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I will close this series with two brief explanations of how genre itself involves reflections on American society. I have recently been working on horror movies, so that is one of my examples. American horror comes down to two versions of an attack on progress. One is Christian — Hitchcock did it, his many imitators since John Carpenter do it, and endless others. These stories try to put together the universal and the particular in this way. They start with a social setting that is very broad and designed to show what’s happening with American freedom. They then move on to an individual story of the emergence of evil. How crazily implausible evil has become, and how maddening, therefore, is supposed to teach the audience that they didn’t see evil in the setting. The unwillingness of good respectable middle-class Americans to see the evil in their hearts, and therefore in their society, leads them to countenance or even provoke monstrous things.
The tragic poet in this case resorts to these shocking things rightly called horror on the assumption that nothing else will even get a hearing. This is also what David Lynch wants to teach Americans; or Neil LaBute. These are very sophisticated movie-makers, but they are basically Christian moralists. They mean to remind Americans that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop believing in evil. Instead of providence, you get God’s wrath.
The alternative to Christian horror is scientific horror. America has great examples in Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, more or less to correspond to the great British insights offered by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I note in passing that these two British books, answering to the Victorian century of progress, deal with science taking control over life and then over good and evil respectively. Those, you will recall, are the two trees the fruit whereof was forbidden to man in Genesis.
The scientific horror is a way of thinking through the proposition that life is not providential. Its history and anthropology work this way: Man started from savage nature, created himself an artificial civilization where he was safe, and the power of artifice, science, then made him haughty, oblivious to himself and his true situation. Having fashioned gods, he ended up believing himself a god. But the future of science is not anything good or lovely — progress really means learning that life is nothing but cannibalism, endless mindless striving. Ridley Scott showed that with Alien and is now back doing more and more of it. This is why characters in such horror stories face horrifying life forms that drive them insane. They recognize themselves as they truly are, without the masks of civilization. Their form, their integrity, is violated because there is nothing sacred to life.
The decadence of horror is therefore regrettable, but what is there to be done? No other genre is such a reliable money-maker. You’d have to be Poe or Lovecraft to lose money on horror and now actors faced with the death of cinema often go in that direction, even though the genre is still not considered respectable. The movies are cheap and the audience, young men, is guaranteed. No one else in America will tell people that evil is real, part of the human heart and an experience. They will go find out about the evil in themselves in this way. You could say it’s a pretty safe, fun way of experiencing evil. That may, however, be problematic. Instead of reflecting on the American mind and the predicaments of our times, these movies merely give a dubious kind of delight. It’s worth wondering why violence and ugliness are so interesting to people who live lives that are basically safe and boring…
The other genre I will mention is now officially dead, as most entries in it tend to say openly. The romantic comedy. This was the primary film for women in America and the only chance for young women to learn about love and how it fits into American society. Consider that popular music is far more educational for young men than women. Well, the movies are now dominated by the fantasies of teenage boys. The purpose of romantic comedies was to gentle men’s emotions somewhat, but to educate women’s minds. The humor in the stories was often at the expense of men, to flatter feminine shrewdness or prudence. A somewhat immoral kind of intelligence was promoted by the identity, in the best romantic comedies, of the woman’s fate with the design of the story. Under guise of romance or sentimentality, seriousness about the dangers of love and the attraction of an intelligent way of going about it were unfolded. The lack of realism of romantic comedies was a concealment and revelation of intelligence or artifice or design. This, unfortunately, encouraged genre exploitation and silly movies. Gradually, cynicism replaced sentimentality, as it must, being a later fruit of the same root, and then the writers of rom-coms moved to an almost open hatred of men, which may fit a kind of feminism, but does nothing to teach women about the precariousness of their situation in America.
That the romantic comedy is all-American, we learn from Tocqueville, who did not bother to talk about the education of American boys, but did talk about girls. He also noticed that young women in America were remarkably free in their conversation with young men. The boys being less sophisticated or articulate, the girls could play with them in conversation. Flirting, in short, allowed young women to have fun without taking senseless risks. That is the method of the romantic-comedy as well. American freedom without laws, however, dooms women. The freedom of the women depends on civilization and that means the women need to learn to protect civilization.
I will give you an example. The most versatile talent in old Hollywood was Howard Hawks. He made tough movies and soft movies, fun movies and fearful movies — romantic comedies, Westerns, noirs, and who knows how many other things. As great talent did in those days, he even made a movie in Africa. He was able to use John Wayne as well as Cary Grant. Now, the rule he observed in order to teach Americans was this: In comedies, the women dominate the plot … in drama, the men do.
This is now no longer admissible — it would humiliate people, as well as bewilder them. American audiences feel their power the more they forget about great movie-makers. If you wish to know why cinema reflects your society, it is because people want control over the movies. They do not wish to be shown things they do not find relatable, as is said, or characters with which to identify, as is said. Great stories or great characters tend to offend them. But what else gives freedom to poetic genius? Well, it is not infrequent for an unattached person to feel humiliated or angered by the romantic attachment of another. You may call it envy. It goes farther. Specifically, in the case of the movies, it is jealousy. Aristotle teaches that the difference between the two is that only the latter involves a sense of possession, a right of ownership. Jealousy, not envy leads to crimes of passion, in short. Well, this sentiment toward the movies makes people bristle at the eccentricity of greatness or its domineering tendencies. There is a tension, as we say in academia, between wanting to have things your way and wanting the best…
To conclude with the romantic comedies: Tocqueville, of course, expected that the women would be educating the men by their romantic selections. Men in America cannot marry by the authority of their politics or their family. They must woo in person. That leaves them, in civilized situations, where necessity does not press — at the mercy of the women. But equality has overleapt itself and the new romantic comedies can no longer teach women how to deal with men. This makes it impossible to reflect on American society in the way comic poets are wont to do. One would have to know the great differences between men and women. One would inevitably reach the only thing Americans dare not discuss: the relationship between the private and the public. Everyone’s proud freedom is humiliated once that is broached.
This, then, removes the intrigue and the venue for romantic comedy. All that is left is the set of conventions artfully arranged in the plot — that has been removed by the democratic revolution of the young Baby Boomers. Think merely of conversation, which is the life of romantic comedy, as of marriage. In their honesty, Americans are told both morally and scientifically that they need to communicate, to listen to each other and to talk clearly. Well, women and men, even in America, prefer to talk in different ways — the men more directly, not to say crassly. The advice of equal communication turns out to mean that women should sacrifice their reticence, indirection or talent for hints. The men cannot be bothered to pay attention or to make an effort, to say nothing of remembering or making elaborate romantic gestures. One could say that with the moral imagination, the erotic imagination too was stunted.
These then are the outer reaches of American cinema. The extremes of tragedy and comedy. One is overdone in violence, the other has been abandoned, along with taste and irony. What we now have, and these are admirable, enjoyable achievements: the cinema of David Lynch and Whit Stillman. The one gives you views of America made of parts which, though beautified, are all factual — to force Americans to recognize their situation, where evil starts, fostered by a respectable denial that there is any evil in American society. The other gives you what’s wrong with American society from the point of view of a pleasing love, without insisting on ugliness. They remove evil from the picture and make tragedy seem like a mistake that can be corrected.Published in