Today's question points to the non-Republican "elephant in the bedroom" of our entire Dust-Up this week. How can we talk about Hollywood's political importance when it may very well have next to none at all? Hollywood was at its most powerful as both a political and cultural force in the 1940s, when the studio system was at its height. This was the World War II era, and Americans detainees of Japanese ancestry aside were joined together (however loosely) to "beat the Axis" and save all mankind form Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. It's not for nothing that the central cinematic artifact of that era, "Casabalanca" remains one of the most beloved films in recorded history.
In his invaluable compendium of essays, "Travels in Hyper-Reality," historian, semiotician, and popular novelist Umberto Eco writes most insightfully of the 1942 romantic melodrama, noting that it's "a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly, its characters are psychologically incredible, its actors act in a mannered way." Yet that's easily pushed aside in light of the overwhelming star power of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and a supporting cast featuring everyone from Claude Rains and Peter Lorre to Leonid Kinsky and S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, with direction by Michael Curtiz that never fails to take one's breath away with the speed and intensity in which one damned thing after another is thrown up on the screen. And all of this, mind you, is at the service of a very political message encouraging the American people already at war with Japan, that there was a fight going on in Europe that they were obliged to engage in as well. What better to convey that message than though Humphrey Bogart? In "Casablanca," we see the coolest hipster who ever breathed realize that he has to come to the aide of the world he'd worked so hard to retreat from, even if he isn't going to "get the girl," as would be the case in every other Hollywood movie.
That "Casablanca" was an enormous Oscar-winning hit meant more in 1942 than it does today in political terms as virtually everyone went to the movies and continued to do so right through to the immediate post-war period. Then everything began to break up. Television arrived offering free and easy mass entertainment right in one's own home. This quickly divided audiences in class terms, with "the masses" staying home save for spectaculars in wide screen and stereophonic sound, while the "carriage trade" left its chic apartments to delve into the "art cinema" of the 50's and 60's (Bergman, Antonioni, Godard.)
Television was, of course, every bit as sophisticated as the movies if not more so with Sid Caesar, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson offering a new form of vaudeville far more refined than anything the previous generation saw on the Orpheum circuit. As for politics, outside of the set-to between Joseph McCarthy and Edward R. Murrow (cinematically memorialized by Hollywood's current King, George Clooney, in "Good Night and Good Luck"), that stayed largely off the cathode ray tube. A "consensus figure" of sorts emerged thorough the studiously unsophisticated Ed Sullivan, whose televised vaudeville show harked directly back to the Orpheum-circuit era and never ventured into delivering to its millions of viewers anything so complicated as what's at work in the average 40s-era Hollywood programmer much less "Casablanca."
Today's Hollywood is, if anything, of less overwhelming importance than ever. Theatrical releases are largely the "hardcovers" designed to promote the "paperbacks" of DVD video the form in which most movies are seen. Meanwhile on television there's cable where shows as canny and complex as "The Sopranos" make most theatrical films look stupid. And broadcast TV is no slouch either what with "Ugly Betty" not just smarter than the mass-market likes of "Titanic" but visually more interesting as well.
An incredibly fast and intense delivery system for both the real and the imaginary (often indistinguishable from one another) YouTube embodies what postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard meant when he said (in "Cool Memories II"), "The media reconcile us to violence, war, banality." In short the very thing radical "situationist" Guy Debord warned of back in 1967 in "The Society of the Spectacle," in which he wrote: "The World the spectacle holds up to view is at once here and elsewhere, it is the world of the commodity ruling over all lived experience."
And on that ominous note, here's a lovely YouTube clip of the Kinks song "This Time Tomorrow" as utilized in a key sequence from Philippe Garrel's 2005 masterpiece "Les Amants Reguliers."
As many of you probably know this song is also featured in Wes Anderson's stultifyingly twee "The Darjeeling Limited" a film about luggage. Garrel's film is about May 1968 in France, when student protesters joined forces with labor unions, in defiance of both the govenment and the Communist party to (dare I say it?) change the world. Alas, the world didn't change.
I've been practicing for this moment for much of my adult life, and when I get up to the virtual podium, I've forgotten what to type. Wait, wait. Give me a moment I wrote down a few notes. They're right here.
First of all I want to thank the Los Angeles Times for giving me the opportunity to debate David Ehrenstein, the preeminent gay inside and out of the closet film historian. We found ourselves on two absolutely different wavelengths from word one. I found that dizzying, yet in a good way. The Times could have easily pulled the plug, but they didn't.
Because of the Times' faith in us we can all take pride that blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan called our Dust-Up a term I'm still mildly unclear on "a classic of the genre." The king of the links Instapundit instantly took notice, as did the powerful chaps at Powerline who covered it blow by blow. Comedic heavyweight Dennis Miller even discussed it for five minutes on his radio show, using a record seven similes to describe our exchange.
And to my co-star, David. You challenged me as a human being. And by that I mean, you challenged my sense of logic. I often pulled at my hair when reading your thoughts. You made me often think: "Am I missing something here?" Or, "Hmmm, I've never heard of that movie." And, "Now that I think of it, that young gentleman was quite handsome in that film."
Our differences are so great I've often thought I'd love to buy you for the novelty of having a specimen so different from my own. But the trading of human beings is abhorrent and immoral, and I think this may be the rare case where we agree.
The abolition movement was at its core a Christian one, David. And hundreds of thousands of nation-state-loving Americans died to make sure I couldn't buy you. And the end result of the bloodshed was to mostly eradicate slavery around the globe. That radical transformation in human events happened on the watch of a Republican president who also experienced serious unpopularity at the height of an unpopular war.
That is why I wear red, white and blue ribbon to symbolize national unity at a time of war.
Wait, Wait. Let me talk.
[Cut to music.]
Let me finish, let me finish Why is Sam Zell trying to shut me up? "Dissent is Patriotic!" Let me type!
Perhaps my passion on the subject of Hollywood and the war derives from my antiquated knee-jerk, nation-state-respecting, jingoistic pro-American stance. I still think that the United States is a beacon of hope in a world...
Huh? Uh, where was I?
I would argue the entertainment industry does matter because it is the way we send out the message to the world that we take our freedoms seriously. And with freedom comes deep responsibility and I don't think Hollywood quite gets that.
For one it's our second largest export behind aero-space. Surely if China has a responsibility not to send us toxic toys, we have a responsibility not to send them toxic entertainment.
[Cut to music.]
Wait, wait. I haven't said all I want to say, G*d Dammit.