JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

In a dramatic opening sequence in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, young Abe is shown playing with his friend, a black boy. They are in Indiana, a free state, separated by the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state. Operating under the Fugitive Slave Law, a slave catcher appears and seizes the boy’s parents. The child hurls himself at the man who responds with brute force. Young Abe comes to his friend’s aid and is also brutalized. Abe’s father comes to his son’s rescue, but is then fired from his job. Thus the issue of slavery and the situation of African Americans, both free, runaway, and still enslaved, is entwined with the vampire story, as it is revealed that the vampires find the slave-holding South a perfect environment to prey on (black) humans without raising suspicion, hostility, or resistance.

In the Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter’s dramatic conclusion, the battle of Gettysburg is about to be turned to the Confederacy’s advantage by the arrival of vampire troops.  Lincoln rides a train filled with vampire-killing silver bullets for the Union troops, but it is attacked by a vampire horde.  But, it turns out the train was a decoy, a hoax, and the actual weaponry has been brought by stealth to the battleground using the Underground Railroad, the secret paths used by runaway slaves in their flight to freedom, and carried by African Americans from Washington D.C. to supply the troops.  Mary Todd Lincoln opens a box of silver bayonets on site to begin the fight for freedom. Soon, confronted by the undead enemy,  she loads her silver necklace, with a cross on it, in a rifle to kill the leading female vampire in short order.

In contrast to the displacement of race in Young Mr. Lincoln, this fantastical rewriting of the Lincoln legend puts the issue of slavery present throughout the narrative and black characters essential to winning the fight.

“The Way to a Man’s Heart: The Settlement Cook Book” by Mrs. Simon (Lizzie Black) Kander, first published in 1901, went through 34 editions and sold over 2 million copies, eventually.  This was the go-to cookbook of my late mother-in-law, Sylvia Lewis Lesage, who got her copy shortly after marriage and moving from New York to small town Illinois in the 1930s.  Written by a progressive German Jewish social activist from Milwaukee, the cuisine rested solidly in Central European dishes.  The message in the title was enacted daily.

 

 

Notes

1. I provide a contextual overview of Marxist analysis in Chuck Kleinhans, “Marxism and Film,” The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, ed. John Hill and Pamela Church-Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106-113. [return to text]

2. For example, in his 1975 book The John Ford Movie Mystery, Andrew Sarris makes several errors in discussing YML. He says the opening speech takes place in Springfield, Illinois, whereas the scene’s title card locates it Lincoln’s home town, New Salem, about 20 miles away. At Ann Rutledge’s New Salem graveside, he mistakenly identifies the place as Kentucky, and forgets that Lincoln chooses where to go by letting a stick fall, claiming erroneously that the young man flips a coin. (p. 88).

3. I once asked someone familiar with the Parisian film scene c. 1970 how certain films had been selected for what then became model essays (e.g. Bellour on The Birds; Metz on Adieu Philippine) and I was told that availability of a print for repeated viewing (especially on an editing table) was the primary determinant. Cahiers clearly states that they are not selecting YML as a canonical masterpiece but as an illustrative example of classic Hollywood.

4. For a concise discussion of the politics of auteur theory, see John Hess’s essays in JUMP CUT:
“La politique des auteurs (part one) World view as aesthetics”
http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC01folder/auturism1.html

“La politique des auteurs, 2 Truffaut’s manifesto”
http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC02folder/auteur2.html

5. The same issue contained semiotician Raymond Bellour’s shot-by-shot analysis of the Bodega Bay sequence from Hitchcock’s The Birds, a milestone in dissecting Hollywood film: the elation of cinephilia was replaced by the science of autopsy.

6. Representative key articles and an interpretive historical intro can be found in volumes 3 and 4 of the Harvard anthologies on Cahiers du cinéma (see biblio essay at the end of this article).

7. Jorge Larrain, “Ideology” in Tom Bottomore et al., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983), p 2-19.

8. Sherry Turkle’s Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud’s French Revolution (NY: Basic Books, 1978) provides a rich and readable survey of the movement/moment.

9. Althusser’s reputation and stature collapsed when he murdered his wife in 1980. He was found to be insane at the time.

10. Among the essays in this special section, Warren Buckland discusses Althusser’s concept of symptomatic reading (which he saw as starting with Marx’s reading of earlier economists). Buckland goes on to argue that a later elaboration by Slavoj Zizek significantly changes the analysis of such textual symptoms, interpreting them as necessary features rather than anomalies. Buckland, “Symptomatic reading in Althusser, Cahiers du cinéma, and Zizek.”
[return to page 2]

11. Casetti, p. 192.

12. Fairfax, Daniel. "’Yes, We Were Utopians; in a Way, I Still Am…’: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli (Part 1)." Senses of Cinema. No. 62 (2012). Web.

13. The validation of Douglas Sirk’s glossy melodramas is probably the best known example.

14. Curiously, while Cahiers investigates YML in terms of looking at party affiliation and class position of the people making it, they don’t seem to think that they might apply these ideas to their own intellectual work. In the 1969 “Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism” essay, Comolli and Narboni briefly acknowledge their magazine’s place in the economic structure:

“A magazine, that is to say, a particular product, involving a particular amount of work (on the part of those who write it, those who produce it and, indeed, those who read it). We do not close our eyes to the fact that a product of this nature is situated fairly and squarely inside the economic system of capitalist publishing (modes of production, spheres of circulation, etc.).”

They state the journal’s situation, but they do not indicate if they are then salaried or what their own sources of income are. However when they presume to know the reason YML was made, they explain it in terms of party affiliation (Republican, the party of Big Business including the banks which control the capitalist studio; and producer Zanuck, also a Republican). But they don’t explain their own intellectual project in terms of their party affiliation(s) or Cahiers position within the French economy or their own personal situation. According to Bickerton’s brief history of Cahiers, immediately after the “Cinema/ Ideology/ Criticism” essay appeared, and in response to it, the publisher, Daniel Filipacchi, decided to sell the publication. A group of old Cahiers editors and the present ones cobbled together the funds to buy it. (Bickerton p. 70) Bickerton reports that the magazine was closest to the French Communist party at the time (this would change rapidly in the next two years to their Maoist phase). She also reports that as Cahiers turned increasingly left and dedicated to theory, it lost sales (11,000 since 1969). A full Marxist analysis political economy of Cahiers at this time would depend on examining the magazines changing economic fortunes (such as income, expenses, salaries, etc.) as well as the editors’ own salaries, annual income and net worth.

15. Ben Brewster, shortly after the translation was published:

“The political analysis in paragraphs (3) and (4) seem misconceived: they posit a highly specific aim on the part of the producers of the film which is unsubstantiated, and indeed could not be substantiated, presented as it is in the form of a pure will.” “Notes on the Text ‘John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln’ by the Editors of Cahiers du cinéma,” Screen, 14:3 (1973) p. 38

In the same vein, Bill Nichols, commented on “…the absence of a theory of mediations within historical process. (Ironically, the incredible weakness and superficiality of their analysis of the film’s historical context (sections 2-5) has not even been commented upon by presumably Marxist-oriented theorists like Brian Henderson!)” “Style, Grammar, and Movies,” p.619. [first published in Film Quarterly 28:3 (Spring 1975)]

Nichols, preface to “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln,” in Movies and Methods (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1976), p. 493: “…the weakness of explanations of the film’s historical determinations ….”

Rushton and Bettinson, “They begin with a series of hasty historical determinants…” p. 23, What is Film theory? (Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 2010)

Any argument about textual meaning that relies on authorial intention has a steep hill to climb in the Anglophone world given the canonical status of William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s classic essay on literary analysis, “The Intentional Fallacy,” Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488.

16. It is also essential to understand that the companies also owned or had controlling interest in theater chains which is where money was made. The studio was the key to artistic production, but finance and theatrical exhibition were central to the whole enterprise as a business.

17. This claim of knowing intention based on party affiliation reappears in some of the critical commentary on Spielberg’s Lincoln. Known as a Hollywood liberal and contributor to the Democratic Party, some right wing reviewers and observers immediately read the film as propaganda for Obama’s Presidency.

18. For example in November 2013 U.S. radio pundit Rush Limbaugh has said he believes the disastrous computer problems with the Obamacare enrollment are a deliberate plan to drive the public to demand “single payer” (Federal government) healthcare as part of a grand scheme to increase citizen dependence on government.

19. According to Zanuck biographer George Custen, a close reading of the internal studio memos around that film along with the changes from novel to film shows Zanuck often toning down criticism of the New Deal.

20. As far as I know no one has carefully examined all the available documents on YML and constructed a production history. Zanuck’s papers have been considered by Custen among others, but correlation with information on Ford and screenwriter Trotti as well as any other production documents remains open. To confirm the Cahiers presumption, it would be especially useful to examine corporate records of the time of both 20th Century Fox and its controlling bank, Chase National.

21. In this vein, it is interesting to consider the difference between Lamar Trotti’s final shooting script and the portions omitted from the actual finished film. Some examples are found on the Criterion DVD extras. It is also curious to find that the left wing Popular Front theatre and film magazine of the era interviewing John Ford as a progressive, praising his film The Informer, recording his complaints about financial interests and producers limiting directors and screenwriters, and his commitment to anti-lynching politics: Eisenberg, Emanuel. "John Ford: Fighting Irishman." New Theater and Film: 1934-1937: An Anthology. 1936. Ed. Kline, Herbert. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. 267-271.

22. Althusser had introduced the term “structuring absence” in his early work on reading Marx. He pointed out that Marx himself, in reviewing earlier economists, pointed out that there were certain questions that they simply did not address, but which seemed obvious to later thinkers. These blindspots themselves were “tells” that when spotted revealed something significant about the original analysis: what it repressed, what it couldn’t talk about. Combined with the Freudian theory of repression, and the Marxist concept of contradiction, Althusser put forth a direction for textual analysis that many found productive for talking about social, cultural, and artistic practices.

23. Fortunately today, The Criterion Collection now has an excellent DVD version.

24. A similar racial displacement takes place with the issue of lynching which I will discuss later. Another racial trace appears when Mrs. Clay explains that she was widowed when “a drunk Indian” killed her husband. Cahiers doesn’t mention the Native American and passes the death off as “an accident.”

25. Columbia, a standing woman in neo-classical robes (usually similar to the Stars and Stripes flag motif), was a standard icon for the United States. Later she was overshadowed by the figure of Uncle Sam. Film folks will recognize the figure of Columbia from the start of that studio’s motion pictures. In typical Fordian style, in YML she is presented as an awkwardly enthusiastic young woman taken up with her sudden celebrity, shouting out recognition to her mother and other female relatives who are typed as rowdy “down home” folk. Later, the mother gets so wrapped up in supporting her side in the Tug O’War she ends up being pulled into the mud puddle along with the men in the comic finale.

26. In contrast, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (d. Timur Bekmambetov, 2012) begins with slavery as a central issue. In Free State Indiana, young Abe and an African American boy play together when a slave catcher brutally captures the boy’s parents under the Fugitive Slave Law for return to the South. The event’s injustice and racism is indelibly marked on the child Lincoln and it serves the rest of the film’s progress. Cahiers doesn’t say it, but by evacuating slavery as an issue, YML avoids addressing the human degradation and immorality of slavery and turns it into a different issue: a reflection on labor migration (whites moving West, a much more topical issue in the Depression). As for the usual Hollywood romance line of action, his first love, Ann Rutledge (only present in one scene), dies, and the encounters with his eventual wife, Mary Todd, are subdued in this film.

27. For a particularly good argument along these lines: Jeffrey Sconce, “Esper, the Renunciator,” in Defining Cult Movies: the Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. (2003). Mark Jancovich (Eds.), Manchester, Manchester University Press.
[return to page 3]

28. The letter of invitation, shown for the audience to read as Abe polishes his shoes and trims his hair, refers to Lincoln’s role in stopping “the recent deplorable uprising,” a phrasing that carries its own class markers.

29. There were four candidates who unevenly split the popular vote and the electoral vote:

Candidate Bracken Bell Douglas Lincoln
states 11 3 1 17
electoral votes 72 39 12 180
popular votes 848,019 590,000 1,380,202 1,865,908
percent 18.2% 12.6% 29% 39.7%

30. Wollen, p. 46.

31. The two films have striking parallels: a homespun protagonist, a lawyer, who uses folksy humor to advance his goals, can sniff out hidden secrets, and who is alone now separated from a deceased love. Both films trade in a sentimental populism, portray community celebrations based in patriotism, and end in dramatic trials with villains caught out and the suffering innocents vindicated, family reunited, young lovers brought together, and morality affirmed.

32. Of course he did ask this very question of her during his visit to the farm.

33. Quote in Balio, p.2, summarizing Thorpe’s findings.

34. What would they think of Iron Chef or other cooking competition TV shows?
[return to page 4]

35. At least according to my late mother-in-law’s copy of The Way to a Man’s Heart: The Settlement Cook Book by Mrs. Simon (Lizzie Black) Kander, first published in 1901, it went through 34 editions and sold over 2 million copies, eventually. This was the go-to cookbook of my late mother-in-law, Sylvia Lewis Lesage, who got her copy shortly after marriage and moving from New York to small town Illinois in the 1930s. Written by a progressive German Jewish social activist from Milwaukee, the cuisine rested solidly in Central European dishes. The message in the title was enacted daily.

When the next event at the fairgrounds begins (three hours later according to the posted schedule), the Tug O’War, Lincoln is shown as still finishing a huge quarter of a pie.

36. Bertrand Tavernier referenced by Bill Rout in a discussion of YML in Screening the Past, http://www.screeningthepast.com/
2012/07/ford-at-fox/

37. See also in this issue, Deborah Tudor, “The hysteric, the mother, the natural gal: male fantasies and male theories in films about Lincoln.”

38. Cahiers actually misidentifies her. But the obvious (to any woman) fact that she is a mother, a wife, there with her husband and baby at her side makes the intrusion particularly hostile.

39. There’s another faulty dimension to Cass that would be clear to any fashion police. He and his buddy Scrub wear outlandish garb such as bold plaid and checkered pants.

40. Significant parts of both the “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” essay and the YML one are obvious paraphrases of Macherey’s book.

41. For an elaboration of applying Barthes’ literary study to film, see Julia Lesage’s essay, “S/Z and Rules of the Game,” republished in this issue of JUMP CUT.

42. Of course some of Cahiers reading/misreading may simply be due to cross-cultural difference. Highly dramatic trials are a genuine possibility in the U.S. justice system, both through the structure of the legal process, the basis in law, and the practice of law. Cahiers does note trial scenes as a significant element in classic Hollywood cinema. The French legal system operates in a very different way with much less room for courtroom theatrics.

43. The song, originally composed about John Brown, combines patriotic sentiment with war-like militancy referring to Christian Judgment Day. It was central to the North’s righteousness during the War and has remained a favorite Protestant hymn.

44. Widely available in different concert recordings and DVDs; a favorite on YouTube.

45. For example Roland Barthes, working at the time with the Theatre populaire (people’s theater) movement, wrote enthusiastically in favor of Brecht, and the German playwright attracted a powerful intellectual, Bernard Dort, who wrote about the theatrical work and who also wrote for Cahiers.

46. Detailed in dissertations by Lellis, and Lesage.

47. In the United States, particularly coming from Central European exiles and intellectuals more aware of German thought, this was shaped by what is now called the “Brecht-Lukacs debate.”

48. Seeing the contrast helps explain the extreme negative reaction to Cahiers and company by Bazin’s most devoted champions such as Dudley Andrew. See biblio and Bill Horrigan, "Andre Bazin's Destiny." Jump Cut.19 (1978). Web.
http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/
JC19folder/BazinHorriganRev.html

49. A good example can be found in Sylvia Harvey’s book: a 1972 article on “Film Journals and Politics” from the major Paris newspaper, Le Monde.
[return to page 5]

50. There is a complex set of antagonistic relations and explosive events surrounding Screen, its parent organization, The Society for Education in Film and Television, and the British Film Institute and its Education Department at this point in time. For details: Nowell-Smith (2012), Grieveson (2008), and Bolas (2009).

51. At the time there were likely only a few dozen actual copies of that issue of Screen in the United States. Thus, writing for the best known and wide-circulation U.S. film journal, it made sense to reproduce large sections of the British translation.

52. Unfortunately for his credibility, in the earlier book he misspells “Cinéthique” as “Cinétique” (a mistake continued by Robert Stam in his Film Theory: An Introduction, and by Ian Aitkin in European Film Theory and Cinema).

53. Reference here, “of course,” Bordwell’s discussion of normalizing discourse in his Making Meaning.

 


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