American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra by Raymond Carney (Cambridge University: $24.95; 510 pp.; illustrated)

Schoffman, a screenwriter, teaches at the USC School of Cinema-Television

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winslow Homer and corny Frank Capra--together at last? Unlikely as those names are to be uttered in one breath at your local Bijou, their conjoining is the very core of Raymond Carney's ambitious argument. Author of a recent study of John Cassavetes ("American Dreaming") and a fellow of the Stanford Humanities Center, Carney has undertaken, in his often brilliant yet maddening new volume, to demonstrate Capra's credentials as an American romantic and modernist whose work calls for not only a soggy Kleenex but a 500-page extravaganza of interdisciplinary scholarship.

"Capra's central figures," contends Carney, "are Emersonian transcendentalists" who "attempt to express their infinities of imagination and desire in ordinary life." Like daydreamers in paintings by Eakins, Homer and Hopper, Capra characters frequently engage in moments of "meditative shift"--they drop out of their narratives, as it were, and into themselves--whereupon the audience is redirected from "an attention to event to attention to psychology, from an awareness of social actions to an awareness of imaginative transactions." The director's oeuvre , insists the author, thus lies within a tradition traceable from "the early German idealists and the first (not the Shelleyan or Keatsian) generation of English romantic poets, especially Blake and Wordsworth," through George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Emerson, and William and Henry James--"though," Carney judiciously adds, "I am not suggesting that Capra ever read a line of, or was even aware of, these illustrious predecessors."

Down through the movies Carney marches, documenting in myriad permutations the central tension in Capra between the free-thinking individual and the structures of society. In such early films as "Platinum Blonde" (1931), Capra's protagonists' wild idealism mocked norms and mores. Later, in his great trilogy of "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), and "Meet John Doe" (1941), Capra rejected such irresponsibility, requiring that his spirited heroes attempt to take the System on from the inside--but the System could not accommodate their iconoclasm.

By the pinnacle of his career, with "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), Capra had come round, argues Carney, to the realization that society inevitably muffles desire, that "moderate alienation" is the correct modernist posture. "Wonderful Life's" ostensibly happy resolution, in Carney's view, is emblematic of the tragedy implicit in many of Capra's endings, which are so ideal and sugary as though to underscore their own impossibility. Capra, concludes the author, has a lot more in common "with the vision of Western culture in Freud's 'Civilization and its Discontents' than (with) the genteel sentimentality of (Norman) Rockwell's paintings." And if such late films as "A Hole in the Head" (1959) and "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961) signal a safe retreat into Hollywood conformity, it was simply, Carney offers regretfully, that the master's "spirit failed."

Carney's readings of the films are always sophisticated, often fascinating, and quite persuasive overall. Unfortunately, the author feels compelled to drive home his points four or five times too many. He also has a penchant for gratuitous comparison, as if he were writing "American Vision" in overbaked homage to Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell's celebrated "Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage," which prefaces its treatment of "It Happened One Night" (germanely, as it happens) with a disquisition on Kant and Wittgenstein. But Carney's analogy-dropping often belabors the obvious or is just plain showy. (Example: his comparison of renovating the Granville house in "It's a Wonderful Life" with Wordsworth's poem "Michael.") Worst of all, he's prone to such flights of academese as the following remark about "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington":

"The linguistic world Smith enters and attempts to speak within is a Saussurian utopia of deauthored differances. Ideals, principles, personal emotional commitments, and even the biological human body as a source of meaning have been levered out of the system, which reveals itself to be a Levi-Straussian value-neutral, impersonal, self-perpetuating network of absolutely empty signifiers." (Translation: Jimmy Stewart finds Washington sterile and dehumanizing.)

After traipsing through such displays of double-barreled semiotic sesquipedalianism, you want to bolt for the nearest bar and grab an earful of Stallonean Anglo-Saxonisms.

Which really is too bad. Few readers, I fear, will tough it all the way through "American Vision," and they will miss a great deal. Like too many academic tomes, content here is all but torpedoed by form. What redeems the work is an abundance of its own sort of "meditative shifts"--the author's numerous digressions into questions of art and life. Carney is at his most illuminating when he stops straining to create a taxonomy of Capra's qualities--or to install him in one literary tradition or another--and instead uses the films as objects upon which to muse adventurously. The results are stimulating.

Reflecting on the attraction between a "party girl" and an artist in the 1930 film "Ladies of Leisure," Carney explains "this paradoxical pairing of cynics and idealists" as a coming together of "imaginative outlaws." Elsewhere, he draws on the lovely distinction, made by critic Richard Poirier, between "free" and "fixed" characters in the works of Henry James, contrasting the self-expressive performances of Capra's main characters with the "technical" or theatrical turns of actors in Preston Sturges' films. There are discussions of repression as the seedbed of art; of composition in Homer and Hopper; of the ways in which certain Capra films mirror, physically and thematically, the movie-making process. (One topic Carney touches upon but surprisingly doesn't explore is Capra as Italian and Catholic. I surely expected comparison with the neo-operatic styles of Coppola, Scorsese or Cimino.)

The best works of criticism, it's often said, are works of art in themselves; this one unfortunately isn't. But a second tier of criticism is often strangely and satisfyingly mimetic of the texts it examines. In "American Vision," Carney, consciously or not, seems to be playing out the same dilemma he ascribes to Capra: how to stuff his personal, wild, imaginative vision into the straitjacket of his industry--"to speak," in Capra's case, "the transcendental in the lingua franca of the Hollywood movie," and in Carney's, to speak his mind and academic argot simultaneously. "Free verse," sighs the author in his most self-revealing obiter dictum , "cannot pay the rent."

Carney, like the Capra he convincingly draws, is a radical masquerading as a team player. By extolling Capra's "transcendental" vision over what the author calls the "pragmatism" or escapism of Howard Hawks or Sturges, in denouncing Hitchcock for his "actors-as-cattle" philosophy, Carney indicates a political agenda analogous to (but a far piece from) the late John Gardner's crusade for "moral" fiction. But by failing--as Capra ultimately may have--to find a truly effective avenue, within the confines of his profession, for his own fairly anarchic vision, Carney loses his audience, which Capra did not. Endeavoring to "bore from within" as the Marxists call it--to inject a delightfully subversive creativity into a "straight" academic project--Carney too often risks being boring.

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