A “Cinephiliac Anecdote”
Another one of my writings, this time from my Contemporary Film Theory course. For the class, we read (Middlebury’s very own) Chris Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, which offers a fascinating model for historical writing about film: the cinephiliac anecdote. The model’s power lies in its ability to move beyond the deep, metaphorical “meaning” of film texts in favor of ephemeral surface details – cinephiliac moments – that reveal unexpected insights that conventional historical discourses about film tend to dismiss. These insights often take the form of metonymic connections between separate film texts, and I attempted to use a kind of metonymic technique in writing my anecdote.
I should note that I first noticed the moment in question while taking Professor Keathley’s senior seminar in film, and that it was the subject of some discussion – the juiciest bits of which may have subconsciously influenced my writing, so I apologize to anyone who took The Surfaces of Cinema in 2007 whose comments or ideas I am unable to credit. While I am still trying to refine this particular mode of critical writing (with more of an emphasis on the critical), I have found that it can be incredibly liberating in illuminating what it is many people love about the cinema, and why they engage with it the way they do. As a theoretical approach, I am also attracted to the fact that writing a cinephiliac anecdote is a spectator-centered activity whereas many of the approaches of “Grand Theory” essentialize and totalize our viewing of films. Anyway, here’s the beef:
In Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura, Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), suspects the titular character (Gene Tierney) of murder and brings her down to the station for a taste of the third degree. Preminger’s mise-en-scene here is striking; Gene Tierney looks as if she’s being lit by an arc lamp from the silent era. My favorite moment in the film, however, comes as McPherson begins to move to the other side of the table where Laura is seated and awkwardly runs into a wooden chair before quickly moving it out of his way. The moment strikes me like an arrow—Dana Andrews seems genuinely surprised at the chair’s presence, as if he had not anticipated it when blocking out the scene. In many ways it’s a moment, however ephemeral, of pure realism—the kind of moment Bazin would have reveled in and that cinephilia seeks out, but made more perfect by its double significance. Dana Andrews is playing McPherson, who is in turn playing the “bad cop” in this scene within a scene, and the chair in question temporarily impedes both of them. My own pleasure here is also two-fold: first, in anticipating the chair, and second, in seeing Andrews and McPherson deal with it.
However, the moment also has a greater significance in the context of the film as a whole. Much of the criticism that has been done on Laura has suggested that the film’s second half is actually McPherson’s dream, an acting out of his desire for Laura wherein he plays an ideal masculine hero—“the man with the leg full of lead” as Clifton Webb’s character describes him. These critics point to a scene at the film’s midpoint, where McPherson falls asleep in a plush chair in Laura’s apartment, the camera dollies into her portrait on the wall (initiating McPherson’s dream), then dollies back to reveal that Laura, until now thought to be the murder victim herself, has returned. The interrogation scene, therefore, takes place completely within McPherson’s dream.
I have an odd impulse to read McPherson’s chair trouble here as a sign of some temporary disruption in his dream-state, like the sudden jolt that sometimes wakes us as we fall asleep. After all, whose ideal fantasy of themselves involves them tripping over furniture? Furniture and our interaction with it is far too mundane, far too real, for us to purposefully dwell on it in the texts, movies, and other fantasies we create. Chairs, desks, divans, and beds are rarely in the way in the classical Hollywood text, and even when they are, our heroes expertly move around them as if they had a sixth sense, a kind of “furniture sense.” If it serves any purpose, furniture tends to consume people in these texts, like the plush chair that consumes McPherson when he falls asleep earlier in the film or the desk that restrains Laura in the interrogation room. Indeed, furniture serves a similar, and central, role in our spectatorship of films; while any kind of furniture serves to comfort and numb our bodies to the stimuli of the external world, chairs in particular restrain our watching to a particular angle and, as is universally the case in theaters, make it extremely inconvenient for us to leave or move around. Chairs trap us in the text.
One of my earliest cinephiliac memories, however, involved a complete rejection of chairs. As a kid of about 8 or 9, I remember there being a period of several weeks where, every day after school, I would be compelled to watch at least one of my collection of VHS tapes I kept in two mahogany drawers beneath our TV. No matter what I watched, I could never sit in one of the two upholstered chairs in our living room. Not that I didn’t want to be trapped or consumed by my movies; I think my parents just didn’t know how to buy kid-friendly furniture. These chairs were upright, leather-upholstered, and studded with brass tacks on the edges; the kind of chairs Edward G. Robinson might do his pipe-smoking in. Thus, I had to improvise. I had a very specific setup: two burgundy plush pillows, one of which propped the other up at a 45-degree angle, on the floor between the coffee table and the TV. The angle was perfect; I looked up at the film like it was some sort of glowing god. At that age, chairs only disrupted my dreams, like they do for McPherson; the only furniture I needed were those two pillows and our wood floor.
Or perhaps my reading of this moment as a kind of dream-jolt results from the actual jolt of the wooden chair against the floor as Dana Andrews heaves it out of his way; indeed, the sound of wood hitting wood has a kind of jolting, instantly recognizable significance. There’s a kind of density to wood, but inside it only a boring evenness; like Dana Andrews, my favorite wooden actor, what’s interesting is its surface. Allow me to digress with a quote: “Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators ([such as] Laurel and Hardy, or the team of Howard Hawks and William Faulkner operating on the first half of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
So wrote the iconoclastic Manny Farber—a better writer than I—in his 1962 essay, “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” My own pleasure in reading Farber’s writing, especially his film reviews, is not that I necessarily agree with him—he famously called The Best Years of Our Lives “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz”—but rather that his caustic opaqueness always manages to get across a sense of the immediate, preconscious sensations of art, the surfaces of cinema. What Farber means by his phrase “termite art” is a kind of unpretentiousness, a recognition that “meaning” with a capital “M” is only the beginning, and that what we actually love about cinema is beyond our ability to construct. As one character said in The Rocketeer, a film I definitely had in my VHS collection, “Acting is acting like you’re not acting”; in other words, human intent in art is at best vaguely interesting. My favorite scene in The Best Years of Our Lives is when the demobilized army air force bombardier Fred Derry, played (not coincidentally) by Dana Andrews, walks through a boneyard filled with rows upon rows of engines, propellers, and fuselages from thousands of scrapped planes. While Wyler’s camerawork in the scene is superb, I can only appreciate it, not love it. What I love is the sight of Dana Andrews simply walking past these rusting hulks of metal, the sense of their weight and material. In that sense, maybe I can almost agree with Manny Farber. The Best Years of Our Lives is, for me, “a horse-drawn truckload of aluminum.” Or wood.