Missed Beats: Unseen Cinema and a Cinema of the Unseen (or Stella Dallas, Again)

In the closing moments of King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), Stella/Barbara Stanwyck becomes a spectator to a scene predicated on her absence, a scene she has nevertheless made possible. The scene is that of her daughter Laurel’s wedding, a wedding that stands for both social mobility and happiness in the film (though as the spectator has been a silent and privileged witness to the failed pay-offs of Stella’s own attempts at happiness through marrying up, this equation is marked with a degree of doubt only partly lessened by the differences between Laurel and her mother). Having handed her daughter over to the ‘second’ Mrs. Dallas – a woman whose femininity and middle-class standing are more assuredly accomplished than her own – Stella has removed herself from her daughter’s life so that Laurel can slip into upper middle-class femininity without glitch, reflection, or residue. Returning from we-know-not-where, Stella, makeup-free and dressed in a trench coat, watches the marriage from the street, standing alongside other passers-by who gather outside the stately home’s picture window to catch a glimpse of the production. Stella is eventually moved on from her spectatorial position by a police officer, but not before claiming her rights as both spectator to and director of the scene. Holding her position before the screen-like window she asks for a few minutes more, wanting to wait until the bride lifts her veil to receive the marital kiss. Occupying the foreground of the frame, Stella is framed as the scene’s primary spectator, her experience of the scene privileged over that of the characters within it. Yet, while Stella is a spectator to this event, she is nevertheless invisible to it: the scene before her proceeds – and can only proceed – without her physical presence. Stella, it seems, is a spectator to a scene in which she has no place – or rather, in which her only place is, in fact, that of invisible and inaudible spectator.

Stella Dallas is a canonical text in studies of the Hollywood women’s film and theories of female spectatorship, and the film has been discussed and debated in and across some of the most important and formative work in feminist film theory by theorists such as Linda Williams, E. Ann Kaplan, and Patricia White. [1] The film has been a particularly productive site for examining the classical Hollywood women’s film’s troubled representations of female subjectivity and desire and its inscriptions of a viewing position for the female viewer. Through its portrayal of its protagonist’s attempts to create a life that contains a degree of movement, freedom, and pleasure, and the constant thwarting of her attempts by a self-righteous middle class that finds her femininity wanting, the film brings together some of the key concerns of feminist analyses of classical Hollywood: femininity as performance/masquerade, the representability of female desire in the classical Hollywood form, and the woman’s simultaneous hypervisibility (as spectacle) and invisibility (as subject). Stella Dallas’s closing scene has been the focus of particular interest for these debates because of the way it works with — and literally stages — the maternal melodrama’s theme of maternal sacrifice (for Stella to be a ‘good mother’ she must give up her own desires, and in this film, as in other maternal melodramas of the 1930s, this sacrifice entails relinquishing the child itself). [2] As Stella stands before a screen-like window, dressed anonymously in a trench coat and tomboyish hat, watching a scene that is both seemingly within reach and yet separated by an unbridgeable distance, she performs a particular idea of female spectatorship, one in which female spectatorial pleasure is based in longing. It is largely for this reason that the film’s close has played such an important role in studies of the women’s film and its inscriptions of a female viewing position, with Stella, unseen and rapt before the scene that unfolds before her mirroring the position of the implied female viewer in the audience. Precisely because this scene has primarily been read as one in which Stella is positioned as spectator to a scene of her own effacement and forgetting, it has offered a particularly rich instance of the precariousness of the female gaze in the woman’s film. [3]

Like a number of other classical women’s films, Stella Dallas could be understood as a story of a woman’s social invisibility. But one of the things that makes its closing sequence so affectively charged is the way that it troubles the distinctions between visibility and invisibility, disappearance and appearance (after all, it is only at the end that Stella defeats the forms of effacement and erasure that she has confronted throughout, in keeping with the terms of melodrama’s recognition of virtue). As I will discuss later, the closing scene holds these opposing terms suspended through the way it sets the unfolding of the (anticipated) shot/reverse shot structure askew, throwing it off kilter by both foregrounding and thwarting the exchange of looks that are generically and narratively anticipated by troubling their beat.

This scene from Stella Dallas, in short, has already been the subject of a rich and lively discussion in feminist film debates in the 1980s and 1990s, so much so, in fact, that this finale is among the most-discussed scenes from a classical Hollywood text in Anglophone film theory. There is, therefore, something wayward or even backward in returning to Stella Dallas now, suggesting, perhaps, a stubborn refusal or inability to move on to something else – an inability to be ‘done’ with Stella Dallas. Certainly in returning to Stella Dallas here, now, there might well be a little of these things going on. But there are other reasons why I want to return to Stella Dallas and the debates that took place around it in the context of a discussion on untimely cinema.

One of the things that makes this scene so startling is the way that it gives form to what Patricia White has described in her book UnInvited (and in relation to another film structured around not being in the picture) as an ‘intense drama of not belonging’ (xiv). In this closing scene the narrative themes of invisibility and of not belonging – central to Stella’s ‘story’ – are played out for the spectator through the organisation of shots. Much of the critical discussion around this film focused on what was seen as going on in and through the sequence of shots that make up the final moments of the film. Reading this work ‘now’, as was also the case reading it ‘then’, it is hard not to be struck by the ways that each of these detailed readings give the scene a different pace as each repeats or performs the sequence in the act of description.  Certainly whenever we describe a scene, a shot, or a moment from a film we alter its tempo and rhythm.  As I will go on to argue, however, with Stella Dallas this re-pacing seems to also be tied to where each reading locates what I would call the scene’s downbeat – whether it is seen as sounding Stella’s disappearance or appearance, whether it marks the return of Stella’s gaze within the diegesis or outside it.

In returning to Stella Dallas here, I want to do two things. On the one hand I want to draw out some of the ways that questions of timing and temporal experience underlie some of these earlier discussions. In many respects the feminist film debates of the 1980s and 1990s laid some valuable groundwork for understanding the relations between film’s temporalities, spectatorship and sexual difference, most obviously through interest in the relations between audience address, spectator positioning, genre and representations of time (all of which were central concerns in feminist film theory’s work on film melodrama). On the other hand, and partly as a way of drawing out this theme in earlier work on Stella Dallas, I want to focus on the ways that the ‘drama of not belonging’ that we find in Stella Dallas (to borrow White’s phrase)or, somewhat differently, what I would call the experience of invisibility – is both a ‘drama’ that is itself a form of temporal experience and a drama that is played out here as a temporal experience and sensation of time. Drawing on the work of Ralph Ellison and Paul Gilroy, I want to look at the ways that we can understand the relations between address, time and affect in Stella Dallas’s final scene by reading it through its rhythmic structures.

This essay has two parts. In the first part, I turn to Ellison’s work as a way of developing a language/conceptual framework for thinking about film, rhythm and address. In the second part, I return to Stella Dallas and the discussion that took place around it to look at how an attention to the rhythm of the final scene – more specifically, the way it both foregrounds the anticipation and delays the delivery of the beat of the shot/reverse-shot structure – might help us understand the ways that a film can give form to particular temporal experiences and the ways that it might do so through forms of temporal address.


The rhythm of in/visibility is cut time: phantasmatic interruptions and fascinations. [4]

Ralph Ellison’s fiction and essays have been influential in shaping both the American novel and American literary theory, and his 1952 novel Invisible Man continues to be recognised as one of the most important contributions to twentieth-century American literature. [5] His work has been equally significant for American musicology, where his essays on the blues, bebop, the tango, and other musical forms have set a benchmark for writing on forms of popular music. [6] But the significance of his work extends beyond the more expected terrains of literary theory and musicology. Over the last two decades, there has been a considerable resurgence of interest in Ellison’s work across a variety of disciplines, from sociology to photography studies to political theory (Judy; Blair). In Anglophone film theory, however, Ellison’s work barely receives a mention. One could well argue, of course, that there is nothing particularly odd about the work of an American novelist writing in the post-World War II era having had little influence on or significance for contemporary film debates – film, after all, is not a key concern for Ellison (though he was a keen photographer). However, when one considers that some of the central issues and concerns underlying Ellison’s work resonate with key questions in both contemporary and classical film theory, then the apparent dearth of interest in Ellison’s work in contemporary debates is somewhat more surprising.

Ellison’s work is characterised by an interest in the relations between cultural forms and forms of historical thinking, in historically specific modes of perception — in particular, the new modes of perception enabled by technologies of reproduction (both visual and sonic) — and in the ways in which vision and visibility are structured through organisations of time. [7] Ellison’s concerns, in other words, meet up with many of the key concerns of film theory debates, both past and present. In particular, Ellison’s interest in the relations between cultural form, technical media and forms of historical consciousness has a particular resonance with and value for those debates that have drawn on the work of cultural theorists like Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer.

In Invisible Man, Ellison famously described invisibility as the sense of being ‘never quite on the beat’. Shifting the terms in which invisibility is understood, Ellison’s novel suggested that questions of visibility and invisibility cannot be separated from questions of time and rhythmic expression. For Ellison, because invisibility is tied to an experience of time it can be expressed as and through its rhythmic structure, a rhythmic structure in which the off-beat is dominant. By describing invisibility in terms of its rhythmic structure and foregrounding the forms of time consciousness it entails, Ellison provides a way of understanding how invisibility can be given form and how, therefore, it can be made transmissible. [8]  

Ellison’s proposal that invisibility entails both a position in an organisation of time and a form of time-consciousness foregrounds the relations between representations of time and forms of social experience. Like Walter Benjamin’s favored figures of the gambler, the whore, and the flâneur, Ellison’s invisible man could be understood as a social type both marked by and illuminating the temporal structuring of experience in modern life. Like Benjamin, Ellison locates and foregrounds the rhythmic structure of forms of social and historical experience, particularly those forms of experience invisible or illegible and ‘marginal to the historical record’. [9] In this respect, one of the things Ellison’s analysis of invisibility offers to contemporary film and cultural theory debates is, quite simply, a way of understanding a form of experience that has often been overlooked in work that has set out to chart the relations between forms of social and historical experience and cinematic forms of representation and reception.  As such, drawing on Ellison’s understanding of invisibility to conceptualise how film can give form to this form of social experience can extend the terrain opened by Benjamin’s work on cinema and modernity and more recent work developed in its wake. Just as Benjamin traced the relations between the temporal structuring of experience in modernity and the ways this temporality has been – or could be – mimicked, or critically embraced, in particular film practices (such as in his comments on slapstick, for instance), the rhythmic and temporal structure of invisibility (a form of social experience inseparable from twentieth-century modernity) could also, presumably, be given form in the moving image. [10]

Ellison’s analysis of racial invisibility foregrounds how forms of social and historical experience can be given form and ‘sounded out’ in cultural forms through their rhythmic structure. In this respect, the value of Ellison’s work (and Invisible Man in particular) for film theory is not so much that it can add another marginalised social experience or social ‘type’ to a discipline’s repertoire. What makes Ellison’s description of invisibility so suggestive for understanding how film can summon invisibility and stage disappearance is the idea that invisibility can be made visible through particular representations of time. Ellison’s form of musical thinking is particularly valuable for understanding how invisibility’s rhythmic structure could be given form in the moving image, suggesting a framework for locating and drawing out invisibility’s ‘beat’ in particular film practices and for thinking about untimeliness in film in new ways.

Ellison was first a student of music; one of the defining features of his thought is the way that he thinks in and through sound. Ellison, who wrote that ‘one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give .us an orientation in time’, is a writer attuned to the rhythmic structure of cultural forms. [11] As such, his form of musical thinking is particularly valuable for a time-based medium such as film, as it can focus both our eyes and ears on the forms of rhythmic expression at play in a film or in a particular image practice. Attentive to the rhythmic structure of a cultural form or practice, and sounding out the experience of time and form of historical thinking it might represent, what Ellison’s work offers to film theory is a way of reading the temporal structure at play in a scene, shot, or sequence by, to borrow a phrase from his essay ‘The Golden Age, Time Past’, stirring the eye’s ear. [12]

As I have discussed in an earlier Screening the Past essay, invisibility, for Ellison, has a kind of time signature and it is through it that invisibility can be staged, recognised and made transmissible. [13] This is particularly useful for understanding how film can give form to invisibility, as it embraces in its field both the sense of a temporal mark (what we could regard as its indexical aspect) as well as offering a way of identifying particular temporal structures through their formal, and more specifically rhythmic, features. Each of these meanings is important for how the idea of the time signature is being used here, but my use of the term is also informed by Paul Gilroy’s version of it in his The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. [14] Gilroy is interested in historically and culturally specific forms of memorative communication, and he uses the concept of the time signature to refer to the structure of a social practice or cultural form. One of his central concerns is with how ‘black expressive cultures practice remembrance’, and how ‘this active remembrance [is] associated with a distinctive and disjunctive temporality of the subordinated’ (212). [15] As with Ellison’s description of the rhythmic expression of racial invisibility’s temporal structure, the time signatures that interest Gilroy are characterised by asynchronic and temporal disjunction.

Gilroy, not surprisingly, turns to Ellison’s work for his discussion of this disjunctive temporality; he draws on the oft-cited prologue to Invisible Man in particular. While invisibility’s time signature could be broadly described as being based around the off-beat, it is an off-beat in which the space around the (anticipated) beat is activated and primary. As Invisible Man’s narrator says in the novel’s famous prologue, invisibility ‘gives one a slightly different sense of time’, one in which ‘you’re never quite on the beat’ but ‘sometimes ahead and sometimes behind’. In other words, it is not simply the missing of the beat that is important here, but rather that the space around the beat is charged; after all, these are breaks one can ‘slip into’ and ‘look around’. Invisibility’s time signature could therefore be thought of as that of the breach or caesura, but it is a caesura in which the emphasis lies on the interval opened through the breach rather than the cut itself.

Gilroy’s concept offers a way of understanding how such forms of temporal disjunction can be produced in film; it does so because of its attention to questions of rhythm. Gilroy’s use of the term time signature both summons and diverges from the term’s more familiar meaning of referring to the numerical fraction that sits on a musical stave and indicates the meter of a piece of music. Gilroy, a theorist whose writing and thinking is always steeped in sound and marked by an attentiveness to the rhythms not only of cultural forms but also to those of a concept and of writing itself, clearly draws on the musical meaning of the time signature in his discussions of the black Atlantic. However, at the same time – and this is crucial to how I draw on his concept here – his idea also diverges from its more familiar meaning in significant ways. Whereas on the musical stave a time signature indicates the meter or what is sometimes called the measure of a piece of music, Gilroy’s use of the term refers to the rhythm of a cultural form or social practice. While rhythm and meter (or what is also sometimes called measure) have often been equated in film theory, meter is that which provides rhythm with a framework in and against which rhythm can chart its own movement. [16] The difference between meter and rhythm is central to invisibility’s time signature, and is particularly important for understanding invisibility’s representability in moving image forms like film. One of the advantages of Gilroy’s use of the term is that it is concerned with the relations between rhythm and meter in a particular rhythmic structure and with the conception of time made palpable through this relation. [17]

Gilroy’s concept is crucially tied to his focus on the forms of ‘double consciousness’ that have been central to the intellectual traditions and expressive cultures of the black Atlantic. As Gilroy argues, this doubleness — which W. E. B. Du Bois famously argued was ‘the founding experience of blacks in the West’ — played a key role in the intellectual history of the black Atlantic (91). Du Bois described double consciousness as the ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder’. [18]

While variously proposed and understood, this doubleness, as Patricia Williams has argued, is seen as conveying the ‘experience shared by so many African Americans of trying to negotiate the space between one’s humanity and one’s stereotype’. [19] In The Black Atlantic, the social practices and cultural forms that interest Gilroy are those whose rhythmic structures express this doubleness through the relations they establish between rhythm and meter. Like Ellison’s concept of invisibility on which it strongly draws, Gilroy’s time signatures of the black Atlantic express forms of social and historical experience through missed and suspended beats. Forms of syncopation and temporal disjunction characterise these time signatures, which are, therefore, characterised by a rhythmic structure that works with and against meter. For this reason, the time signature that expresses the diaspora temporality of the black Atlantic is that of the caesura. As such, we could say, the caesura and other such forms of temporal disjunction operate as both the content of a tradition and its mode of transmissibility.

Because the time signatures Gilroy focuses on are characterised by syncopation and temporal disjunction, the implicit distinction his concept draws between rhythm and meter is both necessary and enabling for his argument – he is, after all, less interested in metrical structure per se than in the ways rhythmic beats can carry social and cultural memory and articulate forms of social and historical experience. Invisibility’s time signature – that of never quite being on the beat – foregrounds and heightens a tension between meter and rhythm: its time signature is characterised by a rhythmic structure that activates and animates the space around a beat. Gilroy’s idea offers a way of addressing those experiences of time that are characterised by an experience of being out of step with dominant organisations of time, of occupying the space ‘around the beat’, or what we could also, perhaps, describe as the experience or sense of being untimely.

To understand how invisibility’s time signature might operate in a medium like film, questions of rhythm – of film’s rhythmic means and potential, as well as the conceptual tools and framework that would be necessary for ‘hearing’ and analysing film’s rhythmic articulations – inevitably become central. One of the central premises of this essay is that missed beats and other such forms of temporal disjunction in film need to be approached and understood in terms of rhythm, because temporal economies and conceptions of time are primarily expressed and represented through rhythmic means such as shot duration, figure movement, editing, and sound-image relations. Of course, we are primarily dealing here with visual or inaudible (and, most certainly, affective) rhythms – and not simply those created through editing, but also those that can course their way through a shot or scene through figure movement, pulses of light or color, or other such rhythmic means. Each of these rhythmic means can be set against one another to produce a kind of counterpoint where beats collide, fracture, or are missed, and it is at these points that invisibility’s time signature can appear. ‘Missed beats’ and other such forms of temporal disjunction can arise in film when different temporal economies and conceptions of time – expressed as rhythmic structures – are juxtaposed. They can arise, for instance, through the juxtaposition of different performance styles – where each performance style carries its own rhythm or they can be generated through the stalling of the narrative or shot into a cliché. [20] The animation of the space around the beat, central to invisibility’s time signature, can also be produced by troubling the beat of the shot/reverse-shot structure (a structure that sets out, after all, to create a shared and unified temporal field between viewer and viewed). What we see in Stella Dallas and the discussions that have taken place around the film’s final scene is that the force of the film’s close is tied to a tension between meter and rhythm. As I will go on to discuss, it is tied to an activation of the space around the beat of the shot/reverse-shot structure, a space that marks out the rhythms of visibility and recognizability that Ellison and Gilroy identify as central to the forms of time consciousness that underlie and characterise invisibility.


In her retrospective reading of the critical discussion that took place around Stella Dallas in the feminist film debates of the 1980s, Linda Williams comments that ‘With the great advantage of hindsight, I would say that the entire Stella Dallas debate was over what it meant for a woman viewer to cry at the end of the film’ (‘Melodrama revised’ 47). While Stella Dallas became a key site for critically addressing what it means to be moved by a film, no less significant in this work were – and are – the conflicting readings of what the viewer may, in fact, be being moved by. As Stanley Cavell writes in his book Contesting Tears, ‘How we imagine’ Stella’s ‘walking away from the world of the transparent and reflective screen’ is ‘fateful’. [21] The question of what ‘moves’ the viewer in the final scene is not only significant in terms of how one interprets the politics of its (precarious) resolution – for instance whether, as Doane argues, it offers little more than ‘a ritualised mourning of the woman’s losses in a patriarchal society’ (Desire 78). This question is also significant in terms of how we understand the kind of image practice the scene entails and the forms of spectatorship that it solicits and enables. What moves the viewer to tears in this scene might not be Stella’s absence from the wedding scene and her (self) banishment to the street and anonymity, but the fact that, as I will go on to discuss (and as both Cavell and White differently argue) the film traces and makes palpable an elsewhere that it does not, and perhaps cannot, show. Williams’s characterisation of the Stella Dallas debates concisely identifies some of the underlying stakes of this work. What is less evident in her summary of the debate is the degree to which the exploration of the production of the scene’s affective force frequently revolved around a sense that the film moves into a different kind of image practice in this scene, staging and playing out its protagonist’s disappearance/appearance through the summoning of a blind field.

In The Desire to Desire, her groundbreaking study of the woman’s film, Mary Ann Doane argues that Stella Dallas closes on a kind of double disappearance, with Stella’s disappearance from the story being filmically staged through her becoming one with the image itself. As Doane writes:

When the policeman tells Stella to ‘move on’ at the emd of the film, she pleads with him, ‘Oh please let me see her face when he kisses her’. What Stella desires, as spectator, is a close-up. When she walks away smiling, toward the camera and into close-up, she becomes that close-up for the spectator, who empathizes with her fate (78).

For Doane, Stella has not only been erased from the scene of her daughter’s wedding, become invisible to its players, and is about to disappear from (and with) the film itself: her disappearance in the film’s story is further heightened by a disappearance at the level of the image itself. Stella disappears in the image by becoming a particular kind of image as the film proffers one of its few facial close-ups of its star. What she desires is a close-up and what she becomes is a close-up and, as Doane suggests here, the ‘she’ in question slips and slides between Stella and the film’s implied (female) viewer. In Contesting Tears, Cavell takes this idea of Stella entering into an exchange with a cinematic gaze one step further; he argues, that rather than witnessing Stella’s disappearance, we are in fact spectators to her appearance. As Cavell writes: ‘as Stella walks toward us, her gaze, transforming itself, looks toward us, as if the screen is looming, its gaze just turned away, always to be searched for. (For what it grants; for what it wants)’ (216). For Cavell, Stella’s disappearance – or rather departure – from this story marks the opening or promise of her appearance elsewhere:

Her walk toward us, as if the screen becomes her gaze, is allegorized as the presenting or creating of a star, or as the interpretation of stardom. It is the negation, in advance so to speak, of a theory of the star as fetish. This star, call her Barbara Stanwyck, is without obvious beauty or glamour, first parodying them by excessive ornamentation, then taking over the screen stripped of ornament, in a nondescript hat and cloth overcoat. But she has a future. Not just because now we know – we soon knew – that this woman is the star of The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity and Ball of Fire, all women, it happens, on the wrong side of the law; but because she is presented here a star (the camera showing her that insatiable interest in her every action and reaction), which entails the promise of return, of unpredictable reincarnation (219).

While Cavell reads the scene in terms of Stella’s appearance (as Stanwyck-as-star-to-be) and Doane in terms of her disappearance, each makes their case by suggesting that what takes place in this scene is a shift between two different kinds of image practices that we could loosely (though somewhat problematically) identify as those of narrative and spectacle, and in this respect Cavell’s reading is closer to Doane’s than it may at first appear. For Doane, Stella disappears by becoming lost in – and as – a close-up. For Cavell, on the other hand, she appears, or comes into visibility (as a star-to-be), by becoming one with the screen itself (‘as if the screen becomes her gaze’): for Cavell, it is almost as if she has been ‘touched’ by the blind gaze of the projector and in turn becomes that gaze for the spectator. The difference between their readings revolves in part around what each sees as taking place through the (non) return of Stella’s gaze in the shot/reverse-shot sequence at the window of Laurel’s wedding, and the play of appearance and disappearance it sets in motion. Whereas for Doane, the scene offers an aestheticisation (if not sublimation) of loss, for Cavell it is about Stella’s freedom and her setting forth to some other place. This departure, moreover, is one that she sets out on with another woman’s blessing, and for both it is this shift into a different image practice that inscribes a spectatorial position for the female viewer. For Cavell, what Stella seeks and finds in the film’s closing scene is a loving maternal gaze and this gaze, which takes the form of the film screen itself, is relayed, spaced and delayed through a sequence of shots from the second Mrs Dallas to Stella and then to the film’s implied viewer.

Cavell identifies a crucial element of this scene overlooked in much of the theoretical work on the film: underlying the scene’s movement between disappearance and appearance is an act of recognition and a circuit of invisible looks that crosses between character(s), screen, and spectator. Stella, who has consistently been either shamed or misread by nearly every character in the film, is here recognised as not only ‘good’ (in keeping with melodrama’s concern with moral legibility and the recognition of virtue), but also, and more importantly for my interests here, as different (as Cavell matter-of-factly notes, ‘We know that Stella has no taste for men in general’) (217). Indeed, as White has argued in her analysis of the ways in which this film enables a lesbian spectatorship, this indirect exchange of looks between the first and second Mrs. Dallas at the close of the film is crucial.

Whereas for Doane it would seem that the (problematic) pathos of the scene lies in the fact that Stella is banished from the story to be trapped, eternally, as spectator at the window of that which she can neither have nor be, for Cavell the force and poignancy of the scene lies in its acknowledgement of difference, an acknowledgement that takes place through the gaze bestowed upon Stella by the screen within the screen, a gaze that the film cannot present directly. This gaze, moreover, takes the form of the wedding scene itself, for this ‘picture’ is quietly framed and presented for Stella by the second Mrs. Dallas, who, in arranging for the curtains to be open, acknowledges Stella’s presence and difference and gives her, in a sense, permission to depart. As Cavell argues, in this scene ‘the film screen is being identified as a field of communication between women’ (213). In White’s reading of both the film and the debates that have taken place around it, she examines and argues for its appeal to and enabling of a lesbian spectatorship, arguing that while ‘Lesbian desire is not an “aspect” of these films, [it is nevertheless] the hinge of an alternative experience and reading of them’ (110). As she argues, the inscription of a lesbian spectatorship is enabled in a number of ways in this film, from Stanwyck’s tomboyish performance to Stella’s lack of interest in men. But this lesbian reading position is also enabled through the film’s structuring of vision and visibility, in particular, as White argues, through its summoning of an ‘elsewhere’ (to which Stella will depart) and through the ways that the exchange of looks between the two Mrs Dallas’s at the close is not presented directly. What is at issue then is not so much an implied erotic desire between the two women but rather an erotic charge that arises from the recognition of difference, a recognition and valuing of Stella’s difference that the diegetic world has consistently failed to make. In this respect, the scene is structured through a relay of invisible/hidden looks that open and trace a blind field in the film. Stella receives and is touched by the gaze of the second Mrs. Dallas, not through an exchange of looks staged through classical narrative’s shot-reverse shot structure, but rather by the screen-like window which serves as a stand-in for that gaze.

The closing scene draws to a pitch a theme that has patiently bided its time throughout: recognisability. In many ways, what moves us in this scene is the belated recognition of Stella’s difference. While the recognition of virtue is a central feature of melodrama, what is significant here is that this recognition takes place in and is staged at the limits of vision through a blind field that is brought into visibility through a missed beat. Cavell’s claim that, in the closing scene, the screen itself serves as a means of communication between women suggests that there is a different logic of the image at play: the screen (both the screen of the film and the window-as-screen within the film) mediates contact and recognition between these women by serving first and foremost as a site of inscription, bearing the traces of a gaze that is not shown directly. What we move into in the final scene is an image-practice in which there can be no reverse shot, and this is so because a screen mediates the gaze (if the displaying of the wedding scene through the window stands in for a look of recognition at Stella, then Stella cannot return that gaze). The shot/reverse-shot structure becomes irrelevant and the story takes place elsewhere, in an off-screen space that cannot be accessed directly but that is signaled through a missed beat and the sensation of time that it activates. In this respect, questions of disappearance and appearance, invisibility and visibility, are not simply narrative themes in this film: they also inform and underscore its image-practice.

While Stella’s gaze cannot be returned within the story without dire consequences (the film could not be brought to a close if Stella were to re-enter the narrative), the film itself returns her gaze and it does so as and through the activation of the space around the beat. Having heightened the volume on our anticipation of the return of the gaze (both Stella’s and our own), the ‘answer’ to Stella’s gaze is a beat that the reverse-shot both empties (who, in that world, actually sees her?) and foregrounds (directing us to and tracing a temporal elsewhere).  The scene opens a temporal breach at the heart of the shot/reverse-shot structure, and while this breach is certainly in the service of the narrative and its orchestration of affect, the fact that Stella Dallas’s final scene opens (and takes place in) a blind field is nevertheless significant in terms of spectatorial address and the position it offers to its viewers. Through the displacement of recognition from the realm of the diegesis to that of the image itself, the (experience of) non-recognition is given form, and in so doing the film itself seems to be addressing a spectator as invisible and in their invisibility. The film’s close brings the experience of social invisibility that is central to the film’s narrative up close to the forms of invisibility that are central to the spectator’s place in cinema’s modality of desire. Hailing the spectator through a missed beat, invisibility’s time signature establishes a different logic of vision, displacing the visible, manifest image in favor of that which haunts its borders.

Through this untimely return to Stella Dallas and the critical discussions that have taken place around this film, I hope to have drawn out some of the ways that cinema can, and at times does, rethink ideas of timeliness and untimeliness and of being ‘out of time’ (in the sense of both off the beat and ‘marginal to the historical record’) in ways that are worth attending to. In returning here now, more than twenty years on, to the ‘Stella Dallas debates’ of the 1980s and 1990s,  I have also wanted to draw out some of the ways that the feminist film debates of the 1980s and 1990s were raising issues around ideas of film’s temporalities and rhythmic means. While this work has largely been left behind in the current temporal turn in Anglophone film theory, the kind of attentiveness to questions of rhythm, genre, and reception that characterized much of this work continues to provide a valuable critical framework for thinking about the relations between minoritarian time schemes, spectatorship, and cinema.


I’d like to thank Therese Davis for her thoughtful comments on this essay.

Works cited

Abbas, Ackbar. ‘On Fascination: Walter Benjamin’s Images’. New German Critique 48 (Fall 1989): 43–62.

Blair, Sara. ‘Ellison, photography, and the origins of invisibility’. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison. Ed. Ross Posnock. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Brooks, Jodi. ‘Lure of the Breach: invisibility and the dissolution of cinematic vision’. Screening the Past 22 (Dec 2007) http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/22/lure-breach-invisibility.html

______. ‘Ghosting the Machine: The Sounds of Tap and the Sounds of Film’. Screen 44.4 (Winter 2003): 355–78.

_____. ‘“Worrying the Note”: Mapping Time in the Gangsta Film’. Screen 42.4 (Winter 2001): 363–81.

Cavell, Stanley. Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1996.

Cowan, Michael. ‘The Heart Machine: “Rhythm” and Body in Weimar Film and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis’. Modernism/Modernity 14.2 (2007): 225–48.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. Prnt.

Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

———. The Emergence of Cinematic Time. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.

Du Bois, W. E. B. ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. W.E.B Du Bois: Writings: The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade/ The Souls of Black Fold/ Dusk of Dawn/ Essays. Ed. Nathan Huggins. New York: Library of America, 1996. 357–548.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. London: Penguin, 1965.

———. Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. Ed. Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Feld, Steven, and Charles Keil. Music Grooves. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1994.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Hansen, Miriam. “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology’.’ New German Critique 40 (1987): 179–224.

______. ‘Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street.” Critical Inquiry 25.2 (1999): 306–43.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.

Jacobs, Lea. The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman’s Film, 19281942. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991.

Judy, Ronald A. T. “Ralph Ellison: The Next Fifty Years.” Boundary 2 30.2 (Summer 2003): 1–4.

Kaplan, E. Ann. “The Case of the Missing Mother: Maternal Issues in Vidor’s Stella Dallas.” Heresies 16 (1983): 81–85.

Mitry, Jean. Semiotics and the Analysis of the Film. Trans. Christopher King. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003. Print.

Weheliye, Alexander G. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. Print.

White, Patricia. Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. Print.

Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.

———. “‘Something Else Besides a Mother’: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama.” Cinema Journal 24.1 (Fall 1984): 2–27.

Williams, Patricia J. Open House: of family, friends, food, piano lessons, and the search for a room of my own. New York: Farrar, 2004.

[1] See Linda Williams, ‘ “Something Else Besides a Mother”: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama’, Cinema Journal 24.1 (Fall 1984): 2–27; E. Ann Kaplan, ‘The Case of the Missing Mother: Maternal Issues in Vidor’s Stella Dallas’, Heresies 16 (1983): 81–85; Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987); Patricia White, UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999). See also Linda Williams’ discussion of the debate that took place around this film between a number of feminist film theorists in the 1980s and her retrospective interpretation of the stakes of that debate in her essay ‘Melodrama Revised’, in Nick Browne (ed.) Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 42–88.

[2] For a discussion of the maternal melodrama and its theme of sacrifice see Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman’s Film, 19281942 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), and Patricia White, UnInvited, 107–08.

[3] Doane writes of this sequence: ‘Stella is a lesson for the female spectator in more ways than one – what she learns and figures at the window is distance. But the position of the distanced spectator can be assumed by her only at the cost of an identity, of recognition. Nevertheless, Stella, at the window, is not, cannot be, a voyeur despite the policeman’s exhortation to move on (and hence the suggestion of the illegality of her vision). Her visual pleasure is not (at least explicitly) a sexual one – it must be mixed with tears and suffering. Although much of my analysis of the woman’s film stresses the refusal to attribute the gaze to the woman in a non problematic way, there is also a sense in which the woman is socially positioned as a spectator – asked to assume a place outside the ‘real’ arena of social relations and power, with all the connotations of passivity, waiting, and watching normally attached to the function of spectatorship. But, in Stella Dallas, the production of a distanced spectatorial position for the woman is synonymous with her own negation as a mother, at least in any material sense. Her sacrifice, her very absence from the scene, nevertheless insures her transformation into an Ideal of Motherhood’ (Desire 77–78).

[4] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 72.

[5] As Moten writes, ‘Few really read this novel. This is alarming even though you can’t really read this novel. That’s why it calls for and tries to open a new analytic way of listening and reading, an improvisation attuned to the ensemble of work’s organization and production, the ensemble of the politico-economic structure in which it is produced and the ensemble of the senses from which it springs and which it stimulates’ (67).

[6] As Ronald A. T. Judy comments in his introduction to a special issue of Boundary 2 on Ellison’s work, while ‘not a systematic philosophy of music’, Ellison’s understanding and explorations of the ‘relationship between singular forms of musical expression and historical ways of thinking [… ] exhibits the sort of seriousness and rigor commonly associated with the writings on music of Theodor Adorno and Edward Said, and has significantly informed the current received conception of the blues’(2).

[7] For a particularly generative and astute reading of Ellison’s work and his analysis of the ways that the technical media, in particular technologies of sound reproduction, shape modern life, see Alexander G. Weheliye’s Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005).

[8] Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (London: Penguin, 1965).

[9] Sharon Patricia Holland, Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p.1.

[10] For discussions of Benjamin’s work on film in relation to the temporal structuring of experience in modernity, see Miriam Hansen, ‘Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: “The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology”’, New German Critique 40 (1987): 179–224, and Hansen, ‘Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street’, Critical Inquiry 25.2 (1999): 306–43.

[11] Ralph Ellison, ‘Living with Music’, Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (New York: Modern Library, 2001), p.14.

[12] Ralph Ellison, ‘Golden Age, Time Past’, Living with Music, p.52.

[13] See my essays ‘The Lure of the Breach’, Screening the Past 22 (Dec 2007) http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/22/lure-breach-invisibility.html, and ‘“Worrying the Note”: Mapping Time in the Gangsta Film’, Screen 42.4 (Winter 2001): 363–81.

[14] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[15] While the time signature only directly comes into play in the book’s final chapter, it is nevertheless central to The Black Atlantic’s project, and is one of the means through which Gilroy examines various kinds of memorative practices in black Atlantic cultures and the ‘politics of time’ they entail. As such, the idea of the time signature underlies The Black Atlantic’s project of rethinking modernity – its parameters, foundations, and the ways it temporal ises history – ‘via the history of the black Atlantic and the African diaspora in the western hemisphere’ (17).

[16] One of the few film theorists to have directly addressed the different between meter and rhythm is Jean Mitry, who outlined the distinction between the two terms in his book Semiotics and the Analysis of Film. In the context of a discussion of the various understandings of film rhythm in the work of interwar French film theorists and filmmakers, Mitry writes:

Measure is nothing more than a practical convenience. It is the process of ordering rhythm intellectually, a means of observing it, of giving it a fixed framework within which and by reference to which it may promote its expressive mobility. Thus measure regulates rhythm without however submitting it to an autocratic rule for fear or harming its spontaneity. Indeed rhythm is by no means subject to measure; rather the reverse is true, rhythm using measure as a point of reference for its free development.

Be this as it may, measure, originally used to regulate rhythmic flow without circumscribing it within a narrow framework, allowing the stresses to fall on a particular measured phrase, finally came to control rhythm itself. The divisions of rhythm had to coincide with the divisions of measure and the stresses had to fall on the ‘down-beats’ (or strong beats). In this way, rhythm became subordinate to measure—which explains the pervasive confusion of the two.

If we follow Mitry’s definition it would seem that what is often, and somewhat loosely, referred to as rhythm in film is often closer to measure. Jean Mitry, Semiotics and the Analysis of the Film, trans. Christopher King. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p.212.

[17] See also Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s discussion of rhythm and meter in A Thousand Plateaus at 313. For a useful discussion of the desire to reduce film to its rhythmic elements and the centrality of optical rhythms for European avant-garde filmmakers in the 1920s, see Michael Cowan, ‘The Heart Machine’. Weheliye also discusses the importance of the distinction between meter and rhythm for understanding Western modernity and the ways that its ‘supposed linearity of hegemonic time’ can be reimagined ‘from the (aural) vantage point of the oppressed’ (104–05).

[18] W. E. B. Du Bois, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, W.E.B Du Bois: Writings: The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade/ The Souls of Black Fold/ Dusk of Dawn/ Essays, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1996), pp.364-365.

[19] Patricia J. Williams, ‘Fourth Wall’, Open House: of family, friends, food, piano lessons, and the search for a room of my own (New York: Farrar, 2004), p.7.

[20] See Brooks, ‘Lure of the Breach’.

[21] Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), p.211.

About the Author

Jodi Brooks

About the Authors

Jodi Brooks

Dr Jodi Brooks is Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at University of New South Wales. Her essays have appeared in Screen, Continuum and Senses of Cinema.View all posts by Jodi Brooks →