Monday, 11 September 2006

Hollywood Fantasy
and the American Dream

In the first two decades of American film history something vital began, but had little time to reach fruition as a pure art form before its incorporation into an expanding pecuniary pledge of allegiance. The country itself was still coming to grips with a post-slavery, second industrial age. This was a new period of scientific and technological progress unlike anything the world had seen before. Culturally a basic pattern was repeating itself, yet new possibilities shone on the horizon like residual rays from an enlightened era. So wars and rumors of wars— fueled by memories of horrors and glories past, and dreams of future conquest— loomed on that horizon, and struggles for power continued; as did the striving forward towards something new, not yet experienced.

A reasonable form of technology may have been capable of curing humans of their condition, but the accompanying investment capital had evolved into a sophisticated organism devoid of reason, and dealing in destruction. It was functional, though, and served its most vocal proponents best. Fortunately the dreamer continued to exist and thrive.

The origin of moving photography wasn’t pure magic and fantasy, however. The inventors were always looking to monopolize, and with this in mind they captured the imagination of the masses. The first to illuminate a paying public via projected images were the French, also coincidently the originators of the trade market. Then, following the introduction of multi-reel film in America came the motion picture industry.

Hollywood was founded on the American Dream. This dream is a reference to something romantic and indistinct, so regardless of any one particular interpretation, it all influenced the evolution of movies in America, as did the recurring patterns of human history—and memory. In it’s purest form, the old country was to send its poor and weary (and eager). Interestingly, it was once again France that was so captivated that they sent as a gift a landmark that was to become the classic symbol of the dream. One interpretation of the dream that became a recurring theme in films was the “rags to riches” parable. It’s basically rooted in the idea that anyone who is willing to work hard can rise above his station in life. In some versions of the story the station remains despite the rise, and the dream runs out with the last reel. So developed the market for fantasy and reality: Playing on the dream of striking it rich; teaching the unscrupulous not to forget that nothing comes easy. The stories mirrored conflicts in the real world, both ideological and material.

It’s quite natural that dreams themselves made their way onto the screen, as was the attempt to suggest actual dream-like cinema. Every new idea brought new trends and patterns. And not unlike the development of civilization upon civilization, the history of twentieth century film showed the ability to recognize patterns and use them to various effect. Art imitates life—and art. These are worlds replete with memory.

Hollywood through its various influences endeavored throughout the century of its birth to show what it thought needed to be shown. The romanticism at the beginning hit bumps such as war, economic crisis, and more war (real and imagined) which led to the paranoid persecution of idealists; for the business was clearly filled with them. But as the industry moved forward, the ideal (real or imagined) rose high and prospered. Patterns of film history began to appear, and be recognized, and so film indeed became a form of memory. Some movies were nothing more than propaganda; some the endorsement of a way of life; some a dream of the way things could be. Sometimes the artist would make “still life” renditions of other films for profit, and sometimes they’d burrow a bit deeper and attempt something singular. Sometimes something would happen that made one wonder: “Have I seen this before?” not unlike the first time one heard a voice as if it were coming from the figure…. in the image…. on the screen, or the first time one held a photograph in their hand, recognized a shape in a cloud, or drew a picture on a cave wall.

As the various two-dimensional dramas unfolded, they followed the signs of their time. That is, they fit the time in which they were filmed at least as much as the time they portrayed. Technology would limit this attribute to some extent, but with each subsequent decade or two, a body of work was canned that could be effectively dated to within a decade or two by simply watching the film. Archeology is a much more complicated science unless you consider the biology, psychology, history, and sociology of filmmaker and audience.

Throughout the history of humankind, humans have behaved either socially or antisocially, with kindness or malevolence, and in reasoned or psychotic ways, at least as far back as one can remember. These contradictions are perfect for art and expression, and if the twentieth century has an identifying art form, it would be the visual and aural recorded forms. Though one might argue for the suggestive nature of painting or sculpture, or the evocative power of the written word, the motion picture with sound is as close to capturing memory as has come, short of simply remembering.

Lumberton Remembered
It’s been twenty years since America was eased simmering into her inferno, if only by way of a film, and no brutal western or film-noir tale, nor has Hollywood’s second golden age of the seventies disturbed convention so greatly while innocently following tradition. The resulting uneasiness established a new kind cinematic misery. With resonating imagery and latent symbolism, it left a mark.

It began with a most original and eerie title sequence that nevertheless managed to maintain a classic Hollywood feel. It also effectively set the tone: Utterly unique, yet quite familiar. The opening scene was a Life Magazine-like caricature, which, true to Hollywood script form, culminated with a dramatic event. Unlike the scripts before it however, the end of this aperture exposed method inside mystery. One felt the foreboding, but in a way not quite relevant to the story, rather somehow to the film itself, or perhaps the experience of experiencing it.

The score worked subliminally, by drawing one into its dream, into a dream about film music. The sound functioned much the same way, being over the top yet somehow hidden in the close-ups. The mood came from the whole, not anything aurally identifiable. It just may be the best that original music and sound has served a motion picture since the accompanist hammered it out live and in-person.

The songs used in the soundtrack were barely older at the time of its release than the film is now, yet I suspect that more people remember them from the movie than from the sixties, with a notable exception: The song of the title was nevertheless memorable to most on its own, what one might call an American classic.

The dim, to too-dark natural interiors bothered many critics who had become accustomed to radiant illumination, yet made others curious about what they might be missing. Traditional lighting and design was reserved for that which seemed insignificant by comparison, like the emergence of the heroine (playing second to the anti-heroine) under the streetlamp.

Then there were the naïve, perhaps nostalgic bits of dialogue vs. the horrifying scenes of degradation of a sort that one might’ve engaged in a little self-loathing just watching it. While the text certainly carried its burden of controversy, it was the stark imagery of the thing that packed the biggest punch to the subconscious gut. The story bemused and amused, but what was seen made one squirm.

Upon initial release, it played in the theaters during a Republican dynasty with Ronald Reagan doing an encore. It would seem that this land was a happy one with “Daddy” in charge, enough so that they elected HIS ” brain” to succeed him. Much like the Reagan/Bush Administration with its voodoo-economics, there are references to the magic of peace and prosperity (white picket fences), while never letting us forget about the threat of those who would deny us our promised land (violent and demented drug dealers).

This was not, however, the kind of moral tale the GOP—or their main rivals for that matter—were about to endorse. It didn’t contain a clear and simple morality tale with which those who so love the vengeance of Death Wish II (revenge at home) or Rambo (revenge abroad) could identify comfortably.

Yet it stripped itself of political context—despite what one may think they know about its view on the drug trade or violence towards women—with titillation. This was achieved not only with the storyline which exposed an accidental peeping tom to the sadistic reality of captivity and torture and rape and brutality, but also by introducing an ensuing dilemma and quite a secret to bear for any would-be amateur detective: Curiosity come imagination. In making a ethical compromise, the protagonist was confronted with a victim who just happened to be a masochist, or a masochist cloaked as a victim, or maybe she just loathed herself, and needed to be rescued. He couldn’t have known which, because he didn’t ask. This confounded him all the more when she asked him for another moral concession. He refused, she insisted. His shame wasn’t the slap itself, but his response to his own ignorance and frustration.

Set against the backdrop of family betrayal and coming of age sexuality, the narrative had a perverse logic of its own which made it difficult to experience in a linear way. Our hero just pressed ahead; urged on not by wanting to solve the crime, but by wanting to know where it would take him next.

How to handle a movie that is at once such a departure from its foundation, and the epitome of fundament? How do you deal with such a film in an environment like the asshole-end of the Cold War, when the biggest threat to your way of life is said to come from something much easier to identify? Nominating it for your highest national award, and then quickly relegating it to the cellar of cult-film theory. Suppressing it like a memory would be instinctive. It’s the equivalent of burning the flag the one time it’s not taboo: when it’s been sullied, or stained, or just plain dropped in the dirt. That’s the official, public side of the movie’s memory, but only the most dogmatic could take it too seriously for too long. Watching it today probably wouldn’t have the same impact, unless perhaps you didn’t see it then and have been somewhat secluded since. Yet it is still a seminal work of a new world with a new art form.

The younger generation who missed its original release just might be experiencing a clumsily carried out, perverse master plan, with edifying parallels to the past: dynasty and war, power and wealth, corruption and deceit, death and despair, violence and torture, and sex and secrets all documented in such excruciating detail that it’s desensitizing. But those of us who sat in the theaters in 1986 experienced a fear that even the war-on-drugs, arms-race-with-the-evil-empire, trickle-down tax policy, anti-gay preachers of the time couldn’t have warned us about. Witnessed was, if not a startling new reality, at least the loss of another remarkably quixotic one: Innocence. Like the film, this is something you only get once in a lifetime, and then your finished. The cruelty behind the attraction, the nightmare behind the dream, the American Dream, Hollywood fantasy—and not as a counterpoint, or as a point, but as THE point—was unveiled; or rather the dream willingly disrobed before the public. It is only now, five presidential terms later, that reality has topped the cinema in this department, and however mind numbing it may seem, there are no more taboos. Whether or not we are saved, whether or not we want to be, this too will one day be remembered.