The Hidden Art of Hollywood: In Defense of the Studio Era Film

The Hidden Art of Hollywood: In Defense of the Studio Era Film

The Hidden Art of Hollywood: In Defense of the Studio Era Film

The Hidden Art of Hollywood: In Defense of the Studio Era Film

Synopsis

Although we tend to accord our highest praise to films with strong messages, Hollywood is resolutely unserious in its goals, and closer perhaps to music than to literature in this regard. Thus, in order to appreciate Hollywood's classic movies, we have to understand them as the result of a style of filmmaking that justifies itself through the grace and beauty of its form. This beauty, when seen, challenges our notion of film as the poorer cousin of the "high arts," or as worthwhile only when it serves a social purpose. The Hidden Art of Hollywood draws from a huge fund of recorded interviews with the directors, writers, cinematographers, set designers, producers, and actors who were a part of the studio process, in order to give the filmmakers themselves the chance to explain a very elusive phenomenon: the glancing beauty of the Hollywood film.

Excerpt

The purpose of this book is to explain why films as seemingly light in content and as commercial in orientation as those of the classic Hollywood era have been, and should continue to be, taken so seriously by film scholars. This may seem like an unnecessary task, seeing how much ink has been spilled on Hollywood by film scholars already. The number of books on Hitchcock alone has to supersede that of many a venerated writer. But despite all that has been written on Hollywood, I still see a general disconnect between the film scholar’s attitude—and that of the general public—toward classic Hollywood.

For example, I teach a core curriculum program of art and literature into which we slip a small adjunct survey of film history. I have been struck by how difficult it is for the average college freshman or sophomore to easily see the merit of the classic Hollywood studio films we show them in this program. Ironically, classes on these films, which are introduced in many ways as a lively respite from drudgery of core humanities, are often the most difficult classes to teach. It’s easy to sell a college freshman on the necessity of studying Marcus Aurelius, less so John Ford’s Stagecoach, which the majority of them find, on first viewing, laughably antique.

Ford is actually easier to teach them than some of the other Hollywood filmmakers. Once you freeze-frame a shot from Stagecoach the visual care of the film is apparent. Teaching a director who is not so obviously visually striking, a Preston Sturges or an Ernst Lubitsch, is much more of an exercise in frustration. The virtues of these films are subtler, having to do with rhythm, pacing, allusive and sophisticated dialogue, and charm—never easy virtues to translate in core curriculum. Even students who tend to like this kind of filmmaking still often find it dated, quaint, more of an historical curiosity than something relevant to them. As one student asked me, in an earnest desire to understand, “Are these films good in themselves or just good for their time?” (It was clear he was tending toward the . . .

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