Daily Archives: August 6, 2009

On WWII, Hollywood & The Homefront

In my current list obsessed state, I’ve been working through the NFR list at a furious pace (I’m up to about 360 of the 500), which lead me to watch a couple of WWII documentaries filmed by Hollywood directors (William Wyler and George Stevens respectively) aimed at helping the war effort.

I’m very much intrigued by the relationship between Hollywood and WWII, as there was virtually universal support by Hollywood of the war effort, with various directors and actors enlisting (James Stewart, George Stevens, William Wyler among many others) and many actresses getting involved in humanitarian efforts (Myrna Loy), selling war bonds (Carole Lombard), or simply by being dutiful wives living in humble army accomodations (Gene Tierney). This in addition to the wealth of war pictures made during the period…all of which seemed to aimed at villifying the heinies and glamorizing the allies.

I’m struck by the contrast between that era and modern times…where U.S. involvement in war is marked by public dissent, political strife, and an almost universal opposition by those in the arts and in Hollywood. Furthermore the art created about war during these times is always critical, cynical, or satirical. No one makes good ol’ fashioned propaganda no more.

I’ve been wondering about what caused such a radical shift in ideology among the arts community…from united support to dissidence. Obviously the calamities of Vietnam and the radicalism of the 1960’s did a great deal to undermine the sense of patriotic fervor regarding the war. Interestingly in stark contrast to WWII, Hollywood generally avoided making pictures that dealt with the Vietnam war effort. John Wayne‘s ridiculously patriotic “The Green Beret” was one of the few films of the era to depict the American involvement in Vietnam, and was met with general disdain upon its release. The younger generation was not interesting in mythmaking about the war.

I think the dissolving of the studio system in the early 1950’s also did a great deal to shift Hollywood’s war ideology. With actors, directors, producers, and writers no longer bound to a singular studio, it became much more difficult to present a cohesive ideology in the movie industry. More daring films could be made, and the talent wasn’t obligated to toe the line for fear of reprisal.

I realize I’m overly sentimental and nostalgiac in writing what I’m about to write, and the fact that I didn’t live during WWII means I can only see it through rose-colored glasses, but a big part of me wishes we could go back to that time again. Reading various accounts of Hollywood folk from the era, I’m struck by the level of cohesion there was amongst the movie industry, the media, and even the general public. The sense was that the war was worth fighting, that licking those japs, or kicking those krauts…or even “sinking the japanazis(!)” was a goal that everyone could get behind. It was good vs. evil. I’m in awe of the idea of unity and teamwork and of a supportive homefront. I like the idea that it was honorable and right to serve your country dutifully, knowing full well the risks. Jimmy Stewart enlisted, ditto Ted Williams, and neither were given cushy promo gigs, they both fought admirably in real battles. They gave up highly paid, highly publicized jobs in order to serve. That strikes me as rather heroic.

I’m aware that the homefront wasn’t as unified as I imagine. I know that the U.S. didn’t enter the war for 2 years and that there was a huge support for maintain an isolationist policy…that American involvement in the war was purely out of self-interest. I know that anti-semitism was still going on in America, even as it was being fought against overseas. I know there were the Zoot Suit Riots, and segregation both at home and in the service. I know there was sexism and opposition to women in the workplace. I know that there were Japanese internment camps and anti-German sentiment. I get all that.

But I want to believe in the myth that people at one point worked together, that fighting for your country didn’t make you a murderer or a baby-killer, I want to believe in John Wayne and unity. I want to believe things were simpler once upon a time. I want to believe in America (I’m Canadian by the way).

The list and the damage done.

I have a love/hate relationship with lists. Particularly movie lists. On one hand my movie watching experiences for the past couple of years have primarily been the result of trying to complete the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films list, with the result being that I’ve stoked my passion for film, and been inspired to pursue a career path (that of film archivism). I’ve also learned a lot about the world, about history, and even daresay a few things about myself.

So in general the list has been a good thing. But conversely, lists have become the framework by which I watch movies. The films I seek out now are listed somewhere by someone, so whether it be the Silentera.com list of the top 298 silent films, or the films listed in the wikipedia pre-code article, or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Alternative American 100, or even something as logical and unarbitrary as watching all of Myrna Loy’s existing films, virtually every film I watch is dictated by a list I’ve got going on.

It’s alternately enriching and restricting. Hell it’s addicting. It’s the most seductive form of bondage I can envision…and that includes real live bondage.

Currently the list that’s captured my interest as of late is the 500 films that have been deemed significant and worthy of preservation by the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. I should explain a bit about the NFR. Every year for the past 20 years (I think that’s right), the NFR has listed 25 American films to be slated for preservation. What makes the NFR fascinating is that alongside the standard Hollywood canon, you have exploitation films like the notorious Mom & Dad (wanna see this so bad), or corny but endearing home movies like Disneyland Dream, or films that were only recently discovered like Evidence of the Film and The Making of An American. They also single out films made on the margins of the industry by minorities, so 1940’s Chicano flicks (Verbena tragica), Asian-American silents (Curse of Quon Gwon) and the work of black directors like Oscar Micheaux and Gordon Parks are given legitimacy and recognition alongside Hollywood legends like William Wyler and John Ford.

I really admire what the NFR does, because it manages to cover all aspects of American film, while raising awareness about issues of lost films, orphan films, home movies, and the general issues surrounding preservation and film archives.

A return to blogging obscurity

So it has a good long time since I’ve posted here…during which I’ve just about finished the TSPDT list (both the 2007 and 2008 incarnations), only 2 Stan Brakhage films stand in my way (The Art of Vision and Scenes From Under Childhood), as well as Louis Feuillade’s Tih Minh from the 2007 list. I initially had aspirations of blogging about all 1000 movies on the list, but a combination of laziness and a general lack of interest in writing about Gone With The Wind stopped me dead in my tracks. Not to slight Rhett or Scarlett, but does the world really need more people writing about Gone With The Wind?? I prefer to think not.

So with that as a thought, I’ve decided to take a different approach to blogging about film, and try and write about films that are forgotten or unknown or underrated. Part of this inspiration comes from the fact that as I worked my way through the list, I kept being exposed to more and more films, actors, directors, movements, national cinemas, genres, and eras, and rather than quelling my appetite for film, it just made me hungry for more. So I started seeking out all sorts of silent films and pre-codes, as well as documentaries and film-noirs. The discovery of the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress has exposed me to the world of home movies and orphan films.

So this is my intention: to write about the films I’m watching, the actors/directors/producers/cameramen/scenarists I’m digging, the lists I’m working on, the genres I’m exploring, and the eras I’m discovering.