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“Who Wants to Die for Art!?!”: Reflections on a Meta-Film Sub-Genre: Part II
𝘠𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘨 𝘔𝘢𝘯 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘢 𝘏𝘰𝘳𝘯: Genre, Auteurism, and Classical Cinema's Representation of the Artist as Failed Transcendent
Last month’s installment of “Who Wants to Die for Art!?!?!” looked at the critical self-reflexivity of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a film that indicts both its maker and its audience for desiring the same aesthetic transcendence that motivates its murderous protagonists. Rope could be called an “unresolved text” in the sense that it leaves open several unsettling thematic and cultural implications that qualify its ostensible “happy ending.” Indeed, it’s difficult to describe Rope’s ending as happy at all, since at film’s conclusion “the good guy” doesn’t so much “win” as “the bad guys” fail to elude capture. Additionally, the emotional growth of “the good guy” doesn’t reside in his achievement of a goal or the overcoming of an obstacle, but instead in his disturbed recognition that he not only inspired the killers but also possessed (and perhaps still possesses) sadistic attitudes and behaviors not dissimilar to their own.
In describing Rope as “unresolved,” I follow Robin Wood’s understanding of classical Hollywood cinema as tending to depict — whether intentionally or unintentionally — aspects of America’s prevailing capitalist ideology as “inherently riddled with hopeless contradictions and unresolvable tensions” (528). As the title of his 1977 essay “Ideology, Genre, Auteur” suggests, Wood reads representations of those contradictions and tensions through two interrelated lenses: genre (Westerns, noir, musicals, etc.) and auteurism (the theory that certain — and usually the most proficient — directors are able to consistently imprint a personal artistic vision on their collaborative filmic creations).
One of the two films Wood examines in detail for its latent ideological schizophrenia is Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock’s 1943 film about the visitation of a Bluebeard-style serial killer, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), on his sister’s unsuspecting family. Wood shows that Shadow uses its generic trappings — a mixture of small-town suburban comedy and noir-ish suspense thriller — to set in play oppositional ideological values: the integrated wholesomeness of the traditional small-town versus the destructive nihilism of the modern metropolis (of which the film’s antagonist is a representative product) (533). However, as a virtuosic auteur, Hitchcock imposes his patented, idiosyncratic brand of cynicism upon the ultimate triumph of “family values” — a triumph with which almost every such Hollywood text concludes — by rendering it exceedingly hollow, especially since, by film’s end, Uncle Charlie has successfully corrupted his niece, Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), by revealing her beloved, idyllic Santa Rosa hometown as a paper-thin construct of falsity, hypocrisy, and barely suppressed malevolence (535).
Major parallels exist between Shadow and Rope, especially in the characterization of their killers, all of whom are coded as queer, all of whom possess an obsession with aesthetics, and all of whom carry out their murderous deeds in the name of a Nietzschean moral superiority that “unmasks” the philosophical certainties of the heroes. But Shadow and Rope’s most important shared trait is their ability to, as Wood puts it, shatter “Hollywood ideology…beyond convincing recuperation” (533). Rather than restoring or reaffirming the “positive” ideological bases upon which American life is meant to thrive, both films throw them into question and peril — Shadow through the dialectical mirroring of its dual “worlds,” and Rope through an experimental structure and style (especially in its use of a pseudo “single, uninterrupted take”) that foreground its construction as a work of art rather than a seamlessly realistic (and therefore “true”) vessel of moral assurance. Wood insists that such ideological shattering in Hitchcock is predicated on his creative powers as an auteur, as a Master not only of invoking particular generic “effects” (most famously, suspense), but also of layering over Hollywood’s generic conventions and cliches a multi-faceted view of society as a splintered unit that cannot be sutured by suppressing the destructive values and impulses that thrive upon that society’s very inequalities and biases.
All of which brings us to our next example of a film “in which an artist gravitates toward madness and/or criminality (typically murder) to transcend the unsatisfying limits of representation in search of the Real”: Michael Curtiz’s 1950 melodrama-cum-noir, Young Man with a Horn. What marks Young Man as a “resolved text” in contrast to Rope’s “unresolved text” is its reliance on generic convention to restore the ideological paradoxes that the singular visual and narrative strategies of a more independent auteur might otherwise emphasize. This contrast isn’t meant to denigrate Curtiz at the expense of Hitchcock, but instead to demonstrate that similar thematic material in the hands of different filmmakers can highlight to varying degrees that material’s ideological integrity, or lack thereof. Young Man resolves the theme of the artist finding in madness and/or criminality the transcendent properties that were promised but ultimately denied him by art, and the film achieves this resolution by vanquishing one set of “negative” values in favor of an opposed set of “positive” values (whereas Rope blends its sets of oppositional values in order to bring out their inextricable partnership). Nonetheless, Curtiz leaves exposed significant cracks in Young Man’s armor so that it can be read “against the grain,” encouraging viewers to notice the places where its generic resolution of contradictions and tensions remain just unconvincing enough to hint at their systematic, yet not fully successful, ideological repression.
In Young Man, Kirk Douglas plays Rick Martin, a fictional jazz trumpeter based on Bix Beiderbecke. Orphaned at an early age, Martin is raised by a promiscuous older sister who leaves him to his own devices. Without parental or any other kind of supervision, Martin searches for purpose until he finds it in music, initially in the piano and then permanently in the trumpet. (Harry James dubbed the sounds for Martin’s trumpet licks.) His mentor is Art Hazzard (Juano Hernández), a jazz virtuoso with an appropriate name. Even as he teaches Martin everything he knows about the trumpet, Hazzard warns his protégé away from the creative life and the culture industry. Hazzard explains that Martin’s artistic idealism cannot fit into a capitalist entertainment model that forces artists to comply with the tastes of philistine consumers, but Martin still imagines that he can make a living by producing art solely on his own terms. “I don’t play for people!” Martin tells Hazzard. “I play for myself!” Hazzard retorts: “Look, boy, a man’s got a lot of living to do in this world. But, you, you’re kind of locked up inside yourself. You’re like a — like a bird trying to fly on one wing. You’ll stay up for a while. Then you’re going to fall.”
The dichotomy between the idealism of the artist and the mercenary nature of the entertainment business is developed further when Martin joins Jack Chandler and the Collegians, a dance orchestra that mostly serves as a back-up band for the smooth vocal stylings of Jo Jordan (Doris Day). During his first rehearsal with the band Martin attempts to improvise over a written score, but is quickly admonished against doing so by Chandler (Walter Reed). “Well, I mean, do we have to play every number the same way every time?” Martin asks. “That’s right,” Chandler responds. “This is no jam session. It’s a dance orchestra.” Here Martin learns that art has little place in an industry that requires its workers to execute uniformity and repetition rather than individuality and spontaneity. Later that evening Martin talks with Jo, with whom he shares his artistic vision:
Martin: Someday when I’m really good, I’m gonna do things with this trumpet nobody’s ever thought of doing. I want to hit a note that nobody ever heard before.
Jo: You’ve got to have some other interests or you’ll go off your rocker. I know. You need a hobby like collecting stamps or — or a dog or…
Martin: How ’bout a girl?
Jo: Don’t pick on me, Rick. You’re a married man.
Jo: You’re married to that trumpet. I certainly wouldn’t want to come between you.
This is one of the film’s most significant sections of dialogue because it not only encapsulates Martin’s raison d’être as an artist, but also establishes, according to the thematic logic of melodrama, a parallel between creative expression and romantic coupling. This parallel becomes the film’s core concern as Martin’s failure to toe the line in Chandler’s orchestra — along with his continuing struggles to find artistic satisfaction in the culture industry as a whole — run in tandem with a rocky marriage to Amy (Lauren Bacall), a wealthy woman who wishes to start a career in psychiatry. Unlike Martin, whose devotion to jazz borders on the monomaniacal, Amy is a dilettante who never focuses for too long on, or explores in too much depth, any one field of endeavor. Her diffusiveness also extends to her erotic life, for Amy is “coded” (as per the self-censoring representations of Hollywood circa 1950) as bisexual, and just as she marries Martin in a desperate bid to “stabilize” her sexual desires, so does she show off Martin to her socialite friends as false proof of her cultural rootedness despite her lack of appreciation of jazz or anything else. Martin is characterized as purely emotional and intuitive; Amy is characterized as purely intellectual and calculating. Their marriage should work as an attraction and combination of contrasting values and viewpoints, but it instead ends up as a clash.
Martin sees through Amy’s pretensions and insecurities, but once he separates from her he is bereft of his own “stabilizing” illusion of a balanced personal life and becomes completely untethered in pursuit of his artistic ideal. Whereas his jam session buddies can quit after playing all through the night, Martin pushes the limits of physical and mental endurance in the attempt to “hit a note that nobody ever heard before,” and he reveals himself as wholly unsuited for work as a studio musician when he makes a hash of Jo’s recordings by chaotically improvising over her instrumental arrangements. Even Martin’s dream to cut his own records fail in the face of the realities of the culture industry, as is revealed in his conversation with pianist “Smoke” Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael):
Martin: Hey, Smoke. Hey, you know what we ought to do? We ought to make our own records. Make ’em the way we want. Boy, we could make records that’d really split ’em wide open. Make them sit up. Do some of the old ones Art used to do, like “Dinah” and “Twelfth Street Rag” and “Louisiana Blues.”
“Smoke”: They won’t buy ’em.
Martin: Who won’t?
“Smoke”: People. You know who buys records? High school girls. You know why? To learn the words. They only buy the new songs to learn the words.
Unable to transcend the limits of artistic representation while in search of the Real, Martin lapses into alcoholism (inebriation often offers illusory promises of the Real) and madness. When “Smoke” and Jo visit him in a sanitarium, Martin asks his friends to collaborate with him upon his release, and in a final fit of delirium he once more expresses his desire for creative transcendence: “They don’t have to listen to us. We can play for ourselves. We got no words. We — we can’t — say what we mean. We just gotta feel it.” Young Man repeatedly contrasts verbal language’s ability to convey rationality and logic with music’s ability to convey the passionate and ineffable, a binary present in the relationship between Martin, who thinks and feels in the language of “abstract” music, and Amy, who belongs to a profession with a specialized, scientific jargon for explicating the complexities of the human condition.
This contrast is visually expressed in the way the film overlays its melodrama with the style of noir and its emphasis on dramatic contrasts of illumination and shadow. Ever since its emergence in the 1940s, noir has been the style favored by Hollywood to express subjective duality without sliding into out-and-out hallucination or fantasy. Not coincidentally, many “tortured artist” films — e.g., Images (1972), The Shining (1980), and Black Swan (2010) — take the form of nightmarish and surreal psychodramas that represent the dualism of the creative temperament through a protagonist’s confrontation with a mirrored or “doubled” self. But where these films tend toward horror’s representation of dual natures through fantastical, supernatural, or otherwise “impossible” scenarios and environments, noir typically remains rooted in the “real world” by visually suffusing it with a moody, dreamy despair borne of the irreconcilable conflicts that rage within society and the psyche. Most famous as the director of Casablanca (1942), and yet an unsung master in the implementation of noir throughout various genres (melodrama in Mildred Pierce , the musical in King Creole ), Curtiz depicts Martin’s surroundings as a silhouette-infused projection of his inner “split” between an existence within an industrial culture that demands expression through rational, verbal communication and his personal longing for expression in the “pure” language of emotional, non-verbal music.
It is sound that ultimately reconciles Martin’s “split” by forcing him to recognize the self-destructive impulses that underlie the search for transcendence. From his room in the sanitarium, Martin hears the blaring of an ambulance siren and calls it to the attention of “Smoke” and Jo: “Hear it? Jo, hear it? You said I tried for something that didn’t exist. There’s no such note. Hear that note, Jo? It’s clean and sweet. Gee, that’s a good note.” The unheard note that Martin longs to play, the one that symbolizes the Real he desires to obtain by transcending the limits of art, is nothing but a death knell. It may be “clean and sweet,” but it’s also an alarm that signifies the end of existence, the end of the search for any meaning, transcendental or otherwise.
“Smoke” drives the point home in a direct-address to the camera (and thus the viewer) at Young Man’s conclusion: “You see, Rick was a pretty hard guy to understand. And for a long time, he didn’t understand himself. But the desire to live is a great teacher, and I think it taught Rick a lot of things. He learned that you can’t say everything through the end of a trumpet. And a man doesn’t destroy himself just because he can’t hit some high note that he dreamed up. Maybe that’s why Rick went on to be a success as a human being first and an artist second.” The last scene shows Martin successfully employing his improvisational talents while accompanying Jo in one of her studio sessions: he has learned to collaborate with, rather than seeking transcendence apart from, others, and — to use Nietzsche’s schematic terms — he has achieved an adept command of expressing himself through a tempered, communal “Apollonian” art as opposed to annihilating himself through an intoxicated, desolating “Dionysian” one.
There are two problems with this ending, however, in terms of its intended message. In the first place, Curtiz retreats from the noir-ish visualization of Martin’s inner war and returns to melodrama, where contradictions and tensions can be resolved through the power of love, here represented through the harmonious blending of Martin’s playing and Jo’s singing. But this retreat rings false because Martin and Jo are never romantically coupled. Jo’s concern that she sees no place in Martin’s life because of his persistent “marriage” to his trumpet remains valid, and at film’s conclusion the viewer is left to wonder whether, without a proper “stabilizing” romantic counterforce in his life (the sort of stabilizing force Hollywood typically promotes as a healthy, society-perpetuating vehicle for unsublimated energies), Martin will once more seek an impossible transcendence through artistic nihilism.
In the second place, Martin’s newfound ability to employ his talents in cooperation with artistic collaborators has also subordinated him to verbal language, the very language that previously proved inadequate for his self-expression. This wouldn’t be an issue if Young Man espoused or demonstrated verbal communication as just as expressive and meaningful as the “purity” of music, but it doesn’t. As evident from much of the above-quoted dialogue, the film continually denounces the inferior, compromised nature of verbal language: Amy’s shallow mastery of evasive psychological jargon and witty repartee; the empty-headed teenyboppers who buy records only “to learn the words;” Martin’s lament that artists like him “can’t…say what we mean.” Indeed, the conclusion of Martin’s story, and the meaning of his emotional and artistic journey, is not expressed but “contained” in and through verbal language. It is a language spoken by others: instead of seeing Martin overcome his demons or hearing him master, on his own, an expressive yet non-self-destructive musical methodology, “Smoke” resolves Martin’s story didactically by interpreting its lesson directly to the viewer.
And though the final scene between Martin and Jo is one of musical collaboration, this collaboration nonetheless favors verbal communication over musical feeling. Martin is now able to improvise within the strictures of the pop music format, but he does so largely to support the lyrics Jo vocalizes. Thus, the culminating artistic creation of Young Man is a cultural product that, rather than splitting consumers “wide open” by exposing them to a longing for artistic transcendence that is irreconcilable with the demands of industry and commerce, instead reinforces rational language’s hegemony among various modes of artistic expression. Young Man suggests that, over and above the uncontrollable, unmanageable potentialities of instrumental music, rational language, even in the form of sung lyrics, can make sense of — by effectively denying — society’s ideological contradictions and tensions.
If Young Man reveals the unsatisfactory status of its own ideological resolution, it does so not so much due to the intentional strategies of a crafty auteur, but rather due to the limitations of generic formula. Again, this isn’t to denigrate Curtiz. The distanciation effects that Wood sees Hitchcock employing in Shadow, and that I see Hitchcock using in Rope, are the marks of a self-conscious auteur who achieved a level of autonomy within the classical Hollywood system that few of his peers ever claimed. Through such signature moves, Hitchcock subverted many — if not all — aspects of his projects’ expected ideological conformity, even if the same signature moves often showcased the Master’s own inadequate “answers” (misogyny, homophobia, a retreat into a religiously informed, “postlapsarian” view of societal evils) to the contradictions and tensions of capitalist ideology.
Young Man’s ideological cracks and fissures, by contrast, result from a mismatch: the mismatch between, on the one hand, Curtiz’s stylized, noir-ish rendering of his protagonist’s struggle for self-expression within a capitalist culture industry that demands his artistic domestication, and, on the other hand, the resolution of that struggle through melodramatic storytelling devices and third-act “emergency exits” (to borrow a Douglas Sirk phrase that Wood also quotes). In Rope, Hitchcock complicates his killers’ longing for artistic transcendence by foregrounding the extraordinary similarities their murderous realization of that transcendence bears to his audience’s anti-social desires in partaking of art. In Young Man, Martin’s longing for artistic transcendence is melodramatically depicted as wholly other to the desires of the audience, who are encouraged to root for the correction of Martin’s longings so that he can enter into a functional career and family life.
Yet when Curtiz represents Martin’s longings via noir, the irreconcilable demands of capitalist ideology — the fulfillment of individual dreams versus the compromise of one’s individualism for the sake of social communion — become the stuff of beautiful, romanticized tragedy, a sort of visual correlative to Martin’s fatal desire for creative emancipation. Though Young Man attempts a melodramatic recuperation of Martin’s musical and Curtiz’s noir excesses, it’s the latter that leave traces, however faint, of the creative longing for the Real, a longing that has not been disproven by the film as untenable, but dubiously dismissed as an alternative to capitalist ideology and the limitations of commercial art.
Wood, Robin. “Ideology, Genre, Auteur.” Film Theory & Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Eighth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 526-536. Print.
Their dynamic is remarkably similar to the one between Douglas’s Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn’s Paul Gaugin in Lust for Life (1956), a movie I avoided writing about for this series due to Van Gogh’s overdetermined status in Western culture as the prototypical “mad artist.”
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