Present and Accounted For: On James Harvey’s Watching Them Be

By Max NelsonNovember 27, 2014

Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar by James Harvey

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IN 1957, Roland Barthes made what is now one of the most celebrated attempts to account for the strange, ineffable phenomenon we call “screen presence.” “The Face of Garbo,” originally published in Barthes’s collection Mythologies, treats the great Swedish actress as “an admirable face-object,” frozen and iconic:

It is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the color, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive, are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance.

In the relatively scarce body of critical literature on screen presence — the question of how and why movie stars like Garbo succeed in seducing us — “The Face of Garbo” is a canonical text but, in some respects, a dead end. For Barthes, Garbo was the last movie star to stand as “a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature.” The only “reality” in her face, he suggested, was “that of its perfection.”

Over the course of the 50-page tribute to Garbo that opens his new collection of essays Watching Them Be, James Harvey looks at the great Swedish actress from nearly every conceivable angle. The piece is both a fluid critical appraisal of Garbo’s films and an extended tribute to her captivating power, which Harvey locates in the same “complexity of morphological functions” that Barthes wanted to deny her: a certain way of moving, seducing, gazing, standing, reclining, or refusing.

Indeed, if there is a single assumption running through all the pieces in Harvey’s book, it is that the “reality” of movie stars — in Garbo’s time and ours — has never been found in the static perfection of their faces or bodies, but rather in the ways they carry themselves, or fail to carry themselves, in time. To hold a bead on those fleshy, mortal, and often capricious movements, Harvey implies, is the task of criticism.

The Garbo piece is followed by five more career-spanning essays on, respectively, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, John Wayne, Bette Davis, and Charles Laughton. At that point, Harvey shifts his focus to a small handful of individual films — Scorsese’s New York, New York, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Altman’s Nashville, Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and Godard’s Masculin Féminin — before concluding on a trio of pieces on Rossellini, Dreyer, and Bresson: filmmakers in whose work, Harvey suggests, the presence of the movie actor, and perhaps the act of looking itself, is associated with the giving and receipt of a sort of grace.

What ties Harvey's essays together is, more than anything else, their distinctive and unusual critical method. Some of the most commanding film writers of the past half-century, from Manny Farber to Geoffrey O’Brien and Kent Jones, work from the bottom up, accumulating observations about a movie’s texture, rhythm, tempo, mood, atmosphere, and tone until a picture of its patterns of meaning starts to emerge from the sum of the details. Harvey’s essays take this approach to a dense, immodest, and often thrilling extreme. His descriptions of individual scenes read like direct feeds from the consciousness of a viewer glutted on visual and auditory information, capable of absorbing seemingly every movement of the camera, every line of dialogue, and each actor’s every shift of weight:

“There’s a foreign legion of women, too” [Dietrich] tells [Gary] Cooper at her apartment [in Sternberg’s Morocco], rising from her place beside him and stepping through the Malacca curtains onto her balcony, throwing her cigarette over the railing and turning to face him again, folding her arms—“but we have no uniform, no flags” — she leans toward him, touching the medals on his chest — “and no medals” — she straightens up and puts her hand on her hip, smiling slightly, then in a falling voice (after a pause) — “when we are brave”—she leans against the archway and touches his face with her hand, then withdraws it and, going onto the balcony again, turns and looks at him — “no wound stripes when we are hurt.” And she turns her back again. “Look here,” says Cooper, “is there anything I can do for you?”

It’s not only the length and breadth of these passages that’s remarkable, but the breathless rhythm of the prose, the reckless abundance of dashes, italics, and parentheses, and the frequency with which additional information is tacked onto the end of grammatically saturated sentences by means of annex-like fragments. Here is Harvey on Garbo’s death scene in Camille:

Being helped to a chair and then somehow managing to stand for him, she seems emptied of everything except that uncanny radiance — greeting Armand — who catches her in his arms just in time. And holds her: forgive me, he begs her — as she gazes up at him raptly — of course she forgives him (she makes a faint little “oh” sound).

If these stylistic liberties work consistently in Harvey’s book, it is because they capture something of the relentless, stressful kind of speed particular to moviegoing. Harvey’s prose is built to approximate the sensation of struggling to fully absorb a film image while it lasts: the experience of hastily dashing together whatever visual information the eye manages to collect as it darts around an ever-changing frame. There are really two active, time-based processes being tracked in Watching Them Be: the movements and gestures of the actors onscreen, and the perceptual processes by which we drink in — or fail to drink in — those movements.

This is one of the features that distinguishes Harvey’s book from certain other now-canonical attempts to evoke or account for star presence. Those attempts are often said to begin with Walter Benjamin’s persistently quoted suggestion in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that, in front of the camera, “the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.” The actor’s reproduced image, in other words, is incapable of conveying what Benjamin had earlier called “the quality of [his] presence,” in part because that quality depends on the way the actor’s body, with its “unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” acts as a sort of physical index or monument to his past. In 1931, when Benjamin wrote those words, photography had nearly a century under its belt. But “presence” was — and still is — a special virtue of the living and the physically close by, difficult to conceive of in terms apart from weight, mass, extension, smell, taste, pressure, friction, texture, and touch. “Screen presence” was a puzzling oxymoron.

In a pair of pieces written a decade after Barthes’s ode to Garbo — “Cartooned Hip Acting” and “The Decline of the Actor” — Manny Farber would locate the energy, vitality, and presence of the screen actor in “tiny, mysterious interactions between the actor and the scene … moments of peripheral distraction, bemusement, fretfulness, mere flickerings of skeptical interest.” He would still indulge in jabbing, still-frame descriptions of actors’ faces and physiques (“the inert mass of Brando’s elmlike body”), but the emphasis was, for the most part, shifted to their specific manner of moving through (and with) the film: Anthony Quinn’s way of walking and dressing in Requiem for a Heavyweight “as though the ground were soft tapioca, his body purchased from an Army-Navy store that specializes in odd sizes”; Burt Lancaster’s “perverse commit[ment]” to “sidetracking quietly … the fantastic leonine head” and “overrated nimbleness of his body”; Frank Sinatra’s habit, in The Manchurian Candidate, of “mov[ing] in a fight” so that “his body starts from concrete encasement” and “his face looks as though it were being thrown at his Korean houseboy opponent.” “The fluke of Dunaway” in Bonnie and Clyde, Farber tells us, “is that her body moves uncannily in harmony with the film’s movement. While Beatty-Pollard-Hackman are muscular, earthbound, scurrying. and plodding in skit-like business that is both entertaining and synthetic, she is almost air.”

The actor loses his or her presence, Farber suggests, not when the camera starts rolling, but when the filmmakers fail to create spaces open and porous enough for their performers to move freely. The contemporary actor’s “gaucheries and half-hitches and miscalculations,” he wrote, “are never allowed their own momentum but are used self-consciously to make a point.” Or:

The actor now enters a scene not as a person, but like a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon, a gaudy exhibitionistic fact … a thin path having been cleared for him to make his walk down a dune, or to pontificate around porch furniture, he is then choreographed so that each motion, each bit of costume creaks into place.

The result is that “there is no longer the feeling of being close to the actor,” whose presence and suggestive power depend on his being able to move with and against the movement of the film, to leave behind a map of “zigzagging traces and small clusters of intense activity,” to puncture, disrupt, and critique the rest of the action — or instead, to slip and slide through a fluid, viscous cinematic space. “The actors,” Farber concluded at the end of “Cartooned Hip Acting,” “are erroneously built up as migratory statues, but in reality their medium has the blur, the shifting nonform of a series of ant hills in a sandstorm.”

Farber retired from criticism in the late 1970s to give more time to his parallel career as a painter, and it’s often been said that his sentences move like swift brushstrokes. Harvey’s parallel career is as a playwright, and his descriptions have the blow-by-blow, step-by-step meticulousness of a set of stage directions. (Their rhythm and their tone, on the other hand, have more in common with an enraptured audience member’s reactions to the events onstage.) At their best, they can arrive at a gerund-heavy delirium, as in this rapturous single-sentence portrait of Lisbeth Movin’s repressed young pastor’s wife in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath:

She comes down a flight of steps, leaving the door ajar behind her, looking all around as she comes, turning and then walking urgently down a long pillared side aisle, the camera following her alongside but from behind the pillars as she goes — past stained-glass windows and stations of the cross — and then as she breaks into a light loping run — lifting her shoulders, touching her apron — a sudden ascent into graceful movement so seamless that it lifts your spirit with it: the easy stride, the hands clenched on the air, the lissome youthful body under the severe (but not unsexy) Puritan maid uniform — as she slows and then hurries, and then slows again and then stops … reaching out an arm and putting her hand on the last great pillar, standing and staring, as the camera pulls ahead of her and circles in front of her with an almost ceremonial gravity as she hesitates at the pillar, leaning forward and looking … Nice.

Such passages have an argumentative role as well as an evocative one. One of the book’s basic assumptions is that the camera, when used properly, magnifies an actor’s presence rather than diminishing it. The proof of this initial thesis is that Garbo, Movin, and Dietrich, among others, are vividly present to the reader in Harvey’s prose — and the only place they could have been present to him is on the screen.

The most ambitious aspect of Harvey’s book is the way that he stakes his defense of star presence — as both a critical concept and a real phenomenon — on his own ability to conjure up or evoke that presence on the page. But its sneakiest aspect might be the way that Harvey convinces us, for nearly 300 pages, that the book is about the stars themselves when it is in fact about the process of watching them, and the implications — aesthetic, moral, political — of focusing our attention on one “star” as opposed to another. If, as Harvey implies, movie stars are present onscreen in part to the extent that they are present to us, then it is we in the audience who, by giving into their seductions and acknowledging their claims on us, make them present.

At first, the structure of Watching Them Be might seem arbitrary, especially given Harvey’s refusal to establish explicit connections between each essay — the kind of connections that would help justify his inclusions and exclusions. In the end, however, a robust narrative starts to emerge. That narrative begins with the Hollywood star system, and its implicit assumption that certain people are born with stardom written in their blood, musculature, and bone structure. Mauritz Stiller, Harvey tells us, was the one who “found” Garbo, “the one who saw her specialness when it was invisible to everyone else.” Selznick stripped Bergman of the noticeable makeup she wore in her early Swedish films to bring out the quality that drew him to her: her “fresh and pure personality.” Raoul Walsh cast Wayne as the lead in The Big Trail after seeing him at work as a prop man because, as he later recalled, “Dammit, the son of a bitch looked like a man!”

Harvey relates these anecdotes, along with many other tales of studio negotiations, on-set tensions, and public receptions and rejections, with relish. But the first half of the book is no less full of loving, exhaustive descriptions of actors in motion, and the heavy doses of first- and second-person addresses in these passages tell an alternate story about how screen presence is invented and preserved. In this story, it is an amorphous “we” — a collective, ever-growing body of viewers spread across time and space — that confers presence on movie actors. Harvey’s use of the third-person plural is more, in other words, than a critic’s attempt to conflate his point of view with that of his audience. But it is this, too, and one of the inevitable limitations of Harvey’s book is that it assumes its audience to be made, for the most part, of educated, secular Western liberals. “In the end,” he writes about The Searchers, “we know that Ethan … is not going to be a liberal humanist. Someone like us, that is.”

Like Selznick and Walsh, Harvey’s “we” confers presence on certain actors based in part on what it recognizes, encounters, or sees in them: a moving balance of opacity or transparency; a mix of naïveté and worldliness. But it has a more inclusive eye than, say, Selznick; it is willing to linger on middle-aged, interracial couples (Jackie Brown), weathered, aging mobsters (Once Upon a Time in America), aspiring singers, sickly country stars, and nobly dissatisfied wives (Nashville). Part of what draws Harvey to directors like Scorsese, Altman, Tarantino, and the young Godard is, one feels, their status as movie buffs with a man-in-the-crowd’s resistance to Old Hollywood’s narrower standards of beauty and “specialness.” In films like Nashville and Jackie Brown — both of which feature a pair of aging celebrities with a tenuous grip on their fame, in one case among the movie’s characters and in the other at the top of its billed cast — there is an implicit assumption that the filmmaker’s eye, like that of his or her audience, has the freedom to confer specialness on­ — or recognize specialness in — whomever it pleases. The effect of watching Lily Tomlin’s Linnea contemplating her young son in Nashville, is, Harvey writes, like what “happen[s] in life sometimes — when you see some stranger or strangers, on a street or in a park or across the train aisle, being marvelous unawares — seeming deeply thoughtful or spontaneously generous or just brilliantly there — and it feels like a parting of the veil.”

The veil in question is something like inattention: the habitual, unconscious blocking-out we keep up towards the better part of our fellow human beings. This blocking-out is, in effect, a failure on our part to acknowledge others, to recognize them as present, and to accept them as capable of making demands on our attention and our lives. If the movies are capable of teaching us out of this habit, Harvey suggests, it is by shifting our attention away from the people in the foreground of the frame and towards those in the back. That, in his reading, is one of the central motivations behind films like Nashville and Jackie Brown, but it is also the guiding narrative principle of his book, which begins with the Hollywood star system and ends on the work of a trio of filmmakers who called into question the very idea of the actor as someone distinct from the common herd.

It’s fitting that the book’s narrative pivots on the first three films Ingrid Bergman made with her then-partner Roberto Rossellini in the 1950s — movies in which a beautiful American superstar was forced to compete for control of the film with a stream of vividly displayed nonprofessionals — and climaxes with Harvey’s description of the ending of Voyage to Italy, in which Rossellini famously shifts the action away from Bergman’s character and her husband, locked in a tearful embrace amidst the noise and shuffle of a huge crowd, to a handful of “anonymous-looking cops” standing by on the side. “With all its claustrophobic fixation on the couple,” Harvey tells us, the movie “ends not with them at all, but with their displacement by an image of the impersonal crowd — a final rebuke to their solipsism, their ‘impoverished subjectivities,’ even a clue to their redemption.”

The star of the film with which Watching Them Be ends is, in keeping with this trend, ignored by the movie’s other characters to the point of near-invisibility, yet imbued by the film itself, as if in compensation, with a shattering, luminous presence. Robert Bresson’s Balthazar “is not a virtual human being,” Harvey insists. “Nor is he Christ, as many critics have read him — nor is he all-of-us or Everyman, as Michael Haneke claims. He is what you see — a donkey, if an exceptional one.” Au hazard Balthazar (1966), which follows its protagonist from the cradle to the grave as he passes through a series of owners, some abusive, others kind, is one of the movies’ most devastating and sustained treatments of suffering. The pain Balthazar undergoes is, we are led to believe, a result of indifference; his owners and tormentors, in refusing to acknowledge his presence, refuse to acknowledge his worth.

Harvey’s reverent essay on Balthazar is a magnificent performance, and an elegant synthesis of his book’s two central themes. It is the camera’s ability to convey Balthazar’s presence — to give him, in other words, what his onscreen oppressors deny him — that, Harvey argues, transforms the movie from a picture of prolonged suffering to an active bestowal of grace. But it is, in the end, the audience’s ability to recognize his presence that provides the final “clue to his redemption.” One of the most effective and challenging ways to come into an understanding of other beings’ minds and lives is, after all, to look at them.


Max Nelson is a New York–based film critic who regularly contributes to Reverse Shot, Cinema Scope, and Film Comment, where he writes a bimonthly column on new and upcoming restoration work.

LARB Contributor

Max Nelson is a New York–based film critic who regularly contributes to Reverse ShotCinema Scope, and Film Comment, where he writes a bimonthly column on new and upcoming restoration work.


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