Let us return to the well from whence we first attempted to quench our thirst: Alfred Hitchcock gave us one of the most famous story gaps in cinematic history during the opening sequence of his film, VERTIGO (1958). Here detective John “Scotty” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and a police officer are chasing a fleeing criminal across the rooftops of San Francisco at night. As the criminal leaps onto a slanted roof the officer and Scotty attempt to follow suit, but Scotty loses his footing and finds himself hanging by both hands from a gutter high above an alley below. When the police officer attempts to reach down to him, the officer slips and plummets to his death. The sequence fades out on a medium close-up of Scotty still hanging from the gutter. The next scene fades in, apparently months after the ordeal, with Scotty discussing his psychological condition of vertigo with his former college sweetheart, Margery “Midge” Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the confines of her cozy art studio apartment.
Hitchcock never explains how Scotty was rescued from that precarious position between life and death. This story gap in VERTIGO, far from being a simplistic demonstration of the master assumption of White story cognition (“We shall always prevail”), instead demonstrates how a story gap can be used for poetic and/or thematic effect- as the shot of Scotty hanging from the gutter between life and death acts as a striking visual metaphor of his existential condition that permeates the entire film and its latticed plot of murder, deception, suicide, guilt and obsession.
The story gap in VERTIGO is also illustrative of the fact that well thought out and well placed story gaps can be used to subvert spectator’s expectations and has the potential of liberating spectators from their dependence upon the master assumptions of Black and White story cognition. That is to say that a story gap can be used to elicit alternative methods of story cognition liberated from the master assumptions that we have previously discussed in parts one and two of this series.
What we will be exploring in this installment of Black Film Theory are cinematic strategies of subversion and liberation against the master assumptions of both Black and White story cognition. The objects of this exploration will be considered from the oeuvres of Stanley Kubrick and Jim Jarmusch, two of the most iconoclastic cinematic auteurs whose works individually or taken together are the epitome of subversion of the master assumptions of White and Black story cognition.
But before we begin we have a wide “intellectual” river that we must decide if we want to cross to get anything from the other side of this article. You are asked to contemplate and agree with the assertion that the purpose and the aim of all art is subversion; that is to challenge and contest against orthodoxy, dogmatism, and/or the normal, the commonplace, and the ordinary which is taken for granted in our lives. All art from the music note to the image, from the gesture to the brushstroke has this purpose of subversion as its goal; subversion to expose the spectator to the possibility of something more than what is generally known, understood and habitually repeated. If there is any point of contention it is found in the degree of subversion and choice of the object of attack.
Even the story found in BAMBI is a form of subversion, both the 1942 Disney film and the 1979 song by Prince. (1)
As Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino remind us in their groundbreaking essay, Towards a Third Cinema,” Truth, then amounts to subversion,” in the sense that,” the possibility of discovering and inventing film forms and structures that serve a more profound vision of our reality resides in the ability to place oneself on the outside limits of the familiar, to make one’s way amid constant dangers.” (2)
If you have contemplated and can agree with this assertion then you should read on, if not, then stop here- nothing that will be discussed later will convince you otherwise.
If we want a new more racially inclusive cinema we have to recognize (and not patronize) the existence of a racially diverse spectator and since all filmmakers are spectators, but not all spectators are filmmakers, our first task must begin within ourselves.
The process involved in subverting the master assumption of White story cognition from “we shall always prevail,” to “sometimes we fail,” as well as subverting the master assumption of Black story cognition from “we shall overcome someday” to “we have overcome” is a process that must begin inside the mind of the film artist, whether White or Black. The artist must rid him or herself of the limitations, prejudices, stereotypes and outright lies that inform conventional day-to-day reality. It is a conventional reality fed by constantly streaming corporate controlled media and its various information delivery systems and the often repeated “truths” by respected religious, moral and political agents and representatives that are only substantiated by selecting facts that confirm rather than contradict what is being asserted.
The artist must develop a skepticism that asks of the dominant reality,” is this really true?” and set him or herself on a path of inquiry to seek evidence to the contrary.
It is this evidence to the contrary that forms the guiding thematic perspective of the artist’s subsequent works of art.
For example, when we consider the works of Stanley Kubrick, we have been told over and over again that he was an idiosyncratic artist who reached for perfection in hundreds of takes and repetitions of a scene or shot- and that reputation as a maniacal perfectionist often obscures the fact that nearly all of Kubrick’s films have the failure to achieve perfection as their central theme. From the failure of the perfectly synchronized crime in THE KILLING (1956), to the inability of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to stop the unjust executions of three French soldiers in PATHS OF GLORY (1957)- and even the multiple failures of Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) in Kubrick’s final film, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999); the failure of the best laid plans of White men is the master theme that Kubrick pursued by various and diverse means throughout his career.
How did Kubrick come to this terse skeptical perspective?
Author Michael Herr who co-wrote the screenplay for the final film in Kubrick’s failure-of-war trilogy, FULL METAL JACKET (1987) tells us that Kubrick,”…had a taste and a gift for the creative-subversive,” and that one of the books Kubrick often sent to many of his confidants was The Destruction of the European Jews by historian Raul Hilberg. (3) He would call often to inquire if the receiver had read it yet. Herr goes on to tell us that he,”…could see why Stanley was so absorbed by it. It was a forbidding volume densely laid out in a two-column format, nearly eight hundred pages long, small print, heavily footnoted, so minutely detailed that… it read like a complete log of the Final Solution.” (4)
It would appear that Kubrick, a Jew himself, had developed his powerful skepticism about the master assumption of White story cognition from the revelations of the Jewish Holocaust and the genocide against European Jews by the Nazi regime.
Now, of course, critical race theory has in its toolbox the sacred concepts of structured absence and token presence, which we will simplify here as the absence of any Black characters from what has previously been defined as a White film and the token presence of a single Black character as a symbolic representation of all Black people in a White film.
Author Adilifu Nama in his book, Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, presents a racially coded reading of Kubrick’s famous science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), that many have understood as axiomatic: “In the futuristic world of 2001: A Space Odyssey humankind is technologically advanced, civilized, socially composed, and exclusively white. The film’s white world of the future, however, stands in sharp contrast to the colored primates of the past. In this case, the dark brown progenitors of humankind are primitive, violent, and wild apelike creatures.” (5)