America and Marvel, Part II: Reflections of and on Society

 

A few days ago, I talked to my associate Prof. Harmon who raised a fundamental question by way of a preposition. This is not as rare an occurrence as you might think. He asked whether I meant to speak of American cinema as a reflection of American society or a reflection on it. As I said, the movies are our human way of seeing what we’re like, as humans. But what does that mean more clearly?

“Reflections of society” involves the obvious meaning of imitation. What you see on the screen is what the movie-makers saw looking around — America. But this could mean two different things, being that no movie can reflect America as a whole. American movie-makers might offer Americans the images they think will please them — they see what Americans approve, and are governed in their works by that experience. This would mean cinema is a kind of flattery; a barely concealed form of self-congratulation. Every theater-going experience is really an awards ceremony in disguise. There is more than a little truth to that. Do people leave the theaters of this great notion in a soul-searching mood, somewhat chastened by the experience, or rather smug, and even self-important?

Or on the other hand, you could have what in literature we used to call realism and naturalism: An impious, immoderate staring at ugliness and misery, to chasten the bourgeois materialism of modern society. That’s not fun cinema. Even in America, this paradise, there is misery and there is suffering. That could be reflected in the movies instead of the fun stuff. This is not unheard of, but is very rare; it’s been rare in every decade except the Seventies, and the vaguely suicidal public mood in America at that time suggests there is more than a little that’s questionable in this fascination with ugliness.

So far, I have considered reflection in the sense of imitation, reproduction of things as images, from the point of view of art, that is, assuming a guiding intention. But you can also consider reflection as involuntary. In obvious ways, movies reflect the times — consider the American love of factual reproduction. Now that we’re undergoing Eighties’ nostalgia, images that are supposed to evoke that time have to get many details right — clothing, interior decoration, architecture, opinions, and mannerisms of speech. The private and the public things have to be imitated in a persuasive way. In America, that’s what is meant by realism. But how do the craftsmen in Hollywood craft these counterfeit worlds? They look at images from those times. Aside from the news, that means looking at the images produced by the various imitative arts, which involuntarily reflected the look their respective eras. We do not sense time — we see it in the changes of which we become aware — how people dress, talk, and conduct themselves, as well as what they do to the world.

My remark about the news was not accidental. The news gets old really fast, and then it’s only worth anything for documentary purposes. Images of objects become themselves the raw matter of the imaginations of generations yet to come — facts relegated to mere footage. But is cinema any different — another form of testimonial, more honest even, in that it shows desires and fears objectified, without pretense? Is it worth anything beyond the attention it attracts in its own time? That is the danger we face when we try to be relevant — to speak urgently to the urgencies of the time. Nothing gets older faster than breaking news.

Reflections on society

Hence the need for reflections on society rather than merely of it. Realism in the sense of realistic imitation should be in the service of another form of realism — realism about what America is, about who Americans are and how they live their lives, and why. This is nothing against good or faithful imitations — after all, stories are always about particular people in particular circumstances, so getting those things right will always be important. But if all we have is the facts about this particular story, this particular person, we’re in trouble; we have already learned as modern men that the effectual truth of individuality or individual uniqueness is anonymity. Celebrity culture is the spirited reaction to a society where nobody thinks they matter. To then add to this very serious problem the further problem that the details in a movie are all made up — they are fiction, rather than fact — is to say that we have nothing at all to offer. The tendency to take that for granted is visible everywhere around you in the lack of attention to detail and absence of analysis when it comes to talking about movies. Reason has been abandoned because it was not believed to offer anything worthwhile.

You may have recognized certain important facts about American society already. A reliance on facts; a remarkable attention to detail, especially of the technical variety; a love of novelty; a lively interest in making man and the future transparent. This should suggest that the movies are in fact a very important thing, however trivial the word entertainment makes it seem. But cinema in our times does not allow, for the most part, for reflections on American society to emerge. This is a crisis whose magnitude is difficult to explain, because of its ubiquity. Everyone lives it out in his own person; few sense that it is a shared crisis — sometimes, even the suggestion that it is shared is met with a spirited answer, in hostility to the idea that one’s restlessness is not one’s own, but merely a social fact. Nobody has found a way to bring people together in order to fix this problem even though Americans are more and more turning to their screens, which means, ultimately, to cinema. It is my purpose in this lecture to explain the character of this crisis and its current form. To do this, I will explain what cinema is and where it stands in American life.

This is Part II of a five-part series. You can find Part I here; Part III will be published tomorrow.

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  1. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Titus Techera: This should suggest that the movies are in fact a very important thing, however trivial the word entertainment makes it seem. But cinema in our times does not allow, for the most part, for reflections on American society to emerge .

    I am not a cinephile because my aging psyche does poorly in large theaters with large screens blaring loud music and displaying emotional and physical pain and violence.  However.  I would love to know if you can suggest a movie that creates and carries those elements that effectively capture the American mood and challenge the attitudes of movie-goers in today’s contemporary audiences.

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Trink (View Comment):

    Titus Techera: This should suggest that the movies are in fact a very important thing, however trivial the word entertainment makes it seem. But cinema in our times does not allow, for the most part, for reflections on American society to emerge .

    I am not a cinephile because my aging psyche does poorly in large theaters with large screens blaring loud music and displaying emotional and physical pain and violence. However. I would love to know if you can suggest a movie that creates and carries those elements that effectively capture the American mood and challenge the attitudes of movie-goers in today’s contemporary audiences.

    Jeff Nichols movies do it–one you could watch is Loving. All-American story, almost a work of prudence! No violence, either.

     

    • #2
  3. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    But mostly, being that Americans have been in a bad way for a long time–it’s not going to be pleasant movies.

    The sex farce ‘She’s funny that way’ does a good job of giving a new, more democratic version of the American dream.

    • #3
  4. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Jeff Nichols movies do it–one you could watch is Loving. All-American story, almost a work of prudence! No violence, eith

    Thank you Titus.  Life is a little crazy currently, but after the family trek to the solar eclipse I’ll be looking for this movie.

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  5. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera: s it worth anything beyond the attention it attracts in its own time? That is the danger we face when we try to be relevant — to speak urgently to the urgencies of the time.

    The large number of fans of classic films indicates that it has great value to a lot of people.  The primary, though not exclusive methods, would be parable and allegory.  A film like Casablanca endures because it is about partly about questions of the day but expressed in a way that can be abstracted and applied to new circumstances.  A movie that is too narrow, that doesn’t have that abstract element, is “relevant” in its moment and then irrelevant shortly thereafter.  (One sees this all the time in Shakespeare productions where the least essential elements are the nods to modern times that it make the plays “relevant.”)

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  6. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    There is something I think I am missing about the crisis you are describing.  Is the problem fiction itself?  Is the problem an excessive interest in the empirical over the abstract?  I couldn’t probably read two or three interpretations, so I must be missing it.

    • #6
  7. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera: But cinema in our times does not allow, for the most part, for reflections on American society to emerge.

    What would you say about claims that certain kinds of movies tap into larger social anxieties?  One often sees this claim made about certain trends in horror movies, like the zombie movies of the last few years or the vampire movies of the 1990s.  If I recall, the claim about vampire movies was about a fear of AIDS and zombies being related to epidemics or social breakdown or some combination.

    • #7
  8. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera: s it worth anything beyond the attention it attracts in its own time? That is the danger we face when we try to be relevant — to speak urgently to the urgencies of the time.

    The large number of fans of classic films indicates that it has great value to a lot of people. The primary, though not exclusive methods, would be parable and allegory. A film like Casablanca endures because it is about partly about questions of the day but expressed in a way that can be abstracted and applied to new circumstances. A movie that is too narrow, that doesn’t have that abstract element, is “relevant” in its moment and then irrelevant shortly thereafter. (One sees this all the time in Shakespeare productions where the least essential elements are the nods to modern times that it make the plays “relevant.”)

    True. But the fans are actually few in the world unto itself that is America &, more importantly, the vast majorities are fans only some of the time. I distrust statements about values–but I’m fully willing to do what Americans like, to look at the facts, & judge people by what they do. The fan clubs for old Hollywood are not much of a social phenomenon, whether in communities new or old, with media or technologies new or old. There’s something there, but not much. All it is, really, is opportunity. Potentially good for us, if conservatives ever open up their eyes & see America as she is-

    One way to look at it is this. If Americans who love old Hollywood, for example, were who they think they are when they’re experiencing that joy, they’d teach it to their kids. Soon, you’d have way more devoted fans of old Hollywood than Mormons. The Mormons teach their ways to their kids & the kids therefore grow up Mormons, the vast majority of them.–You may tak this as an extreme example, but it is very useful for clarification.

    • #8
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):
    There is something I think I am missing about the crisis you are describing. Is the problem fiction itself? Is the problem an excessive interest in the empirical over the abstract? I couldn’t probably read two or three interpretations, so I must be missing it.

    The obsession is not with the empirical–but with the most insipid, inhuman form of the empirical. Love is empirical, more so than counting calories. Yet Americans have built a religious asceticism on the one & nothing but superstitions on the latter.

    Americans are therefore super-abstract rather than concrete. Just like their slogans & political opinions are massively universalizing, without any care for circumstances.  It is truer of Americans that they speak in hypotheses & theorems than that they make judgments.

    A lot of this, however, will be discussed in the next part of the disquisition…

    • #9
  10. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    So you might want to wait for that–I’m not sure it’s going to make more sense or be more persuasive to you, but it will at least be thematic. So whether you agree or disagree with my judgments or observations, I can promise at least some clarity there!

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera: But cinema in our times does not allow, for the most part, for reflections on American society to emerge.

    What would you say about claims that certain kinds of movies tap into larger social anxieties? One often sees this claim made about certain trends in horror movies, like the zombie movies of the last few years or the vampire movies of the 1990s. If I recall, the claim about vampire movies was about a fear of AIDS and zombies being related to epidemics or social breakdown or some combination.

    I think most of this is overdone by people too stupid to know the difference between a symbol & an experience. I don’t mean to say that these people have low IQs or whatever–only that education about the craft of poetry or rhetoric is now woefully lacking & people become more aggressive in their ignorance as they become opinionated about culture, not more willing to learn the craft.

    As for the social anxieties, yeah, sure, that’s part of reflecting what you see in society, as opposed to what Americans would call coping or dealing with it–that would require reflection on society. I dislike the vague popular vocabulary of ‘tapping into’ or stuff like that, because it never gets to stating clearly what’s alleged to be happening.

    • #11
  12. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    So you might want to wait for that–I’m not sure it’s going to make more sense or be more persuasive to you, but it will at least be thematic. So whether you agree or disagree with my judgments or observations, I can promise at least some clarity there!

    Yeah, I think I was confused.  I am so glad I asked for a transcript.

    • #12

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