Which Hollywood? Which Ophuls?

This text was first written in 1980, when I was 20 years old. I had already been published in magazines including Cinema Papers, Metro and Buff over the preceding year. My notes from the time inform me that I intended submitting this lengthy piece to the then-burgeoning Australian Journal of Screen Theory but, for some reason, I never bit that bullet. Two years later, I added a Postscript (included below) in the hope of seeing it published by Art & Text, with which I had a close association in its early years; Paul Taylor politely told me it was too long and specialised for his editorial purposes. Then I forgot it for 30 years. Recent retrospective events and projects, like Monash University’s Impresario symposium devoted to Taylor (1 September 2012), and the Australian Film Theory and Criticism Project undertaken by three colleagues (much of which has appeared in Screening the Past) compelled me to patch its pieces together again. It is a work of youthful, sometimes strident ‘position taking’, but it indicates a fault-line – between the thematic-stylistic approaches to film analysis taken by Movie (UK) or Positif (France), and the textual analysis of poststructuralist movements in Screen (UK), Camera Obscura (USA) and elsewhere – that I have spent much of my time exploring, in one way or another. – Adrian Martin, December 2012


The publication of Ophuls[1] marks an important – or at least symptomatic – moment in the recent development of film criticism. Via its editor Paul Willemen, Ophuls is a culmination of work done on classical-narrative-realist cinema in both Screen magazine in Britain and the early 1970s Edinburgh Film Festival booklets on Sirk, Tashlin, Walsh and Tourneur. More specifically, the critical and theoretical focus is on the Hollywood cinema: Hollywood understood in its largest sense as an institution, a cultural force, a definition of a certain kind of cinema. For Screen, it seems, nothing much more needs to be said about this cinema – the enemy has been named and analysed, the case is closed. And Ophuls functions above all to affirm this closure, to brandish the rigidity of a semiotic-psychoanalytic-Marxist position on so-called dominant cinema.[2]

It may seem strange to take Max Ophuls, whose career spanned so many different countries, periods and styles, as isomorphic with the creature labeled Hollywood. Certainly, Willemen is not concerned with making any distinctions within the Ophuls oeuvre – all the films are collapsed down to a categorical unity named ‘the Ophuls text’, and specific stylistic and cultural constraints are ignored (could La Ronde [1950] or Lola Montès [1955], for instance, really have been made in Hollywood?). But for the sake of both Willemen’s project and the present commentary, let us grant that indeed there was, much of the time, something latent in Ophuls that became manifest in the Hollywood context, and provided that cinema with some of its exemplary models within the sphere of melodrama: Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) particularly, but also The Reckless Moment (1949) and Caught (1949); and thus let us take the liberty to discuss every Ophuls film within the critical territory staked out in relation to Hollywood cinema.

It may seem strange, also, to discuss Ophuls as largely the expression of a particular position when only two out of its seven contributors – Willemen and Stephen Heath – are associated with Screen or the Edinburgh publications. But, from the outset, what is particularly troubling about the booklet is precisely the dominance – the tyranny, even – of Willemen’s editorialising. The preface begins: “Towards the end of his essay in this book, Stephen Heath formulates what I regard as the pertinent question to be asked …”[3] ; introducing a later article (Masao Yamaguchi’s “For an Archeology of Lola Montès”), Willemen finds it necessary to say: “[its] anthropological perspective offers an account of the cinema as an institution which parallels the one argued by Stephen Heath, but in no way contradicts it.”[4] All of the articles are placed or inflected in such a way. Other critics, other modes of criticism, are always found wanting (“the traditional film theories have been unable to cope with the work of Ophuls”),[5] but the Screen method is secure, infallible, the highest priority. Whatever Ophuls may be, it is certainly not an ‘open text’; only one voice speaks there, and its message is thoroughly unambiguous.

Or it at least imagines itself to be unambiguous. Willemen appears to be nagged by an old problem which one thought had been put to rest by the Edinburgh publications (for instance) when they switched from considering particular filmmakers to theoretical contexts (psychoanalysis and cinema, history and memory). The problem concerns the validity of isolating a group of films on the criterion of an authorial signature, a procedure rife (as we all know by now) with all the ideological assumptions and implications of auteurism: a filmmaker thus singled out becomes the Artist, the Great Individual, whose concerns and style are his or hers alone, undetermined, unmediated, unprecedented.

In reaction to this, classical narrative films are posited as uttering meanings and creating spectator-positions not originating in the mind of the artist, but in the determining culture and social system. Auteurs then disappear … but (and here begins the conundrum) so does any distinction between any two Hollywood films, all seemingly swallowed by aspects of dominant ideology, all complicit with it. The Reckless Moment is not interchangeable with On the Town (1949): what marks the disturbance of ideology in the first is a set of strategies that are – whatever else they may be – distinctively Ophulsian. This is not to want to bestow Ophuls with the medal of Great Artist, beyond historical and social formation; it is, however, an attempt to recognise what is really there in particular films or a director’s oeuvre, an attempt to grasp the nature of specific, coherent, textual practices.

It would appear that Willemen does not see the issue in these terms. His own oscillation between avowal and disavowal as to whether Ophuls’ films are intrinsically interesting as Ophuls’ films invites psychoanalytical reading as much as any filmic process under review here. On the one hand, the booklet sets itself up as subverting any sort of idealist project which would take Ophuls as an object amenable to individual study; Ophuls is merely “embedded [… ] in a certain set of discourses […] which produced him as a specific character in the dramatic narrative called ‘film history’” [6] ; his films are simply “inter-textual force field[s] holding but not in any sense unifying the various constituent discourses that compose the Ophuls text.” [7] Simultaneously, we are presented with this (at least) nominal unity of the Ophuls text, which is presumably sufficiently different from (say) the Lubitsch text to be distinguished as such, and not just some random intertextual force field. So, if the Ophuls text has a specific identity, it can also have a specific strategy, a specific perspective on the modes and conventions which it employs – not, of course, thereby implying that Ophuls was to any special degree conscious of the force and meaning of his textual practice. Attributing intentions, which would again revive the ideology of the individual, is not my aim here.

The chronic ambiguity involved in Willemen’s argument is crystallised in this statement: “Ophuls’ films engage with the cinema as spectacle, or, to put it in the words of Stephen Heath, ‘with the relations sustained in cinema, as cinema’”.[8] Willemen’s choice of the word ‘engage’ is very significant. Does it imply that Ophuls’ films rework, offer a perspective on the cinema as spectacle? Or, quite to the contrary, that they are simply a part of, complicit with, this cinema? The question is precisely whether the films construct a coherent position in regard to these pre-existing cinema-relations. The very idea seems anathema to Willemen, whose language constantly evacuates Ophuls from any intelligent or intelligible position. Examine the metaphors he provides: “in Ophuls, the cinema becomes a machine” [9] – a machine, presumably, whose workings and effects take on a random and chaotic life of their own, beyond control by the operator/filmmaker. Or, exploiting a vulgar Freudian analogy, the film as a body with hysterical symptoms: “the repressed returns and imprints its mark on the representation”.[10] Willemen calls this last phenomenon the “dramatisation of repression” and, here again, ambiguity reveals itself. Is it Ophuls doing the dramatising? Or does the repressed return involuntarily, indeed despite the Freudian ‘secondary revision’ imposed by the ideologically bound filmmaker and the system that subsumes him or her?

Similarly, Willemen can discern a “dialectic of order and excess”[11] on several levels in the films, but is unwilling to ascribe a logic or method to the workings of this dialectic. The analysis that follows on from such a refusal of coherence can only be banal. In a piece first published in Screen dossier, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith wrote (his prime example being Vincente Minnelli): “In the melodrama, where there is always material which cannot be expressed in discourse or in the actions of the characters furthering the designs of the plot, a conversion can take place into the body of the text. […] the film itself somatises its own unaccommodated excess, which thus appears displaced or in the wrong place.”[12] One could not find a cruder form/content division (discourse/body), or a more blatant denial that a film actively constructs meaning – here, things just “can take place”.

The implications for a critical consideration of Hollywood cinema, and classical cinema more generally, are clear. Hollywood films are saturated at every level with dominant ideology. Certain films, however – ‘hysterical’, excessive films – rupture the ideological mould. That they do so is seen purely as a hit-and-miss prospect. Films that somehow, more or less inadvertently, expose or lay out the workings of ideology for inspection (this is as much as Heath will grant Ophuls)[13] are freak occurrences. Hence, weighing up the probabilities, radical criticism should no longer be much concerned with Hollywood, for it lacks any clear, coherent, progressive status.

But if this conclusion has been reached via the analysis carried out on a few Hollywood films, and the premises and practices of that analysis are severely wanting, then the question must be reopened for discussion. Not in order to swing to the other extreme and start according every second Hollywood film a progressive status – a danger noticeable in Robin Wood’s later work – but to begin to understand:

(a)  how ideology itself is multiform, complex, historically specific – it cannot speak unproblematically or with equal force through all cultural artifacts;

(b)  how particular films or particular textual practices (which may or may not be assimilable to individual filmmakers) can offer a perspective on, say something about, aspects of ideology;

(c)  how the Hollywood film, as a theoretical entity, constructs meaning on and through all its levels, what kind of ‘ideal’ spectator it implies, and what real spectators can do or have done with it. And this certainly means getting rid of all simplistic declarations concerning the transparency of the classical-realist text, of its closure and non-ambiguity, of film and spectator made ‘free from contradiction’. Only the Screen position seems to imagine itself free in such a way.

Before returning to the theory and analysis contained in Ophuls, something must be said about the way Willemen pictures his critical practice in relation to all the other practices which have preceded it; the arrogance and distortions involved must be made perfectly clear, for his critical stance is utterly dependent upon them. In the “Familmographic Romance” which opens the booklet, Willemen describes its bibliographic information as “a signposting of the places where and the ways in which Ophuls has been taken up, constructed as a ‘classic’ and inserted in critical and institutional discourses. In other words, the charting of the consecration of a ‘great artist’ and the way such a trajectory is affected by critical/theoretical discussion”.[14] And later: “The few reviewers and critics that have attempted to deal with Ophuls’ films all revert regular as clockwork to a handful of terms such as baroque, style, camera virtuosity, rhythm, formalist, romantic, nihilist, etc.”[15]

The generalisation and caricature here are alarming. Every critical text prior to Ophuls – from those of Cahiers du cinéma in the ‘50s to the Framework collective text on The Reckless Moment in 1976, via Claude Beylie’s presentation of the French re-release of Lola Montès in 1969 as a sobering expression of “Ophulsian Hell”[16] – presumably practiced the same sort of criticism with the same end in mind: valorisation of the Great Artist. Willemen piles up the “handful of terms” as if they were meaningless and more-or-less interchangeable (but is style the same thing as camera virtuosity, or is romantic compatible with nihilist?). Now, compare the following three quotes, all part of the so-called trajectory (implying a single method, a single goal) that Willemen marks out, all written within a decade of each other:

The pictorial form is not simple or, if it is, it does not remain so. Against the facility of the look, Ophuls constructs, in numerous shots, a diffuse or complex opacity. Thus, all those secret spaces, obstacles, bars, ropes, which complicate vision and function as so many masks. Wherein those games which oppose foreground and background in order to break perspective and shatter an invading pictoriality. (Louis Audibert)[17]

What I want to stress here […] is the delicacy with which Ophuls determines our relation to the action, and the shifts in that relation, the way in which our passing tendency to identify with Sophie [in De Mayerling à Sarajevo, 1940], her mood, her actual viewpoint, is qualified by a cut that detaches us from her, making her appear as trapped and helpless from our vantage point as Franz-Ferdinand appeared from hers. (Robin Wood)[18]

In his final work, Ophuls ended up, it seems to me, reconciling the extremes in his work: a film that avoids every possible or imaginable external prestige, while at the same time confessing the most secret thing of all; the absolute fulfillment of one form of cinematic expression, alongside the implacable condemnation of another form; a work whose monumental façade hides intimate treasures, and where the grandiose returns to the everyday; an imperceptible beating of wings, encased in the eye of an extravagant whirlwind; cerebral fireworks, which do not for a moment paralyse the movements of the heart. (Claude Beylie)[19]

In The Reckless Moment, the underworld holds a negating culture to ransom by demanding payment for transgression: underworld, entrapment in cultural patterns and assumptions (the past), the perversion of repressed sexuality, and money thus from a symbolic nexus. The film’s psychoanalytical insight is very concise indeed, the imagery and the structure of characterisation creating an analogue for the structure of neurosis. (Framework collective)[20]

It is impossible to reduce these three approaches to the same thing. The first might be characterised as formalist (an aesthetic construction seen as pleasurable in and of itself); the second takes its perspective from literary criticism of the Leavis school (how the artist presents and reflects upon the characters and their world); the third, in a framework not dissimilar to Screen’s (materialist psychoanalysis), examines a particular film’s insight into the cultural systems with which it deals. Even these characterisations are reductive, and do not account for either the overlaps or differences between the various critical practices. And even if all of them do assert – each with a different emphasis – the primacy of a creator, Ophuls as an artist (as do also Frieda Grafe’s essay in Ophuls),[21] there is surely some ideological neutrality in this. To locate and affirm an artist is not the same thing as falling at the altar of the Great Artist, the Classic – an accusation that, anyhow, needs to be explained and specified beyond some reflex leftist assertion of anti-auteurism.

Willemen is probably alluding to Robin Wood when he writes, “a few other critics sought for profound statements about the human condition in selected combinations of ‘style’ and ‘story’”.[22] Apart from being a travesty of Wood’s critical method (whose insistence on the organic nature of a work of art has nothing to do with “selected combinations” of anything), and a refusal of traditional thematics (Ophuls’ films are certainly about – amongst many other things – elements of the Human Condition like time, fate, destiny, free will), Willemen’s statement ignores the crucial differences between the two sections on Ophuls in Wood’s book Personal Views. The section dealing with Letter from an Unknown Woman is certainly, to accept for a moment the terms of Willemen’s caricature, concerned with Art and Life, not ideological or cultural questions; but it is precisely these latter topics which are taken up, however tentatively, in the section on The Reckless Moment, and thoroughly pursued by Framework in its collective text (written by Andrew Britton and others) on the film. Wood in fact proclaims in his latter section his belief in shifting critical emphasis from auteurs to particular works, and the particular ideological issues they raise.

Willemen neither names nor discusses these texts on The Reckless Moment outside the bibliography, and (even – or especially – if the gesture is unconscious or casual) we may wonder why. He, and Screen partisans generally, wish to situate their version of film criticism on the other side of an imaginary epistemological break à la Althusser: criticism then, criticism now, the film-object conceived radically, absolutely differently in both cases. What these suppressed texts pose is precisely a problem of methodological overlap. If Willemen were to admit that Framework also uses psychoanalysis, he would have to then justify and specify his own use of it; which would then mean coming up against head-on the question of why someone else reads Ophuls’ texts as coherent, intelligent and unique while Willemen and Heath do not. And that means putting the underlying cinema theory itself into question, on both sides of the critical divide.

Past criticism is denigrated for basing itself upon a “crude form/content opposition”. [23] As this was indeed often the case, one hopes for more subtle and complex critical tools from semiotic/textual analysis. Ophuls is not forthcoming with such tools. In fact, the most striking aspect of Willemen’s and Heath’s analyses is the reappearance, in a new guise, of a form/content opposition just as crude as the previous ones. In Heath’s “The Question Oshima” (reprinted in Questions of Cinema), form turns up as “stylistic markings”, and these markings are no more than decorative: “’Ophuls’ as the name for ‘extensive use music, long elaborate takes with flowing camera movements’, etc.”[24] A phrase like ‘extensive use of music’ is ludicrous – as if all the music on an Ophuls soundtrack were the same, and only its frequency worth noting – and even more so is “flowing camera movements”, implying a random, asignifying activity of the camera. Even the most superficial reading of an Ophuls film would not fail to see that the camera movement does not merely adorn the action but creates it, fills it with meaning, signifying (for instance) “the interconnectedness of lives, the simultaneity of actions that impinge on each other” (Wood).[25] What Heath is denying is precisely the possibility that a film can point up significant relations between elements in the representation – the very relations that an analysis of whatever sort should be concerned to find.

When, for Heath, form moves above mere stylistic markings, the same denial of intelligence and significance is still evident. This is the case as regards what Heath calls “a particular economy of repetition in classic cinema” exemplified in Letter from an Unknown Woman: “the film is gathered up in a series of rimes in which elements – of both ‘form’ and ‘content’ are found, shifted, and turned back symmetrically, as in a mirror”.[26] This process has the function of unifying both film and spectator: “Letter from with its direction, its rhymes, its constant images, it positioning of view for viewer, its unifying relations of the subject watching”. [27] Without wishing to deny the validity of this general insight, its applicability to particular films must be severely questioned. Heath portrays repetition as something mechanical, predictable, tyrannical – it hardly seems to matter exactly what gets turned back in the mirror or exactly how. But the motifs of a text, capable of bringing into play extremely subtle and complex forms of repetition, are again the very material which define the content and the intelligence brought to bear upon it (eg., Wood: “Ophuls’ love of near-repetition or echo itself becomes a distancing device even as it intensifies the poignancy of the action”).[28] Repetition is not mere automatic doubling. It is Heath, in his determined emphasis on positioning, who ends up separating form from content and privileging the former.

In Willemen’s textual analysis, the same separation results in even more questionable statements. He detects in Ophuls “a contradiction between the filmed and the filming […] This rigidity, this rigorous Order […] is depicted in the most fluid and flexible of ways. As if what was repressed by the Law […] re-emerges as excess in the mise en scène”.[29] There are two premises underlying this:

 (i)  The pro-filmic in Ophuls (everything before the camera) is utterly determined by dominant ideology, the ‘rigorous order’. If filmed conventionally the resultant text would bear no contradictions, reveal no cracks in the Order. The pro-filmic is Lawful.

(ii) All camera movement in Ophuls carries one signified whenever and wherever it appears – excess, mark of an unrepressed desire.

The second premise, as I suggested earlier, ignores the fact that Ophuls’ camera does not weave arbitrary patterns around the pro-filmic but rather builds, places, analyses it. In other words, camera movement carries numerous signifieds over given moments of a film – one of which might well be the marking of unrepressed desire. But analysis cannot stop at naming only that. The first premise dissolves immediately under inspection. If one were to separate the pro-filmic in Ophuls from the means of representing it, as Willemen does, one would detect within this level alone multiple inscriptions of the conflict between desire and repression – in the bodily movement of the actors in relation to the sets and lighting, in the interplay between characters, in the words they speak … and supremely, in the Ophulsian motif of dance.

But, to take for example the famous dance sequence from Madame de …, one can immediately see how artificial any form/content opposition is from the outset. The pro-filmic is set up in order to be filmed – the camera movement signifying physical constraints, release from the Order; and the shots are filmed in order to be edited – the ellipses signifying, likewise, release from time. That is the very fusion of mise en scène and editing captured in the term découpage, in (for instance) Godard’s early discussion of it.[30] Situation, narrative context, representation, relations between shots: all are conceived and executed interdependently, and it is this interdependence which is the mark of coherence and intelligence – not, as Willemen would have it, “that manifestation of secondary elaboration called ‘a coherent’ scenario’”.[31]   Turning to Ophuls more directly, let us examine the theory that Heath and Willemen bring to bear on their subject and his films, and what they find in their critical practice. For Heath, as we have seen, Ophuls is interesting as an exemplary case of Hollywood textuality – he is able to write, indicating an apparent identity between terms, “a Hollywood film, a Ophuls film”. As for any progressive status the Ophuls-text may possess, it amounts to this: “That ‘Ophuls’ is the name for a certain exasperation of the standard Hollywood production of his time is no doubt the case”. And the terms of that Hollywood production and practice are these: “the relations sustained in cinema, as cinema, of woman and look and narrative and scene”.[32]

The first question to be asked here is: why these particular categories of woman, look, narrative, scene? What theory, what methodology, gives these terms such prominence? The answer comes quickly enough – psychoanalysis, the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan. But something now needs to be said about Screen’s psychoanalytical reading of classical cinema.

Armed with Lacan’s concepts of Imaginary and Symbolic, with Barthes’ rhetorical question “doesn’t every narrative lead back to Oedipus?”,[33] with an emphasis on the processes of sexual differentiation in cultural socialisation, and particularly influenced by Julia Kristeva, Screen relates every classical film it touches to an extremely abstract model spanning at least two centuries. The question is always that of how individual, with their Imaginary identifications and desires, get fitted or placed into the Symbolic, how they become male-subjects, female-subjects, child-subjects within Western culture. Always the same dualisms: desire against repression, semiotic against symbolic, life against death.

In the study of a culture and its artifacts, it is completely valid to want to trace out its underlying logic, its framework of rules, interdictions, places – this is what the Lacanian notion of the Symbolic is about, and it is an essential analytical tool. But to reduce every film to Oedipus, to Man and Woman, and to stop there, does not seem very productive. Culture is constructed out of more than one difference, more than just sexual difference. Whatever happened (particularly in a criticism that avows itself to be materialist) to notions of class, money, nationality, work, power? Screen’s choice of auteurs for study is determined by this abstraction, this analytical reduction. Minnelli, Hitchcock, Sternberg, Tourneur, Ophuls: all of them can to some extent be exhausted in the realm of the Symbolic, in regards at least to some of their films. But what of Frank Capra, King Vidor, Preston Sturges? Their films, while certainly drawing upon a Symbolic logic, also demand a historically specific reading in terms of their discourse on material relations and political movements: populism, the Depression, the World Wars, the New Deal … a Screen text on Busby Berkeley, for instance, is almost unthinkable, except within the crude, unbending paradigm of scopophilia.[34]

Even in the case of Ophuls, a strong materialist perspective can at time be seen at work alongside the psychoanalytic scenario. Framework writes of The Reckless Moment:

The descent into the ‘underworld’ is a descent into the capitalist metropolis (…) financial transactions are crucial throughout, and the thematic emphasis on the ideological repression of women involves Mrs Harper’s discovery that she has no individual, socially recognised economic status.[35]

Of course, the use of psychoanalysis in a text like Ophuls refers to more than a film’s discourse or representation. It brings in, as well, the question of a film’s reception, the place of its spectator. Alas, here we meet another ahistorical abstraction, and a particularly powerful one: the look. In fact, for a critical practice claiming to shun biological essences, the insistent return to the eye and its devouring scopic drive is extraordinarily alarming. The look, belonging to any and no particular spectator, has a life of its own, and we are pulled along by its vociferous activity: Willemen writes, “the look is invited to wander through the scene [and] is simultaneously subjected to two forces”. [36] But whose look, whose decision to wander, who is being subjected – and what is their reaction to these things? What the eye devours, the brain hopefully chews over. And again, the notion of the look takes us far away, in this instance, from the dynamics of social and cultural exchange.

The look, too, has a reductive function. It doesn’t matter what (film) you see, only that you see. Content (in the fullest sense), and the possibility of differing contents, is overrun by the monolithic form of vision:

What I see has nothing to do with the specular which fascinates me. (Julia Kristeva)[37]

In traditional cinema, the spectator is identifying only with something seeing […] All that remains is the brute fact of seeing: the seeing of an outlaw, of an Id unrelated to any Ego, a seeing which has no features or position, as vicarious as the narrator-God or the spectator God. (Christian Metz)[38]

In filmic discourse the relationship between the viewer and reality – the film – is one of pure specularity, in which the look of the spectator is denied, locking the spectator into a particular sense of identity. (Claire Johnston) [39]

These quotations bear witness to a desire to trace something primal, founding, essential in the ‘cinema, as cinema’, as apparatus – a project certainly worth attempting. Lacking, however, is a theory of the articulation between the abstract constituent elements of this cinematic institution (like specularity or voyeurism) – elements yet to be exhaustively nominated (what of aural perception, the experience of cinematic duration, etc?) – and particular films. How does a film reactivate these cinema-essences, how far cannot it but not reactivate them? How possible is it for a film to rework, extend, subvert them? Inevitably, specific distinctions must come into play, in terms of differing genres, styles, and above all the substance of particular representations. A porno film, for instance, has a lot more to do with lawless seeing than a Laurel and Hardy comedy, which may have nothing at all to do with it.

Again, the position of Screen depends on the agenda it draws up for itself: whether Hitchcock and Sternberg or, at the other extreme, Dwoskin and Akerman, the only questions that seemingly need to be posed are ones gleaned from Metz’s essay (and later book) on the Imaginary Signifier. And so it’s all fetishism, voyeurism, scopophilia, fascination, with the obligatory nod to specifically historical ideological analysis (Metz: ”is it, then, a question of ‘ideology’? […] Of course. But it is also a question of desire, and hence of symbolic positioning”).[40] The reductio ad absurdum of this ahistorical abstraction comes from Kristeva herself: “St Augustine once again states and consolidates the truth of the phantasmic and symbolic order for two thousand years of Christianity, when he specifies the image as constitutive of the mens […] The symbolic order is assured as soon as there are images.” [41] It is surely time to go beyond talking about ‘the image’ in this frightfully abstract, totalising sense and tackle some of the actual images produced and consumed within that mere two thousand year span.

Images such as that of “female beauty, of the female as beauty, which holds the sexual cinematically as just that: the desired and untouchable image, an endless vision”.[42] Granting, for argument’s sake, that such a description holds for Letter from an Unknown Woman and Lola Montès, its generalisation in relation to the Ophuls-text runs into severe problems once we consider any other Ophuls film beyond these two – which are significantly almost the only two that Heath and Willemen touch. Again, abstraction: woman, Woman, one woman, with a single place and function – “the woman is explicitly and directly put on show, offered to the fixed and fixing gaze of viewer (in the film and of the film) and camera” (Willemen).[43] Where did all the diverse and different Ophuls women go, with all their various significations – the old women (Le Plaisir), the mothers, the daughters (The Reckless Moment), women from all class and status levels of society (La Ronde)?

Reducing the substance of Ophuls’ representations of women (and men, who are nowhere mentioned) in this way has the function of blocking off and denying the possibility that his films may actually have something to say about the female condition in general under patriarchy – not only in terms of how women are fixed (Caught) but also in terms of how they internalise and perpetuate the processes of this fixing, how they renew the social order (eg., the old dancer’s wife in Le Plaisir, living on the hope that her husband will finally exhaust his ‘abnormal’ sexual desires). The Framework text on The Reckless Moment is concerned with precisely this creative possibility in discussing, for instance, the scene between Mrs Harper and the loans-office interviewer:

It is crucial that the interviewer is female. She is the only woman in the film who has any status in the patriarchal culture outside the home, and that status is economic. […] The woman who has an acknowledged position in the patriarchal order as the voice of the law […] confronts the woman who, in the absence of her husband, but defined absolutely by tokens of him, has none at all; the vital point being that neither can exist outside a place allocated by respective men.[44]

In this case, both Ophuls and Framework are way ahead of Stephen Heath when he presumes to characterise the filmmaker thus: “exasperation is a veritable mannerism of vision, and of vision of the woman – with the masquerade become the very surface of the text, laid out, exposed: the masquerade of ‘the woman’ (the luxurious feminine of jewellery, furs, mirrors …), the masquerade of ‘the woman in film’, cinema’s object, pursuit-and-goal”.[45] Vision, woman, film, cinema … an arsenal of badly theorised terms, dimly recognised in Ophuls’ oeuvre and then made to exactly fit and cover the film, with barely a thought as to how the works in question might precisely comment upon the terms of the theory.

Even to take Heath’s particular example of Letter from an Unknown Woman, it seems possible to complicate the notion of its complicity with the ideology of woman-as-seen. And, logically enough, the complexity arises at the moment one forsakes the monotonous and tyrannical specularity of much modern film theory and criticism, attending instead (or equally) to the soundtrack. The soundtrack of Letter from an Unknown Woman, specifically the voice-over narration of Lisa, can be interpreted as subverting the fixing of woman within its narrative ‘argument’. Much more work needs to be done on the entire designing of sound (voice, music, ambient and punctual noises) in Ophuls.

Heath, in off-handedly truncating the film’s title to Letter from, conveniently truncates as well all the problems to do with Lisa as ‘the unknown woman’, in both diegetic and thematic terms. He writes that the Freudian family romance has as its stake “the very representation of identity as the coherence of a past safely negotiated and reappropriated.” [46] But Stefan, the character around whom such a negotiation would occur, cannot ‘re-member’ Lisa in the sense in which Heath puns. Lisa is dead, her child by Stefan is dead, and Stefan is about to go to his death at the film’s end. What past is reappropriated here exactly? Heath, in his own mystifying way, merely rehearses the common attack upon Hollywood happy endings; he happens to have chosen one of the most melancholic and tragic narrative films ever made to illustrate the point! He would have done well to consider Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s insight from the pages of Screen itself:

What is at stake […] is the survival of the family unit and the possibility for individuals of acquiring an identity which is also a place within the system […] Only in Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman, where Lisa dies after the death of her (fatherless) child, are all the problems laid out in all their poignancy, and none of them resolved.[47]

For Heath, an individual film seemingly raises no specific problems, constrained as it is within the straitjacket of narrative and scene. Elsewhere he has written: “representation is less immediately a matter of ‘what is represented’ than of positioning […] narrative in cinema is first and foremost the organisation of a point-of-view through the image-flow”.[48] Why “less immediately”, why “first and foremost”? Why do specific films exist if not to tap particular cultural problems, and particular inflections of the classical-narrative production style? Heath’s formulation once again implies that all films of a given mode more-or-less amount to the same film, the model film.

But this theory would be unable to account for the diversity of practices within classical cinema at any one moment, let alone across the history of all its moments. If both D.W. Griffith and Robert Altman “organise a point-of-view through the image flow” (true enough, but a fairly banal and self-evident proposition), could they be chronologically interchanged within that “dramatic narrative called ‘film history’”, as Willemen called it? The answer is obviously no, but to elaborate that would require a more flexible and exploratory theory than that under discussion here. The question is not of ‘representation’, but representations, complex assemblages of form, content, spectator position(s), historical and social contexts, interactions with the Real – a mass of heterogeneous particles, certainly, but not a mess, and not simply determined by some ghostly force of ideology.

Ultimately, my criticisms of Ophuls and the type of practices it signposts amount to this: we are faced with a theory which is too theoretical (or possibly not theoretical enough) in the sense that, having sprung from observations on particular films, it will not go back to those and other films to verify, criticise or demolish the theory. Through repetition in writing and teaching, it has swiftly become congealed, static, paralysed in the sense of its own rightness, its sense of its own Truth, its fervent belief that it is the light at the end of the tunnel traversing seventy years of film criticism. Ophuls wants too much to talk about ‘cinema, as cinema’, and in the process misrecognises and devalues the (nominally) classical film-works it chooses to analyse, thus simultaneously fetishising and patronising the Modernist push of the avant-garde – cinema as anti-cinema, counter-cinema, new cinema. Willemen and Heath try to cover themselves against an attack like mine via the following, rather self-defeating piece of rhetoric: “Is an interest in ‘the work of Max Ophuls’ today anything more than academic, the province of film studies and criticism?”[49] The authors presumably see their practice as existing in some other radically interventionist province, the place for materialist politics and cultural struggle today. But that cannot excuse them from the necessary academic rigours of film study and criticism; it does not allow them to dismiss what they (seemingly) never properly understood in the first place.

No one can yet presume to have solved the very basic problems of how to decipher an individual film-text, how to relate it to a history of film-texts, and how to gauge its position within other social discourses and ensembles. But Ophuls sees its work as beyond the posing of these questions, in fact it does not even see the need for questions: it is content to stay with its poor methodology and bad criticism.


POSTSCRIPT (January 1982)

This review of Ophuls was written in August 1980. It has a specific location in the debates of the Australian film scene then, and it has a somewhat different position now when offered for a 1982 issue of Art & Text.[50] I add this postscript to insist upon such a doubled, differential consideration of its argument and its tactics. As a 1980-based critique, it sprang from a desire to confront what seemed then the enormous hegemony of Screen’s influence upon a large number of film writers and academics in Australia – a position and a pedagogy then strongly in evidence in several tertiary institutions and at the Second Australian Film Conference, where three out of the four overseas guests invited were closely affiliated with Screen. An attempt to ‘save’ classical cinema, and particularly the Hollywood cinema that I dearly love, from the dustbin to which it was being reflexly relegated by a Marxist/feminist line, this review might productively be read in direct and brutal opposition to a suite of papers from that conference, “Fiction/Film/Femininity”, by a collective from La Trobe University, on Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949); I would argue for Minnelli in much the same way as I have done for for Ophuls.[51]

Much has changed between then and now. As a publication in Britain, Screen and the related Screen Education dwindled to the point of eventual extinction (in the latter case), with, surprisingly, Framework (a magazine which I implicitly endorsed in my review as a healthy alternative to Screen) rising stridently to adopt its position and many previous Screen writers; and Movie, still the most intelligent forum for non-Screen approaches, sinking further and further into the sad oblivion of being unfashionable.[52] Here in Australia, we saw in 1981 a procession of tawdry apologists for a dying Screen (Manuel Alvarado, Colin MacCabe, Paul Willemen, Peter Wollen) trying on an empty pose of self-critique which only served to re-set more firmly the bad binary opposition between a dominant cinema we should probably never have wasted our time with, and an independent/alternative/avant-garde terrain that is supposedly the site of a better politics and a healthier pleasure.

Although the Screen position doesn’t now ‘hold’ to Australian film culture with quite the consistency it did in 1980 (Lacanian psychoanalysis, for instance, has taken a few well-deserved bashings), the demise of this specific magazine has unfortunately been accompanied by a subtle panning-out of its line, and the unquestioned acceptance of an approximate critical and theoretical orthodoxy which has to show for itself such impressive looking recent publications as Heath’s Questions of Cinema, Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, and the British Film Institute books on realism and authorship – as well as the Institute’s smaller-scale booklets like Ophuls, in which the victim’s identity changes (Sternberg, Lang, Dreyer) but the treatment barely at all.

Even more distressingly, this image of a fine and solid orthodoxy, this plateau at which we have all seemingly finally arrived, casts its spell beyond film culture, to the point where Australian magazines like Lip or Art & Text, in search of new theory – or simply theory period in an art context – gesture to the Screen work and its diffusion as the appropriate role-model to emulate. I would take Mick Carter’s article on pornography in Art & Text 4, all the way from its chilling title proclaiming a “re-education” of our desire to its search for “new erotic signifieds” rising from the ashes of a hopefully dying dominant tradition, as a pristine example of a tyrannical Screen theoretical logic screwing up yet another intelligent mind, and of the delayed-reaction effect of film theory upon art theory (certainly a new phenomenon).[53]

Here in 1982 I can see that my 1980 text was also seduced by this image of an orthodoxy, a Party line. For all my criticisms, my aim was (secretly, even to myself) to correct the Screen theory, not to reject it on any fundamental level; to clean up its methodology, have it remember its predecessors and traditions. To reach, somehow, a synthesis of various insights, working on and towards an empirical knowledge of the film-text. Such a search for knowledge, for curriculum, isn’t such a bad thing in a country where there is a notorious and shameful lack of correspondence between the film/media courses offered by any two educational institutions.

However, knowledge isn’t everything, and synthesis has its traps. I fell right into one of them: by wanting to rescue Ophuls as a special, exceptional case, I was merely ‘proving the rule’, and thus reiterating the logic of those dominant/radical, reactionary/subversive oppositions. I wanted to argue the point on ideology or visual pleasure, instead of having the courage to shift the paradigm altogether, starting a new conversation. Like many still today, I was allowing far too much to this so-called New Theory, trying to placate it, integrate it … when I should have posed against it a plurality of philosophies, approaches, intensities, desires – some of which have a history, others which as yet have none. Received opinions, delimited spaces: no, we don’t know a thing about history, or pleasure, or knowledge; we don’t know the difference between Classical and Modernist and we’re not sure there is a difference; we’re surely ready to try some new connections.

© Adrian Martin August 1980/January 1982 [+ extra notes 2012]

[1] Paul Willemen (ed.), Ophuls (London: British Film Institute, 1978).

[2] The following criticism of various methods and positions identified with Screen – although spreading much further in influence than it alone – overlap with and extend some points made by Andrew Britton in “The Ideology of Screen”, reprinted in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009); and Raymond Durgnat in “The Death of Cinesemiology”, Cineaste, Vol. X No. 2 (Spring 1980).

[3] Willemen (ed.), Ophuls (London: British Film Institute, 1978), p. iv.

[4] Ibid., p. 61.

[5] Ibid., p. 70.

[6] Ibid., p. 1.

[7] Ibid., p. 61. This censorious statement introduces Yamaguchi’s Lola Montès essay, a piece which in fact proposes quite the opposite:

Popular tunes, carefree and cheerful musicality, wit, the detachment generated by the absurd, a charm that doesn’t lose its critical bite, bold utilisation of scenic space in the style of popular entertainments, these are the elements Ophuls appears to have found in Offenbach and which in many ways dovetailed with his conception of spectacle, as amply illustrated by the structure and mise en scène of Lola Montès. (p. 67)

On the matter of Willemen’s editorialising, cf. Sheila Whitaker’s review of Ophuls in Framework, no. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 71.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 75.

[11] Ibid., p. 72.

[12] Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Minnelli and Melodrama”, in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London: BFI Publishing, 1987), pp. 73-4.

[13] Ophuls, p. 87.

[14] Ibid., pp. 1, 2.

[15] Ibid., p. 70.

[16] Claude Beylie, “Lola du bûcher au pavois”, L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma, no. 80 (January 1969), p. 10, translation mine.

[17] Louis Audibert, “Max Ophuls et la mise en scène”, Cinématographe, no. 33 (December 1977), translation mine.

[18] Robin Wood, Personal Views: Explorations in Film (London: Gordon Fraser, 1976), p. 123.

[19] Beylie, “Lola du bûcher au pavois”, p. 8.

[20] Andrew Britton for the Editorial Collective, “The Family in The Reckless Moment”, Framework, no. 4 (Autumn 1976), p. 24. Reprinted in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Detriot: Wayne State University Press, 2009), pp. 219-231.

[21] Frieda Grafe (trans. Barrie Ellis-Jones), “Theatre, Cinema, Audience: Liebelei and Lola Montès” & “The Bartered Bride”, in Ophuls, pp. 51-60.

[22] Ophuls, p. 70.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 75.

[25] Wood, Personal Views, p. 124.

[26] Ophuls, p. 81.

[27] Ibid., p. 83.

[28] Wood, Personal Views, p. 128.

[29] Ophuls, p. 70.

[30] Jean-Luc Godard (trans. Tom Milne), “Montage my Fine Care”, in Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 39-41.

[31] Ophuls, p. 73.

[32] Ibid., p. 87.

[33] Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Miller), The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), p. 47.

[34] A subsequent BFI publication, Stephen Neale’s Genre (1980), sadly shows little advancement in this regard. For example, the changing and multiple functions of the monster in horror films are reduced to this:

… the monster may represent the lack, but precisely by doing so it in fact functions to fill the lack with its own presence, thus coming to function as a fetish, simultaneously representing and disavowing the problems of sexual difference at stake. (p. 44)

[35] Britton on Film, p. 226.

[36] Ophuls, p. 73.

[37] Julia Kristeva, “Ellipsis on Dread and the Specular Seduction”, Wide Angle, Vol 3 No 3 (1979), p. 42.

[38] Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p. 97.

[39] Claire Johnston, “Double Indemnity”, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir (London: British Film Institute, 1978), p. 101.

[40] Metz, The Imaginary Signifier, p. 91.

[41] Kristeva, “Ellipsis”, p. 46.

[42] Ophuls, p. 75.

[43] Ibid., p. 71.

[44] “The Family in The Reckless Moment”, p. 23.

[45] Ophuls, p. 87.

[46] Ibid., p. 83.

[47] Nowell-Smith, “Minnelli and Melodrama”, p. 73.

[48] Stephen Heath, “Jaws, Ideology, and Screen Theory”, in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods: An Anthology Volume 2 (University of California Press, 1985), p. 513.

[49] Ophuls, p. iv.

[50] See introduction at head of essay.

[51] Lesley Stern and Irisa Zilveris (on behalf of a collective group), “Fiction/Film/Femininity”, The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 9/10 (1981), pp. 37-68.

[52] 2012 note: In fact, the special issue of Movie devoted to Ophuls (no. 29/30, Summer 1982) – undiscussed in this postscript since it appeared later – was one of only six issues produced between 1980 and 2000. Since 2010, Movie has reinvented itself as an on-line journal: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/movie/

[53] Mick Carter, “The Re-education of Desire: Some Thoughts on Current Erotic Visual Practice”, Art & Text, no. 4 (Summer 1981), pp. 20-38.

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is http://www.filmcritic.com.au.View all posts by Adrian Martin →