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Stories that Objects Might Live to Tell: The 'Hand-Me-Down Narrative' in Film

David Scott Diffrient

Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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At the conclusion of Brazilian director Jorge Furtado's 1990 short film Isle of Flowers (Ilha das flores), a voiceover plaintively yet matter-of-factly intones, "Freedom is a word the human dream feeds on, that no one can explain or fail to understand." These words, muttered during the film's slow-motion crescendo, are accompanied by images of gaunt-framed gleaners and trash-pickers of all ages wading through a fly-infested wastescape—a rubbish heap piled high with rotting food and empty containers. Layered atop these images is the sound of an electric guitar that screeches and wails like an echo of some past colonial violence—a distant signifier perhaps of the victimization and human-rights violations that persist in various parts of the world despite the humanitarian tide of this postcolonial era. Besides encapsulating the many ideas percolating throughout Isle of Flowers, the last few words of the film ironically underscore the hardscrabble realities faced by men, women and children who envisage a life far removed from the terrestrial stink of the pigsty. The film, which tracks the life of a "hand-me-down" tomato, culminates with this bleak, bottom-rung image. As what would appear to be the final resting place of the tomato in its culinary pilgrimage, the trash site represents an historical terminus—a kind of neo-colonial contact zone between marginalized people (past and present) and their oppressors. The latter group is symbolized by a "benevolent" landowner who allots ten minutes each day for the island's malnourished masses to scavenge through his fenced-in property for tomatoes not fit for pigs to eat.

Isle of Flowers, like a caffeine-jolted version of a Chris Marker visual essay, immediately sinks its rhetorical hooks into the audience through the filmmaker's bricolage tactics. By stitching together a panoply of images associated with throwaway culture, and by superimposing them atop religious and historical iconography, Furtado critically tweaks our almost sacrosanct devotion to consumer goods with a pixilated intensity rarely achieved in cinema. Newspaper advertisements, sunglasses, Coke insignias and binoculars all junk the frame with a funkiness associated with "garbology"—an art-historical neologism alluded to in film scholar Robert Stam's illuminating essay, "Hybridity and the Aesthetics of Garbage: The Case of Brazilian Cinema."1 In his discussion of Isle of Flowers, Stam states that the film's recuperative tactics bring to mind the ways in which the detritus and flotsam of the Western world are transmogrified into art within Afro-diasporic contexts—a project of recycling and re-aestheticizing that imparts significance onto something once deemed worthless. The film foregrounds how garbage "looks bad" to the eyes of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. The bruised tomato at the heart of the film is an eyesore. It emits an offensive odor. Trash attacks the senses. Hence the commodification of flower-scented perfume, which Mrs. Anecci—one of the film's half-dozen characters—sells door-to-door to earn money with which to buy fresher fruits and vegetables.

Mobilizing its own garbage-like, collage-hodgepodge aesthetic, the film playfully blends Monty Pythonesque animation, archival film footage, pedagogical slide-show presentations and a voice-of-God commentary (the speaker of which, like an aural alumnus from the BBC cult series Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, commands perfect Brit-speak elocution while conveying surreally unpredictable wordplay). The rhetorical disposition of the film shifts from flippancy to absolute seriousness. The narrator's hilarious tautology (delivering absurdist lines such as "Mr. Suzuki is Japanese, and therefore a human being," and "Money was created in the seventh-century before Christ, Christ was a Jew, and Jews are human beings") imitates the arbitrary causality of contiguous elements and leads us into a laughter-trap that snaps shut when immediately cut to images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima's mushrooming A-bomb (rendering garbage piles of human bodies)—cynically referred to as great human endeavors springing out of our "highly developed telencephalons." As serious as these themes are, however, the film steers clear of sledgehammered didactics and self-righteous polemics; and, in the final analysis, functions not only as a treatise on social injustices but also as a parable about the human condition—one that, in a zap of solar perplexity, simultaneously blinds and enlightens us to the fact of an organic or material object's finitude. Fluctuating between two ontological poles, that of the disposable and that of the recyclable, the hand-me-down—whether a tomato or a human being—eventually either perishes or fades away in the harsh light of oblivion.

In its depiction of a tomato's journey from Japanese-run plantation to supermarket to middle-class "Roman Catholic" kitchen to garbage-can to the ominous Brazilian island of the film's title, Isle of Flowers allows the spectator to glimpse a trajectory that neatly delineates the various social fields imbricated in the consumerist landscape of the last century, from the highest corporate echelons to the poverty-stricken bottom-feeders. The film's analysis of wealth-distribution within a world binarized into the "haves" (those for whom a bruised and decaying tomato is trash) and the "have-nots" (those who are so disenfranchised that they are forced to feast on food that even pigs pass over) is oddly reminiscent of longer, feature-length episode films that similarly chart, along a sliding socio-economic scale, a variety of ownerships of a single object. For example, in the much-maligned MGM film The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965), directing-screenwriting team Anthony Asquith and Terence Rattigan dramatize in triptych form the lives of three different groups of individuals from around the world linked together by their consecutive possession of a resplendent 1930 Phantom II.

Ostensibly a romantic comedy-cum-melodrama graced with an international all-star cast (many of whom play men and women of nationalities not their own), The Yellow Rolls-Royce is—like Jim Jarmusch's similarly episodic taxicab globetrot Night on Earth (1991)—a meditation on borders, both literal and figurative. This (de)territorialization tactic, sustained by the episodic nature of the narrative, lends credence to the notion that an object becomes a true commodity the moment it moves across geopolitical thresholds. As in the multi-director omnibus film Love at Twenty (L'Amour à vingt ans; 1962), each tale in The Yellow Rolls-Royce represents a new country-as-context, in this case: England, Italy, Yugoslavia and—in the brief epilogue—the U.S. Thus, the narrative structure of the film betrays an effort to lift the recycled object—the Rolls-Royce—out of its wholly domestic context and place it in the international arena. Moreover, the commodified car at the heart of The Yellow Rolls-Royce, like the hand-me-down tailcoat in Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan, is recycled episode-to-episode as a means of potential freedom while scenes of purchase and acquisition initiating the episodes provide sugary doses of commodity fetishism. It might initially seem antithetical or counterintuitive to compare an iconographic status symbol like the Rolls-Royce to an overripe tomato that, according to Stam, links an urban nuclear family to the rural poor within a "web of global relationality." But while the Rolls-Royce—a luxury item that for many Anglophiles remains the very symbol of England—occupies a radically different field of cultural production and consumption than that of a bruised, Third World tomato, the motor car nevertheless manifests some of the tensions of transnational and inter-ethnic border-crossing by bringing to the fore the socio-economic conditions impinging on material as well as cultural recycling.

The Yellow Rolls-Royce furthermore conveys interpersonal and business transactions in a way that is similar to other multi-story narratives, such as Diamond Handcuffs (1928), Pearls of the Crown (Les Perles de la couronne; 1937), Tales of Manhattan (1942), Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953), Paris Model (1953), The Gun (1974), Twenty Bucks (1993), Dead Man's Gun (1997), The Dress (De Jurk; 1997), The Red Violin (1999) and Iranian Spread (Sofreh Irani; 2002). In each of these films, an object circulates within and between various social arenas, acting as the cement that binds disparate communities together despite discrete narrative segmentation. The item's momentary resting-places pave the foundations for the individual tales. Moreover, the odyssey of said item—be it a tailcoat, a magical dress, a television, a twenty-dollar bill, a blood-stained seventeenth century violin, or a string of pearls—is often serially emplotted, or narratively recycled, along a sliding socio-economic scale, thus carving a not-so-subtle delineation of class, race and gender struggles (obviously so in Tales of Manhattan, which shows, in the final episode, the tailcoat in the hands of an impoverished African-American community; and in The Dress, when the once-beautiful frock is ripped to shreds after its last owner, a homeless person, has died). Not surprisingly, these films, by throwing into relief a system of supply-and-demand, borrowing-and-lending, italicize latent characteristics of the global consumer culture, specifically commodity fetishism (made glaring in the feverish auction house duel that ties together the chronotopic strands of The Red Violin, from imperial Vienna and Victorian England to Mao-era China and modern-day Montreal).

The critique of unbridled consumerism and commodity fetishism—explicit in Furtado's thickly condensed fifteen-minute epic Isle of Flowers—is thus implicitly inscribed in the narratives of a handful of feature-length films that are themselves made up of several fifteen-to-twenty minute segments. Variously referred to as "anthology," "compilation," "omnibus," "portmanteau" and "sketch" films (or what can be broadly spoken of as "episodic cinema"), these narratological curios are precisely what Aristotle warns against in his Poetics: "fables composed of many fables." According to Aristotelian logic, which asserts that tragedy should imitate a complete, rising action wherein a beginning, a middle and an end can easily be discerned, literary (and, by extension, cinematic) works featuring episodic plots connected by loose transitions are to be judged with suspicion, if only for their relative lack of continuity and causality. However, few contemporary critics would adopt so rigid a doctrine in light of the multi-story format's ability to re-invigorate film narrativity through a decidedly de-centered, constantly shifting cinematic speech-act. For if, as Henry Adams once prophesied, multiplicity is the quintessential feature of the twentieth century, then the multi-story episodic film—quite literally a plural text brimming with autonomous, discretely demarcated tales strung together like beads—would seem to epitomize the era. Because even the earliest episodic films render salient the postmodernist fascination with heterogeneity, plurality and fragmentation, an ideologically charged study of them offers a unique vantage from which to gauge their serial emplotment of social hierarchies, racial divisions and class-mobilities. As theorist Todd Gitlin observes, postmodernism relishes "repetition, the recombination of hand-me-down scraps" [emphasis added].2 Indeed, the ubiquitous term "hand-me-down" proves to be a malleable meta-trope that crosses academic disciplines and artistic thresholds, not only in relation to the postmodern predilection for pastiche but also when deployed under the auspices of textual hermeneutics.

Taking Gitlen's remark as a point of departure, the following paragraphs explore the epistemological territory subtending what I call the "hand-me-down narrative"—a type of episode film that charts the life of a material possession as it passes from one person to the next. A central question that I address is how recycling—a concept traditionally couched in eco-critical, enviro-conservationist discourse—might be thought of as a narrative trajectory, a causal chain linking disparate communities together. Embedded within this inquiry is the equally important question of how a so-called "spiritual hand-me-down"—like the Vermeer painting in Susan Vreeland's reverse-order novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), the green Sicilian squeeze-box in E. Annie Proulx's magisterial ode to the working class, Accordion Crimes (1997) and Chuckie Wainwright's lost baseball in Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997)3—functions in character-clogged episodic films as both a blessing and a curse, simultaneously suggesting continuity and rupture, community and division, while sweeping the libidinal undercurrents of materialism into the proverbial dustbin. After unpacking the various meanings of the term "hand-me-down," I engage the above questions through investigative case studies of three particular episode films—Diamond Handcuffs, Pearls of the Crown, and Twenty Bucks.4

"Don't give me no hand-me-down world" – The Cultural Contradictions of Recycling

What, precisely, makes the term "hand-me-down" so evocative? Its three morphemic units, "Hand," "Me," and "Down," collectively convey the interpersonal dynamism and latent directionality left buried in equivalent expressions. As opposed to near-synonyms such as "recyclable" and "disposable," "hand-me-down" is emphatically predicated on some sort of human contact, which may be literal (the physical passing of an object by hand) or figurative. Touch and tactility, vital determinants in charting the material coordinates of ownership and property, are prominently foregrounded in the linguistic constitution of this and similar expressions (such as the overtly charitable "hand out" and the more aggressive "hand over"). However, objects are assumed to both connect and divide people, and their recycling might just as well hinge on institutional intermediaries like the Salvation Army in lieu of direct giver-recipient relations. This complex mixture of proximity and distance is a defining characteristic of Tales of Manhattan, The Dress, The Red Violin and other multi-character films which hinge on the (re)assertion of personal drive, desire and agency within a collectively circumscribed arena. The second constitutive syllable, "me," shifts the semantic alignment to the side of the object itself and—in the context of literary or cinematic narration—dramatically recalibrates the reader-spectator's horizon of expectations by replacing the archetypal human protagonist with a non-human prop as central "character." Blessed with a first person singular pronoun, the hand-me-down object in film rises above its peripherally-relegated status as set decoration or prop to occupy a space usually reserved for charismatic, flesh-and-blood heroes—in the process unraveling the Western literary tradition's cult of the individual. This personalizing of an otherwise lifeless object proves to be a salient aspect of all hand-me-down narratives, perhaps none more so than the children's classic Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, the 1930 Newberry Award-winning book written by Rachel Fields and illustrated by Susan Jeffers. Ostensibly framed by the memoirs of a tiny wooden doll, whose century-long, globe-trotting adventures aboard whaling ships and Mississippi River boats are recounted in first-person prose, Hitty betrays the author's anthropomorphic interest in breathing life into a "dead" thing—a piece of stoic-faced wood carved from mountain ash and passed down from one owner to the next. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—the word "down" suggests social declination, a waning of value that may be culturally encoded as much as economically determined. This spatial/social dialectic, bound up in the word "down," unleashes the thematic undertow of my film analysis.

Having circulated in the English-American everyday vernacular for nearly 150 years, the term "hand-me-down" is probably not new to the reader, especially not to anyone who grew up in a household overrun with older siblings and cost-conscious (read: "penny-pinching") parents.5 Though it usually refers to an article of secondhand clothing passed on from one person to another after being outgrown, the colloquialism encompasses a broad range of objects that can be put to use over and again (from fine china to automobiles, from antique clocks to comic books). Of course, material objects such as these are not the sole specimens with which to test theories of cultural recycling. Recipes, superstitions, prejudices, songs, bedtime stories and other time-honored, immaterial things can be just as easily passed down the family line—like phantasmatic heirlooms from a past kept intact by someone else's memory. What they might lack in physical presence is made up for in their boundless ability to arouse kindred feelings while strengthening one's sense of hereditary continuity or lineage. In the words of that always-up-to-date wisenheimer (and pop-cultural recycler), "Weird" Al Yankovic: "Every pair of genes is a hand-me-down…every chromosome is a hand-me-down." These lyrics, taken from Yankovic's pop-song parody, "I Think I'm a Clone Now," prompt us to consider the ways recycling—as a process concerned with origins—is indelibly inscribed into the very core of our being. As Brian Neville and Johanne Villeneuve state in their introduction to the recent anthology Waste-Site Stories: The Recycling of Memory, "We, our DNA, our cultural evolution, are all largely built out of older materials."6

Furthermore, this idiomatic expression often insinuates an altruistic endeavor; a hand-me-down moves like a vertiginously plunging "pass-me-on," a "cast-off" shucked for the less-fortunate, one ferried along for further use and adaptation by others. Sometimes, this movement—this ethereal or material cathexis—breaches barriers (ethnic, racial, national, ideological, etc.), attesting to the hand-me-down's geopolitical valency, its ability to be "mapped out" horizontally as well as vertically. Paul Oliver, describing what he refers to as the "handing on" or "handing down" process central to the longevity of various traditions, states that it "is usually assumed to have a temporal rather than a spatial dimension and to be diachronic rather than synchronic." Many like-minded critics have neglected to account for the chronotopic vicissitudes of the hand-me-down, its ability to link individuals from disparate geographical sites as well as historical periods. Should there be any doubt about its global trans-positionality, we need only consider the aforementioned Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, Rachel Fields's picaresque-like collection of episodes in the "life" of a wooden doll who enters the homes of everyone from snake-charmers in Bombay to Abraham Lincoln, from a Philadelphia Quaker girl to pagan Pacific Islanders, from a group of New Orleans spinsters to a poor black Southern family. In emphasizing the spatial latitude and longitude of shared objects, I intend to show that there is a tacit relationship between the hand-me-down as commodity, gift or token of humanitarian aid and the commercial, legislative and industrial infrastructures that facilitate its transcultural and/or transnational passage. This might seem to be a strange and heady brew for so (presumably) indigenous and straightforward a concept. But, as I will later illustrate, few tropes signify so suggestively the collapsing, no-longer-tenable distinctions between disposability and recyclability, between non-value and value, between loss and gain, between subject and object, between Self and Other.

The cultural genealogy of the hand-me-down, though rooted in the folkloric traditions and idioms of both rural Americana and the nation's urban proletariat, in fact spills over the rim of the Western world and is surely understood by anyone who has been on the receiving end of discarded clothing or other material rejects. Today, though hand-me-downs suggest a quaintly nostalgic return to old-fashioned legacies of quilt-making, cake-baking and tall-tale-telling, they are deeply enfolded within the "cultural logic of late modernism" (to quote neo-Marxist critic Fredric Jameson), for they represent the available reserve of aesthetic and artistic "scraps" from which a cultural producer might draw in an era when the global transmission of simulacra is at an all-time high.7 Hand-me-downs, in the post-contemporary age of increased eco-political consciousness and public outreach programs, are therefore not confined to pragmatic discussions about the environment, bio-degradables, the exigencies of waste management and the middle-class culture of swap-meets. Indeed, the term traffics in to our "political unconscious" a spectrum of associations: charity, philanthropy and Goodwill as well as the self-gratification, elitism and hegemonic privilege such largesse insinuates. It has infiltrated every sector of society, as suggested to me by a trip to the local bookstore, which stocks everything from Eleanor Evans's The Hand Me Down Cookbook to dictionaries devoted to Gay slang in which the term "hand-me-down" refers to an ex-lover or someone "used sexually by one person and passed to another." Across musical idioms, there have been hundreds of songs written about actual and metaphorical hand-me-downs, from Christian Rock (Raspberry Jam's "Hand Me Down Hate") to crossover Rap (The Beastie Boys' "Johnny Ryall," a shout-out to "the bum on my stoop" who eats "hand-me-down food" and wears "hand-me-down clothes"). The term's rhizomic reappearance in jazz, blues and folk music catalogs (The Hall Negro Quartette, Hank Williams, Chick Corea and Hot Biscuits have all recorded songs entitled "Hand-Me-Down") only further underscores its centrality to debates about historically marginalized and stigmatized groups.

When the Canadian rock group Guess Who sang, in 1970, "Don't give me no hand-me-down shoes/ Don't give me no hand-me-down love/ Don't give me no hand-me-down world," they were not simply reiterating the negative, stigmatizing aspects of cultural recycling. These lyrics from the hit song "Hand Me Down World" amplified a growing concern amongst the post-Baby Boom generation of the late 1960s with the cultural legacies being foisted upon teenaged malcontents and recalcitrant twentysomethings. Nevertheless, the musicians' sonic rebuttal not only flew in the face of tradition but, ironically, also seemed to rebuke the very principles upon which eco-friendly hippiedom were conceived: sharing, trading and communalism. Furthermore (and unbeknownst to the Guess Who), these recycliphobic lyrics unwittingly hijack and recycle the title of a big-band classic from their parents' generation, Duke Ellington's "Hand Me Down Love" (written in 1955), thus highlighting the Catch 22-ism—the unavoidable reliance upon earlier forms—that haunts any attempt to make a generational break from history. As Jakob Dylan (son of Bob Dylan and lead singer of The Wallflowers) croons, "The revolution is doomed"—a sentiment couched within a song ("Hand-Me-Down") whose lyrics paint a grim portrait of someone who will never live up to the standards set by a celebrated "original" (even as he trades on his father's fashion by wearing "worn out shoes").

These examples attest not only to the prevalence of the term "hand-me-down" in popular discourse but also to its complexity, its contradictive nature, as a signifier. This valence across positive and pejorative epistemological regimes initially suggests an unstable object of critical inquiry. But recycling remains a rich source of metaphor precisely because of this deep-rooted ambivalence, this ability to conjure contradictory associations that suggest a fundamental irony at the heart of the hand-me-down—an irony no less profound than that articulated by the folk-pop duo the Indigo Girls, who, in their single "Hand-Me-Downs," put forth the oxymoronic hope "that emptiness brings fullness/and loss of love brings wholeness." This ambivalence furthermore reflects the liminal state of flux in which the hand-me-down object often finds itself. So cast about is it on a sea of often discontent souls that this infinitely recycled thing is only at "home" during the intervals, in the stop-gaps of time and space separating, yet connecting, people.

It would therefore seem, in light of the constant circulation and re-circulation of the universally understood "hand-me-down," that this terminological marker of an object's inexhaustibility—an object's seemingly infinite longevity—has ironically been exhausted itself, drained of denotative as well as connotative meanings. However, as I will presently show, the concept of the hand-me-down provides an important entryway into a particular mode of filmic discourse whose narratological features remain, to this day, untapped.

Diamond Snuggling, Pearl Harboring and Other Acts of Cinematic Avarice

Cinema, though ontologically grounded in the techno-gadgetry of mechanical reproduction, is lorded over by humans, not things. In fiction film, semantic elements sprinkled throughout the mise-en-scène are rarely granted more than a modicum of screen-time and tend to be sidelined as part of the décor. Even those objects that hold the hermeneutic keys to their respective films' meanings are, with few exceptions, pushed outside or to the periphery of the frame so as to make way for the spotlighted heroes and heroines—prime-movers of the diegeses. For example, in Citizen Kane (1941), the sled which exerts so much psychological sway over Charles Foster Kane is first fleetingly witnessed during the newspaper tycoon's nostalgically-lensed childhood years only to reappear in the film's penultimate image, when a furnace fire erases its name, "Rosebud" (in the process obliterating any chance the indefatigable reporter might have had in discovering the meaning of the dead man's last, enigmatic word). At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I argue that, although the canonical Kane sits atop many "Greatest Film" lists, it is no different from most Hollywood narratives in the way that it constellates a galaxy of material possessions around a single character (in this case, a mansion full of objets d'art, among which is the cherished sled). "Rosebud," like nearly all iconographic elements, belongs to one person, is never recycled and "dies" with its owner (or at least with the "death" of its narrative container, the film itself). Seldom do filmmakers grant audiences a vision of the life and career of an object outside the gravitational orbit of one owner; rarely do films express "the cultural biography of things," as ethno-anthropologist Igor Kopytoff famously coined the phrase in his groundbreaking attempt to gauge the fluctuating commodity status of objects vis-à-vis their historical emplotment.8

Few American film genres are as dependent upon the appearance and mobilization of codified objects as the Western, which, as Virginia Wright Wexman argues, is thematically preoccupied with questions of ownership and private property.9 But even when Western auteurs, such as Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann, interpolate a hand-me-down motif into an otherwise traditional, frontier-myth framework, ideological seeds are typically left unsown. For instance, the sinewy snake bracelet in Hawks's Red River (1948)—a family heirloom bequeathed to tyrannical land-grabber Tom Dunson by his mother—is draped around the wrists of several individuals: first Fen (Dunson's ill-fated sweetheart), then a Comanche Warrior (who has killed Fen), then Dunson again (after he viciously stabs the Indian), then the egalitarian Matt Garth (Dunson's foster son and future nemesis), and finally Tess Millay (Matt's love-interest who eventually interjects by gunfire during the two men's fisticuff showdown). However, the signifying potential of the bracelet—its ability to lend visibility to the idea of transcultural exchange—is kept in check thanks to its tangential, somewhat trivial connection to the overriding plot. As opposed to Twenty Bucks, which depicts a world of cash registers and pants-pockets, of bingo parlors and drug deals, and unlike The Dress, which traces the hand-me-down object from its material origins in a cotton field and formative days in a textile mill to its material demise and artistic rebirth, Red River never really shows the industrial, commercial or economic constraints behind interpersonal exchange. Free to roam the open plains of the Texas panhandle, yet bound within a hermetically roped-off and pre-constituted community, the bracelet is significant only insofar as its circular journey imitates the closed circuit of familial relations. The bracelet's narrative begins with an offscreen mother only to end its journey on the wrist of a mother-in-the-making—Tess—who is not only ready to start a family with Matt (offscreen) but is also the person to whom Dunson, upon recognizing the bracelet on her wrist, offers half of his cattle empire in exchange for a son (who would then become, by virtue of blood, the inheritor of his father's hand-me-down land). As suggestive as this may seem, little is made of the object's function as a sign, as a cross-cultural mediator of symbolic values operating outside the boundaries of this closely-knit, albeit antagonistic community. Without the benefit of narrative episodicity, the object's meaning is delimited, deterministically bound to a circular track revolving around one particular man, Dunson, whose recognition of the object near the end suggests that all exchange is predicated on return. This sense of circularity is repeated in another Western, director Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950), which stars James Stewart as a gunslinger doggedly chasing down a rifle that he first won in a Dodge City shooting contest only to have it stolen and passed along by nefarious outlaws. Again, the object comes full circle by the end, as Stewart's avenging angel guns down his patricidal brother with the Winchester—a weapon whose retrieval marks the successful realignment of dominant values and the closure of a single- rather than multiple-track narrative.

Given its habitual treatment of the objects of mise-en-scène as trifles, we might wonder whether film is capable of kinesthetically conveying the ontological and phenomenological dynamics of material culture; we might ask, as critic and author Lesley Stern does, "How do things acquire presence and meaning in the cinema? ... [D]o things have a life of their own, independent of the cinematic gaze and the cinematic touch? Is there a particularly cinematic class of things or a particularly cinematic way of rendering things?"10 To these last two rhetorical questions I would submit a resounding "Yes." For indeed a junior branch of storytelling sensitive to the vagaries of object-hood and interpersonal exchange has been with us for more than seventy-five years, beginning with a film whose central, linking object—a multi-faceted diamond—provides a fitting metaphor for the ways episodic narrativity prismatically refracts and casts light onto various facets of society.

The first significant contribution to hand-me-down storytelling came in 1928, the year director J. P. McCarthy's Diamond Handcuffs was theatrically released in the United States. This silent film consists of three distinct tales linked by a precious gem known as the "Shah Diamond." In each of the three episodes, the cursed stone brings catastrophe to those who fall under its spell. Indeed, Diamond Handcuffs, like its latter-day variations The Dress and The Red Violin, shows that all possessions are fleeting, temporary at best, and throws into interrogative relief the foundational tenets upon which the legitimacy of property and provenance rest. Hand-me-down narratives reverse the unilateral direction of ownership, as if an object could "possess" its "owner" rather than vice-versa. Though most readers are familiar with the recyclopedic term "ragpickers," these films slyly suggest something quite opposite: that the rag (or, in this case, diamond) picks the person. Diamond Handcuffs illustrates how any attempt to permanently enclave the enslaving object is destined to fail; for according to the logic of episodic narrativity, the sequentially gained, consequently lost possession is and will always be a free-floating commodity on the cusp of the next purchase.

Shepherded by the William Randolph Hearst-founded Cosmopolitan Productions, the project languished for six years before hitting the screen. Writer Carey Wilson's first draft of the screenplay, completed March 11, 1922, was titled, "Women Love Diamonds," a simple yarn centering on a conniving Mephistopheles who masquerades as a young gentleman and tempts women near a jewelry store. This bare-bones scenario was expanded in Wilson's subsequent stab at a script in November of the same year, when he incorporated plot elements of Henry C. Vance's short story "Pin Money" (which hinged upon a love triangle—Jerry, Cecile, and John—fighting over a $1500 bodice-bauble) and the real-life intrigues surrounding famous diamonds such as the Indian Golconda and the Hope, in addition to his own elaboration on the central themes of gift-giving and greed. This version of the script begins by breaking down the three separate episodes, giving explicit instructions for character consolidation ("The leading woman shall play all three leading roles: Nancy, Tillie and Cecily; the leading man play Blair, Spike and John") and genre differentiation ("The first episode should be played as comedy-drama of the ‘Gold-diggers' style ... Second episode should be played in typical Tourneur style…lights, shadows, symbolism…Third episode should be written and played as Anita Loos and Constance Talmadge might do it. Clothing, restaurants sets, etc., should be of the latest ... smart mode").11

There are considerable differences between this and the final versions of the script, yet Wilson's early scenario was instrumental in delineating the social demarcations of the film. Though the opening paragraph of Wilson's scenario largely concerns a character, the ethnically coded Sam Smartz, who is not central to the film, it is worth quoting so as to draw attention to the inherent ability in multi-story episode films to present a diverse cross-section of life:

There is a combination jewelry shop, art shop and pawnshop just off Times Square, New York City. It is owned and operated by Sam Smartz, a curious mixture of grasping sophistication and unexpected benevolence. Sam Smartz's shop is one of the real hubs of New York, about which revolve merrily the spokes of the wheel of Manhattan life—one spoke perhaps leading off into the West Side to that waterfront district known as ‘Hell's Kitchen' and the ‘Stovepipe', those haunts of stern-faced and sharp-eyed young men with no visible means of support, yet addicted to expensive tailor-made clothes for themselves and often sable furs for their West Side sweethearts; another spoke might run down through Longacre Square itself with, clinging to it, the heterogeneous and polyglot population of the Square; and it would not be hard to believe that another spoke ran northeast, into that super-smart neighborhood which wealthy wife and weathly mistress alike consider the only party of Manhattan Island where one may live and be respectable; and surely spokes ran downward, penetrating the lower strata of New York, for many times strangely valuable jewels appeared in Sam Smartz's window. Mysteriously, and if one was known and liked by Sam, or if one knew jewels exceedingly well, one could very frequently pick up an exceedingly fine stone for much less than its Fifth Avenue value.

The film begins far away from Fifth Avenue. In a prologue of sorts, the diamond is first discovered in a South African mine by Niambo, a native roustabout who sees it as his opportunity to win the heart of a seductive, half-caste village girl, Musa. At work, the love-starved miner throws a pickax into his leg and steals the valuable gem by hiding it in the bleeding gash. Although he is gunned down while attempting his escape, Niambo manages to give this hard-fought token of his affection to the unappreciative vamp before gasping his last breath, effectively sending the diamond down the diegetic path. In her own attempt to escape, Musa stows the diamond away in an ox cart, burying it under layers of hay until she decides to sell the gift to a Mongolian passerby. What follows is a montage of forced transactions, beginning with an image of the Mongolian's hand pinned down by a knife. White hands snatch the precious, still-uncut stone, accompanied by a kaleidoscopic burst of (in the words of the screenwriter) "many hands, the hands of men and women, clutching and struggling" to bring it into their possession. After a series of cuttings and polishings, the flawless diamond is put into a platinum ring setting and appears behind the display-window of a Manhattan jewelry store, ready for ocular as well as pecuniary consumption. This image of fetishistic allure visually echoes the manner in which the script for Diamond Handcuffs went through a similar series of gradual refinements. As alluded to earlier, once Carey Wilson's scenario was dusted off by studio heads nearly six years after its original conception, several more revisions would pass through screenwriters' hands before the final continuity script was completed by Bradley King on February 13, 1928.

Musa reappears in the melodramatic second episode, albeit in a capacity of diminished importance. Having fled the Kaffir settlement, she has become the maidservant of a spoiled New York socialite, Cecile. At the beginning of the episode, Cecile stands before the same Times Square jewelry store window, admiring the exorbitantly priced diamond. One-third of a love triangle, Cecile enrages her husband John when she indiscreetly accepts the $15,000 gift from a not-so-secret admirer, Jerry. Though a friend of the family, Jerry has been waiting in the wings for an opportune time to spring his affection on Cecile, and his gesture enflames her husband's jealousy. Despondent and seeing little to no hope for a happy marriage, John takes the diamond (which the lying wife argues is merely glass) and hands the "worthless" gift to the young woman from Africa. Her suitcase packed, Musa sets off once more on her on, but not before returning the diamond to the jewelry shop, where it is restored to its rightful, gilt-encrusted place behind the glass partition. This recurring image of the diamond on its velvet cushion suggests that the store display will be its permanent home; that this expensive ice exists only to entice rather than to fulfill. In this regard, Diamond Handcuffs is similar to the aforementioned Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, a book that culminates with the titular doll in a window display at the Shop of Dreams.

Though set in the Hell's Kitchen underworld of gin-joints and speakeasies, the third and final episode is no less melodramatic, as it similarly revolves around a woman and her secret admirer. This time the lady in question is Tillie, the girlfriend of Spike, a tightfisted gangster. Suffering from tuberculosis, Tillie accepts a generous offer of money from Larry, a long-time patron of Spike's bar. Rather than put the cash toward sanitarium expenses, the dying woman buys the diamond from jewel thieves at a considerably slashed discount only to lose it in the end. Once more, Musa appears as a periphery character who nonetheless assumes significant status during the finale. Now a dancing girl in Spike's dive, her performance is interrupted one evening when a fracas breaks out over the diamond, precipitating a police-raid. In the midst of a machine-gun battle between cops and gangsters, Musa—clutching the dropped diamond—is clipped by an errant bullet, sending her to the floor. "The Shah" spills out of her hand, rolls out onto the street, and is pulverized into diamond dust under the wheels of a heavy truck (this image would be replicated 65 years later when, near the beginning of Twenty Bucks, the titular bill is crushed under the weight of a truck tire). Despite the film's anti-climactic and forced "happy ending," which shows a rejuvenated Tillie and Larry in matrimonial bliss, a bitter aftertaste lingers. This would not be the last time the hand-me-down object was shown to be a catalyst for catastrophe, a harbinger of cruel fate.

As the first hand-me-down film narrative, Diamond Handcuffs gestures toward many of the cardinal visual and thematic motifs that would come to fuller fruition in subsequent productions. Its depiction of decisively differentiated social worlds—its juxtaposition of penthouse luxuries and underworld crime—might seem schematic when compared to more sophisticated contemporary treatments (such as what might be found in the oeuvres of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and other directors sensitive to the social ruptures dividing the middle and working classes). However, within the dialectical gap separating one episode from another, the spectator is free to rummage through the litter of meaning that congeals around the image of the diamond, an aesthetic object that, ironically, has no real function outside the symbolic realm—that is, outside its ability to mediate cultural similarities while negotiating value differentials. A further negotiation made available by the film is that between commodity and gift, two distinct objects of exchange that are nevertheless reconciled in their similarly continuous yet spasmodic transit across socio-economic thresholds. In his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde argues that the gift "must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going."12 Hyde is thus quick to point out the dissimilarities between the gift which keeps giving (and remains abundant so long as it continues to be passed person-to-person) and its commodified cousin (which ostensibly rests on the presumption that goods "are consumed by their owners, not by their exchange"). And yet, Hyde—who depicts gift-giving as a "constantly flowing river" in which each person functions as "a channel for its current"—nevertheless comes to admit, in the book's conclusion, that the motion and equilibrium of exchange can exist without emotion. In other words, commodity exchange can begin to affect "its alluring imitation of gift exchange" once its ability to erase rather than erect boundaries comes into critical view.13

In foregrounding an expensive fetish object as the go-between linking disparate communities, Diamond Handcuffs projects an image of the recyclable that runs counter to received wisdom. Unlike most real-world hand-me-downs, the foregrounded objects in this and other films are hardly throwaways—the debris that paves the path to the land of the ephemeral. The visual emphasis on a lavish thing behind glass is perhaps an attempt to mise-en-abymically suggest that the material components of the film itself—its high production values and all-star cast—are fit to be consumed by men and women from all walks of life, thus intensifying the film's own commodity status while stretching out the social boundaries of film reception during the "picture palace" years. Upon its original release, the film was immediately distinguished as a "novelty" by reviewers and newspaper critics. Advertising executives, eager to cash in on the multi-story craze, promoted Diamond Handcuffs as "The Film Novelty of the Year!" and prompted potential audience members to "Follow the trail of a famous diamond from darkest Africa to glittering New York!"14 Thus, the hand-me-down narrative, even in its earliest cinematic incarnation, exploited the indelible theme of adventurous border-crossing that would become one of the defining characteristics of the subgenre. Because Musa's global mobility runs parallel to that of the diamond, subject and object are fused. The African woman's climactic death on the streets of New York, like the destruction of the supposedly indestructible diamond, simply reinforces the reciprocal and self-referential logic of the film, which ordains Musa's comeuppance due to her unmitigated greed as well as her unfair treatment of Niambo in the first episode. Appropriately, her "just desserts" arrive after the "appetizer" of the first episode and the "entrée" of the second episode, even if the meal to be made from these three morality tales leaves us hungrier than ever for a subtle and sophisticated treatment of cultural recycling.

Hunger was indeed a very real and widespread concern among audience members during the years immediately following the film's release. The October 1929 stock market crash sparked a severe downturn in many markets, though the film industry kept its head above water for three years before seeing profits sink abysmally. The ensuing economic paralysis led to skyrocketing unemployment rates, the uprooting of families and a staggering national deficit. The year 1932 brought the trickle-down effects of the financial meltdown to once-prosperous Hollywood studios. Movie theaters began to witness a steep decline in attendance (dropping from 100 million persons per week to roughly 35 million). Just as another "novelty"—the post-synchronized sound of "talkies"—became an industrial imperative during this era, so too did theatre-owners experiment with all manner of promotional gimmickry (from "Bank Nights" to "Screeno") in hopes of luring audiences back in droves. At the nadir of the film industry's economic solvency, the first studio-produced, multi-director omnibus film was released. Recalling the descriptions ladled on Diamond Handcuffs, Paramount's If I Had a Million (1932) was labeled a "novelty" by the Motion Picture Herald. Though the film—helmed by directors Norman Taurog, Norman Z. McLeod, Stephen Roberts, H. Bruce Humberstone, James Cruze, William Seiter and Ernst Lubitsch—concerns a dying septuagenarian's attempt to spread his considerable wealth among eight randomly-chosen beneficiaries, and therefore does not fit within the textual purview of the hand-me-down subgenre, it is important to the present discussion insofar as its hypothetical solutions to economic woe and unsatiated desire allegorize the industry's attempts to turn episodicity into box-office profit (suggesting that audiences get more of everything—stars, genres, stories—for the price of a single admission).15 As Andrew Bergman argues, American genre films released during the Great Depression were not merely escapist fare but a meaningful forum in which audiences could reconcile "things lost or things desired."16 Accordingly, If I Had a Million, like Diamond Handcuffs, was more an excursion than a diversion, even if it lacked the liberating means of international conveyance and barrier-breaching found in the latter. Though largely forgotten by historians, If I Had a Million was often cited in reviews as an influence on anthology and omnibus filmmakers and was particularly important to the making of the hand-me-down narrative Twenty Bucks (to be discussed at the end of this essay). The critical and box-office success of If I Had a Million insured the longevity of the multi-episode feature-length format even though it would take eight years for the next major studio attempt—Disney's 1940 Fantasia—to roll down the pipeline.

There was, however, a sustained interest in the episodic form outside of Hollywood throughout the 1930s, as evidenced by the releases of such films as the Mandarin-language Nü'er jing (A Bible for Daughters; 1933) and the agitprop vehicle La Vie est à nous (Life is Ours; 1936), the latter a series of narrative sketches and newsreels produced by the French Communist Party, supervised by Jean Renoir and today recognized as an early forerunner of latter-day "film collectives" such as Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam; 1967) and Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn; 1978). While their compatriots were mired in debates about the 1936 elections, two French filmmakers—Julien Duviver and Sacha Guitry—opted for a less stridently militant approach and individually undertook films that helped to launch two very different career trajectories, both of which proved to be important to the evolution of episodic cinema. Duvivier's film, Un carnet du bal (Dance Card; 1937), concerns a widow searching for her many dance partners twenty years after her first ball and—though its nine episodes are held together by a souvenir dance program—should not be mistaken as a hand-me-down narrative. However, the international success of the award-winning film, coming off the heals of his breakthrough Pépé-le-Moko (1937), guaranteed the viability of the multi-story format and helped to secure Duvivier's trans-Atlantic ticket to Hollywood, where, in 1941, he would make one of the most important contributions to hand-me-down narrativity: Tales of Manhattan. Also in 1937, famed French filmmaker Sacha Guitry unveiled his latest, lavishly decorated confection, Pearls of the Crown (the first story the prolific boulevardier wrote directly for the screen). Originally conceived as a salute to the coronation of George VI, whose Royal headgear lends the film its title, this two-hour saga focuses on seven priceless pearls that begin their life together as a necklace only to be broken up and sent their separate ways. In charting the wildly divergent paths taken by famous hand-me-down pearls, not only does the film hurdle over significant chunks of time—shuttling in fits and starts from one historical checkpoint to the next until four centuries-worth of frivolous monarchies, guillotinings, and courtly intrigues have unfurled—but it also parlays episodicity into a geo-spatial phenomenon.17 Leaping from European palaces to Abyssinian pleasure dens in the blink of an eye, the polyglot Pearls of the Crown was a visual and sonic anomaly during the 1930s. Much of its attraction lay in its trilingual soundtrack, which not only featured the voiceovers of three separate narrators (respectively speaking French, English and Italian) but also added a fourth "language" to the Europhonic mix: the so-called Ethiopian spoken by a coneheaded, python-entwined vamp claiming to be a direct descendent of the Queen of Sheba (a sound-effect Guitry achieved by playing French gibberish backwards).

Actually, only four of the original seven pearls in the necklace supposedly given by Pope Clement VII to his niece Catherine de Medici now adorn the English crown. Though the bulk of the film is concerned with the paths taken by the missing three (paths retraced by equerries sent from France, England and the Vatican), a great deal of emphasis is placed on the origins of all seven. Backtracking to the sixteenth century, the film's three contemporary narrators recount, in tag-team fashion, the history of the seven pearls, which pass from the Pope to Catherine (upon her marriage to François I) to Catherine's daughter-in-law Mary Stuart (Scottish-born wife of King Francis II). After the widowed Queen of Scotts is beheaded, thieves steal her pearls. Four of the purloined pearls are recovered and eventually stashed away in a secret chest by Queen Elizabeth. Three centuries later, the four polished orbs are discovered by Queen Victoria, who attaches them to the Royal Crown. The rest of the film is a wild goose-chase for the three missing pearls: One of the missing orbs turns out to have been given to Gabrielle d'Estrées, Henry IV's beloved, from whom it gets passed to Madame du Barry and then Napoleon's first wife, Empress Josephine de Beaumarnais, before vanishing during the Great War. The second pearl found its way to a rich Frenchman who wanted to give it to his sweetheart yet kept it in the end after discovering that she was having an affair with a young man. This pearl, near the end of the film, is accidentally dropped from the starboard side of the ocean-liner Normandie and falls into an oyster at the bottom of the sea. As the oyster closes shut, one of the narrators muses, "It was written in the book of fate that at long last this wonderful and wandering pearl should return home from whence it came." Beginning with the words, "Now I will tell you the story of pearl number three," the last of the narrators recounts how, after generations of being kept close to the bosom of an English family, a guileless descendent lost the heirloom in a game of dice in 1937 (that pearl, it turns out, was false—an imitation that nevertheless managed to fool several monarchies). As one of the narrators states, this pearl must have been the one stolen from the snake-draped Abyssinian Queen's African lair.

With the possible exception of Jacques Feyder's Carnival in Flanders (La Kermesse héroïque; 1935), Pearls of the Crown was the most ambitious French film production launched at the time of its 1937 release—a film so bloated with historical pageantry and pomp that it often devolves into grandiose yet empty spectacle. At times, the overspill of actors, the extravagant costumes and the endless procession of fantastic tableaux and knickknackery threaten to overwhelm the eye and divert attention away from the pearls. Its more than 80 settings are densely populated by 300 dramatis personae (four of whom—François I, Barras, Napoléon III and the scribe Jean Martin—are played by Guitry himself). That many of these personages are fictional constructs only points up the liberties and conjectural leaps that Guitry takes in hatching his fairy tale vision of history. But what Pearls of the Crown lacks in historical verisimilitude and empirical proof is made up for in its expressive deployment of cinematic chicanery (from diegetic and extra-diegetic narration and screen wipes to reverse-motion cinematography and multilingual soundtracks). So drunk is this "Molière of the cinema" on the artifice of storytelling that he might be excused for historical shortsightedness. Left to poetic license, with little to no grounding in fact (particularly his assertion that the four pearls which embellished the crown were those that Pope Clement VII presented to Catherine de Medici on her wedding day), the hand-me-down pearls would seem little more than stepping stones in Guitry's symphonic comedy of manners.18

Like Diamond Handcuffs, Pearls of the Crown focuses on expensive baubles that link disparate communities in a social hieroglyphic whose lexicon is easily deciphered. These and other glamorous fixtures of the fashion scene serve a function that is symbolic by contributing to the perceived supremacy of their owners. Yet pearls, like diamonds, go through several stages before reaching perfection, and must literally be brought up to the surface of human cognition if value is to be ascertained. They begin as irritants, sand particles or parasites trapped inside the shell of a bivalve mollusk, and only after a series of secretions and nacre coatings do they emerge in the lustrous form that adorns the Coco Chanels of the world. By excavating an object's formative, pre-social career, we can render it more fully in biographical terms; we can begin to imagine the thing, even prior to its cultural circulation and accretion of status, as being made up of various "ages," discrete moments corresponding to the chronos of ever-increasing desire. Writer Judith Thurman, waxing rhapsodic about these mollusk-spawned marvels, states, "There is probably no product on earth that more radically dramatizes the discrepancy between the size of a treasure and its value." And yet, if "the value of a pearl has one true measure," it is "the desire it inspires."19 The inverse correlation between size and value resonates with our reception of multi-story films, which are frequently described by critics as the cinematic equivalent of a strings of pearls—each episode full and complete in itself yet held together by the flimsiest of threads. If indeed there is a correlation between the stringing together of pearls into a necklace and the stringing together of stories into an episode film, then what does this entail for the spectator who consumes the film in a comparably fetishistic way? Perhaps unintentionally, the episode film invites its audience to judge it—to ascertain its value—based on the strength and intensity of individual stories. These episodes are measured in relation to one another, oftentimes to the detriment of the whole film, which is deemed a hodgepodge affair. The multi-story episode film thus forges an internal system of consumption whose unifying element—at least in the hand-me-down strain—is the perpetually recycled object. That Guitry's film scrutinizes the serpentine passage of pearls is further evidence that the first experimenters with hand-me-down narrativity sought objects "worthy" of the audience's attention (as if a wooden doll wasn't visually appealing enough).

By way of examining the referentiality of recycled objects, I would like to conclude this essay with a brief discussion of a film whose emphasis on a ubiquitous rather than singular thing—a twenty-dollar bill—ushers the genre into heretofore unexplored territory. Released in the U.S. in 1993, director Keva Rosenfield's Twenty Bucks is, on the surface, a light-hearted affair with seemingly little to offer in the way of hand-me-down hermeneutics. But as a meditation on the palimpsestic effects of recycling, this film offers a profoundly compelling vision of cultural exchange by stripping the object down to its monetary and material essence.

The Buck Stops Here

The script of Twenty Bucks, a film that systematically tracks the life of a single scrap of currency—from homeless woman to rich immigrant to struggling son-in-law to stripper to fortune teller to con artist to short-story writer to drug dealer to gay man—is itself a hand-me-down. Passed from Hungarian émigré scenarist Endre Bohem to his son Leslie Bohem, who inherited and adapted the 1935 version in the early 1980s, the story began as a Hollywood spec script not long after If I Had a Million was released. If I Had a Million proved to be an influence on the elder Bohem, who felt a more relevant and plausible film for Depression-era audiences would focus on twenty rather than a million dollars. Though the unproduced script languished for decades, the updated rendering perceptively deconstructs economic disparities that could not have been addressed in the original.20 Set in Minneapolis, which is depicted as an Anytown, USA, and peopled with a multi-cultural cast that reflects the social demographics of a racially diverse Midwest, Twenty Bucks at first appears indebted to Tales of Manhattan and other films which foreground a hierarchically plotted hand-me-down so as to emphasize the verticality of social relations within a local or national framework. Yet, while this anthropology of consumption transpires in one city and its suburban environs, and is largely concerned with cross-class relations, Twenty Bucks culminates with the titular bill and two of its previous owners in an airport, a place of international convergence and transit that suggests the horizontality of exchange typical of The Yellow Rolls-Royce and The Red Violin. In these latter films, the vertical stratification of the nationally or regionally disseminated hand-me-down largely gives way to international recycling and deterritorialization. The transoceanic passage and border-crossing of the recycled object evinces a strong scopic and heterotopic impulse—a drive to bridge the logos and eros of commodity fetishism by channeling desire into the space of the Other.

Situating Twenty Bucks against earlier hand-me-down narratives, producer Karen Murphy stated in an interview, "I realized there was something more interesting—intrinsically more interesting because it isn't just an object that a person owns like a ring or a guitar or a suit or anything like that. It was something that symbolized other things, and that was unique in itself."21 Of course, a diamond ring can unleash a multitude of associations; it can be a token of marital gift exchange, a family heirloom or any number of other things. But its inflections of meaning are necessarily fewer than those triggered by a piece of currency, whose only parameters are those prescribed by the market economy. In Twenty Bucks, the recycled bill is scribbled on by a gift-giving grandmother, sent as a birthday present, used as a coaster, employed in a con artist's scam, planted in a freshwater fish as reward, and stuck up the nose of a cocaine addict. It represents the "American Dream" clung to by a rags-to-riches Arab-American as well as corporate greed. It is the hand-me-down par excellence whose chameleon-like adaptations are rivaled only by its palimpsestic permutations. In the course of its short life, the bill gets increasingly crumpled and dirty, and is even ripped apart (only to be Scotch-taped back together again). Before being traded in for a new Andrew Jackson, the little green note is so encrusted with dirt smudges, blood, handwriting, fingerprints and the ectoplasmic goo of fish guts that it begins to affect the "aura" of a living organism. These traces of human activity, these palimpsestic reminders of the past, suggest that the "blood, sweat and tears" that went into its earning will never completely disintegrate. The crisp twenty-dollar bill that slips from the grip of an ATM into the hands of an account holder eventually weathers material changes that, in the end, do not adversely affect its value or worth.

Episodic cinema, which is first and foremost concerned with repetition and change, poses a critical intervention in narrative studies and provides an especially stimulating framework for adducing the social dynamism of recycling. Each succeeding story in an episode film is a kind of recycled variation of the preceding ones, extending the thematic undertow while conversely minimizing spectatorial engagement with a single group of characters. Like a hand-me-down object, narrative itself is shown to be prone to degradation, sparking one of the most prevalent complaints hurled at episode films: that they tax the audience's patience once the central or unifying conceit becomes old hat, worn out in the course of the film's unspooling. Moreover, episodicity renders loss and gain experientially tangible. Though spectators are the profiteers of narrative insofar as they reap the benefits of generic, stylistic, and tonal variety, they also apperceive the qualitative loss of narrative that accompanies the quantitative gain of characters, settings, and milieus. Hand-me-down objects often outlast human relationships; in fact, the bond forged between a person and an object is shown to be more substantial and fulfilling than that between two people. Its absence leaves a void in the previous owner's life, one that carries over to the life of the spectator, who is "sutured" to the temporal constraints of narrative yet is expected to relinquish his or her emotional investment in characters who depart, like mere bit players, from the film. This string of absences is remedied by the constant appearance of the trusty hand-me-down. Finally, episodic hand-me-down narratives position the spectator as the ultimate arbiter of value for both the object and the film, even though the former's field of social referentiality is in constant flux. Though referred to by one critic as a "cinematic staple" in the industry,22 fewer than a dozen notable hand-me-down narratives have emerged in cinema's century-long lifespan. Nevertheless, the subgenre will continue to evolve and provide compelling variations on cross-ethnic, cross-racial and cross-cultural exchange as long as recycling remains a fixture of popular and academic discourse.

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1. Robert Stam, "Hybridity and the Aesthetics of Garbage: The Case of Brazilian Cinema" http://www.tau.ac.il/eial/IX_1/stam.html (Resource accessed Jan. 24, 2007). For additional information, consult Stam's and Ella Shohat's brief discussion of Isle of Flowers in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994), 332.

2. Todd Gitlin, "Postmodernism defined, at last!" Utne Reader, No. 34 (July/August 1989): 52.

3. Here, I am indebted to the insights of David W. Clippinger, who first tapped into the recyclophilic and recyclophobic connotations of the DeLilloism, "spiritual hand-me-down." In his exploration of Underworld, Clippinger states, "Within such an economy devoid of permanent value, all objects are subject to instant transformation from 'goods' to garbage, including the 'priceless' baseball. The interchangeability of relic and trash of the baseball is emphasized when Chuckie Wainwright, the fourth 'owner' of the ball, remarks that he regrets that he lost 'the baseball his dad had given him as a trust, a peace offering, a form of desperate love and a spiritual hand-me-down'." The lack of value inscribed in the recycled baseball "is highlighted by the fact that either Chuckie's 'wife had snatched [the ball] when they split. Or he'd accidentally dumped [it] with the household trash'… In the transference from father to son, the ball has become merely a material object that has lost whatever 'spirit' with which it had been imbued: trust, love, and peace." See Clippinger's essay, "Material Encoding and Libidinal Exchange: The Capital Culture Underneath Don DeLillo's Underworld," http://www.clippinger.com/david/material_encoding.html (resource accesssed Jan. 24, 2007).

4. I have chosen these three films as case studies at the expense of other, equally compelling examples of hand-me-down narrativity only because such films as Tales of Manhattan, The Dress, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, and The Red Violin demand longer, more in-depth analyses. A longer version of this paper, which constitutes a chapter of my dissertation, in fact includes detailed analyses of Tales of Manhattan, The Dress, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, and The Red Violin—anchoring case studies that collectively lay out two narrative paradigms dictating a given object's person-to-person pilgrimage. Atop these two theoretical foundations, which are arranged vertically (to express the top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top movements stratifying class relations) and horizontally (to emphasize the spatial motility and inter-penetration of discarded objects), I construct a conceptual framework for adducing the textual and social implications of recycling, and thus gesture toward future critical appropriations of the evocative, if elusive, term "hand-me-down."

5. Eric Partridge and Paul Beale, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English [8th Edition] (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1984), trace the term's "low colloquialism" back to 1874, and conjure its twentieth-century link to the "ready-made." In A Dictionary of Slang (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1987), editor John S. Farmer tracks "hand-me-down" back to 1878, when the reference to second-hand garments was made in a Northamptonshire daily (Notes and Queries, 5, s. ix., 6 April, p. 263). Farmer also points out that the term was used as an epithet in a June 29, 1889 issue of Sporting Times. In A Dictionary of Americanisms: On Historical Principles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), editor Mitford M. Matthews also suggests a British source while gesturing towards the ethno-exoticist implications of the term (a writer for the August 23, 1884 Boston Journal recounts an anecdote in which the question, "'You remember the second hand overcoat I bought here for $8 yesterday?" was answered by the hand-me-downer, "Never dakes pack anythings ven once solt, my frent."

6. Brian Neville and Johanne Villeneuve, eds. Waste-Site Stories: The Recycling of Memory (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002), 7.

7. Fredric Jamerson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991).

8. Igor Kopytoff, "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process," in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64-91. In the wake of Kopytoff's path-clearing work, a number of theorists have taken up the challenge to write the cultural biography of things. For a good cross-section of critical approaches, see Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn 2001)—a special issue guest-edited by Bill Brown that is devoted to the subject "Things." Another example of can be found in Cornelius Holtorf's ethno-anthropological consideration, or diacritical excavation, of multiply-constructed material histories, "Notes on the Life History of a Pot Sherd," in Journal of Material Culture, Volume 07, Issue 01 (March 1, 2002).

9. Virginia Wright Wexman, Creating the Couple: Love, Marriage, and Hollywood Performance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 75-89.

10. Leslie Stern, "Paths that Wind through the Thicket of Things," Critical Inquiry, Vol 28, No. 1 (Autumn 2001).

11. Taken from the first page of Carey Wilson's scenario, MGM script department. This file, part of the Turner/MGM Scripts Collection, can be consulted at the Margaret Herrick Library (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), Los Angeles, CA.

12. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 4.

13. Ibid, 8, 137.

14. Diamond Handcuffs Pressbook and Clippings file, Margaret Herrick Library (AMPAS).

15. The production file for If I Had a Million, housed at the Margaret Herrick Library (AMPAS), contains previews of the film—one notably engineered by Maude Lathem, from the Academy, who writes: "Each episode presents an entire drama of events or personalities. The masses may not enjoy this because it is episodic but with a little education, it should appeal to all classes" (11/15/32).

16. Andrew Bergman, We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (New York: New York University Press, 1971), xii.

17. There is a subgenre of films whose narratives, similar to Pearls of the Crown, span several centuries in stages, albeit without a linking hand-me-down object. Examples of this subgenre include Buster Keaton's Three Ages (1923), Irwin Allen's The Story of Mankind (1957), Mel Brooks' History of the World—Part I (1981), and Bill Forsyth's Being Human (1993).

18. Though Guitry made several more episodic extravaganzas before his death in July of 1957—beginning with Remontons les Champs-Elysees (1938) and reaching a feverish climax with the releases of his sprawling cinematic frescoes Si Versaillies m'était conté (1954) and Si Paris nous était conté (1956)—he never returned to the hand-me-down framework—opting instead to let his elaborately bejeweled people, rather than his elaborately bepeopled jewels, do the work of the narrative. For more information about Guitry's career, see: John J. Michalczyk, The French Literary Filmmakers (Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1980) and James Harding, Sacha Guitry: The Last Boulevardier (London: Methuen, 1968).

19. Judith Thurman, "The White Ball A paean to pearls," The New Yorker (Oct. 29, 2001): 90.

20. The premise behind Twenty Bucks was itself recycled a decade later when writer-director Kianoush Ayari made Iranian Spread (Sofreh Irani; 2002), a kind of cross-cultural adaptation of Rosenfield's film, only this time dealing with a counterfeit bank note (worth 1000 tomans) whose journey from bazaar to public bus to back-alley abortionist to shopping mall to wedding ceremony to the hands of a clown ringing in the New Year gives audiences fleeting glimpses of life throughout the geographically, ethnically and culturally diverse country (from Tehran to the Kish Islands).

21. Anne Villasenor, "The Magic of Destiny," Entertainment Today (Oct. 22-28, 1993): 8.

22. Hollywood Reporter (Sept. 4, 1997).

Works Cited:

Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

Gitlin, Todd. "Postmodernism defined, at last!" Utne Reader, no. 34 (July/August 1989).

Harding, James. Sacha Guitry: The Last Boulevardier. London: Methuen, 1968.

Holtorf, Cornelius. "Notes on the Life History of a Pot Sherd." Journal of Material Culture, vol. 7, no. 1 (March 1, 2002).

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Jamerson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

Kopytoff, Igor. "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process." The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Michalczyk, John J. The French Literary Filmmakers. Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1980.

Neville, Brian and Johanne Villeneuve, eds. Waste-Site Stories: The Recycling of Memory. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Stam, Robert. "Hybridity and the Aesthetics of Garbage: The Case of Brazilian Cinema." http://www.tau.ac.il/eial/IX_1/stam.html.

Stam, Robert and Ella Shohat. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Stern, Leslie. "Paths that Wind through the Thicket of Things." Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1 (Autumn 2001).

Thurman, Judith. "The White Ball: A paean to pearls." The New Yorker (Oct. 29, 2001).

Villasenor, Anne. "The Magic of Destiny." Entertainment Today (Oct. 22-28, 1993).

Wexman, Virginia Wright. Creating the Couple: Love, Marriage, and Hollywood Performance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.


About the Author:

David Scott Diffrient received his Ph.D. from the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media at UCLA. He is a Lecturer in the Film and Media Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis. His essays on such topics as omnibus films, horror films, American television, European coproductions, and East Asian cinema have appeared in several journals and edited anthologies, including Cinema Journal, New Korean Cinema (NYU Press, 2005), and Reading Deadwood (I.B. Tauris, 2006). He is currently writing a critical study of the TV series M*A*S*H for Wayne State University Press.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Diffrient, David Scott. "Stories that Objects Might Live to Tell: The "Hand-Me-Down" Narrative in Film." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. June 15, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/sdiffrient/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
David Scott Diffrient, Stories that Objects Might Live to Tell: The "Hand-Me-Down" Narrative in Film. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/sdiffrient/index.php› (accessed June 15, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Diffrient, David Scott. (2007, May). Stories that Objects Might Live to Tell: The "Hand-Me-Down" Narrative in Film. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/sdiffrient/index.php


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