The Manichean in the Garden

July 26, 2007, 6:18 pm
Filed under: theory

Hi there!

My name is Dave, and I have a Studio Age Hollywood problem.

It’s not that I think that “things were better back then”–we all know they were worse! (this is the best of all possible worlds my friends–too bad it still sucks, hunh?)

So what do I love about these movies then, if it isn’t some nostalgia trip?

Well, I can’t really answer that, because I guess my obsession does have something to do with nostalgia (don’t ALL obsessions?) But what am I nostalgic for, if it isn’t the lost world these films claim to represent? That’s part of what I hope to figure out through the process of blogging my reactions to the classic films I watch–and discussing them with you!

I’ve been through this before (in a blog devoted mainly to the analysis of superhero comics), and it was rewarding indeed!

Right now, my guess is that it has something to do with the way these films tended to rely on sheer personality (i.e. the star system) to enthrall their massive audiences. Old Hollywood was more concerned with establishing “bankable” star personae than with telling individual, self-contained stories. In direct contrast to the modernist ideal of perfectly crafted “grecian urns”, the excitement of Studio Age films cannot be contained by intro- and end-credits–in a very real sense, every single studio product is in fact a “trailer” for the next one. Not old-fashioned at all, these movies actually constitute an experiment in postmodern “storytelling” avant la lettre

That’s my working hypothesis, anyway. We’ll see how I feel after a few hundred of these entries!

But wait a minute–what’s with the title, Dave? “The Manichean in the Garden”? Well, it’s a play on words, of course. A reference to Leo Marx’s influential American Studies classic, with the emphasis shifted away from the technology (although you’d have to be a fool to ignore the technological aspects of filmmaking–and believe me, I won’t!) and toward the real engine of most Hollywood genres (particularly of melodrama–and you’ll notice that I think more about people like Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Margaret Sullavan, Jennifer Jones, Mae Clarke, William Dieterle, John Stahl, Frank Borzage, etc than is good for me!)–i.e. the idea of good and evil… (not to mention the concepts of “innocence” and “possibility”–which I’ve carried forward from Marx, for whom the “Garden” meant the pastoral tradition)

It’s an idea that’s gone out of fashion, in intellectual circles. Which might be fine, except that, unfortunately, this means that the smart people have abandoned the Manichean thinking (and the splendid rhetorical opportunities this worldview affords) to asses like George W., and that’s no good. If there’s one thing I am nostalgic for, it’s for a time when no one (no matter where they found themselves on the political spectrum–and often they weren’t sure where they stood!) was ashamed to use the language of virtue and vice for maximum emotional effect–i.e. by putting that language (and the camera too!) into the mouths and eyes of performers concerned with a higher kind of “realism” than the superficial “methods” of the Strasbergs could possibly accommodate.

I don’t know a better way of summing up the appeal of Studio Age Film (at least for me!)

Okay! Enough theory! From now on, it’s just me, you, and the those wonderful movies in the dark!

good afternoon friends!



9 Comments so far
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Dave, I’m so excited about your blog comeback that I’m writing a comment even before I read your first entry on the new “Manichaen”!

Just the day before yesterday I re-read Clobberin’ Time, your paper about Marvel letter cols – and of course I still like it.

I’m also nearing the end of my epic struggle with “Squadron Supreme” (meaning I’ve finally reached issue 12). Oh, Mark Gruenwald’s enthusiasm for putting slightly inane banter into the overflowing speech bubbles of his characters knows no boundaries! (My favourite: Haywire calls Ineritia “Nersh sweetie”.) When I’m done with Squadron Supreme I can finally read your paper Irresolution & Dependence in Squadron Supreme.

May I ask if your talk on Squadron S. took place as announced and if it did, maybe you want to talk about it a little? (If you want to discuss comics here at all, that is.)

Comment by FrF

actually, I did not wind up making it to Chicago last year Franz–but this year, there’s even more exciting stuff going on, because I’m going to be speaking (on Cerebus!) at the massive MLA conference in Chicago (as well as at the Midwest MLA conference in Cleveland)…

I’m still rather proud of the Squadron Supreme paper–but I do suspect it would have been hard to make it meaningful to an audience of people that never heard of Mark Gruenwald’s magnum opus (but I do indeed look forward to hearing your own thoughts on the book AND the essay!)

thanks for leaving the first comment!


Comment by chimeralucida

I’m witnessing this blog’s first hours and I see that you’re tweaking the design of the “Manichean” (smile).

If your main focus here is on studio age movies then I’ll probably not contribute as much as I’d like, simply because I don’t know very much about them.

This is an opportune time to ask if you have any papers which are not internet-published and that you’d feel comfortable sharing. I think I’ve read every essay on “Motime Like The Present” and Please Sir, I Want Some Mo’. I admit having a bias for your historiographic papers and a bit against the more theoretical work like this short essay on Derrida. (I’m just not much of a Derrida fan, I’m afraid…)

Comment by FrF

On the other hand — after I hinted at my hunch that it’s very likely that I’ll never be a such a big admirer of Squadron Supreme than you, Dave — I just want to mention a favourite moment in issue 11 of the series: When Master Menace announces that he was able to reverse the effects of Tom Thumb’s behaviour modification apparatus and says that he tested his newly concocted machine “on three ex-convicts […] All three are out committing felonies right now!” and then Nighthawk exclaims “Fantastic!” then this is very funy.

Ok, enough OT posts for today!

PS: Here’s the (hopefully) working link for the Derrida paper I mentioned previously.

Comment by FrF

As a fellow studio age addict, this blog looks like it’ll be right up my alley.

I agree with your thoughts on the studios being driven by personality. I’ve always been interested myself in how the studios themselves seem to acquire personalities of their own (e.g., there’s a certain “feel” to a Warner Bros. or RKO film that makes it different from the films of other studios). I suppose this is mostly due to all the creative talent, including script-writers, directors, etc., being under long-term contract in addition to the main stars.

Looking forward to reading your thoughts in future posts. . .

Comment by msteudel


lately, it’s been all fiction + teaching, so I don’t have much to offer in the way of essays–but I’ll be very pleased to send you the Cerebus paper when I get done with it (which probably won’t be until early in the fall, at the rate I’m going!)

I hope you will stick around here though–I definitely am planning to focus on movies on this blog, but as may already be apparent from my intro, there are a number of similarities between my approaches to studio Age films and superhero comics, and there will almost certainly be some bleed back and forth between the various categories of works under discussion (the other ol’ reliables–romantic poetry, 19th century novels, and pulp fiction–will undoubtedly make their way into my writings here too!)

Comment by chimeralucida


very happy to have you as a reader, as I am quite taken with your own blog!

I absolutely agree with your studio-auteur interpretation–sometimes (not always, of course!) it makes A LOT more sense than the director-centered version that the Cahiers de Cinema people introduced…

Have you ever Ethan Mordden’s The Hollywood Studios? It was fundamental to my being as a pubescent classic film fan, and I’ve probably re-read it once every year since I bought it in 1990! I think he does such a great job of fleshing out this approach, and one of the main ways I’ve marked the progress of my years has been through the cyclical way my enthusiasm has made its way through each of the old studios and back ’round again (I’m currently on a real Universal-under-Carl-Laemmle Jr. binge!)


Comment by chimeralucida


I hope you will stick around here though…

Of course I will! And I’d be very happy about a copy of your Cerebus paper.

Now I’m just wondering how rock-solid your reason is for calling your new blog “Manichean” because I see no dearth of overheated arguments. The whole blogosphere, no matter from which parts of the political spectrum the writers come, has a reputation for being extremely polemical. There may be somewhere people who don’t want to attack their political opponents because they think there’s “not just black and white” and “all things are a shade of gray” but I suspect they aren’t many! In fact I always thought that you were — maybe in part influenced by postmodern thought — hesistant in playing the polemics game and attacking others, though it did happen occasionally at Motime Like The Present. Only after reading your piece Ecrasez L’Infame about Richard Hofstadter did it dawn on me that there was another side to your writing.

(A sort of noble discretion did make up not a small part of Motime’s attractiveness for me. When you write about superhero fandom that it “is not exactly the world’s greatest repository of maturity and wisdom” than this is just much more funny than the usual disdain which qua its (slightly) superficial mode of criticism undermines its credibility. Seen from this perspective, forums such as the one of the Comics Journal could be perceived as exhausting.)

So is there really a need for a Manichean mode of thinking? My impression — and I’m gallivanting here rather carelessly between aesthetic and political realms — is that George Bush gets denounced literally left and right. It’s just that it has no political consequences or only glacially advancing ones!

Comment by FrF

oh certainly Franz, I agree–and you need have no fear that I’ll be wasting my (or anyone else’s) time here ranting about George Bush, or current politics in general!

I’ll be discussing Manichean modes of expression here–not engaging in them! (at least, that’s the plan–but if the prez starts commenting on this blog, all bets are off!)

Comment by chimeralucida

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