Tuesday, July 12, 2005

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)

Few directors' movies give me as much pleasure as Howard Hawks'. I've seen a lot of his work, and I've loved everything I've seen. Now recognized as a great director, in his prime he was pegged as merely a reliable entertainer, probably because most of his movies were either comedies, action/adventures, or westerns. A bogus stereotype prevailed at the time, and still infects a lot of critics' and audiences' perceptions today. Namely, a film isn't an important work of art unless it's about something Important (i.e., racism is bad, terminal disease is sad, biographies of famous people's lives give us something to strive for, war is hell, symbolism is where it's at, etc.). Hawks was so much deeper than that. His films are concerned with varieties of human experience and behavior, eschewing closeups and identification with a single character. In a Hawks film, we watch a group of people interact, the camera taking in all the principals at once so the audience can see the characters react to each other without giving us a push in one direction or another. We choose our own reactions, our own points of view, based on our own experiences. Hawks is interested in tonal shifts in speech patterns and facial expressions, in the temporalities and fluctuations of life, in the dynamics between groups of men and between men and women. He's interested in how people act when they have to interact with other people, something most Hollywood films ignore. Sure, Hollywood movies are full of actors and extras, but most of them focus on one character's point of view at the expense of all others, with every camera movement guiding the audience toward a fixed understanding decided in advance by the filmmaker. In His Girl Friday, our sympathies toward and feelings about Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are never fixed. We like them (Hawks has affection for all his characters), but our responses to their behavior bounce around like pinballs. Meanings shift and shift again mid-sentence, dialogue overlaps dialogue, rhythms of speech speed up and slow down. Hawks is pulling the rug out from under our preconceived notions of how we watch movies every step of the way, and doing it in the guise of a romantic, screwball comedy. It's just another great movie from a guy who made dozens of them.


Krouchdog said...

I frikkin' love "The Big Sleep". I've seen it dozens of times, at work and at home, and I never get tired of watching Bogart interact with everyone. I still have no idea what the plot of the movie is about, but it doesn't even matter.

"You don't seem like someone who collects books."--library babe.

"I collect blondes and bottles too."--Bogart.

kristykay said...

Oh yes, I love "The Big Sleep" too -- have you ever seen "To Have and Have Not" (I mean Nick, because I know Josh hasn't)? Another movie that is awesome because it is Bogart and Bacall and Hawks....

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