International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 45, December 2004







Martha P. Nochimson


Reply To Mike Chopra-Gant



Mike Chopra-Gant

'Theorizing the Couple: On Nochimson's _Screen Couple Chemistry_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 44, December 2004


I am very pleased to have my book _Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2_ reviewed by _Film-Philosophy_. As Mae West, that ebullient 20th century pragmatic philosopher, has truly stated: 'It is better to be looked over than overlooked.' In this case, Mike Chopra-Gant has thoughtfully looked over my book, and he is certainly right on one point: this work is intended as a pioneering foray into virtually uncharted territory. However, he has overlooked a few of my major points, and this may account for his mistaken impression that I have wishfully impressed my ideas on an unwilling reality. Missing from Chopra-Gant's critique is a consideration of my interest in exploring whether the currently expanding discipline of neuroscience might help us to speak more effectively about the elusive phenomenon of screen chemistry. This has caused him to speak of *transcendental* qualities in the Synergistic couples I explore, a concept alien to my thesis; and possibly also to misconstrue the reasons for my choices of subject couples. Missing too in his review is the importance I give to the relationship between the phenomenon of screen couple chemistry and the (changing) economic structure of the entertainment industry: I document very specific economic reasons why screen couple chemistry has virtually vanished from current mainstream movies and shifted over to television. Overlooking this aspect of my argument has obscured for him my speculation about why, in the last films the synergistic couples of the studio system made together, inevitably chemistry was blocked. Perhaps a few explanatory paragraphs will help to make clearer my response to Chopra-Gant's review.


Although it may not often seem so, I am in strong agreement with constructionist critics who expose the ideological basis of American mass market entertainment as one that tends to reinforce racism, sexism, and classism through the *magic of movies*. However, what fascinates me more -- because it involves the road less taken -- are those fissures, ruptures, gaps, breaks, and wild zones where the industry fails to do so. I was drawn to the admittedly Quixotic project of writing about screen couple chemistry by my experience of numerous films in which the chemistry of the central couple turned upside down the usual Hollywood party line about heterosexual intimacy. I was particularly intrigued because when I began my project it had become a truism in film studies that couples in the movies were a signally insidious site of ideological manipulation. Further thought brought me to the classification of various types of screen couples that Chopra-Gant faithfully reports on in his review. Among the four types I have isolated -- Functional, Iconic, Synergistic, and Thematic -- I have devoted most of the book to distinguishing between Synergistic and Iconic couples, the latter of which I refer to as the Gable Plus One phenomenon. The more movies from the days of the studio system I examined, the more clearly I identified a category of screen parings I label Synergistic. This kind of screen couple clearly radiates energy that interrupts ideological business as usual. The raw energy of the images they produce increasingly impressed itself on me as a rarely discussed factor in mass entertainment that can be discovered, but never fabricated or constructed. Of course there were many more screen couples from the studio era, which I call Iconic couples, that *did* exemplify constructionist theories about couples in the movies. I took note that Iconic couples also radiated considerable energy, but channeled it differently, in a way that is almost thoroughly constructed and promotes and glamorizes the usual ideology with a vengeance (pace Modleski's 1984 book _Loving With a Vengeance_). As I watched Clark Gable and his many multiple pairings with certain female stars, these films came increasingly to exemplify the workings of the domination/submission relationship of the Iconic couple perfectly, and so in my book I have used the Gable Plus One pattern as the paradigm of that type of screen couple.


Within the terms of this schematic, Carrie and Big from _Sex in the City_, a couple I do not mention but whom Chopra-Gant refers to in questioning the adequacy of my classification system, actually prove my point. Chopra-Gant discusses Carrie and Big as a synergistic couple that enforces ideology and thus pokes a hole in my theory. *But* the point is, as I see it, that by the very virtue of the fact that they reproduce the old cliches about love and intimacy, they are not Synergistic. By virtue of their stereotypical construction, they are an Iconic couple, indeed a pale version of the Gable Plus One formula that I believe will prove to be unimportant in the long run. I would go further. Carrie and Big are a perfect example of what has grown from the traditions of the old studio Iconic couple in that they typically both exude a certain type of attractive energy and reinforce cliche and stereotype. The logic of this classification has lead me to conclude that it is a highly constructed, text dominated image that produces an Iconic couple, while Synergistic screen couple chemistry is a matter of images of an especially disruptive type, documentary image, or at least images that are as documentary as things get in the mass media.


This is where neuroscience comes in. I have used the theories of Antonio Damasio Jr, particularly as stated in _Descartes's Error_, to enable my discussion of what we may mean by documentary image (nothing transcendental here) and to help articulate its role in the creation of the synergy of the American entertainment industry's most provocative form of screen couple chemistry. These theories are highly complex, and so I will encourage any interested readers to look at Damasio's work (he has also written _The Feeling of What Happens_ and _Looking For Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain_). Let me say here that the nub of what interests me about Damasio is his understanding of the role played by image in the making of meaning through emotion in productive counterpoint with reason. Damasio makes available a vocabulary that permits me to speak of a bottom-up form of image which is produced when the ancient image-forming recesses of brain lead the more recently developed capacities for reason beyond cliche. Bottom-up image exists in contrast with the more prevalent constructed image, a top-down form of image that involves reason diminishing the ancient image-forming recesses of the brain through cliche.


In applying this contrast between top-down and bottom-up forms of thinking to the structure and history of the entertainment industry, I have explored in detailed analyses of specific movies how, while the images of Iconic couples harmonize with narrative and its ideology, the images of Synergistic couples create productive tensions with the formal aspects of conventional narrative. Many of the Astaire/Rogers films constitute a good example of how Synergistic couples impact the movies. Close attention to them yields a surprising discovery of how this couple's chemistry could function to yield up for scrutiny the mechanisms of narrative and the language that produces it, and not only when they danced, comically making visible the society around them as a pit of repressive conventions and solipsistic linguistic forms that block authentic communication of any kind as well as passion. This is an aspect of my criticism that got no play in Chopra-Gant's review.


I have also explored the impact of historical circumstances on screen couples, looking for the results of contrasting top-down and bottom-up decisions under the old studio system. I have documented that the initial chemistry of the Synergistic pairs came about under the conditions of bottom-up collaboration, a heterogeneous process, controlled by no one, that melded the numerous perspectives of the creative team. When the chemistry was choked off in their final screen pairings it was because of the waning presence in these films of the bottom-up collaborative teams and the growing top-down control of an increasingly intrusive, domineering management. Top-down imposition of standardizing formulas, in a way that overpowered the initial chemistry, inevitably *de-created* what the collaborative creative teams initially had nurtured. I have also taken note of the historical trends in the entertainment industry since the break up of the studio system that have (ironically) *increased* the top-down mode of operation in the film industry, rendering screen couple chemistry almost extinct in the movies today.


In relation to this point, Chopra-Gant is again at cross purposes with my book. The pairing of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, whom he contends have as much chemistry as do Astaire and Rogers, is a good example of the way top-down decisions expanded as Hollywood hit and passed the mid-20th century. My own perspective is that the pairing of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, which I do not consider in my book, was one of a number of failed top-down attempts to fabricate what was a given between Astaire/Rogers. Ironically, this oft repeated attempt to construct a facsimile of the old chemistry of Astaire/Rogers came not only from industry management but also from Astaire himself. As a result of the dazzling success of his films with Rogers, Astaire gained almost total creative control over the choice of his partners, and opted only for those women whom he could micro manage as he had not been able to do with Rogers (a top-down decision by a performer). Charisse was technically a better dancer than Rogers, and the dancing in her screen appearances with Astaire may be technically lovely. But I would argue that there is no comparison between the portraits of intimacy that emerged in the extensive contact of the two stars in the Astaire/Rogers movies, when Astaire was forced to give himself to a larger (bottom-up) artistic force than himself, and the very limited dance numbers of Astaire and Charisse, when his perfectionism blocked his most vital possibilities. I would also argue that part of the proof of the diminished nature of this top-down pairing is that the gender relations in the Astaire/Charisse numbers are deeply infused by standard ideology, while the Astaire/Rogers partnerships are enticingly iconoclastic, as I show in my book. Time validates Synergistic chemistry. Ironically, despite the conservatism of the United States, it tends to cherish for a much longer time films that create tensions with mainstream ideology. Astaire/Rogers endure as a pervasive, mythological presence while few think about Astaire/Charisse except in the most limited way. At the end of the book, I have pointed out how the production conditions of serial television have taken up the slack, documenting the bottom-up histories of what I judge as the great Synergistic couples in television.


Chopra-Gant concludes his review with a generous statement that my book contains the possibility to function as a good beginning for further discussion on the subject of screen chemistry. This would be gratifying since a pioneering study is tacitly a request for dialogue. If an extended dialogue does open, I assume that it will take many different directions, all of them beyond my control. But my ideal critic of _Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2_ is substantially informed about neuroscience and willing to entertain the possibility that it might be profitably applied to the movies. While I have no interest at this time in making claims for the pertinence of that discipline for Film Studies as a whole, I would be happy to be part of a dialogue about the role of bottom-up processes in the making of meaning through screen chemistry. Is my analysis of how the studios micro-managed the potentially disruptive energy out of the image a meaningful way of accounting for the fact that the once highly popular Clark Gable Plus One movies and non-Thin Man collaborations between William Powell and Myrna Loy are now dated? Does my documentation of the bottom-up collaborations that were responsible for the Tarzan series starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, the Thin Man series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, the Astaire/Rogers musicals, and many of the onscreen pairings of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn successfully show that, to the extent to which they left more room for the raw images of screen chemistry that disrupt falsifying ideologies, these films continue to delight and liberate audiences? Can we say the same of newer televisual screen chemistry, for example of Scully and Mulder in _The X-Files_ and maybe even of Luke and Laura in _General Hospital_?


New York, New York, USA



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



Martha P. Nochimson, 'Reply To Mike Chopra-Gant', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 45, December 2004 <>.












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