Friday, August 10, 2007

I did not expect to see that

As of late my movie rentals have tended to the old, the noir, and the works of Welles. Watching several movies from a different period (or nation) becomes an instant education in the particular protocols of visibility of that era. This is especially true for films produced under the Hays code. Although, as Adorno is quick to remind us, our modern Hollywood films are no less restricted, it is just that the source of the restriction has changed from the state to capital. These protocols go beyond the strict rules of the Hays code to encompass the sensibilities of a given time.

I sometimes wonder how much of the U.S.’s nostalgia for a particular past, that of the nineteen fifties, is not so much nostalgia for the actual past, but for what could be presented of that past in its media.

I thought of all this while watching Orson Welles’ film The Stranger. In that film, Welles plays a Nazi concentration camp officer who has fled to America after the war, disguising himself as a small town teacher. An American agent knows that the Nazi is hiding in the town, and tries to get Welles to reveal his true identity. Two things about this cat and mouse game are significant. The first takes place during a dinner party in which the agent (played by Edward G. Robinson) asks Welles about his opinion of Germany, a fairly transparent ruse. Welles then launches in a tirade about the essentially militaristic and authoritarian nature of the German people; he argues that unlike the rest of Europe, the Germans have had no spirit of revolutionary justice, no equality, liberty and fraternity. A student at the dinner objects, “But what about Karl Marx, who said the proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains?” To which Welles replies, “But Marx was a Jew, not a German.” This denial becomes key in Robinson figuring out who Welles is, as he says later in the film, “Well, who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German... because he was a Jew?

The citation of Marx as an emancipatory figure in a film made in 1946 is a bit odd, but it is nothing compared to what happens later in the film. Robinson is trying to turn Welles’ wife against him, he takes her into a room with a projector and the screen shows actual newsreel footage of the liberation of the camps, the ovens, bodies stacked like wood, etc. It is truly a shocking image, breaking with the protocol of everything before and after in the film. According to IMDB this is the first instance of images from the holocaust appearing in an American film. More importantly, it is a strange rupture with the visual logic of the film itself, It is perhaps comparable to Preston Sturges’ montage on the depression in Sullivan’s Travels, a film that is some sense about the limits of what can be profitably shown on the screen.

I can think of only a few examples of ruptures in modern films, which are empowered by the spectacle to juxtapose everything with anything.

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