Red Line 7000
12 August, Wednesday
19:00 Recorded conference: Santos Zunzunegui
20:00 Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks, USA, 1965, 110 min.)
The history of cinema is also the history of the ups and downs of film criticism, although many times the connection goes almost unnoticed. At this point, it appears as though one cannot deny the revolution that was brought about by the emergence of the so-called “auteur theory” championed by the “Young Turks” of Cahiers du cinéma at the beginning of the increasingly distant 1950s, as well as the parallel assertion of American cinema as the place where an “inherently cinematographic” creativity had been cultivated. The fact that this type of film criticism was called “Hitchcock-Hawksian” by its many detractors is testament to the two spearheads of its philosophy: two filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks) who, until the time, had been regarded as skilled artists, noteworthy pioneers in their respective genres (the so-called “suspense” category of the former; and a unique ability to easily switch from one genre to another without sacrificing the quality of his work in the case of the latter), but whom more traditional film critics were far from considering as “auteurs” to the same extent as that to which said critics were willing to grant said title to many European filmmakers (and to some who, not being American, like Charles Chaplin, had been briefly and easily co-opted, as we know, by American intelligentsia).
As decided on by history, the critical revolution undertaken by the young critics that would later become part of the Nouvelle Vague's (French New Wave's) old guard continues strong, even currently, as an irreversible fact – even if the parameters that said “revolution” was based upon (I'm thinking, for example, of its ambiguity in the use of notions like the often discussed “staging”) are not currently of application in many of the same senses as they were in those days. It is of my interest in this piece to note that the battle around Alfred Hitchcock's cinematographic status was won long ago, and it found its definitive consecration at the turn of the century with the grand exhibition dedicated to the filmmaker at the Georges Pompidou Centre and the Montreal Musée des Beaux Arts under the direction of Dominique Païni and Didier Ottinger. Entitled nothing less than Hitchcock et l’art. Coïncidences fatales, this exhibition provided a unique space to the self-satisfied Anglo-American filmmaker in a dimension shared with the greatest visual artists of the twentieth century. Thus marked the end of a spat, almost fifty years after Cahiers du cinéma dedicated a special issue to the master of cinema (No. 39, 1954) in the midst of the incomprehension of many of the dominant critics.
As for Hawks, despite the extremely warm reception that the magazine gave his successive new pieces debuted in France from the early 1950s onward, it would be necessary to wait until January of 1963 (exactly one hundred issues after the one dedicated to Hitchcock) for the magazine to present a full-fledged "Howard Hawks" write-up. Evidently, work that is not so showboaty like that of Hawks is not such a good option for games of comparison that aren't always relevant. Or, to put that more simply (and to be able to prove this wrong later), this is a filmmaker who is only evaluated against his colleagues (other filmmakers) and against himself. However, it is worthy to delve into some of the bumps along this journey.
While it was François Truffaut who is attributed with the first use of the term “auteur theory” in a militant article about Abel Gance published in the magazine Ars in September of 1954, with our particular point of view in mind, I would like to call attention to a text by Jacques Rivette that was published a year earlier in Cahiers (No. 23, 1953) to celebrate the French debut of the film Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952). The text bore the provocative title of “The Genius of Howard Hawks” and it served almost as an inaugural manifest, being dedicated to a filmmaker whose work, fully carried out within the “studio system,” seemed not at all appropriate to be elevated to the ranks of “auteurship” – at least in the way said notion had been understood until the time by the dominant critics. But, the most daring aspect of the article stemmed from the rhetoric of the young critic: “The evidence on the screen is the proof of Howard Hawks's genius. [His work] imposes itself on the spirit through evidence.” Blunt claims that allowed him to round off a text that, after noting the filmmaker's relationship with none other than Corneille, closed with the statement that “any film by Howard Hawks offers, firstly, the quiet, safe affirmation of beauty, with no digressions or regrets. It shows movement walking, existence breathing. What it is, it is.”
It is true that this categorical way to affirm genius by being blunt leaves little room for debate. And it is no less true that it does not provide much clarification as to the tools that the artist puts into use to make the viewer come to this type of conclusion. If one searches carefully through the long critique, elements can be found (elements that are quite simplified, undoubtedly) that could be used in approximations that try to go a bit beyond the supposed “evidence” to venture into the more tempestuous terrain of “explanations.” I, personally, find statements like the following more suggestive: “the heroes' feelings are less important than their gestures, which he pursues with passionate attention; he films actions speculating on the power of their appearances: we care about the precision of each step and the pace of the movement and every blow and the progressive collapse of the wounded body” [I have added the italics]. In two words: “effective beauty.” Or, better yet, let us allow the filmmaker himself to explain (Hawks is one of the artists who best explains his own work, to the extent that he considers making films work): After recognising the initial influence that the film Sunrise (1927), directed by Murnau, had on his work, as well as his progressive abandonment of convoluted camera movements, he was to state his famous line: “I try to tell my story exactly as you would see it, in the simplest way, placing the camera at the height of the actor. My work with the camera is the simplest in the world.” There is no doubt that Hawks would agree with the statement by Raoul Walsh that if you haven't got a story, you haven't got anything.
And what if Hawks were the perfect example of what Bazin called (remember, he was speaking of William Wyler) a “style without a style?”. Did Bazin not say (asking himself out loud, "what is Hitchcock-Hawksian?") that dramatic honesty should avoid any refractive index between the spectator and the story, and that shots should be constructed like an equation, in accordance with certain dramatic mechanics? Or, to approach “Hawksian Classicism” a bit more, the cinematographic coefficient of a film must be calculated on what is termed as effective planning. Perhaps that “Hawksian Classicism” is nothing more than the encounter, firstly on a film set and later in an editing studio, of that planning whose flow obeys no rule other than that of the drama.
This is the best time to mention that Martin Scorsese usually classifies Hollywood filmmakers into four basic categories: those he terms “iconoclasts” (represented by artists like Erich von Stroheim in silent films and Orson Welles in films with sound), incompatible with the constraints of the restricted world of Taylorist creation; those who need the discipline of the system to be able to flourish as creators and who suffer when they try to work independently (the exemplary case is that of Vincente Minnelli); those who are able to work comfortably within the system (as is the case of Michael Curtiz or, I would add, Raoul Walsh), and –lastly– those he calls “smugglers” (those who are able to turn mundane material into a form of personal expression, like Jacques Tourneur). Where would Howard Hawks be placed in that classification system? Ruling out the first and the last case, it would be sensible to say that Hawks would be somewhere between the other two. Even though his films were largely distributed by the major studios, our filmmaker, whenever possible, reserved for himself the role of executive producer of his films – no matter what their genre was (and he did so not in vain). In this way, he guaranteed control over his work and ensured long-term survival, sustained by his narrative effectiveness, technical skill, and his respect to the laws of a narration that contributed, like few others, first to establishing and later to polishing and developing.
At this point, we could argue that, although he is spoken about less than Hitchcock (back to the two main “front runners” of auteur theory), appreciation for Hawks's films seems to have been installed in a forgetful normalcy that, nevertheless, continues to repeat thematic commonalities established early on by his staunch proponents. To get those proponents’ common themes out of the way quickly (not because they are false but because they distract us from the path I wish to take), I will take from a relatively early convert like Georges Sadoul a list of favourite themes: the filmmaker of virile friendship, of common heroism without great fanfare, the filmmaker of the relationship between man and machine (planes and race cars, as we will see) that were sometimes hostile and other times docile; the filmmaker that touches all genres and passes from one to another easily (and what if Hawks had done the best film of each genre that his long career touched upon?). In this context, you may ask yourself what place a late film like Red Line 7000 has in this piece, which seems to be firmly set on the steady foundations that had been placed as early as 1928, remembering that Red Line 7000 was dated 1965 – the middle of the decade that put into question all the principles that classical Hollywood industrial and cultural hegemony had sustained.
Henri Langlois has noted that the debut in Paris of A Girl in Every Port (1928) brought about a revelation, offering a “modern” alternative (we will soon return to this idea of “modernity”) to the fogs of German expressionism. From that moment forward, changing from one genre to another, Hawks's films did not only keep their common themes that were so appreciated by the staunch proponents of auteur theory but also undertook a progressive task of refining a minimalist style that fit the story being told like a glove (made of velvet). This was something which allowed Bazin to set the record straight when he reminded his pupils that the real interest that this type of cinema had did not lie in its scripts but in what its formal intelligence (I've added the italics) revealed about intelligence in a broader sense.
In fact, the film that we are speaking of here does not enjoy great prestige amongst the fans of Hawks (with some exceptions, as we will see); and it is not easy to find readings on the film that do it justice. That is why I propose starting with a modest, short text included in a film dictionary that is, undoubtedly, the best written to date in Spanish about the film – a text which will save us from having to read further, although I wouldn't agree about its describing the piece as “minor” in nature: “A minor film, but which includes strange visual precision. Featuring concise and functional framing and shot changes, as well as camera movements that are nothing spectacular, it retains a certain aftertaste reminiscent of something between a B film and a documentary. Without stars, featuring young, unknown actors, it reflects the professional and personal misadventures of a group of car racers.”
I'll add some obvious information that, nevertheless, has a lot to do with the film's interest in terms of substance (and form): we are talking about a film, as I have already said, from 1965. To go right to the point, this is a film that was created in the middle of a decade in which the foundations of world cinema were to live through a noticeable jolt brought on by a dual (formal and political) impulse exemplified in the “New Cinemas” of which the Nouvelle Vague is a central paradigm. Yet it is curious that this seismic movement was to come about in harmony with the appearance of two cornerstone pieces from the repertoire of the respective American filmmakers that had acted as recruiters for the by-now-often-cited “auteur theory,” bringing to light, definitively, the relevance of the Hitchcock-Hawksian choice made by the yellow Cahiers. In 1959, Hitchcock dove headfirst into the pool by filming a short movie in black and white with a limited team which tumbled some of the most established narrative conventions. Duly disguised as yet another piece of the genre, Psycho (1960) undertook the same operation as that which Antonioni morosely rehearsed in the same period in The Adventure (L’avventura). As is logical, the advertising capacity of the filmmaker from London helped to convince the public that what was really a leading edge film should only be taken as a mere form of amusement. Hawks’s attempt to claim the "modernity" of his work was more complicated (and less appreciated). If, as Langlois argued, “Hawks is, in whole, a modern man” he was now going to give us definitive proof of precisely that.
To understand what I'm going to propose below, let's start with another statement by the factotum of the French Cinematheque: [In his films] Hawks is concerned about no more than the dramatic construction; that is to say, the volumes and the lines. He is the Le Corbusier of sound cinema. His pieces have an almost abstract bareness; as if they were made of concrete.” That is exactly what is proved by Red Line 7000 -- a film stripped of any fanfare; one which combines men, women, and cars on a limited number of sets (tracks, always similar to each other, from the start to the finish, a track is rounded again and again; interchangeable hotel rooms; restaurants and bars that all look similar), and always filmed in the same way. This is done in such a way that the film is like the Goldberg Variations, but by the filmmaker, in which recurrent situations (races, which are several and one at the same time; romantic affairs, couples that get together and break up) seem to repeat to no end, producing what Jean-Louis Comolli (one of the attentive spectators that I referred to before) has described as a conversation of the repetition of the identical in a renewal of narrative opportunities (Red Line 7000, musical film) in which said “return of the same” sparks fascination, and the mere mechanics spark passion, to the point that a true art of modulation is achieved.
That means that if we treat this film as something that it is not (a mere tale of automotive and sexual adventures), we miss sight of the fact that the film was made on a different level, that level that was beginning to be explored in those years in depth by critics that suddenly faced problems like how to substitute the “literature” on auteurship with an inventory and analysis of the cinematographic forms which would be as precise as possible, accompanied by a simultaneous examination of the meanings transmitted by those forms. In the end, the underlying theme for the “new film criticism” that accompanied the “new cinema” when it emerged was to describe the formal invention that supported each artistic piece. Thus, as Michel Delahaye points out, a lack of understanding about Red Line 7000 is due to the fact that we are facing a type of cinema that cannot be appreciated if, going beyond the theme, going beyond the style reduced to only the essential elements, one is not sensitive to the meaningful harmony of the configurations. Configurations that, I would add, are not only style but also constitute the heart thereof.
Because, and here is the stroke of genius, Hawks, just like with Hitchcock a few years before, had sensed the feeling of the times, unlike the majority of his American colleagues, despite being an established filmmaker, he embarked upon a small, modest film that made many of the stylings of the “new cinema” his own: with an air of an independent production, calling upon young actors and actresses that were beginning their careers, undertaking a suggestive mix between documentary images (all the images of the races are filmed with 16 millimetre film, with their obvious "grain" and, probably, on the same track) and images of fiction (of course, reduced to the greatest of the schematisms), fitting into the genre (car races on a closed track) that would best allow the filmmaker to achieve his plans: to proceed to show the bare truth about how cinematographic stories are manufactured, what their deepest structures are – which seem to come through here with the permanent return to the identical. Howard Hawks: Constructivist Artist.
What we must take into account is that this is the only film made by one of the great filmmakers of traditional Hollywood that was influenced by the trends that shook cinema in those days; fully achieving the “new theoretical wave” of structuralism – that analytical approach that asked itself about the viewer's cognitive activity, that aimed to explore the mechanisms through which we could understand how to understand, clearly showing the rules underlying the functioning of the artistic object. An artistic object that now is no longer an ineffable thing, being subjected to relentless scrutiny of its meaningful materiality. Just as some writers proposed a “literal literature,” the Hawks film calls on us to take its descriptive thoroughness seriously; its narrative minimalism, its dimension of conceptual art. In the end, this is an elegant, discrete exercise of metanarrative art that is much more subtle than any of those that, in those years, existed amongst all the confines of the film world.
As Comolli says, “a film should not be taken as conventional just because it develops in the world of conventions. It is precisely for that reason that it is not conventional. Rather than the originality of the start, we prefer the originality of the arrival.”
Hawks is, in his entirety, a modern man.