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.

Three-D filming, Rule explained, could create a sense of immediacy that would render movies "capable of high realism and powerful emotional effects." But the technique, which required simultaneously filming the same scene from different vantage points, could cause eye strain in viewers, and sometimes produced bizarre visual distortions. "Human beings with misshapen heads and yard-long necks," he wrote, "are not pleasant, yet they have appeared in close-ups in all the 3-D movies I have seen."

Wide-screen movies, he explained, could also offer a sense of heightened reality by seeming almost to engulf the viewer within the scene. But the added space and equipment necessary for showing such films, he pointed out, might be prohibitively expensive for many theaters.

In the near future, Rule predicted, the theater industry would resolve such technical and cost issues, and most movies would incorporate a combination of 3-D and wide-screen effects. The film industry would thus enjoy an advantage over television—at least for a while. But eventually, he suggested, television would incorporate those same enhancements into its own equipment, and television would once again assert its advantage of convenience within the home. He asked,

Are the movies then doomed to an inferior, secondary position? Even assuming the permanence of 3-D movies on large screens, their superiority in quality over television must gradually decrease as television itself adds color and 3-D and reduces its technical imperfections. The difference in quality certainly cannot for any period of time be any more in favor of the movies than it has been during the period in which movie attendance has been halved.

The answer, Rule suggested, would be to work with television rather than against it. Perhaps feature films could be shown on television using what he called a "pay-as-you-see" model. Or movies could make their debuts on television, where they would generate word-of-mouth publicity, before being shown in theaters. The industry, he advised, "should view television as the most powerful advertising medium for motion picture theaters. If it needs a savior, that savior is much more likely to be television than either 3-D or wide screen or both."

Though the 3-D and wide-screen trends eventually subsided, concerns over the influence of television on the film industry still persist. The film critic Roger Ebert, in "Not Being There" (December 1980), expressed dismay about the impact of television on the movies after attending an American Film Institute conference dedicated to "the future of the feature film." The new emphasis, he discovered, is on creating films that can generate revenue not just by being shown in theaters, but by being aired on network television, videos, in-flight screenings, and so on.

Many panelists' remarks were couched in a technological Newspeak that I had trouble understanding at first. Software, for example, was the word for TV programming—software to feed the hardware of our new home video entertainment centers. ("Software," they said. "You know. That's a word for product." "Product?" I asked. "Yeah. Like a movie.") Television consuming units was another expression that gave me trouble until I realized it was a reference to human beings.

But movies, Ebert emphatically argued, should ultimately be about storytelling rather than the bottom line. They are best experienced in the theaters, and should be created with that venue in mind:

I have a simple idea of what it means to go to the movies. You buy your ticket and take a seat in a large dark room with hundreds of strangers. You slide down in your seat and make yourself comfortable. On the screen in front of you, the movie image appears—enormous and overwhelming. If the movie is a good one, you allow yourself to be absorbed in its fantasy, and its dreams become part of your memories.

Ironically, given that critics originally feared that films would degrade American taste and culture, some prominent critics have expressed concern that talented filmmakers now try too hard to elevate their audiences with sophisticated abstractions that are incoherent and pretentious. In "Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (December 1964), the late film critic Pauline Kael criticized art-house films as "irritating, confusing," and full of "ostentatious technique." "In this century," she wrote, "respect for high culture is becoming a ritual":

[Movies are] disintegrating, and the something called cinema is not movies raised to an art but rather movies diminished, movies that look 'artistic.' Movies are being stripped of all the nonessentials—that is to say, faces, actions, details, stories, places—everything that makes them entertaining and joyful.

After all, she argued, good old-fashioned movies with vivid characters and exciting stories are nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, she suggested, they are an art form with a crucial place in American society:

People go to the movies for the various ways they express the experiences of our lives, and as a means of avoiding and postponing the pressures we feel. This latter function of art—generally referred to disparagingly as escapism—may also be considered as refreshment, and in terms of modern big city life and small town boredom, it may be a major factor in keeping us sane.

Mary Anne Anderson and Sage Stossel