Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is a great film – and yet it exposes so many potential problems with the Hawksian process. As a rule, genre is a painted backdrop in Hawks' films, a set of comfortable signifiers that create audience expectations with which Hawks and his actors can then play. The detective genre is a good candidate for the Hawks treatment, based as it is on the perceptual divide between the protagonist and the environment that he or she must navigate and interpret. It's easy to translate this perceptual divide into a Hawksian map of the project: the world that Philip Marlowe explores will become so many genre trappings, and Marlowe himself will move against that cinema-bound world with a lightness and informality that will make him seem more real by contrast.

In fact, the genre is so appropriate for Hawks that it pushes him to a posture that almost resembles parody at times. With so much of the film universe marked off as genre signification, and the protagonist left alone on stage center, the Hawksian urge to have fun can sometimes seem frivolous and even contemptuous. Rarely have the goofy scenes in Hawks films seemed so purely goofy: Marlowe playing a prissy book collector in Geiger's bookstore, or Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood bedeviling a policeman over the telephone, strike me as too strenuous and inorganic a form of reflexive fun. The running theme of Marlowe being irresistible to a stream of beautiful female supporting characters and bit players, likely a send-up of the male fantasy associated with the genre, doesn't come across as much less of a fantasy than what it's sending up. Even the film's opening scenes in the Sternwood mansion play a little too much like a trip to the funhouse: the general's monologue is too literary and scene-setting to let the character breathe; and each of the Sternwood daughters is little more at this point than a genre exhibit that gives Marlowe a chance to show his wit and detachment. (This is not to deny the Hawksian beauties of this opening section: not just the appealing underplaying of Marlowe sweating in the general's hothouse, but also the wonderful reverse tracking shot of Marlowe entering the mansion, framed in that ineffable Hawksian style that conveys both a movie set and an intelligence sizing it up.)

I think the best way to understand the film's greatness is to ask the question, "What causes Marlowe to get personally involved in the case?" For his early detachment gives way to fierce emotionality by the last act. Marlowe forcing Eddie Mars out to face his own gunmen is a driven man; and just before that is the startling concept of Marlowe's hands trembling in fear as he loads his gun in preparation for Mars' arrival.

I don't believe there is a single sufficient answer to that question. Here are some of the components of Marlowe's response.

1) To a large extent, Marlowe is motivated by a spirit of inquiry. This is a reflexive motivation, one that belongs primarily to the film audience, and for which Marlowe acts as our agent. But Hawks is adept at blurring the line between the fictional impulse and character motivation. The film really takes off with the long scene of Marlowe arriving just too late at the Geiger house and finding an array of clues: a corpse, a hopped-up Carmen Sternwood, a concealed camera. Marlowe moves freely about the set like a video game avatar, laying out the available facts for our inspection; Hawks enjoys his time in the house, declines to compress the time it takes for Marlowe to wander the room or search for evidence. The scene is about Marlowe investigating more than it is about the results of the investigation.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is, on the face of it, purely informational: detective Bernie Ohls stops by Marlowe's apartment at 2 am to tell him that Owen Taylor's car was found in the ocean. Marlowe volunteers to accompany Ohls to the crime scene; and asks Ohls a few factual questions as he retrieves his hat and coat: "How's the weather?…What time did that call come in?…What kind of a car did you say that was?" It would have been commonplace for a genre film to fade out as soon as Marlowe's departure was established. The ten or fifteen seconds that Hawks tacks onto the end of the scene are quite relaxed, with Marlowe moving off microphone as he walks to an adjoining room. On the one hand, it's as if Marlowe is using the few moments before "Cut!" to strengthen our grasp on the plot; on the other hand, the rhythm of the scene is peculiarly independent of the story's momentum. Hawks is playing in the space between the fascination of the fiction and the process of creating it.

By the time we get to the familiar pause at the middle of the traditional detective story – then the case is completely closed, I hope this amount is satisfactory, we're very grateful to you. Mr. Marlowe– Hawks feels no need to show Marlowe hesitating over the too-pat solution. Having exposed Marlowe's role as master of the fictional process, Hawks isn't tempted to play a game that he has already tipped us off to. Marlowe goes forward because we want him to, or because he wants to – the difference is hard for us to make out.

2) The Big Sleep is, among other things, a love story, and a rather good one. And Marlowe's object of desire, Vivian Sternwood, is somehow beholden to Eddie Mars, and can't escape his clutches without Marlowe's intervention. Marlowe cites this motivation on a few occasions: "I'm beginning to like another one of the Sternwoods."

From a plot point of view, this motivation is sufficient to explain Marlowe's emotional involvement. But Hawks and his writers are canny enough to know that the love story is not important enough to dominate the film, that the general tone of genre awareness militates against Marlowe falling too hard. Characteristically, Hawks turns this structural prohibition to his advantage, letting Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood drift together calmly and inevitably, dialing down the destabilizing aspects of the relationship (including Vivian's repeated acts on Eddie Mars' behalf) and emphasizing the lovers' quiet, mutual pleasure. The film's final, gentle joke – "What's wrong with you?"- is another way of saying "You may have looked like a plot problem on paper, but you never really were."

3) Interestingly, a much less important character – Jonesy, the penny-ante hood who sacrifices himself for his unworthy lover Agnes – is also cited in the script several times as a reason that Marlowe is determined to take Eddie Mars out of action. Jonesy is treated much more brutally by Mars than is Vivian; and yet it's an indication of how much the love story is muted that this minor character can compete with Vivian on Marlowe's hierarchy of motivations.

There is a reflexive angle here that boosts Jonesy's importance. He didn't just die: he died with Marlowe standing helplessly by in the next room. Marlowe's powerlessness during this incident is clearly a goad to him, as Marlowe himself states. It's a motivation that we, the audience, understand well: the hero is our power, our vehicle to traverse the narrative; any check on his power has dire consequences for our pleasure. So Marlowe's desire for revenge doesn't have to be explained too carefully in terms of his character, as we feel the slight along with him. The subject comes up again as Marlowe loads his gun with trembling hands in the film's penultimate scene: he tells Vivian, "Mars has been ahead of me all the way, way ahead." The pleasure of the genre depends on Marlowe reversing that trend.

Marlowe's various motivations are skillfully meshed. There is enough character-based motivation to let us parse the film on purely internal evidence. And yet the energy that drives Marlowe to ever greater levels of involvement doesn't completely feel like a result of the characterization. In Hawks' films, the balance between the pleasure of fiction – the direct bond between the filmmakers and the audience – and the internal imperatives of the depicted world is a carefully managed trick, almost a matter of sleight of hand. You could call this blend inorganic; and perhaps it can be justified only as an acknowledgement, and a gentle underlining, of the intrinsically inorganic nature of art.


Jaime said...

You close with a discussion of "two-ness" in this film and in Hawks. This is a big deal for you!

Dan Sallitt said...

Jaime - it definitely is a kind of two-ness, though perhaps a very general kind. The last paragraph touches on an interesting larger subject that I didn't really explore. The two layers that I talked about – the communication of pleasure to the viewer, and the internal coherence of the work – aren't specific to Hawks in any way. I'd say they operate in any work of art; certainly the average narrative movie has to address the same issues of motivation that I discussed here. There's a craft to making these layers look like an organic whole, though they are two separate agendas. What's interesting about Hawks is that a lot of the power of his movies comes from the way he exposes and plays with this process – in a sense he makes it his subject. There's a lot of daring in the way he lets the mask of fiction drop at times, so that we can see the pleasure-making process working without much of a cover; and in the way he just barely stitches together the surface of the fiction. (We imagine that a making-of documentary on a Hawks film would resemble the film itself.) As a result, Hawks flirts with appearing inorganic.

My use of the word "gentle" in that last sentence is a nod to the last line of David Thomson's essay on Hawks in the first edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film: "Hawks tells the gentle lie—such as operates in Mozart — that art is simple ease." I consider Thomson's essay the central piece of writing on Hawks, and the one that pointed me to Hawks' reflexive attitude toward the fictional process.

Unknown said...

Boy. Am working on pieces on Godard's remake, Made in USA, and the thoughts are about identical. The big mistake, for me, is taking Godard as a postmodernist--assuming he doesn't care about the fiction itself, even though, like Hawks, it's clearly just that: fictions.

Dan Sallitt said...

Thinking about the differences in Hawks' and Godard's approaches might be a good way to sharpen the argument. I can think of a few ways to start a comparison - but maybe I should wait until your Made in USA articles are published....

Unknown said...

Just rewatched Big Sleep and I'm in--one major difference, I think, is that Hawks' characters, like Rivette's, play with each other (everyone poses with each other, lovers or enemies, knowing the other's posing, and playing along); Godard's characters don't seem to use fictions to connect as much as they seem trapped by them and completely alone (more in MADE IN USA than perhaps anywhere else). Hawks' characters invent play at fictions because reality's more fun in disguise; Godard's play at fictions because reality's absent.

This is all hypothetical on my part: it's hard to formulate differences, because in abstract, the approaches are so deliberately similar.

Big Sleep was one of the first Hawks I watched, years ago, and I hadn't seen it since. Has a lot in common with Gentleman Prefer Blondes, but what seemed crucially un-Hawks like (among other things) was the cinematography and compositions: where Hawks usually composes around human bodies that form firm coordinates around a room (and on-screen), with upper-bodies dominating the room, The Big Sleep seems like a bunch of fancily decorated rooms with two toothpick-like people facing each other in the middle, firmly planted on the ground, as if in a cage, and delivering lines as flat as possible, like automatons walking through a theme park. The effect is still Hawksian--life (barely) set up against the void--but in very different terms.

Dan Sallitt said...

David – I think you're onto something about the polymorphous quality of the play in Hawks. It's especially noticeable in the case of Eddie Mars, who is played by an appealing actor (John Ridgely, the group leader in Air Force) and who seems, if anything, straighter and less duplicitous than Vivian Sternwood. It made me think of the rather different situation in Rio Bravo where Chance seems to approve of Colorado's agenda of "minding my own business," then denounces it harshly in the aftermath of Wheeler's death. In that case, the moralistic streak in Hawks (also visible in The Big Sleep - it's not as if all this camaraderie with the bad guys translates into any contemplation of their inner qualities once they've been categorized. Compare with Hitchcock) appears to be something quite different from the spirit of play we're talking about, something that Hawks doesn't feel like playing with.

Comparing Hawks to Godard, one wants to start with the obvious: that Hawks stitches together the fiction just well enough that his films appeal to audiences looking for fiction, and that Godard lets the fiction fall apart so blatantly that it takes a fairly arty viewer even to notice that fiction is important to him. I used a topic heading in my piece on Le Petit soldat that I would apply generally to early Godard: "How much can you undermine a story and still have it function as a story?"

Sometimes the characters in Godard films seem to be having fun, but it's an odd, flat kind of fun, almost pretend fun. More often they just stand there while Godard has fun with form. I think of them not necessarily as alone, but as representatives of Godard's agenda, hidden behind figurative shades and unsmiling inscrutability. If the fiction in Godard ultimately acquires emotional force, it's not through the direct mediation of the performances. The emotion has to be leeched from other places.

I'm not sure I'd say that reality is absent from Godard's universe. The beauty of his images is so rooted in an aesthetic of reality.

I have to think about your observation concerning the compositional style of The Big Sleep. I think I see what you mean about the compositions being less "plan Americain," though I don't feel a major break in Hawks' style. Maybe what you note is a function of the genre making Marlowe a lone identification figure, with no Hawksian group around him?

Unknown said...

I should qualify that--reality's *not* absent for Godard. It's there both in the often naturalistic filmmaking, as it is in Hawks', that no matter how contrived the actions they're going through, we're always aware of real actors inhabiting a real space and often reacting quite spontaneously (Godard's still a Bazinian at heart); and it's there in the elements of the scene, of course: groceries, pinball machines, cafes, and other mementos of quotidian life (if often wrenched from usual context). What I meant to say: reality's often absent to the characters. It's the characters, not Godard, who fail to perceive it, often willfully (because there's a void at the edge of Godard films too, break-ups and deaths and apocalypse and subjugation which characters ignore to quote poetry to themselves).

But of course Godard doesn't want to show us any of this directly: like the torture he elides (but also doesn't) in Le Petit Soldat, the car crash in Contempt is unseen, the murder of Made in USA may or may not have happened, and so on...

There's a great interview with Lucrecia Martel here: A lot of it sounds like Godard talking (and her style isn't far from his)--the emotion for both seems to need to be suggested by events audience and characters have to imagine; not, as you say, directly mediated.

I think something similar might be said about Hawks--the lines "I love you" in Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep are powerful as hell for me, because they're both spoken exactly as the characters speak all their other lines (Hawks' flattening of affect): Katherine Hepburn, as the best joke in the world, and Lauren Bacall, as a simple fact that might as well be accepted. Both seem to be commenting on themselves as observant outsiders. (And as a side note, there's that great definition of love in I Was a Male War Bride, which I watched as a double feature with Gertrud: "You see, you chase after anything in skirts, anything. They're all the same to you. But lots of men can tell them apart. Believe me, sometimes they find one they like better than the others. That's called love. You probably haven't experienced it, but you must have read about it somewhere.").

There's a softness (visually), I think, in most of Hawks' work that comes from an emphasis on characters in the foreground, while landscape is just colors or shades in the background (whereas a Ford hero would be dwarfed by it--or dwarf it). The Big Sleep though, with that great chiaroscuro (the scene in the office when the little man dies and Bogie lights a cigarette does look straight out of Scarface), and all the doors in the background with characters (usually with stories to tell) always lying just beyond, seems to pit characters against each other as they stand close with negative space surrounding them and extending to the walls. There's a rigidity to it, but the real difference for me is the dialogue, mouthed flatly (absence of affect...), and *not* reacted to, no matter how outrageous what's being said. The feeling of dead people moving is strong (to me, anyway), and seems a far way away from earlier comedies, building energy to the bursting point as they go, and the relaxed later stuff, which enjoys the premise that characters are reacting to each other and coming up with what they say as they say it.

Unknown said...

And a correction: that should read "as you say, not directly mediated." Am attempting agreement.

Dan Sallitt said...

David - there's no doubt that Godard's characters choose not to react to the bad (and good) stuff around them. There's a chicken-and-egg quality to Godard's style: you can say that the characters don't react because they know that the blood is really just red paint; or you can speculate that the desire not to react motivates, or gives energy to, the desire to deconstruct fiction.

Jeez, Martel watched an Alan Parker film 23 times to analyze the montage? I haven't had my breakthrough yet with her - but then it took me decades to admit that Godard was worthwhile. That interview you linked to is very smart, on both sides of the conversation.

I'd say that, when Hawks reduces an affect, he does it to make the movie he wants to make, to steer us away from the movie that might happen naturally if he doesn't intervene. Marlowe doesn't lack affect when he executes Eddie Mars. And, actually, the lovers in The Big Sleep do express feeling throughout - it's just that Hawks wants that feeling to be simple and stable, a backbeat rather than a melody. I actually get a feeling of aliveness and responsiveness from the film (cf. that simple scene between Marlowe and Bernie Ohls that I cited), but only in certain dimensions, the ones that Hawks wants to put in relief.

Yeah, Hawks' interest in space is quite limited in comparison with Ford's. Last time I saw Ford's Air Mail (which bears such a story resemblance to Only Angels Have Wings) I was struck by how effortlessly Ford suggests spatial relations and establishes a sense of location. Whereas Hawks is good at creating an extremely evocative movie set.