Hollywood’s Bible

The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

by Aaron Rich

The essay begins:

Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Despite decades of being considered quite conventional, the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme has recently enjoyed a renewal of interest. The 2010 exhibition The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, in its catalog and in an accompanying collection of essays, argued that Gérôme was in fact a pioneer of modern painting. The exhibition and its publications make the case that Gérôme’s work is in fact protocinematic—in its engagement with subjects of large-scale spectacle, its circulation in secondary formats such as prints and photographs, and its use of strategies of duration and anticipation. While several authors discussed a few of his Roman paintings, such as Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You (1859), The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1862–83), and Pollice Verso (1872), missing from their discussions was the fact that Hollywood studios actually used copies of these paintings in their background research for productions of films set in ancient Rome. An examination of the materials used as visual guidance for the 1951 production by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) of the Roman melodrama Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, makes it clear that Gérôme’s paintings of the Circus Maximus, along with many other images of the ancient city by academic artists including Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Thomas Couture, and hundreds of popular illustrations and photographs of ancient sites, were used by Hollywood studios to understand and recreate the look and material culture of antiquity in a way the audience would recognize and enjoy.

Still from Quo Vadis

By the mid-1920s, nearly every Hollywood studio had already established a research library where extensive collections of visual materials, including illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers, as well as photographs, postcards, cartes de visite, stereo-view slides, maps, building blueprints, technical manuals, prints of paintings, and drawings were housed and managed. Their staff compiled these images into what they called “research bibles,” scrapbooks of thematically organized images. To obtain images that might help suggest a design for a prop or set, researchers scoured their own libraries; those of other studios; outside picture collections in the public libraries of Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris; the Huntington Library; the libraries of the major universities of Los Angeles; the picture and photo collections of many state historical libraries; and the collections of other film services, such as Western Costume Company, the film industry’s largest costume maker. Research bibles helped film workers in managerial and craft departments—including producers, directors, writers, art directors, costume designers, hair and makeup designers, set decorators, and prop builders—visualize all sorts of mundane details, whether they were bowls, tables, and lamps or more exotic items like chariots, military uniforms, and fountains, to create believable cinematic environments. These multivolume collections could be reproduced, allowing every department to use the same visual sources simultaneously. The art department would see images of costumes, and the props department would see images of hair and makeup; all of a film’s creative crew had access to the same visual field. As a typical example, the Quo Vadis research bible contained five volumes, each focusing on a different element of the production: locations, costumes, sets, props, and sculpture from the ancient world.

Hollywood studio films made through the 1960s were part of a much larger “republic of images.” The depictions of the world, its people, and its material culture found in films circulated within a larger system of modern visual media that included illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials. Much like the Republic of Letters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, within which ideas and essays circulated among a class of learned people throughout Europe and North America, this twentieth-century visual network allowed for the wide dissemination of knowledge about the ancient and modern world throughout a broad, decentralized area. When producing movies, filmmakers were inspired by images gathered from a diverse set of illustrated sources that were recognizable to viewers precisely because such pictures were already circulating throughout many popular forms of media.

Scholarship regarding the research undertaken for Hollywood films has for the most part focused on issues of historical accuracy. In so doing, historians have often assumed that the films in question were simply renarrating written historical discourse, emphasizing the attention filmmakers showed to how these narratives were previously presented in literature, rather than considering how Hollywood cinema has recirculated a body of visual knowledge of the world of the past. Such scholarship has largely overlooked the fact that film research was largely picture-centered, using methods related to earlier visual practices from the centuries before the advent of cinema, and that Hollywood research departments were less concerned with accuracy than with gathering a large quantity of visual media about a time and place. It did not matter, for example, that statuary in antiquity was frequently polychromatic, richly decorated in bright colors; by the twentieth century, the film audience familiar with printed and projected depictions of ancient Rome would have assumed that the white marble sculpture most often depicted was historically accurate.

Stephen Bann has explained how inauthentic historical narratives and objects were popular with scholars and audiences alike from 1750 through the late nineteenth century. “The critical preoccupation with authenticity and the transgressive wish to simulate authenticity are, in a certain sense, two sides of the same coin,” he explained. But in Hollywood, all materials relating to a film’s subject, time period, characters, and material culture were considered when creating a film; authenticity was merely a marketing flourish. Standard practice in the industry involved visual research that considered a tremendous range of illustrated media from popular and scholarly sources, which together contributed to what Bann has called “historical poetics.” Such a practice combined historical details with entertainment and spectacle, often with a tinge of irony, to interest, amuse, and educate the audience. This heterogeneous mix of source materials also structured history museums, dioramas, panoramas, historical literature, and historical painting in the nineteenth century, and it is the most common way modern people have experienced history for the past three centuries. In this way, the question of whether or not a film presents an authentic historical narrative misses the point; Hollywood filmmakers were much more interested in presenting familiar images that the audience would recognize from many earlier and well-circulated depictions of the past, regardless of their historical validity.

In the case of Quo Vadis, the film narrative contains true historical events, such as Nero’s setting fire to Rome in 64 CE or the spectacle of the crucifixions of early Christians. But the film also refers to thousands of images and elements from visual depictions of the city created, for the most part, not from the first century but from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Anne Friedberg, referring to the late twentieth-century point of view, explains that history is “inexorably bound with images of a constructed past: a confusing blur of ‘simulated’ and ‘real.’” Through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century depictions of ancient Rome that were widely circulated in prints and illustrated journals, the modern understanding of the city changed to fit those images, and in turn, twentieth-century films were designed to echo those earlier images, using them as inspiration for their recreations of the ancient capital.

Likewise, nineteenth-century academic painters looked to earlier depictions of the past, including earlier narrative paintings and antiquarian images, to find visual inspiration for invented details. Gérôme, for example, gathered a tremendous volume of visual materials and pioneered the use of photographs to help him to recreate the material culture of the distant lands that were frequently his subject. He claimed that his Roman painting Pollice Verso was a depiction of gladiators in the Circus Maximus superior to his earlier Hail, Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You because he had done more research on the armor and appearance of gladiators for the later picture. He explained that the accumulation of so many details helped to create an “accent of truth” that the audience would understand. Continue reading …

In this essay Aaron Rich shows describes the process by which Hollywood studio film productions through the 1960s used research to develop depictions of the past that would show audiences representations they would recognize and believe. He situates this research as part of a much larger and more complex republic of images through which pictures of the world, its people, and its material culture circulated within a system of modern media, including illustrated books, the pictorial press, and other image-based materials of which movies were a part. Rich then makes the case that Hollywood cinema should be reconsidered an essential part of the twentieth-century perception of history, regardless of the accuracy of its depictions.

AARON RICH is a PhD candidate in the division of Cinema and Media Studies in the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. His dissertation, “The Hollywood Research Library: Visual Knowledge in the Republic of Images,” focuses on studio research departments that gathered images from popular media to guide craft departments in recreating the world and investigates how these picture collections emerge from a Western tradition of understanding and appreciating the past and present visually.

An Alien World at the Limits of Modernity

Remembering “Planet Auschwitz” During the Cold War

by Kathryn L. Brackney

The essay begins:

In the summer of 1961, Auschwitz survivor and author Yehiel Dinur, who wrote under the pseudonym Ka-Tzetnik 135633, took the witness stand at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Since the end of the war, Dinur had published several novels describing his experiences during the Holocaust. The first, Salamandra, written while the author was living in a displaced persons camp in Italy, takes its name from a mythical, lizard-like creature capable of surviving exposure to fire. His second book, the graphic and controversial House of Dolls, was published in 1953 and remains one of the most widely circulated novels written in Hebrew about the genocide of Europe’s Jews. When asked at the Eichmann trial why he chose to publish under the name Ka-Tzetnik, the witness presented himself as a kind of mystic-anthropologist back from a world he called “the Auschwitz planet” with its own inhabitants, atmosphere, and natural laws. The name, he explained, “is not a pen name.”

Yehiel Dinur Katzetnik, a prosecution witness at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, at Beit Ha’am in Jerusalem.

I do not regard myself as a writer writing literature. This is actually a history of the Auschwitz planet, the chronicles of Auschwitz. I myself was at the Auschwitz camp for two years. The time there is not a concept as it is here on our planet. Every fraction of a second has a different wheel of time. And the inhabitants of that planet had no names. They had no parents and they had no children. They were not clothed as we are clothed here. They were not born there and they did not conceive there. They breathed and lived according to different laws of nature. They did not live according to the laws of this world of ours, and they did not die. Their name was a number, “Ka-Tzetnik” number so-and-so.

Referring to a prison uniform exhibited as evidence, he went on to declare,

This is the garb of those who lived on this planet called Auschwitz. And I believe wholeheartedly that I must carry this name as long as the world will not awaken after the crucifying of a nation to erase this evil. As humanity has arisen after the crucifixion of one man, I believe wholeheartedly that just as in astrology the stars influence our destiny, so is this planet of the ashes, Auschwitz, facing our planet, and influencing, radiating toward our planet.

Dinur’s agitation and tendency to speak in a highly symbolic register made his story untellable within the confines of the courtroom. After the judges urged the witness to focus on the questions posed to him by the attorney general, Dinur lost consciousness and had to be carried from the stand. To many spectators in the court and audiences following the proceedings on radio and television, his collapse was a devastating shock; ultimately it would become the most remembered moment of the trial. In The Juridical Unconscious, Shoshana Felman has argued that Dinur’s inability to describe his past serves as a testament to the trauma that constitutes the heart of the law. Though his testimony failed to produce evidence viable for the court, history still “uncannily and powerfully speaks” through the very collapse of the witness’s body.

Because Dinur’s silence seems the most fitting testimony to the nightmare he tried to describe, it is tempting to gloss over the words he was able to say as a mere prelude. Today, the vulnerable and all too human witness who fails to convey a trauma that still haunts him seems the more appropriate figure of memory than the alien “Auschwitz planet” that radiates toward Earth on a different wheel of time. The mix of symbolic systems that the author referenced to make meaning of the past and comment on the destiny of humankind may come off to contemporary readers as confused and even offensive, and, outside of the courtroom, Dinur’s books have been criticized as kitsch and pornography.

Yet Dinur was not the only public figure to draw on such metaphors to describe Jewish persecution in the broader “univers concentrationnaire.” Otherworldly descriptions of victims at Auschwitz appear early in Dinur’s postwar novels, and in his later work, such as the novella Star Eternal (1966), he revisited the topography of “Planet Auschwitz” in increasingly surreal terms. Omer Bartov has argued that in the early decades after World War II this language of otherworldliness spoke to the deep ambivalence that many Israelis felt about the compatibility of Jewish victimization with nationalist identity. Outside of Israel, as the Holocaust became differentiated from other crimes of fascism in the wake of international coverage of the Eichmann trial, artists and authors in Western Europe and North America also frequently figured Auschwitz as an alien world at the limits of modernity. Implicit in these works are questions not just about the inclusion of survivors in the nation but also about how to restore anyone touched by the Holocaust into the category of the human—and what “Planet Auschwitz” might reveal about the evolution of mankind. Through the 1960s and 1970s, authors and artists from Primo Levi to Stephen Spielberg evoked the memory of the Holocaust together with meditations on life beyond earth, using “Planet Auschwitz” as a vehicle for reimagining the status of humanity in the shadow of an other somewhere “out there.” In philosophy, Hannah Arendt characterized both totalitarianism and space travel as dangerous abstractions of man, while Emmanuel Levinas celebrated the technological capacity to escape earth’s atmosphere as consistent with a particularly Jewish conception of humanity, not rooted in blood and soil. With strange frequency during this stretch of the Cold War, Jewish identity, racial violence, and the penetration of the cosmos were thought together in sources that cannot all be dismissed as kitsch.

Most of these materials have not endured in the canons of art and literature of Holocaust memory. This is partly because the figure of “Planet Auschwitz” reflects a set of cultural intuitions anathema to many of us now. In 1978, the release of NBC’s miniseries Holocaust in the United States and abroad and the President’s Commission on the Holocaust renewed public attention to the experience of victims and provoked debates about representing the past. In 1979, the Holocaust Survivors Film Project gave survivors themselves a highly intimate format for narrating their own stories: video testimony. (That project was the basis of Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony, which was founded in 1981.) In his extraordinary documentary art film Shoah, journalist Claude Lanzmann also relied on personal interviews, overlaying the oral testimony of survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators onto contemporary shots of empty extermination sites. Lanzmann’s refusal to circulate archival footage of murdered Jewish victims and his pairing of the graphic word with the barren image became highly influential in broader debates about appropriate aesthetic approaches to the Holocaust. Authors and critics from Theodor Adorno to Elie Wiesel had long characterized the Holocaust as presenting fundamental problems to poetry and literature, but in the 1980s and 1990s, the limits of representation as such were a major preoccupation for the French and American academies. Even as depictions of the Holocaust markedly increased, the conventions of its representation narrowed and became highly articulated. As a result, the most widely respected literature, art, and memorials to the Holocaust today tend to resist allegory or catharsis and either focus on personal portraits of victims or emphasize absence through the use of visual minimalism.

My aim here is to analyze a wider range of representational strategies and associative matrices that, for better or worse, also shaped how the Holocaust was remembered before such conventions became predominant. In debates about the documentary value of Shoah over the sentimental realism of Schindler’s List, or the virtues of abstraction over figuration in memorial design, how are we to understand literature and art that does not fit neatly onto the axes of realism or that addresses philosophical questions other than the ethics of representation. Taken together, the literary, legal, and film sources examined in this article can be understood as an alternative pattern of Holocaust representation particularly common before the 1980s. Before the Holocaust became an unimaginable trauma recounted by witnesses in quiet interviews in their homes, its memory was staged elsewhere. Outside of the intimate frames of documentary testimony, those who survived Auschwitz often appeared to be from an entirely different world. The sources in this essay reveal that in the early years of international Holocaust consciousness, Jewish victims and Nazi perpetrators emerged in the shadow of the Cold War as figures of identification somewhere between human and other, inhabiting a region imagined as both a distant and an inevitable destination in the evolution of mankind. In the two decades following the Eichmann trial, memory of Europe’s murdered Jewish populations, ongoing racial violence in the postcolonial world, and the penetration of the “final frontier” became overlapping sites of critical speculation about the nature of modernity and what it means to be a human being. (Continue reading … )

During one of the most famous moments of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, author and Holocaust survivor Yehiel Dinur took the witness stand in the summer of 1961 to deliver a brief and enigmatic testimony about what he termed “the Auschwitz planet.” Over the next two decades, as international Holocaust consciousness re-emerged in the shadow of the Cold War, writers, thinkers, and filmmakers would elaborate on the topography of “Planet Auschwitz,” figuring the Holocaust as an alien world at the limits of modernity. Drawing on a number of sources not always included in canons of art and theory of Holocaust memory, this article shows how the genocide of Europe’s Jews, ongoing global racial conflicts, and the penetration of the “final frontier” became overlapping sites of philosophical speculation during the 1960s and 1970s about the nature of modernity and what it means to be a human being.

KATHRYN L. BRACKNEY is a research fellow at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies and a doctoral candidate at Yale University, where she works in the field of modern European intellectual and cultural history.

Fact Meets Fiction in Selma

Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films

by Jeffrey Knapp

The essay begins:

“This isn’t right.” Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. “I accept this honor,” he’d been saying, “for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed . “Corrie”—it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him—“this ain’t right.” “What’s that?” she asks, entering from another room. “This necktie. It’s not right.” “It’s not a necktie,” she corrects him, “it’s an ascot.” “Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.”

This opening to Selma announces the complexity not only of the movie itself but also of the genre to which it belongs—the historical film. First, there is the tonal instability of the scene, which swerves from the tragedy of “our lost ones” to the comedy of the ascot. Then there is the rhetorical switch from King’s earnest and formal speech to the colloquialism of his “ain’t” and the domestic ease of his “Corrie.” As the film reviewer Michael Sragow comments, these transformations seem intended “to signal to audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look” at King; in general, A. O. Scott argues, Selma is dedicated to “restoring” King’s “human dimensions.” But the start of Selma also briefly confuses us about the meaning of a word that one might have assumed was the last one the movie would want us to feel confused about: “right,” as in “the right to vote,” “the right to assemble, and demonstrate,” “equal rights,” “civil rights.” “I don’t like how this looks,” King says of his ascot: what’s troubling him seems to be an aesthetic, not a moral offense. Another change in emphasis apparently neutralizes that distinction. When Coretta replies that the ascot “looks distinguished and debonair to me,” King clarifies that his objection has all along had a moral dimension to it. “You know what I mean,” he says to his wife: the ascot makes it seem “like we’re living high on the hog dressed like this, while folks back home are . . .  It’s not right.” Just as King wants the language of his speech to match the weightiness of its subject, so he’s concerned that his clothes reflect his social commitments; in aesthetics as in ethics, he believes, “the same principles should apply.” Yet the disorienting shifts of focus in this first scene nevertheless emphasize the potential for principles to become misaligned. Something else “isn’t right” at the start of Selma: the man who speaks these words, the British actor David Oyelowo, is after all merely pretending to be Martin Luther King Jr., and for a moment we might think that he’s expressing nothing more than his dissatisfaction with his performance. The opening to Selma seems, in other words, to anticipate two sorts of skeptical responses to the film: first, that Selma falls short as a historical recreation, and second, that it does so because of its trivializing overinvestment in such merely aesthetic questions as how the recreation “looks.”

These are indeed the very charges that have been leveled against the film, although they have centered less on the portrayal of King than on the representation of another historical figure in the movie, Lyndon Johnson. In an editorial for the Washington Post, the former Johnson aide Joseph Califano Jr. argued that

the makers of the new movie Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

In Selma, Califano charged, aesthetics “trumped” ethics: the producers, screenwriter, and director felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story.” Even reviewers more sympathetic to the film have agreed with Califano about its misrepresentation of LBJ. Though praising Selma as “the best depiction of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s,” Albert R. Hunt nevertheless added that “it needlessly, and erroneously, casts Johnson as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act”; so, too, Ari Berman characterized the film’s account of Johnson as “unnecessarily one-sided.” What troubled all three critics was how “needlessly,” in their view, the makers of Selma had set their aesthetic desire for dramatic “embellishment” against a moral “obligation” to “the facts.”

Proponents of Selma have by and large declined to defend the historical accuracy of Johnson’s portrayal in the film, instead choosing to criticize the very demand for accuracy as hopelessly naive. “Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story?” David Carr asked. “Why yes—just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made.” Differentiating Selma from “a documentary or even a dramatized history,” Jamelle Bouie defined it as “a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history.” Consequently, Bouie added, “it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts” in Selma not as defects but rather “as creative choices—license in pursuit of art.” “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian,” Selma’s director Ava DuVernay similarly maintained in a televised interview with Gwen Ifill: “This is art. This is a movie. This is a film.” According to the reviewer Bilge Ebiri, the only relevant terms for judging the rightness of historical films are aesthetic ones: “These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. . . . They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves.”

“Every year,” the film scholar Jeanine Basinger wearily complained when asked to comment on Selma, “I know someone is going to call me about distortion of history when we hit the Oscars.” But there’s a reason that the objection keeps recurring. If it’s a mistake to look for accuracy in historical films, then why do historical films bother with accuracy at all? Although DuVernay rejected the label of documentarian in her interview with Ifill, that is exactly how she began her directorial career, with the hip-hop documentary This Is the Life (2008)—and her next project after Selma was a documentary on the US criminal justice system, 13th. What’s more, historical verisimilitude mattered enough to DuVernay in making Selma that she meticulously reproduced the look and feel of the sixties in her film, chose actors who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the figures they played, and even spliced actual documentary footage of the final march to Montgomery into Selma’s recreation of it. In the same interview where she claimed that she was no more of a historian than a documentarian, DuVernay expressed her dismay at the “jaw-dropping” ignorance of moviegoers regarding the events her film “chronicled,” and she hoped that her movie would help Selma “resonate with people in the way that it should as being just such a cornerstone of democracy.” Prominent participants in the march have indeed championed the film as historiography. “Everything” except the film’s “depiction of the interaction between King and Johnson,” Andrew Young has said, “they got 100 percent right.” But then how could historical accuracy not be an issue for a film that ends with King’s proclaiming, “His truth is marching on”? The tensions between fact and fiction in Selma are anything but incidental to the movie: they instead reflect the irreducibly hybrid nature of the historical film.

Is it possible to argue that a mix of fact and fiction is necessary to Selma and to historical films generally? Continue reading …

Every historical film must contend with the possibility that its viewers will be scandalized by its mixture of fact and fiction, but no recent historical film has faced such pressure to justify its hybrid nature as Selma has, in large part because no recent film has taken on so momentous and controversial a historical subject: the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The renewed urgency of the issues Selma dramatizes, along with the film’s own commitment to the “moral certainty” of the civil rights movement, helps explain why Selma wavers in a self-defense that links the fictionality of its historical reenactments to the purposely theatrical element of the marches themselves. But politics are not the only problem for fiction in Selma, and to show why, this essay compares Selma to an earlier historical film, The Westerner (1940), that openly flaunts the commercial nature of its fictionality.

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Faculty Affiliate of Berkeley’s Film and Media Department.  He is most recently the author of Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.

Tangled Up in Hitchcock

The Hitchcockian Nudge; or, An Aesthetics of Deception

by Rey Chow and Markos Hadjioannou

The essay begins:

Alfred Hitchcock’s work is, in our view, antithetical to the idea of fallacy, if we understand by fallacy an error committed against a logical mode of validity, an error that needs to be corrected. How this antithesis plays itself out is consistently fascinating. Indeed, it is deception, the state of mind most readily associated with fallacy, that Hitchcock’s cinema loves to portray. In film after film, the condition of being taken in, of mis-taking a situation for what it actually is, constitutes the mise-en-scène not only in the classical, theatrical sense of a setting for the story but also, more critically, in the metaphysical sense of a dynamic play of terrifying forces, the resolution of which (if there is one) often strikes us as conventional, perfunctory, and inadequate. How Hitchcock constructs and furbishes such mise-en-scènes is the focus of the present essay. Specifically, we will examine how he dramatizes deception as a trajectory of the fallacious—that is, as a scenario with its own logics that are played out within the setting of modern Western society.

To begin with, Hitchcock’s films are full of references to institutions that specialize in the verification of evidence. Populated by police officers, private detectives, lawyers, judges, and medical doctors (in particular psychiatrists), his work demonstrates time and again the investments in law and order as imposed by what Michel Foucault calls disciplinary society, in which private citizens’ behavior—mental and psychological as well as physical—is regulated by an enforcement machinery dedicated to finding them guilty. If law and order rely for their functioning on an implicit notion of human error, so to speak, with crime being the most typical manifestation of such error in a secularized context, it could be argued that fallacy does, in a cynical way, play a big role in Hitchcock. In so far as the professionals specializing in rectifying such error are constantly made fun of, their incompetence a woeful match for the intricate ramifications of the error involved, an institutional attempt to handle fallacy (by way of law, policing, or medicine), Hitchcock suggests, can only lead to the perpetuation of the status quo—what we now call normativization—rather than to the truth. Think of the psychiatrist who proudly offers a scientific explanation for Norman Bates’s personality at the end of Psycho (1960); the judges who absolve Gavin Elster, the mastermind of the crime of his wife’s murder, and the doctor who prescribes Mozart for Scottie in his traumatized state in Vertigo (1958); the police, legal officers, and gynecologist whose findings collectively block the truth of Rebecca’s death from surfacing in Rebecca (1940); or the capitalist Mark Rutland’s self-righteous, pop-psych analysis of his wife Marnie’s kleptomania, frigidity, and strained relationship with her mother in Marnie (1964). Such systemic misses, or disjunctures, abound in Hitchcock’s stories, as if to call attention to the consistent failure of precisely those functionaries who serve as the guardians of modern Western society’s self-validating logic, who stand in, as it were, for its punitive superego.

The heart of Hitchcock’s work, then, lies rather in the gap between modern Western society’s ordinary actors—their habits, desires, beliefs, secrets, and fantasies—on the one hand, and the collective procedures, in various forms of the superego, that are devised to catch and trap them, on the other. That human behavior, especially its errors, is always in excess of these procedures of capture, that there is always a slippage between their actions as such and the so-called objective (or superegoistic) rendering of such actions: this shadowy, messy core of Hitchcock’s cinema is what Pascal Bonitzer means by “Hitchcockian suspense,” which, according to Bonitzer, differs from the more mechanical varieties of suspense commonly found in thrillers. “Hitchcock would appear to have ‘hollowed out’ [the classic thrill of] the cinematic chase that he had inherited from Griffith, much as Mallarmé claimed to have ‘hollowed out’ Baudelaire’s verse,” writes Bonitzer. Instead, the classic “chase” is now staged in the form of a steadily expanding contamination or stain:

Hitchcockian narrative obeys the law that the more a situation is somewhat a priori, familiar or conventional, the more it is liable to become disturbing or uncanny, once one of its constituent elements begins to “turn against the wind.” Scenario and staging consist merely in constructing a natural landscape with its perverse element, and in then charting the outcome. Suspense, by contrast with the accelerated editing of races and chases, depends upon the emphasis which the staging places upon the progressive contamination, the progressive or sudden perversion of the original landscape. . . . The film’s movement invariably proceeds from landscape to stain.

Importantly, Bonitzer points to the distinctive nature of Hitchcock’s configuration of suspense. Suspense in Hitchcock’s universe, that is, does not follow from a narrative of linear acceleration that moves rapidly toward an end to the drama. Instead, Hitchcockian suspense arises from a contamination that progresses steadily in its perverse relationship to the world from within which it grows and to which it belongs. Hitchcock’s films do not so much raise the formulaic question of “whodunit” as confront us with large philosophical questions—of why one commits crimes, of the actual motive and purpose behind a particular crime, and, in particular, of the paradoxical forces of binding that bring into focus unexpected or inexplicable alliances, partnerships, love affairs, symmetries, and couplings (for instance, Uncle Charlie and little Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt [1943], Brandon and Philip in Rope [1948], and Melanie Daniels and the various birds in The Birds [1964]). This is a suspense that suspends normality by letting the latter’s perverse underpinnings unravel alongside it, the way a stain seeps through its surrounding material. As it spreads out, the stain brings to the fore erroneous elements that cannot be simply corrected and irrational elements that cannot be easily explained—in short, fallacies that contaminate concurrently with the very act of logical deduction or construction. Continue reading …

This article considers Alfred Hitchcock’s work in relation to the connotations of “fallacy” within conventional settings of modern Western society. Focusing on two films, Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rear Window (1954), we point to the phenomenon of the incidental push that leads toward an inextricable entanglement of characters, events, and psychic forces in what appear to be logical courses of action. We name this push “the Hitchcockian nudge.”

REY CHOW is Anne Firor Scott Professor of Literature at Duke University. The author of numerous influential monographs, she is also the coeditor, with James A. Steintrager, of the anthology Sound Objects, forthcoming from Duke University Press.

MARKOS HADJIOANNOU is Assistant Professor of Literature and of the Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University. He is the author of From Light to Byte: Toward an Ethics of Digital Cinema (2012) and of a number of essays on cinema technologies and aesthetics.

New Special Issue, Representations 140

NOW AVAILABLE

Number 139, Summer 2017 (read for free at UC Press)

Special Issue: FALLACIES

Where does the history of fallacies leave the contemporary critic?

It is hard not to see that we are living in in an especially fallacious age; fallacies are evidently psychologically compelling. They appeal to our fear, anger, or pity; to our respect for authority; or to our faith in the power of numbers. A president will be blamed for an economic downturn that precedes him or credited for job growth that is inconsequent to his acts. As mistakes of logic, fallacies are not lies and not exactly nonsense either. Fallacies, in other words, are things that, not being valid, “are susceptible of being mistaken” for valid.

In this collection of essays, eleven scholars of literature, logic, philosophy, film, and art history take up a variety of ways in which, in our disciplines and critical practices, truth appears. The essays, in explaining a few of the well-known fallacies and naming others, are all concerned with ways of reading that bring ideas and experiences to a subject that are not germane to the subject. They ask us to look, as I. A. Richards does, at “instances of irrelevance” in thinking, at what fits and doesn’t fit or is there by accident. They raise our awareness of those “inadequate” revelations that W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, in their famous essay on the intentional fallacy, tried to arm us against and exclude from critical judgment “like lumps from pudding and ‘bugs’ from machinery.”

To return to the question of fallacies in the twenty-first century is to ask what is most material to our arguments if we want them to be practical and satisfying and if, in Beardsley’s words, “we wish to get out of them what is most worth getting.”

Introduction: The Issue with Fallacies
Elisa Tamarkin

“You Mean My Whole Fallacy Is Wrong”: On Technological Determinism
John Durham Peters

Fallacy: Close Reading and the Beginning of Philosophy
D. Vance Smith

How to Think a Figure; or, Hegel’s Circles
Andrew Cole

The Interdisciplinary Fallacy
Jonathan Kramnick

The Destruction of Hood’s Ordnance Train: A Love Story
Alexander Nemerov

Compositionism: Plants, Poetics, Possibilities; or, Two Cheers for Fallacies, Especially Pathetic Ones!
Maureen N. McLane

Materialist Vitalism or Pathetic Fallacy: The Case of the House of Usher
Branka Arsić

Reading for Mood
Jonathan Flatley

The Hitchcockian Nudge; or, An Aesthetics of Deception
Rey ChowMarkos Hadjioannou

The Fallacy of “Fallacy” and Its Implications for Contemporary Literary Theory
Charles Altieri

Advance Look: Jeffrey Knapp on “Selma”

In recognition of the speed at which the world and its histories are changing, we’ve just posted an advance version of Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” by Jeffrey Knapp. The essay will appear in print and online in our Winter 2019 issue, but you can read it here right now.

In the essay, Knapp compares the place of historical fictionality in William Wyler’s 1940 film The Westerner and Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Selma.

“’This isn’t right,’” the essay begins, in the voice of Martin Luther King as depicted by David Oyelowo, in Selma. “Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. ‘I accept this honor,’ he’d been saying, ‘for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.’ What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed. ‘Corrie’ — it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him — ‘this ain’t right.’ ‘What’s that?’ she asks, entering from another room. ‘This necktie. It’s not right.’ ‘It’s not a necktie,’ she corrects him, ‘it’s an ascot.’ ‘Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.’” Read full article …

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. He is also a contributing editor for Representations.

Talk About Pleasing Everyone

Berkeley Book Chats
at the Townsend Center for the Humanities
presents Jeffrey Knapp talking about his book

Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood

12:00 pm to 1:00 pm Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Shakespeare’s plays were immensely popular in their own day yet history refuses to think of them as mass entertainment. In Pleasing Everyone, Professor of English Jeffrey Knapp highlights the uncanny resemblance between Renaissance drama and the incontrovertibly mass medium of Golden-Age Hollywood cinema. Through explorations of such famous plays as HamletThe Roaring Girl, and The Alchemist, and such celebrated films as Citizen KaneThe Jazz Singer, and City Lights, Knapp challenges some of our most basic assumptions about the relationship between art and mass audiences and encourages us to resist the prejudice that mass entertainment necessarily simplifies and cheapens.

After an introduction, Knapp will speak briefly about his book and then open the floor for discussion.

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. The chapter “Throw That Junk!” in Pleasing Everyone was first published in Representations 122 (Spring 2013). An advance version of his new essay “Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films” will be posted here in early October.

Book Chat with D. A. Miller

Join a discussion with Berkeley professor D. A. Miller about his recent book Hidden Hitchcock 

Wednesday, Mar 8, 2017 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Presented by the Townsend Center for the Humanities

No filmmaker has more successfully courted mass-audience understanding than Alfred Hitchcock, and none has been studied more intensively by scholars. In Hidden Hitchcock, D. A. Miller discovers what has remained unseen in Hitchcock’s movies, a secret style that imbues his films with a radical duplicity.

Focusing on three films—Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong Man—Miller shows how Hitchcock anticipates, even demands, what he terms a “Too-Close Viewer.” Dwelling within us all and vigilant even when everything appears to be in good order, this “Too-Close Viewer” attempts to see more than the director points out.

author photo in colorD. A. Miller is Professor of the Graduate School and the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent books include 8 ½ and Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style. In 2013, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Miller has published on Hitchcock twice in Representations: “Hitchcock’s Understyle: A Too-Close View of Rope“ (121, Winter 2013) and “Anal Rope“ (31, Fall 1990).

Fiery Cinema

Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945

by Weihong Bao

Berkeley Book Chats

Wednesday, Oct 19, 2016 | 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm
Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

Mapping the changing identity of cinema in China in relation to Republican-era print media, theatrical performance, radio broadcasting, television, and architecture, in Fiery Cinema Weihong Bao constructs an archaeology of Chinese media culture. She grounds the question of spectatorial affect and media technology in China’s experience of mechanized warfare, colonial modernity, and the shaping of the public into consumers, national citizens, and a revolutionary collective subject.Bao_large

A major contribution to the theory and history of media, Fiery Cinema rethinks the nexus of affect and medium to offer key insights into the relationship of cinema to the public sphere and the making of the masses.

Weihong Bao is associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Film and Media at UC Berkeley. Her short essay “From Duration to Temporization: Rethinking Time and Space for Durational Art” will appear in the fall issue of Representations (the special issue “Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts”), available next month.

After an introduction by Andrew Jones (East Asian Languages and Cultures, UC Berkeley, and Representations editorial board member), Bao will speak briefly about her work and then open the floor for discussion.

D. A. Miller on Hitchcock

HIDDEN HITCHCOCK BY D. A. MILLER
a University Press Books event
University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 13
5:30 PM — 7:00 PM

unnamedHidden Hitchcock, D. A. Miller does what seems impossible: he discovers what has remained unseen in Hitchcock’s movies, a secret style that imbues his films with a radical duplicity.

Focusing on three films—Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong ManHidden Hitchcock shows how Hitchcock anticipates, even demands a “Too-Close Viewer.” Dwelling within us all and vigilant even when everything appears to be in good order, this Too-Close Viewer attempts to see more than the director points out, to expand the space of the film and the duration of the viewing experience. And, thanks to Hidden Hitchcock, that obsessive attention is rewarded. In Hitchcock’s visual puns, his so-called continuity errors, and his hidden appearances (not to be confused with his cameos), Miller finds wellsprings of enigma.

Hidden Hitchcock is a revelatory work that not only shows how little we know this best known of filmmakers, but also how near such too-close viewing comes to cinephilic madness.

Rope, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948

Rope, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948

About The Author

D. A. Miller is Professor of the Graduate School and the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent books include 8 ½ and Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style. In 2013, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Miller has published on Hitchcock twice in Representations: “Hitchcock’s Understyle: A Too-Close View of Rope (121, Winter 2013) and “Anal Rope (31, Fall 1990).