Dissertation Days (14): Sometimes I Love What I Do

Today was one of those glorious day when the pieces at last started to fit together. It was a truly productive day, and I managed to finish the section of the chapter devoted to Samson and Delilah. 

finally found a coherent way of talking about the ways in which the terror and chaos of history is expressed through Samson and Delilah‘s emphasis on costume, fabric, and tactility. If you’ve ever seen the film, you can see the ways in which it expresses a very disruptive and chaotic form of desire, one that cannot be entirely contained by the conventions of narrative.

I really do think that I’m making a contribution with this line of argument, for I’m trying to work against a dominant strand of criticism that tends to see Delilah as little more than an object of the gaze, a femme fatale who is the screen onto which men project their fantasies and fears about women. To me, the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s is far too fractious and unsettled for that to be the whole story, and when you think about both the terrors of modern history and the essentially unruly nature of color as a formal element of cinema, you get a very different picture of the epic films of the period.

I didn’t get to finish my section on David and Bathsheba, alas, though I did hash out the thesis of that section so that it’s a little more clarity, so at least I accomplished that. There isn’t quite as much to do with that section as S&D, since it was always a bit clearer.

That just leaves the last section on Nero and Quo Vadis, and that is definitely going to take a couple of days to both write and make sure that it fits with the rest of what I’ve already been doing. Still, with grit and determination I know this can be done. I know it.

At the rate I’m going, I should be ready to submit this revision before the end of the month. That basically means I’ll have taken about a month and a half to make some pretty significant revisions, so I’m okay with that. Even if it needs another round, I think that the next bit won’t take as long.

Once it’s done, I’m on to Chapter 4. Onward and upward, friends.

Onward and upward.

 

Dissertation Days (4): Historicize, Contextualize, Theorize

So, for every chapter of my Diss so far, I’ve followed this basic model: Intro—>Historical Context—>Theory—>Close Reading—>Conclusion. I’m always pretty good at the close readings, but the other two…well, they sometimes get a bit unwieldy and lose contact with what’s coming after.

That was definitely the case with my first chapter, and it was the case with the first draft of my third chapter. It becomes, shall we say, a bit heavy, and the whole thing feels crammed and rudderless.

Now, though, I think I have a firmer hand on both the history and the theory. In essence, I’m trying to situate three films (Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, and Quo Vadis) in that nebulous period between 1945 and 1951, when the postwar consensus hadn’t yet fully achieved its (admittedly unsteady and tense) hegemony. Through a careful understanding of desire and color, I think we get a better grasp of the vision of history expressed by the historico-biblical epic.

So, I’ve slowly been sketching out a historical context that shows the contradictory impulses that women encountered, between the injunction to be passive housewives yet also sexually reproductive beings, to be consumers of household goods yet not to indulge too much in frippery and luxury. Gay men also encountered a competing set of discourses, between one that suggested they were an invisible threat and one that heightened their visibility.

This, as I show, is reflected in the disordered and chaotically rich colour palettes of the three films I talk about. As I was working on the context today (in both the history and the theory), I became more convinced that I was onto something with the way I’ve framed my argument.

I’m still struggling to make sure that the context sections don’t get out of hand. There’s just so much rich historical and theoretical material, but I have to remind myself that it’s more important to maintain focus on the absolutely essential parts than to wander all over the place and allow the piece to lose focus. In particular, I find myself getting carried away with the discussion of colour.

Tomorrow, I’d really like to have the entire colour section figured out and completed, some more historical context, and a bit of close reading. I’m expecting you all to hold me to it.

The word count is up to 12,000. 7,000 (or so) to go.

I can do it.

Screening History: “Samson and Delilah” (1949)

Well, I finally got around to watching my Blu-Ray edition of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Samson and Delilah, and I can definitely say that it was worth the wait.  The color transfer is excellent, and it just reinforces my opinion that the only way to really enjoy a Technicolor film is to see it in Blu-Ray.  The chromatic richness of this particular presentation makes it worth purchasing, even if you already own the DVD copy (as I do, of course).

The film, based loosely on the events depicted in the Old Testament, follows the brief but tumultuous affair between the judge Samson (Victor Mature) and the Philistine noblewoman Delilah (Hedy Lamarr).  After Samson spurns Delilah for the love of her sister Semadar, the former becomes determined to bring down the Israelite strongman.  Conspiring with the Saran (George Sanders) and his fellow nobles, she lures Samson into a trap whereby he loses his great strength.  Upon seeing him blinded and forced to grind grain while bound to a mill-wheel, Delilah repents of her treachery and aids Samson in his destruction of the towering Temple of Dagon, killing Delilah, the Saran, and hundreds of other celebrating Philistines.

This film continues to be one of my favourites in DeMille’s entire extensive oeuvre, since it illustrates so clearly all of his strengths as a filmmaker and manages to leave aside most of his weaknesses (for example, it is significantly shorter than The Ten Commandments, which, truth be told, is a tad too long, even for an epic).  However, a few of the director’s more glaring faults still shine through.  The ending, featuring the milksop Miriam and the rather too-cherubic Saul, feels like something of a tacked-on addition, a final bit of moralizing that attempts to tidy up the energies unleashed in the scene immediately before, in which the entire Temple of Dagon is brought crashing down in ruin by the blinded Samson.  The scene does not even have the ponderous and condemnatory tone of DeMille’s introduction (delivered in his own voice) and this, coupled with the fact that neither character is anywhere near as compelling as the two leads, makes the ending feel rushed and slightly superfluous, in much the same way that (in my opinion), the ending(s) of The Ten Commandments feel quite rushed and almost beside the point.

It’s all too easy to dismiss films like these add mere camp, but as I’ve long argued, even the silliest of epics often contain at least a germ of historical awareness, and so it is with DeMille’s film.  From the very beginning, DeMille’s paints the world of antiquity as one haunted by the specter of primordial forces, the raging thunder and the unruly, terrifying energy of the sexual unconscious that always haunts this film.  Further, the film makes ample use of animal language and imagery, ranging from the lion that Samson defeats and the jawbone of an ass that he uses to overcome his Philistine oppressors and secure his freedom.  While DeMille, in his usual fashion, desperately wants to make all of this terror add up to some sort of moral message about the importance of freedom and man’s eternal desire for liberty, the political message gets a little lost in the fray.

Thus, for all that the film so clearly wants to condemn the sexual energies that have led to the dismay and destruction of the Temple and the ruin of two prominent and promising lives, it doesn’t really succeed in its moral message.  The sumptuousness and richness of the lurid Technicolor (to take but one example), mitigates against the moralistic flow of the narrative, inviting a contemplation of the erotic potential of the chromatic image that always seems in excess of the narrative designed to contain it.  The world of desire and the body, it turns out, is infinitely more compelling than the world of order and light, even if it is all the more dangerous because of that fact.

All in all, Samson and Delilah well deserves the place it now occupies as the film that jumpstarted the boom of biblical epics that swept through Hollywood throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.  Somehow, it manages to perfectly tap into all of the anxieties and terrors haunting the world as the Cold War continued to escalate, the sexual unconscious of America’s psyche seethed and writhed with the challenges to gender norms provoked by WW II, and the threat of the bomb permeated practically every aspect of American culture.  This tale of dangerous and destructive desire, with its climactic destruction of the temple, shows just how perilous and viscerally terrifying the ancient world, and the modern one that succeeded it, could be.

Score:  9/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952)

Today on Screening Classic Hollywood, I’m going to be talking about Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Greatest Show on Earth.  While this tagline could have easily been used for any of his spectacular showpieces (either Samson and Delilah or The Ten Commandments would also come in for consideration as the “Greatest Show on Earth”), this particular film is set in the circus and details the fraught connections and personal relationships among its key participants.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to think about a circus in epic terms, somehow DeMille manages to imbue this particular show with a certain larger-than-life scope and depth (in a similar way to which he took the relatively small narrative of Samson and Delilah and imbued it with world historical significance in the film of the same name).  In DeMille’s imagination, the circus is a vast beast with a mind of its own, a reflection (perhaps) of the very culture that produced it.  Indeed, it is precisely this emphasis on the personal and the sexual that gives the film its narrative energy.

Though surrounded by the typical DeMille-esque spectacle, the narrative itself is actually rather simple.  It involves a circus runner Brad (Charlton Heston) attempting to draw in paying customers with the help of the renowned acrobat Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In the process, however, he risks alienating his love interest, Holly (Betty Hutton).  This being DeMille, however, the two separated lovers finally come together again, though they are at first separated by a number of other catastrophes, including a thunderous train wreck that almost costs Brad his life.  There are also a number of other storylines woven through the film, including one involving the clown Buttons (Jimmy Stewart), who never removes his makeup (even when he’s not performing).  Though each of the storylines is compelling by itself, they do not quite congeal into a coherent picture.

While the narrative often struggles to hold together the sprawling spectacle, several of the actors do deliver exemplary performances. Heston is competent as always, and it’s actually refreshing to see him as something other than an epic hero (his roles as Moses and Ben-Hur were still ahead of him).  What strikes me as particularly significant, however, is the fact that his character, like so many other Heston heroes, ends up injured by the end of the film.  In fact, one of the film’s last shots shows him, incapacitated in a chair, his skin betraying a certain waxy and pasty pallor.  Such an appearance seems incongruous now, but as I have come to realize, Heston’s heroes often end their films incapacitated or injured in some significant way (consider, for example, El Cid, in which Heston’s eponymous hero perishes at the end, his lifeless corpse used as an inspiration for the remaining members of his army).

Further, Jimmy Stewart adds a note of humanity to this film as Buttons the clown, a fount of wisdom and mystery who never removes his makeup (even when he is not performing).  As it turns out, he was once a doctor who ended his wife’s life in an act of mercy.  Stewart is always a solid actor able to bring a great deal of depth to any character he plans, and although the persistence of the makeup makes Buttons a bit too creepy for my liking, he is also one of the film’s more fully-drawn and psychologically complex characters.

And, of course, no review of this film would be complete without mentioning the divine Gloria Grahame, that favourite moll of many a film noir.  She brings some of that femme fatale biting wit to this role as well, with a number of witty one-liners and a refusal to be dominated by any of the men in her life (including the hubristic and jealous Klaus, played by Lyle S. Bettger).

What strikes me the most after watching this film, however, is how it comments on the actual act of spectatorship.  DeMille had similarly commented on the act of viewing spectacle in Samson and Delilah, but this film brings it to the fore.  There are numerous shots of avid viewers of the circus, and while these are no doubt intended to register for the theater audience the sense of awe and delight in viewing the circus brought to Technicolor light, there is also something puzzlingly and disturbingly grotesque about them, an unsettling reminder, perhaps, of the fraught relationship that always exists between the viewer and the spectacle being consumed.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, though it does sag during a few of the more mundane bits.  It bears the dubious distinction of being one of the worst films to receive the Best Picture nomination (and I would agree that it is certainly not on par with DeMille’s more magisterial masterpieces such as S&D or The Ten Commandments).  If the Academy voters had known that DeMille would produce a truly fine film just four years later, they would have awarded the Oscar to a more deserving film, such as High Noon. 

Unfortunately, we will never know.

Score:  7/10