Academic journal article CineAction

The Imagery of Surveillance: In a Lonely Place

Academic journal article CineAction

The Imagery of Surveillance: In a Lonely Place

Article excerpt

"There is no art that is not supported by a culture and there is no culture without historical judgment."

--Andre Bazin, "Toward a Cinematic Criticism." French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: the Birth of a Critical Esthetic. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1981 p.59.

After its virtual neo-extinction due to facile academic fashion, close reading is now making a much needed return as collections such as Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film and renewed attention to the writings of Andrew Britton reveal. (1) Long victimized by the rigid practices of Screen that regarded the viewer as a passive consumer forcibly inserted into a text dominated by conservative ideology associated with the very nature of narrative cinema, the role of the active viewer in close reading is now recognized today whether associated with the cognitive school of film criticism or those continuing the Movie tradition of analysis. Unfortunately, close reading has often been mistakenly identified with the 1950's American tradition of New Criticism that focused exclusively on the text while ignoring its relevant social and historical background. This a-political reading was a product of McCarthyism anticipating neo- conservative definitions of postmodernism influenced by the Reagan Revolution. Any establishment that does not wish certain political issues raised either in public or within textual spheres of art, film, and literature often welcomes a discourse that sees any work in isolation from its broader social context. However, despite the common assumption that close reading should exclusively focus upon the text, many instances occur revealing a complementary relationship between detailed analysis and social forces influencing the structure of the work itself, forces that are by no means arbitrarily imposed from outside. Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950) is one such example. Hence the choice of this opening quotation by Andre Bazin that argues against seeing any cinematic text in isolation from its historical context.

Correctly cited as one of the director's great achievements in Hollywood, In a Lonely Place is often regarded as a mirror image of the tormented relationship existing between Ray and his then-wife Gloria Grahame who were on the verge of divorce. Such an interpretation occurs in the recent biography on Ray by Patrick McGilligan. "It wasn't hard for the director, with his empathy and admiration for Bogart, to view the tortured writer Dix as a crazy-mirror version of himself. And with Grahame playing Laurel, it would have been impossible for Ray not to see their fragile love story as a twisted commentary on his own marriage." (2) This interpretation has to be measured against other alternatives. The appearance of warring partners in a particular film is well-known in Hollywood as Frank Tashlin's Hollywood or Bust (1956) and Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard (1995) reveal. One may ask whether knowledge of the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis tensions on the set and the appearance of Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston together after their personal break-up add anything to our appreciation and understanding of the films themselves. Both "partners" maintain a professional decorum on screen despite the problematic relationship of their personal lives. The scene showing Ray haranguing a young student actress on the set of We Can't Go Home Again in the 1973 documentary I'm a Stranger Here Myself (often cited by his detractors) may have less to do with the director's unmotivated ill-temper but more with his irritation at personal baggage being brought on to the set preventing the delivery of a good performance. If film is a collaborative art with the director synthesizing all the elements at his disposal into a coherent production, personal issues take second place to professional performance. Although McGilligan may assert "how closely the film's bleak, paranoid atmosphere echoed persistent elements of Ray's own domestic life", there is little support for this within the film's text as there is for McGilligan's belief that Ray did "name names. …

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