[Note: This is the second installment of a new series, “Why Hollywood Sucks,” which will reflect upon the fact that Tinseltown at one time put out a relatively large number of good/great movies, but nowadays that is a rarity. We’ll also seek to explain why that happened. To read the first installment, click here.]
A few years ago, a rather ingenious film editor named Antonio Maria Da Silva created the ultra-trippy Hell’s Club, a mash-up of hundreds of films from the past 50 years or so. Using a host of complicated nesting and layering methods in a digital editorial suite, he was able to jam into one frame Darth Vader and Austin Powers, for example, while making it look easy. Be sure to grab the patchouli for this one, boys and girls, because Hell’s Club will leave your brain smoking!
I mention this digital dose of mescaline at the outset because it offers a very clear macro-insight. Da Silva was successful partially because he’s original and talented.
The other side of the coin is that for the past seventy years or so, Hollywood has been producing — with small windows of variety in the late-1960s to the early-1980s — the exact same movie over and over again. Indeed, American cinema has been in a state of arrested development since around 1945, for a very specific and political reason.
The Great Depression and World War II caused a tremendous amount of grassroots political activity and organization. Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, Catholic Workers, and other radical groups saw their ranks swell.
This was particularly notable in Hollywood, a town populated by first and second generation European migrants who had a long tradition of socialist politics, particularly Jews hailing from the Pale of Settlement. While all this was going on, the technology of film production was being refined and standardized, from sound and color to film projection and various other methodologies of production, distribution, and exhibition. In regard to sound, for example, the innovative, experimental nature of earlier films was replaced by a much more streamlined and admittedly much more normal process.
What happened next is important to grasp. From around 1936, the start of the Spanish civil war, until 1945, the end of the Second World War, many of these film directors and writers became interested in progressive politics and the work being done by the Communist Party.
Remember, Joseph Stalin was our World War II ally and people had very little idea of how terribly he treated his “enemies” at home and abroad. Instead, Communists were seen as flawed but admirable because they were active in important social issues, such as protesting the situation of African-Americans.
Communist militants campaigned to exonerate the Scottsboro boys and protested Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the classic Billie Holliday song Strange Fruit, which mourned lynchings in the South, was written by Abel Meeropol, a Communist who some twenty years later would go on to adopt the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
This fusion of art and politics had definite and clear coordinates, which came to be known, at its most mature level, as Popular Front-ism. The phrase comes from a specific tactic in the history of Stalinism that is loaded with tragedy, controversy, and, in the case of America, an amazing aesthetic.
Without going down an extremely deep rabbit hole about the history of Weimar Germany, the Popular Front was an edict taken up by the international Communist movement in response to the rise of the Nazis that directed Communists to build alliances with Socialists, Liberals, and other progressives who were opposed to fascism. This meant that American Communists began to throw their weight behind the Democratic Party and forward-thinking elements that composed the New Deal coalition.
Simultaneously the CPUSA rebranded itself with an effective public relations campaign that has yet to be matched by the later motley crews of cultists, academics, publishers, and troublemakers that call themselves The Left in America. Out went the old slogans of Marxism-Leninism and class warfare, in came the catchphrase “Communism is the Americanism of the Twentieth Century.” Rather than prominently showcasing the heads of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, the bust of Abraham Lincoln took center stage.
This was a sort of high watermark of American liberalism, the New Deal mentality that included a specific emphasis on opposition to racism. Noel Ignatiev wrote a great piece about how they had a few key blind spots on that issue, ones that he perhaps justifiably sees as unforgivable, but for these purposes we can begin to discern the political coordinates of the day which were making a significant impact on Hollywood films. Remember, Europe’s film studios were either producing fascist propaganda or simply not operating. A large number of anti-fascist artists and intellectuals found refuge in California, including several brilliant German directors and Bertolt Brecht. This was the epicenter of a cultural universe where progressive politics were turned into silver screen dreams.
And what were these films? Nothing but what are called the greatest films of American cinema history, such as Stagecoach, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, and many others. Several of them, such as Mission to Moscow, were even promoting the idea of peaceful coexistence between the USSR and America after the war (which ended up having some rather nasty postwar consequences for those involved in the production, but that is another story). And so if we look at most major Hollywood films today, they quite obviously are indebted to these older pictures. Steven Spielberg clearly emulates Frank Capra, as just one example.
In my next post, I will be explaining how the French and Italians offer a counter-example of cinema influenced by Communist politics and where went after World War II, which in turn shaped the exception to the rule that was seen in the ’60s-80’s.