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Bridging the Great Divide: Hollywood Versus the Avant-garde

Bridging the Great Divide: Hollywood Versus the Avant-garde

Bridging the Great Divide: Hollywood Versus the Avant-garde
Tina Butler,
May 8, 2005

Fritz Lang’s films M and Scarlet Street illuminate the gaping, yet often blurred division between high avant-garde art and low, appropriated imitation by mass culture. Lang’s two films, when juxtaposed, begin to engage in a dialogue about the cultural position of each of the two forms–one, a typical European art film, and the other, an production of the Hollywood school. Both of the texts have aggressive and muscular visual styles, yet only one can claim to possess integrity. M embodies the German Expressionist style and speaks itself convincingly as an ‘art film;’ Scarlet Street is a mere derivative. What is most disconcerting about the two films is the fact that they are products of the same director. In the transition from M to Scarlet Street, the culturally destructive powers of the Hollywood system are brought to light. The later film’s artistic messages and merits are overdetermined and subsumed by the controlling framework of the system.

Conventions of Hollywood film are so deeply imbedded in its products that they are almost invisible. This is indicative of the Hollywood project–to achieve a level of transparency, utter seamlessness in style and appearance. These pictures are astoundingly well crafted, through the practice of continuity editing; they do not draw attentions to themselves and audiences begin to lose themselves in the narratives. Additionally, the star and studio systems created standardized and recognized commodities of the people associated with each film. Directors and stars alike belonged in a way to studios, signing contacts for multiple picture deals, so that the public could consistently associate specific people with specific studios. Within the Hollywood system, as an arm of the culture industry, “all culture is standardized, organized and administered for the sole purpose of serving as an instrument of social control” (Huyssen 21). By determining and defining cultural norms, the system can regulate and manipulate on its own terms.

In contrast, the conventions that characterize European ‘art films,’ specifically those of the German Expressionist school are considerably apparent. There is no obscuring or hiding of form. Over the top performances by the actors, dramatic and exaggerated chirascuro lighting and the use of techniques like forced perspective give the films an overarching sense of artificiality. They work in direct opposition to those of Hollywood. The composition of the films often seems motivated purely by the richness of the aesthetic qualities, contrary to practicality, functionality or relevance. Unlike Hollywood films, aspects of style are rarely stimulated by plot. The Expressionist style was Lang’s forte; it was only his exposure and subsequent submission to Hollywood that tainted his craftmanship.

“In a way, Scarlet Street is a remake. It’s taken from a French novel, La Chienne (literally, “The Bitch”) that was first filmed by Jean Renoir in 1931. Renoir brought to the sordid tale all the color and vitality of Montmartre; Fritz Lang’s version shows us a far harsher and bleaker world. The film replays the triangle set-up from Lang’s previous picture, The Woman in the Window, with the same three actors. Once again, Edward G. Robinson plays a respectable middle-aged citizen snared by the charms of Joan Bennett’s streetwalker, with Dan Duryea as her low-life pimp. But this time around, all three characters have moved several notches down the ethical scale. Robinson, who in the earlier film played a college professor who kills by accident, here becomes a downtrodden clerk with a nagging, shrewish wife and unfilled ambitions as an artist, a man who murders in a jealous rage. Bennett is a mercenary vamp, none too bright, and Duryea brutal and heartless. The plot closes around the three of them like a steel trap. This is Lang at his most dispassionate. Scarlet Street is a tour de force of noir filmmaking, brilliant and ice-cold.

When it was made the film hit censorship problems, since at the time it was unacceptable to show a murder going unpunished. Lang went out of his way to show the killer plunged into the mental hell of his own guilt, but for some authorities this still wasn’t enough, and the film was banned in New York State for being “immoral, indecent and corrupt.” Not that this did its box-office returns any harm at all.” –Philip Kemp

As Lang, forced from his homeland, was given the illusory freedom to work in the United States, he had to operate in a new system that severely undercut the messages of his work. Hannah Arendt writes in her essay Work, “There can be hardly anything more alien or even more destructive to workmanship than teamwork” (161). Lang’s personal stamp is all but lost in Scarlet Street by the politics and practices of Hollywood and specifically, the Production Code. The Code operated under the pretense of fostering the creation and distribution of wholesome, popular entertainment while in actuality, asserting control over the masses. According to Dwight MacDonald in A Theory of Mass Culture, “The serious artist rarely ventures into the media of mass culture: radio, the movies, comic books, detective stories, science fiction, television” (59). He equates, like many others, mass culture with the impersonal and high culture with individual vision. In the United States, it seems near impossible to use mass mediums to speak personal conceptions. This fits nicely with Arendt’s sentiments and speaks to the fate of Scarlet Street.
M is made in Germany in 1931. Scarlet Street is made in the United States in 1945. The change in venue and time is staggering in consideration of the artistic properties of the end products. One of the most marked distinctions between the two films is the way in which violence is portrayed. In Lang’s earlier film, the audience never sees the direct depiction of murder, an impressive feat considering the plot follows a serial killer. In M, the representation of each murder is implied, and is therefore more demanding of the viewer. Watching Elsie Beckmann’s balloon float away and tangle among telephone wires is far more harrowing and insidious than witnessing a straightforward and obvious killing. With Lang’s use of subtlety in certain key scenes, the audiences’ imagination is engaged and provoked.

Conversely, in Scarlet Street, the audience views Kitty’s murder directly; it is graphic, heavy-handed and obvious. The viewer sees the act itself as well as its aftermath, as characterized by the bloodied sheets. Lang originally had an expanded and more striking stabbing sequence for the murder scene perpetrated by the enraged character of Chris, but the Code censors blocked it. In transitioning to the popular system, it seems the director loses his sensibilities of subtlety; he begins to hit his audiences over the head with his intended messages. Filmic action commences to take precedence over artistic primacy. Perhaps the scene is reflective of his growing sense of frustration from being forced to create and operate in such regulated conditions. In any case, in Scarlet Street, implication is gone and overstatement has taken its place.

Scarlet Street does contain some elements and scenes reminiscent or characteristic of German Expressionism, but they are muted and appear as rather hasty insertions, instead of intentional and congruous components of plot and style. The pulsing light that shatters the darkness along with Chris’s peace of mind towards the film’s close, along with Kitty’s relentless nagging whispers, are uncharacteristic of Hollywood. Combined with the Expressionist style paintings and bleak ending, Scarlet Street shows flagging signs of a once robust avant-gardist tradition. Here, however, these signs are mere palpitations of a dying art form.

Additionally, the film’s narrative and look are dark in nature, but Scarlet Street comes out of the Noirist tradition. Lang’s later film is far removed from the spheres of production that created M and it shows in his adoption of a style originating in the United States. The film is substantially Noir in character, a genre which itself took inspiration from the Expressionist tradition, and this very fact works against Scarlet Street’s artistic integrity.

The emergence of Noir in the 1940s says much about the socio-politic-cultural environment of the United States at the time, however all insight value aside, the genre merely commandeers certain facets of Expressionism in such a way that makes them attractive to a wide and vulgarized audience. Noir then, assumes the title of kitsch, even if it is a high-class incarnation of it, a term identified by Clement Greenberg in his essay, Avant-garde and Kitsch (41). MacDonald borrows from Greenberg the following about kitsch: “[It] predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art” (61). Scarlet Street makes elements of the avant-garde easy and fitting to a large audience and undermines the style of the ‘art film’ with its mimicry.

According to Adorno, modern culture must address both mass culture and high art. By addressing mass culture, it is impossible to maintain a level of high art because intrinsic to it is its exclusivity, its limited accessibility by a privileged few. Scarlet Street is an empty solution to the problem that can never have one. Stylistic novelty, by way of reproduction or translation, becomes kitsch. Its integrity is sacrificed to the diluting and pervasive qualities of popular convention; value that might have been retained from the film by the director’s decidedly ‘high’ and avantgardist roots are lost to the exceedingly systematized demands of Hollywood function, practice and production. The film is borne out of Hollywood and confuses audience conception and understanding with its awkward injections of Expressionist elements in perhaps an unintentionally but undeniably tired, formulaic and commodified production. Lang’s US-made feature cannot be saved from being utterly pedestrian in this exhibition of disfigured and diluted version of an art film.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. “Work.” The Human Condition. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1958.

Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Partisan Review. 6.5.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Indianapolis: Indiana U Press, 1986.

Lang, Fritz. M and Scarlet Street. 1931 and 1945.

MacDonald, Dwight. “A Theory of Mass Culture.” Mass Culture. Rosenberg and White, eds. Glencoe: Free Press, 1957.

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