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The Timeless Charm of Lauren Bacall

Courtesy of Warner Brothers
A still image from the film "To Have and Have Not" starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, released in 1944 by Warner Brothers Studios.

To be away—on vacation, or simply gone missing—is to learn anew the barbarous dislocations of our discourse. So, while I was in England for August, the Internet brought me first warnings of Oscar predictions for 2015! Films under consideration had not opened or been seen yet; several of them were far from complete. But the desperation of movie blog sites was busy with the fatuous suspense of what could win next February. As if, any longer, we lived in a mood that had hopes for “best” pictures or their power to stem or direct the oceanic surge in which screens are altering our relationship to reality. Who cares who wins at the Oscars, or remembers, when our useful experience is being erased as our eyeballs blink?

But then rescue arrived with the unexpectedness that encourages the notion to let next February go hang, while staying open to today. In Oxford for a week, I was staying in the house of a movie academic while he was himself on holiday. So I began to look at his bookshelves, those helpless testaments to privacy and preoccupation. The man in question, Stephen Hughes, has specialized in the early history of British film. As such he had several books I had never read before, or heard of. One of these was from 1948, archaically printed and bound in cloth, nearly Victorian in its bearing. It was called British Cinemas and their Audiences, assembled by J. P. Mayer. For the most part, it was simply the transcript of a questionnaire from the popular British movie magazine Picturegoer in 1945. For modest prizes, the magazine had asked its readers to write about their own moviegoing.

Some of these reports were naïve: many of the authors were young and they could not always spell. But some were touching and discerning. Consider the contribution from a twenty-five-year-old farmer. It caught my attention not just because Lauren Bacall had died a few days earlier, but also because the unschooled eye had seen more than all the obituaries in the British press: “Another new film that gave me pleasure was To Have and Have Not—and I must admit that my pleasure was derived from the presence of Miss Lauren Bacall, she’s terrific, she’s disturbing, and she can act. She is seductive but not voluptuous, alluring but not flashy, sophisticated but not haughty and I think she’s the most startling thing to flit across the screen in years—if she had not been in the film I should not have been impressed, her personality literally radiates virility and a sort of slithering fascinating glamour.”

Oh, to be in that farmhouse of 1945! I don’t know who this man was, or where he lived, but what more could one ask to prove the efficacy of critical opinions formed in the moment of seeing? Of course, To Have and Have Not is a “classic” now, and every obituarist observed that Bacall was “a legend” as she died. Yet in truth, she was that marvel very briefly: after The Big Sleep (her second film with Humphrey Bogart and Howard Hawks), she was never the same again. Was that farmer dismayed? We can’t know, but no writer I’ve encountered in honoring the lady’s legend has been so inspired as to put their finger on her radiating “virility.” That is brilliant, and so is “slithering,” which gets a special kind of movement that Bacall, Hawks, and the music of Hoagy Carmichael contrived. I hope you’re as elated as I was when I found the passage in what seemed a musty book. Let us all recognize the vitality of how a movie felt when it was new and hot.

There was much more on the bookshelves, and it was more stimulating than most new films. Best of all, I discovered an anthology of the magazine Close Up that had existed in Britain from 1927 to 1933. (The book was called Close Up: Cinema and Modernism, edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus, and published in London in 1998.) Close Up was a periodical founded by artists and intellectuals, and meant to take the cinema “seriously,” just as Picturegoer (with its many illustrations) had been aimed at fans. That earnestness was hard work in 1927–1933, a time when Britain had no higher (or primary) education in “film studies.” Still, Close Up was a brave, idealistic, and intelligent attempt to fill that gap, and it presented foreign films and their theoretical basis.

The contributor to Close Up who drew my attention was Dorothy Richardson. I should say that this author (1873–1957) has not gone unnoticed. Among many other things, she wrote a thirteen-volume series of novels called Pilgrimage, which was revived by the enterprising publisher Virago in 1979. But when I went to Blackwell’s in Oxford—one of the best bookstores in England—I found not one of her books in print, or anyone in the store who had heard of her. If you’re picking Oscar-bait for 2015, I suppose you’re obliged to neglect other things.

Dorothy Richardson was not a film critic; she seems never to have attempted screenplays. But she was a famous journalist and critic of the 1920s, and she was driven by a sense of the movies that is still of the utmost importance. Close Up asked her to write for them, and she launched a column known as “Continuous Performance.” That alluded to the custom (a habit that lasted into the 1980s) whereby a movie theater opened in the late morning and showed its films time after time until it closed. This meant that a customer could stay there all day, and sit through To Have and Have Not four or five times—or come in on the film in its middle and stay there until the renewed story reached that point where they had arrived.

The genius of Richardson was to see that this commercial practice was the secret sign to what was, and remains, an essential potency of the screen: it presents an overwhelming reality that is also withheld, remote, and “impossible”—a place we cannot get to. No one watches theatrical movies now in “continuous performance.” But that hardly matters, for the continuity of the television screen and our everyday familiars, the computer, the cell phone, the iPad, is so much more extensive. It is also a system that seems to put us in “touch” or contact while also saying that touch is a fraud and a tragic, uncrossed threshold.

The “Continuous Performance” column offered by Dorothy Richardson seldom bothered to notice or remark on particular films (though she cherished American pictures). What obsessed her was the overall system, its place in society, and the curious mixture of involvement and detachment that it provided. That is still a crux of film study, and a decisive issue we have to deal with. Richardson was fascinated by the shape of cinemas, where one sat, the musical accompaniment (she began in the silent era), the phenomenology of slow motion, the mood of cinemas in city centers and in slum areas, and the church-like calm of being there. Try this, from a north London suburb:

It was a Monday and therefore a new picture. But it was also washing day, and yet the scattered audience was composed almost entirely of mothers. Their children, apart from the infants accompanying them, were at school and their husbands were at work. . . . Tired women, their faces sheened with toil, and small children, penned in semi-darkness and foul air on a sunny afternoon. There was almost no talk. Many of the women sat alone, figures of weariness at rest. Watching them I took comfort. At last the world of entertainment had provided for a few pence, tea thrown in, sanctuary for mothers, an escape from the everlasting qui vive into eternity on a Monday afternoon.

That is a scene from the late 1920s. You may say that its social observation is rather dated or patronizing. But isn’t there an uncanny feeling for what that afternoon was like, and how people—our ancestors—used the movies? Imagine a similar attentiveness to a gang of teenagers using their iPhones today. Consider, too, the prospect of those weary mothers, a decade or so later, exposed to the startling “virility” of Lauren Bacall. There’s no question but that To Have and Have Not was not so much Hemingway or even Bogart and Bacall as the unhindered fantasy of Howard Hawks. So “Slim” in that picture is an objectified doll in a male dream. But she is also one of the first women in American movies who answers back, who is more insolent than the man, and who suggests how much a nineteen-year-old might know. In a way, long before the concept, she was “feminist.” I don’t think Bacall herself ever realized that, or was impressed by it. But a farmer somewhere felt that her slithering girl was like a man. You had to be there.