As of today, the notion of ‘canonical film’ enjoys much popularity with film critics and ordinary moviegoers. The validity of this suggestion can be shown about the periodic publishing of the lists of top 25, 50, 100 such films in the Time magazine, and the fact that even an odd person asked on a street would be able to name at least a few canonical movies. At the same time, however, there is no universally recognized definition as to what the concerned notion stands for and what are the objective indications that a particular film is indeed canonical (Schrader 35).
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One of the reasons for this is that the issue of ‘canonicalness’ in movies is now assessed within the methodological frameworks of two different theories, which can generally be categorized as ‘auteurist’(or ‘aesthetic’) and ‘discursive’. The proponents of the former believe that when it comes to elaborating on whether a particular film can be deemed canonical or not, one must take into primary consideration the qualitative aspects of the affiliated director’s strive towards self-actualization as an artist (Richards 92).
According to the ‘auteurist’ point of view, a canonical movie can even be considered the one that never enjoyed much popularity with people – all for as long as it is concerned with revolutionizing the cinematographic format in one way or another (Christie 6).
The advocates of the ‘discursive’ outlook on what accounts for the proper approach to defining the term ‘cinematographic canon’ do not quite agree. According to them, it is specifically the sheer strength of a particular film’s psycho-mental consistency with the currently prevalent socio-cultural discourse, which should be indicative of the concerned movie being indeed canonical. The ‘discursive’ conceptualization of cinematographic canon derives from the “practice of viewing films as symptoms of social formations, economic conditions, or psychological predilections, rather than aesthetic objects” (Lupo 222).
As of today, however, it is becoming increasingly clearer that namely the ‘discursive’ approach to determining ‘canonicalness’ should be deemed thoroughly legitimate. The reason for this is that, as practice shows, most of the universally recognized canonical films are indeed highly reflective of what used to be the affecting social, economic, and cultural circumstances at the time of these movies’ making. There is even more to it – canonical films appear to be nothing but the cinematic sublimation of people’s deep-seated archetypal anxieties, on one hand, and of their innate predisposition to lead a socially integrated lifestyle, on the other (Ozguven 165).
Moreover, canonical films also resonate perfectly well with people’s unconscious angsts as to what accounts for the biologically predetermined essence of the relationship between men and women (Geller 74). In my paper, I will explore the validity of these suggestions concerning the 1950 canonical film All About Eve, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz.
Ever since the time of Mankiewicz movie’s theatrical release, it continued to be highly acclaimed by critics as such that features the supreme acting performances on the part of the cast and contains many insights into the commonly overlooked ‘predatory’ aspects of the society’s functioning. The latter quality contributes to making All About Eve a truly canonical film more than anything else does.
The reason for this is that many of the film’s clues, in this regard, appear fully consistent with the realities of the 21st century’s like – something that will cause Mankiewicz’s movie to remain discursively relevant in the future. These clues can be outlined in conjunction with a number of the movie’s implicit connotations.
For example, All About Eve promotes the idea that the functioning of human society is defined by the Darwinian principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’. As Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) points out in one of the film’s initial scenes: “You have to keep your teeth sharp… they are the part of your equipment for getting along in what is laughingly called our environment” (00.41.59). The character of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) can be seen as the embodiment of such ‘fitness’.
She is both utterly conformist and yet endowed with the strong irrational desire for domination. Such a desire sits deep within just about every person because humans are essentially ‘hairless apes’. The film’s innovativeness in exploring the effects of one’s strive for domination on the concerned person’s behavior has to do with the fact that the director decided to use a female character as the point of reference in this respect (Dixon 87).
This suggests that along with being scientifically legitimate, in the sense of how it portrays the nature of behavioral drives in people, All About Eve is ideologically progressive. After all, not only does the film promote the idea that women are fully capable of outsmarting men, but it also reveals the ‘technical’ aspects of how this is done in practice. Partially, this explains why All About Eve became instantly popular with the movie-going audiences.
As Gussow noted: “The movie ‘All About Eve’… opened at the Roxy in New York and became an instant classic. The film won six Academy Awards, including two for Joseph Mankiewicz, as screenwriter and director” (A13). Such a development came about as a result of the director has succeeded in ensuring the psychological plausibility of the film’s plot, which validates once again the canonical status of Mankiewicz’s cinematographic masterpiece.
Another canonical subtlety of All About Eve is that this film did contribute rather substantially towards the development of the ‘existentialist’ school in cinematography, which became very popular during the 20th century’s sixties. The rationale behind this suggestion is concerned with the film’s promotion of the highest societal outlook on happiness. For example, even though the character of Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is shown obsessed with trying to hang on to her status of a theatrical star, as something essential to the maintenance of her sense of self-identity, she appears to be innately aware of the sheer wrongness of such her stance in life.
In the memorable scene, when Karen and Margo talk to each other in the backseat of a car, the latter comes up with the following remark: “I’ve been oversensitive to the fact that she (Eve) is so young, so feminine, and of so many things I want to be for Bill… so many things you drop on your way up the (career) ladder so that you can move faster, you will need them again when you get back to being a woman” (01.23.53). This, in turn, results in both: presenting the featured female characters as psychologically complex individuals, on one hand, and endowing the film with the strongly defined humanist sounding, on the other (Bingham 6).
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Given the fact that during the early fifties women continued to be stereotyped by Hollywood as being somewhat intellectually/psychologically inferior to men, the film’s mentioned subtlety serves as yet an additional indication that All About Eve can be indeed considered a canonical one. After all, the process of establishing a particular cinematographic canon has always been concerned with opposing the previously established ones.
As it was mentioned in the Introduction, the themes and motifs explored in canonical movies reflect the unconscious anxieties of moviegoers – hence, the phenomenon of such films’ popularity. During the fifties, Americans used to experience nothing short of a strong irrational fear of Communism, which in turn prompted them to think of it in terms of a mental deviation and to be naturally predisposed to regard the notions of ‘deviation’ and ‘evilness’ as being synonymous (Banner 18).
Mankiewicz was able to take practical advantage of such people’s mental tendency – his film does confirm the validity of the audience’s irrational belief that ‘abnormalness’ is ‘evil’. The reason for this is apparent – Eve’s mastery in tricking people to believe that she was someone different from what she truly used to be is shown inseparable from this character’s inability to live a normal life. The film hints that the reason for this is that Eve happens to be a lesbian. After all, it is not only that All About Eve contains many scenes in which Eve kisses other women, but she is also shown doing it in a rather passionate manner.
At the same time, however, there are no overt references to Eve’s ‘sexual abnormality’ to be found in the movie, which further confirms that Mankiewicz’s movie is ultimately concerned with the discourse of the Cold War (Daly 121). As Corber pointed out: “Her (Eve’s) impersonation of normative femininity suggests that she was at least partly inspired by the Cold War construction of the lesbian. What makes her so threatening as a lesbian is precisely her ability to impersonate normative femininity, which renders her lesbianism invisible” (2).
The film’s popularity with contemporaries is linked with the fact that All About Eve did contain many implicit clues, as to what represents the proper approach to singling out ‘anti-social elements’ within the society. As a result, those who have watched the film would leave movie theaters being even more convinced that their discourse-driven unconscious fear of ‘strangeness’ was indeed justified.
The film’s ‘canonicalness’ can also be illustrated, regarding the fact that All About Eve is credited with creating a stock character of an aging actress, who is incapable of facing the reality of growing ever older. Even before the release of Mankiewicz’s film, there were several instances of aging actresses (and women, in general) having been stereotyped in movies (Bazin and White 149). However, it is specifically All About Eve that provided viewers with a deep psychological insight into the mental workings of the stock character (Margo) in question.
Consequently, the film contributed towards transforming this particular stock character into nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, which is why the character of Margo continues to inspire those movie directors who explore the motif of an ‘aging woman’ in their works. For example, the character of Edna Crabapple in Simpsons appears to be evocative of Margo down to the smallest details (Friedwald D6). Just as it was the case with the latter, she is a heavy smoker, who speaks and laughs in the same coarse voice, drinks multiple shots of cognac one after another, and experiences lust for younger men. This implies that the director’s exploration of the concerned motif was consistent with the unconscious predispositions of the viewing audience, which serves as yet another sign that All About Eve does have what it takes to be considered a canonical film.
Because most canonical movies enjoy the fame of being utterly enlightening, this justifies our claim that All About Eve belongs to the ‘canonical’ category even further. The reason for this is that the movie provides a realist account of what the dynamics within the tight circle of theater/movie celebrities are all about. This particular feature of the discussed film can be deemed as having been revolutionary, as for its time (Formaini125).
After all, before the release of All About Eve, the cinematographic accounts of one’s ‘bohemian’ lifestyle tended to idealize celebrities in one way or another. In this respect, Mankiewicz’s film could not be more different. Contrary to what used to be the discursive conventions at the time, it shows that a woman’s likelihood to succeed in becoming a famous actress is only formally reflective of the varying amount of artistic talent in her. Rather, it relates positively to how much of an immoral/conniving person she happened to be. As Wees aptly observed: “’All About Eve’ stands as an acerbic satire on ambition and the egocentricity of those who dominate show business” (10).
Thus, there appears to be nothing accidental about the fact that Mankiewicz’s movie ended up proving a commercial success. The movie’s description of celebrities was mature enough to correlate with the intellectual maturation of American society, as a whole – the process that attained an exponential momentum after the WW2.
Essentially the same can be said about the significance of the film’s yet another enlightening capacity, concerned with its promotion of the idea that conformity is the key to social success. After all, as can be seen in Mankiewicz’s film, it was namely Eve’s willingness to conform to the socially constructed image of a loyal fan that allowed her to befriend Margo and to begin undermining the latter ‘from within’, in the first place.
This adds to the film’s overall phenomenological quality – hence, justifying the canonical status of All About Eve. The rationale behind this suggestion is that, even though the director wanted the audience to hold the character of Eve in contempt, this was not the case. Quite to the contrary – in the aftermath of having been exposed to the film, many young women would end up thinking of Eve in terms of a role model (Leyland 87). Such an eventual development was dialectically predetermined – the very logic of the capitalist society’s development presupposes that there is a negative correlation between the measure of its complexity, on one hand, and the extent of its structural stability, on the other.
What it means is that to be able to proliferate, such a society must make a point in suppressing the truly extraordinary individuals, while paving the way for the ambitious but conformist ‘mediocrities’, such as Eve. This once again suggests that All About Eve was indeed finely attuned to the workings of ‘collective unconscious’ in America at the time when it hit the screens – hence, the film’s sub-sequential popularity and its place in the film canon.
As it was pointed out earlier, there are indeed many reasons to consider All About Eve an exceptional film, which contributed heavily towards establishing a number of the currently popular cinematographic conventions, concerned with the world of celebrities, in general, and a stock character of ‘aging actress’, in particular. The cultural legacy of Mankiewicz’s film continues to live on, which is why many contemporary films do typify the characters similarly affiliated with show business as it was done in All About Eve.
Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to confirm once again the validity of the paper’s initial thesis. When it comes to assessing the significance of a particular canonical movie, one will be much better off doing it within the methodological framework of the ‘discursive’ model of the cinematographic canon. After all, as was shown earlier, the foremost clue to the film’s popularity is concerned with the fact that All About Eve proved to be strongly subliminal of the targeted viewers’ unconscious fears and desires.
The film’s thoroughly conventional editing format did very little to undermine the popular appeal of many progressive (and not so progressive) ideas, conveyed by it. Therefore, in full accordance with the initially voiced considerations, concerning the available definitions of ‘canonical’ in movies, Mankiewicz’s film is best described as such that does belong to the category. Even though the earlier mentioned indications that this is indeed the case are far from being considered exhaustive, they do correlate well with what has been hypothesized initially, regarding the outlined approaches to setting canonical films aside from the rest.
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