The Contemporary Cinema: Penelope Houston. Penguin Books.

Penelope Houston represents, I suppose, decently catholic, unassumingly highbrow, mildly leftish opinion. She applauds Visconti, Ozu, Truffaut, Wajda, Antonioni, but admits also to liking Hollywood for its “relaxed assurance” and “magnificent vulgarity.” She devotes most space of all, three pages, to the cinema of Satyajit Ray, but also a paragraph to a single film of Hawks, The Big Sleep. She separates herself carefully from “the snobbery of specialized cinemas” and is on her guard against the “esoteric.” The creative cinema, however, the cinema which “runs risks,” is set firmly for her in Europe. It is no longer, she points out, “the cinema of straightforward social purpose.” “Underlying many of the really significant films of the last few years is an unspoken sense that the public context, the social scene in all its complexity, is something too big to grasp and too unwieldy to be susceptible to change.” Instead young directors are interested in “emotional landscape,” “personal relationships,” “how people behave.” And, to accommodate this new humanism, they are inventing a new screen lanuage. She cites, for instance, the cutting of Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, the improvisation techniques of Cassavetes’s Shadows.

Penelope Houston is not interested in the larger questions one might care to ask about cinema. Indeed she is rather scornful about them. She quotes Rene Clair approvingly: “That which makes the cinema is not to be discussed.” She takes care not to involve herself in critical controversy, fearful of being trammeled by doctrine and theory. Only once is her serene indifference shaken, when she tries to cope with the influence of Cahiers du Cinema. Her account of the critical positions and arguments of the Cahiers concludes with the old gibe that their enthusiasm for American cinema is partly based on their inability to speak or understand English. Judging by Miss Houston’s thoroughly misleading account of the Cahiers one may be forgiven for assuming that she doesn’t understand French. As I read her summary, which suggests, for instance, that the Cahiers believe Cottafavi can do no wrong, I recalled the celebrated article of Andre Bazin, in Cahiers 70, De la Politique des Auteurs. After warning against the dangers of the aesthetic cult of personality—the politique, he thought, might lead to this error, but remained nevertheless fecund enough in its total impact to justify its use as a critical method — he continued: “Far be it from me to wish to deny the positive spirit and methodological value of this policy. It has, in the first place, the merit of treating the cinema as an adult art and of reacting against the impressionist relativism which still dominates criticism of the film.” Penelope Houston’s position is impressionist relativism at its worst.

This is not the place to expound or criticize the politique. It is worth noting however how Miss Houston’s failure to come to grips with its has led her to the most unfortunate judgments on American cinema. In introducing Hawks into her assessment of it, for example, she does so, not through any reference to the copious discussions of Hawks in the Cahiers, but by quoting the views of an American critic, Manny Farber, on “Underground Films.” Mr. Farber lumps together Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, William Keighley and Anthony Mann, and Miss Houston makes no attempt to separate them. Instead she takes Hawks as representative of them all and The Big Sleep as representative of all of Hawks. In fact, The Big Sleep is in many ways atypical of Hawks. It is quite clear that what Miss Houston liked in the film was the Chandler-based screenplay, which is exactly what should be viewed in contradistinction to the Hawksian ideas and situations it partly suppresses. She shows no interest whatever in seeing the career of Hawks as a whole in order to evaluate his work. Andrew Sarris’s remark, in Film Culture 28, is apposite: “The resurrection of Hawks, like that of Lazarus, is still more the exception than the rule . . . One coup does not constitute a successful revolution in taste.”

Penelope Houston, having shown her catholicity by her brief acknowledgement of Hawks, bothers no further with the “Underground Film”, whose heyday she seems to place in the first postwar years. In fact, I would strongly argue, the careers of many directors associated with the great genres — Western, gangster, warfilm — that Farber was referring to, continued with unabated and frequently increased achievement, right through the fifties. She mentions, for example, three Westerns of John Ford: My Darling Clementine, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Wagonmaster. There is no hint that over ten years later, in the sixties, he is still making Westerns: Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As for Walsh and Mann, not one of their films is mentioned at all. Yet, as Bazin first showed, it was Mann who created an entirely new kind of Western, with a new landscape style and a new, unlegendary hero, culminating in the late fifties with The Last Frontier and Man of the West. Walsh and Mann, of course are only the first names that come to mind. It seems to me profoundly frivolous of Penelope Houston to mention New Left Review in her book and yet entirely ignore Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher and King Vidor (authors respectively of Run of the Arrow, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and Man without a Star, all in the fifties). She bestows an accolade on two American directors, mostly for their confidence, mastery and so on. These two are Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. Hitchcock, to Penelope Houston, means “the fascination . . . in seeing what he can get away with”; Wilder means “how to be vulgar and funny.” There is no suggestion that Hitchcock has any thematic interest or consistency: the themes, so obvious in his work, of guilt in its different forms, confusion of identity, vertiginous obsession, etc., have all utterly escaped her attention. Indeed, she is resolutely determined to stay blinded to the possibility of any theme emerging in the work of any American director. It is this, of course, which permits her to elevate Wilder so highly. Yet she does not seem interested even in his qualities as a stylist. What did Wilder inherit from Lubitsch? What differentiates his inheritance from that of Preminger? Is there any meaning in the notion of a Viennese school? Penelope Houston is not concerned with such questions. But she does like Some Like It Hot.

Her utterly inadequate understanding and assessment of American cinema leads her, of course, into difficulties as soon as she starts to discuss the French new wave. She actually embarks on an analysis of Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, without mentioning Samuel Fuller. Anybody who has seen a few Fuller films is well aware what Godard’s revolution in cutting owed to Fuller. She is further unaware, apparently, that Fuller’s Hell and High Water contained a sequence outside the New York Herald-Tribune office in Paris, and an interview at Orly airport on which the comparable scenes in A Bout de Souffle are directly modelled, that Belmondo’s performance was very reminiscent of Widmark’s in Pick-up on South Street, etc. But her inadequacies go much deeper than ignorance of the significance of Fuller. The influence of Welles? On Resnai, for instance? She remarks, apropos of Welles, that there are in his films “devices any film-maker can borrow, and any number have.” So much for a sense of history. And Fritz Lang? Has expressionism still any validity? Cahiers once ran a special number on Brecht — how does this connect Lang and Losey? How does it connect either of them with new wave cinema? What has been the influence of Brecht on Godard? Godard’s latest film, Le Mepris, stars Lang as a film director — is this act of homage merely irrelevant to their films? And then, of course, there are the strong impacts which both Lang and Welles made on Fuller — what about that?

Penelope Houston’s fear of theory and ideology, however, reaches even more extreme lengths than failure to understand the critical achievements of Cahiers du Cinema. It leads to a complete abnegation on her part of any kind of coherent approach to the films she does admire. Of them—Godard, Resnais, Cassavetes, Antonioni —she writes: “Within their context, these films are not uncommitted or disengaged works, but their commitments remain essentially to individuals.” The spectator, she insists, must simply make up his own mind: he cannot expect any help from the director. Nor, apparently, should he look beyond the immediate evidence of the film. Even then, his conclusions are unimportant. “Audiences may ask the questions, and critics speculate, at enormous length, about the answers. The directors concerned know that they have made the questions irrelevant, or have answered them to their own satisfaction.” There is no possibility, it seems, of relating anything meaningfully to anything, of applying any useful methodology, of seeking to locate any film in any kind of structure greater than itself, historical, sociological or ideological. There is simply the egotism of the director and the egotism of the spectator. Films show “how people behave and give themselves away in action.” Beyond that nothing can be elucidated.