A Conversation with Martha Nochimson
Author of Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2
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I interviewed Dr. Nochimson via telephone after a lengthy email correspondence with her that began in late November of 2002 when I discovered she had just written a book on Screen Couple Chemistry that was about to be released. The book is one of the first academic works to ever explore the topic, and I was of course excited to learn that Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis of Moonlighting were one of the screen couples she studied for her book. As soon as I got a copy, I read the section on Moonlighting and immediately emailed her with my opinion and embarked on an extended debate/discussion with her about the same. Dr. Nochimson is what can be described as an expert in the field, a scholar, and I thought her perspective would be an interesting addition to this website.
~~Cindy Klauss, Webmaster
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I got my Ph.D. in English literature at a time when hardly anybody was doing film studies. And this is pretty typical of the people in film studies. About 15-20 years ago I read a book by a woman named Tania Modleski called The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. And she was dealing with questions that I knew once I read her, I had wanted to ask about literature when I was doing my Ph.D. but nobody there was dealing with these kind of questions. So I decided that I would move over into film. It seemed very exciting, and the more I read the more exciting it was. Luckily for me, the English Department of Mercy College that I had been a part of became the Department of Literature, Language and Communication. This set the stage for me to develop a Film Studies program right where I was. About 5 years ago, I started to design it, and I was appointed Director. It is a really nice little major. We have enthusiastic students. We have a great internship program because of my contacts in the media. It is going extremely well. I am really pleased about that.
And Mercy College is located in New York, correct?
Yes, Mercy College is about 20 mins from the New York City border. I grew up in NYC.
You have written several books. Can you tell us a bit briefly about them?
The first book that I wrote was No End to Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject, which is a Feminist defense of soap opera. Defense is probably not too strong a word. Because of my contacts in the industry, I was able to interview quite a number of people. What I talked about was what difference it makes for the portrayal of female characters when you are dealing with a story that doesn't end. It is a very interesting thing. The structure itself effects everything about the way you write and the way you come off. I am not one of those people who say soap opera is about women because women watch it. I'm saying that it has an interesting impact on women and on men because structurally it has no end. I am also one of those people who is quite sure that the male audience is very large, much larger than has been thought. And then I went on to do a book called The Passion of David Lynch which is about the filmmaker David Lynch, and I was really really privileged to find favor in his eyes with an article that I wrote for Film Quarterly that I interviewed him for briefly. And he agreed to let me interview him for this book and he agreed to co-operate with me which he had never done before. And so I interviewed him on and off for about 5 years. It was great. It changed my life in a lot of ways. And the third book as you know is Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2. And I am working on another book right now that is about gangsters.
Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2 was published in December 2002. How is it doing?
It is doing pretty well. I am getting emails about it from people whom I do not know and of course from all my friends.
Oh? Emails from persons like me?
Well, you actually saw my book before I did. Remember that?
Yes, I do. I had pre-ordered it. I had found it on the web doing a keyword search on screen couple chemistry as I have been doing research on couple chemistry for several months now as I prepare a section of my website to deal with that topic. And I found a synopsis of your book, where I discovered you discussed the Moonlighting couple, and so I pre-ordered it from the University of Texas Press then and there. That was back in late July or early August. It was delivered in late November....about two weeks before it was to be published. I have no idea why I got a copy so early. Of course you know as soon as it arrived, I immediately read the section on Maddie and David and then emailed you my comments. The book is now available for sale at all the major book sellers online...Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and so on.
Yes. It is in both hard back and paper.
So let's talk a bit about the book. Would you define screen couple chemistry for us and tell us what you recognize or see and feel as chemistry when you study screen couples?
What I'm doing is coming at screen chemistry from a rather different position than a lot of people have. In principle, hardly anybody serious has written on it. You get your newspaper articles that say "Oh, these people have chemistry." But besides my book, there are only two or three serious essays on screen chemistry in film journals. Probably there are so few because screen chemistry is such a difficult subject. And I don't think that I have completely succeeded in talking about it, but I think what I have done is open up a new direction that perhaps lays the foundation for thinking about it in a new, more productive way.
I am looking at screen chemistry as a part of the image. I am looking at it as an element of image that is part of the documentary aspect of the image. And why is this important? Well, because most of the film image is under human control. And certainly in Hollywood and the Hollywood influenced media, the image is highly structured--there is special lighting, calculated costuming, and the frame is carefully composed. And it has been assumed that screen chemistry is also a part of the control the professionals have over what we see, the result of make-up, lighting, music, and frame composition. However, I am saying that for screen chemistry, the crucial aspects of the image are those aspects that can't be controlled, an intensity of energy that emerges from certain actors who work together, that cannot be fabricated no matter how many lights or how much make-up is used. That is where chemistry is. You can't create it in the studio.
Lots of serious film critics have said that Hollywood couples are manufactured by Hollywood, and that these manufactured couples give the studio a way of indoctrinating the audience about certain kind of gender issues, not necessarily conscious on the part of the people who run the industry because they are not terribly conscious about very much except money. So it has been thought that the studios cynically imagine that "we'll get them into the theatre by doing this to them." This cynicism is thought by many critics to be connected with the standard gender stuff about the man in control and the woman being controlled. Most of the serious work has been along that line. I'm saying that there is an aspect of the screen couple, the chemistry, that the studio actually cannot control. They have tried to control it, but they have failed every time. So basically what chemistry tends to be is this wonderful intensity and energy that the camera picks up on when two specific actors are working together. It doesn't happen with every pair. It is somewhat rare. But there are a substantial number of working couples on screen that the camera picks up a kind of energy transfer between them, and it shows up in the image. The only way to get this chemistry is to find it. That is if it shows up on the screen and you see it as a film maker, and you say, "Hey, I can do something with that." You can harness it but you can't create it, and for that reason chemistry usually breaks up gender stereotypes rather than creating or re-inforcing them.
This fits in very nicely with some new discoveries that have been made by neuroscience: that part of the thinking process, shall we say the initial part of the thinking process, starts way down at the primal area of the brain, not the top of the brain where you have reason and language, but pre-linguistic and pre-rational. The process of thought starts with images and those images start working with the rational part of the brain and that is the way thought is created. So what I am saying is that chemistry is that part of the energy of the image, the given part, the tangible part of the image that acts upon that primal part of the brain, which is why chemistry has such an amazing effect on us. You can't think about chemistry really. It hits you. There is lots to be done on this. By and large couples with chemistry have an impact on people in the audience but not everybody. It would be very interesting to know just how we could begin to talk about why say Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers...you show a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, especially one of the great ones...you can show this to anybody from any culture. It is as I said pre-linguistic, so you don't have to know the language, and they are in awe. It will just hit them right between the eyes, actually in the eyes. Yet there will be some people that it won't strike, and it would be kind of interesting to know what accounts for that difference. That is something I am not dealing with at all. I don't even have the language or the concepts to deal with it, but I can just see that that is another interesting issue. I'm pretty convinced at this point that screen chemistry is involved in moving images only. The still photos of screen couples with great chemistry evokes what the audience has seen in moving pictures.
In your book you discuss screen couples with great chemistry. And you select four classic film couples and six more contemporary couples, two from film and four from TV. One of the couples you selected was Bruce Willis & Cybill Shepherd from Moonlighting. I'd like to know what process did you go about in selecting the couples that you discussed, not so much the classic couples because you devote a great deal of the book explaining that, but more why you selected the contemporary ones that you did.
There would seem to be such a huge field to pick from, if you count how many couples we find in contemporary movies. But I wanted to use for my contemporary film couples the same criteria I did for my classic film couples. They had to have worked together for at least six pictures, so that narrowed the field considerably because there are hardly any couple pairings on film with that kind of work history together. So I chose relatively few film couples for the contemporary segment of the book. Most of my choices from contemporary couples were made from television shows. That is where the strong screen chemistry is now. For the TV couples, what I decided was that the minimum they worked together would be three years and the other thing I decided was what I would pick from would be couples with at least three years that were working on shows where the couple relationship is not peripheral to some other concern or plot, and not part of a larger group of people, but central to the show. Because it seemed to me that would be where the most compelling examples would be. Also I wanted couples that had proven responses from audiences. And certainly Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd had set the country on fire when Moonlighting was in its heyday.
In your book you discuss the Moonlighting couple and devote a great deal of the discussion to your favorite episode, the black and white episode, The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice. Tell me why this is your favorite episode.
From a purely responsive and personal stance, I like it. It is the most intriguing, the most beautiful, the funniest of the episodes. You just watch it and enjoy it. You look at it and you think, "Oh, this is absolutely fantastic." From a more critical point of view, there are a number of things about it that are daring and innovative. First of all the desire to experiment in black and white which is bold.
More so on TV I think than on film.
Exactly. Now everything is color. I have a lot of experience with young people because of my teaching and there are a significant number who say, "I don't like black and white. I only watch color. If somebody shows me black and white, I'm going on to something else." And a part of what I try to do in my classes is open them up a little bit. And sometimes I'm successful. So it's bold that the Moonlighting creative team was willing to take that risk. And I suppose they were willing to because they were already pretty successful at this. The other thing that I love about The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice, the other bold thing is it defies the rule in pop culture television that shows must be heavily plot driven. The stuff that I really like in pop culture leaves that road. The worst example of which is the action film where there is hardly any exposure to character at all; it is all just bang bang bang. And Moonlighting is of course a character driven show. But in most of the episodes, it obeys the rules that require the characters to spend most of their time in an action scenario. In this case, they just went wild. They let go of all of that and what they did was they took a little walk inside the brain, in the subconscious of each of their major characters and that was extremely bold and in the end I think a gamble that paid off big time because that was a lot of fun. To see their fantasies around the framing of the Flamingo Cove murder.
Of course, Maddie's fantasy is beautifully characteristic of how Maddie would fantasize. It's gorgeous. And David's fantasy beautifully captures how David would fantasize. Even the way they see the world. Down to the way the rhythms of their speech are totally different in each one. You have that sort of fast, hard-boiled dialogue in David's section and that sort of woman's picture flow in Maddie's. And the truth is I totally love Cybill Shepherd's performance of "I Told You I Loved You, Now Get Out." It is just major. A wonderful performance. And being a big fan of "Gilda," the Rita Hayworth movie that they were making fun of, I was even more impressed with the cleverness of the scene. The other reason I love it so much is that I thought that in this episode that David and Maddie really achieved a kind of parity between their importance and the validity of their points of view. As you know, it is my opinion that in most of the shows, one way or another what Maddie thinks is demoted below what David thinks. They made it possible for us to see the match between that as equal partners. The show gives us a multi-perspectival view instead of the usual thing in pop culture, where somebody's opinion has to matter more than somebody else's. (Usually the somebody who matters more is male and the somebody who matters less is female.)
And of course there are just some hilarious comic inventions. I think the one I like the best is when they are chasing that ice cube across the linoleum floor. It is just amazing. It is very fresh. You have never seen that before. What you have seen before in film noir is where the woman is stroking her skin with the ice cube. Very erotic. On Moonlighting it is erotic and hilariously funny at the same time, quite an achievement.
Yes and that is how that scene starts. Maddie/Rita is standing there doing that. And then the ice cube is on the floor. Sorta goofy and irreverant Three Stooges kind of comedy because David is a Three Stooges sort of guy.
I understand you are have a presentation coming up before the Shakespeare Association of America that centers on "Atomic Shakespeare."
Yes I do. For The Shakespeare Association of America. The way they operate is very different from any other conference I have ever attended. And this is a very venerable tradition with them. What they do is they organize us in panels, and then they ask everybody to submit their papers in advance instead of presenting them at the conference. And what we do is we know what everybody has written about when we arrive there. So we don't present our papers, we talk about what we have read. It gives you a much richer discussion period. You already know what you need to read and what people have focused on and what you. The papers that have been submitted are quite challenging. Most of them are about Shakespeare in popular culture which is of course what I am working on with the Moonlighting episode of "Atomic Shakespeare." So what I am doing is I am looking at the Shakespeare episode and I am talking about it in the context of what American film has previously done adapting the Taming of the Shrew. Moonlighting's use of Shrew is remarkably compatible with the way movies generally use this Shakespearean source. And I am also looking at how "Atomic Shakespeare" fits into the series itself.
When is this?
I'll be working on my panel April 11th.
Is this by invitation or by membership? Can anyone attend?
No, you have to have submitted a proposal and been accepted. I think almost 100% of the people involved in this are academics. However, somebody like you...you could submit a paper on "Atomic Shakespeare" because you are knowledgeable. And they would welcome it. However, this is not to say just anybody. We do have some fabulous independent scholars that come.
Thank you so much. We appreciate hearing about your work and are delighted to find the academic community showing an interest in our favorite show and our favorite characters. Best of luck with your book sales and with your upcoming Shakespeare conference.
Text © 2003, Cindy Klauss. All rights reserved.
This interview was conducted in March 5, 2003 and recently when Dr. Nochimson returned from the Shakespeare conference she dropped me an email that reported this:
April 23, 2003
...The paper was a big hit. You will be glad to hear that everyone had heard of Moonlighting, and most had seen many of the episodes. Also it became clear that "Atomic Shakespeare" would have a market not only among fans, but also among Shakespeareans, teachers of English, and film and pop culture professors. That's something you might pass along. Lots of the folks on the panel wanted to know where they could buy a tape or DVD of that particular ep...
All the best,
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