The fact that Lubitsch Can’t Wait is the first anthology of its kind speaks of Ernst Lubitsch’s paradoxical critical status. On the one hand, here is a filmmaker whose place inside the canon is never doubted, whose name is accepted with unanimous acclaim. And yet on the other hand, Lubitsch’s position among Hollywood’s great auteurs might also be taken for granted, to the point where his name is mentioned often while his films are never afforded much in the way of extended analysis.
This might have something to do with their apparently impeccable structure, their perfect balance of form and content, the delicacy and economy with which they have come to exemplify that elusive but palpable “Lubitsch touch.” But it might also have something to do with the cultural status of comedy in general. Comedy has been at the center of speculation, disagreement and finally critical neglect ever since Aristotle’s defining thesis on it was lost, leaving us only with his previously published and now famous Poetics, which carved in stone the foundations upon which tragedy as a dramatic form operates.
Left in the long shadow of poetic and noble misery, comedy has consequently played second fiddle time and again to a supposedly more serious form of art. Many pay the comical lip service, but rarely have they given it the same consideration as the tragic: laughter is reserved for something called relief—relief from a daily grind on the way to an inevitable and willful navel-gazing denouement. (There are class implications at work, here: tragedy, traditionally seen as an individualist narrative form, of a single fall from grace, has a necessarily loftier air than something collectively laughed at by the masses.)
Enter, then, Lubitsch Can’t Wait (edited by Ivana Novak, Jela Krečič and Mladen Dolar), the Slovenian Cinematheque’s first fully English-language publication, which is being distributed by Columbia University Press. This brings together nine research papers first presented at a symposium in the fall of 2012, focusing upon Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), To Be or Not To Be (1942) and Cluny Brown (1946). As its title suggests, the book arrives as a matter of urgency: not only is such a theoretical examination of Lubitsch’s comedy overdue, but his films deal with “the pressing issues of his time in ways that are directly relevant to ours, and that touch upon large questions about the nature of art, politics, love, and the elementary driving forces of the psychic and the social.”
As a multi-author analysis of four romantic comedies, this volume is also an insightful and often enjoyable intellectualization of romantic love—an underlying argument from one essay to the next is that there is something essentially comical about such everyday phenomena, or rather that comical artistic renditions of such pursuits are more able to get to their essence. Another common thrust that binds the essays is their attempt to locate “the Lubitsch touch”—and in doing so, we may seemingly learn from Lubitsch artistic and even political strategies that are increasingly relevant today (or as one repeated line in Trouble in Paradise goes, “in times like these…”)
For Aaron Schuster, the Lubitsch touch is to be found in style itself, and in the delight taken in doubling and appearances as exemplified by Trouble in Paradise in particular. For Russell Grigg, meanwhile, it’s located in the way Lubitsch preferred associational ellipsis prior to the Hays Code’s implementation—so that his films were suggestively erotic even before explicit references became prohibited. For Robert Pfaller, it’s in the way polygamy repeatedly functions in Lubitsch’s films—and how polygamous relationships allow for an unexpectedly happy ending.
Another overriding aim of the book is two-fold: firstly, to return to Lubitsch at a time “when traces of comic spirit in cinema have become increasingly rare,” and secondly, to return Lubitsch to his rightful place in the filmic canon. As such, the majority of the writings here make a number of evaluative claims that are ultimately unhelpful. (alignlife.com) Co-editor Mladen Dolar’s own contribution is particularly prone to hyperbole: “Let me state from the outset,” he begins, “that in my view To Be or Not To Be is one of the best movies ever made in the whole of cinema history.” He goes on: “…one of the most inspiring and happy moments in scriptwriting history. It has been said a number of times that this is possibly one of the best scenarios in film history, a masterpiece of plotting…”
Dolar’s hyperbole continues (with my emphasis): “This is the time for arguably the best comedy ever. There is an ethical stance of comedy involved here, which is what makes this film absolutely unique, unmatched in the history of cinema. No other film has quite this stance and courage, this sweeping cheek in the face of despair, the most dearly needed comedy ever.” Further on, after some token analysis, the writer quotes Lubitsch himself, before remarking: “This is one of the greatest lines on comedy ever written, and one must take one’s hat off to its author.” Later, Alenka Zupančič similarly adds little to her otherwise insightful text on Cluny Brown by claiming the film is “definitely the strangest romantic comedy ever made.” Needless to say, though it’s refreshing to read film analysis by people who haven’t left their cinephilia at the door (as is often the case in the dreary, all-too-literary arena of “film studies”), such subjective assertions have no place in scholarship.
Other problems persist. In her own essay, Tatjana Jukić quickly loses sight of Ninotchka as she happily spirals into a dizzying procession through Lacanian and Foucauldian terminology and the murkier corridors of Grand Theory: “biopolitics,” “bare life” and, in one highfalutin hotchpotch of a sentence in particular, Freud, Benjamin and Marx. These top-down queries ought to have been put to bed with the publication of David Bordwell and Noël Carroll’s edited anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996), which is nearly twenty years old.
(As an aside, it’s one thing to be so densely name-droppy, but if ever there was a sign of intellectual stagnation it’s the fact that it’s always the same three or four names being paraded about. Bordwell and Carroll refer to this doctrine-driven theory as “argument-as-bricolage:” “Far from being a coherent system, this Grand Theory was a patchwork of ideas, any of which might be altered or removed when ‘recent developments’, as they were usually called, threw it into question.”)
Given such increasingly visible priorities, it’s only natural that the volume gives its final word to Slavoj Žižek, that giant guarantor of giddily idiosyncratic Lacanian thought. Opening with a jovial anecdote about Jesus Christ and Tiger Woods, Žižek—who is of course married to co-editor Krečič—offers an overview of Lubitsch’s aesthetic with a lengthy, convoluted and knowingly vulgar illustrative riddle involving white and black men fucking women from behind, whose logic he takes much pleasure in working through. Quoting from other essays in the volume, Žižek’s concluding sentiments double as a kind of approbation to the other and lesser contributors, who aren’t afforded this titan’s omniscient vantage point. Of course, when Žižek writes today about “ordinary humans who have to struggle constantly with their ineradicable propensity to Evil” he does so for the marginal few already converted to his cynical, attention-seeking brand of intellectual obfuscation.
Such shortcomings, however, make the brighter spots shine all the more. Elisabeth Bronfen offers welcome textual analysis of To Be or Not To Be. Though her essay proceeds through the film on a kind of literary level, which could be given merely by reading the film’s script (is the elusive Lubitsch touch to be found in the writing?), Bronfen does offer a real, lasting sense of the multiple, complex levels on which the film works. Perhaps the most grounded and focused essay in Lubitsch Can’t Wait, however, is Gregor Moder’s, which analyzes at length a few small moments in To Be or Not To Be and demonstrates how they encapsulate the film’s themes as a whole. What’s more, as one of nine essayists covering four films between them, Moder manages to stay free of repetition even when, in his opening paragraph, he synopsizes a single scene with such clarity and precision that its Lubitschean hilarity comes shining through.
Lubitsch Can’t Wait (Edited by Ivana Novak, Jela Krečič and Mladen Dolar. Ljubljana: Slovenian Cinematheque, 2014. 240 pp., illus. $30.00 / £20.50)