Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: The Money Shot, by Jane Mills

The Money Shot: Cinema, Sin, and Censorship, by Jane Mills. Annandale, New South Wales, Australia. Pluto Press, 2001. Cloth, $32.95 (U.S.D./AUD), 255pp. ISBN 1-86403-142-5.

It is perhaps significant to Jane Mills’ project in The Money Shot that she consistently describes Charles Vidor’s Gilda as King Vidor’s Gilda(US, 1946). Arguably, Gilda would have been a very different film were it directed by King Vidor. But Mills thinks that auteurs and canons are stressed too much in contemporary screen culture. She seeks nothing less than a reconciliation of high art and low trash, images and narratives, Art and Commerce.

In The Film-Maker’s Guide to Pornography, Stephen Ziplow describes “the money shot” or “come shot,” as the key moment in the porn production, the one the punters pay to see. Mills extends the term to cover those moments in her screen education that convinced her that she and the movies are an item. In The Money Shot, she wants to make aspects of screen theory more widely accessible, and reiterates the role of politics and polemics in film criticism. Her appropriation of “the money shot” to describe, for example, our first sight of Gilda, finds Mills attempting to heal the rift between visual pleasure and narrative cinema.

Filmmaker, writer, and academic affiliated to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Mills was brought up in very English Surrey to believe that movies lead to all manner of beastliness in the murky middle rows. A nice girl should be watching The Dam Busters (UK, 1954) or reading Enid Blyton. In an interview with Fiona Villella of Senses of Cinema in March 2001, Mills described cinema as an “unruly lover, and why it makes me want to come again, and again.” It is a tribute to her lack of discrimination that she got her first frissons at such apparently conservative fare as South Pacific (US, 1958) and El Cid (US, 1961). Cineaste and cinephile, for Mills the relationship between image and narrative is emphasized too often in favour of narrative, preferring literary adaptations on the one hand, or the image, preferring masculinist auteur cinema on the other. Both emphases have dire implications for what she is allowed to enjoy.

Mills is a founder member of the Sydney-based Watch on Censorship, and contained here are detailed accounts of recent Australian censorship disputes. She describes how Child’s Play 3 (US, 1991), Dead Man (US/Germany, 1995), Hustler White(US, 1996), and Romance (France, 1998) were withheld, cut, and fought over much as they were wherever there are elites afraid of the power of cinema. Even use of that pro-censorship cliche “gratuitous,” Mills argues, assumes that images must be in a particular relationship with narratives. Such an assumption implicitly favours narrative-driven cinema, mainstream Hollywood and its imitators. Whilst I sometimes feel that Mills has too little time for journalists – “almost the first task of every journalist seems to be to unearth, whether or not it exists, some correlation between the violent act and the alleged criminal’s viewing habits”(!) – critics can reproduce unhealthy assumptions. Time and again, British reviewers write that a foreign-language film is “beautifully photographed.” as if the cinematography and the film were somehow other. At the heart of The Money Shot lies a plea for liberation from prejudice, whether legislative, journalistic, or spectatorial. Mills’ advocacy of the democratic inventions and distortions of intelligent viewer reception leads her to rail against tweedy British institution Leslie Halliwell. Yet amongst the British critical community, Halliwell is as outmoded as Bosley Crowther was in 1967 compared with Jonathan Rosenbaum, B. Ruby Rich, Mark Cousins, for examples. Interpreting debates over censorship as more accurately debates over aesthetics keeps up the pressure for “cineliteracy,” I agree, but critics play an important role here.

Mills sees the way forward in the reclamation of words. What’s offensive about films depicting women as victims, she argues, is that the protagonist loses her own voice. Again, she rails against Halliwell for misreading the rape survivor in Outrage (US, 1950) as a rape victim. Outrage was directed by the relatively unsung Ida Lupino, whose feeling for women’s experiences is refreshing after classical saccharine, and before 1960s modernism gave way to auteurist idolatry in Last Tango in Paris(Italy/France, 1972) and Ai No Corrida (France/Japan, 1976). She is particularly interested in socio-linguistics and deploys piquant etymological investigations: Fascinate, Jezebel, Cunt. She also finds a powerful metaphor for cinematic realism in Greek mythology. Here to punish mankind, Pandora was a beautiful artifact, embodying idea, trick, and pictorial vividness. Sent to earth with a box but told not to open it, she relents to curiosity, releasing evil into the world. I was reminded of a very Christian wedding I once attended. Falling into conversation with another guest, I was asked what I do. I replied that I was a film writer. “But aren’t films the work of the devil?” she replied, sensing a taint in the air. Amongst the devil’s works Mills releases afresh into the world are such rare treats as make me misty-eyed: A Question of Silence (Netherlands, 1982), The Last Days of Chez Nous (Australia, 1990),Georgia (US, 1995).

But after coherently endorsing Outrage, describing Tim Roth’s The War Zone (UK, 1998) as a “startling debut” is the kind of assault we get from poster-grabbing boy critics. When I saw The War Zone, I was confronted with images of violation and self-disgust. When I interviewed Roth in August 1999, he prided himself on discovering in Lara Belmont (who played Jessie) another Ingrid Bergman. In fairness, Mills mentions Roth’s film only in passing, surprised that it wasn’t banned. That it wasn’t bears out one of her premises. As film editor on a lifestyle website in October 1999, I planned to run my interview with Catherine Breillat as Romance appeared. But the arrogant jerk I worked for ran the Roth interview instead, The War Zonehaving been and gone. Seen from the murky middle rows through his eyes, its contentions were obviously worth coming for. A woman’s own feelings about sex, conversely, made for a difficult and tedious two hours. Assiduously seen through the male gaze (brother Tom’s/Tim Roth’s), Jessie’s humiliation made for endless copy and plenty lucre.

I thoroughly agree with loosing screen education throughout the world, but Mills makes me tetchy. She excitedly reads the punter’s chance to get her jollies at All that Heaven Allows (US, 1955) as an example of the way in which spectators make “their own sense” of patriarchally produced melodrama. But Hollywood screenwriters consciously made appeals to “sophisticated” and “unsophisticated” moviegoers, and feminist film writers have been trotting out the liberations of melodrama and exploring its implications ever since. Constrained by this “Trojan Horse” model, how can women (or men) make “their own sense” of individual melodramas? If you are going to celebrate the plenitude of the image and the heterogeneity of responses, haven’t individuals in fifty years found still more ways of getting pleasure out of All that Heaven Allows? It’s a Jane Wyman movie, for example. It’s a Rock Hudsonmovie…well! I found an early eco-consciousness text. To arrive at one’s own sense at a viewing is to acknowledge that a range of knowledge and competences inflect the experience. It is also a Douglas Sirk movie, Jane.