The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1943
Hollywood and Parnassus
Hollywood and Parnassus
There Has Been a silent revolution in Hollywood since the war. Bad films are becoming the exception. America, finding herself in a just fight and reflecting the aspirations of this fight has produced films which have the mark of healthy art—which have features and tendencies once seldom found except in the socialist cinema of the U.S.S.R. This has gone on without conscious application of new ideals—rather in spite of the old ideals. It is a striking proof of the influence of the social environment on art.
This is a people's war. In America, especially, increasing stress is laid on industry and industrial workers. A film such as Joe Smith American, the story of a factory worker, is directly inspired by the war, yet it is a sympathetic portrayal of a working man. Priorities on parade was a Hollywood musical revue. It was advertised as nothing more. Yet it was a whole epoch ahead of the revues of a year or two ago. The motive was no longer the unhealthy dope—the sexy escape of pre-war swing films—but necessary relaxation for aircraft factory workers. The glamour girl was a welder, the singing hero worked in an aircraft factory and was even human enough to find the wages an added attraction to the job. And the very jivin' manifested a complete change of content within the old form—in place of the negro porters of contorted expression we had a machine dance strikingly reminiscent of the dances of Soviet china.
Wake island was a heroic film. It set out to prove that the American Marine is a great guy—no new motive. But a new kind of Marine for Hollywood. This bunch of Americans on the lonely bomb-pounded island was made up of real live marines and the heroism of their struggle—a convincing reconstruction of actual events—made the dare-all glamour boys of the old type film a very pale memory. And the civilian engineers—ordinary navies, and heroes when necessary, were further indications of the change in art that has come with the war.
The Burma Road is obviously an attractive subject for adventure films. A Yank on the Burma Road and Bombs over Burma both depicted American truck drivers in Burma. Both were carried away with their subject—could not tell of china without being deeply impressed by the people's struggle for life and freedom. Both thus gained a deeper seriousness which lifted them from the level of mere entertainment.
Entertainment has always been the prime motive of American films. They have been produced or no other motive than profit, and people, and people pay more for amusement than englightenment. The war has changed this too. Propaganda-the encouragement of the war effort—becomes the major consideration. This may have far reaching effects on the cinema if its influence is continued. Except in the U.S.S.R. the cinema has not been considered as more than entertainment; it is subject to amusement tax and is considered an unworthly alternative to good books. Perhaps the same was thought of drama in the age of Elizabeth—or of Aeschylus. In the scattered cities of the modern world there is very little opportunity for the average person to come into contact with good drama. The cinema could be in part a substitute—not for the development of local dramatic talent in towns and villages but for a national drama which has never flourished since the disappearance of the city states of Greece. It could become not entertainment only but a cultural asset. Our schools in their endeavour to give a background to modern literature lay great emphasis on the literature of the past. But they neglect to relate this to modern literature, just as Latin grammar seldom culminates in an appreciation of the latin poets. The means becomes the end. Consequently modern art seems in some danger of neglect. The cinema is not a substitute for all other art forms but it should be a supplement. It should be recognized as part of the stream of literature—a new offshoot much as the novel was in Fielding's day.
Sometimes we read ecstatic descriptions of the power of classics over readers. We read these classics and are not more than a little interested. The fault is not with us. These are the works which engrossed past ages and are now of immense value to the student of literature, but no longer hold page 14 their original fascination. A good film can grip the attention in this way—it is modern art and suited to modern needs and requires no effort of historical knowledge in its appreciation. People finding this fascination in the cinema and not in works commonly termed "good literature" tend to become altogether antagonistic to literature.
Of course certain books are popularised by the films, by being dramatized. It is another progressive feature of war films that this tendency is declining. Films are constructed with a view not to fidelity to a book but to dramatic propriety in the film. It is beginning to be realized that the film has its own rules and proprieties.
The period of poorly conceived films has not been entirely in vain—it has been accompanied by a development of technical skill, of sound, of Technicolor, so that the pioneer work is accomplished and the possibility of a new art form is with us. It has been argued that this perfection is in reality a defect and that the audience is not encouraged to use its imagination at all—that a return to the Shakespearean stage with its scanty scenery would be healthy. This is similar to the theory that the machine age is retrogressive because it encourages laziness. Just as the relegation of heavy physical labour to the machine frees mankind for intellectual and administrative work, so the improved technique of the cinema removes distractions from the higher functions of the imagination.
In New Zealand film-making is a very young industry. But New Zealand Film Units offer plenty of hope for the future. They have not yhe luxurious effects of American films but they are sound and close to life—they have the freshness of England's early poetry. Developed along these lines they should achieve much.
G. W. Turner