Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 4, February 2003

 

 

Ken Mogg

 

Small World

Deborah Thomas's _Beyond Genre_

 

 

Deborah Thomas

_Beyond Genre: Melodrama, Comedy and Romance in Hollywood Films_

Moffat, Dumfriesshire, Scotland: Cameron and Hollis, 2000

ISBN 0-9065506-17-4

142 pp.

 

On page 36 of _Beyond Genre_ Deborah Thomas says that she is going to 'recapitulate the argument so far'. While the ensuing 84-word sentence does start to describe an aspect of Nicholas Ray's _Bigger Than Life_ (1955), an 'argument' is slow to emerge. Unsettled, I decide to read the sentence again -- and then the rest of the paragraph. But I still don't find what I'm looking for. Instead, I'm simply informed of the film's husband-wife resentments, and a parenthesis tells me that James Mason's slippers are 'an apt symbol of . . . [would-be] domestic comfort' (37). None of this enthrals me. Oh, and the last sentence of the paragraph is 86 words long. [1]

 

In other words, I wouldn't dream of calling Thomas an incisive writer, though she can be both perceptive and industrious in describing aspects of mise-en-scene. Indeed, that perceptiveness is her strength and she applies it single-mindedly -- which of course is her *weakness*! In the instance just cited she seems to say: 'Well, so far I haven't really got much of an argument, so let me just carry on analysing, doing what I do best!' In the same chapter, called 'Melodramatic Masculinities', about the tendency of domestic melodrama to be stifling -- and to set up 'an imaginary elsewhere' for the male protagonist to retreat to -- it's ironic to read the following, this time about _The Incredible Shrinking Man_ (Jack Arnold, 1955):

 

'By moving Scott [Grant Williams] into so threadbare a symbolic battlefield [as a cellar] away from the complexities of human contact and the social domain, where much of interest could have been said about masculinity in 'fifties America, the film has painted itself into a corner' (29).

 

Ironic, because that's pretty much how I see Thomas's book. First, the author doesn't seem to me to possess (in a phrase of Truffaut's about the films of Resnais) the 'secondary discipline' to situate her perceptions in a broad arena: they remain emanations of a largely theoretical bent, and the theory itself is unexciting. (It may have some teaching merit, though.) Second, hardly at all do you feel, as you read the book, that Thomas is interested in the social domain in general, as a place of complex, often bizarre realities; hers is essentially an aesthetic temperament. Third, she seems to have chosen the -- surprisingly few -- films discussed in the book for their convenience, not just in fitting her theory, but to being interpreted in terms like 'stuffy versus free' and 'safe versus adventurous'.

 

For example, in the final chapter, on 'Romantic Fresh Starts', there's a remark about _An Affair To Remember_ (Leo McCarey, 1957) and the scene with Cary Grant's widowed grandmother in her hilltop isolation: Grant's 'inflection is stiff and formal here, befitting the airless qualities of this world' (103). (Why do I think of Hitchcock's _Psycho_ (1960), and what Marion Crane tells Norman, 'You'd know, of course!'? [2]) More importantly, Thomas's analysis of this brilliant film has failed to win my full confidence at the outset. She clearly is alert to its sophistication and its poetry -- no question -- but in a somehow repressed way. She has trouble, she tells us, with understanding the meaning of its title-song which accompanies a wintry view of New York. (The Empire State Building, where a key scene will occur, is just visible in the background -- another icon of would-be transcendence from on high.) The song runs as follows:

 

'Our love affair is a wondrous thing

That we'll rejoice in remembering.

Our love was born with our first embrace,

And a page was torn out of time and space.

Our love affair, may it always be

A flame to burn through eternity.

So take my hand with a fervent prayer

That we may live and we may share

A love affair to remember.' (99)

 

I have no problem with the presence here of both a future tense and a future-conditional tense: it is surely the privilege of the exalted state of mind of lovers that they may simultaneously speak of their love as both eternal and as forever in jeopardy. (An identical double-vision seems to me an integral part of Hitchcock's magical _The Trouble With Harry_ (1955) and of Harold Ramis's _Groundhog Day_ (1993) -- the latter discussed in _Beyond Genre_, the former not. The Hitchcock film even quotes from Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 116': 'Love's not time's fool . . .'.) Thomas, though, finds the words of the song 'decidedly odd':

 

'They simultaneously imply the early stages of a new romance . . . and anticipate looking back on it . . . an invitation from one lover to the other to embark on the love affair not so much for its own sake as for the prospect of being able to look back on it later when it's over.' (99)

 

I find this an ugly reading, a petty reading. (To invoke _The Trouble With Harry_ again, a roughly similar prospect to what Thomas is describing arises there when, late in the film, Sam (John Forsythe) and Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine) get engaged. Jennifer momentarily protests at losing her 'freedom', but Sam insists that, with him, she'll retain it. 'You must be practically unique, then', she responds. Meanwhile, the film has intimated the approach of winter, an honest acknowledgement of the mutability of all things -- but no rebuttal of the almost Bergsonian trust in the power of the 'elan vital' to change the way time itself appears. [3]) Crucially, I have no problem with the line, 'A love affair to remember': I can conceive of a love affair that is 'eternal', and in that sense not ended, yet which is 'remembered' by the lovers concerned, perhaps in their old age, as a kind of shoring-up against bodily ruin. Significantly, in _An Affair To Remember_, the Deborah Kerr character ends up immobilised in a wheelchair, but the Grant character has at long last found her again. 'So take my hand . . .'.

 

While reading Thomas's analysis of _An Affair To Remember_, I kept hoping that a note of incisive common sense might intrude for a moment: something like Kierkegaard's 'Life is to be lived forwards but understood backwards.' But it didn't happen. Similarly, as Thomas described the intricacies of _Groundhog Day_ (at the end of the chapter 'Comedic Masculinities', mainly given over to comedies of the 1940s and 50s -- only two post-1990 films are discussed in the entire book), I was hoping for some kind of acknowledgement that the film's philosophical ideas were not entirely new: again Kierkegaard, with his essay on 'Repetition', and Bergson, of _Creative Evolution_ fame, might seem worth citing. But this is a book born of the _Movie_ school -- by which I mean the school of 'film-as-film' criticism, so excitingly pioneered in the pages of _Movie_ which grew out of _Oxford Opinion_ in the 1960s -- whose founders were their own kind of brilliant 'movie brats' (forgive pun). That is, they tended to write of films, and the film 'world', in a very reflexive way, no doubt for specific polemical reasons. (Their bete noir was the Establishment journal _Sight and Sound_, so stuffy in its own way.) The original Editorial Board included Ian Cameron (this book's publisher), V. F. Perkins, Paul Mayersberg, and Mark Shivas, with Robin Wood and Raymond Durgnat hovering somewhere in the wings. The latter two, though, never seemed to exert sufficient influence to make _Movie_ a truly liberated journal. The outcome is a book like this. It is still citing the old _Movie_ favourites, like Hawks's _Monkey Business_ (1952) and Minnelli's _The Courtship of Eddie's Father_ (1953), as reference points, but in a distinctly hermetic way. (Note: Deborah Thomas is one of the current _Movie_ Editorial Board. [4])

 

Personally, I'm not sure that I don't like the film _Bedtime for Bonzo_ (Frederick de Cordova, 1951) more than _Monkey Business_. I can see how Hawks may have noted the former's strong points -- in particular, its central performance by Bonzo the chimpanzee -- but have felt that they were vitiated by the direction or just not 'fun' in his rather elitist sense of that term. A near-identical reaction against the humanist _High Noon_ (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) later prompted Hawks to make _Rio Bravo_ (1959). But in both cases the original films are, if not masterpieces, then at least small gems. I would say that _Bedtime for Bonzo_ is a strictly one-off comedy, [5] treating its *humane* theme about animal consciousness in sometimes inspired fashion, and with an unforced symbolism (Bonzo finally represents something like 'tamed love', hence the film's title which comes true when Ronald Reagan marries Diana Lynn). [6] Also, it has a stinging climactic line, delivered by Walter Slezak to the university Dean, about stupid people with degrees -- meaning those who can't see the wood for the trees! But clearly Deborah Thomas has never watched _Bedtime for Bonzo_, is unaware of its influence on the making of _Monkey Business_, and (forgive me) probably remains largely reliant for her estimation of a film's worth on how well it may be made to fit certain notions she has inherited from _Movie_.

 

As they say at the end of Hawks's _The Land of the Pharaohs_ (1955): 'We still have a long way to go!'

 

Melbourne, Australia

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Allow me to quote the following, though it is no doubt a two-edged sword (no matter, I have always tried to bear it in mind, and maybe some of my readers may want to do so, too!): 'An American study showed that when sentence lengths reach more than about twenty-five words, only ten per cent of readers can understand them.' Gordon Wells, _The Craft of Writing Articles_ (London and New York: Allison and Busby, 1983), p. 51.

 

2. Is _Psycho_ a melodrama or a comedy? Questions like this one challenge the easy categorisation that Thomas attempts to set up in her book. (Satire/parody is especially a category that would probably give her trouble if she were to address it.) She does include a brief note on Hitchcock's film, about attics versus basements as traditional places of concealment of unwanted madwomen or madmen respectively (31), but it strikes me as specious.

 

3. Towards the end of Hitchcock's literally autumnal comedy, dialogue and visual references (e.g. a wintry landscape over the mantelpiece in Jennifer's house) evoke the coming change of seasons -- much as scenes in both _Groundhog Day_ and _An Affair to Remember_ do. Which only gives the films' warmth and humanity something to fight, so to speak. By the way, Lesley Brill, in _The Hitchcock Romance_ (Princeton University Press, 1988) takes a roughly parallel course to Thomas in his emphasis on 'romance' as a bridging (or amalgamating) category, as opposed to 'pure' melodrama or 'pure' comedy.

 

4. At least, she was in 1990, which is the date of the last issue of _Movie_ that the Reference and Information Library of the Australian Film Institute holds (_Movie_ 34/35, Winter 1990). But I believe another issue has recently come out. Certainly, Thomas refers in her book's Acknowledgements to 'my colleagues and friends on the editorial board of _Movie_ . . . welcoming me into their midst for the past eleven years' (7).

 

5. Its sequel, _Bonzo Goes to College_ (1952), in which Ronald Reagan this time refused to appear, is reportedly much inferior.

 

6. The film's ostensible theme concerns the influence of heredity as opposed to upbringing and environment. But other concerns run through the film and contribute to its engaging quality.

 

Ken Mogg lives in Melbourne, Australia, and edits the hardcopy Hitchcock journal _The MacGuffin_ and its website. He is the author of _The Alfred Hitchcock Story_ (London: Titan Books, 1999).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

Ken Mogg, 'Small World: Deborah Thomas's _Beyond Genre_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 4, February 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n4mogg>.

 

Read a response to this text:

Deborah Thomas, 'A Reply to Mogg and Chopra-Gant', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 6, February 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n6thomas>.

 

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