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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.