Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 44, December 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Chopra-Gant

 

Theorizing the Couple:

On Nochimson's _Screen Couple Chemistry_

 

 

Martha P. Nochimson

_Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2_

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002

ISBN 0-292-75578-3 (hb) 0-292-75579-1 (pb)

394 pp.

 

In _Screen Couple Chemistry_ Martha P. Nochimson attempts one of the most difficult tasks that faces a scholar of film: to account rationally for an aspect of the movies which is undoubtedly a major part of its power to captivate and enthral, an aspect which operates affectively -- thrilling the senses and stimulating the imagination -- but which, because of the emotional basis of our response, constantly evades scrutiny. The phenomenon which Nochimson takes as the basis for her study is the 'chemistry' (the screen magic which is hard to define but you definitely know it when you see it) which exists between certain pairs of actors working within what Nochimson refers to as 'the great couple tradition' (5) in American movies. As Nochimson herself acknowledges, this 'chemistry' is something that has been little discussed by film scholars:

 

'Chemistry, though a central feature of the mass media concept of entertainment, lurks vaguely on the periphery of informed discussion. For good reasons. It is unquantifiable, a given rather than a constructed phenomenon, difficult to study -- much like the challenge for physics of dealing with smoke and clouds'. (8)

 

Evidence for the difficulty of discussing this 'chemistry' can be found in the fact that the screen couple itself, although an central element of movies since the very early days of cinema, has only been the focus of two previous book length academic studies: Virginia Wright Wexman's _Creating The Couple: Love, Marriage, and Hollywood Performance_, [1] and Thomas Wartenberg's _Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism_. [2] Nochimson acknowledges her indebtedness to the pioneering work of Wexman, but surprisingly, given the similarities of her thesis about the transgressive nature of movie couple chemistry to Wartenberg's argument that unlikely couples disrupt and critique social norms, she neither acknowledges nor engages with Wartenberg's work, which is a lost opportunity for opening up a debate about some of the conceptual tools Nochimson employs.

 

Nochimson identifies four qualitatively different types of screen couple with varying levels of 'chemistry'. At the lowest level is what Nochimson terms the 'functional couple'. This is the romantic pair at its most formulaic, 'a simple cog in the wheel of the churning plot, adding little if any screen chemistry to the experience of the movie' (8-9). At the other end of this spectrum, possessing the greatest endowment of 'chemistry', is what Nochimson calls the 'synergistic couple', a 'sparkling star pair' (9) exemplified by the screen couples that form the major part of the subject matter of the book: Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, Myrna Loy and William Powell, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. According to Nochimson the synergistic couple:

 

'distills the paradox of mass culture. Neither a mechanical reproduction nor a subversive attack on industrial culture, synergistic chemistry was at the same time an economic foundation of the Hollywood studio, and a live, unpredictable energy that made Hollywood capable of authentic expression about human existence'. (22)

 

Between these two extremes lay the 'iconic couples' which possessed some of the chemistry of the synergistic pair but tended to 'reiterate empty cliche' (9) rather than express these human truths. Finally, the 'thematic couple' is the post-classical, post-studio era inheritor of the mantle of the iconic couple, and is discussed at some length in the final chapter of the book.

 

Although Nochimson takes great care in differentiating between these different types of screen couple -- particularly between those synergistic and iconic couples which have some degree of 'chemistry', and those merely functional couples with none -- the various series' of films featuring the different couples she selects for detailed consideration do not unambiguously bear out Nochimson's major contention that there is a sort of transcendental quality to the synergistic and iconic couples that allowed them to make genuine expressions about intimacy by breaking up conventional narrative recipes for storytelling. To some degree all of the classical Hollywood film series that Nochimson examines moved through a cycle of films of varying quality, which Nochimson explicitly recognizes in her account of the collaborations of Astaire and Rogers as a series of distinctions between 'major', 'minor', 'transitional', and finally 'entropic' films, tracing a dynamic of declining quality in the films featuring this couple and also, apparently, the gradual evaporation of the synergy that characterized their screen presence together. A similar pattern of decline is apparent in Nochimson's account of the Tarzan films of Weissmuller and O'Sullivan, and in the _Thin Man_ films of Loy and Powell. Variable quality also characterized the Hepburn/Tracy collaborations, and while the dynamic in the case of the films of this couple was not simply one of decline, the movies of even these actors eventually ended up in an entropic phase.

 

Progressing through the book, encountering in each case a similar story of a synergistic energy between stars which rise and wane in films of uneven quality, this 'chemistry' of which Nochimson writes begins to appear less like the inherent, transcendent, raw, organic energy capable of transgressing the boundaries of what it was possible to represent in classical Hollywood movies -- often defined by what the PCA would allow -- and more like the wishful projection of film scholarship that needs to find 'chemistry' in the films in order to validate its own conceptual basis. This is more a general criticism of approaches to film scholarship which proceed from a rigidly theoretical framework to their examination of films themselves than it is specifically a criticism of Nochimson's book. It has always been relatively easy to point to classical Hollywood narrative movies that did not conform to Laura Mulvey's conception of the male gaze -- Ingrid Bergman's repeated lingering looks up and down the body of Gary Cooper in _Saratoga Trunk_ being my favourite example -- and equally easy to identify examples of post-classical Hollywood narrative films which fall outside the scope of Mulvey's argument but within which the male gaze is all too evident. [3] The point here is that it is almost always possible to find some sort of empirical basis to support a theory if you look hard enough for it and exclude any instances that contradict the theory. Approaching films with a strong commitment to a specific theoretical frame leaves the scholar exposed to the suggestion that the examples used have been chosen because they support the theory particularly well and that other examples could have been chosen that would open the theory to question. On this score there are some serious questions raised by Nochimson's selection of the particular couples she focuses on, questions that the book does not really address.

 

So why these pairs in preference to the numerous others that could have been examined? Nochimson's answer to this would presumably be that these couples were particularly well endowed with the synergistic chemistry in which she is interested and so they naturally select themselves as the focus of her book. In principle this is a reasonable enough response, but in practice this position is not wholly convincing because of the fact that the chemistry which Nochimson wants to find in these particular couples proves to be highly vulnerable to the overall quality of the movies in which the couples feature -- in their lesser films the synergistic chemistry of even these couples struggles to surpass the overall weaknesses of the films. The dependence of synergistic chemistry on the quality of the movies is particularly evident in Nochimson's analysis of Astaire and Rogers's lesser works in which, at certain points, she appears to relegate the stars from a synergistic to a functional couple:

 

'The weight of history in _The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle_ makes it the most leaden of the Astaire/Rogers collaborations, tying them to the most cliched plot pattern in the American film canon: the biopic success story, a genre almost devoid of the elements that worked for the Astaire/Rogers representation of intimacy'. (178)

 

Similarly, Loy and Powell's _Thin Man_ series entered a rapid decline during World War II, to such a degree that the couple's chemistry evaporated almost completely:

 

'The abatement of synergy under these wartime and postwar pressures is sufficiently significant that had the last two films in the series been the only ones to have been made, no one would remember Nick and Nora at all; the same might be said for Loy and Powell if all that existed of their work was their delightful but formulaic non-series comedies and melodramas'. (132)

 

In the face of such vulnerability of these couples' synergistic chemistry to the overall quality of the movies in which they appeared -- to the extent that the actor pairs that performed these screen couples could be relegated to the rank of instantly forgettable, 'functional' couples -- the question why these couples should be singled out for attention becomes increasingly insistent. This is not to say that there was never any chemistry between the couples, but Nochimson's argument that this amounted to an organic, transcendent energy, capable of communicating something outside the ideological control of the formulaic Hollywood movie, does not fully convince. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers may have possessed this sort of chemistry in the best films, but surely Astaire enjoyed a similar chemistry with Cyd Charisse in their best movies. And if it is transgression through the medium of the couple that interests you, then why focus exclusively on heterosexual romantic couples in preference to those all-male pairs such as Hope and Crosby and that most synergistic of all on screen pairs, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, whose on-screen collaborations inevitably challenge dominant ideological assumptions of the couple's heterosexual, romantic basis.

 

What we seem to have in this book, then, is a case of examples selected because they fit the theory particularly well rather than because the theoretical principles expounded have a sufficiently general application that any examples would have served equally well. This is explicitly the case when Nochimson turns her attention to the 'post-studio synergistic couple' and the 'thematic couples' which inherit the mantle of the iconic couple after the decline of classical Hollywood. In relation to these couples, where 'time has not yet tested the value of Synergistic and Thematic Couples produced by television', Nochimson is left with no alternative but to select screen couples for inclusion in her study 'on a somewhat personal basis, at least with respect to my estimation of their value' (242). While it would be difficult to quibble with the inclusion of any of the couples chosen for examination in these chapters of the book, it is rather easier to see the opportunities for testing the value of the conceptual categories proposed by Nochimson in this book that have been lost as a result of the exclusion of some of the most significant recent television couples. Mulder and Scully (discussed in chapter six of the book) in the _X Files_ undoubtedly make a convincing synergistic television couple that does not simply conform to the conventions of classic romance narratives. Carrie and Big in _Sex and The City_, possibly the most important small-screen couple of recent years -- and one with an undoubted synergistic energy between the actors -- possess none of this transgressive tendency, conforming very well to the traditional pattern of romance narratives as observed in Janice Radway's seminal study of the genre. [4]

 

If all of this sounds like a wholly negative appraisal of Nochimson's book, it is not. This is a significantly under-researched area of representational practice, relatively little attention having been given to institutions such as the couple and the family compared with the volume of writing on gender and race, and any publication -- particularly one as rigorously researched and well-written as this one -- which begins to stimulate debate about this important area of study is to be welcomed. As an early contribution to what is in effect a nascent field of study, it is almost inevitable that this book sometimes seems to be feeling its way rather tentatively. Nevertheless, it does offer a stimulating and thought-provoking account of these screen couples, as well as a framework for further extending the debate in this area.

 

London Metropolitan University, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Wexman, Virginia Wright, _Creating the Couple: Love, Marriage, and Hollywood Performance_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

 

2. Wartenberg, Thomas E., _Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism_ (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999).

 

3. See Mulvey, Laura, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', _Screen_, vol. 16 no 3, Autumn 1975.

 

4. Radway, Janice, _Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1984).

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Mike Chopra-Gant, 'Theorizing the Couple: On Nochimson's _Screen Couple Chemistry_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 44, December 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n44chopra-gant>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

 

Join the _Film-Philosophy_ salon, and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact the Editor (remove Caps before sending)

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage