Saturday, June 13, 2009
Hollywood's old heroes knew (or learned) how to take losses in stride. The Hawskian hero just needed a chance to do a job. If they worried too much about status they'd, presumably, get themselves in binds, like some of Sturges' dreamers (Christmas in July) or do-gooders (Sullivan's Travels). Wartime changed things; estrangement appeared where once was togetherness. Adventure films in exotic locations, for classical Hollywood, were also a way of spinning yarns outside of history. Once, the old commercial cinema suggests to us (via its partial parentage of theater and vaudeville, of middle-class entrepreneurs and traveling picture shows), people were like this. Termitish activity onscreen suggests something about a history never announced as history.
We all know, they all know, exactly who Joe is.
The difference is in how his phantom operates amongst the still-living. How is he "presenced," how is he acknowledged (including by means of non-acknowledgment)? The hard truths, personal pleasures, and basic lessons of lifetime are etched into older faces. This much is for certain, if compare commercial American cinema today to commercial American cinema fifty or eighty years ago: there were much more interesting faces and bodies back then. No question. It's not an issue for Hollywood today because Hollywood is not interested in depicting real bodies in any substantial or interesting way. The concern is not, never was, one of "realism." Classical Hollywood practiced its own stylizations in its representation of the human body. But they were far more open, back then, to the range of body types. Each type or manifestation (lines on a face, curvature of the upper body, grace or lankiness, eyebrows, teeth) screamed or whispered or hinted at character, ancestry, knowledge, opinion, in short, a locus of personalized history. A frozen-shut catalogue engagingly flipped through, given many short glimpses, by means of "performance."
Joe: the missing personal presence(s) that help structure one's life.
Once Joe was an indication of who you know, what you lost externally and gained internally. Then Joe becomes the guy who took your job, way off somewhere else; the guy who spurned your advances; the analog crew member on the film set (unglamorous and UNSEEN). Personal history, crystallized in "characters" who were woven into larger still historical-social patterns in old Hollywood film narratives, slowly, creakingly gave way to psychology, which itself structured narratives. The deep ethos of Expressionism was extracted and slathered like margarine over the top of the Hollywood machine. (Real butter got itself thrown out in favor of the cheaper substitute: "too fatty, not good for you," experts assured us.) Under the guises of modernism, personal style, whathaveyou, this particular principle of aestheticization undermined one of the more interesting, though I hesitate to say dominant, features of classical Hollywood, particularly its brand of very wide appeal. Now Hollywood appeals to "everyone" because it offers carefully constructed products meant to do so (let no fool tell you that Hollywood is "stupid," "meaningless," "pointless" for it is all too shrewd, meaningful, and pointed). Hollywood even engages political conflict in its quest to trump it; last year I presented a conference paper on this topic, reversibility, wherein films courted controversial interpretations by cleverly appealing to multiple sides of a sociopolitical conflict (e.g., The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, 300, etc.). A murdered friend was once a layer added to a catalogue of experiences, including miseries and tragedies; soon it becomes a catalyst for narrative action because the character had been a clean slate of personal history: fully formed, like Athena, they emerge on-screen, ready to be "given" their character by means of some goal, some wound. (But these films do not pursue modernism in this case, do not tend to examine characters as constructions of word, image, plot.)
I wonder: would a dominant consideration of older Hollywood be that it focuses on A story, in relation to its characters, whereas newer Hollywood tends toward THE story? The bildungsroman is a narrative of character definition that can grow out of the "one-among-many" approach; perhaps it has something to do with post-WWII baby boom, the rise of youth/teen culture, and the later increase on the youth demographic to sell tickets, that this appeal to singularity and solipsism drives into the heart of American commercial cinema? Not a satisfactory way to situate the problem, I admit; but neither a set of topics I'd like to give up on ...