A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, by Jeanine Basinger, 1995, 528pp, paper, $17.95 (University Press of New England, 201 E. 50th St. New York, NY 10022).
This is an exhaustive attempt to determine what constituted the women’s film during the glory days (1930-1960) before male genres finally overwhelmed it. Basinger uses detailed plot analyses and commentary on a virtual army of titles, familiar and otherwise, to document the wide array of behavioral models offered and audience responses elicited by the women’s film. The author, who teaches film at Wesleyan University, is a welcome oddity: the critic with a legitimate passion for movies who has seen practically everything and can make the kinds of connections that are possible only through immersion in the subject. In A Woman’s View, in addition to providing a comprehensive discussion of the sprawling women’s film and its themes and motifs, she joins Carol Clover and others in rejecting the monolithic (and surely passé) concept of determining male gaze and puppetlike female victim enacting ritual ceremonies of passivity and fetishism.
Unlike most film scholars, Basinger is not afraid of injecting the personal into her analysis, and this willingness to extrapolate the personal into the universal informs the entire book. Basinger was a compulsive moviegoer from childhood, and A Woman’s View opens with her early realization that the local movie house offered an “unexpected, and largely uncensored, bonanza” in countering the suppressions, lies, and rigid behavior codes American bourgeois culture casually visits on, particularly, its female inhabitants.
Women’s films were a safe zone in which fantasies of empowerment and masochism could coexist. While women’s lives were highly circumscribed at this time, popular movies relentlessly flirted with possibilities far outside the realm of accepted behavior. For every self-sacrificing mother, there was a balancing unrepentant prostitute or corporate executive. In Female (1932), Ruth Chatterton runs a large corporation by day and seduces and discards her young male employees by night. In Leave Her to Heaven (1944), Gene Tierney drowns her husband’s little brother and hurls herself down a staircase to induce an abortion. In Beyond the Forest (1949), Bette Davis remorselessly murders an old man who stands in the way of her illicit affair. These and many other surprisingly common movie heroines luxuriated in their own power, laughed at conventional morality, and dominated both the men in their films and the films themselves. The message, Basinger says, was that women could have power — though in most of her examples this power was not exercised as violently as in films like Beyond the Forest. The obligatory moralistic happy ending — dutifully restoring conventional moral and gender order — was often an easily ignored tack-on.
Aware of the organizational difficulties of an umbrella genre like this — which spills into virtually every other genre including the biopic, the musical, even war films and Westerns — Basinger wisely organizes her analysis by major settings (home, department, prison), character types, and themes (motherhood, men). This allows the author to create mini-essays on a wide range of individual topics (“Unwed Mothers,” “The Asexual `Husband’,” “Ghosts and Angels”) that effectively combine to show how complex — and how pivotal to the culture — this sometimes marginalized genre really was. (G.M.)
McFarland & Company, Scarecrow Press, and a few others constitute a handful of publishers who regularly provide fans and scholars with the kind of bulky esoterica few would have believed possible 20 years ago. This policy has its drawbacks — do we really need a 500-page bio-bibliography of Gordon MacCrae? And books from these companies tend to be both plain (no dust jacket) and expensive for the strapped cinephile.
That said, Edmund Bansak’s massive (571 pages) study of Val Lewton is an indispensable look at an elusive subject. While not as well written as Joel Siegel’s Reality of Terror, Fearing the Dark is considerably more generous, including not only detailed production analyses and commentary on Lewton’s films but also substantial essays on his important collaborators: Robson, Wise, and supremely, Jacques Tourneur. This is a rare approach in analytical biographies but certainly makes sense here in tracing Lewton’s continued influence on those he worked with. The book benefits from the author’s extensive interviews.
Fans of Lewton will find this a wonderful read crammed with fascinating details of Lewton’s schizoid personality and his unique working methods. Bansak’s critical theorizing skirts the conventional, but the author’s attempt to rescue the masterful Leopard Man from its undeserved status as second-string Lewton is both admirable and eloquent. (M.T.)
Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films, by William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, 1993, paper (Princeton University Press, 41 William St., Princeton, NJ 08540).
Readers will ask themselves why the authors have chosen to devote a book to one of the most obscure (and virtually unavailable) corners of film history — the “Vitagraph Quality Films.” This was a small group of self-consciously important “prestige” productions made between 1907 and 1910, intended to introduce moralistic literary, biblical, and historical subjects to wide audiences. Uricchio and Pearson are equally aware of the perversity of this undertaking, but more than justify it with this breathtaking study. Reframing Culture uses films like The Life of Moses, Julius Caesar, and Washington Under the American Flag as a springboard for an analysis of the historical forces that created the films and the propagandistic purposes such “high art” material played in countering the tensions of turn-of-the-century capitalism and immigrant “invasions,” and in adding another control mechanism to potentially unruly masses. The authors paint a vivid picture of the economic and social forces — post-Civil War boom and bust, widespread labor unrest, and xenophobia — that made these strange, creaky little films an important component of dominant class ideology in stressing the virtues of conformance and capitulation. (M.T.)
Contemporary Argentine Cinema, by David William Foster, 1993, 164pp, $29.95 cloth (University of Missouri Press, 2910 LeMone Boulevard, Columbia, MO 65201).
This is a very well written study of the cinematic side of Argentina’s “cultural renaissance” that began after that country’s 1983 repudiation of decades of military dictatorship. The author analyzes ten key films through the lens of social and cultural history, perhaps the most famous to American eyes being Babenco’s The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). His discussion of this film is one of the most lucid on record, contextualized by a close comparison of the book to the movie, and by analysis of the “acting protocols” that inform it. Foster brings a formalist’s sensibility to the material — fleshing out the films not only from a structural but also a social standpoint, without dissolving into academic cliches. (M.T.)
I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, by Nicholas Ray (edited by Susan Ray), 1993, 243pp, $25.00 cloth (University of California Press, 2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94720)
This is a first-rate assemblage autobiography of Nick Ray, collated by Ray’s wife Susan. It’s perhaps the best kind of portrait of such a subject, certainly the best we are likely to have of Ray, constructed as it is from a wide range of his theoretical and diary writings and transcriptions of classroom teachings and speeches. Ray’s peculiar combination of charisma and humility is well conveyed, and his generosity toward his cohorts and collaborators is bracing. “I don’t think you can make a film alone,” he says. “You need the lab, you need the guy who sells the film …” He has a brilliant brief chapter on James Dean: “Jimmy approached all human beings with the same urgent, probing curiosity: ‘Here I am. Here are you.'” On Lenny Bruce: “He had a tremendous ability with an audience, working on them the way a poultice sucks poison out of a wound.” On Robert Ryan: “There was always a quick intellectual response. I cast him opposite John Wayne [in The Flying Leathernecks] because I knew that Ryan was the only actor in Hollywood who could kick the shit out of Wayne.” Ray’s hypersensitive nature, his visceral empathy, comes through in some of his classroom transcripts. Critiquing a scene one of his students shot, he said: “The strangling episode evoked something strange in me. I felt the pressure just above and just below my Adam’s apple. I felt it in my own body. I also felt my own hands feeling an Adam’s apple.” He discusses some formal aspects of his own work with great clarity, particularly his distinctive use of color schemes in films like Party Girl and Johnny Guitar. But he adds, “Let’s get rid of the idea that black and white are not colors.” The book lets Ray reveal his bouts with alcoholism and the medical problems that killed him in 1979. Students of Ray, and film in general, will find I Was Interrupted extremely valuable, particularly in the classroom critiques sections that texture the book. The only drawback is Susan Ray’s lengthy introduction, which cries for a ruthless editor: “The brightness of Nick’s gifts, like the proverbial lotus flower, grew roots in the mud of his rage and despair.” Readers are advised to move directly to the first chapter of this telling look at a still underappreciated major director. (M.T.)