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FilmSuck: Why America's Great Filmmaking Tradition Went Down the Drain

It boils down to snobbery.

The following is an excerpt from the new e-book FilmSuck USA by Eileen Jones (Amazon Digital Services, Inc 2013).

That loud sucking noise you hear is American cinema going down the drain. We've been listening to that slow slurping gurgle for a long time now, and are used to it. Still, sometimes you might wonder how American cinema, which was once the best in the world, wound up circling the drain with a mournful glugging sound for years and years and years. And you might also wonder how much longer it can go on like this, before the Final Suck occurs and we're looking at nothing but empty drainpipe.

It'll never happen, you might say. That'd be like saying America's going to shut down its space program, and let other people take over, like the Russians and the Chinese and the Indians and any random jerk-off billionaire looking for an expensive hobby. Oh, wait...yeah. That already happened, didn't it?

Anyway, I have a few ideas about how it all went to hell.

Film As Work

It’s useful to note that American film was initially forged as a working-class entertainment form, generally by workers, for workers, and that this was not, in itself, a bad legacy for our national cinema. In fact, it took shape in an optimal way, making increasingly astute use of the sensational power of moving images cut together. Ours was always recognized in other filmmaking nations as a hot contender for Best Cinema, even before the period of Hollywood’s world-dominance began.

But ironically, in the USA, the world’s most boastful democracy, our basic disdain for the rabble has infected our thinking about American film from the word Go.

Unlike many European national cinemas that from the first displayed their propensity toward cinema-as-art and were embraced as such by their citizenry, early American cinema was regarded as a crude lower-class entertainment form, cranked out for profit, loved by the masses, despised by the elite. Early theaters for projected films were vaudeville houses running movie shorts between live acts catering to the hoi polloi, who liked to see dog acts and plate spinners and dance teams and slapstick comedy skits all mixed up together.

Converted-storefront “nickelodeons” exploded as the most popular entertainment venue because they were the cheapest. Virtually everyone, even the poorest, could afford to pony up a nickel to see amazing ghostlike images of ourselves walk out of a factory door at the end of a workday, deboard a train, eat breakfast, play cards, run, jump, box, kiss, dance the hoochy-koochy, and eventually, act out exciting fictional plots.

The men who got into the early, unregulated movie business on the ground floor were tough working-class guys themselves, often immigrants, looking for any kind of a break. The reason so many major Hollywood studio heads wound up being Jewish is because in the early days of cinema, Jews were kept out of most “respectable” businesses and had to stick to hardscrabble trades in marginalized industries. Famous examples: Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, born Lazer Meir, Russian immigrant, Jewish, former junk salesman; Samuel Goldwyn, head of the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, born Samuel Goldfish, Polish immigrant, Jewish, former glove salesman; Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, second-generation immigrant of German-Jewish extraction, former streetcar conductor and sheet music promoter; and the Warner Brothers of Warner Brothers Studio, Jack, Harry, Sam, Albert, born Jacob, Hirsch, Schmuel, and Aaron Wonsal, second-generation immigrants of Polish-Jewish extraction, former shoe repairmen, bicycle shopkeepers, grocers, whatever they could get.

Up through the 1910s, the upper classes and the guardians of culture tended to disparage the movies. Aspiring actors, writers, and directors seeking careers on the “legitimate stage” avoided working in movies unless they needed fast cash, in which case they sometimes worked under pseudonyms, so as not to damage their reputations. Early film critics—usually theater critics forced to cover the movies as well—held their noses while they typed complaints about the execrable mess of the movies, and urged more coherent narratives in the mode of the theatrical “well-made play.” Cultural reformers fretted about the deleterious moral effects of the movies. Not just their content—which always tended toward the violent, rowdy, and sensational—but also their mode of presentation—close-quarters seating, lights turned off, disreputable locales.

The assumption tended to be that, under cover of darkness, every working class girl was liable to get pregnant at the movies, and every immigrant boy was liable to impregnate someone or steal something or knife somebody. In short, unless prompt steps were taken, the popularity of movies would drive the working classes, always so inclined toward degeneracy, straight into the arms of Satan.

According to this thinking, lower-class children, especially, required saving, because they seemed to love movies with an all-consuming love, and also because, with early intervention, they had the capacity to become “civilized” and move up in class someday. As Richard Butsch argues in The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television 1750 – 1990:

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