Tag Archives: historiography

Mad Love: The Surrealism of the Supernatural Romantic Melodrama, Part One

1: Introduction

When you have a DVR, and if you as cinematically omnivorous, or at least as highly suggestible, as I am, you end up watching lots of things you wouldn’t have otherwise. After all, every movie can teach you something about cinema. A few weeks ago, I DVR’ed The Lake House, and then a few days after that The Adjustment Bureau. I’ve had a fondness for The Lake House for some time- besides being strange in the ways I’ll suggest later, as the son of a former practitioner, I like its regard for architecture as an art form, to the point where at various points it dwells on building design and its philosophies at some length. The Adjustment Bureau was a film I was curious about on a couple levels: I’ve grown fond of Matt Damon, and it’s based on a Philip K. Dick story. But it was advertised as a thriller, and it’s not, really. It is instead a love story, and a deeply strange one. It struck me that both films belong to a rather peculiar, and interesting, subgenre of romance pictures, one with roots that go back quite a long way, but which has seen some notable examples popping up in the last few years: those two, but also The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and others. We could just call these films “romantic fantasies” or “supernatural melodramas” and be done with it, but I want to stress their surreal aspects, drawing attention to what interests me most about them, even if (because?) doing so makes them sound more interesting than they actually are. They may be more or less self-conscious about this, but they become popular tales of amour fou, in the guise of thrillers and “chick-flicks,” that I rather think the Surrealists would have liked.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

The story of amour fou is a staple of literary and theatrical melodrama, and of course the Gothic, not least if we factor in its neighbor, the tale of “star-crossed lovers,” which these films quite literally are. As a narrative strain, “mad love” has been a fruitful tributary to German Expressionism, the Universal horror film (not least Mad Love), and the film noir– and it was a favorite theme in popular art for the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s. Part of what makes supernatural romantic melodramas stories of amours fou, arguably, is how they go about addressing a fundamental problem for the love story in the contemporary social context: how do you erect obstacles between the couple? If they are in love enough for us to be invested in their situation, how can you have a plausible enough obstacle for them to have to overcome in order to be together? Unless you want to do a period picture (be it Thomas Hardy, Far from Heaven or The Notebook), class, nationality, religion, and other aspects of social background just aren’t sufficiently convincing barriers to a Western audience, even if really they should be; we have all been raised, mostly by movies and pop songs, to believe that True Love Conquers All.  Incidentally, this is also one of many, many problems bedeviling the romantic comedy, which of all contemporary genres has fallen the farthest from its classical Hollywood heyday. The romantic comedy has tried to deal with this to varying degrees of success by having the guy be a schlubby loser (Knocked Up, et. al., ad nausea), by putting the couple into a long-distance relationship (Going the Distance), or, simply and probably most commonly, by requiring the characters to overcome some sort of moral or psychological (eg., past damage) inability to commit. In the melodrama, the damaged-goods thing is especially prevalent, since it can play up the lead characters’ Deep Deep Pain. Death haunts the genre, really, from people recovering from the deaths of loved ones, to the death of one of the principles (too many to list, and going back as far as you care to look); one example of this that’s relevant here is Ghost. But you can only have so many stories about people getting over deaths of significant others, and except sometimes in the surreal supernatural melodrama, you can’t have a happy ending if you kill one or more of the lovers in question. How then to keep them apart? In the surreal/supernatural melodrama, the lovers are kept apart by the biggest obstacles imaginable: the laws of time, space, and reality. It is the scale of these barriers that imbues the films with the lingering aura and slightly unearthly pallor of amour fou, and what makes these films part of an ongoing subgenre of supernatural, metaphysical melodramatic romances.

Since I began to think about blogging on it, this project has rather metastasized, with more and more films popping up that I have felt obligated to have a look at. As this has happened, it has occurred to me that this topic is at the very least under-written about, and that it might therefore be turned into a more serious academic project. Consequently, I am hoping that readers of these posts can point me in the direction of more things I ought to watch, and things I ought to read (though certainly there are ideas in surrealist writing on the cinema, there’s not much I can find so far in studies of the melodrama, and nothing I have seen so far that looks specifically at the stuff I am here). I am going to start by sketching a genealogy of these films, going back as far as I can. I am quite sure there are far more examples of the supernatural romantic melodrama, though, and I hope that readers can point me to some. I am generally interested in people’s thoughts on this, in fact: on the implications of the surreal/supernatural romantic melodrama for melodrama as a form in terms of narrative, style, and genre.

Once I have finished my (rough) genealogy in part two, I will move on to some first thoughts on the supernatural romantic melodrama, some of the issues raised by The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lake House, The Adjustment Bureau, and Benjamin Button, among other recent iterations of this bizarre, capital-R Romantic strain of cinema.

2. Genealogy 1: Classical Cinema

There are at least moments in melodramas, suggesting some sort of supernatural power in romantic love, going back at least as far as D. W. Griffith’s version of Way Down East (1920). There is a hint there of a kind of psychic bond between future lovers, as David (Richard Barthelmess) wakes up in distress when Anna (Lillian Gish) is suckered into a sham wedding ceremony by the sexually-predatory Lennox (Lowell Sherman)(do earlier film versions include this moment?; it is hard to imagine it being done on the stage, though obviously it would by no means be impossible for a play that was staged with a version of the ice-floe climax). We might also extend the idea of the supernatural romantic melodrama to Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), in which a woman seeks to reclaim her lover from Death. Arguably, Destiny falls a bit outside of the main corpus I am putting together here, as its framed narratives of Death conquering Love tend toward the fairy tale- supernatural elements thoroughly infusing the fabric of the film- as opposed to the intrusion of the supernatural into the everyday which is a principal characteristic of the surreal romantic melodrama as I’m sketching it. Where Destiny resonates, though, is as an allegory of a theme common both to Fritz Lang films and to the supernatural melodrama, the operation of what Tom Gunning calls “the Destiny-Machine,” the ways in which characters’ lives seem to be controlled by forces far beyond them. I will come back to this idea especially in relation to The Adjustment Bureau and Benjamin Button. Most of the supernatural melodramas play out this sense of Fate, in fact, and the larger forces that render the world a machine in the gears of which are characters are trapped, without any clear sense of social context (like Destiny if unlike later Lang); by comparison, The Adjustment Bureau and Benjamin Button are unusually grounded in the materiality of the world.

Much closer to what I’m talking about, if still not a “pure” case of it, is Liliom. I don’t know the play, and I haven’t seen Fritz Lang’s 1934 version of it, which isn’t currently available in any watchable commercial version. I have seen the pedestrian film version of the bloated Rodgers and Hammerstein stage production Carousel, which retells the story. But the 1930 version of Liliom by Frank Borzage is far more interesting. Where Carousel is framed by the Liliom character (renamed Billy) in the afterlife recounting his misadventures (and showing from the get-go that he has not ended up in Hell, which is an open question in the Borzage), Borzage’s Liliom is for its first 2/3 a straightforwardly realist narrative of a man, Liliom (Charles Farrell), who works a carousel at a fair, and falls in love with a shy servant girl, Julie (Rose Hobart), who has long idealized him from afar. To be with her he must give up his job at the carousel, owned as it is by Mme. Muscat (Estelle Taylor), who is in love with him and resents his relationship with Julie. Unable to support Julie, Liliom gets sucked into a robbery schemed up by The Buzzard (the great and largely forgotten Lee Tracy). Faced with the punishment for his crime, Liliom stabs himself, yelling Julie’s name as he does so (how melodramatic is that?). At the 2/3 point, Liliom dies, and that’s when the film turns into a supernatural melodrama, as he convinces the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner: DeMille’s Jesus in The King of Kings, 1927, and eventually Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life) to allow him to go back to Earth for one day to do something good for the widow and daughter he left behind, after Liliom first agrees to spend a period in Hell to earn the right to do so.

Though for the first 2/3 a realist narrative, reminiscent of the German Kammerspiel film of the ‘20s, and of Murnau’s late silent films (Borzage was avowedly influenced by Murnau), touches of Expressionism are present throughout. Long before the afterlife comes into play, the carnival is like an intrusion of Dream in the everyday, mundane world, providing a glimpse of something beyond the real-life toils and struggles of the characters, and connecting Liliom to that world of fantasy, at least in Julie’s eyes. Consider, for example, the carousel ride Liliom and Julie take together, where the backdrop representing the rest of the carnival appears strikingly artificial and two-dimensional. From this glimpse of a fantasy world that forms around Liliom and Julie, Borzage goes on to build his melodrama around the intensity of looks exchanged between them (but especially Julie’s adoring looks at Liliom), first in the biergarten…

Rose Hobart gazing at Charles Farrell in Frank Borzage’s Liliom

…and then beyond it- but he always reminds us of what the carnival represents, as its rollercoaster is ever-visible outside an enormous picture window in the spare dwelling they share with Julie’s aunt.

When they leave the biergarten, Liliom stops, turns, and looks at her, and in this moment, when their love begins to bloom, all diegetic sound apart from their dialogue suddenly falls away: again, the world of the lovers transforming the world of the everyday. Transformation of the everyday is a key recurring element of the supernatural romance melodrama: the power of Julie’s love for Liliom, manifest whenever she gazes at him, transforms him into a gentleman in her eyes, something no-one else can see. If her gaze becomes a kind of bridge through which the power of romantic love enters and transforms the everyday world, then as the film goes on it does so as an expression of the torment that is the price of her love: idleness and the inability to provide for her turn him violent, but the purity of her love persists whenever she looks at him, and her pain vouchsafes the purity of these emotions.

At the close of the film, Julie tells her daughter that its possible for a blow from a loved one not to hurt at all- “He hit me, and it felt like a kiss,” as the song would put it: again, pain, even the inflicting of it, is proof of love.

Julie pining for Liliom

Around the halfway mark, in fact, the film is consumed with the lovers’ torment, and that pain is shown to us through classically melodramatic uses of unrestricted narration (that is, the pathos comes from us knowing more about what is going on and why than the individual characters do). We see how much pain each of them is in, even when they don’t see it in each other. We know that Liliom turns Mme. Muscat down when she tries to get him to give Julie up and return to the carousel, whereas Julie is certain that he will; we know, and she doesn’t, that the real danger is that Liliom will get sucked into The Buzzard’s crimes; and finally we know, but no-one else does, why she breaks down in tears when Julie’s friend Marie brings her fiancée Wolf to meet her. All the pain generated in and around these gaps in knowledge further ennobles the lovers: when Liliom is on his death bed, Julie sits over him, a candle placed in the background so that it shines over her head like a halo; and when he wakes and they share their parting words to each other, that candle is now placed exactly between them, bathing both of them in its glow.

In that their love ennobles them, transforms them, even transforms the world around them, the film becomes one about the power of love to transcend the everyday. The notion of boundary-crossing, as between the world of dreams and the world of the everyday, settles most persistently in the train motif. Liliom and the Buzzard loiter around the train tracks, and it is there the Buzzard talks Liliom into committing the fatal criminal act; it is beneath a staircase next to the train tracks that the robbery is attempted, and for Liliom goes horribly awry. It’s with Liliom’s death, though, that the train motif jumps to a whole other level. As Liliom dies, we again see a view of the carnival rollercoaster out the window, and as the shot is held can begin to perceive a train coming from the rollercoaster and heading towards the window (the duration of the shot suggests we should perceive it sooner than I did, but on my DVD, though quite a good BFI DVD, it was far too dark outside the window). Then, the train bursts through the window and into the room (it’s a startling moment no matter what, enough to make you think all those urban legends about audience reaction to “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” might be true after all). The train whisks Liliom away to Heaven; when Liliom makes his deal with the Magistrate, another train, spitting sparks all around it, takes him to Hell, and finally returns him to the first train so that the Magistrate can take Liliom back to Earth for a day.

Liliom boards the train to Hell.

In its images of these trains and the afterlife that they take us to and from, Liliom concretizes Borzage’s idealization of love as transcendence, taking the film, and us with it, straight into the surreal terrain of the supernatural melodrama.

For a core case of the supernatural romantic melodrama, in which love (momentarily) transcends corporeal barriers, though, I’d point to Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935). In it, childhood friends Gogo and Mimsey are separated when his mother dies and he is sent off to England to be raised by his uncle. Later in life, Gogo, now Peter (Gary Cooper) and Mimsey, now Mary, Duchess of Towers (Ann Harding) meet again when her husband hires him to restore his stables. This is a classically melodramatic twist: first, it rests on coincidence; second, the pathos that develops here relies in large part on unrestricted narration, as we realize who Peter and Mary are to each other long before they do. Just as they finally do so, and further realize how much they have always meant to each other, the Duke forces a showdown. Peter kills him in self-defense, and Peter is sentenced to life in prison. Far from the end of the story, this is actually where it gets really weird: Peter and Mary begin to share their dreams, even their sensations. Mary urges Peter to believe that these shared dreams are not merely illusory, but rather that in them they are actually, finally united: “the strangest things are true, and the truest things are strange.”

Ann Harding beckons Gary Cooper join her in Peter Ibbetson

One party urging another to believe something that seems utterly fantastic becomes a recurring feature of the supernatural melodrama, showing up in A Matter of Life and Death, Heaven Can Wait (1978), Somewhere in Time, Ghost, The Lake House, and The Adjustment Bureau. In the dreams, Peter and Mary overcome the barrier first of his imprisonment, then of an injury that leaves him paralyzed, to finally be together. Fully the whole last 1/3 of the film takes place in these dreams, with but moments where we see him in prison and her as an aging widow; throughout, cinematographer Charles Lang so heavily diffuses the image as to impart a constant, shimmering glow.

I haven’t yet seen Death Takes a Holiday (1934), so I can’t speak for it (I’ll address its surpassingly tedious remake, Meet Joe Black, in part two), but certainly the extraordinary level of stylization in Peter Ibbetson is shared by Portrait of Jennie (1948), directed by the underrated William Dieterle, and produced by David O. Selznick as a vehicle for his discovery/paramour/soon-to-be-wife Jennifer Jones. Joseph Cotten plays Eben Adams, a struggling artist, who encounters a mysterious girl dressed in turn-of-the-century clothes named Jennie (Jones) one day in a wintry Central Park.

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie

Each time he encounters her, years seem to have passed in her life (she acts like a little girl when he first meets her; soon she is womanly), yet she refers to events that took place long in the past as if they are still to come. Once he has fallen in love with her and tried to find out more about her, Eben realizes that Jennie died at sea long ago, and that he has fallen in love with a ghost.

But since Eben seems to be seeing her at different phases of her life leading up to that point, he becomes convinced that he can save her, and to do so, travels to the lighthouse where she died in a storm, so that he can intervene.

The supernatural melodrama frequently complicates storytelling, blurring boundaries between categories, and here what is backstory- how Jennie died- plays out also as foreshadowing, in moments when she is drawn to Eben’s painting of the same lighthouse, or when she betrays her fear of black water: Jennie is incipiently aware of her death, even as she seems to be reliving her life each time Eben encounters her. In this way, both Eben and Jennie appear out of control of their lives, their encounters, their circumstances. Eben is drawn into the mystery of Jennie’s life just as helplessly as she relives it; as he puts it, “It was not in my hands, nothing was in my hands.” One idea, reiterated by both of them, becomes almost the film’s mantra: “The strands of our lives are woven together, and neither the world nor time can tear them apart.” Finally, when Eben goes to try to save her from the storm in which she died, he must ignore the complete lack of any hint of a storm on the horizon in his time- yet the fact of Eben braving her storm brings that storm into his timeline, and all those on the coast experience it, not just him. As he moves toward the moment of Jennie’s death, Eben increasingly acts as if in a trance, as if he can do nothing but act out his role in a larger drama, however ineffectual he turns out to be. As his world is manipulated by Destiny, Love becomes a kind of metaphysical absolute, a force that functions not as a threat to Fate, or a way to escape it, but as Fate itself. Finally, this love escapes Eben’s clutches, but marks him forever, turning him from a talented technician into the great painter of “Portrait of Jennie,” just as she is turned from a forgotten girl into the subject of that painting. “There is no life ‘til you’ve been loved, and then there is no death”: even if Eben and Jennie can’t overcome their fates to be together, so those fates have been shaped by their encounter such that both are transformed.

Portrait of Jennie puts the larger questions raised by such a story- about the subjectivity and relativity of experience, about the power of romantic love to transcend all earthly barriers- front and center right from the opening, asking “What is time? And what is space? What is life? And what is death?,” telling us that “each human soul must find the secret in its own faith,” and quoting Euripedes (“Who knoweth if to die be but to live… and that called life by mortals be but death?”) and Keats (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”). Just as all that brings subjective experience- the heart of melodrama as a form- into play, so does the film’s style, which insistently emphasizes artifice and style in relation to that subjectivity. When we first go into the park as Eben and Jennie meet for the first time, Dieterle superimposes a canvas onto the image, providing a dreamy diffusion to the image just as it insists on art as one engine of the story (indeed, one story element that modulates our sense of Eben’s love for Jennie is that on some level he is using her as a muse so that he can paint his masterpiece). As the film goes on, this canvas superimposition is re-used around their encounters, and eventually to mark act breaks in the story. Jennie and Eben’s encounters are filmed with a striking range of cinematographic techniques: in their first encounter, all shots are high angle and use forced perspective, making Jennie look smaller, while their second encounter begins with a series of low angle shots making her look larger (as indeed she is meant to have grown up some years between the two); wide angle lenses are used to achieve deep focus across the film; heavily diffused images suggest that all this is either a dream or enchanted, much as they do in Peter Ibbetson; the extensive matte work and clearly soundstage-built Central Park adds to this.

When Eben paints Jennie’s portrait, chiaroscuro lighting is added to the diffusion, taking us still further into the dream; the recurrence of fog in the mise-en-scene becomes yet another form of diffusion, as well as marking out the liminal space outside time in which this story plays out. Nor is the dreaminess confined in its expression to visual style: in each of Eben and Jennie’s encounters, a theremin appears on the soundtrack. As in other supernatural melodramas, there is an emphasis on the senses, alongside a confusion between the world of the senses and some non-corporeal world beyond it that our lovers are given a glimpse of; the ghostly Jennie at one point experiences synesthesia, “hearing” the stars come out. Finally, the film’s most dramatic use of style, as particularly emphatic artifice and as a kind of Gothic correlative to the transformation these events have worked on Eben and Jennie, the climactic storm is filmed not in the black-and-white that the film has been to this point, but with green tinting. The lighthouse itself is an especially Gothic touch, its spiral staircase suggesting the journey through times and realities that Eben makes in running up and down it, while the storm- a classic Gothic trope, here functioning both as obstacle and as an correlative of inner states- rages outside.

In the lighthouse…

…while the storm rages.

Finally, on the last shot- the portrait of Jennie itself- Dieterle transitions to full Technicolor: the transformation of our lovers and their realities complete.

“Portrait of Jennie”

Around this time, the immediate post-WW2 years, the supernatural melodrama flourishes, more or less explicitly in response to the loss of life and limb in the aftermath of the war. The wartime theme takes precedence in A Guy Named Joe (1943), directed by Victor Fleming and remade as Always (1989) by Steven Spielberg. In it, the ghost of a pilot (a bomber pilot in the wartime original, a firefighter in the remake) watches over a younger pilot coming up in the ranks, even as the latter pursues the dead man’s girlfriend. The Enchanted Cottage (1945), which I haven’t yet seen, is about a man who has come home from the war seriously disfigured, and hides away from his family and fiancée. His cottage is cared for by a homely maid, and as the two begin to care about each other, they appear to each other physically transformed; she believes that this is a magical property of the cottage itself. Other supernatural narratives around this time include Angel on My Shoulder (1946) and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) (both based on plays by one Harry Segall), both powered by the fantasy of reincarnation; in neither case is love the motivation for the reincarnation itself, but in both cases love complicates things for the characters and for the heavenly case-workers in charge. The postwar context is apparent in a somewhat concealed form in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), a comic period film that is nonetheless about a widow (Gene Tierney) moving into a house and falling in love with the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison) who was an earlier resident.

Though it too ranges across a variety of tones (characteristically), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death (sometimes known as Stairway to Heaven), has enough melodrama in it to qualify here. An aviator named Peter (David Niven) who was meant to die when his plane was shot down manages to cheat death, and falls in love with a young radio operator for the US Air Force named June (Kim Hunter). When Heaven cottons on to what’s happened, the aviator must stand trial and plead for his life so that he may be with the woman he loves.

David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death

The first thing to say about A Matter of Life and Death is that despite it being a postwar film, it seems to function in part as propaganda, or at least a comment on semi-current affairs, directed at American service people stationed in England, airing the downsides of fraternization between American and British military personnel (it references an obscure 1944 report by five U.S. Senators on American troops stationed abroad), but ultimately endorsing transatlantic togetherness. What it turns into, though, is a genuine courtroom drama centered on a philosophical debate about transcendent values versus social context.

As is so often the case in the supernatural romantic melodrama, though, transcendence is somehow inseparable from the world of the everyday. In Portrait of Jennie, a scarf plays the role of the physical object that stands as proof of the supernatural; here, it is a book on chess that Peter’s angel, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), borrows from Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey). The necessity for a physical proof of supernatural transcendence remains a convention of these films: the watch in Somewhere in Time, the defaced painting in What Dreams May Come. The Lake House is built entirely around the exchange of such objects, namely the letters themselves (and the paw prints, the tree, and a copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion). Beyond the importance invested in these talismanic objects, though, AMOLAD places a powerful emphasis on the world of the senses and sensuality. The physical world, the “real” world, is in gorgeous Technicolor, while Heaven is in black-and-white.

The stairway to Heaven.

Heaven here represents logic, abstraction, in its modernist design, in the placement of statues of great thinkers alongside the stairway leading to it, in the discussions Peter and Conductor 71 have about Plato, even in the parallel between Heaven, looking down on Earth, and Dr. Reeves’ camera obscura, in which he takes a God-like view of the village (Reeves being the character who most forcefully represents logic in the world of the film). The emphasis on the sensuality of Earth, by contrast, seems typical of Powell and Pressburger’s celebrations of the world of the senses (and is the subject of the film’s best joke, Conductor 71’s line that they are “starved for Technicolor” in Heaven). When Peter, having jumped out of his burning plane over the channel, to his certain (and should-have-been) death, wakes up on a beach, he confuses it for Heaven. The naked goatherder boy playing pipes to his flock, is a physical image that evokes the beyond for him, but mistakenly, and here as elsewhere the idealized image of England as Albion is nicely consonant with Powell and Pressburger films like A Canterbury Tale, just as paeans to the physical and sensual pervade their films from I Know Where I’m Going to The Red Shoes, Gone to Earth to Powell’s The Age of Consent. In fact, the subjective experience of the senses is a bridge to the beyond: it is a certain smell that tells Peter that the Conductor is nearby, ready to whisk him off to Heaven, as a recurring Ligeti-esque piano motif signals the same to the audience.

The film is about forms of proof, ultimately. The first of these is whether or not Peter is suffering from a brain tumor which may have caused his delusions of having died, having gone to Heaven, etc. (the exchange of the book comes into play here). Given his “symptoms”- eg., the smell that precedes each instance where Conductor 71 freezes the world and visits Peter- this is a perfectly logical explanation for what’s happened to him. The film undercuts this not only through the primacy effect- the film has shown us Peter talking to the Conductor and going to Heaven long before Dr. Reeves offers his alternative diagnosis- but also by coming down firmly on the side of the spiritual as against the rational. The dialectic of Peter and Dr. Reeves is part of this, one representing the spiritual and the other the scientific- but then, Powell and Pressburger enact a couple of reversals. Peter undergoes an operation to remove the tumor, which according to Reeves will cure him- thus, giving the film’s climax a realistic alibi; but at the same time, Reeves is killed and goes to Heaven to be Peter’s counsel at trial.

The trial commences.

In that trial, the American, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), argues for rationality and practicality in the face of Peter and June’s love, and in the end is decisively defeated.

The trial comes to a climax in the operating theater.

The moral, given to us at the end of the trial, is stated thus: “Nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love…. For love is Heaven, and Heaven is love.” Thus the rule of universal law- that Peter must have died, and therefore must move on- is defeated by the power of love; and yet, before Peter can go back to June, he must sign onto a plan laid out for him by the magistrate. If surrealism still has some Romantic potential for subversion to it, allegorized in the supernatural melodrama as a rejection of materialism in favor of emotion, then Peter’s obeisance vitiates that somewhat here.

Gradually, this postwar boom in the supernatural romantic melodrama begins to taper off. Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950) replays some elements of it, and whilst starting out as a tale of a poet, Orpheus (Jean Marais), obsessed by his art to the neglect of his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), it actually becomes increasingly melodramatic as it goes, turning into a love-rectangle: Eurydice loves Orpheus, but Orpheus loves Death (María Casares), while Death’s chauffeur, Heurtebise (François Périer), falls in love with Eurydice. While the love of Orpheus and Death is doomed, so is the love of Heurtebise and Eurydice; in the end, Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited, their love reaffirmed. Ultimately, Orpheus takes place in too-alternate a universe for the strain of cinema I’m looking at- an alternative universe where poets are rock stars- but Cocteau’s mobilization of a Surrealist sensibility in largely everyday settings is still very powerful.

Into the mirror.

Out of the mirror.

Aside from reverse-motion, negative image effects, and mirrors as watery portals, Cocteau derives most of the film’s surreal charge from the oneiric potential in the objects of modern life: shortwave radios, chrome and automobiles, motorcycles and leather gear.

Even the mise-en-scène of the world on the other side of the mirror insistently resembles postwar ruins more than any purely fantastic realm. Mise-en-scène is also the principal appeal of Vincente Minnelli’s film of Brigadoon (1954): the titular village itself, and the contrast in sound, framing, and set design between Brigadoon and New York. Though a musical, Brigadoon is a particularly melodramatic one, with strikingly little comedy for the genre, and its story of a man (Gene Kelly) who stumbles upon a village that only appears out of the Highland mists once every hundred years, and finally elects to give up his life to be a part of it with the lass he’s fallen in love with (Cyd Charisse), makes it a clear example of what I’m looking at.

Brigadoon aside, though, the last great surreal, supernatural romantic melodrama of the classical period is Albert Lewin’s often-jawdroppingly weird Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). The story is simple: a femme fatale, Pandora (Ava Gardner, never more gorgeous) falls in love with a mysterious man, Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), whose yacht shows up off the coast one day. She discovers what we have already learned, that he is in fact the captain of the Flying Dutchman, and in order for them to be together, and for his curse to be lifted, she must give up her life for him. Here again pathos comes from the fact that we know who he is well before she does (and thus understand why, in his love for her, he tries to convince her she means nothing to him- for to do otherwise is to ask her to die). But the narration is unsually complicated here: the story is framed as a flashback from the point when a body (concealed to us) shows up on a beach one day, and delves into flashbacks-within-flashbacks when Hendrik recounts the story of how he ended up the cursed figure he has become. Sequences like this one come as almost-indigestible lumps of exposition relayed through first-person voiceovers, and generally the film is unusually dialogue-heavy (it is a supremely wordy film), and studded with soliloquys from Geoffrey (Harold Warrender), who is confidante to both Hendrik and Pandora. Yet these are punctuated by passages of eerie silence and temps mort, moments where time is drawn out, as if literally embodying one of the fundamental principles of the supernatural romantic melodrama, that in them love flouts the laws of time as well as space. In finally coming together, Hendrik and Pandora have overcome time, and Pandora drifts into a poetic reverie: “Our love is real, there’s no sense of time” and “It’s as if we were in a spell, outside of time, unending.” These slowed-down, drawn-out moments have a diaphanous, trance-like quality, and match the Mediterranean setting both in its sun-baked days and cool blue nights.

The color is deeply saturated throughout, and Lewin achieves some extraordinary deep focus effects.

It is these choices that impart the film with a particularly dream-like atmosphere, though scenes on the beach staged around random classical statuary are full of compositions overtly reminiscent of Surrealist painting.

Just as the narration oscillates between theatrical wordiness and cinematic contemplativeness, so the performances exist in a contrast that, if perhaps unintentional, is nevertheless strangely effective: the stiffness of almost the entire supporting cast (except for Marius Goring, playing a suicidal paramour of Pandora’s, and chewing up scenery as always) forms a kind of backdrop, against which we have Gardner’s luminosity, her keening, voluptuous in-love-ness, and Mason’s yearning, his ragged, despairing desperation. It is Hendrik’s speechless staring at Pandora that conveys his love for her, just as Julie’s yearning looks at Liliom do in the Borzage: as if love’s power to transcend the physical world is foreshadowed in its escape from language.

If Hendrik often acts like a somnambulist, dream logic also pertains to those objects of the physical world charged with meaning in the way that objects in dreams become sites of psychoanalytic condensation and displacement: the cape of Montalvo, Pandora’s bullfighter suitor (Mario Cabré); the diary of the Flying Dutchman that Geoffrey discovers as an artifact and asks Hendrik to translate, precipitating the flashbacks; the painting Hendrik makes of Pandora, which she defaces, which in turn allows him to finish it; and the hourglass that represents Hendrik’s continued life, which stops when Pandora and Hendrik come together at the climax and which shatters when they die. If these objects are given a dream-like power and significance, if they in this sense are freighted with surreal power, they also mark a world in which the lovers are out of control. Pandora and Hendrik are helplessly drawn together even as his fate is tied up in God’s curse upon him. Nothing- their lives, their love, the rules of the world they live in- seems to be in their control, and the objects are correlatives of that. This, of course, is one of the characteristics of the family melodrama in Thomas Elsaesser’s discussion of it, “Tales of Sound and Fury”: objects are charged with meaning in a way that leaves characters trapped by them as they are by the social world, unable to act (Gunning makes a strikingly parallel argument about Lang’s depiction of the Destiny-Machine). Here, it is less the social than the metaphysical world that traps them, but the dynamics of passivity, claustrophobia, and repression are so similar as to encourage us to think of these films, too, as allegories of modern experience- just at another level of poetic remove from reality.

Thanks to Amy Heller, Teri Higgins, and Sally Milner for their thoughts and suggestions on the supernatural melodrama.

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Ken Burns, Jazz, and Historiography

Historiography can be a difficult subject, but Ken Burns’ omissions from the last episode of Jazz are are hard to miss.

I recently finished watching Ken Burns’ Jazz for the first time. I had never been drawn to it, or to any of Burns’ other megadocumentaries. Partly this is because I just don’t care enough about the topics, baseball especially: I don’t like sports, have never been hailed by sports culture, and if I were to waver on that point, it wouldn’t be for baseball (it would be for American football, and then mostly because I am a huge Friday Night Lights fan). But my Burns-related apathy started with his most acclaimed work. Growing up in the South I tend to have an aversion to the Civil War to the exact extent to which the people around me care too much about it. Keep in mind, since we are talking about the South, and since I am white, the legacy of the Civil War to which I am exposed is unremittingly ugly; it’s about Confederate flags and The South Will Rise Again. Having skipped The Civil War the first time it aired, I never had a chance to get absorbed in it before I started to encounter first short clips from it, and then parodies of it, both of which put me off of what I perceived to be a certain overweening solemnity, a self-seriousness in voiceover and images that seemed eminently deserving of the gentle ridicule and mild backlash that followed the initial hype.

11 years after it first aired, though, Jazz pulled me in. I have dabbled in jazz collecting for the last 15-20 years or so, picking up a few essentials like the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens box set, a few of the Atlantic boxes (Mingus, Mose Allison, Coltrane), a little Django and a little Duke, some Ella and Billie, even a tiny smattering of Bird and Monk alongside the ubiquity of Brubeck’s Take Five and Miles’ Kind of Blue. I’ve never been all that serious about it, though. Most of what I’m interested in has rubbed off on me thanks to one roommate (’50s/early ’60s cool jazz) or another (fusion and free jazz). I figured it was time for a sustained look at jazz, and since I would be recovering from surgery, here was a perfect time to watch hours and hours of TV that could still feel like they were, you know, contributing to personal growth and stuff.

And I found Jazz brilliant, surprisingly entertaining: vivid, making amazing use of some really beautiful art photography alongside photojournalism, built in part around a range of cogent, often powerful and even moving interviews. Burns may have a single identifiable aesthetic that he brings to his many subjects, but he makes it sing. He takes all the voices he marshals- actors reading from contemporary sources, interviews of critics and scholars as well as participants, photographs and film clips, and the music, especially the music- and weaves them into a grand tapestry of sound, vision, and history. An American viewer can feel justifiably patriotic, not only for the glory of one of our great contributions not just to world music but indeed to world culture, but also for the oft-repeated suggestion that jazz’s greatness is America’s potential for greatness, that jazz is a vision of what America can and should be, democracy in excelsis. Not only is this idea- that jazz operates by a dynamic of improvisation (freedom) and communication within and among the group (democracy: compromise and cooperation)- put forward persuasively, but this description of the form of jazz is mirrored by the form of Jazz, the way Burns synthesizes all his source materials. Among the photos and songs and unearthed quotes (especially valuable here are Ralph Ellison’s writing on jazz) are theories put forth by a range of scholarly voices: Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddens, Gerald Early, and no less than any of the writers, Wynton Marsalis, who seems to have been Burns’ chief consultant. Between them and the participant interviews, Burns put forth the strongest case possible for the whole of jazz’s legacy. Almost. The fulsomeness of praise for the music and its “meaning,” be it swing or bop (each celebrated for very different reasons), is such a signature characteristic of the series that when Early launches into an attack on fusion-era Miles, it’s not just off-putting, it’s a shock.

The strong implication is that Miles abandoned “his art,” and indeed jazz itself, and proceeded to pander to a rock audience for strictly commercial and egotistic reasons (to be as big a star as Sly Stone, say). Miles’ fusion, from Bitches Brew on, was, says Early, like playing tennis without a net. All through the proceeding hour and a half, as he delved into the controversies around modern jazz, Burns had tried to maintain a certain kind of balance, for instance between Cecil Taylor admirers and skeptics; when it comes to fusion, he abandons it entirely. That Miles’ fusion experiments were as far from pop as rock-related music gets is never considered; nor does anyone even raise a contrast between Miles’ radicalism on the likes of Agharta and Pangaea on the one hand, Weather Report having a hit with “Birdland” on the other, or the really MOR dreck on the third, things like Spyro Gyra, George Benson, or Pat Metheny.

That ‘70s fusion encompassed not just rock but also classical influences (Keith Jarrett, the ECM artists) would be worth mentioning, even if, more than with rock, that means moving away from African-American musics; that Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were also exploring funk is never explored. No-one here makes much of an attempt to grasp the ideas behind fusion; the idea that the dynamics of experimental rock might, a) be valid in themselves, and b) help to explain both the looseness and thickness Miles strove for, is never seriously countenanced (in part that thickness is attributable to Teo Macero’s innovative use of the studio as instrument, a first for jazz; Macero is never mentioned at all). More basically still, the idea that it could actually be fruitful for jazz to try to engage with other musical traditions, blues-based or otherwise, is never proposed, let alone defended. When Burns gives us a kind of fade-out after Bitches Brew, it is as if jazz came to a dead stop between Miles’ betrayal and what is portrayed as a rebirth with Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming and the rise of Wynton Marsalis. The continuing health of jazz, in this account, is predicated on a rediscovery of its heritage, a limited popular resurgence of its traditional forms. The efforts of artists to combine jazz and hip-hop are acknowledged, true, but it’s Ron Carter playing with MC Solaar, not Matthew Shipp; traditional jazz playing in a populist context, not the avant-garde. If anything, the avant-garde is seen as leading to a dead end, and when Marsalis comes along to save jazz single-handedly, the continuation of avant-garde jazz- much of it, like fusion, incorporating other sounds and styles- is entirely elided.

Given the catholicity of the project up to this point, the complete lapse of any spirit of inclusiveness in the last of Jazz’s 19 hours is bitterly disappointing. I was even prepared for it; I remembered this criticism of Jazz from its initial broadcast, and there was a lot of it. I knew from the outset that Wynton Marsalis was the guiding intelligence behind Burns’ take on the music’s history, and that this would entail a degree of conservatism (Marsalis dismisses the likes of Anthony Braxton entirely; to Marsalis, Braxton’s experimentation is such a departure from the blues-based tradition that it doesn’t count as jazz at all). If anything, given that the real heroes of Burns’ show are Armstrong and Ellington, I was suckered by how much attention Burns pays to postwar styles; so that the dismissal of fusion and experimentation from the 70s on pulled the rug out from under me even though I knew better. In retrospect, of course, it makes perfect sense. That Marsalis is the major voice here, that Murray and Crouch were major influences on Marsalis, and Early is very much on Marsalis’ page, it is no surprise that the story Burns tells is in large part the story Marsalis, Murray, Crouch and Early tell. This is a question of the history of jazz, but more particularly of the historiography of Jazz.

I teach in a department surrounded by media and film theorists heavily influenced by, variously, feminist psychoanalytic film theory, phenomenology, Italian Marxism, post-colonialism, postmodernism, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, etc., etc. Our students are asked to grapple with some fairly high-level theoretical material as a consequence; I’m not saying they always get it, but they certainly get whapped upside the head with it. Historiography, though, is always a bit hard for them to get a handle on. In part, this is because they never really face it in a direct way; they read little or no actual historiography, be it E.H. Carr or Hayden White. Instead, they are simply encouraged to think critically about the history they read: to ask what assumptions the authors make; what narratives they are mobilizing; what evidence they use, how and why; what questions they ask or don’t ask, and what answers they get as a result. Asking such questions is a bit counterintuitive for students: they come into university still in a secondary school mindset, used to thinking of history not histories; of history as a collection of facts, not an amalgam of a set of arguments allied to what is, at base, a theoretical framework, with its commitments to empirical research and some notion of causality. But watching the last episode of Jazz, having already been given sympathetic exposure to jazz fusion and the jazz avant-garde, the fact that Burns has a very specific story he wants to tell, based on a clear set of assumptions from which his sense of the history, meaning and value of the form follows, becomes strikingly clear. That story guides what is included and what isn’t, what is deemed to be Great Art and what gets dismissed as “playing tennis without a net” (Jazz is an evaluative history of the kind not seen in the study of film since Terry Ramsaye and Lewis Jacobs in the first half of the 20th century).

Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exemplary historiographic essay “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” studied the sidelining of slavery as a root cause of the Civil War in all sorts of historical texts, including Burns’ The Civil War. In that documentary, Shelby Foote “presents the Civil War as a kind of big, tragic misunderstanding. ‘It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,’ said Foote….” Coates is quite right to point out a systematic exclusion of African-Americans and even slavery itself from white histories of the Civil War, with conflicts of economic and political philosophies and practices elevated to centrality instead. If, as Coates suggests, Burns is like so many others guilty of marginalizing the black experience at the roots of the war, then Jazz can be seen as an attempt to redress this by putting black culture and the black experience right at the heart of the narrative.

If jazz, in Burns’ telling, is a manifestation of a democratic ideal, then one would think that Burns would try to be as inclusive as possible. After all, the series spends most time on the idea of jazz as a popular music from the ‘20s through the mid-‘40s, bringing together black and white audiences, even wowing the Europeans. But for Burns, the crux of it is this irony: that jazz is a black music, the blues not just a foundational but a necessary ingredient, and yet still the ultimate American democratic music. In other words, what gives depth and flavor to this story is that the “ultimate” art of American democracy, one that is built on freedom, communication and cooperation, one that in its heyday spoke to audiences across the barriers of race, one that was created by musicians of all races, was given to the world by the descendents of slaves. Variations on jazz styles that skew toward rock, a white adaptation of r&b (and country, lest we forget), or classical and experimental forms shared with or borrowed from Europe complicate that story. It’s not that such developments are irreconcilable to the story Burns is telling, but either Burns didn’t see that, or such a reconciliation would require more time and nuance than was possible. Some have argued that it is because the series is so committed to the idea of jazz as an African-American music that past the swing era, Brubeck is the only white player given much credit; Bill Evans, for one, is sidelined. Of course, there’s no question that jazz is centrally an African-American music; the question is, if this is to be at the heart of Burns’ story, then what does this require of him?

Certainly it is because jazz is portrayed as a black expression of American ideals that Armstrong and Ellington are the heroes, center-stage in each and every episode. Armstrong represents democracy through his commitment to the ideals of entertainment, playing a music that welcomes each and every listener. Ellington represents democracy not only because his music incorporates so many distinct strains of jazz and popular song, but also because he was a band leader and his was in all respects a band music; he was the composer (with and without Strayhorn) and the leader, but it was all built around what he knew his players could bring to the table. Once jazz stops being the dominant American popular music, one that brought black and white tastes together (even if both bands and audiences were- more irony!- typically segregated), from the 1950s or so, there’s only two reasons Burns keeps going. First, postwar jazz is so much a part of what people think of as jazz that he simply can’t avoid it from an historical perspective; creators like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are so canonical that time must be devoted to them. Second, if postwar jazz was more and more a subcultural phenomenon for niche audiences, it nonetheless strove to capture something of the upheavals in the culture as a whole. If it no longer spoke to all, it still tried to encompass all within it. Of course, it was in doing so that jazz artists perforce broke with the ‘grace under pressure/order brought to chaos’ line that Albert Murray uses to characterize pre-bop jazz. Even if Burns acknowledges the importance of bop and later styles, it doesn’t seem quite the same, as the final episode seemingly acknowledges.

Because jazz of the ‘20s to the ‘40s is such a perfect vehicle for Burns’ narrative of art and democratic expression emerging from the injustice of slavery and the impurity of the American melting pot, when the likes of Marsalis revive it, that’s not seen as “new traditionalism,” as Ted Gioia labels it in The History of Jazz; it is simply the heroic resurgence of The One True Jazz. There’s nothing wrong with Marsalis per se (he’s not just talented, he’s an endlessly articulate and engaging voice in Burns’ film), but there is a problem with making him the sole representative of jazz’s continued existence. With his rejection of electric jazz, his rejection of non-jazz influences and his disregard of the avant-garde, it’s hard to see the rigid traditionalism of Marsalis as anything other than the attitude of a curator, as opposed to an artist. To build a narrative of contemporary jazz around him and only him is to vitiate jazz, to make it a museum piece, not a form still in motion. To show jazz in the light of restless experimentation and progress would in fact be to show it as profoundly inclusive in the ways Burns suggests, but perhaps too radically open for his comfort.