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Working Notes on Film and Culture
Gary E. Schnittjer
Copyright © 2004, 2008, 2011

            Entertainment “is arguably the most pervasive, powerful, and ineluctable force of our time—a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life” (Gabler 1998, 9). Entertainment is “the primary value of American life” (Gabler 1998, 10). With reference to American culture and values I am inclined to see motion pictures, broadcast and digital media, along with much of technology, as a function of entertainment. Entertainment is a most powerful engine of media.
            Among the varieties of mass media, movies have enjoyed the place of privilege in the past century. From 1929 to 1949 between two thirds and three quarters of Americans, most of the people between six and sixty, went to the movies at least once a week (Pautz; Belton, 4; Sklar, 269). The decline in going to the movies is not because of lack of interest but due, in large part, to other vehicles like televised media and home video players. The average American, if there is any such thing, spends more time more time watching television than anything else next to sleep and work (see Gibbs, 45). While the average American presently (’07-’08) only attends five to eight movies per year, DVDs (and VHS tapes in years gone by) have been earning two and a half times as much as movie theaters for about twenty years (movies theaters $9.4 versus DVDs $24.4 billion in 2006, in Gibbs, 45).
            The motion picture industry holds a preeminent place within the larger entertainment industry, the most powerful shaper of values and mores in North America. Early on the motion picture industry was viewed “as one of the greatest, if not the very greatest, influence upon the minds and cultures, not only of the people of the United States, but of the entire world” (report to director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, quoted in Ross, 8). Some think that film media dominates still: “There was a Hollywoodism then, there’s a Hollywoodism today. I would go further and say it is … the ruling ideology of our culture. Hollywood culture is the dominant culture. It is the fantasy structure that we are all living inside” (Jonathan Rosenbaum in Hollywoodism). Even taking into account the exaggeration of these suggestions, understanding the film industry is important to those interested in the American soul. Joel Martin said it well: “If we want to understand American culture, we need to study Hollywood films” (Screening the Sacred, vii).
            Many have sounded the alarm and presented the culture devastating effects of celebrity (Gabler 1994), pseudo-events (D. Boorstin), television (Postman 1985, 2005), technology (Postman 1993), mass production (Huxley), computers, and more. I think closest to the mark is Gabler’s Life the Movie in which he suggests that entertainment is the nexus of these and other media addictions. The various media are vehicles of and functions of entertainment.
            Why are movies powerful? They are reality machines which viewers give themselves over to, for a time. Perhaps more than this movies project stories. The old-time gossip papers departed from news by presenting stories not information (Gabler 1994, 75). Framing personalities and events in plotlines and drama, fictionalizing life, created celebrity. In recent days reality television has staged, edited, recontextualized, and fictionalized all aspects of ordinary life. News and televised news magazines served as a prelude to reality television with shows fictionaizing everything mundane from games to trying on clothes to redecorating rooms to the family lives of everyone from rock stars to little people. The popularity of fictionalized reality may indicate the total dominion of the movies. In the age of reality television is life movie-shaped?
Hollywood and the American Reality
            “What does it mean to be real?” Morpheus asks Neo in The Matrix. This is a good question. “Reality,” according to Kolker, is an idea created by culture (see chapter 1). And in a culture dominated, perhaps tyrannized, by entertainment we have new understandings of what it means to be real. On the one side, the rise of “reality television”—which is filmed self-consciously and edited and marketed, and so forth—has blurred the distinction between life and entertainment. It presents staged, storied, and fictionalized “reality” often within a game or contest, which is how the sense of beginning and ending is manufactured. On the other side, ordinary persons worry much more about their “image” and “reputation” than they used to. Perception is sometimes valued more highly than substance. The movies are so pervasive, moreover, that for many life has become a movie. People learned how to “play themselves” (Gabler 1998, 4-6, 230, and so on). If we live in a world of post-reality, entertainment is the governing cosmology (see Gabler, especially 10, 244). The movies are an important example of the “manufactured reality” that rules in many quarters of American culture (see Gabler, 96-142; D. Boorstin).
            Why are movies such a powerful force? It worth thinking through a few of the many reasons. First and foremost, narrative is a central function to being human. Whatever sense we make of life, it is, in one way or another, a storied sense (for two different ways of looking at the centrality of narrative see Niebuhr and Crites). As individuals our narratable memories play a central part in what we call personal identity. Moreover, our social identity and culture significance is closely tied to communal stories. One way to control culture is to control who and how the public stories are told (like from the old communist propaganda machines, and so on). If we answer some of the classic questions of humankind—Who are we? and Where are we going?—the answers will be story-shaped.
            Second, the experience of going to the movies includes temporarily lending our minds to the depicted story. It’s not that our minds are passive or neutral. But we commit or energies—mental, psychological, emotional, and so forth—to fixation on the movie. “People don’t just watch a movie, they throw themselves into the experience. . . . They want to lose themselves in what they’re seeing” (J. Boorstin, 8). Many people have had the experience of becoming so absorbed into a movie that they need to remind themselves what day it is, what time it is, and where they are.
            Third, Hollywood movies are forever “new” and “different.” I am not ignoring the sequel or serial pictures. Rather, I am highlighting the fact that American society expects Hollywood to imagine new stories. Movie viewers can forever look forward to the next new stories, like those that were previewed before the feature began. The lure of novelty and mystery creates an appetite in the movie consumer. While many want to enjoy the same stories thus creating the desire for sequels, the American public also expects to be surprised. If a movie is predictable or too conventional it may do poorly in the box office.
            Fourth, movies offer viewers a parallel universe of escape. They are not “real” in the sense that they refer literally. But the fictions are a real part of viewer imagination. American society has watched so many movies with “Hollywood endings” that some, perhaps many, people sort of believe in them. We want to believe in them in spite of (because of?) the patent unreality and fiction of the endings. So while movie fictions are not “real” and they are not “true,” they are “really” there and can “actually” be watched, again. At the end of a hard week Americans can play their favorite digital fiction and enjoy an old favorite or go to the movies to be surprised (hopefully) by a brand new motion picture.
            There are other reasons for the power of Hollywood movies—like media hype, high budget production, the lure of the “glamour,” and so forth. The big point is the fact that movies are a dominant force in American culture, whether or not we can explain the sources of their great power. “There is obviously no such thing as a unified field theory of American culture, but if there were, one could do worse than to lay much of what has happened in late-twentieth-century America on the corrosive effects of entertainment rather than the effects of politics or economics, the usual suspects” (Gabler 9). There are certainly many reasons for the problems of the last century. The entertainment industry, especially Hollywood, has had a significant hand in shaping culture and the American imagination.
The Game of Story
            Moviemakers and moviegoers play a game, the game of story. The viewers try to guess what is coming next, but they actually want be surprised. The story is supposed to lead in a direction and then twist and turn and surprise viewers. For though viewers try to guess what will happen, if they do, they despise the story for being predictable.
            “The audience in working . . . drawing conclusions and projecting expectations. One of the principal pleasures for audiences is guessing what will happen next. . . . When an audience trusts enough to guess but knows it will be wrong, it’s hooked. The movie works. Audiences want their overall expectations fulfilled—they want the hero to triumph and the lovers to be united—but moment by moment they want to be wrong. . . . [We want] to be surprised. We want the filmmaker to be cleverer than we are.” (J. Boorstin, 50). We want the picture “to surprise us even as it gives us what we’re waiting for” (J. Boorstin, 61).
            When we watch a story for the first time we think ahead, and we delight in being tricked. When we really like a movie we may watch it again. When we watch a film for the second or third time we no longer hope to be surprised because now we know the trick. In the second viewing we delight in seeing how elements earlier in the story relate to what is coming in the ending. In second viewing we see things that we “didn’t see” the first time.
            Aristotle described the turning point of the “complex” plot as the two components of “reversal” and “recognition.” “Reversal is a change to the opposite direction of events” (XI [65]). Recognition is the discovery or surprise of an element which turns or transforms the narrative. Aristotle lists several typical kinds of recognition (see XVII [82-87]). The first three are related in that they each require a contrived element of some sort in the story—a token (like a necklace or scar, and so on), through dialogue, and by a character’s memory. The fourth is recognition by reasoning. In this case the narrative can use compound recognition: the audience’s mistaken recognition (which may be set up in the story) reversed by a character’s reasoned recognition. The fifth, and for Aristotle the best, kind is recognition coming from events themselves.
            Kierkegaard, in his negotiations with Genesis 22, used Aristotle’s notion of recognition more broadly in his own thinking on plot. Kierkegaard postulated that recognition demands a prior “hiddenness” within the story. Kierkegaard goes on to treat the hiddenness which leads up to recognition as an important feature within narration (see 83-88; also 89-112). Auerbach, in his work on Genesis 22, talks about elements which are in the “background” of the story—somewhat similarly to Kierkegaard’s “hiddenness” (see Auerbach, 3-23). Readers can only see what is in the foreground or written story. Thus, the invisible background create room for questions, tensions, and ongoing dialogue with and about narrative.
            The game of story is, in many respects, the contest of recognition, or the surprise. The first viewing or reading leads to the surprise and the second reading is all about reading backwards from the surprise. Every element within a story can be reconsidered in second reading from the vantage point of knowing what is hidden to the first-time reader.
Hollywood Endings
            Among the important values and cultural ideals taught by the movies is the optimism and hope of the classic Hollywood ending. From the beginning of the sound era—The Jazz Singer being an excellent example—Hollywood movies typically end well (see Gabler 1988, 140-45). That is, things that do not happen and cannot happen in “real life” are the “normal” expected outcome of American films. How are irresolvable problems overcome? “The answer is that the movie, swiftly and painlessly, dissolves the problem altogether. . . . The movies, after all, are a world of possibility where anything can happen” (Gabler 1988, 145).
            Hollywood endings are more than optimism, they redefine the human condition and human situation by inevitably ending well. “Hollywood films have more sizzle, more pace, more plot, more everything but depth of character and insight into the human condition. You might say, as did André Malraux, that Americans spend a great deal of effort denying that life is essentially tragic” (J. Boorstin, 204).
            The problem with Hollywood endings is that we believe them, even though we do not believe them. Or, is it that we simply want to believe them? Many viewers begin to think that the fictions of the big screen somehow, some way, represent life. Do they? Will it all work out alright if we work hard and work together? If there is hope, it is not, in my opinion, rooted in the potentialities of humanity. We may be good, but we are also rotten; too rotten to save ourselves.
The Old-time Hollywood Studios and American Culture
            The lords of the major Hollywood studios in the early years shared several things. They were each Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Finding a place in the landscape of American society presented many challenges. Moreover, the heads of the major studios each came from troubled families, The movie tycoons “embittered by their fathers’ failures, launched a war against their own pasts—a patricide, one could say, against everything their fathers represented” (Gabler 1988, 4). The common struggles to fit within American culture and overcome family situations partially explains the similar characteristics in the storyworlds their studios created.
            The success of the Hollywood Jews can be measured not only in dollars and cents but in cultural change. “Within the studios and on the screen, the Jews could simply create a new country—an empire of their own, so to speak—one where they would not only be admitted, but would govern as well. . . . They would create its values and myths, its traditions and archetypes. It would be an America where fathers were strong, families stable, people attractive, resilient, resourceful, and decent. This was their America, and its invention may be their most enduring legacy” (6).
            The films of the old time Hollywood studios had much in common, but each studio’s movies also had distinctive characteristics. The Warner Brothers embraced losers and loners, who became the heroes of their fictions for depression America. Jack and Harry Warner stated their desire to instruct as well as entertain. Their movie’s heroes were active and often struggling against insiders and the establishment. These stories were not unlike the Warners’ own experience (see 195-98).
            Columbia’s America was, in many ways, the society imagined by the dictatorial studio head Harry Cohn and the important director Frank Capra. “Capra’s villains were customarily ruthless industrialists exploiting the symbols of democracy for their own ends, and his films were always confrontations of values and sensibilities: rural against urban, the common against the rich and mighty, the innocent against the shrewd, the individual against the corporation, the traditional against the new” (200). The heroes of Columbia’s pictures were not the working class and they were not ethnic; they were middle class Americans. The films of Cohn’s studio imagined the world partly as it was and reimagined it partly the way he wished it to be (see 198-201).
            Adolph Zukor’s Paramount “envisioned movies as a source of intellectual elevation” (Gabler 202). They wanted to “lift public taste a little bit” (203). Part of the irony is that the films combined “sophistication with a certain hard-edge realism” (205). Paramount pictures “didn’t ennoble the audience; they whisked them away to a world of sheen and sex where people spoke in innuendo, and acted with abandon, and doubted the rewards of virtue” (204). In a real way they reflected for Zukor “the old contradiction between his aspirations to respectability and the means to attain them” (205).
            Universal’s pictures embodied the background and ambitions of its head, Carl Laemmle, especially in the Westerns and horror films of the thirties. The Westerns resembled the dime novels Laemmle read as boy in Germany—they depicted the America of cowboys and Native Americans he imagined in his youth. More often than not, the down and out cowpoke hero overcomes the oppressive town magnate to save the town and get the girl (see 205-6). Universal’s most enduring legacy from the era are the horror films—like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. These also reflected the Germany of Laemmle’s youth, especially the shadowy Gothic sets. The films, like Frankenstein, dealt with the delicate relationship between humanity, nature, technology, and fate. Dr. Frankenstein’s angst was stretched between the ambition to do something great and when playing god runs amok (see 206-7).
            If any of the Hollywood studios created the grandest national mythology it was MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) headed by Louis B. Mayer. “What most distinguished MGM’s films was their general air of unreality” (214). The “unreality” reached on one side toward “opulent romantic melodramas” which depicted “his own fantasies of attractiveness and social mobility” (214). One the other side, they presented small-town Americana with happy children, wise fathers, and tolerant, domestic, loving mothers. Andy Rooney starred as all-American teenager in a series of films that foreshadowed the storied world of so many of the television serials over the first decades of the new medium. “Mary Astor complained that ‘Metro’s mothers never did anything but mothering. They never had a thought in their heads except their children. They sacrificed everything; they were domineering or else the “Eat up your spinach” type. Clucking like hens’—which was precisely how Mayer thought mothers ought to behave” (215). Mayer knew he was not reflecting but creating an imaginary small-town society akin to Normal Rockwell’s representations (see 215-16). He hoped it would shape the taste of the country; it at least shaped the appetite of the television marketplace (perhaps permanently). Thus, MGM’s pictures imagined two American societies, one of glamour and wealth and the other of small towns inhabited by upright two-dimensional citizens.
            After the studio system came apart Hollywood continued to influence American society, regaining some of its power in recent decades. “The Hollywood Jews left behind . . . something powerful and mysterious. What remains is a spell, a landscape of the mind, a constellation of values, attitudes, and images, a history and a mythology that is part of our culture and our consciousness. What remains is the America of our imagination and theirs. Out of their desperation and their dreams, they gave us this America” (432).

Selected Forces of Cultural Change
            Cultural change is complex, and simple explanations are inadequate. Yet it is helpful to try to explain how social tendencies and historic events morph culture. Several major events and new social realities converged in the middle decades of the twentieth century, and, in part, generated new, and not necessarily better, cultural trajectories and shifts in deeply held social values. Many of these adjustments are embodied in the movies of the day.
           The Disney-flavored stories of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s symbolized the values to which many Americans aspired. The Holocaust and the films of its horrors exemplified the deep contradictions of the European and American trust in technology and progress. A sense of disillusionment pressed hard upon the military returning from the war in Europe and the Pacific (see, e.g., The Best Years of Our Lives). The ideals of nobility and defeating the evil forces with righteous violence did not seem to have a place in the expanding suburbia of the United States. The economic boom in the wake of the Depression and the Second World War offered great promises to the up and coming generation. Meanwhile, the popularity of western films in the 1940’s and 1950’s provides a significant myth to the emerging middling Americans. In the westerns a lone male can use his wits, integrity, fists, and quick draw to bring justice to a wild and chaotic frontier on the edge of civilization.

            Disney films, the Holocaust, and the western offer only a partial picture, but exemplify the conflicted values and visions that weighed hard on suburban youth. At the same time, youth culture is changing rapidly. Whereas at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries college education served the wealthy including about five percent of the population, the later decades of the twentieth century witnessed most high school graduates enroll in college. Suburbia, middling affluence, and large proportions of middling young people going to college are all new forces of social change.
            The invention of adolescence in affluent suburbia gave rise to a new kind of popular culture expressed in rock music. The expanding college culture proved a fertile context for sexual liberation and leisure use of drugs by the younger generation. Educational opportunity, freedom to party, and broad middling affluence, created opportunity to question and criticize and reject the establishment and all of its institutions—government, religion, education, family. All of this proved a productive breading ground for angst, skepticism, and disillusionment which would come to characterize the decades to the present.
            Many other factors, including the home video player, the internet, and all manner of personal electronic devices, have contributed to and facilitated the ongoing reflections and rejections of our culture (see Social and Intellectual Modern Contexts). The unrest of long established cultures worldwide is especially evident in the wars and popular media of today.

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Copyright © 2004, 2008, 2011