meant to see this as Stone’s willingness to fulfill his “nature” as a performer; in this sense, the adage that “the show must go on” becomes downright therapeutic. But, thinking about the film’s delaying tactics elsewhere, these mock starts also comes off as a kind of foreplay. As viewers, we have been trained to celebrate Stone preemptively, and suddenly here we find ourselves disappointed and delayed. This is the real threat of The Singing Fool: that Jolson will elaborate the object of our desire to the point where our jouissance is further alienated. We have learned to play Jolson’s game, and only at the end do we discover the stakes.


I realize this raises more questions than answers. Perhaps the role of contemporary analysis of historical films is to do only that — to point toward the gaps that have opened up as sites of compromise between subject and object. Mordaunt Hall, the first film critic for the New York Times, reviewed The Singing Fool favorably. The first sentence: “Al Jolson sat in a comfortable seat in the Winter Garden last night and watched his shadow work on the screen in the same theatre where he had so often won the hearts of the audience by his songs from the stage.”4 Hall is not interested in discussing film art from a theoretical perspective, as when his writing seems to collapse the very terms of the film that were new: “Mr. Jolson listened to his own image burst forth into songs.” Instead, Hall intuitively understands the challenge of spectatorship when he presents the scene of Jolson listening to “his own image.” Subject and object: Hall confirms my feeling that struggling to make film images comprehensible always flirts with a struggle to make our own art out of spectatorship.

  1. The “apparatus theory” laid out by Baudry and Comolli and others. []
  2. I am not unaware that my definition of “historical film” is itself trapped in the idiolect. Cinema has only recently outlasted the human lifespan. As of May 2009, the oldest currently living person was born 6 April 1894; the first kinetoscope exhibition in New York City occurred in the same month. []
  3. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 65. []
  4. Mordaunt Hall, “The Screen,” Rev. of The Singing Fool, dir. Lloyd Bacon, 20 Sept. 1928, New York Times, 42. []