Hollywood reconsidered: introduction

by Chuck Kleinhans

from Jump Cut, no. 32, April 1987, p. 15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1987, 2006

Continuing the theme of "Hollywood Reconsidered" begun in our last issue, and edited by Deborah Holdstein, this section of JUMP CUT looks at the aesthetic and ideological issues of the dominant cinema from several perspectives. In the two decades since the publication of Andrew Sarris' American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 served as the high water mark of auteur criticism, attention to Hollywood by younger critics and scholars has changed our understanding drastically.

While authorship criticism established the importance of mainstream commercial narrative film for film studies, it rested on idealist premises which subsequent historical and institutional analysis has shown to be woefully inadequate to answer key questions about U.S. studio film. Similarly, the genre approach of 20 years ago, had an obsessive concern with the "boy's stories" of the gangster, detective, western, and action films. Such a focus seems simplistic and quaintly antiquated today as feminist critics reconsider other genres to show how complex and contradictory messages and pleasures are offered in the "girl's stories" of the domestic melodrama and love story. Also, much more attention has been brought to bear on what were formerly considered "minor" genres, such as science fiction, horror, and musical comedy.

Of course, the vast bulk of academic and critical writing on Hollywood film remains doggedly repetitive and unimaginative. [The best thing that could be done today for the study of U.S. cinema would be a permanent ban on literary adapatation studies and a twenty year moratorium on analyses of Citizen Kane and Hitchcock.] But we are now moving rapidly toward a qualitatively new level of analysis. Sophisticated institutional studies, such as Janet Wasko's Movies and Money: Financing the American Film Industry, give us a much better understanding of the fundamental conditions of Hollywood production. Innovative analyses such as Richard Dyer's pioneering work on star image in Stars have begun to produce new studies of acting careers and celebrity. At the same time, fresh historical research has changed many of the taken for granted assumptions of past histories and overturned commonplace thinking about subjects such as cinema technology. Such work challenges those who take a primarily aesthetic and/or cultural approach to be much more attentive to context and rigorous in their analysis. In this light, the massive reconsideration of the dominant commercial cinema offered by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson in their book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, set a new standard for advanced research and careful thinking on the subject.

The concern with ideological analysis of mainstream cinema that has marked feminist and marxist work has not been totally separate from such developments, In fact they often overlap. But it can be safely said that ideological analysis itself will have to change and become more sophisticated in light of new work. While we run the risk of producing an overly academicized and narrowly specialized radical criticism as a result, it's no longer possible to survey Hollywood with old tools and understandings and produce a satisfactory analysis. At the same time, we need to be alert to the obstinately anti-political bias of much current thinking on film. Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery's Film History: Theory and Practice, for example, has an absurdly uninformed and limited view of what marxism contributes to historical analysis. Dudley Andrew's Concepts in Film Theory, which purports to survey contemporary developments, remains stubbornly ignorant of feminist and marxist work. Clearly, politically informed criticism remains threatening to academic conservatism.

In the following articles, a variety of concerns motivate the writers. Questions of representing women mark all the essays, underlining how important feminist perspectives have been for recent re-evaluations of Hollywood. Lilly Ann Boruszkowski looks at THE STEPFORD WIVES in terms of its initial critical reception and its representation of fantasy women, while Carolyn Galerstein compares the 40s Rosie the Riveter films with actual Rosies to show Hollywood's simultaneous celebration and reduction of these wartime heroines. The next three articles extend the analysis of melodrama. First, Deborah Holdstein considers the narrative development in female melodrama toward an emotionally charged "perfect moment" as a dramatic and ideological peak. Next, Jeremy Butler considers the Stahl and Sirk versions of IMITATION OF LIFE to develop a theory of style in the domestic melodrama. And then Lauren Rabinovitz examines Canadian Joyce Weiland's THE FAR SHORE, a deliberate attempt by a filmmaker best known for her avant-garde structural films to work within the framework of melodrama. Closing the section, Helen DeMichiel reads THE HONEYMOON KILLERS against the grain to extract an unexpected interpretation.

Hollywood, the dominant cinema, demands our critical attention because of its power and position. We can construct an effective counter cinema only when we fully understand the hegemonic one in its contradiction and variety.