An intellectualized examination of the film industry’s early attempts to untie the Gordian knot of authority, domination and legitimacy connecting Hollywood filmmakers, the U.S. government and key cultural institutions such as museums and universities.
Film has two unique histories. One concerns glamorous stars, ruthless moguls and the radical whence of talkies and digital dinosaurs—a territory continually mined in Hollywood creative nonfiction laced with clever fact and speculative ballyhoo. The second is more important for academic Decherney (Cinema Studies & English/Univ. of Pennsylvania), who delves into the flipside of eminent pop culture and investigates how civic and elite powers drove the emergence of American film into propaganda, high art, and documentary vis-à-vis simple escapism. Early 20th-century film’s supremacy as a means of communication was clear, and filmmakers hustled to push the medium’s accessibility to truth. Some were bent on eliminating written historical documentation, allowing visual images alone to portray events. Teetotalers saw film as a way to invoke temperance, yet film, even so, was criticized as an inebriant to the eyes, a tool for foreigners to manipulate America, and an impractical explosive device, due to its chemistry. The most intriguing elements here, however, are Decherney’s depictions of Hollywood as outsider to legitimacy. Studios helped Columbia University’s early film program grow by seeing it as a Jewish immigrant’s vocational school from which to hire, while Harvard’s Film Library’s criteria for acquisition anticipated the Academy Awards—at the same time hampering a filmmakers’ labor union. Decherney is happily objective in his account of Hollywood’s Golden Age and thoroughly dissects the vicissitudes of players like film critic and MoMA curator Iris Barry as she rallies against American cinema one moment and heralds its global import the next. Discourses on modernism, phenomenology and library sciences stride confidently into hermeneutical territory, and Decherney regularly forgoes anecdotes in favor of historical and academic exactitude.
If you’re up for the challenge, here’s a previously unplumbed course in cultural studies and American film history.