Wherefore Art Thou, Golden Age of Hollywood?

John McGovern


Given the state of the Hollywood system today, it might be strange to talk about film as art unflinchingly. And if there are any respectable living American directors, they’re certainly not represented in the theaters.  Yet, isn’t part of the appeal of the movies: their potential to be a radically democratic form of art? Everyone goes to the movies, and it’s undoubtedly, for many young people, the gateway drug to serious fiction or more high-minded art. The present artistic crisis in Hollywood has its roots in the past, and a look at how consistently exciting cinema once was might show how drastically the situation has changed.


It’s noteworthy that the path of the U.S. film industry reflects more general shifts in American culture. The film industry seemed to be effected by macro events (like the economic crisis of 1973) a few years after they occurred. This speaks to the large-scale production that goes into most films and, as a result, film seems to lag a few years behind. Films like Easy Rider or The Graduate embodied the values of the Baby Boomers, but it wasn’t until the early ‘70s that the real explosion of those values occurred on the big screen.


Film theorists such as Todd Berliner claim that despite the “scholarly tendency to locate the artistic worth of films of this period in their left-leaning ideologies,” the real achievement was that the New Hollywood era (roughly 1967-1979) films utilized discontinuous narrative techniques while remaining within the tradition of conventional U.S. cinema. Political affiliations aside, the late 60s and early 70s was a time of extraordinary wealth for the United States. The middle class was at the peak of its prosperity, and the country hasn’t recovered since then.

Due to this environment, the 70s was the high watermark for U.S. cinema simply because it was when the studios allowed for the most creative control. The Hollywood machine was in deep trouble as television (among other factors, the most obvious being a shift in values amongst young people) became increasingly popular and, attempting to recover from its financial crisis, it allowed a number of young directors to make films with a great deal of creative control. Many of these young directors considered themselves auteurs. They struggled with the ever-difficult task of finding the balance between commercial and avant-garde filmmaking.


The latter always has its dangers. The more experimental art is, the more difficult it is to pull off well. There’s no better example of how self-referential and cold avant-garde film can become than the filmography of James Incandenza from David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996). With films that parody films that are already parodies, ironic self-consciousness becomes the most important value of the art and, as James’ son Hal thinks in the novel, the films feel like a really smart person talking to himself.


In an essay on Orson Welles, Pauline Kael said that the greatest films often toppled the usual division between educated and uneducated audiences, but that this faced a lot of animosity. The current system has even less of chance of accomplishing this, as the uneducated are left with there superhero sequels and the arty crowd increasingly retreats to the safe haven of independent cinema, with films not so unlike those of the fictional James Incandenza. To strike the delicate balance (which is not an easy task, particularly with an artistic medium like film where pressure from the studios demands some highly deft moves on the part of the director), a film must defy genre conventions to such a degree that it is no longer identifiable (i.e., formulaic) or clearly aimed at gaining a profit above all. Yet, by defying convention too much, a film could lapse into a pedantic, academic venture as opposed to a more traditional narrative. This is why Godard eventually came to see himself more an essayist than as a storyteller. Thus, film at the level could not be unflinchingly called democratic.


 And that distinction, between an essayist and an artist, is an important one. It is the cause of many great personal identity crises. Though plenty have dabbled in both, it is only possible to be the master of one endeavor in our short lives.


One of Gore Vidal’s memorable essays titled “Who Makes the Movies?” recounts his experiences slumming it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Besides allowing for a few noteworthy exceptions like Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, Vidal dispels the auteur theory asserting that, most of the time, too many hands are involved in the production of a film for it to be considered the artistic product of a single mind. Vidal sides with Pauline Kael, whose essay “Circles and Squares” is an excellent rebuttal to the fashionable auteur theory, asserting that trying to equate films to literature is tiresome and tedious. In his superior endeavor (essay writing), Vidal shows just how difficult art is when faced alone. The collective, collaborative aspects of filmmaking are not as much as an accomplishment, even though they have the potential to give the consumer an equally rich artistic experience.



The avant-garde often spearheads new movements in art. Its adherents don’t care about bringing art to the masses, nor should they. But somebody should. James Baldwin said that he stopped hating Shakespeare when he realized that Shakespeare was one of the few writers who dared to be bawdy. And it turns out, paradoxically, that non-highbrow elements in narrative often make it the most highbrow of all. Fredric Jameson’s critique of postmodernism was that it blended the high and the low, and, therefore, it failed to reach the heights of the modernist art movements. Other critics claim that postmodernism is merely an offshoot of modernism. Trying to subdivide all of this into highly specific categories is exactly what postmodernism does, and by falling into its logic, it’s obvious that one will conclude that the conversation has turned into something else, that it is no longer a conversation about art. The Hollywood Renaissance is chockfull of examples of high art in film that strike a near perfect balance between the commercial and avant-garde realms of the art world.


In Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Harold’s anxiety about his life in the meaningless void of existence is relieved by earnestness that arrives through a relationship with an old woman, Maude. Capital T Theory (for simplicity, let’s say this is synonymous with postmodernism) does not subvert the film’s cathartic punch, and the film accomplishes the goal of all art: to change the way that we think and feel. Faced with mortality, Harold, initially, cowers in fear. His surreal, thwarted suicide attempts are an expression of this fear, which prevents him from living life. Maude, full of optimistic aphorisms and lacking the crippling state of severe self-consciousness, embraces life to the fullest.

Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show pays homage to the Old Hollywood system. At the same time, it points to the latent conventions and moralities of that system which sewed the seeds for its destruction. A flat, generic small town (a metaphor, perhaps, for what the old system came to be) becomes the location of promiscuous behavior, even between teens and adults, as the cast of characters seeks to make sense of their small worlds. The title refers to the last movie shown at the town’s theater. And, of course, the movie is a western, the bread and butter of the old system.


Terrence Malick’s debut film Badlands exposes the dark side of pop cultural icons like James Dean, challenging cultural norms amidst a riveting plot that proves its point through the narrative instead of through its meta, or postmodern, moments. Martin Sheen’s hair-flip while being chased by the police during an enthralling action sequence might be one of the best examples of the New Hollywood: subverting the tradition and falling in line with it all at once.


Last year (for $4 billion) Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise, a franchise that is a symbol of the defeat of the most innovative era in U.S. filmmaking. Within a few years we’ll probably be headed to the theater to catch the seventh installation in the franchise, even though we all know, at varying levels, that what we will see will not defy our expectations. Not every movie needs to do this all the time, and blaming Star Wars for greater trends in the culture would miss the point.


The protagonist from Don DeLillo’s End Zone (1973) dates a girl who, obsessed with science fiction novels, tells him that if you don’t mix history with science fiction, you’ll go crazy. Of course, a lot of well-educated people don’t do this and they aren’t crazy. It’s more of an allegory about the gridlock of culture than about what specific cultural products one should consume. People may eschew all forms of low or middle art, but when they unplug themselves from a culture’s psyche, you can bet that they will not be able to function for very long in the world. One great theory of culture is that it fills the void, the void being the meaninglessness of life. And in an age where there’s not enough of the opposite, where we can convince ourselves that we are totally depraved, compared to past generations, of a decent amount of quality art, we run the risk of forgetting that simple fact. The same fact is a good reminder why the movies matter; they might not have as much artistic cred as prose and poetry or visual art, but they are the most democratic form of art that we have. With that, they prove to have the most potential to inspire us and move us emotionally.


 If The Graduate established that the old generation of Hollywood been had usurped by a new generation, Apocalypse Now served as a harsh reminder that the freedoms and economic prosperity of the ‘60s had started to fade away. Soon, Reagan would dismiss public pessimism brought about by the war in Vietnam as the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Coppola’s film was one of the last great reminders (in mainstream movies) that all good things must come to an end. During the past three-plus decades since the release of the latter film, U.S. cinema has not seen such a prolific time period, as the existence of original directors post-1980 has been more of an exception than a rule. 


Author Bio:

John McGovern is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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