Laugh, Cry, Believe: Spielbergization and Its Discontents

Article excerpt

Let no one say the American movie industry has not taken seriously its social mission.

Nearly a lifetime ago and in the midst of another war, several hundred Hollywood creators gathered on the University of California's Los Angeles campus. The mood was excited, resolute, and militant. The stakes were high. Their conclave was taking place, as one participant put it, barely "a cannon shot" from the studios where they worked.

Hollywood in the crosshairs: Held over the first weekend of October 1943, organized by the Hollywood Writers Mobilization, officially greeted by President Franklin Roosevelt and Vice President Henry Wallace (and the fraternal Writers and Artists of the Soviet Union), the Writers Congress was dedicated to the proposition that (as its chairman, Warner Brothers screenwriter Robert Rossen, declared) movies had the power to influence human behavior, help defeat the Axis, and positively shape the postwar world.

Congress participants were mainly screenwriters. Some were Communists; but not everyone. Darryl F. Zanuck-who addressed a Saturday morning panel on the "responsibility of the industry"-was the top production executive at Twentieth Century Fox. "We must play our part in the solutions of the problems that torture the world," he maintained. "We must begin to deal realistically in film with the causes of wars and panics, with social upheavals and depression, with starvation and want and injustice and barbarism under whatever guise."

This urgently self-important, change-the-world sense of responsibility did not end with civilization's victory over fascism. Four years later, Zanuck was again in the vanguard, producing The Iron Curtain (Hollywood's first exposé of Communist espionage) and, soon after, celebrating an early Cold War success (flying over the Soviet blockade to resupply West Berlin) in The Big Lift. By then, some of the Congress's most prominent figures-Rossen, John Howard Lawson, Edward Dmytryk-had been blacklisted, even jailed, for the indiscretion of their Communist beliefs.

There were real consequences for dream-factory politics: Hollywood exercised its responsibility and maintained a public role through the Cold War. The studios produced anti-Communist films noir, cooperated with the Pentagon to make Korean War dramas or celebrate new Air Force technology, and ministered to the nation's sense of spiritual destiny with spectacular tales from ancient Rome or the Old Testament. Less obviously, the industry supported the status quo by manufacturing consensus, adaptation, and reassurance as part of the process that French philosopher Jacques Ellul would call "sociological propaganda."

During the Kennedy era's duck-and-cover days, Hollywood operated as though prepared to go to war, albeit uncertain which branch of the government-Pentagon or president-to obey. In 1963, the Department of Defense declined to assist Paramount in filming the military coup in Seven Days in May, though according to star-producer Kirk Douglas, the project was supported by JFK himself. The DOD also refused to help Columbia with the nuclear disaster movie Fail-Safe. The makers of the rival atomic doomsday scenario Dr. Strangelove-a rare example of an unambiguously critical Hollywood movie-knew better than to ask. Meanwhile, armed with the knowledge that two films on accidental nuclear warfare were in preparation, General Curtis LeMay encouraged Universal to make the 1963 A Gathering of Eagles, dedicated to the Strategic Air Command.

Around 1960, actors began to supplant studios as the industry's motor and an inevitable element of narcissism entered the process. John Wayne was only the first Hollywood Freedom Fighter to leverage the power of stardom as means for political pamphleteering or, if you prefer, public service. ("Could art be useful?" the underground filmmaker Jack Smith wondered, by way of proposing Hollywood movies that might feature "Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh busily making yogurt; Humphrey Bogart struggling to introduce a basic civillaw course into public schools [or] infants being given to the old in homes for aged by Ginger Rogers. …