This is part three of an ongoing series about why Hollywood and American cinema in general is awful trash.
READ HERE: PART 1-AMAZON AND NETFLIX
READ HERE: PART 2-THE DAYS BEFORE THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST
READ HERE: PART 3-WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN IF NOT FOR JOE MCCARTHY
READ HERE: PART 4-FRENCH FILM
Dr. Vincent Bohlinger of Rhode Island College is one of the country’s most insightful film scholars. He studied under David Bordwell, the reigning don of the form’s history, and spent time doing scholarship in post-Soviet Russia. This means that he’s the best kind of person to tell me whether I am completely full of bologna when it comes to this series! I recently asked him six questions about the theory and ideas behind “Why Hollywood Sucks — and got some unexpected pushback. So I’ll go back to the study board and refine some of my thinking in future columns. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
1/ So professor, what do you think about my idea that Communist Parties in various countries positively impacted popular culture like cinema?
It’s overly simplistic to try to assert that Communist parties could be responsible for the greatness or dynamism of either the French New Wave nor Italian Neorealism. You’re speaking of causality, right? That vibrant Communist parties were generative mechanisms for both of these film movements?
2/ I guess rather than causality I am trying to say that the milieu that produced these films was impacted by the respective Communist Parties.
The specific causes for both of these movements are already well understood. You should revisit Thompson & Bordwell’s Film History. [NOTE: That book is a double-columned monster the size of a Brooklyn telephone book, for those who are unaware.] To suggest that there might be a general culture or even a cultural zeitgeist that allowed for a political vibrancy (Communist parties) and an aesthetic vibrancy (Neorealism and New Wave) is a different argument. It would take quite a bit of finesse in order not to simply lay out any seeming coincidences between the political and the aesthetic vibrancy.
3/ But there was pretty clearly something in the air in France when the New Wave started, it was going in directions that clearly were breaking with the mainstream, right?
The French New Wave is a direct result of a funding system instituted by the French government that allowed for an explosion of first-time filmmakers. There was also a vibrant culture of film criticism and the massive influx of Hollywood cinema after the war gave these filmmakers something to respond to and against. But it’s more complicated: many of the French New Wave directors were responding against domestic French films, highbrow literary adaptations, that were a response to the saturation of Hollywood in French theaters.
4/ But they were making some pretty political films, for example one called Can Dialectics Break Bricks…
The markedly left turn in French cinema takes place around 1967, well after the French New Wave starts. Moreover, it’s this leftist turn that’s widely seen as marking the end of the French New Wave.
5/ Well maybe that’s about the French resistance during the war because De Gaulle was no Red and so there was a greater diversity of ideas. What about the Italians, where the CIA had to rig their elections in 1948 to keep the Communists out of power and where the Communist Party had a larger presence in the partisan movement?
Italian Neorealism seems to be in large part a response to the White Telephone films of the Mussolini era. Don’t confuse or combine leftist sympathies — or even anti-fascism — with communism. There may be a lot of overlap, but that’s not the same thing as causality or symbiosis.
6/ Okay, maybe that is a longer conversation. But can we admit that Hollywood films were pretty bad in comparison during those years?
I suspect that you’re probably joking in summarizing your series as “Why Hollywood Stinks.” But I think it’s important not to alienate your audience with such sweeping claims — though perhaps your audience is already sympathetic and you’re preaching to the converted? You’re seemingly then holding up French New Wave and Italian Neorealism as the opposite of stinky. There are some real clunkers among the French New Wave that most certainly qualify for “stinky” status. I have yet to see a stinky Italian Neorealist film, but that doesn’t mean that such a film doesn’t exist. It simply means that I haven’t seen enough films.
BONUS/ Well, when all is said and done does it seem plausible that political variety creates artistic variety?
There’s still a sticking point to the suggestion that communist leanings led to more dynamic art movements. Isn’t it more likely that dynamic artists had communist sympathies — artists first, leftists second? That seems to be how a lot of artists throughout the 20th century navigated the cultural and political world.