- Hollywood Incoherent: Narration in Seventies Cinema
Todd Berliner’s study dwells on the ways a cycle of lauded films strained the conventions of classical Hollywood narrative, resulting in movies that are more frustrating, more open-ended, more “incoherent” than typical fare. Berliner traces these perturbations in several dimensions of famous films produced from 1970–1977: departures from linear, cause and effect plots; upending of genre conventions; characterological ambiguities; conceptual confusions; and unresolved endings.
Though consistently well-written, intelligent, and intriguing, the book’s greatest strength lies in its close readings of sample films—The Godfather, Part II (1974); The French Connection (1971); The Exorcist (1973); Taxi Driver (1976); and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Close readings often dwell on aspects of the film that any well-versed viewer would or could see; one enjoys them as a confirmation of one’s own experience. In this case, however, I could have watched these films many more times and never noticed some of the inconsistencies that Berliner highlights. And he’s right: the Havana episode in The Godfather, Part II really makes no sense, and the Hyman Roth subplot is full of gaping holes. Yes, I see now that the climax of The Exorcist is riddled with contradictions, from the non-development of Damien’s character, to the radical switch in strategies of dealing with the Devil, to the ending’s quasiendorsement of a suicide of a Catholic priest. Berliner’s laser sharp attention to detail of these films—he has great insights too on Chinatown (1974), Nashville (1975), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975)—make us pause again and again over their strangeness.
Berliner’s account of why this incoherence surfaces in these years, however, doesn’t break new ground. He provides a clear and cogent summary of factors well known from earlier research: the economic shifts in the film industry, the managerial chaos at the studios, the fall of the production code, the influence of European art cinema, the self-conscious, “film-school” educations of a new generation of directors, etc. (Given these familiar causes I am puzzled by Berliner’s periodization: why not start his study in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde as so many other scholars focusing on New Hollywood do? He never provides a truly satisfactory explanation for 1970–77.) Berliner describes himself as a follower of Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell in employing neo-formalist poetics. Whatever one’s methodology, a film theorist should, I believe, declare where he stands on the issue of intentionality. Berliner is frustratingly mum about whether he believes that these films’ incoherencies are deliberate, conscious strategies on the part of the filmmakers. On the one hand, he places great stress on Scorsese’s power over and story-boarding of every shot in Taxi Driver, emphasizes Cassavetes’ rehearsal methods, and quotes the screenwriter of The Exorcist. But he is silent about whether most of dangling threads he points to are deliberate or just mistakes. [End Page 426]
More troubling to me are the conclusions that Berliner draws about the effects of the narrative incoherence in his chosen films. He pushes so hard on his thesis that one is tempted to bring up counter-examples: what about the fact that in the Wizard of Oz (1939) there’s no solution to the Toto-Miss Gulch subplot? What about the famous dangling murder in The Big Sleep (1948)? Doesn’t The Golddiggers of 1933 (1933) correspond even more poorly to conventions of the musical than The French Connection corresponds to our expectations about a policier? But such counter-arguments would be a little silly, because intuitively I agree with Berliner: on some imaginary scale of incoherence, his seventies examples are indeed more so. No, what troubles me most is that Berliner claims that the incoherence of these works accounts for their aesthetic value: “Narrative perversities,” he writes, “are exceptionally productive in creating the rich aesthetic experiences that have made seventies films among Hollywood’s most treasured creations” (11). Berliner turns to incongruity theory in psychology, a body of research that suggests that incongruity creates...