I have been AWOL for a couple of weeks. Truth be told I have had the flu and been wallowing in screwball comedies. You know those preposterous post-Code 30s and 40s farces that have you laughing but not without some guilt? The story lines are pretty uniform. A down-and-out meets rich girl or guy, and ain’t the rich just so nice? All outcomes endorsed by Dr Pangloss.
To a cynic like me though movies such as My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby, Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story etc. are essentially reactionary. Social inequality is disturbed yes, but the resolution re-establishes the status quo and affirms wealth and privilege as fine and dandy.
Even the down-beat musical comedy Gold Diggers of 1933 has a compromised ending. The dark expressionist finale with studio rain must have struck audiences at the time as totally out of left field. But does it redeem the cosmetic resolution of the narrative, which offers up a soppy romantic reconciliation where rich guys are swell, and conspicuous consumption is just fine? Hollywood likes to poke fun at the rich, but forgives privilege in the flutter of an heiress’s eyelashes. Capra, La Cava, Sturges, Hawks et al are all apologists for the conventional wisdom.
Where I am headed with this? Well, hidden away in the extras on the Criterion DVD of My Man Godfrey, is a 4½ minute un-credited newsreel item from the early 30s, with a theme etched in acid – a day at the office – and the narrator to my ear is black. Some background. In My Man Godfrey a dizzy socialite adopts a homeless man from the city dump as her protégé by employing him as a butler. She falls for him and in the wash-up they marry on the site of the dump, which is now a ritzy night-club owned by the former butler, and where the once homeless are now employed as menials. You get the picture?
Well, it seems the movie dump was inspired by a real hobo village. You are now ready to view the newsreel:
THIS IS NEW YORK Skyscraper Champion of the World where the Slickers and Know-It-Alls peddle gold bricks to each other and where Truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye…
THIS IS NEW YORK Skyscraper Champion of the World where the Slickers and Know-It-Alls peddle gold bricks to each other and where Truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye… – Nothing Sacred (1937) | Script by Ben Hecht
Film critic Jonathon Rosenbaum in this quote is speaking of cinema generally and referring to a particular a movie that is not a film noir, but to me Rosenbaum refines the essence of noir…
Film critic Jonathon Rosenbaum in this quote is speaking of cinema generally and referring to a particular a movie that is not a film noir, but to me Rosenbaum has refined the essence of noir from an image redolent of film noir streetscapes [my emphasis]:
In the final scene of ECLIPSE (1962)my favorite Antonioni feature, and the one that concludes the loose trilogy started by L’AVVENTURA and LA NOTTE a lingering over an urban street corner while night begins to fall, effected through montage rather than an extended take, becomes one of the most terrifying poems in modern cinema simply through its complex poetry of absence. The lead couple in this film, played by Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, have previously planned to meet at this corner, in front of a building site. (Another building site figures in the opening sequence of L’AVVENTURA.) The unexplained fact that neither character shows up is perturbing, but because their affair has been more frivolous that serious, it hardly accounts for the overall feeling of desolation and even terror in this sequence.
It’s almost as if Antonioni has extracted the essence of the everyday street life that serves as background throughout the picture, and once we’re presented with this essence in its undiluted form, it suddenly threatens and oppresses us. The implication here (and in every Antonioni narrative) is that behind every story there’s a place and an absence, a mystery and a profound uncertainty, waiting like a vampire at every moment to emerge and take over, to stop the story dead in its tracks. And if we combine this place and absence, this mystery and uncertainty into a single, irreducible entity, what we have is the modern world itself the place where all of us live, and which most stories are designed to protect us from.