In Robin Wood's 1981 introduction to his seminal study of Howard Hawks, Wood cites "an extreme and habitual self-consciousness" as a characteristic of modern art, one to which he has an ambivalent response; citing Losey's Eve, a film he expresses a qualified admiration for, he enumerates several shots containing an "insistence on significance." The most egregious, to Wood's mind, being a "waste of a whole camera movement" to show the viewer that a character in the film is reading Eliot.
"This kind of thing is so alien to Hawks that I am almost at a loss to find anything in his films sufficiently like it to make direct comparison possible," Wood continues. "[B]ut there is one such moment in Red Line 7000. Julie (Laura Devon), the sheltered younger sister of a race-team manager, sits waiting for her lover, one of the drivers, who has in fact left her. She waits most of the night, with an opened bottle of champagne on the table before her, and when her brother comes to find her, and tells her he has seen her boy-friend out with other women, she looks at the bottle and murmurs that the bubbles are all gone. It's not a profound bit of symbolism, but the point is that Hawks doesn't treat it as if it were. It arises naturally from the scene[...]"
The scene, and Wood's description of it, crossed my mind recently when I watched a restored version of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 melodrama The Ring, playing tomorrow night on the big screen of the Harvey Theater as part of BAM's presentation of nine silent movies by the master director. The Ring is an unusual Hitchcock picture in several respects. For one thing, it's the only Hitchcock picture for which he is credited as the screenwriter; for another, it's not a suspense or crime picture but rather an odd romance in which an up-and-coming boxer has to cope with an imposed romantic rivalry. The movie's sexual politics seem a mix of the tenor of the times and Hitchcock's own damage, and will no doubt prove scintillating to some latter-day observers, but are not the concern of this consideration.
There's an extent to which what may be considered symbolism and what is in fact metaphor may smear into each other, the way chocolate smears into peanut butter. Near the climax of The Ring, the protagonist, Carl Brisson's Jack, wins an important bout, and he and his cronies repair to his place to celebrate. The absence of Jack's wife, known in the film only as "The Girl" (Lillian Hall Davis, and what did I tell you about the picture's sexual politics?) is noted, but Jack assures the fellas that she ought to be back soon. In the meantime, champagne! Jack pours it out.
What then follows, in a matter of mere seconds, via a series of meticulously-executed dissolves, is a visual account of the bubbles going...
and there they are, gone. And in the event you needed more emphasis on the literal, metaphorical, and perhaps symbolic fact, Hitchcock dissolves once more, to the whole tray of flat drinks.
(N.b., the screen captures here are from a 2007 DVD issue of the film, not the excellent restoration BAM will be running.) What Hitchcock accomplishes with this effect, the economy of which belies what must have been some pretty elaborate preparation in order to pull off, is kind of remarkably multivalent. Via the dissolve, he sculpts in time, demonstrating its passing while also showing the life, the liveliness, going out of the ostensible celebration. Jack's victory is an empty one, because his wife is in fact out on the town with his rival...the man he will, as the scenario has it, have to face in the title ring for the final, you know, showdown.
The champagne effect is one of the most striking in a movie that is full of cinematic storytelling touches that were innovations at the time and subsequently became part of the lingua franca. Most of the pleasure to be had from The Ring today is seeing Hitchcock working out his ideas; his cinematic apparatus, while remarkably assured, isn't entirely refined. But there's a raw exuberance to the way he throws one effect after another. For the next thirty-plus years of his career, you never see that enthusiasm flag, but you do see it applied more virtuosically. While this movie plays awkwardly to that bugaboo of cinephilia, the "contemporary sensibility," it's also entirely clear that in The Ring, Hitchcock isn't just learning the ropes, he's making them.