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

It boils down to snobbery.

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The primary concern in the era of respectability was its certification of the class credentials of the middle and upper classes. The new concern about children was centered on the lower classes. Society women’s charities as well as middle-class professionals focused on socializing lower-class children, especially the growing numbers of urban-dwelling immigrants, who they believed lacked adequate parenting.

Almost from the first, what drew the attention of movie crusaders were the large numbers of unchaperoned adolescents and young children in nickelodeon audiences…

So fairly obvious things were done to manage the proletariat passion for film. Strenuous early attempts to elevate the content of the movies included systems of censorship imposed at the city and state levels. Prestigious writers, directors, performers, composers, and production designers were hired away from other more respected, less lucrative arts like theater, literature, painting, and music. A 1920s theater-building boom erected chains of splendiferous “picture palaces” meant to draw middle and upper class audiences to the movies. And typical film protagonists, who were mainly working-class heroes in the 1900s - 1910s, were changed into middle and upper-class paragons.

Think of the shift in silent slapstick comedy heroes. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, established in the1910s, is in his early incarnation a pugnacious down-and-outer, often getting blue-collar laboring jobs early in his movies, just so he can eat, then getting sacked and hitting the road again at the end. Whereas Harold Lloyd’s nice, striving, white-collar, bespectacled, middle-class fellow exemplifies the conservative business-friendly 1920s, acquiring respectable clerk jobs in films like Safety Last, and seeking a fast rise to the executive suite.

Slapstick comedy god Buster Keaton satirized this “elevating” tendency of the film industry in 1920s America in his famous short film Sherlock Jr. (1924). In it, Keaton’s character, a film projectionist, dreams that he’s trying to enter the film that he’s screening, but the film keeps rejecting him, bouncing him back out into the audience. Finally Keaton is able to infiltrate the film’s narrative as “Sherlock Jr.,” a world-famous detective who is also, apparently, a wealthy upper-cruster. He appears at the door of a mansion wearing a tuxedo and top hat, ready to solve the case involving the theft of a priceless rope of pearls, as opposed to the theft of a working-man’s watch that he had been trying to solve in “real life.” All of the other characters in the film-world of his dream are the people from his ordinary low-rent social circle, similarly elevated in wealth, status, and glamor, the men in tuxedoes, the heroine swanking around in an opulent evening gown.

Our discourse about American film has continued to be afflicted by virulent snobbery dating back to these early days, predicated on the basic elitist belief that “the people” are debased dopes. (Though let’s be clear: many people really are debased dopes. It’s just that the percentage of debased dopes isn’t any higher among the working-classes than among the leisure classes. I’ve mixed pretty freely up and down the socio-economic scale, so I know first-hand.)

The tendency of film critics and guardians of culture and the morality police to deplore the “lowness” of American film has always suggested that the problem with our cinema is the way it’s designed to appeal to the masses, because the masses are such uncouth morons. The various cures proposed for the “problem” of American film are inevitably the application of silly, snooty, secondhand notions about art, morality, and politics, shot through with a morbid loathing of the working class. There’s a small, elite, diehard crowd out there that’s never gotten over the idea that the peak cinematic experience worldwide was European political modernism of the 1960s - ‘70s, a la Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean Luc-Godard at their most debilitating and unwatchable.

But I would argue that we found a great approach to American cinema early on, and were fools not to realize it, and continue to be fools not to realize it and revive it and commit ourselves to it forever. And it was a “worker's cinema,” genuinely democratic, wildly creative, and fervently loved.

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