ALL YOU NEED IS GLOVE: THE ACCESSORY THEORY OF FILM CRITICISM

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The first article I ever had published in a proper magazine (as opposed to DIY fanzines cobbled together by myself and chums) was a piece about inflatable sex dolls which Jonathan Meades agreed to run during a brief period when he was editor of Event, Richard Branson’s short-lived attempt to dominate the London listings wars in the early 1980s. (This was around the same time that the staff of Time Out came out on strike over equal pay or Janet Street-Porter or something, and a breakaway faction started a rival mag called City Limits so, for a very short time, London had three listings magazines.)

I was never a permanent member of staff at Event, but filled in when people from the film section went off on holiday, no doubt reassured that I wasn’t clever enough to try and steal their jobs in their absence. But it was to be my first taste of journalism. It would be here that I would write my first film review (of Insatiable, starring Marilyn Chambers), and get my first photographs published (of the Salvation Army, and serving suggestions for Miaowmix cat food). I also spent way too much time thinking up what I imagined were terribly witty photo captions for the listings section.

After Event went bust (the first of what were to be numerous times that a publication for which I worked bit the dust, usually owing me money), some of the staff drifted over to a newly resurgent Time Out, so after a couple of years in limbo (during which I applied for, and failed to get, many other jobs) I ended up doing the odd photo job for them; I think the first pictures I had published there were of Stephen King eating a fish-paste sandwich in the tea room at Brown’s hotel.

I also started to write film reviews of softcore porn and cheesy teen movies too low-rent for the magazine’s regular film critics to be bothered with. The first one was of Nana, which (I wrote) “lends weight to the theory that Zola was not a Naturalist, but a Naturist; hence the nude frolicking is entirely justified.” (Only now do I see that the screenwriter was Marc Behm, which piques my interest rather more than it was piqued back in the day.)

As a fledgling writer without any sort of formal education in film criticism, I’d vaguely heard of the Auteur Theory, and now decided I wanted a theory of my own. And so The Accessory Theory of Film Criticism was born. This was the second article I ever had published; it appeared in Time Out in 1984, and yes, I know it’s a little jejune. But also quite sweet, I think.

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The Auteur Theory as a method of film criticism has had its day. We may well ask if it was ever relevant anyway. Are filmgoers really aware of who directed Tootsie or Return of the Jedi? And do they give a fig? So what is it about a movie that makes its mark on our minds? If not the direction, then the editing? Cinematography? Screenplay? No, it’s the little things that stick in the memory cells: the hats, the shoes, the handbags. In other words, the accessories.

On practical application of The Accessory Theory, we may find that a bad film which features a fair number of eye-catching accessories (for example, The Hunger, which almost entirely consists of them) is often more worthy of attention than a good film which lacks any. Perhaps this is why Bresson and Rohmer and films with a lot of nudity are often so boring. What is it, after all, that people remember most from His Girl Friday? Not Howard Hawks’ direction, but that outrageous chimney-shaped growth which was Rosalind Russell’s hat. In the words of the famous French philosopher, ‘Il n’y a pas des oeuvres; il n’y a que Gucci.’ (Or, if you’d prefer, ‘There is no Godard, only Gucci.’)

This would suggest that a film like Raging Bull, in which gloves figure prominently, has less in common with other films by the same director (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and so on) than with La Belle et la Bête . Beauty is transported through time and space by her magic glove, much in the same way as Jake La Motta biffs his way through an entire celluloid montage sequence. Let us then consider the glove in cinema history as an illustration of the wide-ranging implications of accessories.

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Despite their connotations of civilised formality, gloves in films are usually an indication of the id turned loose; a method of smothering the normal boring human being and giving the super ego carte blanche to indulge in licentious behaviour. Think of Rita Hayworth in Gilda. No need for her to remove her strapless black satin gown; she does something far naughtier – she strips off her glove. Think of assassin Alain Delon in Le Samouraï, hands hidden beneath immaculate white gloves as he executes his contracts like a man disposing of so much surplus footage. Or Robert Vaughn’s gunfighting fingers cased in black leather, a mark of the most professional if not the most magnificent of all The Magnificent Seven. Criminals in caper movies always wear gloves. Fingerprints are the seat of the soul, and truly successful felons must keep their souls under wraps.

Gloves can also denote assumption of duty or position. They are a part of uniform, specialised sportswear or protective gear. Or all three at once for the Maîtresse, suppressing her individual personality beneath the role’s responsibility for its own unspeakably sadistic acts. Gloves preserve anonymity and detachment while wielding the scalpel of authority. Once he gets his rubber gloves on, the surgeon in Les yeux sans visage can carve slices off women’s faces with impunity. With his crisp white gloves, Ryuichi Sakamoto in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence can run a whole prison camp without dirtying his hands.

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The glove conceals even as it reveals. It is not just a symbol, but also a mask. Garbo’s Queen Christina wears macho gauntlets when she disguises herself as a man. In Fedora, Marthe Keller wears gloves to conceal her identity – her hands cannot lie about her real age – while Claude Rains in The Invisible Man can hide nothing with his gloves. (One of the beauties of the Accessory Theory is its flexibility – it’s the theory equivalent of the Little Black Dress.)

In Yellow Submarine the glove is a malignant force. Freed from every last vestige of the human hand and its restraining wrist, gloves are liable to run riot and act nasty. This is the glove at its most primal, in its most terrifying incarnation, abandoning the veneer of sophistication and going straight for the jugular. When the werewolf’s hands sprout hair, it’s not just a sign of bestial metamorphosis; it is also the autogeneration of a furry glove, a means of submerging the human identity beneath a carnal, carnivorous one.

Rarely, if ever, have films knowingly been constructed on the basis of accessory alone. Titles are often misleading. The Gauntlet, though it may well feature a glove or two in passing, turns out to be not about gloves per se at all, though that five-fingered shadow still looms large over the action. But although gloves may not be central to a theme, they can be instrumental in developing it. Indeed they often hold the key to meaningful interpretation. Shoes, socks and scarves all have their parts to play upon the twin screens of Life and Art.

So if directors are to be taken at all seriously, they must henceforth be judged on their use of accessories to further the plot and clarify concept. A mere hat brim may be all that distinguishes a masterpiece from the rest of the common dross. A pair of elbow-length white kid gloves, as worn by femme fatale Jane Greer when she first steps into Robert Mitchum’s life in Out of the Past, can mean the difference between triumph and disaster.

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This article was first published in Time Out in 1984. It has been lightly edited.

PS. I don’t think The Hunger is a bad film, per se, but at the time of writing critics had pretty much dismissed it as one.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “ALL YOU NEED IS GLOVE: THE ACCESSORY THEORY OF FILM CRITICISM

  1. Pingback: MY FAVOURITE FILMS OF THE 1980s | MULTIGLOM

  2. Pingback: RILDEY SCOTT AND THE AD LADS: THE 1989 INTERVIEW (PLUS THE ACCESSORY THEORY OF FILM CRITICISM REVISITED) | MULTIGLOM

  3. Pingback: MY 1997 REVIEW OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S VERTIGO | MULTIGLOM

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