Two Stars and a Movie Camera
Campbell, Zachary, Framework
Two Stars and a Movie Camera Screen Couples Chemistry: The Power of 2, by Martha P. Nochimson, University of Texas Press, 2002.
Is there an identifiable reason why the Astaire-Rogers musicals stick out on their own, in a way quite separate from any of Gene Kelly's oeuvre or those films with a powerful sensibility behind the camera (like Vincente Minnelli's or Busby Berkeley's) ? Is it feasible to explain why, beyond MGM prestige, the Weissmuller-O'Sullivan Tarzan films stand out from other adaptations of the Burroughs pulps? Why are "Hepburn and Tracy" immortaland why did their screen partnership last over so many years? And what precisely is the appeal of the Thin Man films starring Myrna Loy and William Powell?
The answers to these questions and more are to be found, at least in part, in Martha P. Nochimson's Screen Couples Chemistry: The Power of 2. There is a dearth of scholarship and theorization of pairs of stars in (and out of) Hollywood film, which is unfortunate given how important pairings can be. Nochimson attempts to help fill this void, offering a historically based account of several star pairings-of the romantic, heterosexual variety-in classical Hollywood cinema and contemporary American television. Nochimson has conducted interviews, analyzed Production Code Audiority records, and then turned her research toward a theoretical framework that suggests star couples chemistry is a phenomenon with certain concrete, identifiable production roots (on the encoding side) and neurological effects on viewers (on the decoding side). The basic thrust of her argument is that the greatest screen couples offer a destabilizing force-through imagery and interaction-that imbues some of their films with a liberating, complex tension; one whose appeal spans historical eras.
Nochimson proposes a flexible taxonomy of screen couple forms, breaking them down into four groups: the Functional Couple, the Thematic Couple, the Iconic Couple, and the Synergistic Couple. The Synergistic Couple, the main focus of this study, is a pairing that disrupts conventions in films and television shows-conventions about gender relations and romance, among other things. Its force is liberating. Functional Couples represent the other end of the spectrum. They are the most numerous and most conventional pairing types, "cog[s] in the wheel of the turning plot" (8).
Iconic and Thematic Couples are something in between, offering more than a Functional Couple but less than a Synergistic Couple in terms of criticality, aura, or chemistry. The Iconic Couple has chemistry-Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, US, 1942), for instance-but this chemistry remains ultimately bound and guided by dominant ideologies. As a touchstone the book uses the "Gable Plus One" phenomenon, in which Clark Gable's charm is "perfectly adaptable to a large number of acting partners, [requiring] only that they be sexually attractive, possessing a headstrong femininity that could serve as a foil for his stereotypical but thrilling patriarchal lessons in love" (11). The Iconic Couple's post-studio relative the Thematic Couple-for instance The Cosby Show's (NBC, US, 1984-92) Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad-offers some critique of the couple form or other societal conventions, perhaps on the level of race as with the Cosbys, but fails to truly unsettle such conventions on the level of image and chemistry. A Synergistic Couple, by contrast, necessarily relies on two actors with balanced and forceful chemistry, some of which in turn can productively open up even the most conventional storytelling.
A certain monotony periodically marks the book. It soon becomes all too clear what Nochimson's argument will be-that the given Synergistic Couple's body of work is uneven, and that the best and most interesting films (almost always the most famous and lauded) are those in which the couple challenge conventions of gender or class or other oppressive and suppressive orders. One wonders what Screen Couples Chemistry might have looked like if it had worked its way through couples of all four types in more or less equal weighting. On the one hand, one might argue that a mere "Functional Couple" will always provide the same readings no matter which actorly pairings are entertained, and therefore only the Synergistic Couple really warrants book-length examination. (No doubt this is the road Nochimson has taken herself.) On the other hand, perhaps the necessary elasticity and vagueness of Nochimson's categories is such that they can actually allow for copious investigations of the "lesser" couple-types. After all, there can be many paths to blandness and/or ideological complicity, and no rule seems to dictate that writing on them need itself be bland or complicit.
Furthermore, one might quibble with certain elisions in Nochimson's readings. It is surprising, for example, that Nochimson doesn't offer another reason as to why the Loy-Powell chemistry suffered on Evelyn Prentice (William K. Howard, U.S., 1934)-the stars were simply given relatively little screen time together in that film. The Thin Man series afforded ample opportunity for chemistry in which husband and wife characters work together- certainly an important requirement. Nochimson generally does, however, grapple with the role of narrative and generic conventions in meaning formulation. Her superb reading of the Weissmuller/O'Sullivan Tarzan films (or more accurately, "Tarzan and Jane" films) illuminates them in contrast to other Tarzan films in which similar stories and premises lead in very different directions. The MGM productions had to deal with their two stars' particular sense of energy, which as Nochimson details allowed for amply interesting and unusually free final products.
Another elision Nochimson makes concerns her theoretical formulation of the role sound plays in these pairings. She does write on sound (such as Tarzan's trademark howl), but mostly as appendages to the power of images. The four couples she examines at length, whose work "spans the length of the heyday of the studio system," come into their own solely after the advent of the synchronized sound picture (4). (The first Weissmuller-O'Sullivan collaboration, Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, US), was made in 1932. The final Hepburn-Tracy film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, US), was made in 1967.) It this a coincidence? For all the discussion of the image and its powers, more attention should be paid to line readings, vocal cadences, and the way in which these aspects of the screen couple interact with sounds both diegetic and non-diegetic.
The image is the key thing in this book, though, and there is something quite interesting about it. Submerged beneath the project's surface is a startling possibility that didn't make itself crystal clear to me, at any rate, until page 274, when Nochimson writes about a handful of latter-day Synergistic Couples whose chemistry "stun[s] the camera into producing raw documentary image." This assertion fits in the Bazinian mold, only Nochimson supplants Bazin's spiritual or transcendental referents with psychological and biochemical ones. The camera's ability to capture something of reality is at the heart of Nochimson's project. The screen couple's chemistry is an example of a reality that the camera can only "document," and the Barthesian punctum in the cinematographic image is located within the materiality of that chemistry (Nochimson is constantly writing about the triumph of image over concept). This material chemistry, brought out by the camera's documentary faculties, is the very thing that aims to answer the questions I put forth in the first paragraph of the review. Chemistry is that which charges the eyes and the brain. Screen Couples Chemutry attempts, with great dedication and insightful application, to formulate a new and contemporary molding of Bazin's argument for the camera's capacity to capture reality; to insist that the camera does indeed record something real and palpable, if intangible. And that is no small feat.
Zachary Campbell received his B.F.A. in cinema studies and art history from New York University, and will continue his studies soon. He has written for The Film Journal and Slant Magazine.…
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Publication information: Article title: Two Stars and a Movie Camera. Contributors: Campbell, Zachary - Author. Journal title: Framework. Volume: 46. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2005. Page number: 100+. © Wayne State University Press Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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