Classic HW Cinema: The Frontier Motif & Continuity Style

The Persistence of Certain Formal and Thematic Tendencies in HW

Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980

Commercialism and Hollywood’s Stability

At the heart of HW’s stability based on the strategy of avoiding sudden and drastic changes for gradual and imperceptible modulations (forbidding a radical departure from established patterns) is its determinedly commercial nature that has compelled all kinds of filmmaking (all new trends such as German Expressionism, Soviet Montage, prewar French Cinema, Italian Neorealism and New Wave, and figures such as international directors and actors) into American ideologies (27-9).

Formal and Thematic Paradigms

1) The Invisible Style (Continuity Editing)

  • Sound → Stylistically, sound merely solidified a continuity system what was already highly evolved (29).
  • The Habitual subordination of style to story (32-33).
  •  A shift from the presentational mode (as in vaudeville, the circus, and magic shows) to the representational mode (much like the logic of the realistic theater and fiction) → a shift from the working-class audience to the bourgeoisie moviegoer—in Noël Burch’s terms (35).
  • An establishment of continuity in mise-en-scène and editing: matching successive shots by graphic similarities, continuous action, glance connection, sound bridge, the 180° system, lighting, focus, camera angle, framing, acting, set design, costuming, camera distance—a process that naturalizes the cinematic narrative by concealing the role of the filmmaker (38-9).
  • Tactics and strategies to conceal the traces of the movie’s status as manufactured product and leave no empty moments (no temporal and spatial ellipses where the storyline stalls (45-6): e.g., the shot-reverse shot as a concealment of the necessity of choice (39).

2) Thematic Motifs

  • The resolution of incompatible values (frontier vs. civilization, the outlaw hero vs. the official hero, individual freedom vs. community, adventure vs. settlement, honor vs. institutions, etc.) through the invocation of the nostalgia for outlaw heroes.
  • The western’s importance derived from the national ideology’s eagerness to assert an American exceptionalism as the basis for avoiding difficult choices.  Typically, that exceptionalism turned on notions about the availability of uncivilized, open land (the frontier) and about the American continent’s remoteness from Europe (North America as frontier).  [The ideology of open space] encouraged active, pragmatic, empirical lifestyles at the expense of contemplative, aesthetic, theoretical ones (74-5).
  • The Depression and World War II → “Structuring absences,” the unspoken subjects that have determined an aesthetic form designed precisely designed to conceal these crises’ real implications (31).

    * Note: Structural absences that structure what appears; the world of phenomenon is structured not without, but along with what is physically missing in it, what can be called the virtual.

  • American culture’s traditional dichotomy of individual and community that had generated the most significant pair of competing myths: the outlaw hero and the official hero.  Embodied in the adventurer, explorer, gunfighter, wanderer, and loner, the outlaw hero stood for that part of the American imagination valuing self-determination and freedom from entanglements.  By contrast, the official hero, normally portrayed as a teacher, lawyer, politician, farmer or family man, represented the American belief in collective action, and the objective legal process that superseded private notions of right and wrong (58-59).
  • A notable strategy of HW is to convert (displace or transpose) social issues (such as class conflict) into moral disagreement among individuals: e.g., Philadelphia Story (1941) (85-6).
  • Casablanca (1942) transposed a large political issue (America’s involvement in WWII) into a particular melodrama (the Rick-Ilsa-Laszlo triangle)…To effect this displacement from the global to the individual, the film employed a reluctant hero story (Rick’s self-centered detachment to active involvement in the Allied cause), clearly derived from the western, and perfectly tailored for the overcoming of its audience’s latent anxiety about American intervention in World War II…The strategy of reducing national ideological tensions to the manageable size of outlaw hero-official hero conflicts, where the self-determining, morally detached outlaw hero came to represent America itself (89-91).
  • Rick’s individualistic pragmatism, operating outside a legal system in the name of some higher, private notion of justice ↔ Laszlo’s idealism, relying on the law (101-02).
  • The frontier mythology → geared toward the perpetual renewal that encourages escapism (denying the past the capacity to control the present) (100).
  • A society where the privileged always outlaw the law.
This entry was posted in Film History, Film Theory, N. American Cinema, The Western, Violence and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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