Are Movies Going to Pieces?

Although The Haunting is moderately elegant and literate and expensive, and the director gussies things up with a Marienbadish piece of statuary that may or may not be the key to something or other, it's basically a traditional ghost story. There is the dedicated scientist who wants to contribute to science in some socially unacceptable or scientifically reproachable area—in this case to prove the supernatural powers of the house. (The scientist is, somewhat inexplicably, an anthropologist; perhaps Margaret Mead has set the precedent for anthropologists to dabble in and babble on anything—so that the modern concept of the anthropologist is like the old concept of the philosopher or, for that matter, the scientist.) And, in the expository style traditional for the genre, he explains the lore and jargon of psychic research, meticulously separating out ghost from poltergeist and so on. And of course the scientist, in the great tradition of Frankenstein, must have the abnormal or mad assistant: the role that would once have belonged to Dwight Frye is here modernized and becomes the Greenwich Village lesbian, Claire Bloom. And there is the scientist's distraught wife who fears that her husband's brilliant career will be ruined, and so on. The chaste heroine, Julie Harris (like an updated Helen Chandler, Dracula's anemic victim), is the movies' post-Freudian concept of the virgin: repressed, hysterical, insane—the source of evil.

It wasn't a great movie but I certainly wouldn't have thought that it could offend anyone. Yet part of the audience at The Haunting wasn't merely bored, it was hostile—as if the movie, by assuming interests they didn't have, made them feel resentful or inferior. I've never felt this kind of audience hostility toward crude, bad movies. People are relaxed and tolerant about ghoulish quickies, grotesque shockers dubbed from Japan, and chopped-up Italian spectacles that scramble mythologies and pile on actions, one stupidity after another. Perhaps they prefer incoherent, meaningless movies because they are not required to remember or connect. They can feel superior, contemptuous—as they do toward television advertising. Even when it's a virtuoso triumph, the audience is contemptuous toward advertising, because, after all, they see through it—they know somebody is trying to sell something. And because, like a cheap movie obviously made to pry money out of them, that is all advertising means, it's OK. But the few, scattered people at The Haunting were restless and talkative, the couple sitting near me arguing—the man threatening to leave, the woman assuring him that something would happen. In their terms, they were cheated: nothing happened. And, of course, they missed what was happening all along, perhaps because of nervous impatience or a primitive notion that the real things are physical, perhaps because people take from art and from popular entertainment only what they want; and if they are indifferent to story and motive and blank out on the connections, then a movie without physical action or crass jokes or built-in sentimental responses has nothing for them. I am afraid that the young instructor in English spoke for his times, that there is no terror for modern audiences if a story is carefully worked out and follows a tradition, even though the tradition was developed and perfected precisely to frighten entertainingly.

No wonder that studios and producers are unsure what to do next, scan best-seller lists for trends, consult audience-testing polls, anxiously chop out what a preview audience doesn't like. The New York Times chides the representatives of some seven companies who didn't want to invest in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but how could businessmen, brought up to respect logic and a good commercial script, possibly guess that this confused mixture of low camp and Grand Guignol would delight the public?

And if I may return for a moment to that producer whom I left sunning himself at the side of the pool—"Did you know that Irma La Douce is already the highest-grossing comedy in film history?" he asked me at one point, not in the droning voice of the civic-minded man discussing the cultural development of the community, but in the voice of someone who's really involved in what he's saying; "Yes," I said, "but is it even a comedy? It's a monstrous mutation." The producer shrugged his dark round shoulders helplessly: "Who knows what's a comedy any more?"

It is not just general audiences out for an evening's entertainment who seem to have lost the narrative sense, or become indifferent to narrative. What I think are processes of structural disintegration are at work in all types of movies, and though it's obvious that many of the old forms were dead and had to be broken through, it's rather scary to see what's happening—and not just at the big picture-palaces. Art-house films are even more confusing. Why, at the end of Godard's My Life to Live, is the heroine shot, rather than the pimp that the rival gang is presumably gunning for? Is she just a victim of bad marksmanship? If we express perplexity, we are likely to be told that we are missing the existentialist point: it's simply fate, she had to die. But a cross-eyed fate? And why is there so little questioning of the organization of My Name Is Ivan with its lyric interludes and patriotic sections so ill assembled that one might think the projectionist had scrambled the reels? (They often do at art houses, and it would seem that the more sophisticated the audience, the less likely that the error will be discovered. When I pointed out to a theater manager that the women in Brink of Life were waiting for their babies after they had miscarried, he told me that he had been playing the film for two weeks and I was his first patron who wasn't familiar with Bergman's methods.)

The art-house audience accepts lack of clarity as complexity, accepts clumsiness and confusion as "ambiguity" and as style. Perhaps even without the support of critics, they would accept incoherence just as the larger audience does: they may feel that movies as incomprehensible as Viridiana are more relevant to their experience, more true to their own feelings about life, and more satisfying and complex than works they can understand.

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