Saturday, July 10, 2004

Howard Hawks, Critical Guinea Pig

I have an ambiguous attitude toward the films of Howard Hawks. In part, it comes from embarrassment over having overrated him before. I mean, I love many of Howard Hawks’ movies. The man made so many great movies in so many different genres that it would be hard to find a movie buff who doesn’t count at least one Hawks film among his or her favourites. But when I come back to some of Hawks’ movies now, I’m struck more and more by how flawed they seem, and, what’s more, flawed by some of the things that I had considered virtues before. I used to think it was interesting and wonderful the way he repeats lines, gestures and story points from film to film; now I just find it, well, repetitive. I guess the moment you fall out of love with Hawks is the moment when hearing the term “Good enough” (which recurs, sometimes several times, in most of his action movies) makes you wince instead of cheer.

Hawks made some great movies, and he’s definitely one of the best American film directors. But some of the purple prose written about him is pretty hard to take even by the terrifying standards of post-‘60s film criticism. To read a critic like David Thomson or the guys in the Time Out Film Guide is to be transported into a world where repetitiveness is proof of artistry and where Hawks is excused or even exalted for the same things that Hollywood in general is condemned for (rehashing the great RIO BRAVO as the not-so-great EL DORADO; the cop-out ending of RED RIVER). But then, criticism about Hawks, especially criticism written in or just after the ‘60s, isn’t just about Hawks. The battle over Howard Hawks - or, more specifically, over Hawks’ stature as a filmmaker - was part of the larger battle, waged in the ‘60s, over the purpose of film criticism and over what kind of films could be considered art.

Traditionally, it was assumed that the further American movies got from conventional genre pictures, the closer they would come to being worthy of consideration as “art.” This meant that a Western could be considered a major achievement only if it had an obvious political message (HIGH NOON), used some kind of storytelling gimmick (HIGH NOON again), or deliberately went against the conventions of its genre (whaddya know... HIGH NOON). The movies we now think of as the best Hollywood has to offer - the musicals, Westerns, gangster pictures, monster movies, thrillers, screwball comedies - were usually condescended to or ignored by the people who reviewed movies and the people who gave out awards.

American critics were divided into two camps: there were the middlebrows, like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, whose idea of a great movie was something with a great message (WEST SIDE STORY, for example, or something by Stanley Kramer). Then there were the highbrows, whose ideal filmmaker was Ingmar Bergman and who assumed that American movies were just not quite for grown-ups; John Simon, the movie critic for people who hate movies, bluntly stated that “America has produced much cinematic entertainment but very little cinematic art.”

The industry itself tended to assume that great aspirations equalled great art, which explains how movies like HAMLET and GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT managed to win the Academy Award: the “worthy” movie was the Hollywood ideal of a great movie. In movies and novels about Hollywood, you can often find an indication of what insiders thought of as the best the industry had to offer; it’s mostly the same kind of stuff Bosley Crowther liked. In Budd Schulberg’s novel WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN, John Ford’s THE INFORMER - one of the most self-consiously arty films ever made - is cited as the great movie that makes up for all the junk the industry is putting out. In the movie THE BIG KNIFE, made in 1955, Ida Lupino’s character runs down a list of the best directors in Hollywood; the list includes Wyler, Wilder, Stevens, and I think Kazan and Zinnemann (I haven’t seen the movie in a while). An OK list, but - with the possible exception of Wilder - a list of “prestige” directors whose movies were considered Events rather than mere movies. By that time, Ford was considered a disappointment, having abandoned the arty style of THE INFORMER to make a lot of John Wayne westerns; critics routinely wrote that Hitchcock had never lived up to the promise of his English movies (which weren’t particularly different from his American movies, but they were European and therefore assumed to be better); and Hawks, of course, wasn’t on the critical or Academy radar at all.

But if the new breed of French-influenced critics - the auteurists, they were called - were to succeed in proving that American genre directors could be artists (and, at the same time, that the big prestige movies weren’t so great), Hawks was the guy to start with. Hawks wasn’t well known outside of the business. (Andrew Sarris, the doyen of American auteurist critics, recalled that established critics used to say “Who the hell is Howard Hawks?” only to say “I like that one” every time you mentioned a film he’d directed.) And yet he didn’t fit the stereotype of the Hollywood director as studio hack. For one thing, he’d never stayed under contract to any one studio; much like directors today, he worked on one or two-picture deals, moving from studio to studio and retaining a lot of freedom to choose his projects. Another stereotype of Hollywood directors is that they were just traffic managers, getting scripts handed to them and doing what the producers told them. Hawks didn’t fit this stereotype either; he produced most of his own pictures, initiated a lot of projects himself, chose writers he liked to work with (favorites included Jules Furthman, Charles Lederer and science-fiction writer Leigh Brackett) and made substantial uncredited contributions to the scripts, reflected in the fact that certain “Hawksian” lines turn up no matter who the credited writer was.

With other auteurist favorites - Nicholas Ray, for example - auteurist critics had to go to extreme, sometimes comical lengths to demonstrate that the director’s personality was reflected in some of the projects they did. (To argue for Nicholas Ray as a great artist you have to argue for PARTY GIRL as a work of art. It’s just very tough to write about the artistry of any film produced by Joe Pasternak.) Still other auteur directors had clear personal styles but didn’t make a lot of good movies - Frank Tashlin was an auteur but, by his own admission, most of his movies (apart from ROCK HUNTER) were too compromised to be completely successful. Hawks was the perfect test subject for the auteur theory because he was unquestionably an auteur, and because he’d made a lot of great movies.

In other words, Hawks was where the battle-lines were drawn. If Hawks wasn’t a cinema artist, then no Hollywood filmmaker could be considered an artist. And by winning the battle over Hawks, the auteurists won the battle for Hollywood. Essentially, the battle I’m talking about here was the same one that Preston Sturges portrayed in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. Traditionally, both critics and Hollywood filmmakers had John L. Sullivan’s attitude to movies: a great movie is something that’s based on a novel and has a socially-conscious message. Sturges concluded, no, Hollywood really helps people more when it makes movies like “Ants in Your Plants of 1939.” The new critics went one step further, demonstrating that “Ants in Your Plants” is actually a greater work of art than “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” And Hawks was the perfect test subject for this, because he made almost nothing but genre pictures - “Ants in Your Plants” pictures - and yet it’s obvious that his films had more interesting things to say about people and life and morality than an “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou” filmmaker like Stanley Kramer or Fred Zinnemann.

Another thing about Hawks that made him a godsend to auteurist critics is that he put his stamp even on the acting of a film. Some directors didn’t much worry about what an actor was doing unless he was doing something wrong; directors like Hitchcock or Minnelli focused on composing the shots, and let the actors have free rein within those careful compositions. So there’s really not a “Hitchcockian” style of acting. But there is a “Hawksian” style of acting; his actors - particularly the women - have certain tics of body language and line delivery that they could only have picked up from the director, since they’re more typical of Hawks than the actor in question. (Compare Lauren Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and Angie Dickinson in RIO BRAVO; not only are they playing similar characters, they even move somewhat similarly when, say, getting up from a table.) In some ways, this isn’t exactly a good thing; Jean Arthur in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is so obviously being forced into the mold of the Hawks Heroine that she isn’t able to do the things that make her so appealing in other movies. But it is something that a critic can pick up on and identify as part of the filmmaker’s style; it’s another critical talking point.

But a movie that makes for good criticism doesn’t always make for good viewing. Hawks’ later movies - the ones after RIO BRAVO, which I think was his last great movie - offer a lot to write about, a lot of “personal” touches. They’re also sloppily made, haphazardly cast and slow as hell. HATARI! is a case in point. You can’t possibly call this a bland corporate Hollywood product; it has almost literally no plot, just a series of vignettes about the rough and tough life of people who trap animals (for zoos) in Africa. It’s a highly personal film about masculinity, professionalism and being “good enough” - all the Hawks trademarks. It is 100% the work of an auteur. But it’s also a two-and-a-half hour movie with no freakin’ plot. This may not be any worse than when Jacques Rivette does it, but it sure isn’t any better.

So I'm increasingly coming to value Hawks more as an auteur than as a filmmaker. No director so conclusively proves that personal art can be created within Hollywood genre movies -- but I do find, at least at the moment, that I prefer other filmmakers in each of the genres Hawks worked in. I say "at the moment" because my tastes go back and forth on this, and the day will probably come when I can hear the phrase "Calling Barranca" with pleasure again. Calling Barranca... Calling Barranca...

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