Are the Movies Dying?
(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved.
It used to be common to enjoy reciting or memorizing poetry. Working-class Italian-American men used to attend operas or listen to recordings as a favorite pastime. Will cinema, the twentieth-century art form embraced by the multitude, go the way of poetry and opera and become an esoteric interest for only a few?
Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies, a thematically organized collection of 64 articles, worries that cinema as a popular art form is dying. Poetry, opera, and film all appealed to the popular audience at the same time as they scaled the heights of artistic achievement. There is no opposition between popular movies of quality and films of great cinematic achievement. They coexist along a continuum of artistic effort and achievement that allows for multiple kinds of appreciation and understanding.
The opposition that is killing cinema, according to McBride, is not between classic popular movies and films of the highest artistic quality. The opposition is between popular and great art, on the one hand, and movies damaged by the interference of political and social views and the control by financiers. The enemies of art are government, ideology, and commerce. Just as with the book publishing industry, the lust for immediate and certain high profit prevents the creation of high-quality films of artistic merit.
The Magnificent Ambersons, McBride's favorite film, exemplifies the damage done by corporate control of a cinematic project with both popular appeal and artistic merit. Orson Welles's most likeable movie, The Magnificent Ambersons depicts the effect of the coming of the automobile on a Midwest community's inhabitants. McBride asserts that Ambersons (1942) could have been the greatest film ever made. Instead, studio producers who prematurely feared a commercial failure butchered its ending. But even the mutiliated Ambersons retains immense appeal and charm. Welles expressed a passionate faith in the general audience's capacity to enjoy his work. "Nothing has ever been too good for the public," Welles noted to himself in the early 1940s, "Nothing has ever been good enough for the public." McBride agrees with Welles about how wrongly the industry has underestimated the public's intelligence and capacity to appreciate art.
Great art presents multiple layers of meaning. Not all of these layers need to be understood immediately for art to be enjoyable. Alfred Hitchcock, another director discussed by McBride, created a body of work from which viewers can derive multiple meanings and different kinds of gratification. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock's favorite of his own films, can be enjoyed as the suspenseful discovery of a murderer's guilt by his favorite niece; as an orchestration of Hitchcock's recurrent themes of sin, guilt, and redemption, of the porous boundaries between good and evil, of the difference between innocence and goodness; or as an example of Hitchcock's obsessive and masterful manipulation of images.
McBride's book records at length his own lover's quarrel with the medium of film by expressing his disappointment about how corporate control, the difficulty of finding adequate financing, and the emphasis on immediate high profit have wasted the vast potential of cinema. Pointedly, the title gives two, not three, cheers for Hollywood. Nevertheless, McBride, like a disappointed yet still smitten lover, still portrays the beauties of his lost beloved.
He does so by adding to our ability to understand the great films and high-quality popular movies of the American past, especially the two golden ages of the 1930s-1940s and then the 1960s-1970s. By writing book-length studies of Frank Capra, Stephen Spielberg, John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Ernst Lubitsch, as well as the articles reprinted in this collection about such figures as Capra, Ford, John Huston, and Billy Wilder, McBride helps us to appreciate many kinds of cinematic achievement.
He does so, not by overemphasizing the film director as the sole author/auteur of a body of work, but by depicting the medium as a collaborative art and respecting the contributions of screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, and producers. The first section concerns some important screenwriters, such as Robert Riskin, directly responsible for the content and tone of Capra's characteristic films. In a subsequent section, McBride discusses the integral importance of Hitchcock's wife and artistic partner, Alma Reville, to Hitchcock's achievement. Actors, of course, are also essential collaborators in the joint effort to create a film. McBride's interviews vividly portray Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Peter O'Toole. Every discussion mentions films that I want to see for the first time, now plan to see again, or regret never being able to see, like Hitchcock's never-made Mary Rose.
"My nature is subdued," Shakespeare reveals in a sonnet, "To what it works in, like the dyer's hand." McBride's mind, deeply dyed with the knowledge he has acquired of American films, culture, and history, offers us broader, deeper, and more varied perspectives on the films we thought we knew.
Two Cheers for Hollywood: Joseph McBride on Movies is available only from Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1946208191.
first published in The Woodstock Independent