Thursday, November 19, 2015

Monkey Business

(Howard Hawks, USA, 1952)

The occasion of my first viewing of this film, long considered one of Hawks's greatest, prompts some  ruminations on Hawks himself, and his body of work, which seem for me to be perennial.  To wit: is he really as good as they say?  The "they" in this case are, broadly, the critics of Cahiers du Cinema and their fellow travelers, past and present, for whom Hawks was an is a crucial icon.  For my part, despite my great admiration for many of his films, I remain unconvinced that they are fully deserving of the lavish encomiums they received from Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, et. al.  Partly, it's a problem of perspective.  To illustrate, then, a pet theory: for the autuerist project, Hawks was the linchpin even more than Hitchcock, whose formal audacity and inventiveness are undeniable, once you know where to look.  Many critics, distracted by the titillation and pulp that made up so much of Hitchcock's content, missed his genius on the first go-around.  But a careful re-appraisal yielded fast results: even setting aside his rich store of obsessions, the technical innovations and visual brilliance of Hitch can't be obscured for long, and his influence was palpable, even during his own day.  Hawks was another matter.  You can rave all you want to about the philosophical depth of Red River or Rio Bravo or Bringing Up Baby, and the attentive, careful viewer may still resist.  Yes,  they're all enjoyable movies.  They are smart, handsome, well-constructed.  But great art?  This takes more work to establish, and the Cahiers critics were more than happy to comply.  What better way to establish the essential value of your work than in creating an idol whose deepest significance you alone can divine and transmit to the uninitiated?

This isn't entirely fair.  It's to the critics' credit, and to Hawks, that both can (mostly) withstand the scrutiny and skepticism to which they are subjected, much of which was motivated by their effusive praise.  It's unlikely we'd be talking about Hawks very much if they hadn't placed him directly under their piercing gazes.  Again: Hitch probably would've be discovered sooner or later.  But Hawks? The winners write the history books, and both Hawks and Cahiers are secure in their legacy.  Yet I still see the traces of a polemic: in Hawks, the critics found a perfect receptacle for their grand ambition to establish once and for all the significance of the director as an artist every bit as great as those in painting, music, literature, etc.  It was precisely because of Hawks' unadorned, raw power, his eager embrace of the commercial side of cinema, his willingness to bend the formal qualities and even the stories to his own indestructible vision, that he was great.  In short, it was Hawks's American-ness.  He was a culture hero that could only be identified from afar, and the Caheirs critics were his self-elected acolytes, interpreters, and rhapsodizers.  In the eyes of his French admirers, he became the American ne plus ultra: fearless, self-disciplined, stoic, efficient, cool-headed but inwardly passionate, utterly independent.  Hawks was the American man who got into fistfights, seduced the most coveted women, drove the fastest cars, wore expensive clothes, lived by his own rules.  He was more Hemingwayesque than Hemingway, because he was both more modern and more classical (the essential Cahiers dialectic.)

He was thus an antidote to the aesthetic refinement of the European tradition.  However much the critics loved and appreciated the self-conscious artistry of Bresson, Dreyer, Rosselini, et. al., what they saw in the cinema of Hawks (and to a lesser degree in Hitchcock, and Ford, and Ray, et. al.) was style that transcended style.  There was an ontological power to the films of the American mainstream - the ones that were directed by an auteur, naturally - a monumentality that was burned into every frame, a transcendent energy that was irreducible even to mise-en-scene.  It was simply there, and you either felt it or you didn't.   Hence the famous panegyric to his work, written by Jacques Rivette after Monkey Business's release.

Rivette's essay is illuminating.  He opens with a brazen gauntlet-throwing, casting himself as a Hawksian hero, making it known at the outset that he will neither quibble nor qualify.  If you don't see Hawk's genius, then there's no helping you.  You might as well pack it in, pardner, at get the hell outta Dodge while the gettin's good.  But he's too good a critic, and too enthused about Hawks's cinema, to let it rest there.  He launches into an extended exegesis, singing Hawks's praises in the highest possible terms.  By the end, one can't help but wonder if one has seen the inauguration of an immortal that has beaten out Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare for top honors in the Olympian realm of aesthetic achievement.   I won't go through the piece in detail.  For all of its bluster and heat, it is undeniably brilliant, and surprisingly persuasive.   There's no doubt that Rivette has a sharp mind and a capacious imagination.  But what about the films?  Do they hold what Rivette claims they do?

Sticking to the matter at hand, and keeping to the spirit of those discussed, I'll say that they both do and don't.  In Monkey Business, the elements Rivette mentions are indeed present - wildness that verges on savagery, the entropic energy of both youth and sexuality, humor that is both antic and slightly unsettling, and an admiration for quick wits and moral clarity.  But do they coalesce into the grand edifice that Rivette celebrates?  If you want them to, sure.  But this is the crucial point of departure. As a viewer, you have to be on board, and you have to lend a certain credulity to the force-field theory of greatness that gathered around Hawks, via his acolytes.  On a scene-by-scene level, the elements of Hawks that feel dated, that are connected to the trappings of genre and to the culture of the era in which they were released, have the effect of distancing one from what lies beneath them.  The brilliance of Hawks lies in his ideas, which can only be discerned by first taking his plots and characters exactly as they appear.  Once you can appreciate the literalness of Hawks, the suggestive side, his slyness, becomes more clear.

In Monkey Business, Hawks charts the intersection of two trajectories - the improvement of modern life via science and the regressive aspects of human behavior.  The youth serum permits a thrilling release in libidinal energy, and chaos ensues.  Hawks's perspective on this is essentially stoic.  He doesn't tip his hand all that much, playing the scenario for maximum fun.  But an undercurrent can be discerned.  The regression is total; not only does the potion make Grant and Rogers feel more energetic, it makes them prone to the emotional condition of children; they are helpless, overwhelmed with jealousy, rage, terror, sexual attraction. Hawks sees the appeal of this as being universal and nearly irresistible; most people, if given the chance, will take the potion and damn the consequences. Therefore the only thing keeping us from ruin is the steely self-restraint of a few heroic types.  But you have to pass through the crucible of experience: Grant can only realize the dangers of his potion by first undergoing its effects.  The Hawksian hero is the one who is capable of self-control, who can channel his energies into the service of order.  On the whole, this is all treated with a frothy insouciance, which to Rivette is the crucial ingredient.  It's the very lightness of Hawks's films that bear the mark of the artist's seriousness.  Confronting the same issues head-on would risk sententiousness; even in the Westerns, with their ostensibly grave stories, are deceptively light in tone.

The experience is hard to reckon with.  To modern eyes, the cinema of Hawks can easily appear to be a romp.  The value of recognizing the bigger issues at stake, and the aesthetic sophistication required to frame them in such a way, is rare in our current culture, where a host of generic styles have come to inhabit the realm of the middlebrow, standing in for actual depth.  But it is crucial to recognize that Hawks exemplified an era, a moment when the cinema had a cultural centrality and a relative anonymity, when it was possible to hide one's obsessions in plain sight, on a gigantic glowing screen.  We have become, on the whole, savvier viewers, but we have also become strangely literal in our search for meaning in art.  The critics at Cahiers seized a moment of historical import, and while that moment has passed, we can still learn from their example.  Hawks, whatever one thinks of his relative merit, offers us an opportunity to see with new eyes. 

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