2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 1) Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films

When an author sets out to compose a text that concerns itself with as complex of themes as how gender is performed within cinema, particularly genre films no less, which come with their own set of contested definitions, a reader might be hesitant to follow the complex threads argued by the author.  However, Barry Keith Grant's Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films is an exception to such a rule.  While, at times it reads much more like a genre revisionist piece than a critique of how masculinity has evolved, altered and deconstructed itself within American film, Grant infuses the piece with such realized close readings of both prolific films and lesser known classics that both the casual reader and the die-hard film theorist can find points of intrigue.  While the text does expand beyond the seventies briefly, more as a point of conclusion than study, Shadows of Doubt takes into consideration the elements of masculinity at play both in front of and behind the camera, discussing everything from D.W. Griffith's important work Broken Blossoms, to a gendered analysis of Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic ending in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  At no point during his varied analysis does Grant become self-agrandizing in his argument, although he is not above dismissing what he feels to be ill-conceived analysis, taking a particular stance in his defense of horror as not only a genre of films worth critical discussion, but, perhaps, the ideal point of criticism both in their mass appeal to moviegoers and in their inherent counter-cinema nature.  In particular, Grant tackles George A. Romero's early zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, a film I have written about critically in the past, and, where I thought I had pulled and prodded at all its gendered commentaries, Grant manages to strip away the layers of gory cult status, to truly paint a picture of not only a film genre (and arguably larger industry) on its last breaths of classic life, but a society crumbling under its own foolish clutching to antiquated ideals of culture.

The text is highly valuable to film theory, because while it does entrench itself within American film entirely, some of the themes are somewhat universal, affording the same argument to be applied to Red River (for which Grant's write-up is a revelation) that could be extended to something like Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, with a minor altering of archetypes here and there.  Indeed, masculinity in film has been discussed ad nauseum since film theory moved away from a purely structuralist frame of referecne, however, it has not been delivered with such poise and diligence has it occurs here in Shadows of Doubt.  In fact, Grant is keen enough to avoid the trap that befalls many film theorist, myself included, where once you make the decision to include particular work in your narrative, you convince yourself of it being a masterpiece, as to justify its continual acknowledgement.  Grant is above such frivolous approachs, instead, when he is aware that the film proves only a cultural or critical value he mentions its less than stellar cinematic value, this is evident in his extended discussion of The Delicate Delinquents, for which, he seems to only enjoy on a moderate cinematic level, but, nonetheless, deconstructs for its seminal place in the discussion of an evolving masculinity in the work of American genre filmmaking.  Another benefit of Grant's work is that while he is considerably critical of misguided opinions about work, he does seem willing to the keep the dialogue open, neither claiming the final say in a matter, nor a single answer to any one cinematic masculine presence, indeed I found myself wonder, what his thought were on some of the more complex male figures in the history of American film, such as Robert Mitchum's maniacal priest in The Night of the Hunter or the tense, yet relatively humorous engagements of The Rat Pack.  At times, Grant purposefully chooses lesser known, or critically dismissed movies as a point of reference to their gender dynamics, in some cases, arguing that their unique portrayal of new versions of masculinity, in some ways led to their timely demise (refer to his magnficent analysis of Elvis, rock'n'roll and a reconsideration of the musical for the best example).  Ultimately, Grant lays a groundwork for the hybrid discussion of genre and gender, one that has, as mentioned before, existed in varying degrees prior, but never with this much tenacity and possibility.

Best film discovery of the book:  Being a huge fan of counter-cinema, Grant's entire chapter devoted to Shirley Clarke's The Cool World opened my eyes up to a film that I was unaware of prior, and one made by an African-American woman no less.  It is a stellar work in cinema verite and a clear through line to the hip works of Jarmusch and Tarantino, which is yet another reason to check out Shadows of Doubt, available here.

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