Ray Carney Moment of the Day #19

August 4, 2011

Tokyo Twilight

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.

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One Response to “Ray Carney Moment of the Day #19”

  1. karl schrom said

    I just happened upon this, and it is stunningly good. I read it twice; I can’t believe someone with this much sense is out there writing and teaching. How bracing!

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