...A number of important books
and essays on Frank Capra's life and work have appeared during the past
decade. They represent a wide range of viewpoints and approaches.... There
obviously are many different Frank Capras and many different ways of approaching
his movies. These studies come to diverse and even strikingly opposed
conclusions about Capra's life and work–ranging from one critic's celebration
of the philosophical depth of Capra's films, to another's attempt to reveal
the filmmaker as an egotistical self-promoter.... Yet one closes each
of the studies with the feeling that something is missing. Many of the
qualities that make Capra's films most distinctive and important have
not quite been captured. In the brief space available here, I want to
argue a radical position: that academic film criticism will never do justice
to Capra's work (or that of many other filmmakers) until it approaches
it in an entirely new way. Until that day, however fine the nets Capra's
critics weave, I would argue that they are doomed to watch their prey
slip out of their grasp.
I want to pose some extremely
basic questions about the ways film criticism is done. One place to begin
is to ask why American film criticism is devoted, almost without exception
and certainly without ever reflecting on it as a special technique at
all, to a "surface-depth" model of artistic expression. All
of the scholarly commentators on Capra's work (and on that of most other
directors) assume, seemingly without question, that the function of criticism
is to move from relatively superficial and unimportant perceptual events
(everything you actually hear and see on the screen) to a realm of profound,
and invariably invisible or hidden, "deep" meanings. These commentators
are critical Platonists. Their goal is to leave the phenomenal realm behind
and move into a world of intellectual abstractions. As William James put
it, they seek to dive behind the turbulent perceptual surfaces of experience
and anchor themselves in unchanging conceptual depths.
The most pervasive manifestation
of this tendency is the inveterate symbolizing method American film criticism
employs. (I call it inveterate because most critics seem to be unaware
they are doing it.) Individual scenes, characters, images, objects, lighting
patterns are regarded as being "metaphoric," or as "figuring"
or "representing" abstract ideas. Cinematic events are translated
into more general meanings.
Practically any page of academic
criticism about any of Capra's films from the past twenty years could
be cited to illustrate the technique. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,
for example, Jefferson Smith is said to be a symbol of the common man
(or, for a religiously minded interpreter, of Christ). Clarissa Saunders
is turned into a representative of a certain type of pre-World War II
working woman. Various scenes in the film are said to figure general statements
about power relations between the sexes or between different social groups.
In short, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington becomes a modern Pilgrim's
Progress, only with secular, social meanings in place of spiritual
ones. The basic critical procedure is an act of metaphoric translation.
The critic translates the characters, actions, words, and images into
a series of abstract meanings, moving from sensory experiences to symbolic
significances, from perceptions to conceptions, from the physical to the
metaphysical, from the visible to the invisible, from the realm of the
known to that of the secret.
We are so used to this that
it may seem inevitable to us that this is what criticism does. And indeed,
there may be particular filmmakers whose works positively beg for symbolic/allegorical
treatment. For example, Hitchcock's films are machines for abstraction.
They deliberately hold us just above the surface of the phenomenal world
and downplay physical realities. In place of sensory awareness, they clearly
encourage the viewer to search for abstract relationships and secret meanings.
Perhaps that is why Hitchcock has been such a darling of the critics;
his films suit their interpretive methods perfectly.
But in the case of Capra (and
many other filmmakers) what American academic critics seem not to have
recognized is that their one-style-fits-all critical procedure may do
violence to the experience they attempt to characterize. It may betray
the work it seeks to explain. Since abstractions by definition exist outside
of time, they eliminate the process-aspect of experience. They push the
pause button on life and art, translating flowing, changing perceptual
events into static intellectual patterns. Movies move, but metaphoric
generalizations stand still. Furthermore, abstract conceptions have a
clarity and simplicity foreign to perceptual experience. They smooth its
rough, uncertain edges, making what is sensorially noisy and emotionally
fuzzy into something intellectually sharp and definite.
The truth of conceptions is
fundamentally different from the truth of perceptions. Conceptions represent
the possibility of essential truth. The truth of the symbolists/allegorists
goes to the heart of a scene, a shot, or a character, and offers a vision
of complete, fundamental, enduring meaning. Perceptual truth is never
like this. It is necessarily contingent and relative. It is always, to
some extent, partial and provisional.
Above all, by locating meaning
in a realm beyond or behind actual sensory life and action, the symbolic
method implicitly devalues the meaningfulness and importance of the phenomenal
world. Is the temporal, sensory, emotional world we live in really so
thin and empty as to need support from a stable, enduring intellectual
world of meaning somewhere beyond it? Are mystery and complexity so absent
from actual events that we must find them by looking behind the events?
Must sermons always be hidden under stones; can't they–as Shakespeare
apparently thought possible–be in them?
This devaluation of the life
of the body and the senses should give us especial pause when we are dealing
with a filmmaker with such a Mediterranean relish for the feeling of lived
experience as Capra. Any account of Capra's work that leaves out the sheer
sensory gusto of the films (the shapes of bodies, the timbres of voices,
the movements of figures through space, the thrill of the timing and pacing)
cuts the heart out of his work. One might say that this criticism is just
too Protestant–too sternly cognitive, too interested in abstract typologies,
too allegorically disembodied–to do justice to Capra's earthy, Catholic,
Sicilian sensibility. One needn't appeal to Capra's ethnic background
to see this. The films themselves mount powerful anti-symbolic, anti-allegorical
arguments. Characters like Cedar, Norton, Taylor, and Potter all function
as practitioners of abstracting forms of understanding and relationship.
They attempt to attach static, symbolic, and ultimately life-denying meanings
to events and individuals. Capra clearly does not endorse their efforts.
As I argue in my chapter on
It's A Wonderful Life, Capra's work is so opposed to the creation
of symbolic truths that even an event or a word that a well-intentioned
character wants to treat as a symbol is shown to resist being stabilized
this way. With the noblest intentions in the world, Mary Hatch attempts
to create enduring symbols of her faith in George's vision with her "George
lassos the moon" needlepoint. The only problem (which is, in Capra's
view, of course no problem at all, but a cause for celebration) is that
her symbols won't stand still the way she wants them to. Like the Granville
Place, and like most of the other important events and objects in the
film, "lasso" and "moon" continually shift and change
their meaning. At George's darkest hour, they completely reverse their
original meanings: the lasso of his youth becomes a noose around his neck,
and the moon transforms itself from an object of romance into the name
of an unromantic dive in Pottersville, the Blue Moon Bar. Capra wants
us to see that life moves out from under the symbols we would nail it
down with–even our most idealistic and spiritually exalted symbols. Not
even meanings made with love can stop life's motion.
The most common symbolic method
used in recent American film criticism is a particular kind of allegorical
reading that has come to be identified with cultural studies or ideological
criticism. In this mode of interpretation, the characters, events, and
images in a movie are metaphorically translated into a series of sociological
generalizations. In Capra's case, this might involve using his films to
discuss social conditions during the Depression, power relations between
men and women, or other aspects of pre- and post-War American society.
Our age has witnessed the triumph of social science methods and forms
of understanding in virtually all other areas of human affairs, so it
should come as no surprise that film criticism (and indeed most criticism
of other arts as well) has attempted to turn itself into a branch of the
social sciences. Because of their manifest engagement with so many of
the social issues of their day, Capra's films have yielded an unusually
rich harvest of generalizations to cultural studies critics.
The problem these critics have
failed to have grappled with, however, is that the most interesting and
important aspects of the works they deal with drop out of their analysis.
Content is a very, very tiny part of a work of art. The realistic, representational
content of virtually any art work can be translated into a series of sociological
generalizations, but what will be lost in the translation is the work
of art: everything that makes the poem, painting, or film different from
a political pamphlet or the CBS Evening News. Capra's films document a
variety of mid-twentieth-century ideological positions, just as Sargent's
portraits document a variety of late-nineteenth century styles of clothing.
But so what? Capra's films are no more reducible to the ideological positions
they include than Sargent's paintings are reducible to fashion plates.
The interest of both artists' work begins where such realms of understanding
end. In fact, works of art aren't even very reliable sources for ideological
generalizations. Why would you want to base your conclusions on such odd
and limited sources of information? It would be like using Fidelio
to study nineteenth-century penology, or Monet's paintings to study botany.
The result would be bad history or science and worse criticism.
But this is not to put it strongly
enough. I would argue that Capra's films (and most other interesting works
of art) imagine experience in ways not only different from, but fundamentally
opposed to the forms of knowing that cultural studies approaches are devoted
to. I have spoken and written about this subject at length on many previous
occasions, so I will confine myself to one particular problem that arises
when Capra's work is appropriated by cultural studies critics: namely,
the loss of the individual.
Ideological readings of Capra's
works are premised on generic understandings of experience. Capra's films
appeal to cultural studies critics because they can be treated generically
at three different levels. First, the creation of the films is treated
as being the product of general cultural structures and forces. The characters
and events in the films are treated as representing these structures and
forces. Second, the characters and events in the films are treated as
representing abstract structures and forces. And third, the viewers of
the films are understood to be approaching them in accordance with generic
cultural structures and forces. At each level–that of the creator, the
representation, and the viewer–individuals are imagined to exist only
insofar as they embody group relationships and categorical understandings.
Experience is understood systematically and impersonally. In this sense,
there are no individuals in cultural studies. The system swallows up its
members. There is no space left in which individuals can move freely.
But this is precisely counter
to the facts–not only the facts of the so-called production and consumption
of Capra's films, but, more important, the facts of life. What ideological
analyses overlook is that, although in a very weak sense individuals do
share certain generic qualities (sexual, racial, or class attributes),
these qualities account only for the most superficial aspects of our identities.
The most important part of us is what belongs to us alone. The general
name for that is our consciousness–which is why personal consciousness
is the one part of us that cultural studies criticism can say nothing
about. The mutability, creativity, and unpredictability of our individual
beliefs, feelings, and fantasies define a private, personal space into
which ideological analysis cannot reach. For cultural studies, our identities
are skin-deep. There are no insides to ideological understandings of experience,
which is why in cultural studies when relationships between specific individuals
are mentioned, the relations focused on are purely external, coercive
ones of power, status, and dominance, rather than internal, volitional
relations of love, hope, or imagination. The imagination is erased. Privacy
disappears. The secrecy, the mystery of selfhood is denied.
It is particularly ironic that
Capra's work should be read in this way, since in film after film, he
affirmed the uniqueness of individual identity and consciousness. What
else is It's a Wonderful Life about? The cultural studies interpreters
of his work have failed to learn the most basic lessons his films offer.
They have not seen that consciousness can utterly escape institutional
surveillance or control, and that personality can avoid being limited
by the cultural structures within which it is forced to express itself.
This the very subject of the Deeds-Smith-Doe trilogy. Even if the
critics had not already understand that something could be resistant to
the circumscriptions of social structures and material definitions, these
works should have shown it to them. Again and again, from his early films
Forbidden and The Bitter Tea of General Yen to later ones
such as It's a Wonderful Life and Pocketful of Miracles,
Capra found ways for his characters to express mysterious, personal energies,
realms of interiority that generic understandings and group pressures
could not touch.
It is in the distinctiveness,
eccentricity, and unpredictability of the acting that Capra most obviously
registers these free movements of consciousness. Not surprisingly, considering
the predilections of most of his critics, the actor is the missing person
in most treatments of Capra's films. Great acting captures just the sort
of fluttering, flowing, and ideologically indeterminate energies that
cultural studies understandings of experience can't deal with. Good acting
in its essence is non-generic. It expresses shimmering surges of consciousness
and mercurial flickers of feeling that elude expressive systematization,
symbolic understanding, or social control. For a crash course in what
that means, a viewer only has to pay careful attention to Jimmy Stewart's
charged gasps, glances, stutterings, stammerings, stares, and silences
in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life.
As I shouldn't need to explain
by this point, in my study of Capra I go on no quest for "symbols,"
"metaphors," or "figurations." Nor do I read cultural
generalizations out of the films or treat their characters and situations
as generic expressions of social conditions. On the contrary, I emphasize
the personal, private states of subjectivity the characters embody, and
Iattempt to be faithful to the fluxional imaginative energies Capra's
work seeks to liberate.
As I have been suggesting,
one of the most interesting things about Capra's work is that he has,
in fact, anticipated his critics, for, in the films themselves, he has
created characters who function as critics should function, as well as
characters who embody the worst tendencies of contemporary criticism.
The one set of figures (represented by Tom Dixon, Lulu Smith, General
Yen, Jefferson Smith, Longfellow Deeds, and George Bailey) honors the
uniqueness of personal consciousness and affirms the power of the individual
to escape repressive systems of understanding. The other set (represented
by Cedar, Taylor, Norton, and Potter, among others) is devoted to forcing
various kinds of metaphoric, symbolic, or allegorical interpretations
onto experience, robbing life of its mystery, and denying individuality
and imaginative freedom to others. Endeavoring to endow events with grand
cultural and social meanings, Norton and his kind would systematize all
of life into a series of impersonal relationships and understandings,
and snuff out the energies they can't control. Long before cultural studies
forms of understanding swept through our universities, these films demonstrated
their fallaciousness. They illustrated how tendentious sociological interpretations
drain life of its idiosyncrasy and uniqueness. They showed how systematic
understandings deny the magical unpredictability and wondrous spontaneity
of actual lived experience.
These films show us something
else as well. Lest we get sentimental about our contemporary critical
and cultural plight, Capra reminds us that the situation today is no more
dire than it was in his own day. And it is not all that different. Limiting
understandings have always waged war against the free energies of consciousness.
These films are not antiques from a bygone era. They are for us, here
To read more about fashions
in criticism and critical fashions, see "Journalism and Criticism"
in Carney on Culture, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics,"
in the Carl Dreyer section, "Sargent and Criticism" and
"Eakins and Criticism" in the Paintings section, and
"Skepticism and Faith," Irony and Truth," "Looking
without Seeing," and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's American
Vision: The Films of Frank Capra. To obtain the book from which this
discussion is excerpted, click