Film Critics Need to Learn to Look -- and Enjoy
Greta Garbo in 1932's Grand Hotel.
Star presence, that distillation of charisma and sometimes glamour, lies at the heart of the movies' appeal. The star presence James Harvey evokes so richly in his new book, Watching Them Be, is never simply about physical beauty. Harvey rightly points out that Ingrid Bergman's fresh unaffectedness was distinctly unglamorous, and that Charles Laughton was plagued by a belief in his own ugliness. There are plenty of good-looking performers who have never managed anything like star presence (Tom Cruise, for one).
So what is it? We could start with some combination of vividness of personality, intense charisma, the ability of a performer to create his own reality and the ability to make the audience believe it is watching someone live fully in the moment. John Wayne's famous description of what he did on-screen— "I don't act. I react"— is as good a summation of the ability to be alive in the eternal present of a scene, to not anticipate, to listen and engage with co-stars. Contrary to the belief that movie stars are attention-seeking extroverts, Wayne's description of his job implies watchfulness and, thus, complicity with the audience.
Too often, especially for audiences that fancy themselves sophisticated moviegoers, star presence is no different from star worship. Talk about movie stars, the allure of them, the beauty of them, or as if what they do is the equal of and often superior to "acting," and you're likely to be thought of as trading in the lowest echelons of a celebrity-obsessed culture. That's just one of the challenges that James Harvey meets in Watching Them Be, his eloquent, imperfect, and altogether marvelous new study of star presence as exemplified by certain stars (Greta Garbo across her career; Charles Laughton; the young cast of Godard's Masculine-Feminine; Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown), and by certain star-director collaborations (Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg, Bette Davis-William Wyler, John Wayne-John Ford). Harvey takes his title from James Baldwin's remark about movie stars, "One does not go to see them act, one goes to watch them be." Baldwin grasped that certain performers possess an extraordinary ability to live in the moment, and that while these stylized creatures may seem to exist apart from reality, they still possess the ability to convey truth, even profound truth.
Harvey is trying to convey how even small moments can feel as if they represent more of what the movies themselves are about than the most acclaimed, all-out performances. It's not that acting plays no part in star presence, or is anathema to the movies. You wouldn't look at Brando, as natural and psychologically real an actor as ever walked in front of a movie camera, in the final scene of On the Waterfront, where Terry Malloy confronts Lee J. Cobb's mob boss, and say that he wasn't acting. You might, however, contrast the crescendos of that speech ("From where I'm standin' I been lyin' to myself all these years!!") with the moment in The Godfather where Brando's Don Corleone casually brushes some lint from the suit jacket of Al Lettieri's Sollozzo, the hood who wants the Don to join him in the dope business. It's the most minute gesture and one of almost courtly condescension, an older man reminding a younger man that he's just a scruffy upstart.
Some of the greatest movie moments have always depended on that kind of subtlety. Jack Lemmon, making his movie debut in George Cukor's It Should Happen to You, was repeatedly told by the director, "Do less, do less," until finally he said, "If I do any less, I'll be doing nothing." "Now you're getting it," Cukor replied. (If only the director had been around for the rest of Lemmon's career.) Without some sort of spark that ignites in front of a screen, even accomplished acting can feel wan.
In his previous superb books, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood and Movie Love in the Fifties, Harvey fused close reading (close watching, to be precise) with an implicit belief that pleasure is an essential part of any artwork. The scholarly approach to film criticism has never acknowledged that it doesn't matter how expertly artists fulfill their intentions if there's no pleasure to be had in that fulfillment. Harvey knows, on a gut level, that to talk about the movies and exclude pleasure is a heresy. After explicating a scene in Mata Hari, where Garbo comforts her now-blind lover Roman Navarro, telling him they will travel the world and, pressing his hand to her eyes, saying, "Here are your eyes!" Harvey writes, "Okay -- that's impressive. But you still have to feel -- and more and more with each film -- something like: What is she doing in this shit?"
The use of "shit" in the discussion of a woman still regarded as the greatest divinity the screen has ever hosted is startling. It clears the air, makes it possible to contemplate the greatness of Garbo -- and despite her mostly unlucky vehicles, she was great -- without the incense smoke getting in the way. And as palpable as Harvey's pleasure is when he's writing about the good movies Garbo got -- Grand Hotel, Camille, Ninotchka -- you can't help feeling he's allowing Graham Greene to speak for him, at least, in part, when he quotes Greene writing of Garbo:
A great actress -- oh, undoubtedly one wearily assents, but what dull, pompous films they make for her, hardly movies at all, so retarded are they by her haggard equine renunciations, the slow consummation of her noble adulteries.
Which, you may feel, is why, with the exception of the trio of films cited above, moments in Garbo's movies stand out more than the surrounding pictures. It's much more pleasurable to watch Garbo wandering the inn after her never-to-be-lovers' rendezvous in Queen Christina, saying, "I'm memorizing this rooooom" (a moment lovingly parodied by Eva Green in Bertolucci's The Dreamers) than to sit through the whole brilliantly designed, meticulously directed, hopelessly turgid picture. And it's why, as Harvey demonstrates by contrast, the continental trashiness of the best Dietrich pictures (Morocco, Desire, Shanghai Express) felt like a relief, why their star seemed a much more earthy divinity.
Contrasting Garbo's execution scene in Mata Hari with Dietrich's death by firing squad in von Sternberg's Dishonored, Harvey writes, "There is no transcendence for the Dietrich heroine -- only a fantasy state of tough recognitions. The Garbo heroine may aspire to a kind of sublimity, but the Dietrich heroine aspires to it, too -- in its skeptical, materialistic form." In the film, Dietrich's execution is delayed while a young soldier, balking at shooting a woman, delivers a fervent defense of pacifism. In response, Dietrich makes sure her seams are straight. Harvey writes: "What better thing [to] do while she waits than to check those stockings...? Better than listening to that poor soldier's outburst. He's right, of course -- about all of it. But really, what else is new?"
The dégagé tone in which Harvey asks that last question, the world-weary note capable of compassion toward the young pacifist but too wised up to align with him, is a perfect translation of Dietrich's character into prose. The ease with which Harvey evokes the scene -- as facilely as Dietrich steps in front of that firing squad and with just as little fuss, before letting the whole thing evaporate into smoke ("But really, what else is new?") -- is at the heart of what he is trying to evoke in Watching Them Be.
In her book Moving Pictures, the recently deceased art critic Anne Hollander argued: Our relation to movies and paintings is one of hopeless inequality: They will outlast us. Our mutability and mortality are weak in the face of those ageless moments they recount, those creatures and vistas unchangingly and forever going through their motions.
Hollander was right. Movies have a permanence that live performance (theater, music, dance) does not. This, as she realized, is one of the things that links movies to painting. But in another sense, movies are the most evanescent of the arts. Being shadows and light, they do not exist in front of us the way a painting or a sculpture does. And to experience them as they are meant to be experienced, as images that appear and are then gone, is to be constantly aware of just how fleeting they are. On some level, I think, evanescence is Harvey's unspoken subject, and the thing that has often flummoxed people about them.
Hollander again: "The power of moving pictures has been undeniable since the beginning of the cinema. ... What they did not first seem to be was art, at least, not in the same universe with the works of Rembrandt and Michelangelo. But anyone could have told, from the kind of force the screen image had, that movies were linked to compelling pictures of all kinds." The objections that otherwise intelligent people have so often made when it comes to the movies has had to do with a combination of the form's pulp origins and its bigness. You can be just as overwhelmed by a 19th-century novel or an opera, but they are likely to have a more respectable pedigree. And because movies don't give you the time to stop and consider, as novels do, and because they invade our intimacy in a way that the enforced distance of the theater prohibits, movies are often distrusted, still, with a suspicion not shown to any other art form. And more often that not, that distrust comes out in the old shibboleth particularly favored by literary types -- who have always felt in danger of being swept aside by film -- that reading is active, while looking is passive. Of course, no one ever making that argument will ever admit that passivity depends on what someone is reading or looking at (anyone who maintains consciousness while reading Fenimore Cooper is superhuman; anyone who ever dithered through The Great Escape is more than likely a boob). And no one, as far as I know, has ever tried to advance the argument that looking is passive to an art history professor. What has always escaped people who insist on judging films as if they were novels -- or, to paraphrase the film historian Eileen Whitfield on those who treat silent films as antique novelties, as if they were trying to be novels and failing -- is that good filmmakers use images as deliberately and carefully as good writers use words.
Which is why it's always been easier for novelists and literary critics who attempt to write about movies to focus on the script or, God help us, the theme. Classically bad overacting like Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine or Melissa Leo's Method scenery-chewing in The Fighter lays out meaning, so obviously it's practically sucker bait for people who pooh-pooh looking as being passive. You can't passively watch anything that keeps bonking you on the head. On the other hand, if you believe looking is passive, the meanings and nuances with which an actor can invest a gesture or convey in a close-up are likely to pass you by. Harvey finds the perfect example of this inability to see in his polite dismissal of a remark by the critic Daniel Mendelsohn (who as well as anyone has embodied the haplessness of literary critics attempting to write about movies). Mendelsohn is taking issue with Quentin Tarantino's insistence that in Robert Forster's performance in Jackie Brown, "Robert Forster's face is backstory." Mendelsohn claims this as proof that Tarantino believes "it's unnecessary to write psychology or motivation into the movies" and worries about the moviegoer who doesn't know Robert Forster. But, of course, as Harvey points out, a moviegoer who doesn't know Robert Forster can still see him; one who believes everything must be written lacks a basic notion of how movies work. Seeing is what Harvey does so beautifully. Here is Harvey on John Wayne's first appearance in Stagecoach, the movie that made him a star after he'd already made nearly 80 pictures:
With his size, his personal authority, his vibrant good looks, the iconic cowboy, in short -- it's all there. But so are other things, less expected: a certain unease, a hint of shyness, a distressed look that seems elicited by his own "hold it" command -- almost as if it pained him to give it at all. This is not the Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott face -- chiseled, impassive, resolute -- but the face of someone who feels what he's doing in his stomach, enough to show some strain about it in his furrowed brow, though no less determined to do it.
It's Harvey's discussion of Wayne in the climactic moment of John Ford's The Searchers that seems to me his most daring. Whatever you think of The Searchers (and it has always struck me as deeply flawed), this is one of the most powerful moments in all of American movies. Wayne's Ethan Edwards has finally located the niece for whom he's been searching for years (the teenage Natalie Wood, as touching as she almost always was), the niece who had been kidnapped by the Comanches when she was just a little girl, and who Ethan has vowed to kill because, to him, she's now a Comanche herself. But instead of shedding blood, Wayne picks up Wood as if she were no more than a doll, holds her aloft and then, gathering her into his embrace says, "Let's go home, Debbie." Harvey writes, "It's one of those great movie epiphanies that feels convincing to you not because it feels explainable but because it doesn't [emphasis mine], not finally -- a moment that both surprises and persuades you at once, and that persuades you, partly because it surprises you. Reminding you as it does of how feelings of tenderness and love ... can invade you, inexplicably even. Of how suddenly, even mysteriously, we can rise above our own worst characters and impulses."
That passage could stand for why I find James Harvey so satisfying a critic, and frequently so moving. Those are not the words of a critic disdaining explication but a critic who understands that criticism is never more lyrical, never more able to open up a work to readers, than when the critic chooses to evoke rather than to dissect. And when the critics understand that most of what's worth knowing about art can never come from a thesis-like explanation.
That Harvey chooses to end the book with three successive chapters on the collaboration between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, on the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and on Robert Bresson's Au Hasard, Balthazar (for him, the greatest film he has ever seen) seems to me a momentary capitulation to the work that invites just that kind of tiresome explanation. Not that the quality of Harvey's thinking or writing is any less in these chapters. It's just that, even when they're good, these three directors embody the school of "take your medicine and like it," which is anathema to everything that Harvey evokes so beautifully. When Harvey writes about the "accumulating blandness" of Dreyer's Ordet, or that Bresson's method can register "less as a reach towards transcendence than a personal rigidity, even stubbornness," I got the feeling he knows just what pains in the asses these filmmakers can be. (A director who proclaims, as Bresson did, that he didn't believe in actors has no business in a book on star presence.)
But this is a far-from-fatal flaw in a book that stands in opposition to so much of what's wrong with contemporary film criticism -- chiefly, the terribly serious, young, male critics who direct their criticism to one another instead of a reading public, and who have less feel for the erotics of cinema than any preceding generation of film critics. And in opposition to what has gone wrong in our culture -- the suspicion of, if not outright hostility to, beauty, the de rigueur conviction that policing culture is the logical extension of working to legislate social and economic justice. There's a great, absurd example of this in the recent Begin Again. When aspiring singer Keira Knightley asks Mark Ruffalo's record-label A&R man what her beauty has to do with why he wants to sign her, she's asking a question that is precisely attuned to this cultural moment. And it's a question that makes you long for Ruffalo to answer, "Everything." The question is ludicrous: We are meant to applaud it even though the camera has been drinking in the tremulous defiance of Knightley's killer jawline, the piercing and liquid dark eyes. They are not the totality of Knightley's talent. She wouldn't be worth watching if they were. But it's foolish to pretend they are not part of her instrument. It would just be easier for everyone involved, and more pleasant for Knightley's character, if she could just accept her beauty the way Ingrid Bergman does in Saratoga Trunk. Told she is very beautiful, Bergman gives a little laugh and says, "Yes. Isn't it lucky?"
Harvey is too much a grown-up to waste his time or ours bemoaning the unfairness of such luck. In her new memoir, Lee Grant talks about losing an early acting job in a picture in which she was co-starring with Burt Lancaster, because she was completely googly-eyed in his presence. "Burt Lancaster," she writes, "bigger than life, godlike in beauty and power, movie star, was saying his lines, and suddenly I felt all the Method reality I'd worked on leak out of me, never to return." Who could blame her?
Harvey's book, though, is not a paean to idol worship. The most powerful recent example of an actor being in front of a camera, Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color, is also a superb performance. But Harvey can remind you that the peculiar nature of the movies is such that even great performances can seem so much fussing next to the experience of watching an actor who, in front of a camera, knows how to be. (There are few things I cherish more in the movies than the defiant challenge on Brigitte Bardot's tough little mug in Viva Maria!, when she breaks into Jeanne Moreau's traveling circus wagon and gulps down milk to fill her empty stomach while holding a gun on Moreau. Or Dean Martin in Rio Bravo abruptly sobering up enough to lose the shakes, and pouring a potentially lethal shot of whiskey back in the bottle, remarking, "Didn't spill a drop.")
The accomplishment of Harvey's book is not just that he writes so beautifully about so many moments -- like the look on the face of Robert Forster's bail bondsman in Jackie Brown, when he first catches sight of Pam Grier and in an instant knows what his life has been lacking; the way Bette Davis, in The Letter, continuously stares at the moon as if it is both her longed-for refuge and her unrelenting confessor -- but that he makes you realize why these moments could only exist in the movies, why looking is the path to discovering untold eloquence.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.