This page is for our research into macguffins, the use of objects within cinema and also different theoretical positions and interpretations of subject-object relationships. This provides a contextual framework for the Macguffin project and also functions as a repository for varying materials. Putting them against one another hopefully allows us to draw out tensions and resonances produced through different assertions and judgements on objects and their subjects within film works.

Comment on these materials is welcome!

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1944) MGM Ziegfeld Follies (1946) MGM, shot on the same sets as Dorian Gray (1944)

The Secret Life of Objects

by Mark Rappaport

reposted from:

We like to call the movie studios dream factories, but only part of that phrase is accurate. If the dream part is arguable, the factory part is not. Everything that was used could conceivably be re-used. And sometimes the way it was re-used is much more extravagant and imaginative than the use to which it was originally put. For example, MGM again – nineteenth-century London street sets were built for Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1944) and, even though we do not get to see very much of them in the film, from an existing still we can see that there was much more set than we view in the finished film. This very same set was used again, to much greater effect, in the spectacular ‘Limehouse Blues’ number in Minnelli’s Ziegfeld Follies (1946). An interesting question for those of us who find themselves interested in this kind of nuts-and-bolts, Marxist approach to film history to consider – was the ‘Limehouse Blues’ number designed around the already-existing set because the set ‘inspired’ it, or was Minnelli specifically instructed to find ways to use the already pre-existing sets to incorporate them into the number, thereby getting the most use out of a clearly expensive set?

The movie business has always been a business like any other, and even more so than most. Every dollar counted and every penny had to show up on the screen. To put it another, blunter way – it was very likely, as a cost-saving device, an economic imperative to utilise to the fullest every board, plank and canvas flat on the studio stages. Sets and parts of sets would get recycled, with lower-budgeted films probably benefiting the most from the cast-offs of the major productions, although even major productions cannibalised sets and parts of sets, architectural trim, chandeliers, wall sconces, sections of staircases, doorways, etc. from other films.

Consider this example: George Sidney’s Scaramouche was released in the US in May 1952. Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, which was shot between April and June 1952, was released in December 1952. A left-over section of one of Scaramouche’s most elaborate set pieces, the duel in the theatre, is used as a throwaway in Minnelli’s film. The partial set is not necessary for the short twenty-second, single-shot scene in The Bad and the Beautiful, in which Kirk Douglas rehearses with Lana Turner – but it certainly enhances it.

Scaramouche (1952) MGM
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) MGM

You notice a table lamp. Didn’t I see a lamp very similar to that in another film? I probably did, but I cannot remember in which film. And then you turn on the TV, and there it is – in another film. Sometimes there are personal reasons for making the connections. One sees a film and one cannot, for whatever reason, forget a prop, or an artifact, or a doodad. And then one sees the same object in another film, made of course, by the same studio, from the same vintage. And sometimes props call attention to themselves – either by their extravagance or the singularity of their appearance.

When studios made their films in the ‘40s and ‘50s, they were made as disposable commodities. They never expected audiences to see them more than once and certainly not to remember details from the films years later. In fact, films were so disposable that almost all the copies were destroyed after they had played all the theatres where they could be played, in order to reclaim the valuable silver nitrate used in film stocks’ emulsion. The studios understood the financial benefits of a certain kind of ecology and re-cycling long before the rest of us would. Studios never dreamed that there would be a category of moviegoer, sometimes called cinephiles (sometimes called worse things), who would see the same film or films over and over again. Nor did they dream that cable TV would situate various different movies from the same studios in random juxtapositions so that viewers decades later could see connections between the films that were invisible to viewers at the time. Similarly, no one could even imagine, although certainly cinephiles may have had amorphous, unarticulated dreams of as-yet uninvented inventions like the VCR and DVD, which would make movies available in ways that they never had been before. The ability to compare and contrast and even describe in detail specific aspects of movies has always had pitfalls for those writing about film because of our faulty or imprecise memories of them. In this respect, the VCR and now the DVD player is an invaluable tool in scholarship, analysis, and even enjoyment.

The MacGuffin Library

Originally commissioned for the exhibition “Wouldn’t it be Nice” at the Somerset House in London in 2008, The MacGuffin Libraryproposes the foundations for a library of MacGuffins, produced by authoring a series of film synopses which inform a collection of objects (currently numbering 18), addressing themes stemming from a disparate range of interests and inspirations: Re-enactments, Borges and Carver stories, forgeries, urban myths, the defining of high and low brow cinema, alternative histories, and the relationship between media and memory.

In collaboration with Onkar Kular and Keith Jones. Photographs by Sylvain Deleu.

Birthday PartyBetacam Tape


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