Warner Baxter in the classic film 42nd Street (1933); Depression era reality vs. manufactured escapism.
These thoughts came to mind today, in an age awash in endless, often empty spectacle: from the inception of the medium, exoticism has remained the movies’ stock in trade, the one key element that pervaded every thought Hollywood had to offer. The silent era had been redolent with sin, sensuality and illicit romance, in such films as George Fitzmaurice’s Lilac Time (1928), one of the last of the major studio silents, or Wesley Ruggles’ look at decadent college life in The Plastic Age (1925), to say nothing of the dangerous encroachments of the “new Morality” in Sam Wood’s “flaming youth” exposé Prodigal Daughters (1923) with Gloria Swanson, promising viewers “new lips to kiss, freedom from conventions, life with a kick in it [and] a new world for women” as just four of the “Seven Deadly Whims” the film depicted, but with the addition of synchronized sound, things only got steamier, in every sense of the word.
Depression-era audiences wanted escapism, above all — whether in the brutal realism of gangster films, or the luxuriant excess of such musicals as Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley’s justly iconic Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), in which the familiar “let’s put on a show” plot line collides with then-contemporary reality even in the film’s opening moments, when an onscreen rehearsal of “We’re in the Money” is halted by bailiffs removing the sets for nonpayment of production costs. The conclusion of the film, the production number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is an ode to World War I soldiers ground under by the Depression, living from day to day without hope. Similarly, in Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), bankrupt director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) dangerously exhausted and on the brink of physical collapse, is forced by economic necessity to direct a Broadway musical, even with all the odds stacked against him, simply to survive.
The Depression era artist Reginald Marsh knew this milieu all too well; in his numerous charcoal sketches and drawings, such as Breadline (1932), he tracked the world of a society in collapse, as the cruelty and exploitation of Capitalism became all too obvious; those who had, and those who only stood and waited for a few crumbs of sustenance. And yet these images are just a few that we will be given to see in our lifetime; as Paolo Cherchi Usai notes, “relatively few moving images can be seen in the course of a lifetime, a tiny fraction of those actually made. Given an average lifespan of seventy-five years, the time spent viewing them rarely exceeds one hundred thousand hours, little more than a decade.” And yet it seems we always want more.
As early as 1954, long before he became an international celebrity, Marshall McLuhan railed against the intentionally mesmerizing effect of pop culture imagery on television in films, noting that it was designed to create “a mindless, helpless, entranced audience” which would then do whatever its creators required. In short, consume, exist, and die. This is why the experimental cinema of the 1960s was such a tonic in the onslaught of calculated commercialism, in a world of “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring” film production, as the 1962 manifesto of The New American Cinema Group, which spawned the still-extant Film-Makers’ Cooperative, so aptly put it.
The late Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese filmmaker who died on April 2, 2015 at the age of 106, and who worked almost until the end of his long life, was perhaps the last film director who had an authentic memory of what the world was like before electricity, when the night was lit with oil lamps and torches. His painterly work, as exhibited in such ravishing films as The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) evokes a world in which spectatorship was very much a personal pursuit, and not one mass produced for audience consumption. Indeed, the entire narrative of Angelica centers on a young man who is a solitary photographer, and whose images bring the title character “back to life” after a fashion. Much of the film is spent watching the photographer at work, as he documents the lives of the field hands in a nearby vineyard, and the moment of reproduction is central to the film; the second when the image is captured. This is the moment that will be memorialized, remembered, fetishized, examined, deconstructed and discussed.
Thus, we are ultimately in thrall to what we witness, which is ultimately what the filmmaker desires, whether she/he will admit it or not. Every film implies an audience, and every image implies a viewer, even if the maker specifies otherwise, or perhaps especially then. Light from the screen transfixes; the inescapable two-dimensionality of cinema is something that the medium continually strives to overcome, but unless the screen of the theater physically and actually projects towards the viewer, this will forever remain only an illusion. And yet we remain transfixed, drawn to the screen of light, hoping to see something there that we won’t see in real life, something that will take us, for a moment, out of our real lives, and transport us — to where?
The cinema of the moment is just that; the cinema of a single instant. There is much more.