Spectacle and Narrative: Blockbuster and Propaganda Film

What are the common points between a blockbuster historical film such as Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) and a propaganda film like Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)? They both want to captivate and attract as many people as possible thanks to the lure of the eye. What better to catch the eye than the spectacular? The Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies provides this definition of spectacle:

A visually striking scene, performance, special effect, or other distinctive elements within a film. […] Spectacle is also a feature of a number of enduring film genres, including the action film, the musical, science-fiction, the war film and the history film. […]In a different context, spectacle as a form of shock was used for political effect by Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein.

This definition applies to Gone with the Wind, (a historical film) and Triumph of the Will a Nazi propaganda film, which are studied as regards spectacle by respectively by Tom Brown and Steve Neale. What kinds of spectacle do those films respectively present? For what purpose?

Gone with the Wind uses spectacle to echo this stately historical story by Margaret Mitchell and for commercial purpose. Is it the fact that Gone with the Wind is historical that it is spectacular? Is it even historical? Triumph of the Will is propagandist yet it is praised for its cinematicity. Is it the way it uses spectacle that makes it cinematic?

I will first try to define spectacle and narrative and the links between them in propaganda and Hollywood historical film. I will then analyse more deeply the interlocking of spectacle, narrative and ideology in the analysis of the beginning of Gone with the Wind and Hitler’s speech to the Hitler’s Youth.

 

Brown underpins the difficulty to define spectacle, which “has become a term often cited but rarely probed and even more rarely defined.”[1] Brown cites Geoff King, whose definition is in accordance with that of the Oxford Dictionary: “the production of images at which we might wish to stop and stare.”[2] In a more negative view, spectacle is often considered as just “a gratuitous display,” in order to attract as many viewers as possible but Brown argues that this definition should be refined.[3] His aim is to give, through the case study of Gone with the Wind as a historical spectacle, an “outline […] precise enough to be of use to a range of individual case studies, without dismissing other kinds of spectacle.”[4] In order to define spectacle, Brown relies on Neale’s definition, which he gave about Triumph of the Will: “display the visibility of the visible,”[5] i.e. making the meaning obvious to the spectator.

Let us now deal on the narrative. Tom Brown does not want to part spectacle, often seen as “moments one can represent with a vertical line,” and narrative, “a horizontal line moving forward”[6]; but treating them as opposite would not be effective because spectacle and narrative are intimately linked. The Russian formalist theory about the narrative, which mainly consists of the story (fabula) – ie what happens –  and the plot (sjuzhet) – ie “the particular presentation of the story in the narrative, plot introduces causality to what become a chain of event.”[7] It can be related to the “filmic time”, that is to say a film’s temporal ordering and arrangement of events, as against the flow of time in the real world, one of the distinctive attributes of a film as a medium being that it had its own patterns of temporality. For example, Triumph of the Will is a 145’ “summary” of a fourteen days rally in Nuremberg. But filmic time implies filmic space, and the following of images showing different spaces are unified thanks to the spectator’s look. This scene for instance: after Scarlett was rejected by Ashley and the war was declared, Scarlett looks through the window the men who are going to war, ignoring Charles Hamilton’s proposal (figure 1) . She sees Ashley kissing Melanie goodbye (figure 2). However, this point of view shot is unrealistic. Scarlett is watching from a higher window, whereas the Melanie and Ashley are shot from a neutral angle. In reaction, Scarlett decides to marry Charles in the hope of making the former jealous (figure 3 & 4). Nothing “proves” that Scarlett is actually watching Ashley and Melanie kissing, it is the spectator who cognitively makes the link between the images creates the plot.

Triumph makes a spectacle and a narrative with no plot or story but relies on the cognition of the spectator, that is “in a manner very similar to that of classical ‘fictional’ cinema [… ]given the absence of a plot and given the absence of a dialogue and commentary, the role of this relay of looks” is crucial for the spectator to understand the spatio-temporality. [8] Because their aim is to appeal/lure the spectator (either for commercial or ideological purposes) both mainstream and propaganda films use the same devices. I would say that Triumph is more cinematic – I mean that it uses the cinema as a modern medium – than Gone with the Wind. The latter makes the spectacle from a book, the traditional link between literature and cinema. Both films use the repetition/difference device, which is noticed both by Neale, who cites Stephen Heath: “The narrative join of a film recasts repetition – difference, the interminable flux of desire, the horizon of death – into the balance of a fiction (…), thus maintains the historical function of the subject …”[9] This corresponds to Scarlett. The spectator follows her adventures, punctuated with the same variations: her obsession with Ashley, the cat and mouse play with Rhett Butler, the glory and then the downward spiral and vice-versa.

 

 

Fig. 1     Fig. 2

 

 

Fig. 3      Fig. 4

 

 

In Gone with the Wind, the narrative is linked to the American history. Therefore Tom Brown, since the narrative and spectacle can be parted, introduces the notion of the historical gaze, which embraces the notions of spectacle and narrative.[10] This gaze covers the character’s position in the history in which he/she lives in the story and reflects contemporary discourse and hindsight of the filmmaking about that history. “‘The […] Hollywood historical epic translate the sense of temporal magnitude and the existential weight of being in historical time into visible size and scale and quantity and extravagance.’”[11] Gone with the Wind “combines two main kinds of historical spectacle – the décor of history and the spectacular vista.”[12] The former is “an excess of detail: detail in the mise-en-scène (décor, but also costume) that is excessive to the requirements of historical verisimilitude, [an] embellishment of the sense of place and time.

The spectacular vista is “an excess of action: excessive in scales and qualitatively excessive (a battle occupying a large valley would be a stereotypical example.) The décor of history is associated with the domestic, whereas the spectacular vista generally expresses grander, more hyperbolic visions of history, generally associated with the world of men.”[13] This can apply to Triumph of the Will: women or little girls are generally shot in smaller scales (figures 1 & 2) in comparison to extreme long shots of the military parades (3), restraining women to the domestic sphere, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church, according to the Nazi slogan).

The Hollywood apparatus involves the display of a dominant ideology and its relationship to the past, present and future. Triumph of the Will starts with evocation of the past, with captions written in Gothic letters, reminding of German’s rich past: “Twenty years after the outbreak of the world war, sixteen years after the start of the German suffering….”After this evocation of the past comes Hitler who, as a “great man” will give to the German people a foresight on the bright future of Germany, in order to convince them to obey and support the Nazi regime. This film uses the past to forge the contemporary ideology which is hoping to shape the future.

Gone with the Wind is a film about a past event; therefore it has hindsight about the past and can give this contemporary hindsight in the form of a foresight in the plot, as Brown explains it.)

Although Brown mentions the Gone’s “distasteful ideological sympathies” like “a nostalgic evocation of the antebellum South […], while the characteristically racist representations widespread in 1930s Hollywood are here more historically charged,”[14] he does not expand on the impact of Gone with the Wind and its relationship to the American identities, which are worth of consideration. When I watched Gone with the Wind for the first time, I was amazed by the mind-blowing beauty of images and let myself go with the flow of the narrative. As millions of spectators, I found this film pleasant and the characters attaching. But after reflexion, these questions came to my mind: “What if I were not white? Would I appreciate a film nostalgic for slavery days, as beautiful as the spectacle of the images is?”

Malcolm X was twenty-four when the film was released: “I was the only Negro in the theatre, and when Butterfly McQueen [the simple-minded slave Prissy with a high-pitched voice] went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.” [15] Although, with nowadays hindsight we can see the film as extremely racist, this film contributed to the racial liberalism, because it allowed a bigger place for the Black community in the cinema. My problem with Gone with the Wind is that, because it is a mainstream pleasant film, it displays an ideology more subtly, of course, than that of a propagandist film which suffers no ambiguity. Mainstream films have the power to inoculate ideologies with a mild force. As Guy Debord says, spectacle implies separation and passivity. He “condemn[s] lifeless consumption of spectacle as an alienation from human potentiality for creativity and imagination.”[16] Alienation is directly linked to manipulation and propaganda.

“A successful propaganda must be direct, simple, clear,”[17]in its display, whose narrative relies principally on spectacle. According to Frederic Jameson, [18] “narrative is about power, property and domination rather than universal archetypes. To consider plot in this way is to recognize its dual status as both a noun ‘a/the plot,’ and a verb, ‘to plot.’ Questions of who has the authority to speak and of who controls narrative become central.”

 

Fig. 1    Fig. 2  Fig. 3

 

 

 

Why and how does the medium cinema attract and touch people? It can be explained by the notion of haptic visuality or embodied spectatorship, which “offers a kind of immersion, haptic visuality suggests a more all-encompassing, visceral, emotional, sensuous, form of cinematic engagement.”[19] Triumph of the Will and Gone with the Wind both imply in their own way a physical implication:  the former intends to pull out the pride of German’s race purity, superiority and physical distinctiveness while the latter imposes on the spectator the “weight of history” through its four-hours-duration.

Let us see how the spectacle is displayed in those films. Gone with the Wind is constructed exactly like a play. As I said, it lasts four hours; it has an overture, an intermission, and an entr’acte.  Neale did an analysis of the beginning of Triumph of the Will, explaining how this film incipit was profoundly theatrical, with the clouds by way of theatre’s curtains:

The imbrications of framing, composition, movement and clouds in these opening shots function to install spectacle as the principle of the film’s operations. (…) Clouds have been an essential ingredient in the whole apparatus of spectacle in European art. In offering to the spectators’ gaze a set of forms which mask and fill an otherwise empty and potentially infinite space (the sky) while simultaneously signifying the very emptiness and infinity that they mask, clouds have come to function, in a sense, to signify spectacle itself.

In Gone with the Wind, the first shot is a picture of a long shot of a crepuscule, with a tree and fence, the latter creating a diagonal line, with the word “Overture” in yellow in the centre (figure 1.) This diagonal aesthetic will be recurring throughout the film. The crepuscular sky, etched with wisps of clouds, displays warm shades of orange and mauve. The beauty of the colours along with the solemn music gives the tone of the film: luxuriant, exaggerated, ceremonial, theatrical. This long overture (2’31”) allows time for the spectator to fully appreciate the beauty of the image and to be “tamed” by the mood of the film and to be dazzled by its innovative technological use of colours, which the credits emphasizes on (figure 2 & 3). The time is a meaningful element, because the film is extraordinarily long, referring to the “weight of history,” which I mentioned earlier. The film was shot in Technicolor, which was not widespread because terribly expensive. The film’s intentions is thus to deploy and unfold grandiosity, both in term of the historical narrative and its production. Then appears “Margaret Mitchell’s story of the Old South.” The shot is that of slave in diagonal working on the hills. The colours are mauve and orange. The beauty and the lushness of the image are as grandiose as the ideology is unscrupulous, because the film expresses clearly nostalgia for slavery. It shows a controversial beauty. The title Gone with the Wind scrolls from right to left, the letters are stylized as if they were blown by the wind, illustrating the attention given to the least detail. It is then followed by the cast and film personnel: each protagonist of the film is mentioned and attributed a popular imagery, interlocking the story in itself and the people behind the making of that story, giving the spectator a strong sense of looking at a grandiose spectacle, where the latest technologies, the greatest actors and the biggest amount of money have been deployed to give the public the finest spectacle (e.g. figure 7) The opening ends with the poem-prologue written by Ben Hecht, the screenwriter, for the film[20] (fig 8). The nostalgia is apotheosized with the addition of a melancholic chorus. All in all, this opening epitomizes the “ stage-curtain display” which is “the mark par excellence of the lure of the spectacle itself” and the “exhibition of the means – the tricks – used to produce it,” Neale describes in relation to The Triumph of the Will’s opening.[21]

 

 

Fig 1.    Fig 2.

 

Fig. 3    Fig. 4

 

Fig. 5   Fig. 6

 

 

Fig. 7    Fig. 8

 

 

 

 

The look is essential for the spectacle to exist. Neale analyses Triumph’s cinematicity. Even though Neale thinks that art and ideology need to be considered together, he argues that the aesthetic quality of the film, its “cinematicity,” is worth being studied especially: “What is that these critics find so overwhelming and so deserving of praise – despite their liberal conscience? Why and how is the film so ‘cinematically dazzling?’”[22]It is the “exhibit[ion of] the image for the gaze of the spectator and for the scopic drive [i.e. looking and being looked-at] that sustains it, designed, precisely to ‘catch’ (to lure) the eye.” Spectacle renders the message accessible because appealing.

As Neale says, “it is the spectator’s look which joins the two spaces (that of the crowd and that of Hitler) and the two instances of looking together.”[23] This can be illustrated by that sequence, beginning at 49’22”, of Hitler giving a speech to the Hitler Youth. The first shot is that of a medium close-up in low angle of Hitler, giving him an imposing stature (figure 2.) Then there is a pan on the crowd in a high angle shot. It gives both to Hitler and the film spectator an omnipotent and global point of view. As the camera pans on Hitler from left to right, the camera pans on youngsters in the same low angle shot but from right to left (figures 3, 4, 5, 6.) The soundtrack and the film spectator’s cognition link the two spaces. The parallel and symmetrical movements also reinforce Hitler’s speech. His speech is intercut by close-ups in different angles of teenagers, meaning that from all directions, the young people are listening, agreeing and willing to obey Hitler (figures 7, 8, 9, 10.) His speech is after intercut by longer shots, comprising progressively more and more people (figures 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18). The crowd is shot in different angles, all praising Hitler. This variation of the scale of the crowd (from the general to the particular individual and vice-versa) against the repetition of Hitler’s figure alone from different angles illustrates the scopic drive Neale talks about: the film spectators watch Hitler’s public watching at Hitler watching back at them and, by extension watching at the film spectator who identifies to the public, which is presented as massive crowds and particulars, through different scales (from very long shots to big close-ups).

The identification is crucial in Triumph of the Will, because as a propaganda film, and especially of Nazi ideology, the aim through identification is to assert an identity, physical and thus ideological since this ideology relies on the notion of “race.” The film had been shot in in 1935, meaning that many of the youngsters we see were in age to fight during wartime. The spectator assumes that Hitler’s shot are the spectators’ film’s point of view. However it is not verisimilar that they could see Hitler so closely. The editing creates the bond between Hitler and “[his] German youth”, yet highlights Hitler’s uniqueness and dominant figure as the leader.  I find those spectacularised shots of children and teenagers particularly relevant with Thomas Elsaesser’s remark as regards the display of the Nazi ideology:

Nazism, according to Mitscherlich, […] had encouraged the original attachment to the mother to transfer itself on to substitute love-objects, abstractions, such as nation, race, the State, in turn symbolically represented by the Führer. ‘[The mass-leader], surprising as it may seem … is much more like the image of a primitive mother-goddess. He acts as if he were superior to conscience, and demands a regressive obedience and the begging behaviour that belongs to the behaviour pattern of a child in the pre-Oedipal state.’”[24]

It echoes Neale saying that what counts about spectacle, here the spectacle of the ideology, is not the truth but rather what is visible, the appearance, the “lure,” which implies a “fascinated gaze [which] hovers constantly across the gap between the eye and the object presented to in the process of the scopic drive.”[25] Indeed the fascination for Hitler implies a fascination for themselves, since he glorify and flatter their core being, their blood. By spectacularising the Nazi ideology, Riefenstahl spectacularises the German spectators who feel superhuman by looking at Hitler and Hitler looking back at them, as a baby being his mother sole love-object.

 

Fig. 1  Fig. 2

Fig. 3   Fig. 4

Fig. 5    Fig. 6

Fig. 7     Fig. 8

Fig. 9     Fig. 10

Fig. 11   Fig. 12

Fig. 13  Fig. 14

 

Fig. 15 Fig 16

 

Fig. 17  Fig. 18

 

 

 

To conclude, I explained, with the examples of Gone with the Wind and Triumph of the Will that spectacle, narrative and ideology were imbricated. I explained how the spectator’s look was crucial in the display of the spectacle. Even though those films were made for different purposes in different contexts – the first, without denying its artistic quality, for commercial intentions and the second to support the ideology –, they use they use the same devices to attract the spectators thanks to spectacle.

 

[1] Tom Brown, “Spectacle/Gender/History: the Case of Gone with the Wind,” in Screen 49, no. 2, 2008: 157

[2] Brown, 158.

[3] Brown, 159.

[4] Brown, 159.

[5] Steve Neale, “Triumph of the Will: Notes on Documentary and Spectacle,” in Screen 20, no. 1 (1979): 66.

[6] Brown, 158.

[7] Paul Wake, “Narrative and Narratology,” in The Routledge Companion to Critical Studies, (London: Routlege, 2006): 14.

[8] Neale, 70.

[9] Neale, 83.

[10] Brown, 157.

[11] Neale, 168.

[12] Brown, 158.

[13] Neale, 159.

[14] Brown, 168.

[15] Darden Asbury Pyron, Recasting: Gone with the Wind in the American Culture, 137.

[16] Wake, 3.

[17] Reeves, 107.

[18] Wake, 17.

[19] Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, s. v. “haptic visuality.”

[20] Darden Asbury Pyron, Gone with the Wind in American Culture, 185.

[21] Neale, 65.

[22] Neale, 65.

[23] Neale, 70.

[24] Thomas Elsaesser, “Returning Home to History,” in New German Cinema: A History, (London: BFI), 1989: 241.

[25] Neale, 85.

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