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October 21, 2007
The British New Wave
The beginning of the 1960s was marked by the appearance of a range of feature films which took up serious social issues and were placed within the contemporary cultural context. The films are described as social realist and described as a British ‘New Wave’. The description of these films as a 'New Wave' should not be confused with the contemporary French films that were coming out of France from the Cahiers du Cinema milieu of directors. Some commentators regard the British New Wave as being influenced by the French New Wave. This seems inappropriate as the period usually defined as the French New Wave was happening more or less simultaneously. Arguably there was at least a two way influence as the acceptance of Chabrol and Truffaut in the British Free Cinema series makes clear. What is more likely is that any French influences that were the precursors to the Nouvelle Vague proper such as Louis Malle’s Les Amants were being seen in Britain particularly as future British ‘New Wave’ directors Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson were organising the Free Cinema events at the National Film Theatre from 1956 - 1959 as well as developing film criticism on the magazine Sequence earlier on. Cinematically it was Italian neo-realism which had made a strong influence on both British and French directors although both groupings went in different directions. It is the ‘Left Bank’ documentarists not always seen as the heart of the French nouvelle vague such as Resnais, Duras and Marker who are seemingly more influential. To this must be added the legacy of Humphrey Jennings who was enormously important to Anderson, Reisz and Richardson.
Seeming Western Cultural and Economic Synergies
At the meta-level directors in Western Europe were part of the cultural moves towards creating fully modern societies in Western Europe. By the 1950s this process was generally gathering pace at this time. Both France and Britain were overcoming post-war shortages and whilst there was a new optimism being generated in Britain after the 1950 Festival of Britain and its espousal of new technologies the mid-1950s saw the post-Suez recognition within both Britain and France that the political world had shifted entirely to a mainspring centred upon the USA in tension with the USSR. The older empires were finally having to readjust to a new world order.
The growing postwar mood was not just restricted to the countries of Western Europe. Polish cinema was making its own mark as the Free Cinema programme which featured several Polish directors makes clear.
What is Social Realism?
Cinematically the British New Wave is part of a tradition of social realism within British film which has seen many shifts since the growth of the British documentary movement in the 1930s. Realism is a difficult concept because encapsulated within it there are a range of changing aesthetic conventions all of which have as a central concern the intention of representing ‘the world as it really is’ or ‘life as it is really lived’. Lay (2002) points out:
There is no universal, all-encompassing definition of realism, nor is there agreement amongst academics and film-makers as to its purpose and use. But what we can say is that there are many ‘realisms’ and these realisms all share an interest in presenting some aspect of life as it is lived’. Carroll (1996) suggests that the term should only be used with a prefix attached. This is because another important feature of all realisms is how they are produced at specific historical points. The addition of a prefix, such as social-, neo-, documentary-, specifies the’ what’ and crucially, ‘when’ of that movement or moment. What is regarded as ‘real’, by whom, and how it is represented is unstable dynamic, and ever-changing, precisely because realism is irrevocably tied to the specifics of time and place. ‘Moment’” (Lay, Samantha, 2002: p 8)
As Andre Bazin also noted, each era looks to the technique and aesthetic which can best capture aspects of reality, thus realism is in itself an aesthetic construct dependent upon a set of artistic conventions and forms. The British New Wave is a part of this process. It has been noted that for a film to be realist rather than just realistic there are 2 necessary fundamentals. There must have been the intention to capture the experience of the event depicted and secondly the film-maker must have a specific argument or message to make about the social world employing realist conventions to express this.
Raymond Williams has argued that the four main criteria of social realism incorporate the following features:
- Firstly that the texts are secular, released from mysticism and religion
- Secondly that they are grounded in the contemporary scene in terms of setting, characters and social issues
- Thirdly that they contain an element of social extension by which previously under-represented groupings in society become represented
- Fourthly there is the intent of the artist which is mostly a political one although some artists have used the genre as route into a mainstream film-making career.
Social Realism and Representation
Social realist texts usually focus on the type of characters not generally found in mainstream films. Social realist texts draw in characters who inhabit the social margins of society in terms of status and power. This ‘social extension’ has usually involved the representation of the working class at moments of social and economic change. Hill has noted that this is not just a matter of representing the previously under-represented but that these subjects are represented from different specific social perspectives.
For example there was a shift in modes of representation of the working class from the Grierson documentaries of the 1930s to British Free Cinema documentaries and the British New Wave features which followed on from the Free Cinema Movement. Free Cinema and New Wave chose to represent the working class neither in victim mode, nor in heroic worker mode as had been done previously. The working class were to be seen as more energetic and vibrant.
Critics generally accept that women have faired badly in the representations of the British New Wave, although Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) and TV docudramas Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home helped redress the balance. By the 1980s social realist films such as Letter to Brehznev (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) reflected the changing nature of society and the growing importance of women in the workforce, not only women but humour too was more apparent. This approach continued into the 1990s with films such as Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997). Some have argued that the portrayal of women took a retrograde step in the mid to late 1990s as they became adept consumers unsupportive of husbands as in Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Alternatively women became victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse Stella Does Tricks (1996), Nil By Mouth.
It has been argued that in general the representation of the working class has shifted from being producers to consumers reflected in a move which has seen members of the working class in more privatised domestic environments and leisure-time settings instead of as members of geographical communities or in workplace environments where collective bargaining procedures are in place. Hill sees this as starting with British social realist films of the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s and 1990s.
Whilst social realist representation has tended to focus upon white working class males there has been some breakthrough in terms of race in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Bahji on the Beach (1994). The changing sense of Britishness has been represented through cultural hybridity and multiculturalism from the mid 1980s through until Chada’s Bend it Like Beckham moving from social real to a more fantasy mode in the process. Recently social extension has begun to be granted to the position of asylum seekers and refugees and those effected by the diasporic forces relating to globalisation and the collapse of the psot-capitalist states (Soviet Union / Communist China). Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000) and Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) which keeps in the frame wider issues of the structures of globalised inequality from a social realist perspective.
Another facet of social realist representation has been a tendency towards autobiography suggest Lay (2002). Starting with the work of Bill Douglas and Terence Davie, Lay suggests that this was present in films such as Wish You Were Here (A retro-social realist film), Stella Does Tricks, East is East and Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999). It is arguable that these films contain within them a nostalgic look backwards from a working class perspective which in some sense echoes the growth and success of the ‘heritage film’ in British cinema.
The British New Wave
The ‘New Wave emerged in Britain at a time when Macmillan’s concept that the British as ‘a people’ had ‘never had it so good’ was a dominant feature. The long economic boom which had gathered pace during the 1950s alongside the developments in the welfare state and the growth in power of social democratic discourses of meritocracy had led to the emergence of a new social formation of better educated, assertive and frustrated, smart grammar school educated younger people who wanted to see the fustiness and stuffiness of a system based upon status and respect shift into a meritocratic environment. It is difficult to gauge exactly how important the effect of the liberated meritocratic consciousness of United States culture and the British experience of this during the war impacted upon the general level of consciousness but indicators from the work of Jacky Stacey on British working class women audiences who preferred the more meritocratic sentiments of Hollywood to the RADA driven accentuation of much British post-war cinema points to deeper underlying societal shifts.
The description of cultural phenomena as ‘New Waves’ is an important metaphor which if it is extended fully leads one to note that there were deep up-swellings and currents from which the wave developed. That theatre and cinema and book publishing were challenging the old mores driven by a combination of liberal and social-democratic sentiments can, ironically, be seen as a part of the success of the long economic boom which allowed the youth of the time the relative economic security to dream about other futures. Certainly it would be unwise to split cinema from this rapidly changing socio-cultural milieu. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the positioning and fantasy of Billy Liar (1963) which came at the end of the social realist phase of the ‘New Wave’ and has a more ambiguous nature both in its style and in a recognition that there is social change happening fast. Julie Christie and Schlesinger represent this dramatic shift in Darling.
The Major British New Wave Films
Room at the Top (1959): Dir Jack Clayton
Look Back in Anger (1959): Dir Tony Richardson
Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960) : Dir Karel Reisz
Taste of Honey (1961): Dir Tony Richardson
The L Shaped Room (1962):Dir Bryan Forbes
A Kind of Loving (1962): Dir John Schlesinger
Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962): Dir Tony Richardson
This Sporting Life (1963): Dir Lindsay Anderson
Billy Liar (1963): Dir John Schlesinger
Directors and Actors
The major New Wave directors were Anderson, Reisz and Richardson coming from a background of the Free Cinema. The films dealt with working class subjects and focused on a range of concerns particularly in relation to young people. The films dealt with abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, alienation due to lack of communication and relationship breakdown. The films were intent upon representing a non-London working class environment and were shot in towns such as Nottingham and Mamchester. Black and White fast film stock gave a grainy feel to the film. This was also necessary to cope with the shooting conditions which tended to go for natural lighting and outdoor sets.
Conventional stars were not used rather ,young, usually more working class actors predominated such as Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay. Two of the women most associated with the movement Rita Tushingham and Rachel Roberts interestingly didn’t ‘make it big’ although Julie Christie who came in on the tail-end of the movement in Billy Liar did. The New Wave didn’t actually contribute to the growing pool of regional actors rather it was the way society was changing. Local authority grants for attending drama colleges meant larger numbers were attending and the growth of social realist theatre as well as the rapid growth of TV was creating the demand for more actors. The overall expansion of media was creating pressure for more representation of a wider number of subjects and the sentiments created around the ’People’s war’ had contributed to a widespread recognition of the need to represent the working classes. As Lindsay Anderson had written
‘The number of British films that have ever made a genuine try at a story in the popular milieu, with working class characters all through, can be counted on the fingers of one hand... This virtual rejection of three quarters of the population of this country represents a more than a ridiculous impoverishment of the cinema. It is characteristic of a flight from contemporary reality.’
The films were based upon books and plays who had direct experience of working class life such as Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, David Storey, Shelagh Delaney.
Tom Courtenay in The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner
Frequently Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) is considered as the first of the British ‘New Wave’ films however Hayward considers that his film is best seen as one of the precursors to the movement with Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) being the real beginning of the movement. The film starred Richard Burton. Following this came Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) starring Albert Finney then A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1962), with Rita Tushingham. A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger, 1962), Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962), This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963) with Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris. By 1963 over one third of film production was broadly New Wave showing that British cinema could resist Hollywood - at least for a short time.
Rita Tushinham in Taste of Honey
Losey / Pinter’s The Servant also came out in 1963 and their depiction of upper class decadence can be seen as exploring the same socio-cultural phenomenon that Visconti had begun to depict. Visconti was to explore this in depth through firstly The Leopard and later The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig. Pinter and Losey were to explore the impact of the growth of the New Universities and the changing media scene on the encrusted cloisters of academia and the upper classes in Accident a few years later. The sentiments in these films by Losey and Visconti are a serious exploration of the writing on the wall for the European aristocracy. Here it is possible to draw comparison with Louis Malle’s The Lovers in which Europe’s other well known upper class film-maker explores the decadence and isolated world of the French and international Haute-Bourgeois, the provincial bourgeois and the newly emergent class of the independent thinker and doer. That it is the representative of this class who ‘gets the woman’ who is herself marked by a break with a break in conventions about the role and position of woman is indicative of a changing consciousness at a European level, in the light of post-war disillusion with a class system which led Europe to disaster and was twice rescued by the USA.
This Sporting Life
The social realist films of this ‘new wave’ period were based upon a range of novels and stories which had already made significant inroads into the British psyche. They were adaptations which involved the original authors themselves. The crossovers with theatre were seemingly much stronger than in France. The point is also important as some critics such as Armes have in a rather small minded way pointed out that the directors associated with these films such as Richardson, Anderson and Reisz, were from an upper middle-class public school and Oxbridge background. Linking these directors with Visconti and Malle shows that the European aristocratic hegemony was clearly crumbling and that a new hegemonising process based around a meritocratic process was emerging. Over the longer-term Visconti in Italy and Anderson in Britain might be said to the most consistently left-wing of these directors. John Hill’s later review of the criticism of the British ‘New Wave’ directors attempted to undermine the reductionist sour grapes of Armes and Durgnat by taking a textual approach which noted that although the directors were outside of the class they were representing which can be discerned through the ’marks of ennunciation’ articulating a critical distance between observer and observed. As Aldgate and Richards point out this analysis still left the contextual aspects of criticism largely unexplored.
Hill’s Marxist inflected criticism led to a critique of these films which saw them as misogynistic and many commentators return to this point, however, Murphy has since commented that for the first time women were playing in roles that were far carrying a far more serious emotional weight than the ‘...pathetically trivial roles women had to play in most 1950s British Films.’  In many ways this gender issue needs a careful film by film analysis. By the time of Billy Liar (1962) for example Julie Christie is playing an extremely dynamic role. She feels able to hitch-hike anywhere and comes and goes as she pleases, she is able to transcend the petty provincialism of Nottingham and move to London where she knows that lots of things are happening. By comparison Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay) despite his fantasy life is unable to summon the courage to make the break and move to London and make his dreams come true. In that sense the criticism of the New Wave that it focuses on individuals rather than the possibilities of class solidarity is relevant. The underlying message of Billy Liar is that the newly emergent youth of the 1960s have the possibilities they must have the courage to take these opportunities. That is was a young woman who does this is encouraging from a gender equality perspective. In this the film can be read as a precursor of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life also 1963 is perhaps more ambiguous. It can be argued that the representation of the Rachel Roberts character is negative, to the point that she commits suicide however this representation of a woman who is left on a small widow’s pension and is struggling to survive financially yet resists the pressure to be made dependent upon a man is an underlying theme. That she finds suicide the only way out can be read as a comment upon a society that does not make the necessary social space for women. The pressure to succeed at any cost is one which Machin, played by Richard Harris, finds hard to bear. His working life is brutalising and he has come out of the mines into Rugby League a sort of modern gladiator he is unable to provide Mrs. Hammond with what she wants.
Unlike the cover which describes Mrs. Hammond as ‘frigid’ it is perhaps better to examine the character of Machin whose machismo soon expires when faced with advances from the wife of his boss. Machin likes to control and runs away when he can’t. In this sense it is not unreasonable to argue that there is a crisis of masculinity being represented in which power, sexuality and control allied to class position are all in the process of being renegotiated. The film is also a representation about the possibilities of escaping a drab and dangerous working class life. The professionalisation of sport is just beginning and the film strongly relates to the changing media environment. Stardom is counterpoised to living in a run down terraced house. The incongruity of the Mark IX Jaguar owned by Machin underscores the point.
In their brief review of the critical literature on the British New Wave Aldgate and Richards note that ‘probably the most trenchant critique’ of the British ‘New Wave’ came from Peter Wollen. Wollen’s criticism largely hinges on a textualist based comparative analysis which judges the British ‘new wave’ with the Cahiers group of French directors who for Wollen’s appear to encapsulate the whole ethos of the French Nouvelle Vague. The SPECT construction of the French New Wave is considered in depth in the section on France, here it can suffice to ask whether the methods and methodological approach were appropriate or rich enough to justify the scathing tone of the attack on the British directors. Drawing on Michael Balcon’s wartime pamphlet Realism or Tinsel Wollen notes that within the British cinema there has been a strong element of a preference for ‘realism’ over ‘tinsel’ an aesthetic structuring which Wollen associates with nationalism:
This system of value, though most strongly entrenched on the left, ran all the way across the political spectrum. For the right, as with the Left, the aesthetic preference was bound up with nationalism. ‘Tinsel’ was of course bound up with Hollywood escapism and, in contrast, realism evoked local pride and sense of community... British critics praised films they liked in terms of their realism and damned those they did not as escapist trash. The French New Wave, however, aimed to transcend this shallow antinomy.’
This mode of rhetoric has become a self supporting argument rather than a more fully coherent one based upon differing nuances and circumstances. In the same piece Wollen has conflated the ‘Left Bank’ artists such as Duras and Resnais, more renowned for making documentaries in the earlier 1950s. It is intersting how wollen attacks the crucial diffrence between representations of nation between British and French New Waves. French New Wave was very much a Parisien affair whiclst British New Wave had the guts to represent different parts ogf the country effectively. This could be read as two different nationalisms at work in different ways.
Wollen has seemingly eschewed linkages between how the Italian neorealists might have had an effect upon the British shift to realism, there is no linkage with the surrealist impulse which underpinned the work of Humphrey Jennings and which significantly influenced the Free Cinema movement. An appreciation of the non-realist approaches of Powell and Pressburger is also absent. If, for Pressburger especially, ‘Art’ was to function as a form of transcendence then Billy Liar can be seen as playing out the possibilities of transcending one’s social reality either through the growing media through comedy which reverts to fantasy as the limitations of the possibilities overwhelm. Fantasy is carried through the Julie Christie character which emerges in Darling. Both can be read as a critique of ‘false aspirations’ carried by the nouveau professional classes as well as a deliberate sidelining of the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ argument.
The British cultural milieu was certainly very different to that of the French in which certain overlaps such as their relations to empire could be noted. If there is a trenchant critique to be made of British ‘New Wave’ then it resides more in its failure to properly represent the diasporic influxes that were changing the cultural and social composition of the industrial cities that they were representing. In this the British were probably no worse than, nor better than, the French. Very few films of the period dealt directly with issues of diaspora and decolonisation. In that sense British New Wave was not realist enough!. In terms of the aesthetics of the British New Wave the use of locations such as back allies, cobbles, seaside towns in winter and empty railway stations works to create a feel which has been described as an aesthetics of urban squalor. Some commentators have considered that this acts to 'romanticise' the ‘decaying infrastructure of industrial Britain'  However given that many of the films are dealing with the changes in society the representation of urban and industrialised spaces needs to be considered alongside the representation of newer factories,
Another critique of British New Wave espoused by Wollen was in its lack of ‘modernism’. In fact the modernism classed as an aesthetic was apparent in the sound tracks, which incorporated British popular music in working class leisure venues, from the skiffle group in Saturday Night Sunday Morning to the dance hall scenes in Billy Liar and This Sporting Life. Interestingly the main music was written and performed by Johnny Dankworth in several of these films including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the non New Wave The Servant and Darling. This reflected a strong rise in modernist aesthetics strongly influenced by the culture of the USA. While no sound track is likely to ever compete with the Miles Davis extraordinary and entirely improvised one for Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, the incorporation of Britain's most influential jazz musicians of the time is indicative of an approach that belies Wollen’s seeming Francophilia and as pointed out above dates from the 1956 Momma don’t Allow . Arguably the British new wave films were tackling a more interesting range of discourses and were coming from a different place to the French processes of modernisation. The task of analysis is to be searching for a greater depth of understanding of these social processes not indulging in a ranking exercise.
Compare Wollen’s tone with that of John Orr for example; Orr takes a more measured synoptic view of the cinematic processes of modernity, noting in Resnais Nuit et Brouillard (1955), that he moves from the documentary to the imaginary, a shift managed by Schlesinger’s ‘Billy Liar’ in 1963 for example but one set against the changing cityscapes of postwar Britain. Orr refers to Deleuze’s argument that neorealism opened up cinematic space in the new open spaces of Europe’s damaged cities. Whilst Deleuze argues that these were ‘anywhere spaces’ in which the exterior location did not have to define itself the cinematic space of Nottingham which served as location shooting for Saturday Night , Sunday Morning as well as Billy Liar was symbolic of class representation, and the rise of the working classes, it was symbolic of ‘creative destruction’ that great economic engine described so effectively by Schumpeter, with war acting as the great catalyst to this enduring process at the heart of capitalism. It was also symbolic of social, economic and cultural progress. Rather than being associated with the deeply alienated cinematic/ geographical spaces of mainland Europe, British cinema largely avoided the apocalyptic mood of continental Europe.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
The story telling of the British new wave was outside of the frenetic and frantic pace of Hollywood and also outside of the cinematic time of the emerging mainstream European modernists like Fellini or Antonioni. British cinema had the intensity of the theatre underpinning it and much of British New Wave was like a kammerspiel on location. It was a variant on mainstream modernism and modernity which was perhaps informed by British pragmatism as much as aesthetic theorising but it also owed something to Rossellini and Visconti.
It is Rocco and His Brothers (1960) which charts the changing world of the Italian peasant classes as they come to industrial cities such as Milan to create new lives which is arguably one of the more influential films. The role of boxing for example as a sport drawing its workforce from people trying to escape working class drudgery is explored by Visconti. The treatment of the girlfriend of the Rocco by his brother who finally murders her has resonances with This Sporting Life. Where Visconti does score over the British New Wave in terms of class representation is his specific use of recognising that class solidarity is the way forward for the new working classes in that sense Visconti is more of a political film maker than the British New Wave directors.
In summary the British New Wave worked upon an emergent element of realism which sought to represent elements of the working class and its changing environment. Criticisms have been levelled that the films concentrated on characterisations at the expense of the possibilities of class solidarity as a way forward. This marks a break from the brief associations which were made between the Free Cinema movement and the New Left centered around issues of art, representration and didacticism. In that sense the underlying discourses can be seen as ones which promote a meritocratic society in which opportunities are available but it is down to the individual actor themselves about whether they make a success of these opportunities.
There have been many criticisms from feminist critics that these films are generally misogynistic as on the whole they don’t have positive representations of women playing roles as key protagonists within the films. It is possible to take Wollen’s critique seriously in one way for if the lack of ‘tinsel’ which he criticises within the realist mode of the British New Wave is extended to humour then many of the films fall into this category, Look Back in Anger never rated as a side-splitter neither did This Sporting Life. On the whole Billy Liar manages to transcend this tendency which helped to give the impression of British New Wave social realism its grim and gritty reputation. By comparison Truffaut’ 400 Blows, Tirez sur le pianiste and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle were welcome breaths of fresh air displaying a lightness of touch with parodies of gangster movies. In the content of location shooting in the latter two films and even in the more prosaic autobiography Truffaut finds a lightness of touch even in the grim institutions.
British New Wave: A Webliography
Jazz in 1960s British New Wave Cinema: An Interview with Sir John Dankworth http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/743/1/DankwortharticleJP.pdf
Open University History and the Arts on British New Wave
The Importance of Humphrey Jennings as an influence on the British New Wave directors should not be underestimated, several of these directors like Reisz, Anderson and Richardson were also deeply involved in thte Free Cinema Movement
September 06, 2007
Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback
In all of this, the notion of representing ‘the real’ – real society, real cities, real people – has become more and more compromised and indeed commodified. In this cultural climate, perhaps the time is right to reclaim the real for its radical potential. (Shiel p 127)
I still think that Italian Cinema from 1943 to approximately 1980 is the most productive and interesting one of any national cinema. Sadly it is becoming less well known as this period disappears into history. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly any serious study of the period is embedded in Italian departments and knowledge is thus limited to a few cognoscenti. Neorealism is one of the few aspects of Italian cinema taught more generally on film studies courses however this is often restricted to a brief chapter in a more general film history book. Yet ,as Shiel’s last paragraph cited above notes, rather than the solidarity of early neorealism being an historical occurrence perhaps the sentiments and general approach of neorealism are due a revival. As globalisation runs its course leaving pockets of bitter poverty in even the richest countries and in countries like Brazil leading to bullet proof cars and helicopters for the upper classes representing the real seems to be becoming a priority.
Shiel’s recent book on neorealism is therefore more than welcome because it allows the interested follower of Italian cinema and also students an accessible but authoritative route into this fascinating period of European and Italian history in greater depth. The reader won't put of by the intensely theoretical work which is aimed at a very small target audience of those already in the know which is in part unfortunate outcome of the pressure of the research assessment exercise in Universities.
I strongly recommend this to colleagues in the tertiary sector who teach courses such as the neorealism option on the World Cinema unit for the WJEC A level. It may also be useful for student supervisors of the OCR critical research project area for those taking the World Cinema option. Whilst the book will be too difficult for most sixth formers it will prove a remarkable useful resource which is very well informed indeed as well as original and imaginative and well written as one would expect from somebody who is teaching on the recently upgraded film studies depart at Kings College London.
Technical Aspects of the Book
It may seem a little churlish and pedantic to be critical of the book’s organisation but it would have been useful to have had pages references in the index to mentions of specific films, perhaps under the name of the director as Bondanella does in his large general history of Italian cinema. It is very useful to be able to navigate straight to comment upon a particular film without having to trawl through the book. As none of the other books in this series do this perhaps Wallflower will think about doing this should the titles come out in revised editions which many of them deserve to.
What is Neorealism?
The iconic image of Anna Magnani as Pina moments before being gunned down in Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta
(Link to BBC interview with Rossellini on this Rossellini page)
Defining Neorealism very precisely is fraught with difficulties. Discourse around Neorealism tends to fall into two schools of thought however Shiel neatly sidesteps this with a convincing argument. Defining any cultural moment is notoriously difficult and the more closely the object of research is gazed upon the more heterogeneous it can seem. Shiel notes that the term Neorealism can be used ‘flexibly’. For some, Neorealism runs from Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) until Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). Other have preferred a more tightly defined range of films from Rossellini’s Rome Open City to De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). This kind of discussion can quickly fall into point-scoring and it is more useful to see the whole period as being inextricably linked and indeed being strongly influential well beyond 1957. In this sense Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’ is a useful term to call upon when discussing cultural moments and movements. Shiel chooses the following approach:
Neorealism is also thought of not so much as a particular moment defined by starting and end dates, but as a historically – and culturally – specific manifestation of the general aesthetic quality known as ‘realism’, which is characterised by a disposition to the ontological truth of the physical visible world. From this perspective, the realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. (Shiel: 2006 p1).
Importantly Shiel points out that not all neorealist films contain all of the cinematic strategies that neorealism is know for – location shooting, use of non-professional actors etc. There isn’t a precise formulaic set of rules to describe neorealism.
De Sica holds to the notion of having a non-professional actor in the leading role in Umberto D
Neorealism as a Wider Cultural Movement
Neorealism was a much wider cultural movement than just cinema. Many people will be familiar with writers such as Calvino who were strongly associated with neorealism however the movement extended to photographers and painters and interestingly also architects. This link to architecture was something new to me and is dealt with in chapter three of the book called neorealism and the City. Calvino’s book Invisible Cities is of course one link and Deleuze of course wrote about the different city space of post-war cinema because the spaces of the cities were opened up by the devastation of the fighting. Rossellini deal with this in Paisa particularly in the episode based upon Florence, but nowhere is more marked than in his Germany Year Zero where he was specifically invited by the authorities to film in Berlin because of Paisa and of course Rome Open City. Other critics and theorists apart from Deleuze also wrote extensively about the city and cinema especially Kracauer and Bazin.
Rossellini's Germany Year Zero
The Structure of the Book
The book is well structured with an initial chapter describing neorealism, here the importance of the French pre-war directors Renoir, Carne and Clair is emphasised. The chapter also contains some useful synopses of the emergence of neorealist directors under the Fascist regime such as Rossellini and De Sica. The book then moves on to examine the first phase of neorealism as Shiel understands it because he sees work of the 1950s as being part of neorealism which is adapting to changing circumstances rather than being a complete break with what had gone before. In the first phase the dominant feel of the films are built around a notion of solidarity.
I found chapter three perhaps the most interesting because Shiel has applied the growing interest within the fields of film and cultural studies with the city and representations of the city to the realm of neorealist cinema.
Neoralist images of post-war urban crisis are an especially important legacy because Italy was the only one of the defeated Axis powers whose cinematic representations of the city achieved iconic status internationally so soon after its military defeat. (Shiel p68)
He has also extended the concept of neorealism to movements in architecture allied to notions of building for community. Shiel also draws parallels in the shift from phase one of neorealism (solidarity), to the second phase (focusing more on disaffection and alienation) to shifts in architectural discourse and practices.
Modern Northern Milan meets Southern emigrants in Rocco and his Brothers from Visconti.
It is a great film and thoroughly embedded with the concrns of modernisation and modernity. Visconti meets Dickens with politics perhaps. It is a film which seems to be a direct descendent if not a continuation of neorealism. Its treatment of the city is well worth considering in depth. However it isn't a film which Shiel mentions, whilst writers like Bondanella rather sweep aside its powerful political insights suggesting it is more operatic and melodramatic than having the spirit of " a naturalist novel or a neorealist film". (Bondanella 2002, p198)
Chapter four is entitled “The Battle for Neorealism”. It focuses upon the rapidly changing circumstances within Italian society as Italian politics consolidated around the Christian Democrats who were victorious in the 1948 general election a time when Hollywood comes to dominate Italian cinema. Shiel also notes the demands from the more hard-line left such as the critic Umberto Barbaro ( http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/cinemaitalia/neorealism.html ) for a move towards an aesthetic based upon Socialist-Realism, which had less to do with reality and more to do with creating mythical heroes. In this chapter Shiel also makes a brief comment upon Visconti’s Bellissima largely following Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s position in which Bellissima carries:
…neorealist hallmarks but its light-hearted comedy and melodrama set it somewhat apart from the rest of Visconti’s generally political oeuvre. (Shiel p 93).
As can be seen from my review of the recently released DVD of Bellissima from Eureka Video I have a reading which gives Visconti credence for having a sharp political cutting edge whilst still maintaining the solidarity of neorealism which is hammered home (perhaps unconvincingly but that is an artistic comment not a political one).Hopefully readers won’t be put off Visconti’s excellent film by this comment.
A moving moment in Visconti's Bellissima as the built in advantages of the middle classes aremade abundantly clear
Poster of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore
In chapter five Shiel reviews neorealism’s second phase. In this analysis he is in agreement with Andre Bazin who considers that it was in the closing shot of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria that finally closes the door on neorealism. The chapter opens with an analysis of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore. Sadly I haven’t seen this film which along with I think all of Antonioni’s early work is unavailable in the UK so I’m unable to comment upon Shiel’s analysis beyond noting that there is no reason to think of it as anything but thorough.
Rossellini's Voyage in Italy
In chapter five Shiel also comments upon the films of Rossellini from this period, with some time spent on Voyage in Italy one of several from this time made with Ingrid Bergman. This film at least is available in an excellent BFI version with a very interesting analytical commentary by Laura Mulvey as an extra. Shiel says of Voyage in Italy:
Comprises an expansion of neorealism in the direction of the metaphysical or spiritual concerns and resembles the direction taken by Antonioni. (p 104).
Rossellini had commented as early as 1949 very soon after the Christian Democrats came to power that “ You cannot go on shooting in ruined cities forever”, a clear recognition of the rapid changes and that European reconstruction was beginning to have an effect. Shiel argues that in Francis God’s Jester (available from Eureka video) Rossellini was playing with a metaphor where the relationship with God and other humans was played out in the absence of material. A comment perhaps on the priorities of the CD party and the values being expressed as what became known as the ‘economic miracle’ got under way.
Above from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria
From here Shiel moves to examine the work of Fellini who made six films during this period of the early to mid-fifties. The focus here lies upon Nights of Cabiria. Shiel suggests that Fellini:
Employed realism as a window onto internal character although like the films of Antonioni and Rossellini they never strayed far from social concerns and presented their personal tragedies as narratives with real social implications. (p 113)
Shiel notes that it was this film which initially working within a neorealist framework grows out of it in its final moments. It was Bazin who noted that whilst the film remained largely neorealist he noted that Cabiria was looking at the spectator in a way that changed the relationship of the spectator to the film moving away from the objectivity of the spectator prized by neorealism.
Shiel’s conclusion which I have noted at the beginning of this review notes the legacy of neorealism. Here Shiel claims a wide range of important films on a global scale were influenced by neorealism. Whist I don’t wish to decry these claims I think that the social concern expressed in We are the Lambeth Boys by Karel Reisz (1959) may be underplaying the British documentary connection especially the influence of Humphrey Jennings many of whose films are considerably underestimated. In that sense the notions of realism which Shiel clearly thinks have been seriously downplayed in academia in recent years partially because of the rise of post-modern discourse has a wide and deep roots running through European film culture. Certainly the work of Francesco Rosi and Olmi kept the neorealist flame alive in Italy itself.
From Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs
As an excellent, readable, rigorously researched but accessible book this is the best that I have read on neorealism from the perspective of the more general reader. It would be an excellent book to have as a reference for those new to neorealism as it provides enough contextual information to place this loose movement in a holistic sense, it chooses a good range of films to use as brief case studies and provides an historical scope which includes both the origins of the movement and the long-term influences of this movement which has had a critical success which far outweighs the box-office returns of the time. The book provides a good range of films to be followed up and an excellent range of references which opportunities for the more committed reader to follow up. This book is a must for students, teachers and those interested in Italian and / or European cinema and comes strongly recommended.
June 16, 2007
This page functions as a portal into the important strand of British filmmaking described as social realist. Laid out chronologically this portal will be particularly useful for:
* Those unfamiliar with the history of the British cinema
* Students following undergraduate film studies course to provide an overview before tackiling more in depth work
* 'A' level media students following the current (2006 /07) OCR Media A2 Unit on Media Issues & Debates: Contemporary British Cinema. For the OCR unit it will historically contextualise the continuing use of social realism as a successful film form
* The WJEC Film Studies A level "British & Irish Cinema" Unit.
Social realism has played an important role in both British cinema and TV. The British documentary movement which developed under the leadership of John Grierson was enormously influential in stimulating what became a strand of fiction film described as social realism.
Humphrey Jennings who started out with this movement brought a sense of the surreality of popular culture in everyday life to his work. His wartime docu-dramas and documentary work are exemplary pieces of art working across genres to produce some of the best work ever made by a British director.
Jennings was an inspiration to Lindsay Anderson and those who gathered around him in the British 'Free Cinema'. Technical discoveries by cameraman Walter Lassally were to influence the work of the French New Wave Filmmakers and cinematographers.
The documentary work made by them led into the 'British New Wave' at the beginning of the 1960s.
This in turn led to social realist films and TV documentaries in the mid to late sixties with Ken Loach and Producer Tony Garnett being exemplary. Cathy Come Home was a TV drama which heldped the housing charity Shelter to set up. Poor Cow and Kes are classic Loach films from this period.
While the 1970s and 1980s saw less work of this style films such as Meantime by Mike Leigh were very influential. The actor Gary Oldman was outstanding in this and returned to this form as a director in Nil by Mouth made in the late 1990s.
There was a return to popularity for this kind of film in the 1990s particularly by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. This has continued up until 2006 with Ken Loach winning the Palm d'or at the Cannes festival for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) combining social realism with history.
Brtish social realism has also been strongly influential in other types of films which have combined genres into hybrids such as social-realist / comedy. The Full Monty (1997) and Brassed Off (1996) are good examples of this. Perhaps the first hybrid of this type was Billy Liar (1963) at the end of the British New Wave. This film provided a bridge into the 'Swinging Sixties' particularly in the next film by John Schlesinger Darling which starred Julie Christie as well.
The BFI "Screenonline article on comedy" cites several films which also appear elsewhere as social realistically inflected. Films dealing with changing British identity often combine social realist aspects of life with comedy including East is East (1999) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002).
Webliography laid out chronologically
This covers the British documentary movement and via Free Cinema moves into British Social Realism
BFI Screenonline Biography of Paul Rotha
Links previously on this page are now on the above page plus many more. The page is still under development and further links to analysies of his films are in the pipeline.
From Lindsay Anderson to the Free Cinema
The Impact and Influence of Social Realism in British Cinema a useful Screenonline article.
Tony Aldgate of the Open University discusses British Social Realism
Social Realists in British Cinema from 1990
These two directors have a reputation for working mainly within the social realist tradition although the approaches are still very different. Loach tends to be more macro whilst Leigh is more micro with a style closer to Kammerspiele or chamber plays.
Other British Directors who have used social realism
These directors have made films at times which have been strongly influenced by social realism:
Stephen Frears with Dirty Pretty Things, 2002
Lynne Ramsey Ratcatcher
Michael Winterbottom Welcome to Sarajevo (1998) is a social realist influenced film based upon a true story. His recent The Road to Guantanamo (2006) is a political response to the events and aftermath of 9/11.
Some Social Realist Films From 1990
Life is Sweet, 1990: Mike Leigh. It is marketed as a 'bittersweet comedy" which is quite a good description of many of the social realist / comedy hybrid films
Raining Stones, 1993: Dir Ken Loach
Nil by Mouth 1997: dir Gary Oldman
Authors of British Social Realist Films
Here is a link to Alan Sillitoe author of Saturday Night Sunday Morning commenting recently on the coming ban on smoking in public places
June 09, 2007
Visconti’s The Damned (La Caduta degli dei ) 1969:
Representing Nazism and Nationalism
Switzerland / Italy / West Germany
(The film was shot in English at the insistence of Warner Brothers)
Visit other Visconti historical films: Senso and The Leopard
SA Orgy on the "Night of the Long Knives" from Visconti's The Damned
Introduction: Visconti, History & Nationalism
Through an analysis of The Damned (1969) with some comparative work of Visconti’s The Leopard (1962) this article argues that the work of Visconti is overdue critical revision in terms of the sophistication of his oeuvre regarding the nature of history related to two critical turning-points in modern European history namely the Risorgimento and the accession to and consolidation of power of the Nazis. These two films represent the major triumphs of nationalism of the 19th century often seen as progressive Garibaldi for example was greeted by massed crowds when he visited London hailed as being very progressive by British radicals. The closure of this era of nationalism, which by the 1930s can be seen as highly regressive in all European countries, was represented by The Damned. It represents the corrupted coming to power of the Nazis and the heinous activities they undertook to maintain and consolidate their hold on Germany. The massacre of the Night of the Long Knives is a direct echo of the off screen execution of Garibaldian radicals as the Prince of Salina returns home from the ball at the end of The Leopard.
Post First World War nationalisms had led to the establishing of several reactionary governments across central and Eastern Europe as well as in Italy and later Spain. For Visconti Nazi Germany represents the nadir of this wider reactionary nationalism. Historically Nazism was to play out the end of this nationalist urge movement in the most melodramatic of ways. The Damned functions as a film about the few critical months between February 1933 - June 1934 which saw the installation and consolidation of a regime that would bring Europe crashing to its knees and end the period of liberal nationalism the Risorgimento symbolised as it mutated into reaction. For Visconti The Damned is nothing less than a representation of an attempt to turn back the tide of history.
The argument presented here seeks to show that Visconti’s notion of anthropomorphic cinema, which combined a unique blend of Gramscian and Lukacsian Marxism, consistently and successfully uses some great European realist works of the 20th century to represent the trajectory of history through cinema in ways which have yet to be matched by any other director. This posting draws upon recent scholarship of the Nazi period to cross- reference Visconti’s approach. As a result the article takes issue with Nowell-Smith’s (2003) suggestion that Visconti shifts his interest in history towards culture. I argue that for Visconti they are intimately intertwined. The article also takes issue with the other main critical work in English on Visconti by Bacon (1998). Bacon’s otherwise interesting and insightful work also fails to grapple fully with Visconti’s understanding of history which as a result leads him to re-inscribe Visconti as a Liberal democrat. The argument here is that a careful reading of Visconti’s work reveals a very profound and decidedly Marxian approach to history and representation.
Helmut Berger cross dressing as a cabaret artiste in Visconti's The Damned
The Damned has often been regarded as the first of Visconti’s films described as ‘The German Trilogy’ the others being Death in Venice (1973) and Ludwig (1973). Henry Bacon (1998) specifically categorises these films together under a chapter ‘Visconti & Germany’ an approach which is perhaps in need of revision. Previously Visconti’s films had analysed Italian society during the Risorgimento and post-war periods. Bondanella has seen the ‘trilogy’ as a move to take a broader view of European politics and culture. Stylistically ‘They emphasise lavish sets and costumes, sensuous lighting, painstakingly slow camerawork, and a penchant for imagery reflecting subjective states or symbolic value’[i] comments Bondanella. He also notes that much critical discourse has confused the examination of decadence in Visconti’s later works with a recommendation for its continuation. Visconti himself has commented that he was interested ‘in the analysis of a sick society’, and there is a marked difference between the representation of rising modernity and its links with the bourgeoisie in The Leopard compared with the stasis of Europe. This stasis is examined through allegory encapsulated by a sick fin de siecle Venice and a moribund Bavarian monarchy. Both are studies of decadence which Visconti considers is an outward symbol of a society entering into its death throes. These represent issues raised by the construction of the Bismarckian strong state and aspects of the weakness of the old empire of Austro-Hungary and its former ally
The Damned takes as its subject matter the relationships between the heavy industrialists in the late Weimar Republic on the cusp of Nazi success. There was a clear need for the Nazi leadership to discipline, and revise its approach should it wish to reach the heights of power with the blessing of the powerful industrialists as well as win over the army. This manufacture of consensus – albeit temporary – precisely illustrates the workings of hegemony as understood by Gramsci. This case study seeks to analyse The Damned through the lens of Visconti’s notion of ‘anthropomorphic cinema’. Nowell-Smith defines this notion as a situation where ‘the movement of social forces is reflected in the actions and passions of individuals expressed through the representation of character’ (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 151). Furthermore anthropomorphic cinema within The Damned relates the historical processes in which Visconti develops Gramsci’s notions of ‘Hegemony’ as a political process which can emerge as a regressive not just a progressive force.
Critics have commented that Visconti has been strongly influenced by William Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ and also by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It is also noted that Visconti read other historical publications apart from Shirer. Shirer was an American journalist covering events in situ which he later turned into a book. It was certainly a widely influential book, however historiography of the Nazi period has moved on considerably since then [ii]. Visconti might well have been strongly influenced by Italian historiography of the time which in general has been viewed as ‘ethico-political’ by Martin Clark (1984) in a standard British text of Italian history. Clark notes that the ‘mainstream Marxist’ historians of Italy who were members of the Communist Party were strongly influenced by Gramsci. Gramscian ideas certainly helped formulate one of Visconti’s main theoretical lenses in constructing his historical films. Nevertheless it is stressed below that Visconti was not trying to construct a conventional drama-documentary of an historical event, rather, I argue, he was trying to bring to the fore the notion of underlying historical processes at a deeper and more universal level through his cinematic practice.
The search and attempts to represent universals is currently deeply out of fashion as critics, theorists and practitioners tinker with post-modern ideologies such as ‘the end of history’. Nevertheless ‘Great Art’ has usually been identified as a matter of seeking universals from specifics and the wheel of intellectual fashion may well return to this approach in due course.. Artistic licence is precisely bending situations, not being concerned with representing the specific moment naturalistically but transforming it into the universal. Many consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth to have been influential upon Visconti in preparing for this film. Macbeth is a dramatic version of an historical event a real Macbeth in Scottish but worked over so that it has become a classic interpretation of power and desire leading ultimately to downfall. Shakespeare’s tragedy is modelled upon Greek lines in that fate plays a part. Where Visconti has improved artistically upon Shakespeare is by removing fate and destiny and its role over the individual actor from the realm of individuals to a representation of historical processes by developing his concept of anthropomorphic cinema. Viscontian tragedy is thus an inversion of Greek classical tragedy through his understanding of historiography.
Visconti’s Anthropomorphic Cinema and Gramscian Hegemonic Theory
The breaking down of Visconti’s work into differing categories is a critical construction which vitiates against other interpretative structures. What is argued here is that The Damned can be seen not simply as a ‘German’ film but as a film about the role of nationalism within modern history. Thus it can be argued that by linking this film with The Leopard for the purposes of critical analysis at the level of historical theory Visconti can be seen to be using the processes at work within the Risorgimento as a representation of progressive liberal nationalism. The progressiveness is limited for as the character Tancredi famously points out, everything does change in order to re-establish stability and embed the reconstructed social elites. Often, as Clark (1984) notes, the leaders of disaffected groups are perfectly willing to become absorbed into new social formations but it is the troops who remain recalcitrant. In The Leopard the troops were the Garibaldian hard-liners who are executed off screen at the end of The Leopard. The Damned acts like a mirror of The Leopard in a misrecognition in which the recalcitrant leadership of the SA fails to become absorbed into the new consensus which Hitler needs to construct in order to develop his project.
It has been traditional to view the nationalisms of the 19th century as largely progressive whilst the 20th century nationalisms, at least within Europe, have been viewed as regressive by post Second World War historians. Both Senso and The Leopard provide a critical historical background to the process of the Risorgimento but the cinematic approach of the former is closer to that of The Damned. The Damned uses the methods of ‘anthropomorphic cinema’ to show how German nationalism was doomed to failure. Visconti is careful to choose key historical turning-points to develop his ideas of history. These are times when historical changes requires a reconfiguration of the ruling elites to contain more progressive elements and form a stable social structure capable of meeting the change as in the case of the Risorgimento films. The difficulties and price of reconfiguration amongst the elites in Nazi ruled Germany leads to disaster as in The Damned.
The compromises and self-seeking attitude of the aristocracy was examined in different ways in the two Risorgimento films. In The Damned Visconti shows the failure of liberal democracy and the industrial imperative of capitalism to forge a progressive agenda. Other major industrial countries France, Britain and the United States at the time had, through a variety of different paths, established liberal democracies albeit with problems. Germany by comparison did not: the founding moment of the Weimar Republic was a poisoned chalice which was handed over by a militaristic leadership facing defeat in 1918. These elites were trying to save themselves and regroup. Consequently the old Prussian elites were never comprehensively defeated. Throughout the time of the Weimar Republic they exerted a strong reactionary influence refusing - unlike the Prince of Salina in The Leopard - to engage constructively with the formation of a new hegemonic social formation which could provide a stable ruling elite. Bacon quotes Visconti as saying ‘...but Nazism seems to me to reveal more about a historical reversal of values.’ (Visconti cited Bacon, 1998 p 145 my emphasis) but Bacon doesn’t follow this insight up.
The inability to become involved in the construction of a new hegemonic order by the older elites in Germany is represented in a very persuasive way by Visconti. The opening scenes of the film follow Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde) being tempted by the SS into a murderous plot amongst scenes from a family celebratory gathering which ends in murder and mayhem. At the gathering, the head of the Essenbeck family and the overall controller of the steel company, Baron Joachim, clearly displays his dislike of the new order as does one of his vice chairman Herbert the husband of his niece. Joachim’s second son Konstantin has clearly decided to back Hitler through his membership of the SA.
Visconti’s The Damned is analysing Gramsci’s notions of hegemony applying them to an emerging historical conjuncture. A new elite will, if necessary, be created by force and will create a cultural and social order to match. In Italy the previous ruling elites, whether in Piedmont or in
The failure of Joachim can also be discerned by comparing his attitude to the rising Bourgeoisie exemplified by Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde). In the opening scenes Friedrich is in a car with the SS officer Aschenbach bemoaning the impossibility of being able to marry Sophie the widow of Joachim’s elder son because of Joachim’s unenlightened attitude typical of the Prussian elites trying to freeze the processes of history. In The Leopard the Prince of Salina encourages and supports Tancredi’s marriage with the rising commercial classes. By comparison Joachim is entirely opposed to a similar possibility. That Joachim is murdered by Friedrich could be seen as the outcome of not accepting social change in an ordered way. His refusal to let change happen disillusions and disarms the new commercial classes and also makes a potential power vacuum into which other social forces such as Nazism can emerge. Thus it can be seen that anthropomorphic cinema is working effectively through individual characters.
In Gramsci’s classic analysis of hegemony, state power is used in the last instance to maintain the state and the processes of hegemony allows for a political restructuring of the social orders in a controllable way. However, the Weimar state was disintegrating especially between 1931 and 1933. The breakdown of hegemony necessitated a new power struggle, Aschenbach and Konstantin represent the contenders in the process of re-hegemonising German society. The Joachims, Friedrichs and Sophies have no sense of historical processes in the way exemplified by the Prince of Salina.
Let us take another comparison between the role and function of the marriages in The Leopard and The Damned. In the former marriage symbolises the new vehicle in which the new Italian order will be crystallised. The fabulous ball scene at the end of The Leopard lasts approximately 40 minutes. Visconti shows us a situation in which the officers of the new army will marry into the daughters of the old order who are depicted as interbred and running about like monkeys. Less historical criticism has focused upon the surface sumptuousness of Visconti’s set at the expense of displaying a full understanding of Visconti’s attempt to represent as the culmination of his film the full process of re-hegemonisation.
By comparison, in The Damned, the marriage between Sophie and Friedrich has come far to late. There is no possibility of an easy re-formation of the old orders with the new. Both the older elite represented by Sophie and the rising elite, Friedrich, have in Bridge parlance been ‘endgamed’, it is the Nazis who control the play. It is an empty marriage going nowhere, and held in isolation not at the centre of society. The embittered son Martin has crossed into the camp of the emergent monster which has erupted through a rent in the thin democratic fabric of Weimar society. This was because of the failure of the old elites to combine with the rising mercantile classes. The Weimar collapsed because of the failure to form a consensus amongst the ruling elites.
This astute analysis of historical processes is a fundamental strength of Visconti’s anthropomorphic cinema. In reality the economic desires of the industrialists who have supported the Nazis are stymied by 1936 with the take over of the economy under the second four year plan headed by Goring. Their desire for the creation of a consumer based, highly profitable economy once the communists and unions are brought under control is diverted into the project of total war[i], and Germany’s ultimate damnation is its trial by fire leading to ‘Germany Year Zero’.
Here Helmut Berger is asserting his newly discovered power within the Essenbeck family. From Visconti's The Damned
I have argued that the Essenbeck family around which the film is centred acts as a synecdoche for German society as a whole. The period covered by the film starts about three weeks after Hitler’s invitation to become Chancellor by Hindenburg at the behest of von Papen at the end of January 1933. Von Papen had hubristically and wrongly ‘guaranteed’ that Hitler and the Nazis were controllable. This way of looking at the film tends to invert the emphasis that the family is torn apart by the pressures of Nazism which often how critics have seen the film. The Essenbeck quarrels represent key conflicting currents and strands amongst the Weimar German elites.
The first section of The Damned shows events leading up to, during, and after an important family dinner taking place on the night of the Reichstag fire. The fire itself was interpreted by Visconti as a pretext - twice underlined by the film’s dialogue - for the Nazis to severely repress the Communists in particular in the remaining days coming up to the last ‘free’ election of the Weimar Republic’ in March. This is probably the case although there is no discovered direct evidence linking the Nazis to the fire according to Richard Evans (2003). The subsequent implosion of the Essenbeck family parallels the collapse of institutions in Germany as the Nazis pursued their policy of ‘Gleichshaltung’ or ‘co-ordination’, which was a reasonably pleasant sounding term for the total repression of potential political opposition within Germany. It also meant the taking over of the political institutions at local and regional level once total control at the centre had been achieved.
Cinematically there is a useful comparison to be made between the way in which family dinners are handled in The Leopard and in The Damned which features two dismal dinners. In The Leopard the dinner at the Prince’s residence in Donnafugata is a vehicle in which the possibilities for the processes of hegemony can take place. Tancredi first sees an adult Angelica (Claudia Cardinale ) and is smitten. Cinematically and socially the dinners in Visconti’s historical films function as a vehicle for integration and progressive change in The Leopard or disintegration and regression as in The Damned.
The Damned takes the viewer to the end of the period of Nazi ‘co-ordination’ finally finished by the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Famously this rally saw the making and release of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The rally was a follow up to the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ which took place at the end of June 1934. This action was centred around the political beheading of the Sturmabteilung or SA headed by Rohm who were agitating for a ‘Second Nazi Revolution’. After the full accession to power by Hitler in March 1933 and the take-over of the constitutional institutions by a carefully contrived fait accompli the SA were in the forefront of the fight against the Communists, Social Democrats and Trade Unionists who tried in the early days to offer some resistance to Hitler. They also played an integral role in the harassment of Jews, informally before April 1st 1933, and in an increasingly organised way afterwards, starting with a boycott of Jewish businesses on this date.
The Nuremberg rally which Riefenstahl filmed was not simply a propaganda stunt, it was a public declaration in the most powerful way possible backed by cinema to fully establish in the minds of the Nazi party itself that Hitler was the ‘Fuhrer’ and that the Germany was now united along its path to an historic future. The film which features the German Army as well as the SA and other Nazi organisations is the outcome of Hitler’s ideological cull. The presence of the German Army and its leader von Blomberg at the 1934 Nuremberg rally was symbolically immensely important for Hitler. The Nazis were reliant upon the army to achieve his long-term aims of ‘Lebensraum’ or colonial expansion mainly directed towards the east. By 1936 Hitler against the desires and advice of most capitalists and his economics minister and governor of the central bank Schacht was determined to pursue economic policies of rearmament. Overy argues that these policies were being carried out with the express intention of preparing Germany for a total war in which it could survive for up to 15 years.
It can now be seen that that Visconti has been very precise in the historical moment that he has chosen to represent. Nowell-Smith (2003) is surely right to note that the film operates on three levels of history, drama and myth. Nevertheless Nowell-Smith’s critical comments, like those of Bacon, do not exam the history closely enough. Instead they focus too closely upon the literary and the critical influences within the film at the expense of the historical process which is being represented. As a result they both tend to glide over an essential feature which Visconti certainly wished to represent. It is also important to note that the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis was itself an operatic trajectory in real life and it was intensely melodramatic. It is worth bearing in mind that Hitler was obsessed with Wagnerian opera. After defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 Hitler then eschews Wagner. For Visconti opera in such films as Senso could be represented as progressive liberal Italian nationalism albeit undermined by the ruling elites. Wagner by comparison was infused with a regressive Germanic 19th century romantic mysticism. Wagner was also intensely anti-Semitic. The Damned is thus open to a thorough reading of Visconti’s ideas on the role of opera in culture considering Verdi as progressive and Kultur through Wagner as regressive. However discussion of this is beyond the scope of this entry.
The Reichstag Fire
Visconti correctly picks the night of the Reichstag fire as an historical turning-point marking the beginning of the final collapse of Germany into its path of damnation - the outcomes of which are well documented by Rossellini’s ‘Germany Year Zero’ (1947). The first dialogue of Aschenbach ( the SS officer) and Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde) gives rise to a hint of something about to happen, in the entrance hall Aschenbach even more strongly signals that on this night in particular it will be important for Friedrich to act. It is clear that Aschenbach is in possession of some a priori knowledge. This is an invitation to murder Joachim the head of the family and the steel company. The prizes for Bogarde are Sophie and effective control of the company. The time for personal morality is dead states Aschenbach. The question at this stage is will Bogarde accept this Faustian pact?
The Reichstag Fire is announced by Konstantin the coarse and vulgar SA member of the family who also announces that the ‘culprit’ a communist has already been captured. The culprit in reality was captured on the site of the Reichstag trying to set alight yet more curtains. Van den Lubbe was not however a communist. He was an unemployed fairly deranged anarchist with bad visual impairment who had several years ago been flung out of the Dutch communist party for promoting arson and other acts of sabotage. As yet there is no precise historical evidence to definitively link the fire to a piece of agent provocatuerism on the part of the Nazis. However, we are asked to believe that this character in his physical state was easily able to break into the Reichstag without discovery only a few days after being released from a police force which was already thoroughly infiltrated by active Nazis as well as being controlled by the Nazis at the top. In reality the Nazis immediately arrested hundreds of Communists in Berlin and this carried on in the following days and weeks leading up to the election. It effectively ensured that the Communists couldn’t make an effective election campaign. By not banning the Communists outright Hitler ensured that their votes were unlikely to go to the Social Democrats. This fire effectively sealed the fate of Germany which Visconti was clearly well aware of.
Night of the Long Knives
The melodramatic themes of the film are carefully interwoven with a clever analysis of real events. The tour de force is the representation of the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, when the SS (Black-shirts) massacred the leadership of Eric Rohm’s SA (The Brownshirts). This was a crucial moment in the rise to power of the Nazis. The Brownshirts represented the mobster populist element upon which the Nazi party was based, this populist element represented the so-called ‘socialist’ element of the ‘NSDP’. It was an element that was unsympathetic towards large capitalist organisations seeing them as exploitative of the ‘little man’ and the petit-bourgeoisie. If Hitler was to take the final step to power then he was going to have to purge his party of these elements and reconfigure the basic ethos of his party. The leader of the SA Eric Rohm had a strong personal power base and had been a colleague of Hitler’s since the beginnings of the Nazi party and had been a member of the paramilitary Freikorps before that. The ‘Night of the Long Knives’ also saw the murder of other leading figures such as von Schleicher who had been the Conservative Chancellor before Hitler was manipulated into power by von Papen. It is important to note that the German army colluded in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Reichenau made the agreement with Himmler to keep the army confined to barracks during the 1934 Rohm Purge. After the event Reichenau even issued a statement justifying the murder of General von Schleicher. It was effectively the last major act in the reformation of the ruling elites but a formation that was now on the road to an even worse fate than befell Germany in the First World War. That was also a war which the Prussian military elites had encouraged.
The final step to power for the Nazi party was based upon a compromise between, on one side, Hitler and his closest allies in the Nazi party underpinned by the rise of the SS as an elite corps answerable only to Hitler. This dishonourable political marriage to gain power was made with the most powerful of the German industrialists many of whom were members of, or sympathetic to, the Nationalist party, which was small but highly influential amongst the upper classes of Germany. A prominent leader of this party was Hugenberg who not only took over UfA after its near bankruptcy but also became the Minister of Finance when the Nazis first won a majority in the Reichstag. Whilst the plot of Visconti’s film initially appears complex, the family of ‘misfits, powers seekers, and perverts’ as Bondanella describes the Essenbeck family which is loosely based upon the Krupps family can be read as a trope for the confused state of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Bondanella would probably not subscribe to a reading of this nature for he asserts that Visconti did not intend the film to be taken as a serious sociological or psychological reading of German culture in Weimar Germany.
Bondanella’s position also runs counter to Nowell-Smith’s final comments in his reading when he argues that ‘Visconti’s focus of interest has shifted from history as such, in the sense of a given set of events of which people are the agents, to culture in the sense of the objects which people have produced in history, to represent or to form part of the world they experience.’ (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 156).
Has Visconti's prior concern with history changed?
More on the issue of culture below, but firstly let us take the assertion that Visconti’s focus upon history as such has shifted. That the film is loosely based upon the Krupp family is important. It is well known that the head of Krupp wasn’t keen on the Nazis coming to power and it is certainly true that that the Krupp family had to make compromises to fit in with the demands of the Nazi regime. However it is important to note that the whole of the capitalist class was forced to do this as well. Visconti’s film is not a history of Nazi Germany it is a representation of the socio-political forces at work in the country in a very tight time-frame. If the Essenbecks are seen as representative not just of the Krupp family but as industrial capital within Germany in general then the perfidy, confusion betrayal and counter-betrayal makes more sense. It is important to note for example the example of Thyssen below and compare that with a brief outline of the Krupp family. In the film Martin can be seen as being close to the character of Alfred Krupp (see box below). The role of Herbert is more difficult to assess. Perhaps he should be seen as a portmanteau character who represents those in the ruling elites who recognise the fate which awaits Germany and leave. That Herbert reappears briefly because his family has been held hostage is also significant. Recent work on the Nazi Terror shows how the Gestapo went to great efforts to track down communists who left the country in the early 1930s, even those who were not especially important. These people were often used as sources of intelligence because their families were threatened with torture and the camps[i] . In reality the ruthlessness of the Nazis against former supporters is shown when the leading industrialist Thyssen and Schacht, the architect of early Nazi economic success both end up in concentration camps
One important concern is how to represent a period in which the KPD on Stalin’s orders had declared the German Social Democrat Party (SPD) ‘Social Fascists’. As much as anything this contributed to the rise to power of the Nazis when they achieved electoral success in 1933. At the time the film was made in Italy the communist party was still strongly allied to Moscow, it was only later in the 1970s that the cracks wrought by ‘Eurocommunism’ began to show. A critique of this nature would not have served Visconti well thus the working class as a class force in a Marxist sense disappear from view. Instead this is replaced by the bitter incestuous infighting in the grab for power by the elites.
By taking this artistic route Visconti was able to focus his critique upon the false hopes of redemption promoted by populism. Populism fails structurally to be a historical force able to liberate the socially excluded. The populists in the SA, like the working class nationalists in The Leopard meet their comeuppance. In The Leopard the bourgeoisie can still be seen a social force moving society forwards - in Marxist terms achieving their historical role. By comparison, at a time when modernity has become strongly installed in Europe and when the Weimar Republic represented one of the most advanced constitutions in the world the liberal bourgeoisie are forced out by a failure to connect socially or politically with the masses. Liberalism is subject to betrayal by unenlightened members of their own class who have tied their fortunes to Nazism as a mythological force doomed to failure. It is here that Visconti’s mise-en-scene described so well by Bondanella acts to signify this historically doomed trail up a one way street. The colour red comes to symbolise a hyperbolic and horrifying vision of a family embodying a corrupt culture that wilfully pulls the world down around its Ears’. (Bondanella, 2001, p 206).
The Role of Culture
Within Visconti’s notions of anthropomorphic cinema it is useful to discuss the role of culture and to consider culture in relation to civilisation. The stock question which always seems to be asked is ‘How can such a “cultured” nation have descended to the depths of such depravity?’ It enjoyed its cultural heritage this even down to enjoying to the greatest icons of European classical music such as the romantic lieder of Schubert and Beethoven symphonies after a busy day offloading Jewish deportees in the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Kultur for Germany has been associated with the ‘spirit of the nation’ unlike France and to some extent Italy which focused on ‘civilisation’ seen through German eyes as superficial and manneristic ‘feminised’ in the view of some. Bacon describes The Damned as a description of the ’utter negation of German culture’. The greatest success of Aschenbach was the winning over of Gunther (the cello playing son of Konstantin) to the evil of Nazism. Gunther can be seen as a synecdoche for the institutional liberal cultural establishment within Germany which makes its accommodation to Nazism. The likes of von Karajan for example spring to mind. Richard Evans 2003 gives a useful review of the cultural turn in post-Weimar Germany discussing some of these concerns. Bacon turns to George Steiner to try and provide some insight into this seeming cultural paradox. Steiner in a footnote comes up with an explanation which argues ‘If your brain, your nervous system, your imagination, your sensibility, your professional skills are completely and deeply invested in the great arts of the imagination and in abstract thought, speculation, instead of becoming more human, you may, unless you are terribly careful become less human...’ (Steiner cited Bacon 1998 p 240). For Steiner the paradox which arises it that there may be a desire for barbarism and also an indifference to barbarism. This, for Steiner, explains the capability of those in charge of the camps being able to play the cultural classics very, very well.
The other aspect of culture / entertainment which is represented is the cabaret. It is seen by all the observers as a culture of decadence which leads into perversion. As cabaret was strongly implicated with Jewish Bohemianism and Bohemian culture was seen in Nazi eyes as the degradation of the country associated with being non-German it was obviously rejected. The interruption of Martin’s performance and the subsequent walking out can be read as the filmic equivalent of marking the end of this culture. The grand walk out by the family could well be read as a marker of cultural pessimism of the kind espoused the likes of Spengler in his ‘Decline of the West’.
Martin is obviously incensed at this development, for it has been his rather feeble raison d’etre as someone entirely decadent. The film sees Martin changing from a lover of Bohemian decadence as a guilty cultural transgression into being able to take his place as a ‘richtige’ man. His paedophilia itself is a repressed desire for power at the start of the film, he isn’t a ‘real man’ he can only sing way about this in a self parodying way, dressed in a woman’s nightclub outfit at the start. By the end of the film he has reversed the tables over his viperous mother exercising his sexual power over her. Having driven her into a state of semi-madness he officiates over the marriage and death of Sophie and Friedrich. The bait of power left by Sophie has shifted from little girls to the capability of exercising any act without any sense of culpability whatsoever for Martin always displayed the amoralism desired by Aschenbach. Aschenbach has found his ‘willing executioner’ who can act with pleasure. This is unlike the purely selfish motives with which ‘the Macbeths' (Sophie and Friedrich ) conduct their heinous crimes. Martin will clearly revel in orchestrating millions of deaths. If Aschenbach is imagined as the ‘banality of evil’ as as Hannah Arendt has mistakenly described the organiser of the Holocaust [i] then the pure nastiness of Martin seems rather closer to that of the Nazi executioner Heydrich. Martin had something to keep hidden but is represented at the end of the film as the face of evil.
Visconti has chosen to represent this important historical period in a very clever dramatised way. The film is neither a historicisation of psychology nor is it, as Micciche argues, a psychologisation of history. That Martin, for example, is an example of the worm that turns is a comment upon how Nazism learned to appeal to the weak through an ‘armoured strength’ propping up masculinity in crisis provided by the unremitting structures of Nazi power [i] . This psychoanalytical approach begins to make sense of the tendency of directors such as Rossellini to over exaggerate the evils of Nazism by de-masculinising them. Roma Citta Aperta and Germany Year Zero feature Nazis as gay, lesbian and paedophilic. These outcasts could become a part of that discourse of power safe in its solidarity. There was no morality except that of service to a greater notion of the Nazi ideal provided by the almost godlike figure of the Fuhrer. Visconti has shown how ruthless the Nazi party was in pursuing its ends. It played upon class weakness, personal weakness and manufactured situations in which it could take advantage at both these levels of weakness.
Visconti of course used technical artifice such as the use of colour and mise en scene to make the film partly a melodrama. But at its heart it never seemed to veer from the position of anthropomorphic cinema. None of the characters were exact representations of real characters of the moment, they were portmanteau characters crystallising certain currents and tendencies in a way which managed to universalise from the specific precisely because the film was removed from the constraints of being documentary realism into an operatic / melodramatic register. Thus, it is possible to agree with Bacon that by interweaving these strands the film shows that the historical forces which led to the rise of Nazism can rise again, a fact witnessed by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Rwanda and during the break-up of Yugoslavia.
When it comes to a question of culture this film is especially interesting for Visconti is exploring the nature of the relationship of culture to politics. High art and culture when it is taken out of its context is no guarantor of civilisation. The Gods (Hitler) are kept in the twilight but are seen as directly responsible for the downfall of society, the Wagnerian dreams far from the trends of modernising society are trashed for they can only be regressive. Visconti doesn’t offer the viewer any pleasant futures for we already know the future of Germany. Instead the film functions as a route towards an explanation provided by history for the possibilities of a dystopian future not only for Germany.
This analysis by taking two of Visconti’s most developed historical films seeks to explore whether there is a clear structural link between Visconti’s explorations of history through culture and culture through history. I have argued that there are strong grounds for rethinking Visconti’s oeuvre as part of a more coherent framework than is currently recognised. By re-categorising his work away from the Risorgimento / German binary which has been critically established this analysis can be pursued further by revisiting his other ‘German’ films Death in Venice and Ludwig. Visconti is trying to explore through the cultural framework how European society managed to implode triggered by start of the First World War leading to a European Thirty Years war. At an international level this war functioned as the completion of a process in which empires as they were previously known largely disappeared in the following few years. They were now clearly redundant and a new dynamic force in the shape of the USA had replaced the old orders. Arguably the USA is the absent other which came to thrive out of the chaos and decadence of a Europe which had gone past its ‘sell by date’. Visconti chose to examine this process using the works of Thomas Mann and the drama of Chekhov through a Lukacsian based filter. Here, the best realist work can be seen to be representative of the processes underlying socio-economic change in society through their characterisations in ways unrecognised even by the authors. But Visconti’s theoretical concerns also lead to a blending of Gramscian Marxism with Luckasian Marxism in ways which will be fruitful to explore further for Lukacs of course made his own famous contribution to thinking about history in History and Class Consciousness however that is a task beyond the limits of this article.
Visconti’s The Leopard and The Damned are probably the two best films ever made about history from a Marxist perspective. More work remains to be done in revising the rest of his later works from this perspective. This article parts company with Nowell-Smith by reading Visconti as being thoroughly imbricated with history. The article also parts company with Bacon by insisting that rather than being a liberal democrat in his later years Visconti‘s primary concern is to be exploring the processes of history at a very deep level. Visconti should be taken at face value when he argued that he was interested in analysing a sick society. That he chose to do so using some of the great works of European fiction within a realist mode should not detract from his project. The analysis here provides evidence that Visconti was working on a great project pursued steadily through his work. This project was driven by combining Gramscian and Lukacsian insights developing his own contribution to critical analysis and artistic representation which was the concept of anthropomorphic cinema.
Below are some links to separate positings about important historical people in Nazi Germany who Visconti has explicity or implicitly represented in The Damned:
Heydrich, Reinhard (1904 - 1942).
Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, Alfred (1907-1967)
Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, Gustav (1870-1950).
Lubbe, Marianus van den (1909-1934)
Reichenau, Walter von (1884-1942)
Thyssen Fritz (1873-1951)
Bacon, Henry. 1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bondanella, Peter. 3rd edition. 2002. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.
Cesarani, David. Eichman : His Life and Crimes. Heinemann 2004.
Clark, Martin. 1984. Modern Italy 1871-1982. London: Longman
Evans, Richard J. 2003. The Coming of the Third Reich. London: Penguin /
Fischer, Klaus P. 1995. Nazi Germany a New History. London: Constable
Johnson, Eric. 2002. The Nazi Terror: Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans. London: John Murray
Mommsen, Hans. 2003. Alternatives to Hitler. London: I. B. Tauris
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 3rd edition. Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute
Overy, R. D. 1995. War and Economy in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Taylor, Richard. 1998. Film Propaganda Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. London: I. B. Tauris
Wheal, Donald James and Shaw Warren. 1997. The Penguin Dictionary of the Third Reich. London Penguin
Germany Year Zero (1947) Rossellini
The Damned (1969) Visconti
The Leopard (1962) Visconti
Triumph of the Will (1934) Riefenstahl
Please note these sites were not used in the writing of this article they are being provided for visitor information only.
THE DAMNED (LA CADUTA DEGLI DEI) BBC 4 Page
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF COUNT LUCHINO VISCONTI . A BBC 4 Arena program it is the best available documentary in English on Visconti. I believe it is available as an extra on one of the BFI Visconti films.
Visconti's Cinema of Twilight by Maximilian Le Cain on the Senses of Cinema site. This is a runmination on Visconti's ouvre in general but has a couple of intersting comments on the Damned. immediately below he comments on the cinematic technique of the constructio of a disorienting cinematic space to emphasise change in the social order. Thiws seems a pertinent reading.
The disorientating violence of the zooms in The Damned literally pulls the space out from around the characters, enveloping them in a panicky state of alienation from their surroundings which are changing too fast. This constant spatial disintegration reflects the insecurity of the often ruthless characters' scrabble for power in the crucible of a new and very dangerous society. (Maximilian Le Cain).
I am less convinced by another of Le Cain's comments below. The article above argues that the later films wern't just personal projects and that a deep level of politics THROUGH historical analysis was embedded in all his films. Whilst one might choose to make a reading of The Damned as a comment upon the developing political instabilities of Italy at the time it needs to be argued not asserted as it is in this article:
the committed communist Visconti was adamant that all his previous films were in some way political. The Damned, although set during Hitler's rise to power, represented a despairing comment on the events of 1968 after which the director gave up political filmmaking to concentrate on purely personal projects. (Maximilian Le Cain)
The sort of comments represented by this review in DVD Times are precisely the ones which this article argues against. Lured by surface and Nazis for Dummies kind of history it can sound convincing until the detail is worked through. It does represent those who feel that soemhow Nazism and the Holocaust have to be treated with a reverential attitude which is entirely linked to naturalism. This ironic given Hitler's propensity to melodrama.
The New York Times review By VINCENT CANBY Published: December 19, 1969. This is lovely review which is refreshing and open to the experience of the time. Gaining information about the reception of films in their contemporary settings usually enriches our understandings.
May 28, 2007
The Historical Context of The Leopard, (1963):director Luchino Visconti
Visit analyses of Visconti's other historical film: Senso and The Damned
Visconti needs to be recognised as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century. Visconti's aesthetic approach is fascinating and other themes such as homosexuality are very important to his oeuvre but it is the way in which Visconti develops these themes within an overarching intellectual framework which I think will ultimately lead to a wider recognition of his greatness. Some of Visconti's greatness stems from his treatment of history itself. Something which Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has commented upon:
It is in the quality of his meditation on history that Visconti distinguishes himself from all other film-makers, past or present. There have been great film-makers who have occasionally delved into the past for one reason or another... But none of these, not even Eisenstein, applies to his re-creation of the past a serious and thought through theory of history... Perhaps it is because we no longer expect movie-makers to be profound thinkers that Visconti's greatness is no longer appreciated as it should be. (Nowell-Smith 2003, p 216)
Sometimes it is only in retrospect that true greatness can be appreciated. Even Nowell-Smith one of the most important commentators writing in English on Visconti admits that his original criticism of Death in Venice missed many things of importance. If only all critics could be so honest about their errors accordingly.
Introduction: The representation of history
This posting functions only as a brief synopsis and introduction to Visconti’s film The Leopard (1963). a full synopsis will be provided in a different posting. This posting is primarily concerened with establishing the background history to the film and providing an analysis based upon this. This piece was part of a presentation which argues that The Leopard can be bracketed with The Damned (1979). Taken as a pair of films I argue that amongst other things Visconti is seeking to examine the limited modernising role of Liberalism through its use of nationalism and the contradictory nature of this Liberalism which always has the potential to revert into a non-modernising political formation through nationalism. The Damned and its representation of Nazism epitomises this potential.
Nationalism for Visconti on this reading is therefore within a doomed or even negative dialectic in which the progressive impetus originally embedded within Nationalism as a political force which could overthrow the Ancien Regime will become compromised by that regime and ultimately become a reactionary force within society.
My presentation argued that the two films can usefully be compared as representing the flawed highpoint of 19th century Liberal / National revolutions The Risorgimento through The Leopard whilst The Damned shows the ultimate dangers of nationalism through the barbarism of Nazism. Thus Visconti has framed an important period of European history in a bracket of attitudes to nationalism. Many of his future films sought to combine a cultural and political historical approach to this period eschewing historical approaches which tend to separate the two strands of history. For Visconti it appears as though they are strongly intertwined.
Frequently the reviews of these films largely miss the exploration of the mechanisms of history which Visconti was keen to represent and at times are considered firstly as 'heritage' films as in the case of The Leopard. Heritage films are reliant upon costume drama for their mise en scene set in an historical period different to our own but make little or no claims upon historical authenticity neither do they examine the mechanisms of history.
By comparison The Damned has been understood as a slightly aberrant and 'melodramatic' exploration into the sexual depravities surrounding Nazism in The Damned. This does the film an injustice by dehistoricising it.
Garibaldi's Redshirts at the battle for Palermo
Visconti is renowned for his attention to detail. These shirts were soaked in tea and left in the sun in order to replicate the fading of the originals which would have happened during the course of the campaign.
Historical Background to The Leopard
Visconti made two historical films about the period of the Risorgimento (This translates as Resurgence / Rebirth) which is the process of the unification of Italy during the 19th century. The first stirrings of nationalism can be discerned as early as the late 18th century during the period when Napoleon Bonaparte governed Italy. The overthrow of Napoleon led to Italy being carved up at the Congress of Vienna (1815) when the great powers allotted the regions of Venetia and Lombardy to direct control of Austria to ensure that France didn’t have an easy invasion route into Italy again.
Before Napoleon Italy had never been a unified state. It was comprised of eight separate regions with their own Princes (The Pope controlling the Papal States) and each area with a distinctive dialect, rather than a regional accent, which many can still speak today. As a language Italian was underdeveloped and certainly didn’t exist as a form of ‘Received’ language and pronunciation.
After the Congress of Vienna a number of secret societies formed called the Carbonari (Charcoal Burners). They weren’t especially well educated, neither was there a clear manifesto, and the elements comprising this movement were fairly heterogeneous. They were loosely linked by a desire to unify Italy and get rid of foreign powers although whether the Italy of their dreams should be a widely enfranchised democracy or just a liberal bourgeois regime united behind a constitutional monarch was an underlying polarisation which was to continue throughout the whole of the unification process. The unification process was drawn out not being completed until 1870.
There are a range of historical perspectives on the Risorgimento which were strongly political. Visconti was well aware of these and was making his films in such a way as to challenge right wing nationalist views on the period.
The key historiographical positions which have developed are usefully outlined by Martin Clark 1984 who also stresses that historical writing in Italy is very clearly ‘committed’ ‘to cheer on their own team’. Much historical writing is then hagiographic, or denunciatory, or ‘Whig’.
They have tended to be dominant within academia. Their major influence has been taken from Benedetto Croce with an ‘ethico-political’ approach. Croce stressed men and ideas and spent little time on either social structures or economic issues. In the 1950s historians like Rosario Romeo opened up the economic history arena challenging the Marxist historians of the time. Liberals like others, suggests Clark, have moved towards an overemphasis upon documents and ‘facts’ rather than interpretation and synthesis.
Another leading school was mentored by Salvemini and Gobbetti. Denis Mack Smith a British historian is their best known exponent. They are anti-Facist, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and to some extent anti-Liberal. This is because they criticise weakness of liberal governments, lack of popular support and a a ready acceptance of Southern corruption. Radicals are ‘delightfully pessimistic’ (whatever that is meant to mean) don’t write ‘total history’ but do reach a huge audience.
Clark argues that this school has been perhaps the most influential since 1945. Grouped around the journal Studi Storici . The main influence upon this group has been Gramsci whose work was published in Italy in 1945 after the end of the war. Gramsci’s main influence has been on the examination of the development of hegemony and consensus as a governing practice oiling the wheels of social change. Furthermore, the role of the intellectual as a disseminator of ideas of social change was emphasised. Gramsci also focused on the political importance of the peasantry as well.
Clark suggests that this school of Marxist thought had its limitations for they were ‘strangely uninterested in class divisions’. For them working class history usually meant a history of working class leaders. ‘Abstract entities , like proletariats and petty bourgeois, filled their pages; real workers and peasants rarely appeared, much less details of factory work, labouring skills or farming implements’. One can compare this attitude to that of British historians influenced by Marxism such as Hobsbawm and E. P Thompson).
Visconti’s Risorgimento Films: Senso (1954) / The Leopard (1963)
Visconti produced two films about the Risorgimento. At the time he made these the main historiographical perspectives were as outlined above. As a Marxist he was by now strongly influenced by Gramsci but also some of the work of the Radicals such as Gobbetti. His film Senso was strongly attacked by the army and there was a huge battle with censorship as well as with the producers. Even the final product went down as a political storm for it was very critical about the dominant way in which the Risorgimento was being represented.
Between 1949 & 1954 there were twelve films with the Risorgimento as their central theme made. Only Senso made a critique of the dominant position which was that Italian Unification had been brought by a spirit of self sacrifice. That passions were high on this subject as well as an underlying need to represent a united Italy following the take-over by Christian Democrats in 1948 is evidenced by the critical reception by one Italian historian of Dennis Mack’s (Radical) Italy a Modern History (1959) a few years later. ‘ The Risorgimento was not due to fortunate circumstances or to selfish interests ... It was a spirit of sacrifice, it was suffering in the way of exile and in the galleys, it was the blood of Italian youth on the battlefields ... It was the passion of a people for its Italian identity’. (quote taken from an ‘A’ level textbook and naughtily not sourced).
Senso was about the victory of the Austrians over the Italian army near Custoza (June 1866). Due to general mismanagement and incompetence based upon a story by Boito which recounts the infidelities of a Countess both to her husband and to the nationalist cause by falling for an Austrian officer. Visconti’s adaptation was very different but incomplete because of censorship. The historical reality was that France had made different secret deals with both Prussia and Austria by then at war with each other. In both cases Napoleon III promised to remain neutral provided that the winners passed Venetia firstly to him and with the understanding that it would then be passed to the Italian kingdom which had come about in 1861. In reality the Prussian victory at Sadowa meant that Venetia was passed to France and thence to Italy without the Italians being able to win it, much to the chagrin of the Italians.
This story wasn’t what was required at the time the film was made. It would have had contemporary resonances of the Allies being the primary liberators of Italy and undermine the myths of resistance and national solidarity which were being strongly promoted. As the Communists had been cut out of government by then there were clearly strong underlying political stakes. Senso is probably best seen as a cultural political intervention within the politics of the moment.
The Leopard is a less melodramatic film in the English sense of the term but it is deeply suffused with a sense of history at the meta level. Visconti manages to combine a range of intellectual influences into this film which perhaps will come in due course to gain the full recognition it deserves. It is informed by Marx and Gramsci at the level of history as well as by Lukacs whose sense of realism revolves around the character type. For Lukacs this means a character who is someone entirely of their class but who embodies the contradictions of history most fully.
Without once representing the working and peasant classes as a fundamental force of progress The Leopard combines a deep level of class analysis with an understand of the contradictory forces of history. The Prince understands along with Don Calogero, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) and of course Tancredi (Alain Delon) that Italy is at a turning point. Tancredi’s youth, dandyism and vigour as well as being a nephew from a more impoverished branch of the aristocracy thus slightly outside of the establishment have led him to understand that the invasion of Garibaldi’s 1,000 in Sicily gives him an opportunity to break away from the static society of Sicily where his only hope for the future would be marriage to the shy Concetta his cousin and daughter of the Prince. This would perpetuate the physical and cultural inbreeding of the Sicilian gentry which, Visconti implies, is gradually sapping the elite of its vigour.
Tancredi quickly persuades his uncle the Prince of Salina that everything must change on the surface so that fundamental social relations don’t change. There is no loyalty to the new young King of Naples who has failed to respond positively to the winds of change emanating from Piedmont and who is effectively allied with Austria. Tancredi is attracted to the romanticism and panache of the adventurist Garibaldian ‘Redshirts’. The Prince even gives him some money to help him on his way. The Prince has quickly realised that the fundamental social order will not be changed in a revolutionary manner but that a reordering of sorts is necessary in order for his class to survive.
The Prince has an important discussion with the priest in his study surrounded by telescopes. These function as a metaphor for farsightedness, they are redolent of Galileo and his relationship to the Church, and they establish the Prince as a man of Enlightenment, an intellectual. This is contrasted with the house of another of the Sicilian aristocracy where the ball scene is held at the end of the film.
Here the Prince and his family are greeted on their arrival by the inhabitants of his summer retreat in Donnafugata.
The film shifts to the fighting in Palermo where the Redshirts win. The film moves to the Prince’s summer residence in Donnafugata away from the hotter Palermo area. They have already gained a travel permit from the Garibaldians. Many of the Garibaldian officers are from a similar class background to Tancredi. Tancredi’s position as a captain in the Garibaldian army allows them to get through a roadblock whilst the peasants are noticeably not allowed to pass. This is a clear indicator of the social limits of the revolution against the Bourbons.
In Donnafugata the processes by which a new social elite is recomposed from a mixture of old and new elements is represented. Don Calogero is the mayor and a scheming businessman who like a Hyena preys upon the needs of a distressed aristocracy, buying up some of their lands when they are desperate for some cash to support their old ways of living. Throughout the film Don Calogero is portrayed as a man who is Dickensian in many ways knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Don Calogero has a beautiful daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) who he introduces into polite society when invited with other petit bourgeois locals to dinner with the Prince. Sexually and erotically Tancredi is swept of his feet much to the disgust of Concetta who wants Tancredi. The prince goes into the background of Angelica’s family and quickly realises that Angelica would be a suitable match for Tancredi and vows to help him.
Here Tancredi has been courting Angelica in an old part of the Prince's palace. Angelica is playing hard to get. As a potential member of the rising bouregois class allied to the aristocracy she knows her virginity is a key part of her road to success. She is clearly not interested in having an illegitimate child with a member of the local aristocracy. Here mise en scene, in which actor performance is an essential part, has been raised by Visconti's direction to a level in which the history of class and sexuality in terms of power and history is literally embodied in a single scene.
To do this he has to overcome the protestations of both his wife and don Ciccio the Church organist who is an honest and faithful loyalist to the now deposed Bourbon dynasty. It is he who makes it clear to the Prince that the plebiscite in October 1860 was rigged by Don Calogero. The Prince is determined to make it as easy as possible for Tancredi and overrides these protestations. It is the Prince who has the foresight to be able to act in the interests of his class.
It is important to make a voluntary match of a dynamic couple bringing in new blood as well as money for his fortune must already be split seven ways. A match with Concetta would not be a happy one. The Prince also recognises that a match with another of
Throughout Visconti makes it plain that ‘being in love’ is more of a social mechanism than a permanent state of being. Throughout the film Concetta cannot get over Tancredi although he has never signalled any direct intentions towards her. She turns down other opportunities, and towards the end Angelica tells her that she needs to be more pragmatic and change her views. Concetta is stuck in a demure Catholicised torpor and shows none of the flirtatious dynamism required of Angelica if she is to make the grade in the new society. Concetta represents the fading world of the aristocracy of the past whilst Tancredi backed by the Prince recognises the mechanisms of social change and the need to adapt to survive.
Although many make a point of the Prince’s tiredness and awareness of death it is as a synecdoche of a fading class. The other family members are also highlighted like this at the ball for when the Prince is rejuvenated by his dance with Angelica; Concetta, her brother and mother look on totally enervated. They don’t appear to have the vibrancy to take a full place in the developing new Italy. By comparison just as the Prince is leaving the ball Tancredi tells him that he is going to be a candidate for the new government in Turin.
A role in government of the new order is something that the Prince recognises he cannot become involved in even when he is offered a place in the senate by Chevalley who is a representative of the Liberal regime under King Victor Emmanuel II. The Prince isn’t temperamentally trained or suited to making legislation and he also recognises that he is a part of the old order and someone who is sympathetic to it. Chevalley is disappointed and astounded, he is a Liberal idealist and he doesn’t at all like the suggestion of Segaro (Don Calogero) who he knows to be totally opportunistic and unscrupulous taking a political position. Nothing will change he argues. When Chevalley leaves the Prince famously comes out with the statement that the Lions and Leopards (the Aristocrats) will be replaced by Hyenas and Jackals. This is a reference to don Calogero’s abilities to gradually pick off the weaker aristocracy by gaining their land and then a weaker aristocrat (Tancredi) by marrying into the status (symbolic capital of the aristocracy). It was something that Visconti was familiar with from his own background.
Visconti’s representation of the Risorgimento
The film continuously critiques the myth of the Risorgimento as a homogenous struggle of the popular masses. It was a myth which the Italian centre and rightwing had long promoted and their resistance had led to Senso running foul of the censors. In The Leopard Tancredi and his officer friends who were Garibaldians have by the winter following their victory in Palermo changed their uniforms from Garibaldi’s Redshirts to being officers in the new Piedmontese army. They reappear at Donnafugata after November 1860 when Garibaldi would have entered Naples in triumph accompanying King Victor Emmanuel.
It was at this time that Garibaldi was offered the rank of Major General along with various privileges. These he turned down as he thought that his Redshirts were being badly treated by the Victor Emmanuel. Tancredi now represents the ruling elites who had been incorporated into the official forces. Some critics such as Bacon, have seen Tancredi as opportunistic ‘whereas Tancredi’s portrayal is nothing if not critical , that of the prince is quite the opposite...’ (p 94).
However Tancredi made clear at the outset that his allegiance was to Victor Emmanuel and that he was only a Garibaldian volunteer because there was no other option. The Prince has always understood the contradictions. In historical reality those who marched with Garibaldi were never an homogenous political grouping representing only a loose political alliance. Many Mazzinian republicans fought with Garibaldi working to a more radical agenda than Garibaldi would have supported.
It was another factor which caused the mistrust of Garibaldi amongst the elites as well as his adventurist approach in general. I argue that Tancredi is entirely true to his class position. By recognising that his material position isn’t good he is acting in both his own as well as his class interests this is why the Prince of Salina is supporting him. Concetta is entirely unable to understand the social and class dynamics of events. When Tancredi says that the rabble who deserted to support Garibaldi were justly to be executed Concetta rightly turns on him and says he wouldn’t have talked like that earlier, but no officer of any military force is going to look favourably upon mutiny.
The Prince’s class needs people on the inside and the fact that Angelica recognises the role of the Prince while they are dancing reinforces the point.
Garibaldi’s adventurism is commented upon in the Ball sequence for there the regular officers of the new Army of the now King of Italy, (Victor Emmanuel was crowned King of Italy in 1861), are talking about the Battle of Aspromante which happened in 1862.
The battle was between regular government troops and Garibaldi who had started a march on Rome from
This could lead to a false sentimentality for Garibaldi amongst audiences. Garibaldi himself was no radical politically. Despite appealing to the Sicilian peasantry by supporting land reform in the few weeks that he was in direct control of
Where the film functions well is in showing how the state was prepared to act very firmly in the interests of Liberalism which had clear strategic aims and an agenda. Adventurists like Garibaldi tied to an idealist concept of Nationalism were not the people who were going to develop and embed the new political order. A period of stability was required to consolidate and Garibaldi was stopped.
Here the Prince (Burt Lancaster) dances with Claudia Cardinale (Angelica) at the ball which takes approximately 40 minutes of the end of the film. It functions amongst other things as a public recognition of angelica as an arrivant. The scene cuts to the rest of the family watching the couple dance, with Concetta and her mother looking faded and draw. Again it is Visconti's use of mise en scene which encapsulates class relations and the underlying dynamics in an instant. This is part of the genius of Visconti.
Overall The Leopard makes it clear that nationalism as ‘the passion of a people for its Italian identity’ was never a reality. The Sicilian peasants needed deep seated social reforms. Visconti makes it implicitly clear rather than explicit that the rising power of the Jackals would do nothing to change the poverty which was endemic under the Bourbons. Chevalley represents modern social thinking which argues that good quality social administration would increase the lot of the poor. This was a position which was enacted for the first time under Bismarck of course. Visconti when interviewed later is firm on the point that his ‘pessimism’ within the film by not showing the rising peasantry leaves the intellectual space to imagine that something far greater than mere national unification is needed if social inequality is to be eradicated.
Elsewhere I will be posting an analysis of The Leopard combined with Visconti’s treatment of Nazism in The Damned (1969). In this I argue that Visconti has deliberately explored the failures of European Liberalism to be able to deliver the promise of social progress through a route which is dependent upon nationalism. It is nationalism which is ultimately irreconcilable with social progress and in its Liberal formulation is doomed to a failure marked by barbarism. Visconti by treating the Risorgimento as the highpoint of Liberal Nationalism is able to contrast it to the depths plumbed by Nazism. Interestingly revolutions of both a progressive and a regressive nature tend to eat their children, a point made by Zizek in his foreward to the recently reprinted book by Adorno In Search of Wa,gner (Verso, 2005):
Is not the key paradox of every revolutionary process, in the course of which not only is violence needed to overcome the existing violence, but the revolution, in order to stabilise itself into a New Order, has to eat its children. (Zizek, Slavoj, 2005 p xxvi).
This is something which Visconti clearly seems to understand for the closing scenes of The Leopard feature the sounds of the exectution of radical Garibaldians who have their opposite numbers in the slaughter of the SA in the 'Night of the Long Knives' which he depicts more openly in The Damned.
Link to Tales of a Festival site with link to live Visconti interview en francais!
Link to Buffalo film Seminar Series on The Leopard. contains extracts from both Nowell-Smith and Bondanella on the film.
For other internal links see:
April 03, 2007
Comedy Part 1: Comedy Conventions
Initially comedy seems to be a very easy genre to deal with, most people like ‘amusing’ films, however, one person’s sense of humour is another person’s misery. From the perspective of genre the ability to appeal to a wide range of people to gain financial success means that it is a very difficult genre to do well, either as a genre in itself or as an aspect of a multi-generic or hybrid generic film. What constitutes comedy and the comic is complex. Film comedy is frequently a genre hybrid. Comedy can be made as; ‘black comedy’ with a bleak sense of humour; it can be reliant upon slapstick, gags or sharp-edged satire; it may be parodic of other cinematic conventions.
Comedies frequently rely far less than most other genres upon standardised narrative devices. A study of how the comedy genre operates throws the issue of narrative into sharp relief. The diversity of these comic forms is covered in part one of this three part section on comedy.
Part two examines narrative and its functioning within comedy. Part three looks at how comedy can act as a release of social tensions through well-managed social transgression, and also considers how comedy can function as a critique of social reality in a way which other genres can find difficult to do.
The diversity of comic forms means that a single definition of comedy is insufficient. The criterion of laughter isn’t enough to define a film as a comedy. This is because comedy is widely used in other genres for momentary effects. Think of the rather deadpan comic aspects of the Terminator films for example. These effects are a feature of the films rather than the central purpose. The Terminator films can’t be defined as SF-comedy. The term ‘comic’ means the ability to cause laughter. Even a real event can be comic. ‘Comedy’ is an aesthetic term with two distinct meanings:
The Oxford Concise Dictionary definition is : ‘Comedy, n. Stage-play of light, amusing and often satirical character, chiefly representing everyday life, & with happy ending (cf. TRAGEDY);’ The key meanings here are: ‘Amusing’ and ‘A happy ending’.
Notably the word laughter isn’t mentioned in this definition although the expression ‘amusing’ can be seen as a partial synonym for laughter but it expresses far more than this.
Social Class , Comedy and Comic Conventions
Historically both the content and the structure of comedy have tended to have a class bias. As far as content is concerned, where the upper classes are represented it is in their more private or trivial aspects of life. The enormous political power of these elites allied to the control of land, industry and the effects of this power on most people’s lives is ignored. Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002) can be considered as comic from this point of view.
In comedy note the importance of creating a happy ending and also the representation of everyday life which was normally concerned with the middle and lower orders of society.
A happy ending is a convention usually coexistent with other conventions, such as the constant generation of laughter through funny lines and situations. Where films have only brief funny moments but with a happy end both the film’s concerns and the structure can be close to the genre ‘we tend to think of as melodrama’ (Neale & Krutnik,199: 13). Under this criterion we can consider Thelma and Louise and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) as melodrama crossing -over with screwball comedies which are comedies about the 'battle of the sexes'.
The majority of comedy films can be seen as being genre hybrids. About a Boy ( 2002 ), The Full Monty, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting, Shallow Grave (1995) range through a number of genre hybrid combinations from romantic comedies, to ‘black’ comedies. They have strong narratives as a vehicle for comic aspects. The stronger the narrative the more the film takes on either multi-generic or hybrid generic aspects.
Historical Aspects of Comedy
Originating in high bourgeois theatre from the late 18th century there has been a link between comedy and melodrama creating a tradition of ‘sentimental’ comedy. It was a hybrid genre which emerged in several European countries featuring characters of a lower rank than those suitable for tragedy. A major aim was to encourage the audiences to identify with the characters and to weep on their behalf rather than to laugh at them. In France this was called comedie larmoyante or tearful comedy. Neo-classical theory made a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ comedy thus denigrating non-narrative forms of comedy. There are two fundamental divisions in the field of comedy as a whole. These are the criterion of the happy ending and the criterion of laughter. Narrative forms of comedy must have a happy ending and can have laughter. Non-narrative forms of comedy are only comedy through the criterion of laughter. Stand-up comics such as Ali-G and Paul Merton use non-narrative techniques of comedy.
Narrative comedy has a clear beginning, middle and end revolving around a definite plot. Non-narrative types of comedy just aim to create laughter with the plot a feeble device to act as a vehicle for a continuous stream of gags and slapstick such as Borat.
Comedy was very popular in early cinema which was a media form which appealed primarily to the working class mass audience. This situation changed as film technology and film-making techniques became more sophisticated. The use of narrative as a standard vehicle for comedy developed. Frequently the less sophisticated the audience the weaker the plot, and the narrative structure. Films such as Monty Python and Blazing Saddles (1971) break down this class based comedy by operating at a range of levels from slapstick to parody which depends upon a good level of cultural knowledge so that the audiences can understand the references.
Comedy and Comic Conventions in Cinema
‘Comedy’ as an aesthetic term has two distinct kinds of meaning. It can refer to the genre as a whole. Alternatively it can refer to particular works - Some Like it Hot. (1959).
The use of the indefinite article ‘a’ tends to imply a narrative form; The TV sitcom the Royale Family is comedy rather than a comedy, because it is non-narrative being based upon a continuous invariant location - the front room in front of the TV. This is a comedic form specific to broadcast media which can concentrate on series production.
The generation of laughter can mark all forms as comedy. It can also mark all genres which leads to a considerable amount of genre hybridity. Hitchcock’s North by North West (1959) can be seen as a comedy-thriller for example.
Generic hybridization should be distinguished from parody. In contrast to generic hybrids, which combine generic conventions, parodies work by drawing upon other conventions to make us laugh.
Parody need not necessarily be comic. When it is comic and occurs within the context of a comedy, laughter is consistently produced by gags and funny lines which specifically use as their raw material the conventions of the genre involved. Blazing Saddles for example isn’t a Western with comic elements or a comedy-western but a comedy which relies upon a knowledge of the Western amongst the audience to work effectively.
Parody is a mode or way of doing comedy, not a form. Parody has its own techniques and methods but no particular form or structure. It can occur within a narrative feature film, a comedy sketch, a quasi-documentary. Parody is one of a number of modes available to comedy. Slapstick and satire are other modes.
Satire works to mock and attack. Sometimes prevailing norms are attacked in the name of other non-dominant social values. For example M*A*S*H uses democratic and humanitarian values to measure the undemocratic and inhumane practices used in the war being fought in Korea. The Korean war was long over but M*A*S*H had strong contextual relevance  as an analogy to the Vietnam war which was going on at the time. It stood against the self-professed norms of the US military and governmental establishment and also of war itself.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) attacked the inhuman values of modern industrial society ‘in the name of disappearing values it associates with pre-industrial life especially rural life.
Examples of films reliant upon satirisation are Muriel’s Wedding which can be described as a satire of small-town life and as a satire upon the social institution of marriage. One reason why parody can be confused with satire is that parody can be used for satirical purposes. The actual process of Muriel’s ‘white wedding’ can be seen as a parody of the aesthetics of a typical white wedding. The audience, Muriel along with her Bridegroom and the Groom’s coach all recognise that the arrangement is not a real wedding. It is purely a business arrangement which is convenient for different reasons for both parties. The aestheticisation of the wedding, which could have been done quickly in a registry office, is a parodic form which serves to satirise the stifling small-town ritual of white weddings prized by Muriel’s peer group.
Thelma and Louise satirises men and masculinity and the role they play in women’s lives. In analyses of audience response the film was popular amongst male viewer’s who didn’t associate themselves with the absurdity of the stereotyped male characters. Thelma’s husband is satirised as being generally incompetent using a gag comic convention of literally putting his foot in it as he steps on a pizza answering the police. The truck-driver is successfully satirised as his masculine fantasies literally go up in smoke. Both are made to look stupid. The police officer who stops Thelma and Louise for speeding is on the other hand parodic, stretching back to the policeman in dark Oakley’s striding ominously up to the victim in a long line of films from Psycho (1960) to Terminator 2. The policeman’s unceremonious bundling into the boot satirises through parody this version of institutionalised masculinity.
Slapstick is another mode of comedy that can be found in a very diverse range of forms. The origins of the term stem from a type of prop which were a pair of paddles to create a lot of noise with minimum danger. This marked violent comic action of the kind to be found in pantomime, circus and ‘low’ forms of farce. The physical plus visual qualities of slapstick were crucial in the early comedy of the silent period. Slapstick is valued for the populist foundation of its aesthetic. Slapstick is inappropriate and inadequate as a vehicle for romance or its fulfilment. It lacks a plot structure that is capable of taking romance seriously. Narrative comedy can accommodate slapstick but the reverse isn’t the case.
The term can apply to any kind of visual comic effect. They can involve a comic effect like a ‘pratfall’ where somebody falls over. In Life is Beautiful (1998), perhaps the darkest of ‘black comedies’, Guido falls off his bike into Dora for example. At the beginning of the film there are a variety of gags which lead the viewer to think that this is comedy which is pure farce as the brakes fail leading the car past a reception for royalty. Gags can be a part of the narrative or else entirely incidental to it. Thelma’s husband putting his feet in the pizza in Thelma and Louise for example.
It is important to differentiate between comic and comedy and it is also important to note the differing forms of comedy which in more sophisticated products might all be present, which lends appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is usually the case that stronger narratives are less reliant upon slapstick styles of comedy and also that these comedic forms are more likely to be marketed as a genre hybrid. In the next section there is a more detailed account of the ways in which narrative works to increase comic effects.
1 See under Genre as ‘Hybrid and Multi-generic’.
2 See under Methods and Methodologies in Film Research / contextual Criticism’.
The Western: Creating and Re-creating the Concept of Genre
Despite the severe decline in the output of Westerns since the early 1970s this section has been included to emphasise the historical importance of critical work using the Western as a case study through which much genre theory developed. The work on Westerns as a genre has established a research paradigm or set of limits of thinking about genre which arguably needs revising. Neale’s work on the Western challenges this paradigm and argues that instead of being thought of as a ‘closed’ genre, Westerns need to be thought as an open-ended genre which is both hybrid and multi-generic. As Neale (2000) points out Westerns have occupied a pre-eminent position in writing of all kinds on genre in the cinema:
...the Western still features centrally in introductory accounts and in introductory courses on genre in the cinema fed in part by occasional attempts to revive it in Hollywood and by the resurgence of scholarly interest 
Neale’s recent analysis (2000) problematises this early critical work and suggests that overemphasis on particular key westerns amongst critics has biased the critical output so that other issues surrounding genre theory in general and the study of the western specifically have become obscured. Neale further argues that decline of Western production means ‘its role as a generic paradigm, as a model or starting point for the study of Hollywood’s genres, is even more problematic now than it was before’ 
The Western and the Construction of American Identity
It is hard to underestimate the importance of Westerns in American society, helping to play an important role in creating an American identity through a host of representations about the chain of events recreating popular, but not necessarily historically accurate views of the emergence and development of the United States.
The Western genre and surrounding discourses have blended in various ways to create a ‘mythology’ that has been:
uniquely central to US history, US culture and US identity. This mythology is grounded in the notion (itself as imaginative as it is real ) that there existed a moving western frontier in the US between the seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries.’
Neale notes that frontier mythology is the framework for most Westerns but many touch on this minimally. There are many other films which contain elements of the frontier within them. There were hundreds of Indian (Native American) Westerns made in the late 1900s, 1910s and 1920s. Some have argued that they constituted a genre in their own right. These were comprised from a widespread number of themes. Some saw the native American originally described as ‘Indians’ as a ‘noble savage’. Others were about the loyalty and devotion of native Americans to the European settlers.
Problems with the Western and Genre Theory
The central position of the Western in the development of genre theory has created two linked problems:
- Work on the Western has strongly influenced theories about genre.
- Research into the phenomenon of the Western films themselves has often been limited because of the dominant position of genre theory and criticism, which means that other aspects about Westerns such as their role in the construction of an American national identity has been largely ignored within film studies.
The centrality of the Western in genre theory can be measured by its prominence in both conventional and unorthodox accounts of genre. There are problematic aspects of both the centrality of the western to accounts of genre, and problematic aspects of the western itself.
Neale draws on Buscombe’s research of 1970 to point out that the visual conventions or iconography of the Western are highly distinctive and highly coded. Neale argues that this strongly marked set of visual codes is the generic exception rather than the rule. These exceptions of Western coding include the combinations of an iconography or set of visual conventions including: clothing; decor; landscape. These conventions also include other aspects of its generic world such as the use of language and modes of transport. Overall Neale concludes that ‘ ... for all these reasons ...it [the Western] is hardly a suitable model for general conceptions and theories of genre’ (My emphasis).
This understanding of the range of visual conventions (iconography) has been seen as a very important aspect of the Western, playing an important role in linking the product with audiences and as well as being an important arena for doing case study work in developing genre theory. Neale’s survey of genres leads him to suggest that other critics who have written on other genres using iconography as a key element of their ideas have not been able to develop their arguments in such a convincing manner as those who have written upon Westerns.
If Neale’s suggestion is correct, then visual conventions can be considered as a much weaker aspect of other genres than has frequently been argued. This means that it is dangerous to use one model of genre as a model for all genres as it can close down ways of thinking about other generic categories. The logic of Neale’s argument also means that genres can be seen as both very specific in how they are constructed as well as sharing some common features.
Genre Hybridity in the 1920s Western
Within the whole cycle of the Western genre hybridity - the sharing of other generic conventions - has been common. Neale draws on the work of Letraut, about 1920s silent Westerns. He points out that the films produced then were very different to later Westerns and therefore there wasn’t a ‘fixed nor substantive entity’ within the genre. There was a shifting array of differently stressed and diverse components and numerous alliances with other ‘genres, cycles and trends and from the specific and plural traditions these alliances call into play.’ 
These films sought to appeal to a variety of audiences ranging from children to adults and from the rural to the cities. There were a variety of hybrid terms used to describe the films such as :
- Romantic Western
- Western comedy drama
- Western farce
- Western mystery melodrama.
It is also possible to discuss these films as a range of alliances utilising a wide range of cinematic conventions all of which are worthy of further research:
- The alliance between the Western, visual action and acrobatic athleticism ( chases and stunts - rodeos)
- The alliance between the Western, history and ‘realism’. These appeared in frontier epics with a stress on period detail and consistency, and in traditions of psychological characterisation and moral decision-making
- Alliance between the Western and comedy - comic sidekicks, comic situations, traditions of parody / satire / deployment of stunt and action regimes of bodily gesture.
It is possible to see that a variety of themes traversed these hybrid genres - religious conversion, racial prejudice, revenge, land-grabbing villains. The relationship to the frontier myth is either distant or complex.
New Research Methods: Reconstructing Genre Theories
Some researchers have decided to avoid previously received wisdoms. For example, Stanfield in a partly published thesis in 1999 used different research methods based on archival research to re-explore the Western genre coming up with some quite different ideas to those written about previously which included an emphasis on the industry construction of the market. Stanfield’s research techniques included:
- Archival Research:
- Examining contemporary trade and newspaper resources
- The films themselves
- Cultural histories of the US of its popular cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries.
As a result Stanfield argues that the role of the market  was very important. The B western was aimed at rural and small town audiences in which a variety of changing social and cultural relationships were examined through a variety of forms. ‘The singing Western’ was aimed at attracting female audiences for example. By comparison the A western appealed to metropolitan audiences and their concerns. The marketing ploy of romance through male lead stars to appeal to women was successful. This was a multi-generic approach.
The market failure of Westerns in the 1930s was a combination of lack of romance, alongside an ill judged investment and deployment of new wide-screen technologies against a backdrop of depression. The subsequent relaunch of the Western included films designed to appeal specifically to women. A variation on this theme was the ‘City Western’ with well known male and female stars and dealing with adult themes such as drinking, gambling and sex.
There was also a cycle of historical films which sometimes overlapped with the ‘city’ film. These were promoted as Americanised engagements with large-scale political and historical themes. They also helped to counter accusations that the censorship codes were preventing engagement with serious issues. They often managed to integrate romantic story-lines thus providing general appeal. The richness of content enables us to see these films as multi-generic.
Neale suggests that the models and terms devised at the beginning of the post-war period to discuss Westerns in which the hero’s troubled relationship with society undergoes modification are more straightforwardly applied to Westerns of this post-war period and the late 30’s such as Stagecoach (1939) which received its canonical status at this time.
It seems doubtful whether these models of the Western genre can be usefully applied to films of the earlier period. This means that within what can be classed as a genre there can be huge shifts in the way these films are made, viewed and criticised. This is all part of contextual criticism . In the post-war context some westerns were able to articulate contemporary post-war and cold war concerns such as:
- The return of the veteran and their rehabilitation into civil society
- The issue of national allegiance, especially in relation to the Vietnam war
- The re-marketing and industry reconstruction of the genre using Elvis Presley and other rising pop stars to capture the growing teen market.
Neale also raises the issue of whether critical preference for films such as The Searchers (1956) and The Wild Bunch (1969) has tended to obscure the existence of other socio-cultural and aesthetic trends and other film titles resulting in a closing down of research and discussion about westerns in recent years.
Overall it can be seen from this section that the critical work around the Western has been foundational in the study of genre. At the same time this work has been rather one-sided in its approach to genre ignoring many features that are now increasingly recognised as important to genre studies. These include the notion of genre as process of negotiation between audiences and the industry. Westerns can be seen as both hybrid and multi-generic, as part of a widely differing marketplace and as forming an arena for public debate when socio-political events such as the Vietnam war became an important part of the popular consciousness. Soldier Blue, based on the story of a cavalry massacre of a native American village, is a good example of this. The film functioned to demythologise both the ‘history’ of the American nation established through the Western as well as relate to a current oppressive war through this exposure of the past.
1 Neale, 2000 : 133.
2 Neale , 2000 : 142.
3  Neale, 2000 : 134.
4 See also section on ‘visual conventions and genre’.
5 Neale, 2000 : 134
6 However the issue of mise-en-scene including fashion and stylisation in the section of popular culture shows that more complex research relating genre to visuality could usefuly be done.
7 Neale, 2000 : 137
8 See the section on Comedy and Genre for more on the workings of comic conventions in cinema.
9 See also the section on ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’
10See also the section on ‘Genres and Multiple Marketing Strategies’.
11For more on contextual criticism see under ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’.
Genre the Everyday and Popular Culture
Genre, popular culture and the everyday have been three concepts historically linked and often made into a hierarchy which is very gender based. The concept of popular culture is itself a troubled one with accusations of elitism from some academics countered by accusations of crass populism by others. The Romantics criticised genre in ways which linked it with the everyday seen as repetitive and mundane, yet the role of romance in a wide range of genres aimed at markets segmented by age and gender can be seen as a desire to escape the everyday mundanities. A wider generic concern can expand Neale’s comment on the ‘women’s film’ genre as one which is strange and contradictory to think about other generic forms.
Desire is often released by the culturally generic form such as romances. The character can move to higher things through romantic involvement but then the characters are reincorporated back into the everyday by becoming reconciled to it. David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) is a good example of this. Below some of these concerns are examined in more detail. In conclusion, the spectacular and its links with the romantic are seen to perform this role of reconciliation for the audience providing an generically based industry continuously fired by individual fantasies of escape and need for reconciliation.
History of Genre and Popular Culture
Originally most modern concepts of genre had a hostile attitude to cultural products perceived of as industrialised and necessarily repetitious. This attitude originated in the Romanticist movement of the 19th century. Strongly criticising mass cultural products as routine , repetitive and formulaic these critics were trying to create a clear division between ‘high art’ and ‘low’/popular culture. The work of Neale (2000) through detailed empirical studies of popular films argues that it is better to consider genre as a complex process within the greater complex of cultural industrial strategies. As a result it is more appropriate to consider genre conventions as loose and open-ended rather than as a system which forecloses upon the meaning and quality of a film.
The metaphor of repetition is very strongly associated with industrialism and its processes and it has also been strongly associated with the domestic environment. Industrialism has, for many, been seen as the way forward for humanity as a whole, making repetition positive for some theorists. This has been contrasted by the same theorists to the everyday or quotidian of the domestic environment which has been viewed as very socially conservative as time is seen as cyclical or going nowhere. This construction of time and domestic space is a highly gendered one. Time constructed as masculine linked to an industrialised workspace despite the repetition of the industrial processes is still envisaged as a form of progress. By comparison, domestic time considered as repetitive and circular is considered as feminised time and space without the possibility of progress.
A slightly different variation on repetition has been seen by Romanticist critics as running counter to the “greater” things in life. They have been very much in favour of supporting the concept of “ Art for art’s sake”. Romanticists are associated with anti-industrialism. In the 19th century important critics divided into left and right-wing approaches to Romanticism. William Morris wanted more of a return to crafts conceived of as an organic form of production valuing the best of ‘popular culture’ of the time. This can be contrasted with the approach of Matthew Arnold whose ideas of ‘high culture’ strongly influenced British arts policy until the 1980’s, for his ideas were adapted by T.S. Eliot , F. R. Leavis and Lord Keynes who was responsible for establishing the Arts Council in Britain after World War Two .
More recently feminist social theorists such as Rita Felski and media theorists such as Roger Silverstone have been examining issues around the concept of the everyday. Both of these theorists are concerned to re-evaluate the everyday which is something we all usually take for granted thinking of it as almost “natural”. Both theorists come to similar conclusions which are that the repetitions of the everyday have a very important set of social, cultural and psychological functions, thus they are more positive about the term. In terms of child development repetition is very important in achieving a well-balanced child. In terms of media output a regular range of programmes helps us to receive and give meaning to our days and provides pleasure as well. These factors are described as ontological security. Ontology is about social being and here the expression means that people feel comfortable in the world and are able to function effectively when they have a strong sense of ontological security.
To assume, as so many critics of generic output have done, that repetition is necessarily bad, creates a tendency to misread the complex processes and continuously shifting relationship of production and audience construction within the media world. In that sense nothing is ever quite the same. Critical positions which are totally anti-generic tend to assume a largely passive audience and as such is driven by an elitist view of the capabilities of the audience. Those popular films which can be said to be genre-based articulate a process which in an indirect way through the box-office relates to, informs and is informed by the desires, fears, needs of vast numbers of people.
The Spectacular and the Everyday
The ways in which film as a form of ‘popular’ culture is consumed changed between the 1950s-1970s. The role of cinema as the primary form of mass media was eclipsed by television. The contextual  aspects of exhibition have changed beyond all recognition since the days of the classical Hollywood studio system. Consumption of films is still very popular. Frequently cinema release acts more as a form of promotion for the film. Shorter runs and the complex licensing arrangements, releasing the film through rental chains often owned by multi-media corporations, followed by satellite and cable release then retail shops and then terrestrial TV shows that a sophisticated hierarchical marketing system is in place to maximise profitability upon each film.
Generic films aimed at a youth market tend to do well at the cinema. The audience are less tied to the domestic environment and have a relatively high disposable income. The youth audience is the largest group of regular cinema-goers. Audience analysis shows that the ways in which film interacts with the everyday is complex. More family oriented crowds at rental outlets such as ‘Blockbusters’ at weekends shows that cinema exhibition within the domestic environment at a time when the week is less structured by institutional requirements such as work and school means that longer films can be watched without breaking up weekday routines.
The ‘Blockbuster’ is now major factor in the survival of the mainstream cinema as a distinctive media form with a major industrial base. The space of the cinema and the spectacular is an important industry feature which in helping fantasy breakout of the quotidian marked by repetition constructed as mundanity indicates that generally audiences are by no means strongly attracted by generic features of film alone. The blockbuster can be seen as working upon a widely differing range of socially constructed desires of romantic longing to escape the everyday.
The marking of the everyday as unromantic by generically-based media industries provides the psychological space in which to develop products which are designed to construct a range of cultural and social practices constructed as ‘romantic’, whilst being careful not to overfeed those dreams. The social researcher Adorno can be seen to have made an important argument when he argued that there was a ‘fundamental symmetry’ between mass-culture and fascism: ‘both feed-off and reproduce immature character structures with high, almost childlike, dependency needs.’ 
Use of special FX to create ‘magical’ aspects of narrative which have no relationship to reality of verisimilitude (narrative logic) are only viable because of the desire to escape yet this escapism must be resolved by the narrative closure into some sort of verisimilitude. In Charlotte Gray there is a classical romantic ending with an open but contented future ahead, in Titanic the irreconcilable differences of class must end in a heroic and tragic death made real by linking to historical events. In Minority Report reconciliation and a new stable family future beckon. Thelma and Louise have a slightly more difficult ending which can be read in a number of different ways. Verisimilitude says that they will die however breaking through the genre conventions by a non-specific ending allows for the possibility of a new form of the everyday and the possibilities for social change by breaching the conventions between rationality and irrationality as the space where generically based cultural products manipulate the imaginaries of their audiences.
1 See Felski, Rita. 1999-2000.
2  Silverstone, R. 1994.
3 Also see under ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’.
4 See also ‘Multiple Marketing Strategies’ section.
5 Adorno quoted Crook, Stephen in Adorno 1994. P 10-11.
The Relationship of the Director in 'New Hollywood' to Genre: Birth of the American 'Auteur'?
The concept of genre has been examined from a number of angles. It has become apparent that what appeared to be a relatively simple critical category is a lot more complex. Many examples of genre hybridity and a multi-generic industrial strategy have been noted. It has also been stressed that genres are live cultures. Genres develop and change under the direct influence of the full range institutional factors which comprise cinema – Producers/ Exhibitors / Audiences – as well as having to respond to wider changes in the media environment. The case presented here argues that the higher profile the film the less it is reliant upon genre as a part of its marketing strategy and the more important the role of the director.
The Changing Industrial Environment
‘New Hollywood’ remains the dominant cinema on a global basis. Historically there are a number of institutional changes which have reshaped Hollywood. The production base of films, the relationships between the various companies which make up the film industry as well as the systems of exhibition have also evolved. Classical Hollywood cinema underwent restructuring during the 1950s. Antimonopoly legislation, the rapid growth of TV and the growth of higher levels of disposable income amongst the working classes were the major contributing factors to the need for restructuring.
The break-up of the old studio system saw film companies being taken over by industrial conglomerates. At the same time a new mode of exhibition started to develop in America – The Multiplex. This was necessary to try and halt declining audiences attracted by TV and other leaisure pursuits. The first was a 4 screen version opened by American Multi-Cinema in Kansas City in 1966. It took until the 1980s for the multiplex to consolidate its hold over the American exhibition system, it then started to export the model with the first in Britain opening in Milton Keynes in 1985. It had a restaurant brasserie and social club. Guaranteeing at least one U certificate film it was an important marketing strategy for cinema. Conditions of exhibition have often been underestimated by critics however the fact that in the 1930s many American cinemas were air conditioned was a major summer attraction for audiences. These market factors need to be added to concerns such as genre and stardom.
Television offered another way of distributing films and so the opportunities for joint production arrangements became possible. This could reduce financial risk for the film companies by sharing costs on lower level productions ensuring a good stream of finance and funding the administrative and marketing forces necessary to its core activity of making premium feature films.
From the perspective of the development of genre the growth of the ‘made for TV’ market gradually replaced the low budget studio output. An important feature of these films was that they were shot with a TV audience in mind thus action had to remain central to the screen. This was because the aspect ratios of the original TV screens were different to those of cinema screens. The rapid growth of the installed base of wide-screen television able to screen films in their original aspect ratios will gradually erode the technological limitations of the ‘made for TV movie’.
Economic crisis in the 1970s followed the changes in the institutional arrangements of cinema. The 1980s saw the flourishing of new technologies such as satellite and cable accompanying the deregulation of media markets in many countries. Film companies became less interested in production as such but more concerned with distribution which was a lucrative but lower risk aspect of the market.
More changes in the regulatory and economic relationships of the industry meant that the way became open for higher profile independent producers, and filmmakers who could play with higher budget movies which allowed them to expand their vision. Film companies by this time had become horizontally integrated into media empires which included TV, Radio, and music strands within the corporate conglomeration. This meant that a range of synergies between companies could be utilised to market films. This included: TV and cable distribution arrangements; the production and distribution of soundtracks; the production of DVD’s and videos; the sale of rights on associated computer games and toys,T-shirts and other marketing materials. Overseas distribution provided another income stream. Multi-media corporations like this include Time-Warner-AOL, and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV in America along with his extensive global media interests. Other sources of production income now include charging companies large amounts of money to feature their branded products within a high profile movie.
Role of the Director
This has meant that films hoping to be financially successful are increasingly reliant upon a range of strategies to reduce their risk . Film directors with a good profile are more able to make films that they want to make in the way they want to make them. This compares with the ‘Classical’ Hollywood period of production when the directors were largely at the mercy of producers who enforced tight shooting schedules and eliminated cost overruns. Several European émigré directors used to less industrialised ways of making films such as Fritz Lang who at the German company UFA regularly went well over the original budgets and schedules to get a film to his satisfaction. Many like Lang found it hard to adapt to Hollywood systems of production.
These European directors were considered as auteurs or authors who were putting their vision onto screen. Many of these directors created stars rather than depended upon stars. Josef von Sternberg was instrumental in bringing Marlene Dietrich to a wider audience. By comparison, Hollywood has always been dependent upon the star system as another marketing tool. Often there has been a symbiosis of stars with particular genres, John Wayne and the western and some war films, Clint Eastwood with westerns and more recently action-thrillers, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Siegel and Arnold Schwarzenegger with action-adventure.
Murray Smith (2002) teases out a useful distinction between the American concept of the auteur and a more European based conception of the auteur. For the latter the high-cultural traditions are seen as the most important aim of the film whilst in America these aims are attenuated by a desire to reach a much wider audience as well. Orson Welles as well as Martin Scorsese are examples of this type of director.
The role of the semi-independent filmmaker who has some power to negotiate their conditions is recently exemplified by Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2003) a film which he has apparently been longing to make for many years. There have been a series of high profile interviews with Scorsese in broadsheet newspapers, specialist film journals and TV review programmes.
In interview with Ian Christie, Scorsese responding to a question on how the film taps into 19th century revenge narrative like ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ commented that the film echoes genre forms, but also includes social, historical and personal issues.
We complicated it because I was interested in the emotions. It evolved from a story about a boy who needs a father and a father who needs a son, against a backdrop of the frontier meets the city, or a western meets a gangster film, topped off with a ‘soupcon’ of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery – all of that in one Movie! (Martin Scorcese).
Described by some critics as an 'epic', Gangs of New York is strongly dependent upon being a multi-genre film. It combined with Scorsese’s own reputation, and featuring stars such as the highly bankable Leonardo di Caprio, and co-starring Daniel Day Lewis. It also stars Liam Neeson appealing to Irish audiences. Both the latter actors have played leading roles in historical films such as Last of the Mohicans ( 1992) and Michael Collins (1996), a fact that will broaden the appeal of the film.
Thelma and Louise is strongly associated with director Ridley Scott who was able to exert quite a high degree of control over the production process rather than being entirely controlled by the financiers because of his previous success with films like Bladerunner (1982). As a British director Scott has an outsider’s eye for weighing up aspects of society considered as everyday to indigenous directors. In this way a key element of American identity, its landscape, became a key part of the film’s aesthetic appeal. Scott also had a particularly dynamic way of making cinema relying on direct takes with the actors unrehearsed to gain spontaneity. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to Scott’s directing skills.
In an entirely different context Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1929-30) was the result of an attempt to place German national cinema in a prestigious position as the new sound map of cinema unfurled in the 1930s. The film copied the variegated production strategy which was by then the Hollywood norm. Sternberg was a well known American director of German descent. Sternberg was not the production company’s first choice but the best they could afford.
The Blue Angel starred Emil Jannings Germany’s most successful internationally known actor with an academy award in Hollywood. The comng of sound had cut short Jannings' Hollywood career because of his very thick German accent. Sternberg had been directing Jannings in one of the films cited which won him the Oscar. Alongside him the experienced but hitherto unrecognised Marlene Dietrich. The film was based upon a modern literary adaptation from the novel Professor Unrat by the well known author Heinrich Mann. As a genre piece it was a typical tragedy in a wider generic sense as well as belonging to the genre of literary adaptations The film involving the tragic fall of a professional also featured the sleazy side of life with a mise-en-scene of night-clubs and jazz and thus could be expected to have a wide audience appeal. UFA, the largest German film company, was strongly concerned with establishing a core of generic production this film can be considered as an attempt to launch a ‘blockbuster’ to break into the American marketplace.
As the strategy for The Blue Angel makes clear the blockbuster film can be seen as strongly hinging upon the reputation and skills of the director part of whose range of skills will include working effectively with stars, to a budget, operating in a multi-generic environment, which means being familiar with, but going beyond, straightforward genre formulas. On the basis of this example it can be seen that the more high profile a film is for the studio the more it is weighted towards the influence of the director and away from a simple generic base.
On the basis of the examples used here it is possible to see that the directors in ‘New Hollywood’ blockbusters are playing a more independent role than their counterparts from the days of ‘Classical Hollywood’. Nevertheless, this role is quite distinctive from that of the auteur in the European conception. In the latter conception auteur either has an extremely strong vision of the film, and can frequently be linked with conceptions of artistic ‘genius’ or at least an 'art' film. alternatively the European Auteur will have developed team-style working relationships with actors and crew. Examples of the latter are the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the contemporary British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Leigh is well known for having an improvisational style of working with his actors. The European auteur is far less dependent upon the star system and the other multi-marketing strategies on which the more industrialised approach of Hollywood depends.
Has Traditional Genre Theory Misrepresented Hollywood?
Steve Neale (2000) is concerned to examine and critique some of the critical ‘givens’ which have arisen amongst commentators and theorists regarding the relationship between Hollywood and genre. Neale has investigated a wider range of films from the perspective of genre theory than has been done previously and has compared these with some of the business models in use at various time in Hollywood. On the basis of these findings he argues for a serious revision of the dominant theoretical position held by critics of both the ‘Old’ Hollywood studio system as well as post-studio ‘New Hollywood’. Neale highlights the central importance of the way the Hollywood production system has been commonly considered as central to the creation and maintenance of generic output as a foundational aspect of its industrial strategy.
Below the key aspects of critical genre analysis to Hollywood are summarised then Neale’s commentary is reported upon in a critical fashion. This section concludes that Neale is correct to argue for deepening the analysis of the role and importance of genre within the marketing strategy of cinema. Neale’s comments upon aspects of horizontal integration within the wider media matrix such as radio are also important. It is argued here that the implications of his positions are not seen as a radical revision of the dominant positions held by critics on the role of genre within cinema. Rather it can be seen that it is impossible to consider cinema as an isolated aspect of the generic system of media production across mass media as a whole.
Traditional Accounts of the Relationship Between Hollywood and Genre
Neale has summarised traditional accounts of genre and its role within the film industry stressing the following features:
- Artistic products unlike mass products such as cars are ‘one of a kind’. Movies had to be different or nobody would return to the cinema
- Mass products usually are accompanied by a range within the product. New lines and fashions are generated to create and develop the market
- Hollywood genres offer a cost-effective equivalent to the lines and ranges marketed by other industries by producing a demand for similarities within the variety of product on offer thus degrees of difference are minimised
- Hollywood’s products are always different and diverse and genres differ from one another but within the range/genre, the films are always similar
- Genres thus perform a number of economic functions thus enabling :
- The industry to fulfil the obligations of variety and difference in the product:
- The product to be manufactured in a very cost-effective way
- The nature of the output and the demand for this output to be closely regulated to minimise financial risk and maximise profit.
‘Old’ Hollywood Studio System
Originally generic film output has been linked to what has become known as the ‘studio system’, and the output of what is seen by many as ‘classical’ cinema. Key features of the studio system were:
- It describes the period of hollywood domination by the 'majors' between mid to late 1920s up to the end of the 1940s with a little overspill into the early 1950s
- There was an oligopoly of 8 major companies. Three produced and distributed films including independent ones. The remaining 5 were ‘vertically integrated’. In other words they produced and distributed films but they also owned first-run cinemas and cinema chains
- The system of ‘block-booking’ meant that independent cinemas and cinema chains were forced to show most of their films or none at all
- This combination of industrial organisation meant that there was a relatively secure and stable marketplace. As a result the industry was able to sustain itself by making long-term employment contracts with stars, directors and technicians. The industry could plan investment on in-house facilities. This allowed for ‘factory-system’ features within the industry
- It is argued, by some, that studios tended to engage in genre specialisation which led to variation but also generic consistency and generic fixity over 30 years.
Neale doesn’t want to entirely reverse these established theories on the role of genre; Neale is concerned to use other research methodologies and research results to argue that these features have been overemphasised and that the model needs revision. Overall he ends up by suggesting that much greater research into different aspects of Hollywood cinema will generate different sorts of knowledge about the relationships between Hollywood as a centre of cultural production and wider socio-cultural features of America itself. Neale divides Hollywood output into the studio and post-studio periods and comments upon the different content strategies and business models prevalent at these times.
‘Old’ Hollywood Output as Hybrid and Cross-generic
Neale takes the output of Hollywood films in 1934 as an example. This came to over 95 feature films altogether. Neale notes that both the variety of films and the terms used to describe them were very varied: ‘Immediately striking also is the relative paucity of canonic genres and “genre films’’’ (Neale, 2000: 234). Neale suggests that, whilst terms such as ‘western’ existed, there are many broader categories such as ‘costume picture’ and ‘drama’ which rarely or never feature in genre theory. Nevertheless, these terms were among the top three categories of box-office hits according to Variety magazine (1950, 5: 18).
Neale’s comments are useful to identify gaps in genre theory. These comments in themselves don’t destabilise the key arguments of dominant critical genre theory. Neale’s evidence points to the importance of genre as a descriptor of various film products. The generic descriptors he has isolated points to the industry need to ensure that a broad audience appeal was maintained. Neale’s evidence supports the argument that even in 1950 audience was treated as a singular mass market rather than as a plural audience. At this time TV hadn’t gained a big hold on mass audience and the need to create a wider choice of content wasn’t necessary for the industry at this point.
Based upon the work of film historians Neale isolates the following points :
- Hollywood’s output was done on an annual seasonal basis
- This meant that cycles of films were emphasised. Cycles were used as units of calculation and on cyclical formulas as templates for films. (Long distance bus films are an example of these)
- Cycles were often linked to topical events such as prison breakouts
- The regular production of genre hybrids was a risk reduction strategy. These would not only appeal to fans of different picture types thus broadening the potential market
- The use of stars as a marketing tool leads Schatz to talk of ‘star-genre formulations’ and star-formula combinations’ rather than talking directly in terms of genre 
- Some stars were associated largely with specific genres such as Boris Karloff and horror. Other stars such as Katherine Hepburn weren’t associated with any particular story type
The fundamental planning and output were budgetary which overlapped with categories of distribution and exhibition. There was class A and class B output. Class A output was subdivided further:
- Superspecials: prestige pictures & big budget musicals. Often road-shown. Often produced by independents such as Selnick and Goldwyn’s Gone with the Wind (1939)
- Specials: bulk of these were class A films. Used pre-sold properties such as popular stars but lower production budgets. These usually opened on a first-run  basis in the metropolitan theatres owned by the big 5
- Programmers: These films had the lowest budgets. Typically based on original stories and minor stars often with short running times even as low as 50 minutes. Described as programmers they could fit the top or bottom of the double bills. They functioned as B films if at the bottom of a bill
- Another form of risk reduction was the creation of a series such as the Charlie Chan films.
The Post-studio Era
The vertical integration which dominated Hollywood had been declared illegal in 1948 and the big 5 production companies were forced to sell off their cinema chains. The industry as a whole underwent major restructuring adopting a different range of business strategies to remain in business. To ensure good levels of profitability, they concentrated even more on risk reduction. These strategies included:
- Making fewer more expensively produced films
- Abandoning B movies, shorts and newsreels. These migrated to become the ‘made for TV movie’
- Introduction of new technologies such as wide-screen and big-screen
- Making blockbusters to be road-shown at premium prices
- International market development
- Audience reconstruction through differentiation ( teenagers for example)
- Diversifying income streams through distribution and / or screening films on television.
These changing structures in the 1950s and 1960s led to the development of what is now described as ’New Hollywood’ which has slightly modified these fundamental approaches. ‘New Hollywood’ creates the seasonal blockbusters which are now ‘blanket released’ rather than having a staggered release. These are the ‘economic cornerstone’ (Neale: 2000) of today’s Hollywood and are produced or co-produced by the majors.
Most of the recent blockbusters have been targeted at the teen and early twenties audiences. Therefore they differ significantly from the content of the output of the 1950s & 1960s. Technologically, special effects ( FX ) and surround sound have been significant. Income generation has been from spin offs - videos, computer games T shirts etc. Distribution through cable satellite etc. has expanded the media environment and given wider marketing opportunities.
Neale is keen to point out that there are no cast-iron formulas for success because film still remains one-of -a-kind and that consumers must be ready to take a risk before consuming a film. Films are previewed by test audiences who are surveyed for their responses. Unfavourable responses mean parts of the film may be re-shot . Alternative endings are quite frequent. This has now led to a subsidiary market of ‘the director’s cut’.
Neale emphasises that the overall strategic approach of the industry is about risk reduction. With numerous differences between the generic output of ‘new’ and ‘old’ Hollywood.
Commentators have remarked that Hollywood has been marked by ‘sequelitis’ and ‘prequels’. By comparison, Neale cites evidence that there were approximately 6 times as many recycled scripts in the 1940s as in the 1970s. Critics and theorists have also suggested that ‘new’ Hollywood has been more concerned with hybridity, pastiche and illusion than the ‘old’ Hollywood often linking this with the ‘multimedia synergies’ of the present. However, Neale points to many older films which make allusions to others, which are ‘… often invisible to contemporary scholars’. He also points out that the ‘old’ Hollywood was itself marked by a plethora of media output much of which was very new such as radio and comics thus providing: ‘an extensive field of multimedia consciousness, institutional crossover, and inter-textual cross-reference...’ 
‘New’ Hollywood has often been considered as the driving force behind the reconstruction of the generic film using hybridity. Neale argues that early blockbusters such as Phantom Engine (1935) about a singing cowboy in space were more genre-hybrid than current blockbusters and suggests genre hybridity has always been present in Hollywood. Furthermore, Neale emphasises that genre as an industrial strategy is just one important element of a more complex and variegated industrial system than has previously been recognised.
Neale’s position partially corroborates the argument that blockbuster marketing strategy is less reliant upon genre and follows a multiple marketing strategy. A note of caution is needed here. Neale’s example of the Phantom Engine is not analysed in detail. Drawing conclusions without greater information about the marketing strategy of that film could lead to a wrong impression.
Much of the traditional genre theory still holds. It can be seen as a risk reduction strategy for an industry which must keep churning out product the industrially influenced analysis still seems convincing. Perhaps the critics of genre have overplayed their hands. The more sophisticated an audience the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with purely generic output. Marketing now has more complex ways to try and ensure commercial success.
1 Neale makes much of this genre hybridity. ‘They also exemplified Hollywood and its products in ways which have barely begun to be explored ( and which genre criticism and ‘post-modern theory’ alike have served to obscure rather than illuminate’ ( Neale : 2000 : 238 ).
2 For more on this see under ‘Genre and Multiple Marketing strategies’.
3 This expression refers to the practice of releasing major films in cities and allowing them to run until the audiences started to fall away. Then the film was booked out to the next city. This helped to create a pre-existing market, reduced distribution costs, and helped maximise the market in any one place.
4 First-run cinemas were the premium film theatres located in the biggest cities and the more affluent areas. They could keep films until the audiences began to decline. Then second run minor cinemas could take the films.
5 Sassoon, Donald. 2002 points out that alternative endings have been used since the mass production of culture. Books were given different endings for the Russian market. Sassoon suggests Hollywood based itself upon this model. The onset of digital cinema will make this much cheaper, easier and give the potential for greater differences within the ‘same’ film.
6  Neale, 2000 : 249 .