Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

David Sullivan

 

'I'ing Cinema

Rothman's Readings of Cinematographic Visions and Visionaries

 


 

 

William Rothman

_The 'I' of the Camera: Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics_

Cambridge University Press, 1988

ISBN 0521360486

205 pages

 

 

'You were a very apt pupil, too, weren't you?'

Scottie (James Stewart) in _Vertigo_

 

The pupil can be both the one who sees, and the means of seeing; the vehicle one teaches, and the vehicle through which one is taught; the receiver of one's wisdom, and the receptor which enlightens. The pupil as a noun signifies one who is instructed, but also the aperture in one's eye that allows the transmission of light. In either case the word designates something that operates through a passive receptivity, yet where it is focused is an act of will.

 

William Rothman is an apt pupil of Stanley Cavell, yet he is also choosing how to extend the vision of his mentor and teacher. As Rothman writes in the 'Acknowledgments' section of _The 'I' of the Cinema_: 'Stanley Cavell and I worked together extremely closely . . . I thought of myself -- and think of myself -- as his student. But one thing one learns by being a student of Stanley Cavell is that a student is not a disciple. We have separate vision; we see eye-to-eye, but from different slants' (xvi). The imagery Rothman uses suggests their equal stature as observers of cinema, yet emphasizes the uniqueness of their angle of vision. As in filmic suture, each is given a vision that is not available to the other party. If Cavell can be said to be a reader of film genre -- an architect of type, then Rothman can be said to be a reader of film genre directors -- a builder of biographies.

 

In this collection of essays, published after his insightful and provocative examination of select Hitchcock films, _Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), Rothman closely reads a series of disparate films. Though the pieces were not all written for this volume, and though there is little attempt to make a cohesive argument from the fragments, nevertheless a vision does emerge. Rothman is obsessed with the way film directors play with the psychological affect of moving pictures, and the way such play reveals their own presuppositions. For Rothman, films reveal the obsessions of the one who directs, and it is films status as made art objects -- crafted by a visionary -- that is interrogated over and over again.

 

To do this, Rothman zeros in on a few particular moments from films he feels were shaped by a creator. He then closely reads those scenes, and the small, blurry, black and white frames allow us to re-imagine them whirring in our heads. We replay them again, with Rothman at our shoulder, his finger wagging at relevant details, whispering his interpretations in our ear. But as much as he points to the things we can see (what the pupil reveals to us), his voice keeps harkening back to the one we cannot see -- the master impresario, the puppet-string puller, Herr director -- the one who schools us as his pupils.

 

Why this repeated assertion that there is a mind at work -- a single vision -- who is revealed even as he or she conceals their corporeality? Because Rothman is circling the idea of subjectivity, not only through its creation *within* film characterizations, but also through its creation of a subjectivity *without* obvious representation. In his preface Rothman writes that Hitchcock, in his films, 'is revealed by them and also . . . declares himself in them . . . Through his act of making films, he fulfills himself, becomes more fully who he is, creates himself' (x). Hitchcock's famous cameo appearances are read by Rothman as declaring the necessity of knowing Hitchcock through his films. And it is not merely a projection whom we come to know, but 'the human being of flesh and blood' (x). What Rothman fails to address is the problems such an assumption produces. For he must either assert that the director is consciously projecting his own obsessions, interests, and fears onto the screen through the other characters (in which case we might wander which parts of the director appear and why), or that the director unconsciously displays himself in ways of which he's unaware (in which case we might ask whether there's any activity of creating which *doesn't* reveal the maker in some fashion). This problematic is never addressed by Rothman, instead he runs each director through his psychoanalytic mill, often producing fascinating readings, but sometimes producing over-the-top exposes that fail to cohere.

 

At his best, Rothman illuminates the films he examines and probes the emotions they call up in us. By seeing them as vehicles of communication for the directors who make them he is able to treat them as coherent, explainable, art-objects. What he loses is the sense that film is a uniquely collaborative venture that is often walking a razor blade between commercial interests and individual visions. It is convenient to imagine a monolithic vision finding realization in the cinematic world, but no films are made that way. Perhaps part of Rothman's interest in Hitchcock is his famed control over the medium and his extensive story boarding of all the shots. Yet even Hitchcock acknowledged to Francois Truffaut that collaboration was a major part of his filmmaking -- _Hitchcock_ (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967).

 

When Rothman's readings work, they reveal unexpected truths about the impact of specific films on us. For example, in the opening paragraphs of his chapter 'The Ending of _City Lights_', he writes:

 

'As an actor, Chaplin is perfectly expressive, whereas Keaton is famous for his inexpressiveness (more accurately, for the rigorous limits he places on the expressions he allows himself). Chaplin seems always to be performing for an audience whose love he craves, whereas Keaton characteristically seems unconscious of having an audience . . . Chaplin the performer is at the center of his world, whereas Keaton is on the outside looking in' (48).

 

This is elegantly phrased and goes beyond the commonly observed comparison of the two silent screen comic masters to suggest how their subjectivity is at stake. Rothman concludes: 'The conditions of the medium serve Chaplin as a metaphor for the barriers that human beings long to overcome in their quest to become fully human' (49). The questioning of these barriers becomes Rothman's key to unlocking the power of the last scene of _City Lights_. These barriers, Rothman asserts, do not exist merely within the filmic scenes, but between the viewers and the performers, and the director -- masked as a performer -- who constructs, and breaks, these 'walls'. Rothman asks:

 

'Do we really love Chaplin, or would we reject him if he stepped forward into our presence and declared himself to us? Not despair, but a passionate wish and a palpable terror are at the heart of Chaplin's films: the wish and terror of overcoming the barrier for which film is a metaphor, the wish and terror of making or allowing a dream to become real. In the ending of _City Lights_, as I understand it, he declares this wish and faces this terror by, in effect, calling upon us to imagine that no screen separates him from us' (50).

 

Rothman proceeds to show how the barriers constructed within the film are one by one obliterated at the end of the film. When he stands in front of the formerly blind girl whom he has helped, revealing her benefactor to be, after all, only a tramp, absentmindedly biting the stem of a flower, his smile asks for forgiveness beyond all reasonable hope. For Rothman, this moment is Chaplin's means of simultaneously tugging at our heart strings while asking us to consider the cold manipulator who engineered their plucking.

 

Such moments of insight reward the reader of Rothman's work. Though he may err on the side of imparting a bit too much intention to his directors, as a reader of film sequences he is, himself, a master impresario. From _Birth of a Nation_ to _North by Northwest_, from _Red Dust_ to Renoir, Rothman's keen eye dissects the subjectivities that are implied in filmic frames, while his voice insinuates that the subject of the best films is the subject that is seldom seen: the director. And it is the director's ability not only to project their life-enhancing visions onto the screen, but also to examine their murderous intentions and mastery, that -- for Rothman -- makes for great films.

 

Cabrillo College, Aptos California, USA

 

**

 

David Sullivan, ''I'ing Cinema: Rothman's Readings of Cinematographic Visions and Visionaries',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 3, February 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n3sullivan>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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