Lightning Flashes: A Cinephiliac History of Classic Hollywood

Material Information

Lightning Flashes: A Cinephiliac History of Classic Hollywood
Copyright Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Authorship attribution ( jstor )
Film criticism ( jstor )
Fur ( jstor )
Lightning ( jstor )
Motion picture industry ( jstor )
Movies ( jstor )
Narratives ( jstor )
Screenplays ( jstor )
Surrealism ( jstor )
Viewers ( jstor )
City of Hollywood ( local )

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Holding Location:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
Copyright Rashna Wadia Richards. Permission granted to University of Florida to digitize and display this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.
Embargo Date:
Resource Identifier:
649814562 ( OCLC )


This item has the following downloads:

richards_r ( .pdf )





























































































































































































































Full Text







Copyright 2006


Rashna Wadia Richards


For their guidance and support, I would like to acknowledge my dissertation

committee members, Robert B. Ray, Greg Ulmer, Susan Hegeman, and Nora Alter. I

thank Greg for helping me frame and articulate the critical issues engaged in this project.

His constant and enthusiastic support, especially during the dissertation's final stages, has

meant a great deal to me. I thank Susan for teaching me to view my work more critically

and to anticipate opposing points of view. Nora's discerning critiques have enabled me to

challenge my assumptions and broaden my perspective, and I appreciate her advice and

approachability. Above all, I am grateful to Robert, whose influence on my work is

immeasurable. During a graduate seminar in the fall of 2001, he introduced me to the role

of cinephilia in film studies and taught me that experimentation and discipline can co-

exist. Since then, he has been an enduring source of wise counsel, support, and

inspiration. I feel truly honored to have spent the last five years under his mentorship.

I would also like to thank my family for their warmth and encouragement. I am

grateful to my parents and my in-laws for their countless kindnesses over the years. I owe

my deepest gratitude to my husband, Jason Richards, whom I met at the University of

Florida. His unwavering devotion and unfailing wit have been invaluable in navigating

the challenges and joys of being an academic couple. I thank him for sharing my passion

for the movies; for serving as a sounding board for all of my ideas; for being my biggest

cheerleader and finest critic. Without him, nothing would be possible or worthwhile.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ................................................ ...... iii

LIST OF FIGURES ...................................... vi

ABSTRACT ..................................................... vii



A H ollyw ood B beginning .................................................................................
The Cinephiliac Turn ............ .. .... .................. ......................10
Cinephiliac H history ................... ........... .. ........ ................... ....25
N otes ...................................... ........................... ........................ 35


A Funny Thing H happens ....................................................... 38
"Two Unlikely Worlds Are Suddenly Joined" .................... .................. ....44
Refus[e]ing History ......................................... ...... ..... ...52
Episodes in Chiffon ................... ....... .................. 58
"Hey, What's the Big Idea Anyway?" .......... .......................... 74
N otes .................. .......... .............................................. ........ 76

3 LOOSE ENDS: THE STUFF THAT MOVIES ARE MADE OF .............................80

A Telephone-Bell Rings in Darkness ...................................... ............... 80
"W hat W as the Nickel for?" .................... .............................85
On a W walking Tour of Hollywood................................ ............ ..... ...96
Trailing The Maltese Falcon ............................................ 101
"Who Ever Heard of a Wrong Number?"............ .... ...............120
Notes .......................... .. ...... ..... .......... 122

THE STRANGER CASE OF THE MISSING AUTEUR) ......................................128

Whodunit? .................... ......... ....... .......... .. 128
In the Name of the Author ....................... ......... ... ................134

Surfacing Evidence ................... .............................. .......... .......... ............... 150
Naming Names ......................................... ........ ...... 162
"This is Orson W elles" ..................... .......... ....... .... ......... .182
Notes ......................................................... ................. 184

5 "THERE ARE MANY SUCH STORIES": AN AFTERWORD .............................189

A H ollyw ood E n ding ........................................................................................... 189
The Experimental Turn..........................................................191

LIST OF REFERENCES ................................................... 195

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................................................ ............... 212



Figure page

2-1 The unmotivated overhead shot of the fur coat falling ........... .................39

2-2 J. B. Ball hurls the coat from the balcony .........................................40

2-3 Mary Smith is suddenly hit by the fur coat................... ..........41

3-1 A new case: "suppose you tell me about it from the very beginning" ...................102

3-2 The partner is shot: "Miles Archer dead?"........ .............. ... ..... .......... 108

3-3 The detective becomes a suspect: "you fellows trying to rope me made me
nervous" .................... .......... .................. 110

3-4 An odd delivery: "why couldn't he have stayed alive long enough to tell us
something?" .................. .... .. ........ .. .......... 115

3-5 The falcon turns out fake: "the, uh, stuff that dreams are made of' ....................118

3-6 The telephone rings: all is lost.................................... .................. 121

4-1 The Nazi m astermind signs his nam e................................................... 129

4-2 Hitler drawing faulty swastikas...... .......... ..................... 182

5-1 Lights, wind, snow, steam: action! .............................. 190

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements of the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Rashna Wadia Richards

August 2006

Chair: Robert B. Ray
Major Department: English

This project proposes an experimental mode of historicizing Classic Hollywood

cinema by using moments of intense visual pleasure as prompts for cinematic research.

During its classical phase (roughly 1945-1968), cinephiles focused mainly on recapturing

euphoric visual moments-a peculiar detail, a curious gesture, an idiosyncratic trace-in

writing. Film studies' post-1968 investment in ideological critique discredited this

discourse as quaint and irrelevant. However, following Susan Sontag's lament that the

distinctive love inspired by a century of cinema has ended, the last decade has seen a

resurgence of interest in cinephilia, although most recent studies have either historicized

the fetishistic discourse of classical cinephilia or theorized its transformation in today's

global film culture. This work differs: rather than seeing cinephilia as an uncritical

buffism, I propose that cinephiliac moments hold the potential to prompt unanticipated

discussions between film history, theory, and visual culture. Cinephiliac moments are like

Walter Benjamin's "lightning flashes": they pulsate briefly, sometimes in the margins of

our attention, exceeding their narrative contexts and offering unconventional points of

entry into the cinematic and cultural terrain of Classic Hollywood.

The project treats cinephiliac moments as clues toward an alternative

historiography, one modeled on Benjamin's figures of historical materialism: the

ragpicker, the flaneur, and the detective. After theorizing the notion of cinephilia in the

introduction, each chapter issues from a Benjaminian figure, deployed both thematically

and methodologically as a way to activate the excessive signification concealed in

cinephiliac moments from otherwise standard studio films. Chapter 2 begins with a

mysterious fur coat falling on Jean Arthur's head in Mitchell Leisen's Easy Living. Like

Benjamin's ragpicker, I work my way through sartorial articles from 1930s Hollywood

and uncover unforeseen parallels between the studio system, Surrealism, and the fashion

industry. Chapter 3 imagines a flaneur's gaze at the enigmatic objects of film noir. On a

walking tour of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, I pause to look at a hand-rolled

cigarette, a buzzing telephone, random wall-hangings of horses, in order to address the

relationship between the striking film still and the narrative. Chapter 4 examines the

rather conventional "signature" moment in Orson Welles's The Stranger, where a former

Nazi mastermind reveals his identity by sketching a swastika on a notepad in a phone

booth. Using the Benjaminian detective, I investigate the strange case of the missing

auteur. Finally, Chapter 5 reflects on experimental criticism as a research strategy.

Overall, in this cinephiliac history, Classic Hollywood appears not as a consistent system

with a uniform style but as an uncanny network of echoes and coincidences.


The things that have gone out of fashion have become inexhaustible containers of
-Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, "J [Baudelaire]"1

If we toss away an older theory like an old dress or a used car, we lose an important part
of a long conversation.
-James Naremore, "The Future of Academic Film Study"

Is there a theory that can make use of the concept of contingency?
-Niklas Luhmann, Observations on Modernity

A Hollywood Beginning

In the spring of 1915, a film struck America like a bolt of lightning. Technically

innovative and epic in scale, D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) was the most

expensive, ambitious, and prestigious film of its day. It caused quite a stir. Released on

the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the film sparked mass protests as well

as wild applause for its adaptation of Thomas Dixon's sentimental novel, The Clansman.2

Griffith's film, which followed Dixon's text closely, told the tale of the defeat of the

South in the Civil War and the reemergence of white political and social domination

during Reconstruction. As an intertitle states, Griffith intended to portray "the agony

which the South endured that a nation might be born." Just as the war and its aftermath

were passing from memory into mythology, the film argued that the Ku Klux Klan had

risen to restore order in the post-war South, uniting it with the North and thereby

signaling the birth of a nation. But, as Everett Carter points out, "Only by a singular

distortion of meaning could the film be interpreted as the story of a country's genesis"

(9). Instead, the origin that it more accurately announced was of the establishment of a

brand new form of cinema. The Birth of a Nation in fact signified the birth of narration,

for its success codified once and for all the tradition of linear continuity filmmaking. It

was so popular that it became the first film ever to be shown at the White House. It is

quite remarkable that when this groundbreaking narrative film was screened for President

Woodrow Wilson, he reportedly proclaimed: "it is like history written with lightning."3

For lightning can be powerful, but it is also disruptive and unpredictable.

The disruptive potential of the lightning flash is the subject of this study. More

specifically, I am interested in moments of intense visual pleasure that rupture the linear

structure of narrative cinema. These moments reveal the spark of contingency that

threatens to undercut the logical sequentiality of the narratives that contain them. Within

their causal storylines, they appear as if by accident. Rather than advancing the plot, they

distract attention from it. In short, these moments signify in excess, thereby

foregrounding the materiality of cinema at the expense of storytelling. I locate these

excessive moments within the tradition of cinephilia. In the next section, I will provide a

historical overview of cinephilia and its role in film studies; here, let me briefly identify

some key features and concerns. At its most basic, cinephilia is an obsession with a

peculiar detail, a curious gesture, an idiosyncratic trace. Especially as practiced by the

Cahiers du Cinema critics during the classical phase of cinephilia (roughly between 1945

and 1968), it designates a fetishistic mode of spectatorship where marginal elements in a

cinematic frame can explode into moments of revelation. Cinephiliac discourse, at least

in the classical sense, amounts more or less to a serialization of pleasurable moments.

However, cinephiliac moments are qualitatively different from those that are intended to

be memorable. Because cinephiles adopt a mode of spectatorship that focuses on the

marginal, cinephiliac moments are peripheral moments that are assigned, as Roger

Cardinal argues, "wholly 'unreasonable' priority or value" by their viewer (114). In that

sense, cinephilia is generally regarded as a personal discourse, an attempt to capture in

writing the initial encounter with the lightning flash.

Using the cinephiliac moment as a point of departure, this project attempts to draw

on the spark of cinephilia for doing film studies. I employ cinephiliac moments as a way

to extend the pleasure of the cinephiliac experience into an experimental practice of film

criticism. In this study, cinephilia is more than the mere experience of epiphanic

moments. In a dialogue with Noel King, Paul Willemen identifies cinephilia with

resistance. Cinephilia is indeed a way of seeing, a posture, a personal relationship with

the screen. But it can be more than that. Following Willemen's contention that cinephilia

hints at "something which resists, which escapes existing networks of critical discourse

and theoretical frameworks" (231), this project proposes that cinephiliac moments hold

the potential to prompt unanticipated discussions between film history, theory, and visual

culture. The principal cinematic terrain where I conduct this experiment is Classic

Hollywood, where the continuity style of filmmaking inaugurated by Griffith's Birth of a

Nation was perfected. The Institutional Mode of Representation, as Noel Burch has called

it, was a rigidly standardized form of filmmaking that would not readily tolerate any

manner of contingency. Therefore, disruptive behavior would cause some sparks to fly.

Yet, as Mary Anne Doane rightly argues, "because cinephilia has to do with an excess in

relation to systematicity, it is most appropriate for a cinema that is perceived as highly

coded and commercialized" (Emergence 226).4 What would a method that activates the

excessive signification concealed in cinephiliac moments appearing suddenly, like

lightning flashes, in this highly coded and commercialized cinema look like? Or, to

paraphrase Niklas Luhmann's question cited in the epigraph, is there a critical approach

that can make use of the experience of cinephilia? Perhaps the best place to begin

thinking about this critical approach is with a moment of cinephilia. As Walter Benjamin,

whose work deeply informs this project, puts it: "In the fields with which we are

concerned, knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder

that follows" ("N [On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]" 456).

On the cross section of an ancient sequoia, a black-gloved hand traces the passage

of a lifetime in a moment. The concentric rings on the felled trunk denote the celebrated

events of history, marking the conquest of territory, the promulgation of a charter, the

birth of a nation. But Madeleine Elster is not entranced by this imposing

dendrochronology. Her finger lingers over a gap in that grand narrative, where it

enigmatically sketches her own life and "death." "Somewhere in here I was born. And

there I died," she says, "It was only a moment for you. You took no notice." The camera

now pulls back, showing Madeleine turn away from the sequoia and from Scottie in a

trance-like state. In a long shot, we see her wander away into the forest, her diminutive

figure receding into the dark, brooding redwoods. Scottie trails behind her, but in a

moment Madeleine disappears among the immense Big Basin sequoias.

Every time I watch this scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), I find

myself surprised by its visual intensity. I am taken aback by this charged moment, but I

cannot quite point out why.6 I scan the image of the lingering finger pointing at the dead

trunk for clues. Is it the starkness of the black glove moving slowly across the white

spiraling rings? Or the equally dark shadow it casts on the cross section of the tree? Is it

the mere fact that she uses her left hand instead of right? Or that slight tremor I notice as

the hand moves, echoed by the quiver in Kim Novak's voice? I cannot quite put my

finger on the emotional intensity this moment evokes, but there is a there there.

Writing about a similar highly charged moment from another Hitchcock classic,

North by Northwest (1959), David Ehrenstein suggests that such intensities can be crucial

for film criticism. In a critical round-robin exchange with Raymond Durgnat and

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ehrenstein responds to Gilbert Adair's comment that during the

crop-duster sequence, he (Adair) is always distracted by the color of Cary Grant's socks.

Ehrenstein argues that Adair's response, of "not paying attention during one of the most

famous set pieces in movie history," cannot be easily dismissed, for such a response goes

"against the grain of the film's affectivity" (61). What Adair's response suggests-

interestingly, James Naremore has pointed out that many film critics have remarked on

Cary Grant's socks being an exciting, if intrusive, detail in that scene-is that films are

more than their continuity narratives. That a film's non-narrative elements are worthy of

analysis is a truism. But Ehrenstein's point here is that what is particularly fascinating

about Adair's experience is that the detail about Grant's socks distracts him precisely

"when the economy of narrative articulation is functioning at its most ruthless pace" (61).

What can it mean that Adair, the viewer, is distracted by a seemingly marginal detail just

when he is expected to be absorbed in the plot? For Ehrenstein, it suggests a kind of

spectatorial autonomy that is very much at the heart of cinephilia itself (although he does

not actually name it as such). "What it proves," he claims, "isn't that Adair is nodding at

the switch but rather that he's really on the ball" (61). What Adair's experience also

alludes to is the difference between a memorable and a cinephiliac moment. The famous

crop-duster sequence is expected to be visually impressive and therefore unforgettable,

but the detail of Cary Grant's socks in fact draws attention away from it. The way Adair

views the scene is ultimately disruptive. If Ehrenstein is correct, what can we do with

Adair's experience, when he's really on the ball? I'll return to this question from a

different perspective in a moment, but let me turn again to my own instance of disruption

from Vertigo.

It makes sense to begin a consideration of cinephilia with Vertigo. Its narrative

recounts an obsessive quest for something that, in the end, remains inexplicable.

Moreover, as Geoffrey O'Brien notes, some of its passionate viewers, whom we might

call cinephiles, "seem fated to reenact Vertigo's central gesture-the meticulous but

fruitless attempt to re-create a lost object-with regard to the movie itself' (132). One

such viewer O'Brien notes is filmmaker Chris Marker, who returns to the sites of Vertigo,

both literally and metaphorically. In La Jetee (1962), for instance, Marker cites the Muir

Woods sequence where Kim Novak points to the dates on the felled sequoia; in Sans

Soleil (1983), he retraces the sites of Scottie's wanderings, including Ernie's restaurant

and the San Francisco Bay. For O'Brien, these returns suggest that Vertigo might be the

ultimate cinephiliac object that remains enigmatic.

Christopher D. Morris approaches the issue of Vertigo's allure slightly differently,

suggesting that the film highlights the futile search for something tenable. Drawing on

Laura Hinton's conclusion that Vertigo both invites and frustrates a feminist reading,

Morris argues that that is because the film poses a challenge to any idea of reading or

analysis itself.7 Like the opening sequence, where the policeman slips away from

Scottie's hand and he is left holding onto nothing but air, Vertigo's meanings are just as

tenuous. Morris claims that "the credits should warn viewers that pursuit of any tenable

truth of Madeleine's profile-her hidden identity, her dark side, her role as the

unrecuperable place of the mother-may end only in new shadow, in nothingness and

tautology" (188-89). This is not to suggest that the insights of feminist or Marxist or

postcolonial analyses of the film are not valid-Morris even claims that they are

unavoidable-but that Vertigo warns film scholars against interpretation, against "the

pursuit of meaning in film criticism" (Morris 189; emphasis added). What Vertigo in fact

foregrounds, then, is its own unreadability through film studies' established methods of

semiotic analysis.

Cinephiliac moments, like the one I described earlier, pose a similar problem. They

not only exceed their narrative contexts but also appear ultimately unreadable through a

gesture of hermeneutics. As Christian Keathley rightly suggests, cinephilia seems to be

"an area of spectatorial experience that resists co-optation by meaning; indeed, if the

cinephiliac moment is among the most intense of cinematic experiences, it seems to draw

its intensity partly from the fact that it cannot be reduced or tamed by interpretation" (9).

So, the question before us as far as cinephilia is concerned is not only what we might say

about a cinephiliac moment. That is not as significant as how we might say something

about it.

Interestingly, saying something or, more accurately, writing something about these

moments has always been, according to Willemen, a primary response to the experience

of cinephilia. A cinephiliac moment, as I have suggested, contains the spark of

contingency, "which, when encountered in a film, spark[s] something which then

produces the energy and desire to write, to find formulations to convey something about

the intensity of that spark" (Willemen 235). During the two decades following the end of

World War II until the political shift ushered in by the events of May 1968-a period that

can be considered the heyday of cinephilia-the pages of Cahiers du Cinema were filled

with euphoric writing that attempted to recapture the intense visual pleasure of specific

cinematic moments. This discourse, Willemen notes, "reproduced in a professional and

sometimes pleasurably stylistic way aspects which the non-critics (of which I was a part

at that time) reproduced in their daily conversations" (233). That is why cinephiliac

discourse was driven by detailed descriptions of the privileged moments. In other words,

it was an idiosyncratic love of the cinema, reproduced idiosyncratically. For the writing

attempted to return to and reproduce the original, pleasurable moment of cinephilia.

Consider, for instance, Francois Truffaut's description of his privileged moment from

Howard Hawks's Scarface (1932):

The most striking scene in the movie is Boris Karloff s death. He squats down to
throw a ball in a game of ninepins and doesn't get up; a rifle shot prostrates him.
The camera follows the ball he's thrown as it knocks down all the pins except one
that keeps spinning until it finally falls over, the exact symbol of Karloff himself,
the last survivor of a rival gang that's been wiped out by [Paul] Muni. This isn't
literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema. (70)

What Truffaut focuses on here is the visual force of the moment. That the last bowling

pin symbolizes Karloff as the last survivor in the narrative is only secondary to the

pleasure of seeing that last bowling pin falling. This isn't analysis. It may be a sketch or a

review. It is certainly cinephilia. Truffaut's piece confirms Willemen's argument that

"cinephilia demands a gestural outlet in writing. ... The excess experienced needs an

extra, physical ritual, a gesture, in addition to watching and talking" (239). For a

cinephile, talking or even reading about the movies is not enough. Cinephilia desires

written discourse.

Historically, this desire to write, to find a gestural outlet, has been supported by the

establishment of the fan magazine or fanzine. But, as one might expect, cinephiliac

discourse in fanzines has been capricious, not theoretically rigorous. As Willemen notes,

cinephiliac discourse in fan magazines has the quality and tone of conversations between

film buffs. "When my school friends and I talked about the films we had seen," he

suggests, "there was an overlap between the way we did that and the professional,

stylized public performance of critical discourse as circulated by film magazines" (232).

For cinephiliac discourse in fanzines aims mostly at articulating the pleasures of the

cinematic text. That is perhaps why cinephilia is generally eschewed in film studies. In

fact, this desire to write about cinephiliac moments has not seriously been taken up by

academic film scholars. It is usually considered, as Doane points out, "a somewhat

marginalized, furtive, even illicit relation to the cinema rather than a theoretical stance. It

is the property of the film buff rather than the film theorist" (Emergence 225). The next

section theorizes the concept of cinephilia in order to show that the practice of isolating

peculiar details signals more than just an uncritical buffism. Although cinephilia remains

at the margins of film studies, there has been considerable critical interest in it as an

object of study in recent years. I will trace these developments and then locate cinephiliac

moments within the tradition of other disruptive viewing practices. Then, I will show

how Benjamin's theory of historical materialism can be used as an analogical method for

writing a cinephiliac history of Classic Hollywood cinema, one that provides "an escape

from systematicity-both that of a tightly regulated classical system and that of its

vaguely oppressive abstract analysis" (Doane, Emergence 228). Cinephiliac moments, I

will ultimately argue, are like lightning flashes: they pulsate briefly, sometimes in the

margins of our attention, exceeding their narrative contexts and offering unconventional

points of entry into the cinematic and cultural landscape of Classic Hollywood.

The Cinephiliac Turn

At the centennial marking the invention of cinema, Susan Sontag lamented the

fading of what was arguably the most dynamic and influential art form of the twentieth

century.8 Tracing the "life cycle" of cinema's first one hundred years, she argued that the

medium once regarded as "quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and

mysterious and erotic and moral-all at the same time" has now become "a decadent art"

("Century" 118, 117). Why? Because what was once a vibrant medium of cultural

expression has now fallen prey to hyperindustrialization. Back then, "[y]ou fell in love

not just with actors but with cinema itself' ("Century" 120). The then she is referring to

is mainly the period consisting of the two decades after World War II, when cinephilia

made its debut, which was "also the moment when the Hollywood studio system was

breaking up" ("Century" 120). Back then, "going to movies, thinking about movies,

talking about movies became a passion among university students and other young

people" ("Century" 120). Back then, before the age of television, cinema had sweeping

cultural and intellectual force. While this kind of cine-love can be traced back to the

Impressionists and Surrealists of an earlier generation, it was the two-decade postwar

period that became the moment of cinephilia. Back then, cinephiles believed that "the

movies encapsulated everything-and they did. It was both the book of art and the book

of life" ("Century" 118). Fuelled by an intense desire to experiment with filmmaking

techniques and an equally intense nostalgia for the disintegrating Hollywood studio

system, "cinema appeared to be reborn" ("Century" 121).

But today, according to Sontag, that kind of passion for the movies-for both

avant-garde and popular cinema-is dead. The purpose of Sontag's centennial dirge was

not just to proclaim that cinema was dead. With the balance having tipped decisively in

favor of cinema as an industry, she argued, cine-love itself has now passed away.

Cinephilia, which for Sontag was "not simply love of but a certain taste in films

(grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's

glorious past)," has not survived ("Century" 122; original emphasis). Rather than serving

as the final word on this passionate mode of spectatorship, however, Sontag's elegy

sparked a resurgence of international interest in cinephilia. Since then, numerous

reassessments of cinephilia have appeared, mostly from film critics, filmmakers, and

independent scholars worldwide. Indeed, if the period between 1945 and the late 1960s

was the moment of cinephilia, then the last decade has witnessed something of a

resurrection. Cinephilia may be dead, but its ghost still lingers in contemporary writing

about cinema.

Before turning to the reception of cinephilia by academic film studies, I would like

to discuss another camp of film scholars, who rejected outright Sontag's premise that

cinephilia was dead and instead set about defining its transformation in today's

globalized film culture. Although the conversation about the reemergence of cinephilia a

decade ago may have begun wistfully, considering what it was and mourning its alleged

demise, the focus quickly shifted in some quarters to what it might yet become. In 1999,

the Australian-based online journal Senses of Cinema issued an exciting collection of

essays titled, "Permanent Ghosts: Cinephilia in the Age of the Internet and Video." This

series refutes the notion of the death of cinephilia by examining it in relation to new

technologies. Confronting an earlier generation's melancholic nostalgia, this collection of

essays, written mostly by cinephiles born after the end of classical cinephilia, explores

the transformation of international film and film culture in the era of video and the

internet. The debate for younger cinephiles is not whether cinephilia is still viable; their

assumption is that cinephilia is not dead. Their primary concern, however, is with new

forms of cine-love in the age of new media.

The most influential recent work on contemporary cinephilia is Jonathan

Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin's edited anthology, Movie Mutations, which consists of

five years of correspondence between film scholars and filmmakers from around the

globe, reflecting on "the changing face of world cinephilia." Rosenbaum and Martin are

primarily interested in delineating a transnational approach to contemporary cinephilia,

calling for the formation of global communities of cinephiles, whose collaborations can

be facilitated by new media technologies as well as international film festivals. Their

focus is on employing web-based communities and film festivals as sites for

rediscovering cinematic pleasures in independents, the avant-garde, and films from

developing national cinemas for the second generation of cinephiles. Sontag's claims to

the contrary, the new cinephilia appears to be living up to the spirit, even frenzy, of

classical cinephilia. Rosenbaum and Martin's anthology has been enormously significant,

inviting alternative readings of contemporary cinephilia in a transnational movie world.

Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener take up that call. In Cinephilia: Movies, Love

and Memory, they present a series of essays rethinking present-day cinephilia "as an

umbrella term for a number of different affective engagements with the moving image"

(14). Like Rosenbaum and Martin, they operate on the premise that cinephilia is thriving.

Yet, compared to their classical predecessors, the new generation of cinephiles is slightly

differently networked. The essays in de Valck and Hagener's collection explore these

differences, tracing the global significance of contemporary film culture as well as

exploring the changes in marketing, distribution, and filmmaking that have emerged in

response to the second wave of cinephilia. The most noteworthy in the volume is Thomas

Elsaesser's contribution on the detours and deferrals of what he calls cinephilia, take two.

"The new cinephilia," he argues in the book's opening essay, "is turning the unlimited

archive of our media memory, including the unloved bits and pieces, the long forgotten

films and programs into potentially desirable and much valued clips, extras and bonuses"

(41). In other words, the new cinephile has become a collector and a trader, a lover and a

savvy consumer. At once global and local, new cinephilia has embraced new

technologies, with all the benefits of file swapping, sampling, and even bootlegging, to

further democratize the pleasures of cinema.

Growing up in Bombay, India, my own initial interest in cinephilia was fuelled by

these emerging new technologies, first by the boom in video and cable television in the

1980s and then the internet (and local film festivals) in the 1990s. The coming of video

provided access to a whole new world and history of cinema. As Adrian Martin puts it,

"Video consumption completely altered the character of film cultures all over the globe:

suddenly, there were self-cultivated specialists everywhere in previously elite areas like

B-cinema, exploitation cinema, and so-called cult cinema" (6-7). For my father, an "old"

Hollywood film buff, the age of video consumption meant the possibility of owning

movies he had grown up with. His preferred genre was the B-western. He would watch

over and over John Sturges's Last Train from Gun-Hill (1959), pausing the VCR each

time at his own privileged moments, gazing at the image, and then asking me, "Did you

catch it?". When Truffaut remarked that whenhn the use of video cassettes becomes

widespread and people watch films they love at home, anyone who owns a copy of Mr.

Arkadin [an Orson Welles film] will be lucky indeed" ("Foreword" 19), he rightly

anticipated the numerous possibilities for the second generation of cinephiles in the age

of video and the internet and hence the renewal of cinephilia itself. While I did go to the

movies-at the Eros Theater or the Regal Cinema, both built during the cinema boom in

the 1930s-my most vivid memories of movie-going consist of going to a friend's house

to watch movies on video and later on DVD. What I remember noticing in those movies

are the little details. In the grainy (usually black-and-white) images of (usually low-

quality) videotape, I remember "catching," in my father's terms, the wall-hangings of

horses in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), the enormous coffee cup in the diner

scene in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), and Marilyn Monroe being violently shaken

on the beach in Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952).9 Years later, imagine my intrigue

when I discovered that there was a name for this way of watching movies and that it

could be a serious object of academic study.

The reason I trace this brief personal history is to show, as James Naremore puts it,

"where I came in" as well as to confess that my interest in Classic Hollywood cinema

was shaped by my experience as a cinephile before I became seriously engaged in

studying it. But what it also demonstrates is that cinephilia can be a very slippery

concept. After all, cinephilia cannot be everything that has to do with the "love of

cinema." Moreover, recent studies of cinephilia, although in ways very different from

those of the classical cinephiles, have been more or less descriptive. Either new

cinephiles have focused on historicizing what classical cinephilia was, or they have tried

to show how new cinephilia is (or is not) like the old one. The larger issue, one that this

project tries to tackle, is this: once we have identified it, what kind of knowledge can we

produce using cinephilia? How do we deploy cinephilia as a critical practice? Quite

simply, what can we do with cinephiliac moments?

These questions bring us back to academic film studies and the role of cinephilia in

it. The first generation of cinephiles was eager to recapture epiphanic moments in

writing, but they were not able to extend their pleasurable discoveries into knowledge.

Attached to the erratic detail, their mode of writing remained invested in what Doane

calls "a private, idiosyncratic meaning [that was] nevertheless characterized by the

compulsion to share what is unsharable, inarticulable" (Emergence 227). That is why the

kind of writing practiced at Cahiers was not embraced by film scholarship. Especially

after the counter-cultural uprisings of May 1968,10 cinephiles became increasingly

political and suspicious of visual pleasure. Film scholarship, even at Cahiers, committed

itself to an unambiguously anti-cinephiliac position. We might call this moment the

semiotic turn, when the focus shifted from the cinematic experience to the cinematic

apparatus. At this stage, Christian Metz famously declared in his groundbreaking study of

cinema and psychoanalysis that

[t]o be a theoretician of the cinema, one should ideally no longer love the cinema
and yet still love it: have loved it a lot and only have detached oneself from it by
taking it up again from the other end, taking it as the target for the very same scopic
drive which had made one love it. (15)

Metz's comments suggest an underlying distrust of cinematic pleasures, especially as

points of entry into film scholarship. The task of the film scholar after the late 1960s was

to subvert the personal and eccentric cinematic pleasures in order to have something

meaningful to say about cinema. Writing about the "three ages" of cinema studies,

Dudley Andrew argues that underdr the moral pressure of 1968, film students aimed to

theorize the political, cinematic, and academic orders and to be wary of the tricks and

seductions of the establishment" (345). Although this kind of suspicion is no longer

acknowledged as actively as it used to be in the 1970s, the general position of academic

film studies with regard to cinephilia, even after the turn away from "grand theory"

toward cultural studies, has not changed very much.

Even in the past decade, when the notion of cinephilia has become current again,

academic film scholars have remained mostly silent, assuming perhaps that there cannot

be much in common between the serious pursuit of cinema studies and the capricious

pleasures of cinema. Writing about the difficulty of talking about cinematic excess,

Kristin Thompson argues that the reason excessive details tend to elude analysis is

because "a discussion of the qualities of the visual figure at which we look seems

doomed to a certain subjectivity" (490; original emphasis). Likewise, because they are

subjective and capricious, cinephiliac pleasures are difficult to posit as serious objects of

study. They appear only in moments that, as my father tried to articulate, can be "caught"

in brief flashes. On a similar note, Willemen suggests that they are "experienced in an

encounter between you and cinema, which may be different from the person sitting next

to you, in which case you have to dig him or her in the ribs with your elbow to alert them

to the fact that you've just had a cinephiliac moment" (237). But these elusive moments

can be theorized as well. After all, as Willemen notes, "There is a theory of cinema

implicit in the dig of the elbow into the ribs just as much as there is in Metz's work"

(237). Derived from a number of recent studies, what follows is an exploration of that

theory of cinema. I hesitate to use the term definition when speaking about cinephilia

because, as suggested earlier, it is a rather slippery concept; it means too much and

nothing at all. Mary Anne Doane provides one way to think about this term. It may be,

she argues, "definable only negatively, as that which resists systematicity, rationalization,

programming, and standardization" (Emergence 229). Here is another way: by analogy.

The theorists who have informed my understanding of cinephilia have characterized it by

thinking about what it is like, exploring its affinities with other disruptive modes of

spectatorship. While they are responding to different aspects of the cinephiliac moment,

what ties all these figures together is their recognition of a lightning flash in a visual


For Paul Willemen, who started the conversation about this alternative theory of

cinema over a decade ago, cinephilia is related to a sense of revelation sparked by

cinematic excess. More than anything, cinephilia evokes the indexicality of the medium.

The cinephile shares Andre Bazin's faith in the ontology of the photographic image.

"[W]hat people like Bazin want you to relate to in their polemic," Willemen argues, "is

precisely the dimension of revelation that is obtained by pointing your camera at

something that hasn't been staged for the camera" (243). But even in the most controlled

production circumstances, the cinephile believes that something of the real can appear on

screen inadvertently. That is because cinephilia is sparked by moments that exceed their

representational or symbolic functions. It directs our attention to those sites "where the

cinematic institution itself vacillates," pointing to "that which exceeds the logic of the

film, something which is not, in that sense, part of representation as such" (240-41).

These moments are marked, according to Willemen, by a Surrealist faith in the value of

chance in "the capturing of fleeting, evanescent moments" (232). They are also marked

by an epiphanic potential that is not dissimilar to the Catholic discourse of revelation. For

what the viewer notices, almost involuntarily, appears to be in excess of what has been

programmed or choreographed. "There is a moment of potential dislocation," Willemen

argues, "of seeing something beyond what is given to you to see" (240).

But not every viewer sees something beyond what is given to see. In fact, what

distinguishes the cinephile from an average viewer is that the former looks for what one

is not meant to see. While narrative cinema would expect the viewer to be fully absorbed

in the plot, the cinephile gazes distractedly at the margins of the screen. Inspired by

peripheral details, the cinephile glimpses something that exceeds the film's narrative

context, like Gilbert Adair looking distractedly at Cary Grant's socks during the crop-

duster sequence in North by Northwest. For Willemen, cinephilia enables that distracted

viewing experience, "to fantasize a 'beyond' of cinema, a world beyond representation

which only shimmers through in certain moments of the film" (241).

Insofar as cinephilia designates the desire for fleeting moments, it is similar in form

to the experience of photogenie. Photogenie was the term used by Jean Epstein to

designate the marginal pleasures of the cinematic image. Among the first to describe the

relationship between the viewer and the moving image, Epstein conceived of photogenie

as an indefinable concept that nevertheless was a defining characteristic of cinema itself.

Like cinephilia, "Its essence lay," as Leo Charney puts it, "in its inability to be pinned

down to graspability of a concrete definition" (286). Photogenie could only be noticed in

flashes. "On the line of communication," Epstein noted, "the static of unexpected feelings

interrupts us" (qtd. in Charney 287). Willemen makes an explicit connection between

cinephilia and photogenie, arguing that the moment of photogenie might be considered a

precursor to the moment of cinephilia in its tendency to exceed the representational

meaning of a film. Drawing on Epstein's famous meditation on Sessue Hayakawa's

photogenic movement in The Honor of His House (1918), a scene I discuss in greater

detail in Chapter 3, Willemen suggests that photogenie may be considered "a momentary

flash of recognition, or a moment when the look at ... something suddenly flares up with

a particularly affective, emotional intensity" (126). What is significant for our

understanding of cinephilia in this context is that photogenie anticipates the focus on

isolating peculiar moments that disrupt their linear narratives. These moments also point

to an alternative relationship between the viewer and cinema.

The discussion of photogenie can be fruitfully linked to the notion of "the moment"

in relation to the experience of modernity itself. Among the first aestheticians to think

about the modernist moment was Walter Pater. Pater identified the sublime moment as

that which could be detached from the linear logic of modernization. Like Kant before

him, Pater distinguished the sublime from the beautiful, arguing instead for seeing the

sublime as a "sensuous experience" that was unique to the moment. As Charney notes,

"Pater detached sublime experience from continuity and emphasized that it could reside

only inside unique moments of sensual immersion" (280). This stance was particularly

evident in his seminal work of art criticism, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.

There, Pater repeatedly returned to the pleasures of the moment that strikingly anticipate

the discourse of photogenie and later cinephilia. In an essay on Giorgione, for instance,

Pater detailed the "profoundly significant and animated instants, a mere gesture, a look, a

smile, perhaps-some brief and wholly concrete moment" (qtd. in Keathley 35) as the

experience of the sublime. Like the Benjaminian notion of a shock that registers a

physical sensation, which I will discuss in the next section, Pater's sublime defined the

"category of the moment as the discrete marker of sensual experience" (Charney 280) as

well as isolated "the moment" as the distinct marker of modernity itself.

Although not explicitly, Miriam Bratu Hansen links the experience of cinephilia to

the experience of modernity. In her introduction to Siegfried Kracauer's Theory ofFilm,

Hansen focuses on the significance of cinema in modernity, specifically in relation to

"the love it inspired along with new forms of knowledge and experience" (xxxv). She

argues that due to the cinema's dependence on photographic automatism, it has the

"ability to subject the viewer to encounters with contingency, lack of control and

otherness" (xxi). These encounters are always personal, but they offer a way out of the

bounds of traditional history. For Hansen believes that cinema's indexicality-what

Willemen calls "a Bazinian ontological relation to the real" (243)-enables an encounter

with the "fact" of history. Therefore, she argues,

whatt is at stake is the possibility of a split-second meaninglessness, as the
placeholder of an otherness that resists unequivocal understanding and total
subsumption. What is also at stake is the ability of the particular, the detail, the
incident, to take on a life of its own, to precipitate processes in the viewer that may
not be entirely controlled by the film. (xxxi)

Like Willemen, Hansen suggests that, seen in this way, one finds a particular kind of

relationship between the cinema and the viewer. What this relationship foregrounds is the

fact that certain brief cinematic moments have the capacity to rupture linearized,

systematized history by taking on a life of their own. This rupture is assured by cinema's

reliance on indexicality, which secures the "medium's purchase of material contingency"

(xxxii), which in turn sparks cinephilia.

Mary Anne Doane takes up this relationship between contingency and cinephilia

more directly in a brief section that concludes her study of the emergence of cinematic

time. "It is arguable," Doane suggests, "that cinephilia could not be revived at this

conjuncture were the cinema not threatened by the accelerating development of new

electronic and digital forms of media" (Emergence 228; original emphasis). For Doane,

as for both Willemen and Hansen, cinephilia is essentially tied to an idea of contingency

that is enabled by photographic indexicality. So, the current turn to the digitalization of

images makes cinephilia impossible. Hence, cinephilia is tied to a notion of loss, the loss

of a particular kind of cinema, as well as the loss of a particular kind of experience, the

historical experience of modernity. The cinephile that Doane is also talking about relies

on the possibility of chance entering into the cinematic frame due to the camera's

automatism. Whether the moment "was really unprogrammed, unscripted, or outside

codification is fundamentally undecidable" (Emergence 227). What matters is only the

possibility of contingency, which Doane locates in the modernist conception of time. She

argues that at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the face of an emerging fragmentation

of experience, there was a push toward the standardization of time, with the creation of

railway timetables, the replacement of local time by national or regional times, and the

regulation of the workday. This reflected a broader desire in modernity for the

containment of unpredictability or contingency. Narrative cinema, Doane argues, is one

of the systems that facilitated that containment. While early cinema allowed, even

encouraged, the entry of chance elements onscreen, narrative cinema intentionally

repressed them by controlling and trying to efface all cinematic excess. The structure of

linearity in narrative cinema worked to order and regulate time. With the advent of

narrative cinema, as initiated by Griffith, "[t]he temporal contingency celebrated by

Melies and Lumiere is tamed through its incorporation into a rigidly codified system of

producing temporality that can fully absorb the spectator" (138).11

However, Doane argues, cinephilia is also the result of this rigid codification. For it

is this linear structure that "the lure of contingency" ruptures and "seems to offer a way

out [of], [becoming] an anchoring point for the condensation of utopian desires"

(Emergence 228). Thus, cinephilia becomes identified not only with a fetishized mode of

viewing cinema but also with the resistant and heterogeneous potential of the spark of

contingency. Doane draws on both Willemen and Hansen to make her case, suggesting

that this would be a good time to turn to the historical status of the ephemeral detail

seized by the automatic or mechanical process of its reproduction. Cinephilia aids in

clarifying that historical status, since the cinephile "maintains a certain belief, an

investment in the graspability of the systematic, the contingent, for which the cinema is

the privileged vehicle" (Emergence 227). What the cinephile marvels at is not only the

content of the cinephiliac moment but also the very form of the experience of

contingency itself.

The encounter with contingency is similar to the prick of the punctum that Roland

Barthes describes in Camera Lucida. Barthes distinguishes the punctum, which is a tiny

indexical detail that exceeds the symbolic meaning, the stadium, in the image. If the

stadium is the intended meaning of the image, the punctum is an accidental location.

While Barthes's focus is essentially on photography here, his evaluation of the punctum

is notably similar to what in an earlier essay he identifies as the cinematic image's "third

meaning." Drawing on stills from Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Barthes argues

that even the most carefully crafted images of that film seem to contain details that

signify beyond the meaning required by the dramatic narrative. That kind of moment

becomes the film's third meaning, which, like thepunctum, "is a signifier without a

signified. ... hence the difficulty in naming it" ("Third Meaning" 61). Both the third

meaning and the punctum "outplay[] meaning-subvert[] not the content but the whole

practice of meaning" ("Third Meaning" 62). Furthermore, the punctum is also a personal

addition. An individual viewer locates apunctum that may not exist for everybody; still,

the spark of what he locates is already contained in the photograph. "[W]hether or not it

is triggered," Barthes adds, "it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what

is nonetheless already there" (Camera Lucida 55; original emphasis). What Barthes

posits here-and that is what connects the punctum to cinephilia-is the ultimately

personal, even idiosyncratic, relation between the image and the viewer. However, as

Doane (referring explicitly to Barthes) points out, "The content of cinephilia is never

generalizable-it must be unique to the viewer-but the form of the relation can be

specified" (228).

Thepunctum can aid us in specifying that form. For the looking relation that the

punctum identifies is similar to what Benjamin called distraction, which he set up in

opposition to contemplation. Writing about Atget's photographs of deserted Parisian

streets, which he compared to the "scenes of crime," Benjamin argued that "they demand

a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them"

("Work of Art" 226). Why? Because, like the Barthesian puncta, theyhy stir the viewer;

he feels challenged by them in a new way" ("Work of Art" 226). In "A Short History of

Photography," he linked this visual challenge unambiguously to the indexicality of the

photographic image. And it is photography's capacity to accidentally (and mechanically)

signify in excess of its context that stirs the viewer.

No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject,
the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of
contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the
subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-
forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may
rediscover it. (243)

The appropriate way to respond to this irresistible urge would be through distraction,

"much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion"

("Work of Art" 240).12 Barthes's punctum offers a similar distraction. In an Andre

Kertesz's portrait of Tristan Tzara, he notices "Tzara's hand resting on the door frame: a

large hand whose nails are anything but clean" (Camera Lucida 45). In a James Van der

Zee photograph of an African American family, Barthes fixates on the strapped pumps

worn by the sister (or daughter) in it. In other words, the focus is never on the central

subject of the image. To find thepunctum, the viewer looks at the photograph

distractedly, until a tiny, marginal detail pricks him.

Kaja Silverman also writes about this mode of viewership, which she links to the

desire for "visual alterity." She argues that Barthes's is "a wayward or eccentric look, one

not easily stabilized or assigned to preexisting loci, and whose functioning is

consequently resistant to visual standardization" (183). Silverman further connects this

method of looking to the process of remembering, which is sparked by the punctum. This

kind of looking-that-sparks-memory, she argues, points to "the resistance which such a

remembering eye can exercise when confronted with the given-to-be-seen" (181), a

phrase that remarkably echoes what Willemen, in relation to cinephilia, calls "seeing

something beyond what is given to you to see."

Finally, what connects the punctum to the cinephiliac moment is this similarity:

"However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of

expansion. This power is often metonymic" (Camera Lucida 45). Although the detail first

appears as a prick, like lightning, it urges the viewer to develop that detail by further

association. That quality is similar to what Willemen says about the cinephiliac moment

sparking a desire to write. Like the punctum, the cinephiliac moment has the power of

expansion. And the next section provides one potential method for such an expansion,

which I am calling cinephiliac history. I borrow the phrase from Christian Keathley's

outstanding history of cinephilia. After tracing the intellectual history of the cinephiliac

moment, Keathley makes this proposition: "cinephiliac moments are the sites of both a

challenge to historiographic practice and an opportunity for its transformation" (9).13

Taking up that call, and drawing specifically on Benjamin's work on historical

materialism, this project offers one version of that transformed historiography in the form

of a cinephiliac history.

Cinephiliac History

After pursuing Madeleine all day around the winding streets of San Francisco, from

a flower shop on Grant Avenue to the Mission Dolores to the California Palace of the

Legion of Honor to the McKittrick Hotel, Scottie loses track of her. He returns to

Midge's apartment, where he asks her to recommend a historian of San Francisco to him.

What he needs to know, he realizes, is not what he might find at the library, but "the

small stuff, you know, people you've never heard of." Midge recommends the owner of

the Argosy bookstore, Pop Liebel. Liebel turns out to be an incredible local historian,

weaving a brief but gripping tale of Carlotta, beautiful Carlotta, whose child was taken

away by her rich lover. This is a story from the nineteenth century, and Liebel assures

Scottie, "a man could do that in those days." At the loss of her child, Carlotta went

insane, roaming the streets until she died. It is a simple tale, not one Scottie would have

found in the history books. Liebel concludes, "There are many such stories."

Walter Benjamin would have liked such stories. Carlotta's story is not part of the

official history but of local lore. In place of the grand narrative of "color, excitement,

power, freedom" that Gavin Elster prefers, this story, as Benjamin would put it,

brushese] history against the grain" ("Theory" 257). It is precisely the kind of

nineteenth-century story that might belong to his unfinished Arcades Project, a text that

sought to understand the experience of modernity in the twentieth century by looking

back at brief moments from the previous century.

Along with other theorists of his era, Benjamin believed that modernity was an

essentially different experience than earlier eras. Traditionally, experience-of not only

life, but also of art and history-was governed by the logic of causality. But that

dependable linearity of time was shattered with the coming of the modem age. With the

emergence of the city, and its corollaries, traffic and the urban crowd, experience came to

be seen in terms of a series of shocks. "Moving through this traffic involves the

individual in a series of shocks and collisions," wrote Benjamin. "At dangerous crossings

nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy in a battery" ("On

Some Motifs" 175). In the mid-nineteenth century, shock became a central experience of

modernity. As Richard Wolin points out, Benjamin believed that "with the advent of

shock ... the entire structure of human experience [was] transformed" (228). What was

truly transformed was a sense of continuity due to the fragmentation of experience.

Following Freud, Benjamin argued that "in modern life consciousness must make itself

so highly protective against the proliferation of aversive stimuli or shocks that the

majority of memory traces which previously registered as experience in a direct and

natural way now fail to do so" (Wolin 228). The shocking moments had to be bracketed

off from reality, and they were accessible only through a kind of Proustian involuntary

memory. As Wolin suggests, "it is only experience as it arises unconsciously in the

involuntary memory that is fully capable of repossessing the wealth of those memory

traces which has been occluded by conscious memory" (229).

So, the central question for Benjamin was about how to access these involuntary

memories. Life in modernity was experienced in a fragmentary manner. But this change

in the structure of experience, he believed, could be activated for a new form of writing.

As Charney accurately points out, "Benjamin, of course, was not just prescribing []

history but writing it himself' (283). Benjamin's history was an experiment in

articulating the history of the fragmentary experience of shocks in a form of writing that

would itself be fragmentary and shocking. In fact, Angela McRobbie argues that

Benjamin's experimentation anticipated the kind of writing Roland Barthes advocated

after the death of the author. Benjamin, she contends, "occupied exactly that space of the

writer which Barthes was later to espouse and himself represent where, as a point of

principle, criticism and creative writing merge into each other and dissolve as separate

categories, where fiction and non-fiction also overlap" (157). Before we turn to that

alternative historiography, let me focus on the idea of the past in Benjamin, which,

expressed in terms of the lightning flash, becomes crucial to the writing of history.

For Benjamin, the presence of shocking moments in modernity led to a dramatic

reconceptualization of time and particularly the role of the past in history. In his "Theses

on the Philosophy of History," Benjamin offered the most insightful account of the past

through a distinction between two ways of looking at it: traditional historicism and

historical materialism. The traditional conception of the past lay in its understanding as a

narrative of events linked by causal connections. But modernity had destroyed such an

illusion. No longer, Benjamin argued, can a historian believe that the past lies in

recognizing it (or writing about it) "the way it really was." It has now transformed itself

into a fragment that

can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be
recognized and is never seen again. For every image of the past that is not
recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear
irretrievably. ("Theses" 255)

The images of the past, then, appear like involuntary memories, rising up in an instant

like a lightning flash. If they are not recognized, as Benjamin put it, they might disappear

forever. What the materialist historian thus understands is that historyoy is the subject of

a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of

the now" ("Theses" 261). In writing history, this now, the present moment, becomes just

as important as the past, since the present is implicated in the past and vice versa.

Traditional historicism, Benjamin finally argued, "contents itself with establishing a

causal connection between various moments in history" ("Theses" 263). That is to say,

traditional histories are interested in the grand events that can be linked together via a

causal chain. But the materialist historian actively seeks out flashes of lightning, those

moments that do not fit the traditional histories, in order "to blast open the continuum of

history" ("Theses" 262). Lightning flashes, in other words, mark the limits of the

traditional modes of historiography, pointing the way out of the continuum of history.

While the theoretical foundation for the materialist historian is laid in the "Theses"

essay, it is the Arcades Project that shows that history in action. Here is the basic way to


(1) An object of history is that through which knowledge is constituted as the
object's rescue. (2) History decays into images, not into stories. (3) Wherever a
dialectical process is realized, we are dealing with a monad. (4) The materialist
presentation of history carries along with it an immanent critique of the concept of
progress. (5) Historical materialism bases its procedures on long experience,
common sense, presence of mind, and dialectics. (AP, "N [On the Theory of
Knowledge, Theory of Progress]" 476)

Historical materialism begins at a different place than traditional history. Instead of

timeless truths, a historical materialist is interested in specific objects and moments that

can be snatched out of the jaws of linear history. He must renounce the epic element in

history. Therefore, he cannot proceed in a chronological manner. As Susan Buck-Morss

puts it, "Benjamin was at least convinced of one thing: what was needed was a visual, not

a linear logic" (218). Therefore, the fragments that the materialist historian gathers are

assembled associatively, even poetically. The past is presented in a dialectical

relationship with the present, not as it actually was. Moreover, the materialist historian

gathers everything; a worthless object, like a well-worn stamp, is worth more than any

major find. As Buck-Morss notes, Benjamin "broke radically with the philosophical

canon by searching for truth in the 'garbage heap"' (217). Finally, the method of

historical materialism consists of showing, not telling. The past is not just exhumed by

the materialist historian; rather, it is recognized and re-membered as it flashes up,

blasting open the continuum of history.

Since Benjamin advocates a historiography that is substantially different from

traditional history, the experiences of marginal nineteenth-century figures serve better for

composing such a history than those of the traditional historian. Connected as they are to

that century's minor preoccupations, these figures have the capacity to capture and

develop images that flash up from the continuum of history. In this project, I draw on

three such figures of historical materialism: the ragpicker, the flaneur, and the detective,

who appear over and over in the Arcades Project and other writings. While chapters 2, 3,

and 4 will theorize those roles more fully, at this point let me sketch their figures and

point out some overlaps. The ragpicker is a relatively minor figure in the Arcades

Project. He is the historian most interested in the refuse of the past. He collects rags, but

he is not a connoisseur; instead, he uses these discarded rags to piece together a history

that depends on chance. Like the ragpicker, the flaneur also navigates the nineteenth-

century city. But he is distracted not by rags but by objects appearing in the arcades. First

identified by Charles Baudelaire, the flaneur is a detached pedestrian, who follows a

whimsical trail rather than the rules of traffic. FlInerie becomes a capricious method of

traversing the city, pausing wherever an ordinary object catches his eye, in order to

discover an entire history out of a single detail. The detective is a successor of the

flaneur. He appears after the flaneur's tactics are deemed inadequate for navigating the

increasingly illegible nineteenth-century city. The detective confounds the traditional

distinctions between interiority and exteriority in his investigations. While these

characters perform different functions, they all serve the task of writing an alternative

historiography. In their own ways, they seem to anticipate the cinephile, who similarly

focuses his attention on minor preoccupations, on what Willemen regards as "something

that is dead, past, but alive in memory" (227). These Benjaminian characters are

deployed in this study both thematically and methodologically to think about Classic

Hollywood cinema. They are particularly apt for historicizing this period. If Paris, the

capital of the nineteenth century, is revealed in its multiple, marginal traces, then

Hollywood, arguably the capital of the twentieth century, may be revealed in its lightning

flashes as well.

Writing about the possibilities of exploring new film histories, Thomas Elsaesser

reminds us of signs that appear at French railroad crossings: "Un train peut en cacher un

autre." Elsaesser suggests that just as "one train may be hiding another," visible only

briefly through the cracks, alternative historical discourses may also be uncovered that

way. He calls these alternative histories hiding behind the dominant mode of

historiography "counter-factual" histories. That alternative conception of history "is not,"

Elsaesser claims, "the opposite of 'real' history, but a view prepared to think into history

all those histories that might have been, or might still be" ("Louis Lumiere" 50). A

cinephiliac history may be regarded as one such counter-factual history, where

cinephiliac moments could provide the clues to an alternative history virtually hidden

behind traditional histories. It is easy to see how this counter-factual, cinephiliac history

would fit into the tradition of historical materialism. As its starting point, a cinephiliac

history would use cinephiliac moments that flash up, blasting the continuum of the linear

cinematic narrative. Instead of following the causality of traditional histories, a

cinephiliac history would develop associatively, using a visual rather than linear logic.

Such a history would also bear some resemblance to the practice of new

historicism. Like cinephiliac moments, the starting points of new historicism also resist

traditional modes of interpretation. Indeed, as Catherine Gallagher and Stephen

Greenblatt have suggested, new historicism can be regarded more accurately as a tactic or

a method, not another systematized form of interpretation. The new historicist project "is

not about 'demoting' art or discrediting aesthetic pleasure" (12). Instead, it is interested

in what Gallagher and Greenblatt call "counterhistories that make apparent the slippages,

cracks, fault lines, and surprising absences in the monumental structures dominated by a

more traditional historicism" (17). In fact, a cinephiliac history of Classic Hollywood

could rightly be regarded as one such counterhistory. What follows is that history,

narrated in three chapters. Each chapter begins with a cinephiliac moment that I am

personally struck by when I watch these films. I begin, in other words, with personal

memories, but the purpose of these moments is not to simply reproduce or interpret them

but to expand upon them. After all, as the fictional letter writer from Sans Soleil suggests,

"we do not remember; we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten." In this project,

that history is rewritten with lightning.

Chapter 2, "Show Stoppers: The Chance Encounter with Chiffons," explores the

accidental encounters between Surrealism and Classic Hollywood in the late 1930s

through a mysterious fur coat that falls on Jean Arthur's head in Mitchell Leisen's Easy

Living (1937). In its formative years, the studio system happily explored the excessive

allure of couture for shocking visual effects, even at the expense of the narrative. But in

the 1930s, Hollywood filmmaking became more linearized, and those visual details that

did not fit the narratives were cut out. The idea of chance, which is central to Surrealism,

seems to have been eliminated from Hollywood. But fortuitously a surreal fur coat in a

standard screwball comedy suggests that there may be an associative link between the

studio system and the avant-garde art. In order to trace this connection, like the

Benjaminian ragpicker, I fashion a history out of articles that were once quite fashionable

and have now become outmoded, in order to trace what la mode reveals about le mode,

what fashion designing unexpectedly reveals about the method of studio filmmaking

itself. Along the way, fur coats and chiffon dresses form a strange network of connections

between the studio system and Surrealism. What emerges from this network is less a

theory about Classic Hollywood than a way of addressing a crucial issue for thirties

Hollywood filmmaking: the negotiation between detail and plot, image and script,

moment and narrative.

Chapter 3, "Loose Ends: The Stuff That Movies Are Made of," imagines a

fldneur's gaze at the enigmatic objects of film noir. At the heart of studio filmmaking is

this central paradox: temporal continuity conveyed through a rapid succession of still

images. Film noir is usually associated with a fast-paced plot that parallels the linear trail

of the railroad; conforming to studio cinema in the forties, it looks like a system driven

by forward motion, avoiding pauses, disallowing digression. Yet, as F. Scott Fitzgerald's

The Love of the Last Tycoon shows, at any moment, this linear trail can be derailed by

distracting objects-by the stuff that movies are made of. Here, I use flanerie as a way of

examining that stuff which pulsates with uncommon intensity. Instead of interrogating

them for what they mean, gazing at things in incidental fashion leads to an unorthodox

approach to noir objects-a way of writing i i//h the stuff of cinema and not just about

them. Thus, on a walking tour of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, I pause to look at

stuff like a hand-rolled cigarette, a luminous gun, random wall-hangings of horses.

Rather than following the narrative track, these objects redirect the trail of analysis on a

different course, in order to address the relationship between the striking film still and the


Chapter 4, "Signature Crimes: The Strange Case of the Lost Scenes (and the

Stranger Case of the Missing Auteur," investigates the role of the auteur in the studio

system. Following the Benjaminian detective, who complicates the boundaries between

interiority and exteriority, this chapter provides a way to rethink Orson Welles's troubled

film The Stranger (1946). I take my cue here from Derrida's signature experiment, where

the name of the author becomes transformed into a common noun and dispersed within

the text. The signature no longer lies safely outside the text, governing its interpretation,

but its nominal effects are also scattered within it. Rather than exploring the auteur's

stylistic competence or personal vision, the signateurist detective improvises, by

investigating the name itself. This approach is particularly apt for analyzing Hollywood,

where names-not only of directors but of actors and characters too-were strictly

regulated. This kind of policing becomes even more crucial in the postwar landscape,

where naming names would soon result in dangerous consequences. Welles seems to

have responded to these cultural changes by making the most standard film of his career.

But the signature experiment reveals that an internal criticism is taking place, so that the

conventionality of the film turns out to be fake. All these threads come together in an

unremarkable "signature" moment in The Stranger, which opens and closes the chapter,

where a former Nazi mastermind reveals his identity by sketching a swastika on a

notepad in a phone booth.

The project concludes with an afterword that reflects on the use of cinephilia as a

research strategy. It also speculates on where we might go next in a section called "The

Experimental Turn." Throughout, this project proceeds by connecting seemingly

unrelated images and ideas. In this cinephiliac history, Classic Hollywood appears not as

a consistent system with a uniform style but as an uncanny network of echoes and



1 Hereafter all references from the unfinished Arcades Project are cited as AP, followed
by the title of the appropriate convolute.

2 In "Lightning, Camera, Action," J. Hoberman suggests this analogy for understanding
the impact of the film on first release: "Imagine an unholy cross between The Passion of
the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, combined and rendered mega-Titanic (most movies in
1915 were still only 20 minutes long), drenched in the patriotic pathos of Saving Private
Ryan, and tricked out with the historical shenanigans of Forrest Gump."

3 Birth was the first film ever to be screened at the White House. Wilson apparently
enjoyed it so much that he had it screened again the next night for the justices of the
Supreme Court and members of Congress. Interestingly, Wilson, who was the first
Southern President since the Civil war, later retracted the comment about lightning, likely
in response to the protests around the country.

4 Doane offers an excellent revision of the way film history generally distinguishes
between the work of cinematic founding fathers, Louis Lumiere and Georges Melies.
Rather than seeing their styles in oppositional terms, she argues that they are in fact very
similar in the way they celebrate cinematic contingency. In place of the traditional
distinction between Lumiere-documentary and Melies-fiction, Doane offers "[t]he
celebration of the unexpected chance event-the implausibility of a Melies film-and the
risky duration of time of a Lumiere film, which opens the stage for contingency, [which]
are resolutely rejected by the classical narrative system" (138).

5 Although this sequence is often referred to as the "Muir Woods sequence," the location
scenes were in fact shot at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located about twenty-
three miles northwest of Santa Cruz. Dan Auiler points out that the "Spaniards
'discovered' the Big Basin redwood forest not long before building missions Dolores and
San Juan Batista," which also appear in the film (92).

6 Describing the effect of one of her cinephiliac experiences, from Ridley Scott's Blade
Runner (1982), Lesley Stern puts it this way:

It is always surprising this moment, this movement, always and without fail it takes
me aback. Yet what can it mean to yoke these incommensurate terms-always and
surprising? ... I can't quite put my finger on the feeling it evokes, though there is a
phrase of [Jean] Epstein's that resonates: "On the line of communication the static
of unexpected feelings interrupts us." ("I Think" 350; original emphasis)
While the moments themselves may differ, the initial cinephiliac spark evokes very
similar feelings.

7 Starting with Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking thesis in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative
Cinema," Vertigo has been enormously popular (or unpopular) as a text for film criticism,
but what Morris suggests, drawing on Paul de Man, is that the film ultimately renders
these readings as untenable allegories. Patricia White also tends to accept this argument;
although she continues to read the film from a feminist perspective, she argues in
"Allegory and Referentiality" that in their attempt to uncover a "single dominant reality,"
film critics have elided their own narratives (931).

8 In 1996, Sontag wrote a similar piece for the New York Times Magazine called "The
Decay of Cinema," which stimulated a lot of American critics to reflect on the status of
cinema as well as the function of cinephilia. My citations here appear from the original
essay, "A Century of Cinema."

9 In Myths and Memories, Gilbert Adair offers a number of personal memories about the
movies that are very similar in form to the few I list here.

10 The student and worker protests that ignited a political revolution in May 1968 initially
began over the dismissal of Henri Langlois as director of the Cinematheque, and they
critically impacted the development of film studies. Sylvia Harvey's May '68 and Film
Culture provides an extensive exploration of that impact on film culture.

11 While through most of the book, Doane argues that narrative cinema sides with
standardization by repressing contingency, in the last chapter, where she discusses
cinephilia, the argument seems to turn on itself. Cinema, she writes
has also historically worked to make the contingent legible. And despite the
development of stricter limitations and codes regulating the cinematically
representable, the mainstream classical narrative continued to exploit the idea of the
filmability of the contingent without limit, of the lush overabundance of things, of
details, diversity, and multiplicity characterizing the diegesis, of its access to a time
uncontaminated by rationalization and necessity, and as the antithesis of
systematicity and the site of newness and difference itself. (Emergence 230)
I am not sure how to read Doane's shift at the end, but I will note that the apparent
revision serves to open up the book's central argument onto a more productive historical

12 For Benjamin, cinema encouraged this mode of viewership. "Reception in a state of
distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of


profound changes in apperception," he argued, "finds in the film its true means of
exercise" ("Work of Art" 240).

13 Keathley himself offers the cinephiliac anecdote, a method for film analysis that also
begins with the cinephiliac moment, as "the opportunity for the re-integration of the
cinephiliac spirit into critical and historical writing" (9-10).


Yes, do look, and you can see, in between the satins, some evidence of the secrets that
already are being revealed under the gauze, under the tulle or lace.
-Marguerite de Ponty, "La Mode"

What in the end does it matter to human happiness whether [in Swing Time, Fred
Astaire's] trousers do or do not have cuffs?
-Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Blue Skies and Silver Linings

In my formulation: "The eternal is in any case far more the ruffles on a dress than some
-Walter Benjamin, "B [Fashion]"

A Funny Thing Happens ...

For a brief moment, a chance encounter between a Wall Street tycoon and an

unsuspecting working girl takes on the spectral eeriness of a surrealist nightmare. A fur

coat, thrown from a Fifth Avenue penthouse roof during a marital spat, assumes the shape

of an ominous, bat-like creature. An overhead shot captures the coat as it slowly descends

and seems to envelop an oncoming bus. To the extent that it triggers the coincidental

encounter on which the plot depends, this moment is central to the script. But its uncanny

appearance-it is a slow, almost dream-like, unmotivated overhead shot-is quite jarring

and makes the shot virtually extra-diegetic. That feeling, however, lasts only for a

moment. Cut to a medium shot of Jean Arthur riding on the double-decker bus as the coat

falls on her head, and the plot soon resumes, unfolding through a series of comic

adventures that almost causes the stock market to collapse.

Figure 2-1: The unmotivated overhead shot of the fur coat falling

What do we make of this uncanny moment appearing unexpectedly in a screwball

comedy? Of the madcap comedies released during the mid-1930s, Mitchell Leisen's Easy

Living was hardly the most ingenious. It was neither as fresh as Frank Capra's It

Happened One Night (1934) nor as lively as Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey (1936).

Although Paramount marketed it as a Preston Sturges comedy, trying to capitalize on the

sensation he had created in Hollywood with scripts like The Power and the Glory (1933)

and Diamond Jim (1935), the film was not a commercial or critical success.' Still, as

James Harvey reminds us, everyone remembers the moment when "the fur coat falls on

the heroine's head" (354). That is ironic because Sturges himself did not believe the

moment could even be filmed. In the script, he suggests that once the coat is hurled over

the parapet, "the falling will probably not pick up" (Horton Three More 169). But the

moment did make it to the screen. What intrigues me about it is that it is unmotivated.

While the shot is a crucial plot device, it exceeds its narrative function. That is, it is

visually extra-diegetic; the plot would work just as well without this uncanny shot.2 If

Leisen had cut from the shot of the balcony where the coat is hurled (Figure 2-2) to the

medium shot when the coat falls on Jean Arthur's head (Figure 2-3), the missing "falling"

shot would not have affected our narrative understanding of the film. Yet, the shot was

filmed, and as such, it has the intensity of a cinephiliac moment, one that signifies well in

excess of its narrative content. As we have seen with Roland Barthes's argument about

stills from Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, there is something beyond the symbolic

meaning that "exceeds the copy of the referential motif, [such that] it compels an

interrogative reading" ("Third Meaning" 53). Unlike the look of the rest of Easy Living,

here, in an instant, a fur coat suddenly appears foreboding, and, for a moment, a

screwball comedy seems to surreptitiously encounter the surreal.


Figure 2-2: J. B. Ball hurls the coat from the balcony

Figure 2-3: Mary Smith is suddenly hit by the fur coat

Using a familiar object to evoke the uncanny has been quintessential to Surrealist

discourse. After all, Louis Aragon acknowledged early on cinema's ability to alter

everyday obj ects, such that "obj ects that were a few moments ago sticks of furniture or

books of cloakroom tickets are transformed to the point where they take on menacing or

enigmatic meanings" (52). But such mysterious transformations are more likely in the

phantasmic worlds of Louis Feuillade's Fant6mas (1913) or the dream-like images of

Luis Buhiuel's L 'Age d'Or (193 0).3 Indeed, the fur coat would belong more readily in the

pages of Rene Magritte's Fur Catalog for La Maison Samuel. In a screwball comedy, is

such an uncanny moment just an odd interruption to be dismissed as interesting but

insignificant? Just a "funny" thing to be regarded as curious but inconsequential?

Academic film criticism has not directly addressed such moments that exceed their

narrative contexts. These moments are usually overlooked in film histories that tend to

characterize Classic Hollywood as a vertically-integrated industry modeled on Henry

Ford's assembly line, or, as Thomas Schatz puts it, "as a body of work with a uniform

style-a standard way of telling stories, from camera work and cutting to plot structure

and thematics" (8-9). But seeing Hollywood cinema only as "a standard way of telling

stories" does not enable us to look at the disruptive details. Easy Living, for instance, has

been analyzed as a comedy of class imposture, a Cinderella story that subverts social

hierarchies and redefines femininity in relation to the Production Code. Bernard Dick

reads the film as yet another Depression-era fairy tale. Elizabeth Kendall argues that Easy

Living is a grand vision of social chaos following the Depression. Sarah Berry offers a

more comprehensive account of how consumer fashion is used to "make[] fun of class

distinctions and present[] status as a matter of appearances" (42). Therefore, Easy Living

fits quite nicely into the narrative about late thirties screwball comedies.

Let me pause here for a moment to clarify the difference between these critical

approaches and my own. While these semiotic readings are valuable in themselves, they

fail to account for the more striking, albeit somewhat inexplicable, fur coat moment. My

argument is not that semiotic analysis does not respond to specific cinematic moments in

general. I am only suggesting here that the visual effect of the shot of the fur coat falling

has been critically missed, and its appeal has not been analyzed, likely because its

surrealist look does not quite fit into the film's symbolic discussion. It is not that semiotic

approaches pay no attention to visual details; but not all details can be assimilated into

such readings, and some of them, like the fur coat moment, inevitably go undiscussed.

Ironically, this approach also inadvertently reproduces Hollywood cinema's tendency to

linearize cinematic details for the sake of narrative continuity.

We know that the American cinema was mainly influenced by the classic narrative

tradition, which emphasized a seamless flow of action. But that is not to say that details

did not matter to Hollywood filmmakers. Irving Thalberg would often wonder about

seemingly irrelevant details. When he wanted to get to know a character better, Thalberg

would ask, "What kind of underwear does he have on? Long or short, light or heavy,

clean or dirty?" (qtd. in Marx vii). But underpants never became the center of attention.

In 1923, Erich Von Stroheim was fired by Thalberg himself during the shooting of

Merry-Go-Round, reportedly for having spent too much of the budget getting the

Guardsmen extras' silk underpants embroidered with the Imperial Guard Monogram. The

film was turned over to Rupert Julian, who, like Rex Ingram with Greed (1923), had to

cut out the excesses. Details, then, were apparently desirable so long as they advanced the


By the early 1930s, with the advent of sound and the onset of the Depression, the

process of filmmaking was further streamlined. From then on, while the studio system of

filmmaking was considered a collaborative effort, the shooting script became the key to

that collaboration (Schatz 70). Anything that did not fit the script was usually left out. In

Tay Garnett's China Seas (1935), for instance, the details of Jean Harlow's gown-its

open back and cut-out sleeves-are hardly seen on screen. As Jane Gaines suggests, "The

practice of cutting films for narrative coherence and visual continuity" made filmmakers

cut some stunning moments out of their films, although those shots would be used as

fashion stills for publicity ("Costume and Narrative" 196). Academic film criticism has

been similarly preoccupied with its own narratives, and cinematic details that do not

advance the script are generally cut out. After all, the visual pleasure of Fred Astaire's

pant cuffs matters little if it does not contribute to interpreting the relationship between,

say, dance and masculinity.

But sometimes, a single detail in a moment, like the ruffles on a dress that Walter

Benjamin privileged, has a way of unsettling these preconceived ideological narratives.

Given its surreal appearance, what everyone apparently remembers about the film is the

moment when a fur coat descends on Jean Arthur's head. Let us think about this late

1930s screen memory, if you will, in relation to the kind we are familiar with. One of the

distinguishing features of a screen memory, as Freud defined it, is its capacity to evoke

connections to other, seemingly unrelated memories. "Its value as a memory," he noted,

lies "not in its own content but to the relation existing between that content and some

other, that has been suppressed" (126). Following that contention, we might ask, what

connections does the uncanny moment in a screwball comedy like Easy Living uncover

that have been suppressed by traditional histories of Classic Hollywood? What would

such connections say about Hollywood filmmaking in 1937?

"Two Unlikely Worlds Are Suddenly Joined"

Like other romantic comedies, Easy Living is driven by a chance encounter

between two dissimilar worlds. When Mary (Jean Arthur) runs into Ball (Edward

Arnold), the economic and social worlds of a working girl and a billionaire suddenly

collide. J. B. Ball, the baron of Wall Street, and Mary Smith, a young girl working for a

little magazine called The Boy 's Constant Companion, meet cute when he throws his

profligate wife's fur coat from the roof and it lands on her. The coat becomes Mary's,

who is then assumed to be Ball's mistress. And everyone, of course, wants to please the

mistress of the "Bull of Broad Street." She is lavished with gifts, attention, and a free stay

at the Hotel Louis. Sturges's script, based on a short story by Vera Caspary, is full of

witty dialogue and cleverly contrived situations that unfold through comic

misunderstandings resulting from the original rendezvous, as Arthur tries to keep up with

a fast-paced, arbitrary world.4 It ends when she falls in love with a poor but charming

young fellow named John (Ray Milland), who turns out to be, in typical fairy-tale

tradition, the tycoon's son. But it is the initial juxtaposition that is the source of the film's

comic circumstances. For, as Andrew Horton reminds us in his practical guide to writing

comedic screenplays, incongruities always bring on laughter. Using Woody Allen's line

that his parents believed in God and carpeting, he suggests that comedy lies in

juxtapositions. In the case of Woody Allen, the combination works between "the cosmic

and the daily, the sacred and the profane" (Laughing 13). Thus, when, as Horton puts it,

"[t]wo unlikely worlds are suddenly joined" by a fur coat in Easy Living, the collision

produces a series of comic scenarios (Laughing 67).

In the scene that follows their chance encounter, Mary tries to return the fur coat to

Ball, who refuses to take it back and instead offers her a ride. In the car, the two sit next

to each other, "in the same frame but in different worlds" (Harvey 365). He wants to

teach her a lesson in computing interest, but she is more interested in finding out if the fur

coat is an authentic Kolinsky.5 The best example of their collision's effect occurs in the

automat scene, where a mishap at the coin-operated cafeteria creates a display of zany

anarchy, as all the glass lids pop open and customers rush to get their hands on the free

food flying in the background, while Mary, still wearing her fur coat, calmly enjoys her

pot pie. The scene's chaotic energy echoes the frenzy of mechanization gone awry in

Charlie Chaplin'sModern Times (1936)-Chaplin's film was itself a derivation of Rene

Clair's A Nous la Libertd (1931)-released only a year earlier. It is worth remembering

that Antonin Artaud often praised the zany yet chaotic intensity of the comic disruptions

in silent and early sound comedies, even comparing the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers

(1930) to the "distinct poetic state of mind that can be called surrealism" (142). For

Artaud, silent and early sound comedies were considered surrealist to the extent that,

through humor, they portrayed the "destruction of all reality in the mind" (142). From

Hollywood's point of view, such comparisons were quite astonishing. As Anita Loos

noted in her memoirs, filmmakers like Irving Thalberg would be surprised if they heard

the Marx Brothers being compared to avant-garde artists, but they would also be amused,

for "genius," they believed, "really makes the most interesting bedfellows" (38).

Thalberg would probably be even more surprised if he realized that a Hollywood comedy

like Easy Living was being associated with Surrealism. After all, unlike Chaplin's film,

all ends well in Easy Living. Order is restored by the end. The stock market bounces

back, and the two unlikely worlds are suddenly and delightfully joined when Ball ends up

becoming Mary's father-in-law. The outcome of their chance encounter, then, is quite


But there is another kind of encounter revealed in the moment of their unplanned

meeting. And, like the unlikely connection between Mary Smith and J. B. Ball, the

parties in that encounter are, as Harvey puts it, "connected in a way we can recognize

even if we can't name it" (365). By chance, in the overhead shot of the fur coat falling on

Arthur's head, the familiar becomes fantastic. The image of the coat descending

ominously hints at a connection between Surrealism and Classic Hollywood, although in

the film itself, nothing will come of this possibility. Easy Living returns to a more

predictable narrative path. But the image, and the connection it makes, persists.

That connection, the association between Classic Hollywood and Surrealism, may

seem insignificant, even implausible. But, as we will see, there are many correspondences

between these seemingly mismatched worlds. Writing about the aptness of Surrealist

research games for film studies, Robert B. Ray has suggested that "the Exquisite Corpse

more closely resembles another activity, one also relying on collaboration, fragmentation,

recombination, and (to a surprising degree), automatism, an activity whose invention

occurred simultaneously with the origin of [Andre] Breton's game. That other activity is

the studio system of filmmaking" (Andy Hardy 53). But this connection is usually

overlooked, likely because, positioned in opposition to the progressive politics of the

avant-garde, the studio system is generally seen to occupy a vastly different cultural

terrain than Surrealism.

Even when Surrealist elements are noticed in Hollywood films, they are brushed

aside as mere accidents. Jerome Delamater, for instance, detects Surrealist motifs in the

fantasy worlds of Busby Berkeley's musicals, but suggests that Berkeley was an

"unwitting Surrealist" because he was probably unaware of Surrealism. Martin Rubin, on

the other hand, claims that Berkeley's nonnarrative cinema, although different in style

from mainstream Hollywood cinema, was extraordinarily popular, and therefore less

likely to have been influenced by Surrealism and avant-gardism than by the nineteenth-

century tradition of spectacle. Robin Wood goes so far as to argue that the studio system

and Surrealism were inherently incompatible. He insists that while Expressionist motifs

could easily be appropriated by Hollywood because they "proved a fruitful source of

subjective effects" that could be linearized, especially in genres likefilm noir or the

horror film of the 1940s, Surrealism was ideologically irreconcilable with the bourgeois

narrative tradition (47). When Surrealism is mentioned in relation to Hollywood cinema,

it is generally in reference to Salvador Dali's collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock for

Spellbound (1945), although Wood hastens to add that the designs were "modified by the

studio and the [Surrealist dream] sequence drastically abridged" (47). In Meryle Secrest's

standard biography of Dali, his work on Spellbound is not even mentioned.6 The critical

consensus, then, seems to be that the incongruous juxtapositions that so delighted the

Surrealists are incapable of being produced in the vertically-integrated studio system.

A moment in 1937, however, gives us a glimpse of the association between a pair

of unlikely worlds suddenly joined: Hollywood and Surrealism. By chance, just when

Arthur was suddenly and fortuitously hit over the head by a falling coat,' Andre Breton

found himself returning to the question of lucky finds. Writing about an eerie mask that

Giacometti had found at a flea market in MadLove, Breton suggested that the lucky find,

la trouvaille, is capable of providing the shock of convulsive beauty that Surrealists

dreamed of, by breaking the stranglehold of narrative continuity. "Such images," he

argued, "are endowed with a persuasive strength rigorously proportional to the violence

of the initial shock they produced" (88). Perhaps due to this persuasive shock, the mask

appeared to Giacometti as the perfect solution to complete the head of his sculpture.

Breton maintained that the solution is an example of the chance object's capacity to

embody the subject's desire, to appear as if it were the perfect solution.8 A lucky find

enables the subject to inadvertently uncover repressed desire, or, as Margaret Cohen

argues, it is capable of producing a moment "when the habitual veil of repression is rent,

allowing a true hidden order of things to surge forth" (135). Ironically, at the moment

when Giacometti encounters his lucky find, his mask, the mask is torn away, for the order

that surges forth is not one of causality-as Breton put it, a lucky find "could not come to

us along ordinary logical paths" (MadLove 13)-but of irrationality, or, we might say, of


For Breton, chance was not just a singular moment that disrupted the "natural"

order of things. Instead, it enabled surrealists like himself to imagine another order,

wherein one gave oneself over to the seemingly arbitrary. Even as early as 1920 in "Pour

Dada," Breton asked, "when will one give the arbitrary the place that falls to it in the

formation of works and ideas" (qtd. in Cohen 134-35). Only by giving oneself over to

chance can one create a new order that enables unforeseen juxtapositions. But the

Dadaists were much less interested in discovering these juxtapositions. "If the Dadas

called attention to the value of chance," Cohen rightly argues, "they did so in negative

fashion, as a force capable of destroying habitual conceptual order" (135). Deeply

disturbed by the mass destruction of the Great War, the Dadaists were a group of young

artists and writers who worked spontaneously and collaboratively on pamphlets and

publications, paintings and collages, not only to proclaim the rupture between art and

logic but also to advertise a kind of destructive anarchism. From Tristan Tzara and

Marcel Duchamp, to Andre Breton, Philippe Soupault, and Aragon, they became what

Fiona Bradley calls "the randomly christened expression of revolt which exploded into

simultaneous life in Zuirich, Cologne, and New York" (12). In 1920, Aragon announced,

"No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, ..

NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING" (qtd. in Bradley 19).

Within a couple of years though, some of them became frustrated with Dada's

inflexible negativity. This frustration was voiced by Breton in Entretiens: "The 1918

Dada Manifesto seemed to open wide the doors, but we discovered that they opened onto

a corridor which was leading nowhere" (qtd. in Bradley 19). Breton and the group of

artists who converged around him were more interested in walking down the corridor that

would open the door to new ideas, new forms, and to chance. To put it another way, as

Katharine Conley points out, they were more drawn to the "door that opens and reopens

continuously, like a door pushed by the wind or a swinging door, returning to a singular

point of departure yet ever opening new vistas of thought" (113). Early Surrealists were

much more intrigued by the logic of circularity and the thrill of the return rather than the

oppressiveness of linearity. Ten years after he closed the door on Dadaism, Breton

himself produced a work based on that logic. Nadja, a text he wanted to leave "ajar, like a

door," opens on to a world of endless departures and returns (156).9 For Nadja is not so

much a narrative as a series of unexpected encounters on Parisian streets, woven together

through turns and returns that continually disrupt the linear order. His constant, if

sometimes inadvertent, visits to sites where the ghosts of past insurrectional activities lie,

and his unexpected meetings with Nadja, create an eerie atmosphere that Breton concedes

gives the appearance of being left "at the mercy of chance" (Nadja 19). And his repeated

fortuitous encounters-as when Paul Eluard turns out to be the same person whom he

unknowingly encountered at the first performance of Guillame Apollinaire's Couleur de

Temps and coincidentally started corresponding with-produce a world that no longer

depends on logical connections. Instead, it becomes "an almost forbidding world of

sudden parallels [and] petrifying coincidences" (Nadja 19).

This world of chance encounters seems quite distant from the standardized world of

studio filmmaking.10 Yet, the earliest Surrealists were drawn to it. "We used to walk the

cold, deserted streets," recalled Phillipe Soupault, "in search of an accident, an encounter,

life" (55). What the early Surrealists found, accidentally, was the American cinema,

through a sartorial detail on a movie poster, perhaps of Edwin S. Porter's The Great

Train Robbery (1903), showing "a man, his face covered with a red handkerchief, .

pointing a revolver at an unconcerned passersby" (Soupault 56). Like the objects in the

shop windows that enchanted the young flineurs during their walks down the old-

fashioned arcades, the publicitW poster evoked the capacity of an item of clothing to

create a tiny shock. But Hollywood wasn't quite as inviting. During lunch one afternoon,

Denise Tual happened to mention Luis Buniuel to L.B. Mayer, who claimed he had never

heard of the Spanish director. Tual filled him in, concluding by calling Buniuel "a great

director." Tual thought it would be nice if Mayer could arrange for directors like Buniuel,

Rene Clair, and Jean Renoir to "work on new ideas, new ways of making films" in

Hollywood. Mayer would have none of it. Was she proposing treating Hollywood as a

site for experiments? "If Hollywood needs to change its way of making films," he

snapped, "it'll happen, and quickly. We don't need a laboratory for that!" (qtd in Baxter

193). Once again, ostensibly at least, the association between Hollywood and Surrealism

is suppressed.

There is, of course, no straight line of influence to be traced from Surrealist Paris to

Hollywood and back. What we have are moments when the association is suddenly

revealed, as in a lingering overhead shot that makes a fur coat enigmatic in an otherwise

fast-paced, madcap plot. When it falls on Mary Smith's head, she is sitting on the top

deck of the bus, focusing on nothing in particular. Suddenly, the coat envelops her.

Visibly upset, she turns around, eyeing the commuter sitting behind her incredulously,

and asks, "say, what's the big idea anyway?" He happens to be a turbaned Hindu, who,

pointing to the book he's reading, calls the unexpected article "kismet." Looking both

amused and annoyed, she shrugs off the fatalistic implications of his response, seeing her

mysterious sartorial windfall-recall Jacques Derrida's assertion that the notion of

chance is etymologically linked to the idea of falling-as a lucky find.

Refus[e]ing History

In early 1937, Salvador Dali traveled to Hollywood to collaborate with Harpo Marx

on the screenplay of The Surrealist Woman. Although the project never materialized, as

he was wandering through the studios, Dali met an old Paris friend, composer George

Antheil, who was then working on Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936), starring

Jean Arthur, who would soon trade her Calamity Jane buckskins in that film for business

suits (and an enigmatic fur coat) in her next venture. When Antheil introduced Dali to

DeMille, the Spanish Surrealist prostrated himself in front of the master of mass

spectacle, who was quite thrilled by that laudatory gesture. "Ah, Mr. DeMille," Dali

reportedly declared, "I have met you at last, you, the greatest Surrealist on earth." In his

Hollywood memoirs, Rene Clair takes note of this meeting too: "If this scene took place

as it was reported to me," he adds, "I am sorry that I was not an eye witness" (195). It is

unfortunate that there is no photographic record of their rendezvous either. What does

exist, however, is a displaced picture, a series of cinephiliac glimpses, of that chance


In the introduction, I suggested that such glimpses would belong to the tradition of

historical materialism. In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Walter Benjamin

offered a way of thinking about isolated moments from the past that could not be

linearized by traditional histories. Instead, his preferred mode of history was historical

materialism, a form of writing capable of "blast[ing] open the continuum of history" and

excavating an alternative understanding of the past from the "flashes" that, like

unexpected cinephiliac moments, cannot be contained in any pre-existing discourse

("Theses" 262). This history, I have argued, can be arrived at only indirectly, by focusing

on marginal details rather than grand events.

One of the places where it is found is in the refuse or detritus of the past, in the rags

or chiffons scavenged by the ragpicker wandering through the nineteenth-century city. I

would like to resurrect the ragpicker, a relatively minor figure in Benjamin's oeuvre, for

historicizing 1930s Hollywood. Benjamin's chiffonier provides a way out of the grand

narratives of film history. The ragpicker-as-historian pursues those objects that are

unattended by traditional history. He is "the most provocative figure of human misery,"

because he is "clothed in rags and occupied with rags" (AP, "J [Baudelaire]" 349). He

rejects nothing, drawing insights even from the most insignificant objects. The chiffonier

"collects and catalogues everything that the great city has cast off, everything it has lost,

and discarded, and broken. He goes through the archives of debauchery, and the jumbled

array of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice" (AP, "J [Baudelaire]" 349).

And it is precisely in these rags that he finds revolutionary potential. For he does not

simply hoard his stockpile of leftovers. As Irving Wohlfarth suggests, "it is precisely

when they no longer circulate, as well-behaved commodities should, that things begin to

give signs of a more subversive potential" (147)."11 The chiffonier rescues that potential in

forgotten objects-a series of chiffons, if you will-from the jaws of linear history, to

reveal an alternative order of things.

The ragpicker's interest in outdated objects echoes Surrealism's affinity for old-

fashioned things. Using Breton's Nadja as his prime example, Benjamin argued that

Surrealism was "the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the

'outmoded,' in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos,

the objects that have begun to become extinct, grand pianos, [and especially] the dresses

of five years ago" ("Surrealism" 229). The Surrealists discovered how to release the

radical potential in these antiquated objects and create a world based on the uncanny

associations between them. Surrealism, for Benjamin, became an alternative mode of

writing, and the Surrealists became materialist historians fashioning history out of the


Like the Surrealists, the ragpicker picks out unattended things, assemblingn] large-

scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components" (AP, "N [On

the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress]" 461). Moreover, he echoes the surrealist

interest in chance, weaving together his rags like a mosaic, "rung by rung, according as

chance would offer a narrow foothold" (AP, "N [On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of

Progress]" 460). The ragpicker's attention to outmoded details, his reliance on chance

encounters, and his ability to connect ideas and images through uncanny associations

rather than logical connections yield a method well suited for writing an associative

history, using cinematic moments that end up on the cutting room floor of the traditional

film historian. For in these moments, as in the old-fashioned fur coats of Classic

Hollywood, we might find the revolutionary potential that the Surrealists discovered in

the grand pianos and the old-fashioned dresses of an earlier generation. What, then, is the

method for writing this history? Here is how Benjamin put it: "the method of this work:

literary montage-I have nothing to say, only to show. I won't purloin anything precious,

nor will I appropriate witty turns. But the rags, the remnants: I do not want to inventory

them, but let them come into their own in the only possible way: by using them" (qtd. in

Vinken 67). What would a history composed with the rags of 1930s Hollywood look


Interestingly, Wohlfarth observes that the only place where Benjamin explicitly

portrays the ragpicker as an intellectual is in reference to film historian Siegfried

Kracauer. From Benjamin's point of view, "what we see when we visualize [Kracauer]

going about his solitary business is a ragpicker at daybreak, impaling verbal rags, scraps

of language, with his stick" (Wohlfarth 154). As a ragpicker, the historian can afford to

dabble in rags because he no longer conforms to any predetermined ideology. While

impaling these rags, Kracauer refuses to accept history's desire to make order out of

chaos. "Whereas academics," Wohlfarth concludes, "vainly arrange the chaos of their

'lumber-room' into neat piles of facts that nonetheless accumulate like so much debris,

thereby reflecting the chaos of history without reflecting upon it, the ragpicker throws all

the litter out almost without comment. He has 'nothing to say,' 'only to show"' (156;

original emphasis).12 Thus, even the most insignificant detail, the most undesirable piece

of refuse, makes its way into history. In that process, the ragpicker comes to embody "the

intrinsic connection between refuse and refusal" (155). For it is in the refuse that

Kracauer, the ragpicker-historian, uncovers the cinematic past by refusing traditional


The ragpicker is a particularly apt figure for historicizing the golden years of

Classic Hollywood. After all, one of its founding members began his career as a

ragpicker of sorts. Louis B. Mayer, the executive who made MGM the Tiffany of

Hollywood, got his start in his father's scrap metal business. From there, the young

Mayer started his own junk business in Boston, which helped transform him into a used-

clothes dealer, colloquially known as a ragpicker. Like many other early Hollywood

moguls, Mayer emerged from "the lower reaches of the garment industry" (Wollen 14)

and changed the inchoate American film industry into an enormously popular form of

mass entertainment. Among Mayer's contemporaries who also came from the clothing

industry were Paramount chief Adolph Zukor, a fur coat dealer, producer Sam Goldwyn,

a glove salesman, and William Fox, a cloth-sponger. The film industry became so

distinctly associated with the garment business that when Joseph P. Kennedy entered the

movie industry in the mid-1920s and acquired Pathe, Marcus Loew is said to have

remarked, "What's Kennedy doing in pictures? He's not a furrier." "When they

eventually built studios, achieved power and amassed wealth as Hollywood tycoons,"

Peter Wollen notes, "it was only natural that they should want to associate the cinema

with extravagant and spectacular clothes" (14).

Indeed, the idea of the makeover, a literal rags-to-riches story, fit nicely within the

narrative of American self-invention. In Hollywood, these young tycoons literally made

themselves over completely, and Mayer even expressed his gratitude by adopting the

fourth of July as his birthday.13 It is not surprising, then, that during the golden age of

Hollywood, the fashion makeover came to represent the way to the top. As Sarah Berry

points out, "fashion was a medium of new beginnings": a working girl, especially in the

Depression era, could make herself over "thanks to hard work and a few Adrian outfits"

(xviii). That is certainly the narrative intention of Leisen's Easy Living, where the

fortuitous acquisition of a fur coat enables a penniless working girl to cross class lines

and end up marrying a billionaire. I will return to that plot in a moment, but what

interests me is the way in which, for a fleeting instant, that narrative is ruptured. Insofar

as a mundane fashion accessory becomes surreal, it functions as a virtual show-stopper,

arresting the screwball plot dead in its tracks. So, in the rags-to-riches tale, let us focus on

the rags for now. By unfurling the details of the fur coat that descends on Jean Arthur's

head after its wealthy owner discards it like a piece of trash, we might accidentally

uncover a different kind of Hollywood tale.

What follows is that tale, told not as a causal narrative but as a series of moments

or episodes. I call it "Episodes in Chiffon," because it is couture that facilitates the

encounter between the seemingly mismatched fabrics of Classic Hollywood and

Surrealism. The Surrealists were fascinated by fashion's potential for revealing the

marvelous in the everyday-in an unmotivated manner. For Classic Hollywood, the

connection was more straightforward: fashion sells, although as the next section will

demonstrate, there is a dramatic shift from the 1920s to the 1930s in the manner in which

articles of fashion are "sold" in the movies. But this is not a history of film couture.

Instead, like the ragpicker, I fashion a history out of articles that were once quite

fashionable and have now become outmoded, in order to trace what la mode reveals

about le mode, what fashion designing unexpectedly reveals about the method of studio

filmmaking itself. Along the way, fur coats and chiffon dresses become unexpected

mediators between the studio system and the avant-garde art, and, for an uncanny

moment in 1937, Hollywood looks a lot less like a rational system with a uniform style,

or even a standard way of telling stories, than a strange network of echoes and

coincidences. What will emerge from this network is less a theory about Classic

Hollywood than a way of addressing a crucial issue for thirties Hollywood filmmaking,

something I have been alluding to all along: the negotiation between detail and plot,

image and script, moment and narrative.

Episodes in Chiffon

The element of chance was introduced in Easy Living by Preston Sturges. Sturges

had moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s from Broadway to fill the demand for talent

created by the relatively new phenomenon called "the talkies." He saw himself above all

as a storyteller and the movies as primarily a medium for telling stories; he even moved

from Universal to Paramount solely because the latter studio allowed writers to sit in on

conferences with directors. Sturges believed that the script was the essential component

of filmmaking, often championing a kind of reverse auteurism by claiming that "directing

is best done through the writing of the script" (Horton Three More 2). As he dictated his

scripts to his secretary Bianca, his daughter recalls, he "became the characters he was

creating as he paced around the office, speaking as they would speak, moving as they

would move" (Horton Three More 3). In other words, he focused on the cast of characters

and the flow of action. When he was assigned to write the screenplay for a film based on

Vera Caspary's short story, Sturges remodeled the story entirely.14 In place of Caspary's

tale about a poor girl stealing a mink coat, he created a situation where the coat would

accidentally fall on her head, such that "the situation [would] carry] the action from

there. All Sturges had to do then was develop his characters and see how they responded"

(Curtis 110). The script, then, held the idea of chance, but for Sturges that was purely a

narrative device. As we saw earlier, he did not believe chance could be filmed.

But in Hollywood chance was not just a concept, and chance encounters were not

uncommon. Despite its reputation as a rational system, the story of the American film

industry began with a classic accidental encounter. A year after a young fur coat dealer

named Adolph Zukor successfully distributed the Frenchfilm d'art Queen Elizabeth in

1912-a film that was immensely popular in the U.S. primarily because of its spectacular

costumes-DeMille formed a partnership with Jesse L. Lasky and Samuel Goldfish (who

became Samuel Goldwyn of MGM) to create the Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company,

which later grew into Paramount. Having purchased rights to the Western novel The

Squaw Man, DeMille and co-director Oscar C. Apfel went to Flagstaff to shoot on

location. But they found the snow-capped Arizona mountains unsuitable for their tale.

Frustrated, they packed up, got back on the train, and rode to the end of the line. Last

stop, Hollywood. Having stumbled upon this new setting, DeMille went on to transform

the little-known site into a spectacular dream factory.

Soon, others followed.15 Among them was an inspired young designer named

James Mitchell Leisen. In 1919, he went to Hollywood to become a movie star. But he

was not much of an actor and spent most of his time with his family friends, who

happened to know Philip Smalley and his wife, Lois Weber.16 Let me recount his entry

into Hollywood, which was as coincidental as the meeting between Paul Eluard and

Andre Breton at the birth of Surrealism just a year earlier. During a party at the

Smalley's, he talked all night with a woman whom he ran into again the next day at the

Old Ship Cafe at Venice pier. Although he did not realize it then, the woman turned out

to be Jeannie Macpherson, DeMille's secretary. A day later he was hired as a costume

designer for Paramount. Leisen, an architectural designer by training, was quite surprised

by the offer, but Macpherson reassured him: "You had such interesting hands," she said,

"I knew you could do something" (qtd. in Chierichetti 20).17 Leisen's good fortune was in

part due to the fact that Hollywood was a place where potential talent was appreciated

over training. The historian Barrett Kiesling recognized this, suggesting that "a good

architect, a fine dressmaker, an expert trainer of fleas has a better chance of getting a

position than the most delightful Bachelor of Arts who ever received a college sheepskin"

(26). As a designer, and later as a director, Leisen did not disappoint. As biographer

David Chierichetti has noted, "in Leisen's hands [even scripts with little potential]

blossomed beyond their expectations" (2).

Leisen entered an industry attracted to spectacle. In the early twenties, Hollywood

films were governed by the happy coincidence between two currents: the emphasis on the

visual image due to the absence of sound and the post-war craving for "spectacular

glamour and display, the signifier of burning passion and intoxicating excess" (Wollen

14). The spectacle films of the period used couture not only to develop a character or

advance the plot but also to create an unapologetic visual extravaganza. In a brilliant

study of how DeMille's pictures reflected American culture during the silent era, Sumiko

Higashi argues that "[a]s consumption became a pleasurable aspect of modernity,

[DeMille's] compositions were less distinguished by dramatic low-key lighting to

articulate ethical dilemmas and more renowned for spectacular sets" and costumes (142).

DeMille was often heard advising his designers to accentuate the visual element, to "get

it on the screen," since "the camera has no ears" (Chierichetti 22). Coincidentally, his

suggestion seems to echo Walter Benjamin's method of having nothing to say, only to


Again and again, that desire to show overwhelmed the narrative. In Don 't Change

Your Husband (1919), for instance, DeMille drew on Orientalist motifs in costume and

set design. Gloria Swanson, who is referred to as a "Lovely Chinese Lotus," is showcased

repeatedly like a mannequin. At one point, Higashi points out, delightedtd by a beaded

gown unpacked for a costume party, she drapes the fabric around her body in a pose"

(153). Her story can wait. The moment matters much more in non-narrative terms. In

Cobra (1925), Nita Naldi tries to seduce the Italian count, played by Rudolph Valentino,

who comes to America pretending to be a sheik. When the seduction succeeds, the plot

literally comes to a halt, as Naldi slowly reveals her black gown. As Howard Gutner

describes it, the gown's "only embellishment [is] a lightning bolt of silver sequins

cascading from the right hip to the hem like a shock of desire" (20; emphasis added). And

in Madam Satan (1930), DeMille himself exploited the pleasure of couture for visual

effect. In the climactic scene, where Kay Johnson tries to win back her husband by

posing as a seductress at a masquerade ball, DeMille dressed her in a "volcano" gown.

Describing the gown as a visual exclamation point on screen, Jane Gaines argues that it

"could only be worn to be photographed and is never properly worn but is rather hung

and stuck on the actress who becomes something like a moving mannequin" ("On

Wearing the Film" 171). What these examples illustrate is that throughout the 1920s

fashion was used not in service of the narrative but for visual pleasure. Moreover, the

effect of "getting it on the screen" sometimes looked quite surreal.

For the Surrealists, the mannequin was a familiar phantom object. While DeMille

was working on Madam Satan, Jean Cocteau was exploring the connection between the

real and the artificial through a mannequin-like statue that suddenly comes alive. In

Blood of a Poet (1930), a calcified Lee Miller is at first a surrogate for a living figure,

brought to life when the poet wipes off his disembodied mouth from a self-portrait on to

the Hellenistic model. As Barbara Vinken suggests, "The white beauty and majesty of

antique marble and modem fashion oscillate between the animated and the inanimate:

between a statue coming alive Pygmalion-like, and a living woman becoming an

inanimate statue" (62). Also that year, in Self-Portrait, Herbert Bayer established the

relationship between the living and the phantom object with an image of the

photographer himself as a mannequin whose arm is being disassembled.18 By the mid-

1930s, at the Exposition Internationale du Surrtalisme in Paris, the role of the mannequin

in Surrealist iconography was made explicit through the display of mannequins as dream-

like sculptures at city thoroughfares. As Richard Martin puts it, in that spectacle,

"Pygmalion was meeting Freud in a dramatic encounter" (50). Thus, the figure of the

mannequin, as a fertile metaphor for the human figure, enabled the Surrealists to draw

attention to the relationship between the real and the simulacrum.

The appropriation of mannequins was part of a much wider exchange between

Surrealism and fashion. The Surrealists were not only interested in accentuating the

artificial but also in creating moments where the unreal would lead to a new order of

things. Rummaging like a chiffonier through older texts at the National Library in Paris,

Breton had discovered the nineteenth-century poet Lautreamont, whose Les Chants de

Maldoror provided what would become the paradigmatic Surrealist metaphor: "the

chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table." In

couture-and it was haute couture that transformed sculptures into mannequins-the

Surrealists found an ideal dissecting table where the bizarre in the banal, the marvelous in

the everyday, could be revealed. They were fascinated by couture because it seemed to

possess an air of surrealism. In Une Vague de REv'\\", Louis Aragon drew attention to

sartorial details that could be transformed in an instant: "There is a surrealist light: the

moment when the cities go up in flames, it falls on the salmon-colored decoration of

stockings; ... it lingers till late on the avenue de l'Opera at Barclay's, when the ties

transform themselves into phantoms" (qtd. in Ulrich Lehmann 324). And, like Walter

Benjamin, the Surrealists sought to investigate history through these fragmentary sartorial

glimpses. For sartorial objects were capable, as Ulrich Lehmann suggests, of "reach[ing]

below the visual surface and evok[ing] the erotic and mysterious" (325). It was not

surprising, then, that Rene Magritte's Homage to Mack Sennett used clothing to evoke a

kind of mysterious and instantaneous Proustian memory. The painting shows a dress in

human form, hanging in a wardrobe, but the human body no longer inhabits it. What is

left is an undeniable trace or memory of that body in the striking visual detail of female

breasts exposed underneath the surface of the dress.

While Magritte was painting his homage, ironically, both Mack Sennett and

couture's spectacular ability of instantaneously disrupting the linear narrative were fading

in popularity in Hollywood. With the onset of the talkies, slapstick comedies like

Sennett's, whose films had markedly negligible script outlines, were succeeded by

dialogue-based comedies, especially of the screwball variety.19 The latter category of

films was tailored to fit the preexisting logic of the narrative film, and visual elements

that could not be accommodated were usually jettisoned. Naturally, the role of couture,

which tends to emphasize the thrill of the moment, had to be trimmed to fit the narrative

too. Costumes were designed to symbolically reinforce the narrative. The most striking

example of this occurs in George Cukor's The Women (1939), a modern comedy of

manners with an all-female cast. Hedda Hopper, playing the prying columnist Dolly

DePeyster, appears in one scene wearing a sequined butterfly suit with a matching hat

with antennae, probably to pick up gossip signals from the Casino roof. In fact, even the

fashion show itself, inserted as an extended color sequence in Cukor's black-and-white

film, becomes part of the plot.

The fashion show was introduced to Hollywood via the revues. Although Paul

Poiret had invented the runway of models, a virtual narrative of the season's haute

couture, it was Flo Ziegfield who, through a chance encounter at the dress designer

Lucile's, turned it into a show-business narrative with a big finish, the show-stopper. As

it turned out, just when DeMille discovered Hollywood, Ziegfield made his own

spectacular discovery. In 1913, he met actress Billie Burke, the toast of Broadway. The

following year, the two eloped. And as any doting husband might, Ziegfield took her

shopping. Burke happened to be a Lucile customer, and when Ziegfield entered Lucile's

salon, he was struck by the beauty of one of her models, Dolores. Immediately, he

decided to recreate that striking moment on stage in one of his revues. "Ladies in

Fashion" became his tribute to this show-stopping beauty. The subtitle of the revue was

"An Episode in Chiffon."

In Hollywood, the designer who most adroitly executed such episodes in chiffon

was Gilbert Adrian. He juxtaposed the worlds of haute couture and Classic Hollywood,

and that juxtaposition was remarkably, if inadvertently, surreal. For sometimes chiffons

have a way of stopping the show. Before Mitchell Leisen ran into him in New York and

brought him out to Hollywood to work on DeMille's The Volga Boatman (1926), Adrian

had gained experience working with chiffon (and plenty of other fabrics) mainly through

chiffons, validating Elizabeth Nielsen's contention that costume designing depended

more on the designer's resourcefulness than creativity, on "a kind of spontaneous

adaptability found in individuals who because of necessity ha[d] to do something with

very limited resources" (170). As a struggling designer, Adrian had learned to assemble

designs out of the scraps left on the cutting room floor. While he was studying at the

Parsons School of Fine and Applied Arts in Paris, he decided to participate in the Bal du

Grand Prix, where designers like Paul Poiret met each year to create extravagant

costumes. This was to be his "sacred rite of initiation into the Parisian world of art and

design" (Gutner 12). But without much time or money for an original design, Adrian put

together a costume by "scour[ing] the workrooms at Parsons looking for whatever [he]

might take that wouldn't be missed" (Gutner 12-13). The result of his scouring was a

brightly-colored design that, luckily, caught the attention of Irving Berlin, who happened

to be in Paris looking for a designer for his Broadway revue with his director, Hassard

Short. When he finally moved to Hollywood and took over as designer for MGM, Adrian

brought his scouring talents with him, despite Mayer's apparent refusal to allow the

studio to be turned into a laboratory.

Adrian's method of designing was closer to that of the ragpicker's, who scavenged

the nineteenth-century city for remnants of history, than to the assembly-line worker's. In

a recent essay, Caroline Evans compares the roles of the ragpicker and the fashion

designer, arguing that "the historian/designer's method is akin to that of the ragpicker

who moves through the city gathering scraps for recycling" (108). However, she makes

this analogy only in relation to postmodern designers, who deliberately rummage through

fashion history in order to create a pastiche by quoting previous eras. I find the

inadvertent scavenging within Hollywood's vertically-integrated, controlled system much

more compelling. In Talking Pictures, an insider's account of Classic Hollywood written

in 1937, Barrett Kiesling observed that the design departments at major studios like

MGM were quite impressive, often set up "in an enormous twelve-story building, [where]

some thirty thousand different costumes of every known historical period are stored"

(33).20 That kind of raw material enabled designers to stroll up and down the vertical

promenade of fashions, creating startling juxtapositions of sartorial articles, as if by


Consider, for instance, the most often cited dress in Hollywood fashion history: the

Letty Lynton dress. In 1932, Joan Crawford signed on to make Clarence Brown's film

about a wealthy New York socialite who goes unpunished for killing her playboy lover.

Crawford had been a fashion icon since her flapper days. She often played a rags-to-

riches factory worker or shopgirl,21 but the image of the "Letty Lynton" dress has

outlived that narrative. Indeed, the white chiffon organdy dress with built-up shoulders

and puffed sleeves has persisted like a still from Gilbert Adair's album of "flickers." It

became popular immediately upon the film's release, so much so that Macy's claimed

they had sold 500,000 copies of it, and an article in Vogue reported that "the country was

flooded with little Joan Crawfords" (qtd. in Gutner 116). What kind of dress would create

such a fashion furor across the country?

Instead of following the realistic trend in costume designing of the early 1930s,

Adrian borrowed a detail from the gay 1890s by reviving the puffed sleeves, which were

ruffled at the shoulder and tight from the elbow down. The puffed sleeves would work

well to cover Joan Crawford's unusually broad shoulders. By chance, fashion historian

Jane Mulvagh notes, the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris had reintroduced the wide

shoulders, "show[ing] Japanese and Balinese costumes and Bangkok temple dancers with

winged shoulders and tiny waists" (112). The "Letty Lynton" puffed sleeves-also called

mutton sleeves, appropriately echoing Surrealism's penchant for the bizarre and

anticipating the Surrealist-inspired Mutton Chop hat-arose out of the juxtaposition of

neo-Victorian femininity and Oriental chic. To the sleeves, Adrian added other

heterogeneous elements: "the Buster Brown collar, the hip treatment and the flared

bottom of the skirt, both ruffled and tucked," confessing to the Ladies' Home Journal in

1933 that the "Letty Lynton" dress "may have seemed to have several ideas" (qtd. in

Gutner 118).

The dress, which became synonymous with 1930s Hollywood fashion and defined

Adrian's reputation as the quintessential Hollywood designer, was in fact put together

almost inadvertently as a collage, out of bits and pieces from different eras.22 Moreover,

David Wallace notes that the dress was not produced by a lone artist, Adrian, but by "a

small army of up to 250 cutters, tailors, leaders, embroiderers, jewel craftsmen, feather

workers, and seamstresses" (111). The result of all this collaboration was that on screen,

the starched chiffon dress signified more than the look of innocence and vulnerability

demanded by the narrative. Although Joan Crawford is supposed to look, according to

Herzog and Gaines, "demure and submissive in the frothy fantasy dress" (89), if we look

at the ruffles closely, the dress does not appear to follow the requirements of the script.

As Elizabeth Wilson points out, "when Joan Crawford stood framed in a doorway the

sleeves stood out like twin powder puffs or embryo wings" (171). The visual details of

Adrian's collage, then, made the dress unmistakably surreal.

The Letty Lynton dress, which created such uproar throughout the country and has

remained one of the most influential designs in American fashion, has ironically been

missing in action since 1933. Due to legal disputes over the film's screenplay, Letty

Lynton was put out of circulation a year after its release.23 But traces of the film have

been kept alive through George Hurrell's photographs of the dress, which have been

reproduced in almost as many film studies texts as copies of the original dress were

purportedly sold by Macy's. In fact, these fashion stills led to the original popularity of

the film. For, even though the plot was generally well-known, Letty Lynton was marketed

on the strength of a single dress with many details; rather than the plot, MGM publicized

fashion stills of the Letty Lynton dress. Fashion stills were different from publicity

stills-although they featured stars and costumes, they did not contain any "dramatic

ideas." The dress was regarded by the publicity department as a show-stopper. Without

any narrative context, it was promoted with descriptions of details about the mutton

sleeves; the tucks and flares; "the skirt beneath ... of flaring and circular fullness with a

series of three tucks appearing above the three-ruffled border"; and "the ruffles of collar,

sleeves, peplum, belt buckle and shirt ... all accordion pleated" (qtd. in Herzog and

Gaines 80). So, although the film has been lost to history, the details have survived.

Coincidentally, Elsa Schiaparelli, the doyenne of Parisian high fashion, had

introduced the exaggerated puffed sleeves a year earlier. In the early 1930s, haute couture

responded to the somber mood following the collapse of the stock market by eschewing

both opulence and triviality. Therefore, in the designs of Parisian fashion houses,

conservatism prevailed. But then came along designers who were more interested in

shocking their audiences than following the latest trend. At this time, Surrealism

happened to gain currency in fashion's graphic designs. First, Coco Chanel decided to

revise Paul Poiret's restrictive outfits by freeing women of the corset. William Wiser

notes that Dali became one of her friends, who "could offer a surrealist touch to the

Chanel line, and contribute[] his flair and capricious whimsy to the more staid designs, as

long as Coco kept him in check" (141). In 1936, Elsa Schiaparelli adapted Dali's The

Study ofDrawers for her famous desk suit, with pockets simulating a chest of drawers.

Of course, the exchange between Surrealism and high fashion was not a one-way street.

In 1935, at a lecture in London, Dali arrived wearing a diving suit to show, as Piers

Brendon argues, "that he was plumbing the depths of the human mind" (356). Two years

later, he collaborated with Schiaparelli on the Mutton Chop Hat, which oddly echoes the

Letty Lynton sleeves. As the name suggests, it is "a millinery fiction, but in order to be

fully acceptable it has a white patent-leather frill on the end of the chop as if offered in

proper restaurant service" (Martin 108). This hat was part of a series of sartorial articles

that Dali and Schiaparelli produced through a Surrealist juxtaposition of dissimilar

objects. That same year, around the time of the release of Easy Living, Dali and

Schiaparelli joined forces to create the "Mad Cap." Paraphrasing Richard Martin, we can

say that fashion and Surrealism were meeting in a dramatic, often comic (might we say

madcap?), encounter.

In 1937, that dramatic encounter included one other member: Classic Hollywood.

Although Hollywood stars like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford had been interested in

Parisian haute couture since the early 1930s, in 1937, Schiaparelli invited Mae West to

adapt her bosomy curves for a perfume bottle. When West arrived in Paris, Schiaparelli

recalls, "she was stretched out on the operating table of [her] workroom, and measured

and probed with curiosity" (qtd. in Martin 205). Based on West's silhouette, the

Surrealist artist Leonor Fini created an hourglass-shaped flacon. In that moment, with

Mae West as a kind of moving mannequin, Schiaparelli's "operating table" became the

charmed dissecting table where Surrealism met Hollywood through fashion, as if by

chance. The name of the perfume was Shocking.

The encounter made quite an impression on Hollywood too; and long before

Hitchcock worked with Dali on Spellbound, Surrealism was briefly invited to the studio

system. Both Chanel and Schiaparelli were asked to design costumes for MGM and

Paramount respectively. Schiaparelli did Mae West's costumes for Every Day 's a

Holiday (1937), and Chanel even went to Hollywood to collaborate with Leisen and

Adrian. But that association did not last too long, because these designers seemed too

eccentric for the fast-paced studio system. Chanel actually faired much better with Jean

Renoir, designing costumes for bourgeois life in France in La Regle du Jeu (1939). What

Hollywood filmmakers wanted was to incorporate these Surrealist-inspired designs

symbolically into their scripts, mostly for laughs. In 1939, for instance, Leisen directed

Midnight, a screwball comedy where Claudette Colbert plays an American gold-digger

who goes from being Eve Peabody of the Bronx to the Duchess Czerny of Hungary with

the help of some Parisian couture. In a scene at "Simone Chapeaux," the owner Simone

emerges wearing a centipede brooch and asks for a decidedly surreal hat, "with the stuff

on it that looks like spinach."24 That movie, which from a narrative point of view echoes

Renoir's film made that same year, has none of the intensity of Surrealism. The Brackett

and Wilder script does not linger on the Surrealist details; it moves swiftly along to the

next joke. And we might conclude that the overt enthusiasm for Surrealism in Hollywood

faded just as quickly.25

Although that connection was severed, haute couture in general and Schiaparelli in

particular were indirectly linked to Hollywood. Hollywood was a long way away for a

young fldneuse, who was accidentally discovered by the father of Parisian high fashion,

Paul Poiret. Wandering through Poiret's salon, Schiaparelli came upon a coat she would

have liked but could not afford. Poiret stepped forward to complement her and gave her

the coat for free. Perhaps as confused as Mary Smith must have been in Easy Living,

Schiaparelli walked away with the coat that would change her life. Shortly afterward,

Poiret became her mentor and her ticket to the unpredictable world of Parisian haute


Although Schiaparelli would have to wait a while to be discovered by Hollywood,

Poiret himself was no stranger to it. In 1912, a young fur coat dealer named Adolph

Zukor had successfully distributed Queen Elizabeth, which, as mentioned earlier, was a

huge financial success due to the popularity of the spectacular costumes designed by

Poiret himself for the film's star Sarah Bernhardt. The profits from the distribution

provided the seed capital for Paramount, where Zukor soon partnered with DeMille.

Among others, in 1919, DeMille hired a young costume designer for the studio. Several

years later that young designer began directing movies. Since he was inclined toward

fashion, in 1937, he made a film about Parisian haute couture called Artists and Models

Abroad. For the film, he sent the Paris correspondent of Harper 's Bazaar scavenging for

clothes from Parisian couturiers. The correspondent gathered up clothes from Mme Gres,

Paquin, Patou, and of course Schiaparelli. In her communique back to Paramount, she

said: "these should do the trick." Evidently they did, because the film was very

successful. In fact, it was one of Paramount's highest grossers that year. The studio

wasn't so lucky with the other film the designer-turned-director made that year-a

screwball comedy that was quite forgettable, except for a moment when a fur coat falls

on a working girl's head.

At the end of Easy Living, another unsuspecting girl gets hit by a fur coat. After the

misunderstanding is finally cleared up-and according to Mary Smith, it's no little

misunderstanding-J. B. Ball finds his wife in possession of that disruptive fur coat once

more. So, yet again, he throws it off the balcony, and it falls on another young girl who

happens to be standing by. She lets out a slight scream. Mary and John recognize her

confusion. Mary grabs his arm and walks away, saying "Johnny, this is where we came

in." This final moment was a late addition to the film. It does not appear in Sturges's

script, so we might assume that it was Leisen's contribution. But what do we make of this

return to the initial chance encounter?

Ed Sikov argues that Easy Living issues from "Sturges's and Leisen's glorifying

appreciation of kismet" (122). Although Sturges's script contains this sense of

predetermination, in Leisen's hands, the film becomes a lot less predictable. In fact,

Sturges did not like working with Leisen because of the unconventional way in which

Leisen treated his screenplays. He thought Leisen "cared more about the background ...

than the scene in front of it" (Harvey 524). In fact, Leisen's preoccupation with the

details of a scene left many of his screenwriters disappointed.26 Sometimes, Ronald Davis

notes, he "might spend two hours adjusting a drape on a window, rather than rehearsing

his actors" (73). But that is because Leisen's method did not necessarily conform to the

studio system's linear mode of filmmaking. Although his films did follow the plot,

having been a designer, he was also interested in the minutest details and would often

momentarily surrender the narrative to them. While he was known primarily for making

social satires, he did not like being restricted by the plot's significance. "If I want to send

a message," he would say, "I'll call Western Union." 27 Indeed, his films often showed

disregard for the script in favor of unplanned moments that reflected an appreciation not

of kismet but of chance.28

The initial fur coat moment can be seen as Leisen's way of allowing chance to

appear on the screen, momentarily suspending the narrative order. The unmotivated

overhead shot takes on the qualities of what Rene Crevel calls "a single moment of

lyricism," "capable of making us forget all sorts of wretched [or funny] stories" (57). The

enigmatic fur coat is certainly capable of making us forget the screwball script-but just

for a moment, because Leisen cuts back to Jean Arthur and the plot resumes. This

moment shows the negotiation that is at the heart of 1930s Hollywood filmmaking: on the

one hand, it tries to move from one joke to the next, in classic screwball fashion. On the

other hand, the moment becomes the script's "screwball."

Sikov notes that the term screwball came from baseball: it was coined in the 1930s

to suggest an erratic pitch meant to confuse the batter. It became especially popular when,

at the All-Star Game of 1934, New York Giant Carl Hubbell surprisingly "struck out five

future Hall-of-Famers in a row-Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and

Joe Cronin-all with screwballs" (Sikov 19). The fur coat moment similarly strikes out

the traditional narrative about Classic Hollywood. Even if only for an instant, it reveals

the contradictions that lie just below the surface and between the folds. The mysterious

coat becomes a perfectly fitting metaphor for the fortuitous juxtaposition of Classic

Hollywood and Surrealism, experienced not in the planned collaborations between the

European emigres and the Hollywood natives but in the unplanned moments that

happened by chance during the mid-1930s, as the world was making the transition from

one chaotic disaster, the Great Depression, to another, the Second World War. In these

unplanned moments, Hollywood itself begins to resemble Surrealist Paris, no longer a

linear and homogenous city, but a "little universe," where "ghostly signals flash from the

traffic, and inconceivable analogies are the order of the day" ("Surrealism" 231).

"Hey, What's the Big Idea Anyway?"

In Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941), a Hollywood director, displeased with the

studio system of filmmaking, endeavors to make an epic about the essential meaning of

poverty. John "Sully" Sullivan believes that filmmaking ought to focus more on grand

themes. So, he sets out dressed in rags, which he ironically finds in the studio's costume

department, to write his substantial thesis on poverty, to be titled "0 Brother, Where Art

Thou?" At first, it is difficult to leave the studio system behind and realize his riches-to-

rags tale. Every time he hitches a ride out of Hollywood, he inadvertently finds his way

back. Even his crew follows him in a caravan, filming his adventures. When Sully

accidentally encounters people on a freight train who might know a thing or two about

living in poverty, he asks them about the labor situation, but they walk away. They are

not so keen on discussing his "big idea." When he discovers poverty, it appears not as a

grand narrative about social disorder, but in minor details, like a pair of tattered shoes

with the front split open and toes exposed. Even the screwball plot of the film pauses, as

Sully goes through each of these dark moments, until he becomes a ragpicker impaling

scraps in a dumpster.

Sully's rhetorical question-the same question is posed by Mary Smith in Easy

Living-is provocative nonetheless. But the response to "what's the big idea anyway?" is

that there ought to be none. This position is decidedly Benjaminian. Benjamin repeatedly

refused big ideas in favor of details. For him, details were more likely to yield new

knowledge than general theories. "To someone looking through piles of old letters," he

argued, "a stamp that has long been out of circulation on a torn envelope often says more

than a reading of dozens of pages" ("One-Way Street" 91). If a stamp could say so much,

fashion might say even more. For it is that much more ephemeral. Benjamin's fashion

formulation, about the ruffles on a dress, alludes to Baudelaire's poem Tableaux

Parisiens. As Barbara Vinken argues, "The transitory moment versus eternity is the

crucial opposition structuring the poem: 'un eclair, puis la nuit"'"-a flash of lightning,

then the night (60). Fashion provides this flash of lightning for understanding modernity.

It is for Benjamin, as Vinken notes, "the art of the destructive but triumphant moment"

(63). In its details, fashion bears the traces of a tempsperdu. But these details not only

endure, but they also enable new associations and discoveries. We might say the same

about a fascinating fur coat that helps uncover an unconventional, associative history of

1930s Hollywood. Despite Hollywood's seeming resistance, of course, the erratic detail

was extremely significant. In Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), the Sergeant

asks young Woodrow to keep moving the charade along, suggesting "everything is

perfect except for a couple of details." But Woodrow does not think their narrative can

last too much longer. He responds, "they hang people for a couple of details."


1 Easy Living was made three years before Sturges was offered the opportunity to direct
The Great McGinty (1940). In the 1930s, he was still known as a screenwriter, while his
reputation today rests mainly on the seven films he directed at Paramount in the early

2 In "The Return of the Uncanny," Michael Arnzen makes a case for aligning cinema
with the uncanny: "Literally embodying the uncanny in the manner in which its
technology animates a series of inanimate still pictures, the cinematic eye has become a
metaphor for subjectivity-from 'mindscreens' to the 'male gaze'-and we haven't
'looked' at the world in the same way since its emergence" (317). My use of the term
uncanny here is limited to this sense of a familiar object, a fur coat, becoming unfamiliar,
evoking an odd sensation of pleasure, in this overhead shot. I do not mean to invoke
directly any associations with the Freudian uncanny.

3 Of course, Ado Kyrou had noted the Surrealists' enthusiasm for cinema in general and
the immensely popular serial films in particular. Most recently, Robin Walz has traced
the "complex and multifaceted" affinities between Surrealism and mass culture through
an examination of the surreal tendencies in Feuillade's Fant6mas.

4 In his autobiography, Sturges recalls that when he took the script to Paramount producer
Michael Revnes, Revnes decided that "1936 was not the time for comedies." But Sturges
disagreed. "Any time was a good time for comedies," he argued, then wrote a fresh script
retaining Caspary's title, and took it directly to Mitchell Leisen, who shared his
enthusiasm for the tale (283).

5 These contrasting identities were recreated by Sturges only three years later in
Remember the Night (1940), where an unsentimental shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck)
encounters a prosecuting attorney (Fred MacMurray) during Christmas. This film was
also directed by Mitchell Leisen.

6 For many of his Surrealist colleagues, Dali's work in Hollywood was seen as selling-out
to mass culture and earned him the nickname "Avida Dollars."

7 Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene, and her screen name, a quixotic
combination of Jeanne d'Arc and King Arthur, itself evokes the Surrealist tendency of
juxtaposing unrelated elements.

8 Of course, such a solution would always appear in excess, "a solution certainly
rigorously fitting and yet somehow in excess of the need" (Mad Love 13).

9 In "Surrealism," Benjamin refers to Nadja as a "book with a banging door" (228),
which serves as an appropriate metaphor for the aural reverberations in the text.

10 I do not mean to suggest that coincidences had no place in Classic Hollywood. Indeed,
coincidence was used as a key plot device in the era's greatest films. After all, "of all the
gin joints in all the towns in all the world," Ilsa Laszlo would not have walked into Rick's
Cafe in Casablanca (1942) had it not been for chance. But the industry itself, whose
organization was predicated not on sudden parallels but on predictable standards, seemed
to discredit the value of coincidence.

11 Wohlfarth's essay provides an exhaustive analysis of the figure of the ragpicker and his
relation to other materialist historian figures, like the collector and the poet, in
Benjamin's work.

12 Following Benjamin, Wohlfarth suggests, "Not merely 'culture' and 'cultural history,'
perhaps even cultural criticism, metaprattle, has to go" (156).

13 Tristan Tzara made a similar gesture of gratitude when he adopted another symbolic
date in 1921. Although his date of arrival in Paris from New York was July 22, he would
forever tell everyone that he arrived on July 14, Bastille Day.

14 Sturges's adaptation is actually a rewriting, thus proving Andre Bazin's point that
"most of the films that are based on novels merely usurp their titles" (22).

15 The American film industry grew quite rapidly. By 1920, Hollywood was producing
over 800 films a year, which accounted for almost 80% of movies produced around the

16 Considering that he is most often remembered as a "woman's director," it is
noteworthy that one of Leisen's first acquaintances in Hollywood was Lois Weber, the
only female director at the time.

17 The exchange between Macpherson and Leisen is quoted in David Chierichetti's
MitchellLeisen. Chierichetti offers an interesting perspective on Leisen's films through a
series of interviews with the director and his closest associates.

18 The appropriation of mannequins into Surrealist imagery was anticipated as early as
1919 by Man Ray, whose Aviary displays a figure that is part armless mannequin, part
bird cage, to suggest the constraints of the body.

19 By the early 1930s, Mack Sennett, who had gone to Hollywood after a chance
encounter and a letter of introduction from Marie Dressler, fell out of favor. Although he
continued to make movies, mainly short comedies and musicals, the Keystone era was
definitely over. James Agee, in his analysis of "comedy's greatest era," lamented the
death of silent comedies, arguing that the talkies focused too much on dialogue at the
expense of the comic physical performance. "To put it unkindly," he said, "the only thing
wrong with screen comedy today is that it takes place on a screen which talks" (395).

20 Even Jane Powell remembers the MGM costume department as a museum, with "a
glorious collection of real and unreal [clothes], of every period, every style you could
imagine" (qtd. in Davis 210). Interestingly, as early as 1937, Kiesling anticipated Andre
Bazin, praising Hollywood's "flawless co-operative system" (127). "Picture making is
not like the manufacture of gloves, or of overcoats, or of shoes," he argued, for it is not
the production of a standardized product (94). It is, instead, "a mosaic of many different
arts and vocations"; 276 of them, to be exact (4). Although the text does not account for
all 276 components of that mosaic, one of the more interesting tiles in that textile is the
department of design.

21 The roles Crawford played often paralleled her own rise to the top of the film industry
from very modest circumstances. She was often quoted as saying that, like the dancer in
Dancing Lady (1933), she too got her chance in Hollywood after her friend helped her
buy something decent to wear.

22 Adrian attributed much of his success to the dress: "who would have thought," he
would amusingly exclaim, "that my entire reputation as a designer would rest on Joan
Crawford's shoulders!"

23 The film was pulled from distribution due to a plagiarism case that was filed against
MGM. Letty Lynton was based on an historical incident, the 1857 trial of Madeleine
Smith, an heiress accused of murdering her lover. That incident also formed the basis of
Edward Sheldon's play, DishonoredLady. When MGM failed to purchase the rights to
that play, they went ahead and made the film. In Sheldon v. MGM, the studio was
accused of copyright infringement, because a few of the fictional themes from Sheldon's
play, those that were not part of the public record, appeared in the film. The appellate
court ruled against MGM, and the film has disappeared from circulation since then. I
confess that I have not seen it, although Charlotte Herzog and Jane Gaines report that one
35mm print does exist in the MGM vault in Culver City.

24 The Surrealist sense of seeing fashion as something bizarre became quite pervasive. In
1938, Elizabeth Hawes wrote a comparative history of Parisian and American fashion
titled Fashion is Spinach.

25 According to anecdotal accounts, Paramount liked the screenplay, but decided it
needed some revisions. So, they hired writers to rewrite the script. Without knowing it,
the new writers turned out to Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who sent the script back

without making any changes. This time the studio executives apparently loved it, because
they produced it-in its original version.

26 Sturges was not the only disgruntled scriptwriter to work with Leisen. Even Billy
Wilder did not appreciate Leisen's approach, because the director "did not watch over the
writers' lines, allowing actors to make changes as they pleased" (Chandler 84).

27 This anecdote is sometimes attributed to several members of the Classic Hollywood
community, including Samuel Goldwyn. As Otto Friedrich notes, with some of the
stories associated with Hollywood, there are "several contradictory versions of some
much-told tale" (xiii).

28 In his recent review of a Leisen film that has been forgotten, Swing High, Swing Low,
David Thomson characterizes Leisen as "an intelligent man, trying to play the Hollywood
game yet good enough to have raw truths breaking in" ("You and the Night" 29).


[O]ne might write: "The whirring blades of the electric fan caused the window curtains to
flutter. The man seated at the massive desk finished his momentous letter, sealed it, and
hastened out to post it." The whirring fan and the fluttering curtain give motion only-the
man's writing the letter and taking it out to post provides action. It is of action that
photoplays are wrought.
-Frederick Palmer, Technique of the Photoplay

Guided by film, then, we approach, if at all, ideas no longer on highways leading through
the void but on paths that wind through the thicket of things.
-Siegfried Kracauer, Theory ofFilm

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad
stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film
and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now,
in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.
-Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

A Telephone-Bell Rings in Darkness ...

Out of the fading dust emerge the ghostly paraphernalia of classic noir. The dirt

trail kicked up by a dead body tumbling down the hillside is still discernible when the

exterior night shot of Miles Archer's murder dissolves to an interior shot of a cluttered

bedside table. With only partial lighting from the back and left of the frame, the objects

slowly materialize in silhouette: an old stand-up telephone, a pouch of tobacco, a dusty

ashtray, an alarm clock balanced on the edge of a book, a newspaper turned to the racing

section. Curtains sway from the night breeze in the background, while in the foreground a

fumbling hand reaches into the frame to grab the ringing telephone. Even after the

telephone is removed, for almost thirty seconds, the camera does not move. Although a

slight pan could capture the conversation that will propel narrative action-because

"when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it"-it stays

focused on the bedside composition, as if transfixed by a few charmed objects. Bogart's

voice is heard off-screen: "Hello. Yeah, speaking. Miles Archer dead? Where?

... Bush and Stockton? ... Uh. Fifteen Minutes. Thanks." After he hangs up, the

camera pans right gradually to accommodate the star's profile in the frame; he replaces

the telephone and turns on a lamp, illuminating the entire shot. Now the objects resume

their diegetic function: the alarm clock establishes the time of night, 2:05 am; Duke's

Celebrated Criminal Cases ofAmerica verifies Spade's status as a private eye; the sack

of Bull Durham authenticates his hardboiled character. Action regains precedence over

ambience, and the forward momentum will only cease when his partner's murder has

been avenged.1

And yet, for a few seconds, the bedside arrangement in John Huston's The Maltese

Falcon (1941) interrupts the onward advance of the plot. The moment metonymically

represents the distinctive style of 1940s Hollywood-chiefly characterized by what

Manny Farber has called "puzzling, faintly marred kaleidoscopes of a street, face, or

gesture" (Negative Space 61). There is no mistaking this portentous telephonic moment

of noir for any scene from the luxurious "white telephone" films that were typical of the

previous decade.2 Like the extreme close-up of a visually enormous coffee cup, which

succinctly captures the feeling of paranoiac entrapment in Edgar G. Ulmer' s Detour

(1945), this virtual still conjures an intriguing world from the waft of mystery, the whiff

of noir.

But the pull of the moment when the telephone rings is not only contextual. There

is a certain immediacy in its appeal. Even though the narrative is ongoing, our attention is

riveted on the stuff that movies are made of: buzzing telephones, fluttering curtains,

menacing shadows. With its sparse interior setting punctuated by a few key objects, the

moment looks like an Edward Hopper painting-Office at Night, for instance, which was

painted only a year before the release of The Maltese Falcon.3 Hopper's work enables the

viewer to imagine alternative narratives invoked by its captivating objects-like the

partially visible piece of paper wedged under a desk in Office at Night-rather than

explaining what they mean. As the narrative pauses for a moment, the mysterious stuff of

The Maltese Falcon similarly retains its substantive presence in the diegesis, but it also

intimates beyond it. Or, as Kristin Thompson suggests in her analysis of cinematic

excess, "The function of the material elements of the film is accomplished, but their

perceptual interest is by no means exhausted in the process" (492). That is, unlike the

obviously out-of-place, visually excessive fur coat moment from the previous chapter, the

shot of Spade's bedside table is consistent with the expressionist visual conventions of

noir. As James Naremore argues, "one tiny section of the room evokes] the entire

hardboiled style of life" ("John Huston" 155). Still, its appeal exceeds that thrilling plot.

As Thompson would point out, "Excess is not only counternarrative; it is also

counterunity" (491). So, what do we make of this moment when the still seems to stall

the tale? When the momentum lags, the camera idles?

Idling seems highly unsuitable for the universe of The Maltese Falcon. In its swift-

moving world, pausing "[t]o endow with a poetic value," as Louis Aragon might put it,

"that which does not yet possess it, to willfully restrict the field of vision so as to

intensify expression" (52), would be counterproductive. Moreover, the studio would have

disapproved it. As David Desser notes, Warner's "was a studio that typically shunned

lavish productions due to budgetary constraints" (22). Having been advised by the

associate producer at Warner's, Henry Blanke, to makeae every shot count" (qtd. in

Jameson 38), Huston worked hard to tighten the narrative. To Hal Wallis's memo about

the opening sequence being a little slow, for instance, he responded by "shrinking all the

pauses and speeding up all the action .. making Bogart quick and staccato and taking all

the deliberateness out of his action" (qtd. in Behlmer 118). Idling, then, would have been

incompatible with the fast-paced world of noir and with the parsimonious ethos of

Warner Bros.

Indeed, idling would appear antithetical to the entire Classic Hollywood mode of

filmmaking, which preferred the relentless roll of action to distracting stillness. That

mode, modeled on the linear continuity of the assembly line, operated with the speed and

efficiency that Mussolini claimed for his railroad system. In fact, as Lynne Kirby has

effectively argued, cinema's continuity impulse ran parallel to the forward impulsion of

the railways.4 It was the arrival of a train at a station that caused cinema's earliest

spectators, who feared the train's onward momentum, to rush out of the way. Within less

than a decade, when momentum itself was becoming the norm, a railcar became the site

of a great robbery and, in the process, established the standard for narrative filmmaking.

For while the Lumieres' Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895) marked the beginning of

the movies' long-running relationship with the railroad, it was Edwin S. Porter's film that

discovered how cinematic narrative might parallel the railways' code of continuity.

Having been fascinated with Georges Melies's "trick films," like A Trip to the Moon

(1902), Porter intuited that "'a picture telling a story in continuity form might draw the

customers back to the theaters"' and then set to work in that direction (qtd. in Musser 25).

Drawing on the railroad's linear path as a model for preserving narrative continuity, The

Great Train Robbery (1903) became the first film to follow a single line of action. The

film was enormously popular, and, as Kirby suggests, it "did much to set cinema on a

firmly narrative path" (55).

With the unyielding pursuit of a mythical bird at its core, The Maltese Falcon is

similarly set on a decisively narrative course. The film itself makes an implicit argument

in favor of narrative continuity. All along, Spade is preoccupied with getting the story

straight. Even more than the discovery of the elusive falcon, he is concerned with keeping

the plot on track-of, as he puts it, keeping in touch with "all the loose ends of this dizzy

affair if I'm ever going to make heads or tails of it." By the end, he appears to succeed:

the central mystery has been resolved; the partner's murder will be avenged. Although

the falcon remains missing, the plot's loose ends are tied up. Action, in other words, leads

to narrative resolution. Most critics of the film seem to agree, for they have almost

exclusively focused on its swift, dramatic action. After all, idling to look at whirring fans

and fluttering curtains would be futile when it is action that photoplays are made of.5 So

when it was first released, reviewers like Bosley Crowther hailed The Maltese Falcon for

its "brisk" pace (127). This view has since been consistently reinforced in the extensive

scholarship on the film. William Luhr, for instance, analyzes it as the ideal example of

classical narration, while Richard T. Jameson draws attention to the film's "compulsive

momentum," suggesting that, "like its elusive namesake, [it] is eternally in motion" (46,

40). In other words, The Maltese Falcon is widely regarded as an exemplary case of

continuity filmmaking, where the plot keeps moving till the end. Nothing, not even

intriguing objects, could stall its momentum. As Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell

put it, unlike Yasujiro Ozu, "Huston wouldn't think of cutting away from Sam Spade and

Brigid O' Shaughnessy to a shot of the coat-rack in the corner of the office unless the hats

on it have] some [narrative] significance" (qtd. in Luhr, "Tracking" 162). And yet, when

the telephone-bell rings in darkness, the camera does not cut to Spade. Even though the

scene has been choreographed, it has a cinephiliac appeal. In that moment, the narrative

fades, and the stuff of cinema takes the foreground.

"What Was the Nickel for?"

On December 21, 1940, a forty-four-year-old unemployed screenwriter died of a

heart attack. Hollywood had not been good for him. Like many others who preceded him,

he said he "came to Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted

house" (Zollo xii). And like the countless others who would surely follow, he was a

failure, an embarrassment-especially so since he had been quite successful as a novelist

before taking the train out to Hollywood. But unlike all the others, he had the unique

opportunity to return from the dead to paint an episodic, albeit incomplete, portrait of the

studio system. Nearly a year after his untimely death, around the time of The Maltese

Falcon's release, his college friend published his unfinished novel, which offers an

insider's perspective on Hollywood. But while The Love of the Last Tycoon may be one

of the finest novels about Hollywood, it is certainly not its complete tale. Projected as a

series of episodes, F. Scott Fitzgerald's sketch of the studio system is composed of

several quick snapshots that do not add up to a linear narrative. Due to their brevity, the

tale is told "only dimly and in flashes" (3). In Fitzgerald's view of Hollywood, moments

are more significant than the plot that contains them. When we zoom in, "the whole

equation of pictures" (3) in effect seems like a struggle between the image and the

narrative, the still and the tale.

So we find Monroe Stahr, Fitzgerald's consummate movie producer, constantly

wrestling with cinema's linear drive on one hand and the ambiguity of its distracting

images on the other. It is the narrative path that Stahr points to when comparing

filmmaking to railroad construction. Flying over the Hollywood hills, Stahr tells his pilot

that the whole business of filmmaking depends on choosing a particular path and sticking

to it. While your surveyors may offer several alternatives for running a railroad through

the mountains, Stahr suggests, you pursue a single path unwaveringly, even if you are in

doubt and "all these other possible decisions keep echoing in your ear" (140).6 The studio

system follows a similarly steadfast path, and the railroad becomes a fitting metaphor for

Hollywood's single-minded pursuit of narrative continuity. After all, what could be a

better example of linear continuity than the railroad? Consider, for instance, what

Wolfgang Schivelbusch regards as the primary goal of railroad construction in the

nineteenth century: "to achieve optimal performance with the least expenditure of energy,

the rail has to run a level and straight course." So the railroad "lay[s] a level and straight

roadbed through uneven terrain" (24). Once the lines are marked and the tracks are laid,

there is no possibility of divergence. There is only the singular trail of continuity to

follow. Doubt, uncertainty, hesitation would lead off course.

As Stahr surveys the landscape from the airplane, studio filmmaking appears to

correspond to the railroad path. From his overhead, seemingly objective perspective, the

straight and level railroad parallels Hollywood's linear trail. But Stahr is also aware of

the advantages of pausing along the way. In a meeting with a writer who is having

trouble figuring out what the movies are made of, the producer sets this scene: "'A pretty

stenographer that you've seen before comes into the room and you watch her-idly. ...

She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table. She has two

dimes and a nickel-and a cardboard match box. She leaves the nickel on the desk, puts

the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and

puts them inside"' (32; emphasis added). Then the telephone rings. If the scene is meant

to allow the viewer to view the details "idly," then the ring disrupts that image. The plot

picks up; she tells the caller, Stahr continues, "'I've never owned a pair of black gloves in

my life"' (32). The narrative track has now been established, prompting the writer

Boxley's obvious question, "'What happens?"' (32). Rather than developing that line of

inquiry, however, Stahr replies that he doesn't know. The narrative does not seem to

interest him much; he was, he says, "'just making pictures"' (32). But then Boxley asks

the more intriguing question, about a detail that has stirred his idle curiosity, even though

it probably has nothing to do with the mysterious plot: "'What was the nickel for?"' (33).

At first, Stahr seems uncertain, but then responds: "'the nickel was for the movies"' (33).

His response ties the whole system of studio filmmaking to "the damn stuff' of cinema

(33). Even though his writer claims not to understand it, Stahr believes that, like every

moviegoer, he has intuited the allure of ambiguous detail. The nickel's appeal is not in its

symbolic meaning in the scene Stahr is narrating; it lies somewhere beyond it. The nickel

has crucial implications for our understanding of that other aspect of Hollywood

filmmaking: the role of the stuff that movies were made of.

I have been tracking the twin paths of the studio system. Let me pause to identify

them, so we know where to go from here. On one hand, Classic Hollywood cinema

paralleled the linear trail of the railroad. Its succession of framed, mobile images that told

a condensed, continuous tale resembled the onward momentum of the railways. As Mary

Ann Doane has argued, the mode of perception necessary for rail travel was "peculiarly,

entirely compatible with that required by filmic narrative, for it activated] the spatial and

temporal ellipsis, the annihilation of the space and the time 'in-between' events" (43).

This is especially true of forties noir cinema, whose central premise often revolved

around the solution of a puzzle or a crime. That solution required absolute adherence to a

single trail; deviation could be fatal. From a distance-perhaps from Stahr's overhead

position-studio cinema in the forties looks like a system driven by forward motion,

avoiding pauses, disallowing digression.

But the view closer to the screen is fairly different. The film spectator was

presented with a continuous narrative, pieced together out of images flitting by at twenty-

four frames per second. However, at any moment, a single frame could distract from that

continuum. As the railway passenger did with the passing landscape, the spectator could

zoom in on particular objects in the scene, at the expense of the whole picture. So, while

Hollywood cinema encouraged its viewer to get absorbed in the plot, its captivating

images on screen sometimes interrupted the narrative. As Robert B. Ray notes, "although

continuity cinema's insistence on story often reduced the immediate attraction of its

components inadvertently, as the Impressionists and Surrealists saw, the movies

glamorized everything: faces, clothes, furniture, trains" (How a Film Theory 6).7 The

still, then, had the capacity to stall the tale.

Even during moments that were carefully composed to advance the plot, the

spectator could get distracted by the stuff that movies were made of-especially when an

image offered that indefinable instance of visual pleasure that Jean Epstein called

photogenie. As we saw in the introduction, for Epstein, photogenie was a uniquely

cinematic experience revealed in brief flashes. As he put it, "One runs into a brick wall

trying to define it"; for photogenie is "[t]he face of beauty, it is the taste of things" (243).

Photogenie was directly influenced by the fragmented experience of modem life, first

revealed in rail travel. The spectator could feel an intense sensation about everyday

commodities when they were in motion. The "static of unexpected feelings" (qtd. in

Chamey 287) aroused by ordinary objects on screen, Epstein argued, interrupted the

linear sequence of images temporarily. Interestingly, Epstein's example of a photogenic

moment, based on his experience of silent star Sessue Hayakawa's performance in a

scene from The Honor of His House (1918), resembles Stahr's description of the "idle"

moment in the office. Hayakawa "crosses a room quite naturally, his torso held at a slight

angle. He hands his gloves to a servant. Opens a door. Then, having gone out, closes it"

(243). As in Fitzgerald's sketch, the focus is entirely on the stuff of cinema; Hayakawa's

torso and his gloves "sweep[] the scenario aside" (Epstein 243).8 In other words, just as

the idle railway traveler could get distracted by particular objects in the passing

landscape, photogenic images allowed a curious spectator like Epstein to become

absorbed in cinema's details, ignoring its narrative situation.

Even The Great Train Robbery, the film that made continuity the thread tying all

Hollywood films together, contains a shot acknowledging the capacity of enigmatic

images for breaking that strand. The medium close-up shot of a gunman pointing his

revolver directly at the camera (or is it at the audience?) and firing it point-blank appears

after the climactic showdown with the posse.9 What is intriguing about this final shot-a

virtually perfect still, used on the film's publicity posters-is its collection of fascinating

cinematic objects.10 The curl of the bandit's eyebrow, his hat tilted at an angle, the

handkerchief around his neck, all offer disruptive rather than narrative pleasure. They

gesture toward the other half of the equation of Classic Hollywood cinema. Paraphrasing

Siegfried Kracauer's argument cited in the epigraph, I would suggest that narrative

cinema does not travel on highways through the void. It winds its way through the thicket

of things. What we need, then, is another way of thinking about these things-a way of

mobilizing the kind of spectatorship that Epstein privileged, and that the rail traveler

perfected, in order to address the stuff that movies are made of.

Objects, even ordinary ones, were central to studio filmmaking. As Will Hays

asserted in a radio speech, "The motion picture carries to every American at home, and to

millions of potential purchasers abroad, the visual, vivid perception of American

manufactured products" (qtd. in Eckert 5). Even when films were not explicitly

promoting specific items through tie-ups with corporations-as seen in the popular

fashion films of the 1930s11-they were implicitly showcasing items for visual

consumption. I am referring not only to the unambiguously memorable objects, like

Dorothy's ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but also to things like Walter Neff s

dictaphone in Double Indemnity (1944) or the tailor's cutting shears in Ministry ofFear

(1944). Film noir lends itself particularly well to such a visual display; its expressionist

mise-en-scene and chiaroscuro lighting yield mysterious stills that, like Edward Hopper

paintings, highlight everyday objects capable of providing visual pleasure. In a recent

essay on Barbara Stanwyck's anklet, which deals with the fatal pleasure of a well-dressed

femme fatale, Paula Rabinowitz makes the following case for objects:

Objects tell stories. In the 1960s, when feminists argued against women's position
as sex objects, demanding subjectivity, objects acquired a lousy reputation. But in
commodity culture, as Marx suggested, they have something to say. (21)

The task before us is to uncover the stories that objects, especially those that appear in

film noir, might tell. For noir cinema is like "those dear old American adventure films"

that Aragon praised for their capacity to magnify objects, that is, "to raise to a dramatic

level a banknote on which our attention is riveted, a table with a revolver on it, a bottle

that on occasion becomes a weapon, a handkerchief that reveals a crime" (51). Naremore

has similarly observed that, in his affection for early Hollywood's treatment of cinematic

objects, "Aragon might well have been describing thrillers of the 1940s, which were

perversely erotic, confined largely to interiors, photographed in a deep-focus style that

seemed to reveal the secret life of things" (More Than Night 18).

But while the viewer might find the stuff of noir thrillers, like the ordinary objects

on Spade's bedside table, especially fascinating, academic film criticism has not found a

way of articulating or explaining this aesthetic fascination. Most Hollywood historians

have tended to criticize studio cinema's conversion of everyday objects into desirable

(and consumable) commodities. As we have seen, one path pursued by studio filmmaking

led not to narrative resolution but to visual pleasure. But film historians have generally

denounced the production and consumption of visual pleasure, by, as Linda Williams

puts it, exposingn] the processes by which individuals fall victim to an illusory belief in

the exalted value of certain objects" (28).12 That critics of Hollywood cinema distrust the

fetishistic commodity is not surprising. Speaking about the distinction between Soviet

realism and American filmmaking, Orson Welles observed that the Classic Hollywood

style simulated "'a merchant's eye,"' devoting itself to "'lovingly evaluating texture, the

screen being filled as a window dressed in a swank department store"' (qtd. in Naremore,

Magic World 121).13 Since then, the analogy between the Hollywood screen and the

window display has become familiar, although the comparison has not always been

complimentary. Generally, film historians have found little to admire in the distracting,

exhibitionist stuff of Classic Hollywood cinema. Its spectator is likened to the passive

consumer who is seduced by the attractive shop window, or by what Charles Eckert has

called "living display windows .. occupied by marvelous mannequins and swathed in a

fetish-inducing ambiance of music and emotion" (4). So even when Laura Mulvey, who

initiated the study of visual pleasure in narrative cinema, attempts to reconsider the role

of fetishism, her analysis of fetishistic commodities leads her "back to the society that

produced them and the obsessions and imitations that created its collective fantasy" (27).

That approach, however, is only half the equation. It is, at the very least, inadequate

for uncovering the full range of spectatorial experience of cinematic objects. What we

need is an alternative way of looking at them. For, as Daniel Miller suggests, approaches

"that quickly move the focus from object to society in their fear of fetishism and their

apparent embarrassment at being, as it were, caught gazing at mere objects" are in fact

limited in their understanding of material culture (9). Gazing at mere objects is not

necessarily an act of submission to the metanarrative of consumerism. As recent studies

of visual culture have suggested, gazing might indeed have the opposite effect, acting as a

counter-narrative strategy, so that, as Elizabeth Cowie has noted, the "linear progression

of narrative is disturbed and re-ordered by the drive of fantasy" (164). Gazing at objects

in the form of window shopping-especially for the female spectator, as recent feminist

studies of gazing, like Cowie's and Anne Friedberg's, have shown-can be an effective