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

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:

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.

Published with permission of the author from the e-book FilmSuck USA by Eileen Jones (Amazon Digital Services, Inc 2013).


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