Commentary Magazine


An Aesthete at the Movies

I encountered Parker Tyler for the first time back in the very late 40′s (either in 1948 or ’49) when he came to Columbia to deliver a lecture on the artist as a movie character in both the literal and colloquial sense. He spoke in the basement of what is now Butler Library to a small gathering of the curious, down among book stacks in the cultural catacombs to which serious discussions of the cinema were consigned in those days. As a lecturer, Tyler seemed self-possessed, academically chic, and knowingly unruffled by his predominantly passive audience. He began by apologizing for not speaking ad lib as a previous lecturer in the series had done, and then proceeded to read a reasonably literate, humorless diatribe against Hollywood philistinism, then, especially, the deadest of dead horses.

Among the films he mentioned were Odd Man Out (Tyler didn’t like the drunken brawling of Robert Newton’s pop-eyed painter), Night Song (he didn’t appreciate an anti-Picasso gibe to the effect that no one really knew which side of an abstract painting was up), The Fantastic Symphony (he deplored Jean-Louis Barrault’s histrionic hysteria as Hector Berlioz), and, most memorably of all, Humoresque, a movie the lecturer denounced in no uncertain terms for its suggestion that boxing was a more virile pursuit (for John Garfield yet!) than playing the violin. Quite the contrary, Tyler insisted. It took more physical strength to be a violinist than to be a pugilist. He even paused dramatically (by lifting his eyes from his text and giving us all a searching glance) to allow that extraordinary fact to register on our impressionable minds. All in all, he came over as the self-appointed spokesman for some imaginary international brotherhood of artists in search of a more pleasing screen image.

The question period was dully deferential in those rare moments when it wasn’t embarrassingly tongue-tied. Whatever our guilty love-feelings for movies might have been, we simply lacked the rhetorical resources to express these feelings in public without sounding emotionally immature. Nonetheless, I made a stab at a challenge by asking the lecturer how he reconciled his negative thesis with the sympathetic treatment of painters in Rembrandt and Together Again. He replied that he hadn’t seen the movies in question, and that was the end of that. No fuss. No guilt. No intimation of inadequacy. At the time I felt that he could be excused for not having seen Together Again, an admittedly frothy farce in which Charles Boyer’s sexy French painter loosens up Irene Dunne’s repressed New England widow in an obvious exploitation, even then, of bohemian caricature. But it did seem strange to me that a professed cultural authority would make sweeping generalizations about the portrayal of artists in movies without having seen Laughton’s uncanny incarnation of Rembrandt, an incarnation so memorable that it haunts me whenever I look at a Rembrandt self-portrait.

After the questioning dribbled to a stop I walked up to Tyler to press my point, but he was being monopolized by a young lady with an interminable complaint about the way movies broke up musical performances with expressive cuts to every major and minor character in the scenario. I was very embarrassed for the young lady because she happened to be quoting verbatim a complaint on the same subject in the Time of that week. I had been caught out in much the same way on many occasions. That was the way things were back then. We were all more influenced by Bosley Crowther and Time (James Agee, Manny Farber, or Brad Darrach as the case might be) than we cared to admit, and we desperately grabbed at whatever insights we could even at the cost of conspicuous plagiarism.

By then I had already read Tyler’s two books (The Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies) in the process of devouring what little secondary literature there was on the cinema. At the very least, Tyler was a refreshing change of pace from the sociological spinach of John Grierson, Paul Rotha, Lewis Jacobs, and Siegfried Kracauer, all mournfully Marxist about the betrayal of the masses by Hollywood. Tyler helped tip the scales in film criticism from Marx to Freud by simply acknowledging the myth and magic of movie stars in the moviegoing experience. In retrospect he seems superficial, snobbish, and opaque next to such of his then unsung contemporaries as Agee, Farber, Otis Ferguson, Robert Warshow, and Erwin Panofsky, but he had come out with books and they hadn’t, and that made all the difference.

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At the time of Tyler’s lecture I had been staggering through Columbia College’s prestigious English Department for three years, a period in which I had become completely demoralized by my inability to impress such eminences as Lionel Trilling, Joseph Wood Krutch, Andrew Chiappe, Harrison Steeves, F. W. Dupee, et al. With what I in my woeful innocence imagined as the luxurious salons of literary success closed off to me, I decided to concentrate my cultural efforts on the wild, unfashionable frontier of motion pictures. But there were fearsome obstacles even there. I remember waiting outside Mr. Dupee’s office for an opportunity to enroll in his creative writing course. I confided to a student waiting in the next chair my intention to specialize in film criticism. He looked at me with a supercilious expression and announced calmly that there hadn’t been a decent movie made anywhere since Mother. I sank into my chair under his superior gaze which told me that he knew that I hadn’t the foggiest idea that Mother happened to be a silent film directed by Pudovkin with oodles of lyrical montage. “What do you think of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre?” I countered weakly, hoping to gain his tolerance if not his respect. He shrugged his shoulders with generous indifference to let me off the hook: “Not bad, but very minor.”

When I finally got in to see Mr. Dupee, he greeted the news of my interest in film criticism with what I took to be open-minded skepticism. Indeed, I recall his informing me that James Agee wrote interesting film criticism. The film criticism I myself finally turned in to Dupee’s class was not very interesting by any standard. And there matters stood when Parker Tyler made his not so very grand entrance.

After Columbia I didn’t see Tyler again until 1962, although in the intervening years our pens had crossed many times in the pages of Film Culture. We were both serving as jurors at a kind of home movie contest at the Charles Theater in downtown Manhattan. I reminded him of the time he had spoken at Columbia, and he responded by mildly scolding me for not having been guided by his lecture and example to abandon Hollywood movies for the serious (e.g., avant-garde) art of the cinema. I was somewhat taken aback by the tinny Gidean ring of this moralistic lecture right out of The Counterfeiters, compounded by the inherent ridiculousness of the situation. 1 mean after all here 1 was earning zero dollars a year from my writing, and being accused besides of selling out to the forces of philistinism by a man who lacked the style and lucidity to sustain his fastidious distinctions between what Art was and what it was not, especially in the marvelously impure realm of cinema.

As it was, our encounter in the Charles Theater culminated in a confusing controversy recorded in the pages of the Village Voice of that epoch. Since 1962 we have appeared together on lecture panels, but have never again exchanged a polite word. My own attitude toward Parker Tyler has never wavered in the slightest over the past twenty years between the respect I could never deny and the admiration I could never feel.

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Now that both The Hollywood Hallucination1 and Magic and Myth of the Movies2 have been reprinted with generally laudatory forewords by Richard Schickel, it might be useful to establish a more permanent perspective on Parker Tyler. Some of the extravagant claims made for these two books cannot stand very close scrutiny. Too much of the writing is strained and stilted; too much of the reasoning is obscure and incoherent. Even Schickel mentions in passing occasional excesses of enthusiasm and lapses into incomprehensibility. At that Schickel is much too kind to prose of giddy ponderousness: “The advent of the talkies gave fresh opportunity to those cinemactors whose vocal chords contained unexplored reaches of eloquence, while a definite quota of studio population promptly lost their jobs as a result or hung on till they scratched the then unreliable sound track and automatically faded.”

The muddled diction of the preceding sentence can be attributed to Tyler’s mixed feelings about his subject, part movie-fan complicity and part academic aloofness. The sense of the sentence is a fairly banal bit of film history, but Tyler can’t bear to let it just lie there as scholarly exposition; he must make it sit up and do tricks with a faintly derisive Time portmanteau put-down (“cinemactors”), double-duty technological jargon (“scratched” and “faded”), a bloodless sociological construction (“a definite quota of studio population”) and the disconcerting dissonance of the genteel and the colloquial (“advent of the talkies”). And who else but Parker Tyler could introduce Frank Sinatra with a sentence as fatuously ceremonial as “I mean no other, of course, than he who goes by the curt cognomen of The Voice”?

Or, “At one moment of his career it appeared that Frank wanted to act, whatever that connotes, whereas his producer wanted him to sing, while his only class rival, Bing Crosby, wanted to sing in defiance of Hollywood ukase that he act.” Again the sense of the sentence is clear enough, but the diction (and hence the author’s attitude) is muddled by the mixture of Stage Delicatessen dialect (“class” pronounced with lingering nasality) and Roget roguishness (“ukase” on formal loan-out from the Kremlin to Hollywood).

Throughout the two books Tyler italicizes words he apparently deems intellectual, a form of neonized nomenclature worthy of the Hollywood dream merchants Tyler professes to despise: “For in Brewster’s mind the facts of lunacy, virginity, and death, the last a mask for impotence, are inseparable.” Further down in the paragraph, Tyler refers to a “complementary anxiety trio of lunacy, potency, and crime.” This peculiarly typographical form of rhetorical emphasis is even less justifiable for a relatively neutral term, like “desirable state,” or “incompletely available facts,” or, so help me, “the human soul.”

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Both The Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies have dated very badly, much worse, in fact, than many of the better movie reviews of that period. Agee’s chronicle of the 40′s towers over Tyler’s by any standard, and André Bazin’s is light years more advanced and perceptive—not that Tyler ever intended to provide a useful film chronicle of a given period, but then neither did Agee or Bazin. Nevertheless they did provide profound testaments of their time out of an organic world view that resisted the fragmentation of their journalistic formats. By contrast, Tyler remains safely within his own defenses and disclaimers. Since Hollywood movies, according to Tyler, function invariably as myth rather than art, Tyler can ramble on without any of the routine disciplines of a professional reviewer. His prose may contain many atrocities but it is relatively uncluttered by credits, titles, and in-film cross-references. By postulating a mythic unconscious collectively designated as Hollywood, Tyler can evade value judgments and stylistic analysis with an approach he himself describes as “psychoanalytic-mythological.” He manages almost magically to look down on his subject while lying on the couch of his own conceits. (By contrast, Tyler’s later books on avant-garde and foreign art films, being more intellectually integrated with their subjects, offer more cogent examples of the author’s critical intelligence.)

At the end of Magic and Myth of the Movies, there is a checklist of 39 films to which the author has referred, ranging in time from City Lights in 1931 to The Seventh Veil in 1946. The list, critically capricious in the extreme, touches on several recurring concerns: psychoanalysis, magic, witchcraft and ghosts, and, most strikingly of all, sex-role reversals. Tyler devotes an inordinate amount of space to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Indeed, it is through an analysis of Wilde’s original novel that Tyler comes closest to expressing his own aesthetic under the guise of educating the reader.

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Tyler on Wilde leads the reader down a garden path which Gore Vidal appears to have perceived more clearly than Richard Schickel. “Even when he was a charming youth,” Tyler writes, “Dorian Gray as a literary hero was a monster for the British public to which Wilde with a measure of audacity introduced him. In truth he was the hunted, ideal object of Wilde’s insistent aesthetic quest, which he dared to prosecute in the midst of life itself, even while believing that it was only ideal. Yet when in a work of fiction Wilde chose to thrust this image into the scene of a society in which its reality was not to be found, he understood the paradoxical logic that such a fabulous being, lost in the actual pitfalls of society, must carry within himself the seed of the gross decay of the sexual that was the social destiny and that Wilde saw everywhere around him in the vulgar and stupid rather than imaginative and aesthetic pursuit of women by men.”

In describing Wilde’s tactics against Victorian society Tyler seems to absorb Wilde’s sensibility into his own: “In his acts—and he was interested in nothing but action, primarily in the social sense—Wilde had to move behind a screen. He moved behind the screen of imaginative concepts but in the very heart of society, behind all the outposts of the enemy camp. He moved secretly because he was a trespassing hunter of a unicorn whose existence was not even acknowledged by the authorities and that Wilde himself regarded as an ideal only: the purest personalized symbol of pagan love. In this aim Wilde was the prince of an alien and socially aggressive aesthetic philosophy, and Dorian Gray was his Mata Hari, a man in the service not of another country but of another sex.”

Once the link between philistinism and heterosexuality has been made, Tyler’s choice of films to discuss becomes less mysterious. For example, an obscure World War II movie called Gung Ho eluded most of the prestigious critics of the period, but not Tyler: “For as we see the naked, perspiring flesh of these youths, softened by the coincidental presence of their identification tags necklacing their chests, their military mold is visibly relaxed, as though the heat of the closed submarine caused to melt the less resistant metal of war that has become part of their bodies even as it has forced them to remove the rigid encrustation of war, their unmelting military paraphernalia. The spirit of war seemed to have reduced them to one substance, of which a gun, in its cold metal and hot bullet, was only a single outer limb; they had mythically conceived themselves as fire-throwing instruments, cold as steel, and not subject for the attack of a more peacetime heat, which, as in the city, they could wish only to flee from.”

Tyler is at his most outrageous, perhaps also at his most personal, when he ruminates about the mystique of Mae West: “No doubt she observed the female impersonator and, spontaneously imitating him, extracted for herself all his comedy, leaving him his pathos. In effect, she expunged the burlesque quality from his active masquerade of the female sex. On the other hand, she implicitly placed on the altar of his seriousness the one supreme sacrifice of female nature: the mother’s recognition and condonement of the homosexual flaw in her son!”

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There is no doubt that the homosexual sensibility has always been very prominent in movies, and particularly in movie appreciation. But though I was aware of the vibrations of the velvet underground even back in 1949 when I was relatively unsophisticated about almost everything else, I never accepted the condescension of camp sensibility as the ultimate statement an intellectual could make about mass culture. It was always very difficult to talk about this issue frankly, but it has now been brought out into the open by Gore Vidal in Myra Breckenridge. Indeed, the very conception of Myra/Myron as Vidal’s lurid vision of transvestism triumphant finds its cultural genesis in Tyler’s studies of sexual criss-cross in Turnabout and The Dybbuk. Moreover, Myra/Myron is working on a book on Parker Tyler and the films of the 40′s—“a book I intend to finish one day,” Myra/Myron warns the reader, “with or without Mr. Tyler’s assistance. Why? Because Tyler’s vision (films are the unconscious expressions of age-old human myths) is perhaps the only important critical insight this century has produced. Also, Tyler’s close scrutiny of the films of the 40′s makes him our age’s central thinker, if only because in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States.”

Myra/Myron’s ironical infatuation with Tyler’s “vision” becomes almost libelously incriminating when coupled with Myra/Myron’s sexual power fantasy: “the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.”

Tyler seems understandably reluctant to accept Vidal’s boisterous tribute at face value, and Richard Schickel goes so far as to take a poke at Vidal in his introduction. The fact is that Parker Tyler has never come out into the open on the real-life basis of his bias. He has preferred, from the 40′s until now, to pose as the high priest of high art in the temples of the philistines.

Finally, however, the trouble with Tyler is not so much an excess of eccentricity as a lack of historicity. He never see movies in the process of evolution. The fixed hierarchies of high art, the perpetually sterile activities of avant-garde filmmakers, the congealed myths of furtive wish fulfillment all lock Tyler into an aesthetic that conceals even as it seeks to justify his own personality.

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Footnotes

1 Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $5.95; paperback $1.95.

2 Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $5.95; paperback $1.95.

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