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Colloquial Film Studies

The Power of the Missing Companion          


How should we tackle film studies, academically or colloquially? While there is much talk about the different approaches to film – psychoanalytic, structuralist, cognitivist, phenomenological and so on – there is still usually the assumption that film should be looked at as an academic subject – a discipline. Where the jobbing reviewer can comment as if propping up the bar and throw a few opinions around, doesn’t film as a serious subject demand more rigorous analysis? Shouldn’t it lose the colloquial? But of course not every conversation in the bar need be casual; for there is often a rigour of intent that has little to do with the rigour of discipline. While the latter might insist on structure; the former offers purpose. When David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson suggest a how-to-guide in writing an essay, they note that all the examples they give (essays on Breathless, High School, His Girl Friday and others) adhere to a basic structure: “Introduction: Background information: statement of thesis. Body: Reasons to believe the thesis. Evidence and examples that support the thesis. Conclusion: Restatement of thesis and discussion of its broader implications.” (Film Art: An Introduction) This is a one size fits all approach that will probably say more about how to write a conventional essay than allow one to examine one’s responses to the work. It is a formal method and not a colloquial approach.

What we find more interesting is Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s remark in Negative Space: “Burrowing into the movie, which includes extending the piece, collaging a whole article with pace changes, multiple tones, getting different voices in it.” Of course Bordwell and Thompson, Farber and Patterson are talking about putting words on the page, but that is only one aspect of looking at film. There is also the verbal approach to cinema, talking about it or teaching it. Jonathan Rosenbaum in ‘The Criticism of Manny Farber’ discusses Farber’s lecturing style. “He gave a standup routine, performed without notes and delivered in extended snatches, like lengthy jazz solos, between successive reels of whatever movie he was showing”. This is surely indicative of the colloquial. Here Farber also seems to be burrowing into films, and there is no reason why the sensibility, whether writing on, talking about, or teaching cinema, need differ greatly.

This approach rejects the formal demands of what should be taught, and replaces it with what needs to be known. Now what ought to be taught would be the discipline of film studies: Expressionism and Soviet Montage, Neo-realism and the New Wave, New Hollywood and New German Cinema historically. Psychoanalysis, structuralism, formalism, semiotics and feminism theoretically; close-ups, establishing shots, the 180% degree rule, jumps cuts and parallel montage technically. One isn’t proposing these should be ignored; more that they should be absorbed, taken into account but not justified a priori. No doubt Soviet montage and the New Wave are important film movements, but what about the idea they are less valuable than the individual responses to individual films? If we show a clip from Breathless, what is interesting chiefly isn’t the use of jump cuts and that Jean-Luc Godard’s debut was one of the most important films of the French New Wave, but the reactions of those viewing it now. We might find ourselves talking about the film’s jumpiness, its impulsive approach to storytelling, its odd approach to motivation. But this won’t be to shoe-horn in ideas about the jump cut or the utilisation of what the French call temps mort (dead time), but to try and work with the feelings and thoughts the film evokes, and using the terms if they seem to best exemplify the reactions the film elicits. It is about seeing film studies as possessing what Stanley Cavell calls in The World Viewed “the power of the missing companion”. This is what he believes he finds in the best writing on cinema, a certain mode of conversation.


To understand better the type of analysis that interests us, we’ll discuss various films and muse over them with the idea that film studies can be intentful rather than disciplined, potentially provocative rather than predictably programmatic. To get us started let us think of the work of Michael Mann, the director of Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral and Public Enemies. Can we find a way into the work and to broader aesthetic questions through an aspect as trivial as the colour and style of someone’s hair? After all, perhaps the most significant approach resides in reading a film’s surface texture – in creating a subjective, personal response rather than in strenuous, often symbolic or formalist interpretation. This is not so much to deny or accept the intentional fallacy; more to invert it. We are concerned with the intentions of the critic more than the intentions of the filmmaker. Yet this intentionality on the part of the critic should ideally coincide with the instincts of the director, for better or for worse – in defence or in attack. For example, if we are going to criticize a film we need to understand the ‘failed’ instincts of the director; the positive instincts in relation to praise. What exactly we mean by this can be best explained by thinking about specific works, and here is where Mann comes in.

We could look at Public Enemies and explore why it is a work consistent with Mann’s oeuvre but not an interesting film: why the director’s instinct seems to have failed him. Of course this begs the question to whom it is seen as a failure, but as we have already proposed, to the critic, teacher or student. What we base our criticism upon is the importance of the film to Mann and his oeuvre, but its insignificance to the students who feel the film doesn’t quite work. Now critically we could leave it more or less at that: there are other Mann films that are more dynamic and forceful, better structured and with finer performance. Or we can work within the discipline of film studies and all but leave behind this gut response, passing it off as no more significant than a bout of indigestion, and instead concentrate on the formal properties announced, generic purpose outlined, and technical procedures confronted. Yet if we stay in the area of the colloquial response, we can nevertheless talk about Mann’s work without reducing it to opinion, and equally understand our own inaffectivity in the face of the film. Firstly we might note that the work shares similarities with a number of other Mann movies. Thief, Heat and Collateral are all interested in the criminal who cannot readily change his ways because he is existentially at one with the work he does. Manhunter and Heat focus on the contrasting fortunes of cop and criminal, and in Thief and Heat Mann is fascinated by the possibility of love in a world that makes you vulnerable when your existence has been predicated on a calculated selfishness, no matter one’s sense of honour.

All these elements and themes are present and correct in Public Enemies as it looks at the late period of gangster John Dillinger’s life. Yet it is an empty film, and we could do worse than explore this vacuousness through the problem of Johnny Depp possessing short hair and a clean shaven look on this occasion, in Mann’s move from celluloid to digital, from an aqua grey colour scheme to a burnished brown visual approach, and through the idea that where Public Enemies is period set, Michael Mann is generally a filmmaker who works best in contemporary milieux. By looking at these elements within the context of Mann’s work, we are simultaneously trying to understand the director’s aesthetic motivations while illustrating the artistic limitation of his vision when working with certain actors, settings and colour schemes. Thus central to the problem wouldn’t only be casting Johnny Depp, nor even his short hair, but that his hair in the film isn’t grey. This is the ‘superficial’ meeting the profound, where any interpretation takes place through the most apparently insignificant of details.

Why is grey or lightly greying hair so important to a number of Mann’s protagonists, from William Peterson in Manhunter, to Robert De Niro in Heat and to Tom Cruise in Collateral? It reflects both time scheme and colour scheme, psychology and behaviour. A hint of grey hair is a metonym for worry and for eminence in one’s field, and Mann often deals with perfectionist characters that have spent a long time doing what they do. They also live in a world that is slightly bleached and look towards horizontals exemplified by De Niro’s house in Heat, and the sea it looks out on. One has earned the right to peace, Mann’s films sometimes seem to be saying, but does Depp give this impression of life as unavoidable threat? In most of the films for which he is known – Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Arizona Dream, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape…he is youthful rather than eminent, vulnerable rather than assured. It is as though Mann couldn’t find a way into Depp’s persona, to create a plausible move into maturity. Did he manage this with Cruise because of the grey hair the actor sported, so that there was just enough drive and ambition in that persona – in Top Gun, The Firm, Mission Impossible – to justify Cruise as an assassin? Did Mann fail to find this in Depp, and would the sporting of grey hair on the actor (no matter the baldness in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) look silly?

This is a brief critique of Public Enemies based on appearances – based chiefly on the importance of grey hair in much of Mann’s work. Where Ali and Last of the Mohicans fits, and how Pacino’s black-haired character in Heat functions might be worth exploring, or where the greyer Tom Sizemore fits in. In relation to Pacino’s character does De Niro seem the more Mann-like figure because of the eminence of his burgeoning greyness? What we have done is criticise the film superficially, but one hopes not unfairly.

But what about praising a film based on the same approach? In Coming Home, for example, one can talk of  Jane Fonda’s perm, which becomes not so much a metonym for her sexual emancipation (which is more or less how critic Peter Lev reads it in American Films of the Seventies), but for her self-expression, self-doubt and basic identity. After all, her character, a conservative military wife, has the perm before she has sex with her lover, and near the end of this film about a woman whose officer husband goes off and fights in Vietnam while she stays at home helping war veterans, she tells her husband, for whom she has been straightening her hair for years, that it has been naturally curly. In Nicole Kidman, David Thomson emphasises this type of filmic analysis, even if he is wary of what we can do with it. ”But the face in Birth is one that has not grown in the ten years of mourning. The close haircut is less harsh than undeveloped, boyish, or adolescent. Are these decisions? Do we have the right to read them as information.” As he contrasts Kidman and Julia Roberts, he talks of how often Roberts would use her mouth, and how much more Kidman uses her eyes before commenting a great deal on Kidman’s haircut in the film. These are characteristics of the actor, not simply a dimension of the performance. Kidman’s hair is a narrative in itself, an unruly bush in films like Dead Calm and Billy Bathgate early in her career, but often tamed and controlled in anything from To Die For, Eyes Wide Shut and Dogville.

If in Public Enemies Depp’s hairstyle doesn’t work in the context of a Michael Mann film, in Coming Home Fonda suits well the frizzy hair that has such narrative significance. We’re proposing the important out of the trivial, and we could do worse than look seriously at the trivial to understand a film’s success or failure on paradoxically more than a superficial level. That Gene Hackman is going bald makes for good casting in The French Connection as it metonymises the stress of the job. Warren Beatty’s luxuriant head of hair in Shampoo captures a certain vain blindness, the grey-haired James Stewart and Cary Grant in the fifties suited Hitchcock’s visual schema in Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest; black hair would have perhaps been too dark for Hitchcock’s colourist mise-en-scene. By the same reckoning, Anthony Perkins’ black hair in Psycho captures well the darkness of his character in one of Hitchcock’s most expressionist works: his last black and white film, and a detour after working for most of the fifties in colour.

This is not to say that the haircut is necessarily symbolic, intentional, metonymic or narratively purposeful. It is simply to say that out of the apparently most insignificant detail the film’s deepest meaning can come. If Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida differentiated between the studium aspect of a photograph (its average effect and general meaning) and the punctum (the detail which strikes the observer), then maybe we can talk of the narrational and the trivial. Finally none of the films above would ostensibly be very different with a black-haired Cary Grant in North by Northwest, a mop-topped Gene Hackman in The French Connection, or a shorter haired or long-haired Johnny Depp in Public Enemies, in the way that making Grant’s character an assassin in North by Northwest, Gene Hackman’s a drug dealer in The French Connection, or Depp’s a cop in Public Enemies would. But how can we be sure that it isn’t often the trivial that can prove vital to what makes a great film rather than a good one and vice versa? After all, don’t critics implicitly acknowledge this with the notion of miscasting? (Think of Casablanca with Ronald Reagan in the role of Rick.)


Of course some might claim that our analysis has escaped the trivial because it has invoked the semiotic. Roland Barthes after all analyses the haircuts in Julius Caesar to investigate how sign systems work in our culture, and wine and milk in another of the essays contained in Mythologies. But if Barthes wanted to utilise his observations for the purposes of a semi-scientific analysis of how signs work, evident in the essay that closes the collection, ‘Myth Today’, we are more interested in a form of film studies that plays up the personally affecting and undermines the search for a system. Barthes says thus: “It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system, the language (or the modes of representation which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the language object, because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and myth itself, which I shall call a metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first.” Barthes’ purpose is to search out a system; our purpose in a colloquial approach to films studies is to rationalise a feeling. This doesn’t mean that there is no semiotic function to this response, but that the important aspect is not the system that allows for the feeling to be felt, but the singularity of that feeling the person wants to express.

One can think here of substances in film: wine and milk perhaps, but also whisky, beer, tea and coffee, vodka and fresh orange juice, and wonder how they can be utilized in film. We could analyse their presence just as we could analyse haircuts in the movies we have already talked about, but rather than doing so for the purposes of semiotic comprehension, why not do so for the needs of immediate emotional judgement? Let us think of two liquids: tea and milk. In Felicia’s Journey tea is the drink of choice for the central character preying on young women: it is the reassuring brew that can all the better bring out the phrase tea and sympathy. Coffee indicates a drink that we don’t quite sink into, but that is more inclined to wake us up. Whatever the arguments about the caffeine content of each beverage, coffee is often seen as the drink of get up and go; tea is a lighter liquid that puts us at our ease. Felicia’s Journey was directed by Canadian Atom Egoyan from William Trevor’s novel, and if it appears a less successful work than the Canadian features that preceded it – films like The Adjuster, Exotica and Family Viewing – it may rest on the film not quite being ‘tea-like’ enough. This would seem a very odd statement to make theoretically, but perhaps an interesting claim to offer if one manages to follow through on the initial perception. We aren’t alluding to the superhighway of critical appreciation – the narrative was weak, the images clichéd, the performances stilted – but instead the byroads that allow us to comprehend why the film doesn’t quite work. It is as though if Trevor understands the subtle significance of tea in the English and Irish mindset, one might feel it has no place in the Egoyan universe. Just as we can talk of miscasting in acting; can we not also talk about its equivalent in directing? One commentator on Mubi proposed “it possibly could have been Neil Jordan material given the setting, situation and characters.”

One needn’t regard Felicia’s Journey as a failure; just see it as a less interesting Egoyan film than the others we have mentioned, and wonder whether this has anything to do with tea having a prosaic function in Trevor’s work that can nevertheless lead to the murderous, where in Egoyan’s film it takes on the ‘empty’ suspense of Hitchcock. In Hitchcock this empty suspense is often the very point – the McGuffin he would frequently talk about which would mean the detail was secondary to the tension he wanted to generate. The government secrets on the micro film in North by Northwest aren’t of much importance, but they do set the film in motion. In this sense the McGuffin is the opposite of the semiotic symbol: its purpose isn’t to connote a broader reality, but to shrink it down to the exigencies of pure suspense.

Egoyan isn’t a Hitchcockian director in the same way, despite once directing an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his acknowledged admiration for the master when saying, “he was so good at those technical tricks – but the thing that makes Vertigo so moving is that it transcends all that. It operates at the level of a fever dream. It really feels to be his most personal work; some of the stuff he was dealing with was so private.” (S. F. Said, The Daily Telegraph) But suspense has usually interested Egoyan less than portent. If Hitchcock often created neurotic, psychologically damaged characters (Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, Scottie in Vertigo, Norman Bates in Psycho) he did so to varying degrees for the narrative tension that could come out of this neurotic element. Of course sometimes the films contained within them a psychic complexity that we still fuss over even now (none more so than Vertigo), but it seems usually like a by-product of the work than the core of it. Egoyan is unlikely to be called a master of suspense, but he is often instead referred to as the master of faulty mourning: of the perverse ways in which his characters deal with grief. If he admires Vertigo so much it is that it fits into his own problematic. But if we reckon Felicia’s Journey is a good but not great film is it because the tea is a little too Hitchcockian – that it doesn’t quite justify itself as a drink of substance, but as a device for getting the girls back to the house? We don’t sense the tea-ness of the tea, but simply that this is the most appropriate drink given the social context. Would a British or Irish director have played up the importance of tea in the culture, rather than chiefly its importance as a dramatic device?

The critic Stuart Klawans once said in The Nation that he could tell whether a film was good or bad based on whether the suitcase a character picked up seemed plausibly full, and while Hitchcock might be as good a filmmaker as any to counter this claim, nevertheless it is often useful in sensing a film’s aesthetic verisimilitude. After all film is seen as fundamentally realistic an art form, so much so that for a good period of its history some doubted that the cinema was an art because of its capacity to capture the real with the minimum of effort. “What are the properties of a machine which make it a viable art form?” Dudley Andrews asked in The Major Film Theories. Werner Herzog wondered whether if film was an art whether it was one for illiterates. The great realist critic Andre Bazin answered by saying much of its art lay in accepting the ontological ambiguity of reality that the film could capture in the very filming. If film as a recording device made it much harder for the filmmaker to capture exactly what they wanted, where the painter had a far greater opportunity to control the objects that he chose to illustrate, then this was the strength of cinema and not its weakness. If Bazin is right, then the suitcase needs to look full if a character comes off a train after a holiday.

This is consistent with the Bazinian, and yet perhaps antithetical to the Hitchcockian. If Hitchcock could famously claim that cinema for him was a slice of cake rather than a slice of life, then what he would often do is utilize the small detail not for its capacity to invoke the realistic, but to anticipate the dramatic. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1: The Movement Image has talked of the demark in the director’s work: those details that leave us feeling that something is untoward. The windmill that is turning the wrong way in Foreign Correspondent is a deliberate play on the realistic as we realize that we are in a world of tension and duplicity. Thus when Deleuze says “Hitchcock introduces the mental image into the cinema,” central to Hitchcock’s films is this detail that does not serve the real but counters it for the generation of ‘mental suspense’. We find ourselves wondering why the windmill is turning the wrong way and do not immerse ourselves in the moment as realistic image, but see the shot as a question we are expected to muse over, work out and work with. “Essential to every Hitchcock film”, David Thomson says, “is this awareness the director has of his spectator. It conceives of the spectator as an economic generalization and there is an element of sadism in the devices inflicted. In one way Hitchcock’s film are un-cinematic: his images are most effective when most contrived.” (Movie Man)

Here we can return to the issue of substances. The glass of milk in Suspicion is one of the most famous images of liquids in cinema. “I put a light in the milk”, Hitchcock said in interview with Francois Truffaut (Hitchcock), creating an image of utter implausibility but of suspenseful intent. Fontaine’s suspicious wife is sure that her husband Cary Grant wants to kill her; and the director adds to the suspicion by making the milk luminous. Someone simply concerned with a cinema that must make the suitcase full might feel that Hitchcock isn’t quite doing justice to film, but this is where attending to the small details can help us comprehend the differing projects within the medium. If we feel that Egoyan’s tea isn’t tea-like enough, this is because we believe he isn’t interested in the exigencies of suspense but in the problem of character. In Hitchcock it is the reverse and the glass of milk illustrates this perfectly.


When Roland Barthes in Mythologies talks about wine and milk in French culture he says: “Being essentially a function whose terms can change, wine has at its disposal apparently plastic powers: it can serve as an alibi to dream as well as reality, it depends on the users of the myth.” Anti-wine in French mythology is milk: “Wine is mutilating, surgical, it transmutes and delivers; milk is cosmetic, it joins, covers, restores.” But Barthes also suggests that in American film it functions differently, where the “hero, strong and uncompromising, did not shrink from having a glass of milk.” When we look at films we can do worse than attend to the apparently irrelevant better to see what makes a film work. If Barthes is right in noticing the differences between French and American culture, then a filmmaker attending to the real, who nevertheless fails to understand ‘mythological’ nationalisms, might arrive at a less interesting film no matter the apparent strength of the narrative, camerawork and performances. Often a film fails because of this problem: it neither becomes an opportunity for suspense, nor an interrogation of the real. Does this partly explain why Felicia’s Journey is not one of Egoyan’s best flms? If Hitchcock masterfully found several ways in which to deny the real for the furthering of narrative, then ‘realist’ directors like Maurice Pialat, Ken Loach and the Dardennes give density and texture to the detail and arrive at sociological specificity.

If Hitchcock has the microfilm in North by Northwest as a narrative spur and the windmill going in the wrong direction in Foreign Correspondent to set the audience thinking about the untoward, and the luminous glass of milk exaggerating the audience’s fears in Suspicion, then these are all consistent with the hyperbolized image: the detail that furthers narrative far more than it fills out the plausibility of the milieu. Pialat, Loach and The Dardennes also allow their work to contain tension, but will insist that it does so within the context of realism and not to the detriment of it. In The Child, by the Dardennes, the central character Bruno is a small time wheeler and dealer who seems to see everything as an opportunity for trade, and so decides to sell for a good price the baby his girlfriend has just given birth to. On paper this sounds unlikely perhaps, a chance to set a story in motion, but the Dardennes work very hard to create a milieu in which such an activity would have its own logic, and not only a narratological one. Set around the post-industrial city of Liege in Belgium, the directors avoid a music soundtrack and film very close to their characters, as if seeking to understand motivation from the inside rather than expecting us to apply judgement from the outside. The film’s most suspenseful scene comes when Bruno tries to buy the child he has sold back, and the directors simply hold to Bruno’s perspective when he goes to return the cash he has received, and hopes to find his baby in the garage next door. There is no driving music here, no crosscutting between Bruno and his girlfriend elsewhere fretting over the baby’s return (she is comatose in hospital after hearing the horrifying news that her child’s been sold). It is as though the Dardennes want to take what in Hollywood parlance would be a high-concept storyline, and utilise it for the purposes of low-living. There is great suspense in the moment where we wait to find out if the baby is next door or whether Bruno has been ripped off, but the tension is contained by the shock of the real: the permutations of poverty attached to Bruno’s decision, without at all reducing it to special pleading on the part of the character. Bruno is presented as feckless and lazy, but the film is careful not to insist that these are fundamental qualities, but attributes: as the pragmatic characteristics of an underclass man on the make. When for part of the film we see Bruno pushing an empty pram around and that he will eventually sell cheaply, it is the reverse of Klawan’s suitcase but serves a similar function. It is not heavy with content, but light with its very absence. It feels real because it is consequential: Bruno no longer has the baby initially because he sells it; later because his girlfriend wants nothing to do with him. In another director’s work the pram would be an irrelevant object: useful if a baby is in it; useless if not. In the Dardennes’ work it is usefully useless.

Loach and Pialat are very different filmmakers, with Loach political to the detriment of aesthetics; Pialat aesthetic to the detriment of the political. Where Loach expects scenes to crystallize so completely on the political dimension that even a hardy Left-Winger like Judith Williamson, in a Sight and Sound review of My Name is Joe, baulks a little at Loach’s ‘keynote speeches’, Pialat is so involved in the intricacies of his characters’ lives, and so attuned to the ambiguities of a situation, that no ready political content can be extracted from the work. Yet both directors are interested like the Dardennes in the importance of the object not as a Hitchcockian narrative device, but for its objectness. One uses the word ‘objectness’, or thingness, rather differently from the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. Where novelist turned filmmaker Robbe-Grillet in For a New Novel frets over the fact that we are “drowned in the depth of things”, “where man ultimately no longer even perceives them”, and where Robbe-Grillet thus demands an abstract world of things denied ready human centring, the objectness of a realist filmmaker is to rescue the thing from the lazy assumption (albeit brilliantly mastered by Hitchcock) that allows many filmmakers to use objects as narrative playthings. The pram in The Child isn’t a prop; it is an object serving several functions: it is the pram the baby sits in, the useless empty object Bruno wanders around with, and finally the object that he gets some money on when he sells it. In Loach’s Kes, the bird is the narrative thread winding its way through the story. Yet the bird at no point loses its birdness even as the story turns on its death after the brother angrily takes his irritation out on the kestrel when Billy fails to put money down on a horse for his brother, and where the horse goes on to win. This tale set in a mining town at the end of the sixties possesses a symbolic dimension: it is based on Barry Hines’ book A Kestrel for a Knave, alluded to in a 15th century poem, but the film’s appeal rests chiefly on its realism. When Graham Fuller says to Loach, “it is a symbol of egalitarianism”, Loach replies, exactly, “it is the bird for the riff-raff of the world.” Loach adds, “the world just isn’t prepared to take on board the fact that he has this talent and imagination, because he’s expected to work down the pit all his life…” (Loach on Loach) The symbolic aspect is irrelevant next to the social one.

Maurice Pialat, however, believes “What I understand by realism goes beyond reality…The cinema transforms something sordid into something marvellous. It makes the ordinary exceptional.” (Mubi) Pialat gives us a cinema of fluctuating meaning through refusing scenic signposting. If Loach demands that the symbolic quickly becomes absorbed into the reality as he wants the story to serve the social, Pialat is interested so little in ready meaning that the story, the social and the symbolic are all contained by a radical sense of observation. The behaviour of title character Loulou, his girlfriend Nelly and her ex is ‘meaningless’ (relatively apolitical) in Loachian terms, but meaningful in Pialat’s: in the elevation of the ordinary by the cinematographic. Here what counts is not that the story is told, but that the reality seems true.  Whether it is a family member going half-mad near the end of Loulou, the presence of harsh off-screen sounds when Sandrine Bonnaire walks into a bar in To Our Loves, or the death rattle as the mother dies of cancer in The Mouth Agape, Pialat chronicles the real as the harsh. As Bonnaire’s character says in To Our Lives, after a friend asks if she regrets sleeping with someone: “No, but it’s ugly.” Pialat gives weight to his characters the way Klawans expected a director to give weight to a suitcase. Indeed, so weighted are Pialat’s protagonists, so complex and devoid of ready motivations which set narrative in motion, that no story can easily build and propel them forward.

Hitchcock we have seen is the master not only of suspense but of a certain type of cinematic weightlessness. Yet this needn’t only reside in his attitude to objects, but to subjects (persons) too. He gives to character a narrative lightness that all the better propels the story. We can think of the numerous characters the director has created playing up false identity in one form or another: The Wrong Man, North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho etc. Pialat is the opposite, offering characters heavy with self, and where much of the tension in the films rests on their inconsistent, impetuous and impulsive reactions to others. Pialat is also a master of suspense, but it is a tension that doesn’t go anywhere narratively, but reverberates within the drama of the given situation. It figured that Pialat would compare his 1972 film We Won’t Grow Old Together to Ravel, saying in a Premiere interview: “It was very repetitive—it was really like Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ A lot of people who saw the film and liked it asked themselves how I could have sustained something so slight: a guy drives a girl crazy who finally leaves him. So it’s necessarily the same scenes that come back again and again.” If we earlier proposed that Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey was less interesting than his prior Canadian films it is perhaps because we see Egoyan as more Pialat than Hitchcock, and that Felicia’s Journey slightly reversed this emphasis as the tension became externalised. This of course isn’t to say Hitchcock didn’t offer complex characterisation (Vertigo, RearWindow and Marnie are just three containing emotional complexities far beyond narrative need), but that nevertheless this complexity still emphasised the forward thrust of story, not the emotional dawdling on character. When we indicate that a cup of tea becomes a narrative device rather than an object of sociological contemplation or character subtlety in Felicia’s Journey, we are using the object to comprehend a larger problem of film form and feeling. But what we don’t want to do is simply say that the specific exemplifies the general. It might; it might not. But if the specific leads to more useful generalisations then that is all to the well and good.


One can see this problem of generalizing from the particular if we muse over the car in film. Hitchcock might have filmed numerous car sequences, but if we think of the great car chases in cinema, Hitchcock wasn’t responsible for any of them. As Popular Mechanics lists Ronin, The French Connection, Vanishing Point, Bullitt and To Live and Die in LA as amongst the best chase sequences in cinema history, there is no place for Hitchcock. Of course this is partly because the chase sequence came into its own around the time of Bullitt, with most of the examples coming from post-68; yet perhaps it resides more in Hitchcock’s interest in observation finally over action. There are frenetic car scenes in Suspicion and North by Northwest, but the quieter ones in Vertigo and Psycho (where Marion is on the run but not yet being chased) are surely better known, and much more influential. Thus what is interesting is that the famous sequence where Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco would seem to have influenced artistic film much more than commercial cinema. Taxi Driver, A Taste of Cherry, La Captive and Vendredi soir all have scenes indebted to the car as a purring, prowling presence passing through the streets with no hint of haste.

The car is a vehicle not of speed but of perception as it idles along and allows the driver to feel in the world but at one remove. Most of the scenes have a slightly hallucinogenic quality, and the music used (in Vertigo, Taxi Driver and Vendredi soir) isn’t adrenaline inducing but more inclined to lull us towards sleep.  The sequences evoke Gilles Deleuze’s distinction between agents and seers, between those who act strongly to given situations, as opposed to those who are more inclined to observe or be constrained by them. “The optical and sound situations of neo-realism contrast with the strong sensory-motor situations of traditional realism. The space of a sensory-motor situation is a setting which is already specified and presupposes an action which discloses it, or prompts a reaction which adapts or modifies it.” (Cinema 2: The Time Image) The latter could describe well the car chase; the former the car as used by Denis, Scorsese and Hitchcock. How the car happens to be utilised in cinema is a strong indicator of the type of film we are watching. We can see once again how the colloquial attention to the object and the everyday can open up questions about film aesthetics.

In Bullitt, The French Connection, The Driver, The Bourne Identity and Drive, the chase offers the unequivocal – the characters aren’t in their heads and in the action; they are in the deed. We don’t wonder what might be passing through their mind. The action is absolutely focusing it. The films create anticipatory feelings instead of reflective ones, with the viewer engaged in the task to the detriment of other potential thoughts we might have over the character’s behaviour. In this sense the chase sequence is usually mindless: our minds and the characters’ are concentrated only on the job to hand. Yet often the best car chases nevertheless sometimes possess a dimension of mindlessness that is more zen than thug, more meditation than aggression. In both Bullitt and The Driver the mayhem is well-evident in the screeching tyres and horn beeping in the former, in the acceleration and sirens in the latter, but watch the look on Steve McQueen and Ryan O’Neal’s faces and we are witnessing characters in the zone of absolute concentration. There is nothing like driving at sixty-plus miles an hour in a city centre to concentrate the mind. Thus, while the two men in the back seat in O’Neal’s car look fretful and all over the place, O’Neal is as cool as a breeze and yet completely unruffled as he focuses on the road in front of him. McQueen has no one in his back seat, and is chasing rather than chased, but it is no less a scene of supreme focus as he concentrates not only on the road ahead but also the car in front of him. It is the sort of scene that would always appeal to McQueen’s appreciation of silence. As biographer Christopher Sandford noted: “Bullitt’s two most famous sequences, the car chase and the stunt at the airport, were both played out without McQueen saying a word.” (McQueen) The chase sequences in Bullitt and The Driver also play out without the use of music, as if the drivers themselves wanted not even the non-diegetic interruption. In Drive, Ryan Gosling is the eminently quiet professional in the film’s early chase scene.

Nevertheless, the car chase is sensory-motor action exemplified. If De Niro in Taxi Driver, Valerie Lemercier in Vendredi soir and James Stewart in Vertigo suddenly accelerated off in chase of another vehicle we would be in a different type of image structure altogether. Part of the irony evident in Bullitt, The Driver and Drive (The French Connection is quite different), is the calm the characters display despite the chaos surrounding them. It is as though if one were to ask O’Neal about the sirens during his escape, he would reply “What sirens?” and the car chase can prove a marvellous example of character consistent with an American type. When Barthes talks in Mythologies about the American hero not shirking from a glass of milk, is it because masculinity in American cinema is less object specific than task specific? Though in Bullitt the car used is a modified version of McQueen’s own 390 GT Mustang, often the cars in American films are borrowed or stolen vehicles where the character defines himself not through its importance as synecdoche, through the way this singular thing reflects their whole personality, but as a task. What matters here would not be the things we own and which reflect who we are, but the things one can use and deploy to illustrate assertive masculinity.

This brings to mind two comments, one from John Orr; another from Robert McKee.  Orr in Cinema and Modernity sees that the borrowed or stolen car is less magical than the owned vehicle and says that “whatever else they are, both Wild at Heart and Thelma and Louise are own-car movies”. But The French Connection and The Bourne Identity play up the idea that the car belongs to someone else, and then shows the audacious recklessness of Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin’s film, and the virtuosity of Jason Bourne in the adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel. Part of the pleasure lies in how quickly they adjust to an alien vehicle. Popeye is picking things up as he goes along; Bourne smoothly shows he is at home in any car at all. This leads us into McKee’s remark that “pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little.” (Story) McKee is generalizing here from a useful particular. He thinks that this is true of all drama; we need merely to say it has its uses in certain contexts and the car chase is one of them. What matters isn’t who owns the car, but the dexterity with which one handles the vehicle. This is a pressure situation without the safe haven of ownership. Even if the car happens to be borrowed or stolen, it reflects the personality of a certain type of character. By looking at the manner in which a car is deployed in film we can say a lot about character, action and situation. If Popeye had flagged down another car it would have reflected on the sequence, even if the film gives the impression that the vehicle is completely contingent. It is a Pontiac and thus very American, first introduced by General Motors in 1926, and in the film part of the can-do spirit offered by Popeye as he courses and curses down the wrong lane in pursuit of the sniper on the train above. In The Bourne Identity it is a British Mini Cooper, compact and capable of fitting into confined spaces; Bourne takes advantage of its capacity for taking tight corners and going through narrow lanes. The car may be the property of Famke Potente’s character, but it serves Bourne’s needs very well indeed. Neither car as semiotic symbol is indicative of their driver’s personality during the chase sequences, but the chase sequence itself illustrates their character: their ability to improvise with what they have been given. It makes the scene task specific rather than object focused. This is very different from Richard Gere’s Mercedes Benz 450 SL in American Gigolo, or the red Porsche in Le vent de la nuit. These are cars in which we can comprehend aspects of the leading characters’ psyche. The Mustang in Bulllitt is perhaps a major car presence because it is a semiotic tool of character comprehension, and also a vehicle of immense task accomplishment.


To finish off, let us say a few words about shoes. In a fine essay on the early nineties French film The Lover, by Jean-Jacques Annaud, Serge Daney commented on a shot in the film which shows what the seducer is wearing on his feet. Daney says these aren’t any old pair of shoes, and what he especially dislikes is the lingering laziness of the camera as it feels obligated to register this fact. Wouldn’t a better film make us well aware of their presence without pushing them in our face? Daney’s point isn’t trivial: he uses the close-up of the shoes to comment on a general crudeness he sees at work in the film, just as he had earlier attacked Claude Berri’s Uranus for a detail that he sees exemplified the film’s facile historical sense. “Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on. In a scene where she is reading in bed, the actress Danièle Lebrun is leafing through the pages of a film magazine of the time, probably Cinémonde. So far nothing wrong, except that it’s a real Cinémonde from that time, a collector’s piece with tattered pages and yellowed paper. In this choice of a period-Cinémonde over a copy of a Cinémonde from the period, there lies somewhere, halfway between second-hand shop and telefilm, the aesthetic principle of Uranus. And when the past has become that decorative, it has stopped making an impact on our present.” (Serge Daney in English)

Daney often practised criticism that would take a film personally, and while this sometimes included insults bordering on the ad hominem, his attention to the sort of details other critics would deem irrelevant frequently opened up bigger problems of the form and the ideological assumptions behind it. “If my memory serves me well (and I have no intention of seeing the film again to check), the first thing we see of the lover is one of his shoes,” he says of the Annaud film. “The shoe, extremely fashionable and expensive, is pointed towards the viewer, rather like a face, in a long, vacant close-up. A close-up which lasts long enough for the viewer to reach the following conclusion: these shoes don’t come from Dolcis and the feet which are wearing them aren’t just any old feet. And indeed in the following image we see the elegant, finely dressed form of the Chinese lover straightening out before us as he steps from his luxury car.” (Sight and Sound) This is the aesthetics of advertising: it removes the object possessing Bazinian weight, but doesn’t serve the sort of cerebral, narrative purpose the light image requires and that Hitchcock offered. Instead it becomes advertorial, and like the magazine from Uranus, an image that seems to be selling something rather than exploring or narrating.

Thus there are worse questions to ask in a film than what are the shoes’ function, whether it happens to be the undeniably expensive boots Kris Kristofferson takes an age to put on and take off in Heaven’s Gate, the ugly shoes Julia Roberts comments on and worn by the legal assistant in Erin Brokovich, the new pair Michel Piccoli buys himself in I’m Going Home, the running shoes found in a bin by one of the subjects in Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I, The Red Shoes that whisk Moira Shearer off to her death in Michael Powell’s film, the high heels of any number of femmes fatales in film noir.

Daney would presumably differentiate the shoe in noir from the shoe in a film like The Lover because the former functions as a light object that generates storytelling, where the advertorially light object which has meaning in the consumerist world of advertising doesn’t. When John Garfield watches Lana Turner in her bathing suit and heels in The Postman Always Rings Twice it carries the suspense of generic possibility: our assumption that here is a man who will allow his desire to take him wherever it must go. In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck is wearing what looks like high-heeled slippers when insurance man Fred MacMurray pays a visit. But this doesn’t undermine her sexuality; it plays it up ? as if MacMurray has already almost found his way into the bedroom. She is also wearing a conspicuous anklet that MacMurray enquires over.  When he leaves, arranging another meeting for the next night when her husband will be around, he asks if she will be there too. She replies that she usually is and MacMurray says “same chair, same perfume, same anklet.” Both MacMurray and the audience know that we are are already in quite deep, and any object of wealth displayed in the house is secondary to the plot it happens to be serving. The film might be called Double Indemnity, but the sequence is full of double entendres too: at one moment MacMurray hints at a pass and Stanwyck says there is a speed limit in the state as MacMurray asks how fast he was going and she says about ninety – twice the legal limit. The sexual tension is sublimated and yet pronounced.

Hollywood was of course called the Dream Factory, but it is a term that suits advertising much more than the studio system. Hollywood’s purpose was to generate narrative, and objects were lingered over more for the need to push the story along rather than pinning the object down for its product placement content. It isn’t that there were no examples of product placement in classic Hollywood; Wings promoted Hershey bars and we may notice the attention given to National Geographic in It’s a Wonderful Life. But when Total Film listed its fifty most significant moments of product placement in cinema, most came from contemporary American film. It seems to be this idea of what has been called ‘embedded marketing’ that troubles Daney. This isn’t necessarily because the film is selling a product, though it might be, more that it has damaged the image. It has so absorbed advertising that it shows us an object which neither possesses what Bazin would call the ontological ambiguity of reality as the object is there, nor the Hitchcockian love of the object (what purpose can we utilise it for as tension is generated?), but blindly: as if to say there is no question being asked of the image or about the image. This is partly why Daney sees filmmakers like Annaud and Berri as unthinking. He says of Annaud: “he doesn’t know, for example, that there are things which you see without really seeing them, and others which stare you in the face but don’t reflect any real experience; that there are moments when you must not make too much noise; that there are things which are omnipresent but insignificant, and others which are absent but powerful; that there are collective lies and partial truths ? in short, that there are experiences which cinema sometimes finds it hard to approach (yet its dignity lies in the attempt.)” (Sight and Sound) Of Berri: “Since apparently none of this occurred to Berri, he was happy to merely record the frequently lazy work of a group of popular actors trying to save their characters from lack of interest and stale folklore.”  (Serge Daney in English)

By looking at everyday aspects of film, from haircuts to shoes, from tea to milk, we can find ourselves not only discussing the content of cinema, but also find ways in which to ask questions about form, philosophy, ideology and power. How for example does Sergei Eisenstein present the sailors in Battleship Potemkin, how does Orson Welles indicate the immensity of Kane’s wealth in Citizen Kane? This can sit alongside the use of red lipstick in David Lynch’s films, and the fascination with the muscle vest worn by numerous women in cinema during the late eighties and early nineties: from the Alien movies to Twister. It can address  the brilliantly conventional editing in a car chase sequence, and muse over how puzzling the editing can be in radically formal works that we haven’t had the space to discuss here, like Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad. A colloquial approach to film needn’t be narrow nor frivolous, but can find its own notion of rigour by working with the ‘irrelevant’ to search out the pertinent.  


©Tony McKibbin