Having taught Only Angels Have Wings this week, one thing I couldn't help but remark on was the lighting. At times, it takes on an ethereal quality, which is aided by the not-quite-deep focus and Hawks' tendency to stage in depth. But beyond its overall texture, the lighting can be read more semiotically. Here, in an early scene, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) peeks in on a room of locals dancing to a Latin folk song:
The glamour photography conventions (with a very strong kicker) are not unusual in themselves, but here the pool of light on Jean Arthur and the dearth of light on the figures around her undoubtedly highlight, even construct, the difference of white femininity amid the ethnic Other. The white/ethnic distinction is only highlighted by the eyeline match (characteristically, a POV from a "native" is an impossibility):
Now, the lighting direction is reversed, with the strongest light coming from beneath and behind the figures. With potential narrative motivation (the light comes from a fire or hearth?) the effect is to romanticize the locals for the white American gaze.
Of course, this sort of reading - while perhaps continually needed - is hardly new and may even seem banal to film scholars conditioned to similar readings. The film strikes me as a fascinating hermeneutic circle... a repository for all the thematic seriousness of auteurist readings (such as Robin Wood's analysis)... a case study in the formal elegance of classicism (Bellour may have written his "Obvious and the Code" about The Big Sleep, but almost every scene in Only Angels Have Wings seems to me to share the same symmetry of construction)... an example of ethnic othering (the thematics are less self-aware than the border crossing Stephen Heath locates in Touch of Evil, but are structuring nonetheless)... to the history of style questions Bordwell and Thompson have been discussing at length in their blog (the reframing in the film, in particular, is careful and composed).
There is such a tendency critically to think we already know all there is to be known about Hollywood in its classical period and pedagogically to treat the studio films as either bad object or unapproachable "classics" frozen statically in a receding past. I do wonder if with some effort we can continue to rethink the American cinema of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and to inhabit the previous layers of scholarship while moving forward in our understanding. I'll try to reflect more on what I mean in further entries here, but Only Angels seems as good a placeholder for any for my developing thoughts on the matter.
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