Thinking as Historical Spectators

This is the first part in a four-part conversation between Peter Labuza and Abbey Bender. Peter has the first post.


Abbey,

Last year, I went to a MoMA screening of Smile, a 1975 film I knew almost nothing about. I was mostly curious about it because of Bruce Dern, who I had loved in The King of Marvin Gardens and sillier fare like The ‘Burbs. Directed by Michael Ritchie (The Candidate, Downhill Racer), Smile is an occasionally outrageous but mostly modest comedy about a very precise moment in history: one of questionable bad tastes, conflicting agendas in femininity, and ideas about what success in America really means. Dern plays as a sleazy car salesman chosen to judge a local Miss America pageant. Although he isn’t a model of good behavior himself, he sees through the bullshit of young girls being told to keep their jaws straight and their legs tanned. The pageant’s idealism and brand of womanhood feels like a leftover product of the Eisenhower era, especially given how drab the location where they practice, while Dern and his male comrades are the failures of the counter-culture; they still have their nighttime shenanigans, but they’ve also “grown up” and into a life they always feared would happen.

Bruce Dern in Smile

Bruce Dern in Smile

What struck me about Smile is how dated it is. But I don’t mean that derisively. Its ideas about America, both within the scope of the film and in terms of broader historical themes, are not particularly recognizable in culture today. There’s some awkward material--a Latino American contestant played by Maria O’Brien that plays to certain stereotypes and a troubling almost-murder plot--but it all feels so specific to its time and the generation that would have watched it. Even the film’s cinematography, a mixture of underlit and over exposed compositions, are not of a particular striking beauty. The film, to some viewers, likely plays as a subpar version of Robert Altman’s Nashville, which still speaks to today’s political, celebrity, and cultural life.

But instead of making such a judgment and calling it a day, I’d like to propose a different reading of Smile: its datedness is specifically what makes it unique and worth considering. Nashville remains powerful for many reasons: it’s roving camera, deemed radical for the time (except for Hungarians familiar with Miklós Jancsó), the expansive narrative featuring no less than two dozen characters (a value only in itself), and the film’s non-stop soundtrack of country music. While I do cherish the film, I also find it muddled in some ways--when it can’t figure itself out, it throws an assassination and a jarringly gigantic American flag in our face (all in 70mm!) and assumes we’ll work out the rest or assume that incoherence must be a value. In a way, its timelessness comes from not being all that specific, moving too quickly to register the 70s, often as aimless as Geraldine Chaplin’s BBC reporter, trying to find meaning in the roves of broken cars.

Nashville

Nashville

Ritchie’s film is very certain of itself. As Ben Sachs notes, “Ritchie’s central theme—that the American dream is simply a game that produces more losers than winners—reflects a 60s drop-out mentality, as does his purposely casual aesthetic.” Smile ends with an American flag too, but it’s a quiet image of three recruits simply removing the flag from what was the pageant floor, a quiet reminder of another type of loser in America. This specific sort of cynicism rarely appears in American movies anymore, except perhaps a small heartbeat in the camp of John Carpenter or the Generational X “whateverism” of Richard Linklater (who remade Ritchie’s Bad News Bears to results that audiences couldn’t make heads or tales of, perhaps a sign of its dated-ness).

Film culture loves to define great movies as “timeless,” because they can inspire and speak to us today. Hidden within that declaration is a belief that movies from the past that “lose their edge” or feel dated are no longer worth our attention or curiosity. For the 1970s, the canon of timeless filmmakers includes Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, the previously mentioned Altman, and whoever else Peter Biskind found “cool” enough to include in his wearisome Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. The works of these filmmakers were canonized for numerous reasons, but a big part of it seems to be their shaping of contemporary Hollywood aesthetic practices (special effects, rock soundtracks, expressive visual palettes matched by virtuoso camera work), which became industry standard. In comparison, Smile, and films like The King of Marvin Gardens or Some Call It Loving or Emperor of the North, are less attuned to contemporary aesthetics, much less contemporary themes. They speak to a generation whose time has come and gone; following their logic is less the work of the cinephile than the historian. In comparison, The Godfather’s examination of family or Star Wars’s “Hero’s Journey” have an advantage because their basic story structure dates back to Greek tragedy. Yet anyone finding profundity in their themes could have picked up a dozen other films or books or a painting for the same ideas. Network predicted modern day media, but why is that a value of art? The film’s laborious monologues are as interesting as watching a taped sports game after you’ve checked the final score. I’m not saying this as a “this versus that” sort of canon busting--there are a dozen great reasons to watch The Godfather--but I think it is important we ask ourselves why we value a work of art. Are we simply watching to confirm our current aesthetic tastes?

Smile challenges us to think in a way films like The Godfather cannot--we have to think as historical spectators instead of through our contemporary biases. The historical spectator is not a new concept to those familiar with academia; one of the most cited examples is Tom Gunning’s canonical essay, “The Cinema of Attractions,” which transformed the way we looked at cinema from 1895-1907. Gunning told us to stop reinforcing the myth that the audience ran from their seats at The Arrival of the Train (that myth already a parody by 1902), but instead saw cinema as just another toy among the carnivals, morgues, and vaudeville shows, their emphasis against narrative simply a sign of the times than a backwards way of thinking. One can look at these films and see the awkward acknowledgements of the camera by the actors, the static camera movements, and the lack of editing. But also contained are radical ways of directing movement, the unique non-narrative constructions, and a serious commitment to astonishment (in the magician sense) as a value of the cinema. In a later piece, Gunning writes, “Placed within a historical context and tradition, the first spectators’ experience reveals not a childlike belief, but an undisguised awareness (and delight in) film’s illusionistic capabilities.” Instead of simply looking at these films and seeing cinema waiting for Griffith to “invent” narrative, Gunning’s research not only reveals a new side to this early cinema, but a completely different image of the spectator itself. As I would like to discuss this month, we must get away from this idea that a dated cinema is one that is now meaningless. Dated films are vital to our understanding of the past.

The Godfather

The Godfather

But let’s be careful about what we're talking about when we refer to something being “dated.” Certain aspects of films certainly don’t age in ways we wish they would: I still have (and should) have some discomfort watching  the yellow face paranoia in The Cheat, or the horrifying images of faceless Japanese killed at the end of Howard Hawks’s Air Force, for example. But instead of simply pointing these out, one can instead work through them. But beyond social justice issues, there is a type of datedness that expands to character types, acting styles, fashions, moods, plots, and even technology; if you don’t realize how odd it is that Mike Hammer has an answering machine in Kiss Me Deadly, you won’t realize what a strange fellow he is. Understanding how to historicize cinema is often crucial to reading films.

While many of my favorite movies are supposedly timeless, speaking to me now as it did audiences however many ever years ago, I’ve become more interested in searching out how to approach a movie as it was meant to be understood. Perhaps it is time to for us to stop thinking for the movies, and instead let movies think through us. What excites me is when I see a film that was made of this place and this time with this audience in mind. I’d rather transform myself into the right audience than reject it for not fitting my needs.

Abbey, we both come from younger backgrounds, only having seen many of these movies we’ll be discussing as historical objects than during their initial release. Do you think it is perhaps our youth that makes these objects more interesting to our own age? Secondly, you’re not only a cinephile, you also have a great interest in writing about fashions through cinema, perhaps one of the most striking elements that will date a film. So what are the films and fashions that strike you as dated and thus worth exploring? And why do you think the term and concept of a “dated film” is so often an insult instead of an insight?

-Peter