Monday, June 13, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            I remember that a few years ago it was very voguish to use the word “subvert” in literary and film criticism. If any nitwit put a very mild spin on some well-known work or established genre, he or she was said to be cleverly “subverting” it. Say somebody cast a woman rather than a man in some traditionally masculine Shakespearean role. “Subverting” it, obviously! Say somebody started writing a novel with all the conventions of a traditional exotic adventure story, and then threw in a few obvious comments on the evils of colonialism. Ah, such splendid “subversion”! In 99 cases out of a hundred, all such “subversions” meant were incidental tweaks to the expected same-old same-old.

            But, without talking tiresomely about supposed “subversion” (I think the damned term has now been laughed off into cliché), there are cases where creative people take an established genre and turn it subtly to their own artistic purposes.

Recently I watched a good print of Blind Date (released in America as Chance Meeting) – a British film from 1959, directed by the expatriate American Joseph Losey.

            It was a police procedural thriller – or at least it was ostensibly.

A Dutch artist (played by German actor Hardy Kruger) turns up at the London flat of a woman, to keep a romantic rendezvous. She doesn’t show up. He waits around in the flat. A squad of police, headed by an inspector played by Stanley Baker, bursts in. They have been tipped off that there has been some disturbance in the flat. In no time, they discover in the flat the dead body of the woman the artist came to meet. The artist is the obvious suspect, so the police inspector begins to grill the artist. As the artist answers questions, we see in long flashbacks his relationship with the murdered woman (played by French actress Micheline Presle).

With some final (and incredibly implausible) twists, we eventually find out what has happened and who has murdered whom. The solution is unbelievable – indeed rather silly – but the film has obeyed the laws of the police procedural: crime followed by investigation followed by solution.

Yet for most of its length, the film isn’t a tale of detection at all. It is showing us the relationship of the artist and the woman, and the real psychological focus is on the artist’s naivete about love, his inability to give himself over to sensuality, and the limited nature of the art he is therefore producing. It is a film about a certain mentality and its painful education in reality.

The director and his team have preserved the shell of a given genre, and filled it with a different sort of story altogether.

While I was watching this film, I couldn’t help comparing it with a much more famous film released the previous year, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

Ostensibly Vertigo is a suspense thriller. James Stewart’s police detective develops a fear of heights after a traumatic experience we see in the opening sequence. There are other suspense sequences in the film; and the film has a denouement, which involves an – again highly implausible and indeed rather silly – murder plot.

So there is the shell of a suspense thriller.

But the heart of the film has nothing to do with suspense thriller. In the James Stewart character’s obsession with one woman (or is it two women?) played by Kim Novak, what we are really watching is a perverse love story, with overtones of masochism and controlling possessiveness. Like Blind Date, it is really a psychological study, although Hitchcock’s style is more romantic – more operatic – that Joseph Losey’s almost clinical objectivity.

Nether film subverts a genre in any real sense of the word. Neither undermines a genre. Audiences coming to see a police procedural in Blind Date get what they came for. Audiences coming to see a suspense thriller in Vertigo get that too. The shell and framework of the genre have been preserved. But the shell has been filled with a meaning quite different from what the genre usually contains. I wouldn’t call this subversion. I would call it creativity.

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