Self-Reflexivity in Classical Cinema

A few weeks back, Nick Rhombes gave a valuable reading of A Face in the Crowd as a film that offers its own (often complicated) theorization of media. I pretty much agree and won't duplicate that reading here, but will only suggest readers take a look at the whole post.

However, Rhombes then goes on to conclude that

In truth, Hollywood's (and television's) "invisible style" was never invisible, but was rather relentlessly exposed in films like this. Film theory emerged, first, in films themselves. In the digital era, as cinema's history is made evermore available, we can come to see that, from its earliest stages, film was about its own deconstruction.

I'm not sure the Baudrillardian hyperbolic argumentation is meant to be taken at face value ("never"?) but I will register both agreement and disagreement. Disagreement first: the existence of self-reflexivity in some films does not mean that film in general was self-reflexive or visible in style. In fact, at least in Hollywood's studio years, reflexivity seemed to inhere more in the kind of prestige product that gained steam in the postwar years of Hollywood's transformation. A Face in the Crowd invoked two aesthetic distancings which were also social distancings: It was the kind of film geared in part toward people who traditionally didn't like "the movies," who wanted a non-Hollywood Hollywood. Secondarily, it was the product of a film industry suspicious of the role of television in American life. The reflexive media critique in A Face in the Crowd seems to me less a spontaneous textual return of the repressed (I'm not trying to put words in Nicholas's mouth, but simply trying to suggest the non-historical genesis he sees in textual reflexivity) than an assertion of this aesthetic and social difference from television and the masses. Thus the film resonated with the public sphere critique that circulated among postwar elites (someone was reading C. Wright Mills and David Reismann) and diffusely popularized.

Nonetheless, my 1947 viewing is pushing me to partial agreement with Rhombes: a surprising number of these films, and not strictly prestige product, invoked cinema and cinema's history in their narratives. Road to Rio, say, reveals the illusion of cinema and comments on its impact in the spectator's emotional life. I'm not sure that this "unmasking" is nearly as articulated or as the media critique of A Face in the Crowd or any of the other social problem films taking the mass public sphere as the "problem", but it is an interesting phenomenon. The trick is to be open to these phenomena previously overlooked by deductive generalization (and contemporary theoretical concerns can be an excellent driver of this) while not ignoring the fact that contemporary observers did tend to see Face in the Crowd as a different kind of film than Road to Rio.

Finally, there is a history of style claim to be made, on other grounds, that Hollywood's invisibility was never quite invisible (c.f. Jeff Smith on "unheard" film music). But this is different than what we would commonly identify as reflexivity.


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