Flashbacks March 2002

Lights, Camera, Action!

Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Budd Schulberg, Raymond Chandler, and others weigh in on the state of American movies.

America's best-known red carpet will roll out once again on Sunday, March 24 for the Seventy-Fourth Annual Academy Awards. First held in 1929, the Oscars celebrate the movies as an American cultural institution. Since motion pictures first emerged in this country, around the turn of the twentieth century, they have captured the American imagination and been an almost constant subject of debate and controversy. A number of Atlantic articles from the early to the late twentieth century offer varying perspectives on the medium, reflecting changes in its role and perceived place in American society over time.

According to many social critics in the early 1900s, the rise of the film industry portended the end of civilization. At a time when the American elite felt threatened by a burgeoning working class, some worried that movies, because of their cheap price of admission, would replace literature, theatre, and art among the lower classes. In a 1915 article, "Class Consciousness and the 'Movies,'" Walter Prichard Eaton argued that the medium would widen the divide between the working class and the elite:

The line of demarcation between theatrical audiences and movie audiences will grow ever sharper, the one representing entirely the bourgeoisie and upper classes, and the other the proletariat. The movies will become ever more powerfully a factor in the growth of class-consciousness.

Eaton argued that film as an uplifting and civilizing art form was no match for live theatre, and that the movies, so popular among the working class, would degrade their audiences.

[The movies] are capable of expressing more personality than a static photograph, of course; but to imagine the princely quality of Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet, that concrete emanation of a lofty ideal, in a motion picture! They have a cruel realism which at once dulls the imagination and destroys the illusive romance of art. They are utterly incapable of intellectual content.

Despite such views, by the 1940s the nation had adopted movies into its popular culture as an art form. In "Movies in America: After Fifty Years" (November 1947), Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of On the Waterfront and the author of What Makes Sammy Run? (a book considered by many to be the definitive novel of the Hollywood movie business), argued that film was a new medium rife with creative possibilities.

It is not only the most entertaining but the most satisfying and compelling of all the art-forms, synthesizing, as it does, composition, pantomime, spoken drama, photography, rhythmic motion, and music....

Only the motion picture camera can look so closely into the face of a man that it can even record the unsaid things that come into his eyes—and then swing away, over the buildings, over the city, to place him in long-shot perspective as just one more of the city's millions. Movies can be used ... to stimulate us to new vitality, broaden our knowledge, deepen our understanding.

But he felt that movie studios for the most part tended to pander to the lowest common denominator of taste, churning out "pie-in-the-face comedies, action pictures, naïve pornography, and melodrama" for which the American public seemed to have a bottomless appetite. Large companies like Coca-Cola, he pointed out, had shown that optimum efficiency and profitability could be attained by standardizing production and minimizing risk. Unfortunately, the movie business, he argued, was trying to do the same, so that creativity, individuality, and experimentation on the part of writers, directors, and actors ended up stifled in favor of mere formulas—"sacrificed," he wrote, "on the altar of a bloodthirsty and uncompromising god called Box Office."

Schulberg was optimistic, however, that in light of a number of auspicious new developments, this state of affairs could change. Independent movie production, he noted, seemed to be increasing, and some of the major studios were now hiring younger, more creative producers. And moviegoers, many of whom had been disappointed with the quality of the Special Services movies they had been subjected to during the war, now seemed to be raising their sights. If the movie business could raise its sights as well, he suggested, the art form might have an important future ahead.

Our movies ... may forge ahead to a new maturity which will enable us to be not merely the most entertained people of all time, but the most capable of empathy—that ability to experience someone else's emotions which is the basis of civilized behavior and the ultimate power of the motion picture.

The following year, Raymond Chandler, the noted mystery writer whose works often centered on life in Los Angeles and Hollywood, argued in "Oscar Night in Hollywood" (March 1948) that because film was a new art form, it offered his generation the most opportunity for creative expression.

Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.

To those who would dismiss the movies as mere "mass entertainment," Chandler responded:

As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freemen. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was the Elizabethan drama.

His attitude toward the yearly ritual of the Academy Awards, however, was one of bemused distaste. He described the ceremony, which he felt rewarded box-office appeal over artistry, in withering terms:

If you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored ... if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch) ... if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture industry you certainly belong....

As for the personal prestige that goes with winning an Oscar, it may with luck last long enough for your agent to get your contract rewritten and your price jacked up another notch. But over the years and in the hearts of men of good will? I hardly think so.

In "Movies and TV: Murder or Merger?" (October 1953), John T. Rule, an expert on three-dimensional photography at MIT, considered the impact 3-D and wide-screen effects were having on the movie industry. After the introduction of television in the early 1950s, the numbers of theater attendees plummeted, and the industry began experimenting with special effects to attract more moviegoers.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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