The Canonical Story

In another sense, several essays emulate the films and their makers, by also refusing to smooth out the creases, or tuck in the corners, preferring double exposures, time loops and superimpositions to a tightly knit chain of cause and effect and final narrative closure. Such closure one finds, however, in what I have called the canonical story. Earlier, I suggested that for many film historians, the first New Hollywood now appears as an interesting, but otherwise intermediate episode: a happy accident to some, a symptomatic aberration to others, but at any rate, a moment of hesitation, while the juggernaut of the corporate entertainment business changed gears, taking a few years to get back on track, during which Europe could foster (and finance) its various New Waves, while America afforded itself (by panicky studio heads briefly bankrolling television upstarts and industry outsiders) the New Hollywood. It was Tom Schatz who summarised most concisely what was to become the canonical story: '[The] movie industry underwent three fairly distinct decade-long phases after the War - from 1946 to 1955, from 1956 to 1965, and from 1966 to 1975. These phases were distinguished by various developments both inside and outside the industry, and four in particular: the shift to independent motion picture production, the changing role of the studios, the emergence of commercial television, and changes in American lifestyle and patterns of media consumption.'4

In line with the more economic emphasis of such a perspective, the canonical narrative tends to give space to the film industry version and underline the institutional factors, rather than tell the story from the directors' point of view, which favours a Portrait of the Artist. Or the journalist, who develops a wider analysis around an individual film and spots significant social trends in genres and cycles. Although contrasting with the often polemical tone of the critics, whether partisan or participating observers, the canonical account nonetheless contains many elements that were first proposed by critics.5 For instance, Pauline Kael had already identified some of the crucial shifts in her review of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, still considered the first full-blown manifestations of the New Hollywood, with its triple agenda of self-obsessed youth, aestheticised violence, and a distrust or contempt for all forms of established authority. The December 1967 issue of Time Magazine officially announced a 'renaissance' of American cinema, and identified complex narratives, hybrid plots, stylistic flourishes and taboo subject matter as its hallmarks. Beverly Walker (a participant and observer also in Alexander Horwath's essay below), writing in 1971, flags several other components. In an article entitled 'Go West Young Man' she takes that other landmark film, Easy Rider, as her point of de parture for a discussion of the changes within the film industry.6 Apart from also mentioning subject matter with youth appeal and a low budget, she points out that established actors became engaged in moviemaking; that record companies and other American media industries began investing in films; and that finally, new production companies, such as BBS, smaller and more flexible, were set up to produce these movies.

Walker also notes that by 1971 the brief renaissance was already over, with producers and studios retrenching. She pointed to the resurgence of genre-filmmaking, with new directors having to "go the porn-horror-violence route" if they were to secure the (low budget) financing which the Easy Rider formula had pioneered. The directors of the first New Hollywood in fact faced some of the same problems as their European counterparts, even if on a different scale: there too, getting finance for a second film was contingent on boxoffice (or festival success) of the first. And even where the first film had been a critical success, if the second found little or no distribution, it often terminated a promising talent's career. In Hollywood, the old industry norms were quickly re-established, with control over distribution and exhibition outlets becoming once more the factors that counted, not the director's artistic control: he or she had to do-it-yourself, as in the case of Tom Laughlin's four-wall exhibition methods for his Billy Jack (1971), or claw back control by becoming producers, as in the case of Coppola, Spielberg or Lucas, three of the leading names of the second New Hollywood.

The film historians who since the late 1980s have studied the American cinema of the 1970s - besides Tom Schatz, I am thinking of Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Douglas Gomery, Robert C Allen, Janet Wasko, Tino Balio, Tim Corrigan, Jon Lewis and David Cook - have put the salient features of the New Hollywood already named by Kael, Walker and others in a broader historical framework, usually combining economic, industrial, demographic and institutional factors. The result is a composite, but there is general agreement on the outlines, and often even the particulars, of the story of Hollywood's fall and rise between the late 1950s and the early 1980s. Some historians give more prominence to the agents-turned-producers (Lew Wasserman, David Geffen) and to the rise of the package and the deal-makers (Barry Diller, Steve Ross, Sumner Redstone) than to actors, writers or directors; they discuss the shifts in media ownership and the business management practices brought in after the several waves of take-overs and mergers affecting the (assets of the) major studios (Kirk Kerkorian, Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch); and they underline the changes in the institutional-legal frameworks under which the American cinema operated, the dates of which I already mentioned: the disinvestiture imposed on the studios by the Paramount decree of 1948, changes in the industry's self-censorship (abandonment of the

Hays Code, the revision(s) of the rating system) in the late 1960s, the relaxation of the anti-trust laws during the Reagan presidency, culminating in the abandonment of the Treasury's case against the Time Warner merger in the early 1990s. The net result of focusing on these developments is to argue that by the mid-to-late 1980s, Hollywood had effectively undone the consequences of the post-war decartelisation, and had - in somewhat different forms, and in a quite different media environment - de facto re-established the business practices once known generically as vertical integration, i.e. the controlling ownership of the sites (studios) and means (stars, personnel) of production, (access to) all the relevant systems of delivery and distribution, and (programming power over) the premier exhibition outlets.

Closure in the canonical story of the renaissance of American cinema is thus provided by a return to the beginnings, the re-establishment of the status quo ante, in good classical Hollywood narrative terms. In many ways the canonical story claims that, by the end of the 1980s, it was business as usual. Hollywood had once more demonstrated its deeply conservative character, where the fundamental forces at work confirm that the American cinema is a remarkably (or infuriatingly) stable, self-regulating organism, whose strength, or indeed, whose 'genius of the system', in André Bazin's famous words, 'lies in the richness of its ever vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements' (Bazin 1985: 257-258). This may be too blithely optimistic an account for those who think the American cinema died around 1980, and too coarse-grained for those, who - noting some of the more subtle, but nonetheless substantial changes - think it justified to use the terms 'post-classical'. However, adaptability, the absorption of foreign elements, the appropriation of talent and incorporation of innovative techniques were already part of Bazin's definition of the classical.7

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  • Kifle
    Which films tend to become canonical?
    11 months ago

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