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!