Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ceiling Zero
(Howard Hawks; 1936)

I thought it best to wait a long while after the pre-1938 Howard Hawks Blog-a-thon had passed before posting my entry (lest I be accused of attempting to spoil a good thing by inserting myself into it). I had been asked by that particular blog-a-thon's host to write about a specific Hawks feature from 1929 that I not only have never seen, but (and I'm sure this is JUST a coincidence) is impossible to obtain. Since I wasn't able to do that, and since anything I might say on the general subject no doubt would be regarded askance (for starters) by those who participated in that fiesta some months back, I thought I would call upon the perspective of a professional film scholar to supply the necessary gravitas that would enable a Serious discussion in these pages.

Prof. Thomas Marlowe is chair of Film and Media Studies at Tait College in Culver City, CA, and author of the groundbreaking 2003 study If I Were King: Identity Politics, American Cinema and the Emerging Framework of Global Patriarchy, Ur-Fascism and the Foundations of Radical Monetarism and Ideological Order in the Era of the Hollywood Studio System: 1935-1937 (published by Produit d'appel Press). I asked Prof. Marlowe by email where he would place Ceiling Zero in the developing Hawksian universe, and he was kind enough to momentarily halt production on the second volume of this work to respond:

To characterize Ceiling Zero within a specific theoretical superstructure, the natural principle which normally diminishes Tiger Shark or Hatari! raises serious doubts about the requirement that montage not be tolerated within the dominance scope of a symbology so complex as Hawks's. We instead have evidence in favor of the following thesis: that an important property of Ceiling Zero is defined by Hawks in such a way as to impose an important distinction in critical perspective. Note, by contrast, that this analysis does not affect the structure of the traditional practice of film theory with respect to underpinnings of male dominance in Only Angels Have Wings.

This suggests that the framework which would reduce I Was a Male War Bride in the perspective of critical analysis may remedy and, at the same time, eliminate an abstract underlying order deep within the Hawksian worldview. For one, a subset of dialogue scenes, deemed interesting on quite independent grounds, does not affect the structure of action to place the construction of thought into various pre-determined genres. Furthermore, the viewer's intuition should not be considered in determining the nondistinctness of critical language in the sense of distinctive theory; though many film scholars would find the construction of that idea simplistic. It may be, then, that most of the methodological work in modern cinema is not quite equivalent to irrelevant intervening contexts in genres with sharply defined symbols. Clearly relational theory, in practice, is not subject to the levels of acceptability from fairly close readings to that of interlocking texts.

For any transformative reading of Hawks that is sufficiently diversified in application to be of critical interest in the context of Ceiling Zero, his systemic use of patriarchal symbology can be defined by film theorists in such a way as to oppose the capacity of any underlying conclusion. I suggested in my book that these results would naturally follow from an assumption that the descriptive power of images is, apparently, determined by a system of neural sensation exclusive to genres. One consequence of this approach, which I outlined, is that a critical intuition is necessary to impose an interpretation on seemingly irrelevant contexts. Comparing the theoretical usefulness of Ceiling Zero in comparison to Red Line 7000 and The Crowd Roars, we see that the critical foundations developed earlier suffice to account for that conclusion as it applies to any rational understanding of cinema.

Prof. Marlowe's conclusion is one with which I am generally in agreement . . . though I do question whether he was simplifying it a bit too much in his email . . . but he leaves, I think, more than enough here for the purpose of lively disucssion.

After all, isn't that why anyone makes or watches movies in the first place?


Ed Howard said...

Hahahah, nicely done Professor. That was a pretty brutal read...

In all seriousness, Ceiling Zero is a great movie. It's basically divided in two halves: the first half is a screwball comedy with rapid-fire dialogue, the second half a tragic adventure story. The adventure half has some pretty improbable, melodramatic developments and is generally not as interesting, but I still love the dialogue, love the interaction of the actors, love the harrowing plane crash scene halfway through.

I'm still not sure, though, despite the good Professor's explanations, just where it fits in the "abstract underlying order." Hmm, quite a puzzle.

Greg said...

If I Were King: Identity Politics, American Cinema and the Emerging Framework of Global Patriarchy, Ur-Fascism and the Foundations of Radical Monetarism and Ideological Order in the Era of the Hollywood Studio System: 1935-1937.

That's one of the most brilliant parody titles I've ever seen. Highest of all praise to you sir. I wish I'd thought up Prof. Marlowe.

Marilyn said...

I suggested in my book that these results would naturally follow from an assumption that the descriptive power of images is, apparently, determined by a system of neural sensation exclusive to genres.I have questioned this thesis in Marlowe's work viz a viz the generative neural pathways of consciousness expostulated by Antonio Damasio. In protracted email correspondence, Rev. Dr. Marlowe has repeatedly averred the efficacy of Damasio's framework but excepted film genre from formative brain adaptation, responding that the consciousness of genre defies expected biological norms of brain function. I quite disagree, but think that Marlowe's "fathead" theory of genre selection does deserve further research.

The Demarest said...

Say, this Marlowe guy doesn't happen to teach alongside Mortimer Young, does he?

hotfootharp said...

Jeez, what a bunch of gobble-de-gook.

My impression of the film was that it is a (med-shot) dance between the actors and the camera.

A brilliant piece of work, even for Hawks.

Tom Sutpen said...


Ceiling Zero has its flaws, but without it, I don't believe Hawks could ever have constructed that house of worship to the stony-hearted god of Professionalism, Only Angels Have Wings. Almost every component of the former is, one way or another, present in the latter; the crucial difference being Hawks' capacity for integrating otherwise wildly disparate story elements . . . as if there were nothing conceivable one could inject into a screenplay that he wouldn't be able to weave, seamlessly, into the fabric of a finished work. This is something he demonstrated a masterful ability for as early as Scarface, and as late as Red Line 7000 . . . however dimly Red Line continues to be received (Hawks himself reportedly thought it was unreconstructed crap), it never feels as though you're watching two different movies . . . but he doesn't even attempt it in Ceiling Zero; and I've never understood why that is.


I thank you, sir (he said, bowing with humility).


I couldn't agree more . . . though I did find it somewhat disquieting that, in my correspondence with Prof. Marlowe, he made several observations that could lead one to suspect that he was confusing Ceiling Zero with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (fleeting references to Technicolor, Transatlantic ocean liners and Anita Loos).

He also referred to his colleagues in Tait's Film Studies dept. as "glorified baby-sitters" . . . a little over-the-line, thought I, but far be it from me to get in the middle of academic controversy.

Constable Kockenlocker:

No, Dr. Young was relieved of his post several years ago after an unfortunate incident involving the Tait Football team mascot and a 16mm reduction print of 55 Days at Peking. He has since been replaced by Prof. Constance Lane, whose 1997 study The World Belongs to Everyone: Globalization and the American Screen Musical (recently reprinted in Germany by Eitelkeit Press) is currently radicalizing a new generation.

Ed Howard said...

I agree, Tom, this is an obvious prototype for Only Angels Have Wings, which if you ask me is one of Hawks' best movies. It's true, though, that in Ceiling Zero the comedy and drama are more separate than they usually were in Hawks' work. He was usually able to blend between tones quite effortlessly, mixing together very different styles and types of stories. I guess I'd blame the source material, but Hawks was also usually able to twist and reshape pretty much any source to his own interests and concerns.