This engaging collection of Bruce F. Kawin’s most important film essays (1977–2011) is accompanied by his interviews with Lillian Gish (1978) and Howard Hawks (1976). The Hawks interview is particularly concerned with his work with William Faulkner and their friendship. The Gish interview emphasizes her role as a producer in the 1920s. The essays focus on such topics as violence and sexual politics in film, the relations between horror and science fiction, the growth of video and digital cinema and their effects on both film and film scholarship, the politics of film theory, narration in film, and the relations between film and literature. Among the most significant articles reprinted here are “Me Tarzan, You Junk,” “The Montage Element in Faulkner's Fiction,” “The Mummy’s Pool,” “The Whole World Is Watching,” and “Late Show on the Telescreen: Film Studies and the Bottom Line.” The book includes close readings of films from “La Jetée” to “The Wizard of Oz.”
About the Author
Bruce F. Kawin is Professor of English and Film at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His books include “Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film,” “Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film,” “The Mind of the Novel: Reflexive Fiction and the Ineffable,” “Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays,” “How Movies Work” and “Horror and the Horror Film.” He is also the co-author of the last seven editions of “A Short History of the Movies.”
Howie Movshovitz teaches film at the College of Arts and Media at the University of Colorado at Denver. He has been a film critic on Colorado Public Radio since 1976 and has reported on film subjects for National Public Radio since 1987.
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Selected Film Essays and Interviews
By Bruce F. Kawin
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2013 Bruce F. Kawin
All rights reserved.
Me Tarzan, You Junk
This was published in 1978 by the Canadian film magazine Take One. It was written at the height of the Hollywood Renaissance (mid-1960s to late '70s) when nobody knew it would be called that; it just seemed that there were a great number of powerful new films that commanded attention. What bothered me was not that there was more sex and violence in the movies but that violence was being endorsed in preference to other solutions and in a notably sexist context. Over the years I came to terms with A Clockwork Orange and some of the other films in this article (and lost my enthusiasm for the Billy Jack pictures), but I still agree with what it says about how certain movies set out to manipulate audiences and reinforce systems of values. Although the majority of violent films today are not as sexist as they used to be, they continue to take violent solutions for granted. I regret that I forgot to describe the final gunfight in High Noon, where the wife claws at the villain to free herself and to allow her husband to shoot him. While the points of the last two gunfight scenes are similar (she is again responsible for a death and is again working with her husband), she grows in the audience's estimation because this time she attacks a man in the face with her hands instead of shooting a man in the back.
One of the most effective ways a movie has to teach us its view of the world, its system of values, is to control the thematic energy of catharsis. Many of the most widely distributed American films of the last 25 years have been pushing the message that violence can be justified in terms of some "higher" system of values, and have been making the point in terms that are not so much violence-oriented as they are sexist. In the most juvenile of these films — McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for instance, or Straw Dogs — the apparent enemy is a cluster of violent men, but the important enemy is a selfish woman. To get a handle on this slippery, stupid, and dangerous message, I'd like to reopen the question of how catharsis works and what it does.
Drama in general appears to work by creating tension in the audience, increasing that tension, and then releasing it. This tension is usually attached, by the artist, to some kind of issue or emotion, theme or dominant mood, so that at the moment of climax one has an intense experience of thematic energy. In a "triumph of love" movie like Intolerance, for instance, the audience is supposed to be washed through with a pure sense of joy-at-the-triumph-of-love when the Dear One saves the Boy from the hangman. Dramatic climax is like sexual climax: at the moment we surrender to the energy and let it flood us, the energy is dispersed. In that moment of release, the accumulated tension and its attendant emotions — and ethics — are profoundly and personally felt. The question is, does this purgative process, which purges only what it introduces to our systems, free us from the aroused emotions or deeply teach them to us? Were the Greeks more stable for having watched Medea, the Victorians more sensitive to the pains of the poor for having read Dickens — and what is it, exactly, that makes Americans associate violence and heart-wrenching with directorial competence — in Little Big Man's snowy Indian massacre sequence, for example?
A violent climax floods us with violence. A love climax floods us with love. After deeply experiencing the release of violence (attacking the Other) we are not left full of love (accepting the Other). We are left relaxed. What we have accepted is our violence.
Peckinpah has argued that his violent films, because they are cathartic, release his audiences from their inside violence. I think it more likely that Straw Dogs, anyway, can make people violent, deeply teach them violence. The compromise position — that catharsis helps us live with an emotion we have been led through — makes sense too. The rest of the point, however, is that cathartic violence is often the vehicle of an ethic, and that it is really the ethic that is learned, that is applied, that affects both the self-image and the politics of the audience.
I am not saying that we should not be exposed to violence, or that we should be out of touch with anger. I am saying that catharsis reinforces as it disperses; it teaches acceptance of the energy it releases, gives us a guided tour of that emotion. Anger, of course, is not the same thing as murder. Yelling at the students who demand all her energy and give nothing back, Jean, the heroine of The Trial of Billy Jack, teaches us how to accept and release an extraordinary anger. Beating the rat-catcher to death like a rat, David, the hero of Straw Dogs, teaches us how to enjoy murder. In fact, he does more: he teaches the one thing we must believe if we are to murder — that the enemy is not as human as ourselves, but merely some kind of inconvenient animal. And The Trial of Billy Jack (despite the unfortunate fact that Laughlin's film is so incompetently directed and flabbily cut that it makes Peckinpah's look like the Elgin Marbles) insists that an enemy can behave like an animal — that is, brutally — without being an animal, and teaches that even enemies, when loved — when accepted as human beings — can slowly learn to love back. Allen Ginsberg once said, "You only get hostile when somebody says that you don't exist."
What I'm interested in talking about here is the kind of film, epitomized by High Noon, in which judgment is passed on the value of the hero's decision to become violent. This judgment is keyed to the world view of the film, to the issues it associates with violence.
Like Straw Dogs, High Noon teaches both that nonviolence is irresponsible and that a woman should back up her husband. A Clockwork Orange teaches that one is not human without freedom, that freedom necessarily includes the option to do evil, and that male freedom matters more than female freedom. The violence these movies present and justify is most consistently related to their sexual politics and to their fear of the Other.
This is not to suggest that these movies are made only for men, but that they reflect the central attitude of our selfish and patriarchal culture: that the Others are less than human, be they Viet Cong or female or rival Mafia faction. Female audiences participate in this fantasy much as male audiences do, by identifying with the values of the central character (of whatever sex) and celebrating his success against his enemies.
One of the characteristics of the modern humanist, and often feminist, picture is that it attempts to present both Self and Other as comprehensible human beings, even when the Other is an "enemy." (In A Woman Under the Influence, for instance, the violent double-binding husband is Other but not Object.) Violence does not preclude humanism, but the sense of the-enemy-as-subhuman does; in that way, among others, sexism emphatically precludes humanism, and can be taken as a useful indicator of a particular movie's "violence rationale."
"War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil," said George Orwell in reference to the fight against Franco. Hollywood is a great believer in the Just War, but it lacks the respect for peace that makes such an attitude supportable. Witness some of the causes for which it is willing to endorse violence:
— male supremacy (do not forsake me, o my darling),
— self-defense (my death would be more important than yours),
— territory- and property-defense ("I will not allow violence against this house"),
— consolidation of power (we can't let things get out of hand),
— existential freedom (ultraviolence),
— revenge (I'll hurt you the way you hurt me) [...].
The list goes on, but by this point two central anxieties ap pear to predominate: the fear of others' freedom (the need to control) and the fear of others' control (the need to be free). It's all one pendulum, and the message at either extreme of the swing is: fight for your self, against your other self. Friends, it's a mess.
Before it was made into a movie, Friendly Persuasion was about Quakers. This movie teaches there is always something more important than the integrity of one's beliefs — the lives of loved ones, or patriotic duty. I am questioning not the importance of these other values, but the tokenistic way in which nonviolence is "endorsed." In the occupation scene, for instance, no serious attempt is made to show what might happen, or how the Quaker wife might feel, if the soldiers had their way; no nonviolent strategy is allowed to suggest itself to her. Worse, her bashing the soldier with her broom when he grabs for the goose is comical violence; she looks like a ridiculous woman. (Her husband's violence has more serious consequences; he's a man.)
The audience of Friendly Persuasion, because it has been given no reason to take nonviolence seriously, is encouraged to consider the wife unrealistic (however sympathetic) and is waiting for the moment when she will crack — and behave like "one of us," a person.
After High Noon, of course, Friendly Persuasion couldn't do much damage. The value structure of High Noon is remarkably sexist. The sheriff loves his Quaker bride, and has agreed to give up his guns, but first he has to shoot Frank Miller dead. If he doesn't, the craven town will be overrun by the bad guys. Like the paranoid America of 1952, he perceives himself as the only power brave enough to defend the Right, even if no one appreciates or helps him; if he doesn't stand fast, his world and all that he values will go under. (The Commies — or McCarthy, depending on your point of view — are coming on the high noon train.) His violence is justified by appeal to a value higher than nonviolence and higher than marriage: Duty. Duty in this case is a variant of Work, but includes honor, toughness, self-sacrifice, protectiveness and political judgment. These aren't bad values, but in opting for them the sheriff opts not against pacifism, but against cowardice. (He changes the subject.) He chooses male value over female value: it would be sissy to leave town at this time, especially for life with a woman. Another way to put this is to say that he chooses work-duty over love-duty.
As is well known, the sheriff gets all the bad guys but one; it remains for the wife to throw over her convictions and shoot the bad guy who's about to shoot her husband. This is the big surprise, and the climax of the picture (triumph-of-love-and-justice). Why does she do it? Simple: her duty to her husband is more important than what she originally considered her duty to herself. To a woman, then, marriage is more important than philosophy. In this context it has to be observed that the Grace Kelly character has probably given Quakers as bad a name as Nixon has. One version of High Noon that I play over in my head has her save his life, then annul the marriage; that seems both better drama and better politics. In the film as we have it, she totally surrenders. But of course, that is the point.
In other words, the film endorses marriage as the highest female value and work as the highest male value. The word "duty" applies with equal rigor in both value structures: she has a duty to him, he has a duty to Right. For each character, the question is rephrased in terms of violence; they both dramatize their decisions by shooting a bad guy. He shows that Right is more important to him than she — or himself — is; she shows that he is more important to her than Right — or herself — is. (She made that promise when she wed.) We're a long way from Straw Dogs, but it's down the same track; the train that stops here at noon stops there at midnight.
With or without its sexist aspects, the justification of violence goes on in film after film, always with reference to some higher system of values, and appealing to a variety of emotions. One of the most common appeals made is to fear. Since people do not usually go to the movies in a state of fear, the film must first convince them there is something to be afraid of. A large number of our most popular and critically acclaimed films appeal to a lurking understanding that we are besieged, doomed, misunderstood, nice people — who are right to be afraid.
Take Alex, for instance, in A Clockwork Orange. He is the center of sympathy; we in the audience are his "only friends." The violence he inflicts on others is stylized; the pains he feels are real. He attacks in slow motion, in fancy lighting, with music on the soundtrack and arty weapons in his hands — it's fun and games, intellectual storm-troopery. For a while I didn't know how to take the movie. I knew I walked out of the theater feeling nauseated (Alex-sympathy). Thinking about the scene where Alex is forced to watch violent films and is made sick, I constructed a "moral" rationale for the picture, in which Kubrick shows us a violent film (Clockwork Orange itself) and makes us — or me, anyway — sick. To take it further: the worst thing anyone does to Alex is to change the way he feels when he hears Beethoven; Kubrick decisively changed my associations with "Singin' In The Rain," a happy, loving song if ever there was one. Instead of seeing Gene Kelly dancing down the street, I began to see Alex kicking and raping his way down his kind of street. When Gene Kelly, rather than Alex, sang the song under the final credits, I felt sure that Kubrick was hoping to alert his audience to the power of conditioning (by reinventing "Singin' In The Rain") and, hammering in the irony that is his basic tone, trying to make us sick of violence. When I saw the film again, two rows behind a happy gang of thugs who had shoved their way past an usher and were having the time of their lives, I gave up on at least the last half of the idea. The film's practical effect, at least, is pro-Alex all the way. I had hoped that the fierce, even heavy-handed moralist who had ground out Paths of Glory and much of Spartacus, and the war-mocker who had given us the brilliant Dr. Strangelove, had finally homed in and attacked the violence in his own back yard — i.e., the movies. Instead I became convinced that the cliché is correct: Kubrick's main concern is, and has been, the way people make "machines" more powerful and resourceful than themselves — especially the unique tendency of bureaucratic control to co-opt or pervert sexual expression (strange love, copulating bombers, P.O.E., HAL, etc.). The point about Alex seems to be that he is in danger of being made to respond like a machine (clockwork) and therefore of ceasing to be human. (The people he kills, of course, cease to be anything.) His restoration to a state in which he can "appreciate" Beethoven and women is supposed to be a happy one.
A Clockwork Orange, then, if my reading is right, sets out to make its audience afraid — not of violence and anarchy, but of conditioning and government control, and endorses both sexism and violence, as freedoms, in preference to such control. Its humanism is flatly contradictory. The woman whom Alex murders with the phallic sculpture, for example, has our admiration for being free, standing up for herself, and living the way she wants to; on the other hand, Kubrick not only does nothing to make us care about her death, but in fact does all he can to make her look ridiculous. He keeps our sympathies entirely with Alex, who is having trouble making his escape. Granted, the film is limited to Alex's point of view; even so, the ironic mechanisms do nothing to suggest that his point of view is deficient. Alex's violence, and our sympathy with him in it, free all concerned from the fear the film has aroused. The viewer is reassured, along with Alex, that he is the most important person in the world, and that no one will take away his cocky peenie.
Excerpted from Selected Film Essays and Interviews by Bruce F. Kawin. Copyright © 2013 Bruce F. Kawin. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Howie Movshovitz; Preface; 1. VIOLENCE AND POLITICS: Me Tarzan, You Junk; The Whole World Is Watching; Violent Genres; Wild Blueberry Muffins; 2. HORROR AND SCIENCE FICTION: The Mummy’s Pool; Time and Stasis in “La Jetée”; “Carnival of Souls”; 3. REVIEWS: “Welcome to L.A.”; “The Fury”; “Piranha”; “The Elephant Man”; 4. INTERVIEWS: Lillian Gish; Howard Hawks; 5. LITERATURE AND NARRATION: The Montage Element in Faulkner’s Fiction; Horton Foote; An Outline of Film Voices; Dorothy’s Dream: Mindscreen in “The Wizard of Oz”; 6. GETTING IT RIGHT: Creative Remembering and Other Perils of Film Study; Late Show on the Telescreen: Film Studies and the Bottom Line; Video Frame Enlargements; Three Endings; Acknowledgments; Index of Names and Titles
What People are Saying About This
“Readers who care sincerely about movies will learn from and be challenged by the work of Bruce Kawin.” Roger Ebert
“In admirably clear language, Kawin is adept at exploring both the formal and the literary dimensions of filmmaking and directing our attention to out-of-the-way works that detonate fresh general ideas. His probing essay on Faulkner, film, and modernism is a tour de force, bolstered by an illuminating interview with Howard Hawks on working with the writer.” Morris Dickstein, CUNY Graduate Center