I’m looking forward to an excellent semester of American Cinema with you all.
As I said last night, I dedicate this class to Robert Sklar, one of the finest historians of cinema, my former professor, and the person who taught this class for a very long time before me. I hope that the following words from Professor Sklar’s essential cultural history, Movie-Made America (which we will be reading this semester), will help set the tone for our course:
Throughout their history the movies have served as a primary source of information about society and human behavior for large masses of people. So significant a medium of communication should naturally reflect dominant ideologies and interests, and the American movies have often done so. But what is remarkable is the way that American movies, through much of their span, have altered or challenged many of the values and doctrines of powerful social and cultural forces in American society, providing alternative ways of understanding the world.
This course will provide an overview of developments in mainstream and experimental American film from the 1960s to the present. In particular, the course will ask you to interrogate the ways in which these films anticipate, reflect, or critique contemporaneous social, cultural, and political themes in American life.
This survey will ask you to consider several conceptual rubrics for understanding American cinema from the past 50 years. Students will be expected to pay special attention to the following issues throughout the semester:
1) How American films from various decades present a changing “American state of mind,” either via the representation of a conflict between an individual and a larger (local, state, authoritarian, governmental) community; the representation of unstable mental states such as psychosis, anxiety, and paranoia; the representation of issues regarding memory and brainwashing; and finally, representations of mental or spiritual transcendence.
2) How the American cinema continually offers re-interpretations of America’s historical past, as well as its cinematic past.
3) How American films represent—or challenge attitudes towards—issues of sexuality, race, and political ideology.
4) How to consider the relationship between avant-garde and commercial filmmaking practices in terms of production, exhibition, and reception over the course of half a century.
5) How changes in moving image technology have shaped the production and reception of American cinema from 1960 to the present day.
Rather than present a “greatest-hits” style survey, the course will strive to highlight works that might be less familiar to you, including a significant number of avant-garde films. This non-canonical approach, I hope, will provide provocative juxtapositions (e.g., Week 4’s examination of cinematic re-readings of the past in Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show—both from 1971.) between works not regularly shown or shown together in the department and will encourage debate about what makes a film important—both in its own time as well as in its place in cinematic history.
Looking Out, Looking In:
We began our investigation into how film represents the workings of the mind by watching the cosmic cinema of Jordan Belson‘s Allures (1961). I discussed Belson’s role in pioneering the techniques associated with expanded cinema via the Vortex Concerts held in San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium between 1957 and 1959. Belson’s influences included abstract painting, meditation, and psychedelic drug use, as well as the launch of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United Sates. Allures represents one of Belson’s earliest attempts to depict his inner visions. He was adamant that his work was not completely abstract or fabricated, but that it emanated from things he saw in his mind. More specifically, he described Allures as:
a combination of molecular structures and astronomical events mixed with subconscious and subjective phenomena— all happening simultaneously. The beginning is almost purely sensual, the end perhaps totally nonmaterial. It seems to move from matter to spirit in some way.
Then we watched the end of Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960), and I outlined the director’s waxing and waning fascination with psychoanalysis, and, more specifically, the perceived necessity of the speech at the conclusion of the film.
Our conversation regarding mental instability and traumatic mother-son relationships extended to the evening’s feature: John Frankhenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The film was released in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when fears of communist infiltration and nuclear war were at their zenith. The film also seems to uncannily anticipate the assassination of John F. Kennedy the following year. I introduced the idea that the film was multi-generic, shifting from action film (strangely, Frank Sinatra helped introduce kung fu to American audiences here) to deranged romantic comedy to sci-fi high concept to political satire.
Frankenheimer said that he “believed that we lived in a society that was brainwashed … by television commercials, by advertising, by politicians, by a censored press (which does exist in this country whether you want to admit it or not) with its biased reporting.” The film, he argued, was the result of his wanting “to do something about it”…well, what did he do? What are the politics of the movie? Is it “anti-anti Communist,” as some critics claimed? Does it justify elements of McCarthyism (or, as the film would have it, “Iselinism”), the suspicion that anyone could be a communist, even an anti-communist? Or are the politics purposefully convoluted, in that they only serve the twists and turns of the narrative?
How does the film portray the media, and more specifically, the manipulation of the media by those in power? How does Frankenheimer show this via editing, framing, and camera movement?
What is the role of memory in this film? How are the brainwashing dreams treated differently from narrative flashbacks, as in Shaw’s recollection of meeting Jocelyn?