The Roots of Modern Hollywood
The Persistence of Values in American Cinema from the New Deal to the Present
Bristol: Intellect, 2014
Paperback. viii+175 p. ISBN 978-1783203734. £30.00
Reviewed by André Kaenel
Université de Lorraine (Nancy)
Nick Smedley’s The Roots of Modern Hollywood extends his 2011 study, A Divided World : Hollywood Cinema and Émigré Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948, by charting the legacy of New Deal liberalism in American films since the 1970s. The book’s subtitle is somewhat of a misnomer, however. Smedley‘s focus is not on how the liberal values of the American 1930s and 1940s have survived in American films “from the New Deal to the present” but on the extent to which they infuse the political content of many contemporary films and directors.
The argument unfolds in three chronological and two thematic chapters. In chapter 1, “The failure of American liberalism and the cinema of despair: Hollywood in the 1970s”, Smedley explores the waning of liberalism in the Nixon years, a time when many Americans began to suspect that “perhaps the American system of liberal, individualistic, democratic capitalism was not after all, the best way” . In the two, longer chapters which follow he pursues the fate of liberalism in the 1990s and 2000s. Chapter 2 is titled “The disappointment of the liberal renaissance : Hollywood in the Clinton era, 1992-2000”. In the 1990s, there was no return, Smedley argues, to triumphant idealism as Hollywood “stared out sullenly at the modern era of corporate America and consumerism—at a soulless, valueless society” . In Chapter 3, “The rise and fall of the republicans : Melancholy meditations on America’s destiny, 2000-2012”, he pursues the account of America’s “disillusionment”. In these two chapters, Smedley looks closely at a film genre, fantasy in chapter 2 and film noir in chapter 3, with the help of “exemplar films” (Groundhog Day, The Truman Show, Collateral, Michael Clayton) and interviews with directors Peter Weir, Michael Mann, Tony Gilroy and Paul Haggis. The focus of Chapter 4, “The enduring appeal of pacifism : Hollywood and American global imperialism, 1978-2000”, is the persistence of New Deal era pacifism in Hollywood, against the odds of Vietnam and the war in Iraq, as illustrated by Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah. Chapter 5, “The creeping advance of feminism : Hollywood and the changing role of women in America, 1970 to the present”, concludes this overview with a discussion of the fate of Hollywood’s endemic anti-feminism since the 1970s. The figure of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (“the ultimate New Deal film” in its “soft-liberal politics and its conventional treatment of sex and gender issues” ) and Erin Brockovich serves as a touchstone for a body of films which, like Woody Allen’s “unpleasantly misogynistic portrait of a woman” in Blue Jasmine, pick up on their New Deal predecessors to portray “women who get above themselves” . A bibliographical essay and an index are added.
The Roots of Modern Hollywood opens with a profession of faith to which I subscribe without reservation: “There are two misconceptions about Hollywood cinema, particularly about recent American films. The first is that American cinema is politically disengaged, neutral at best, or devoid of social criticism and mindlessly patriotic at worst. The second is that Hollywood films exist for the moment and are—indeed are meant to be—disposable populist culture […] This book sets out to refute both of these notions” . It is not clear, however, to whom Smedley is addressing such defensive comments, but a cursory look at recent books on contemporary Hollywood hardly bears them out (the writings of Douglas Kellner spring to mind). Smedley’s odd defensive posture goes hand in hand with a number of equally odd value judgments. Films are either “masterpieces”, sometimes “minor masterpieces”, or “failures”. Apocalypse Now is thus an “extraordinary masterpiece”, American Beauty a “modern masterpiece” and Terminator 2 : Judgement Day a “magnificent masterpiece”. By contrast, Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians is “far from a masterpiece”, while The Parallax View, “for all its failures as a thriller”, is an “excellent example of Hollywood’s wish to articulate for a younger generation the growing sense of disillusion and alienation from corporate America and Nixon’s politics” . This quote is itself an excellent example of Smedley latching on to a body of films, including “exemplar” ones, on which he loads the weight of a demonstration constructed around rather broad and often unconvincing claims: can we really say that The Parallax View (or any single film, for that matter) expresses Hollywood’s “wish” to articulate the Zeitgeist of the Nixon years and of corporate America? Whose “Hollywood” are we talking about anyway? And through what institutional, political or personal agencies was that “wish” relayed?
Smedley’s book asks its reader to accept that liberal values survived largely intact from the New Deal era (1933 to 1948) to the 1970s and beyond, but no explanation is given as to how they did. Hardly any mention is made of the role played by the events of the 1960s (e.g. the rise of the New Left, the socio-cultural and political revolutions of the sixties) in profoundly reshaping New Deal liberalism. For example, tracing the origins of a persistent anti-war sentiment in American cinema back to the 1930s while skipping over the 1960s, as Smedley does, is puzzling, to say the least, in a book of social and cultural history which purports to show how the “crisis” of American liberalism has affected Hollywood cinema since the 1970s. Furthermore, in recent decades, “Hollywood” has by and large moved away from identifiably American values, let alone the liberal values of the New Deal, in the wake of the globalization and corporatization of the American film industry.
It is not clear, either, that Smedley’s reliance on auteurs helps him strengthen his case about the persistence of Rooseveltian liberalism in contemporary Hollywood. His interviews with four prominent Hollywood directors (one of whom is Australian and another one Canadian) are welcome but they do not support his claims: they often appear puzzled by his suggestions that their films might be the heirs of the liberal agenda Smedley locates in many films of the 1930s (not all of which, pace Smedley, were “confident and celebratory” ) and 1940s.
My reservations about the book’s sweeping historical argument are strengthened by a number of debatable affirmations, like the following which is hard to reconcile with the phenomenal success of an Independence Day (1996): “There was in the 1990s no return to the celebratory self-assurance of American idealism triumphant”. And how accurate is it to characterize Jimmy Carter’s presidency as “inept and unpopular”, to write that Obama’s victory “unleashed ridiculously high expectations among liberally-inclined voters” , that under his presidency, America is “retreating to a form of isolationism, reflecting a decline in America’s global influence” , or that today, “the optimism once believed to be an inherent part of American life is fatally compromised” ? Unfortunate errors further weaken the book’s historical ambitions: Nixon ended America’s involvement in Vietnam in 1973, not 1972 , and, more surprising for the author of an earlier book on Hollywood in the Roosevelt years, it was not HUAC (the Committee of the House of Representatives investigating un-American activities set up by Martin Dies in 1938) which launched an investigation into Hollywood’s propaganda in the Fall of 1941, but a separate entity led by staunch isolationists under the watchful eyes of Senators Nye and Clark [cf. 122-123].
The Roots of Modern Hollywood is several books rolled into one: a study of the legacy of New Deal values in contemporary Hollywood (the least convincing), a book of interviews with important directors, and five essays on the evolution of the ideological makeup of Hollywood films since the 1970s. In these essays, Smedley discusses a range of recent films, several of them little known, as political texts produced by an industry notoriously uncomfortable with politics, and he reveals himself a sounder critic than when he seeks to fabricate a link with the cinema of the New Deal.
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