New American Cinema and After

The Closing of the Frontier, Disorientation, Left-Right Polarization

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

Who shot Liberty Valance, Tom the outlaw hero or Ranse the official hero?  Why is the question important?  More accurately, why is the uncertainty of the question worth a scrutiny? 

The striking resemblances among Casablanca, My Darling Clementine, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) suggested that Hollywood’s repetition of certain tropes resulted from something more profound than conscious decisions to rework particular stories.  Clearly, American movies drew on a store of motifs that had become coded, detachable units, capable of migrating from film to film.  Their recurring appearances in widely dissimilar genres indicated the extent to which each Hollywood movie, far from being created from scratch, was mediated through an inherited mythology and structured around a received thematic paradigm.  This fundamentally intertextual nature of American movies transformed Classic Hollywood’s entire product into a kind of large, single genre to which Robert Warshow’s remarks on the western equally applied” “It is an art form for connoisseurs, where the spectator derives his pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working-out of a pre-established order.

In the American Cinema, these “minor variations,” far from being insignificant, typically accounted for the extraordinarily different effects produced by two superficially identical movies.  Valance, for instance, despite its apparent resemblances to Casablanca and Clementine and its adherence to the traditional reconciliatory pattern, was disturbing in a way that the other two were not.  Valance, in fact, replaced Casablanca’s and Clementine’s optimistic reaffirmations of the thematic paradigm with an elegiac acknowledgement of loss (224).

In a more civilized community, rid of outlaws and on its way to statehood, the power shifted from the private man with a gun to the public man with a lawbook (229).

Violence [in Valance] was both ugly and necessary, and even statehood a mixed blessing (236).

Valance kept the struggle on an equal footing, between two men [John Wayne and James Stuart, the two biggest box office stars of the period from 1946 to 1966] with markedly contrasting personae, Wayne’s implacably anachronistic, Stewart’s uncertainly contemporary.  That both were attractive was the film’s point.  Which was more beautiful, the cultivated or the cactus rose? (237)

The frontier myth and the relationship between cinema and society

The movies reflected not historical events, but the audience’s relationship to those events, a relationship decisively shaped by the traditional mythological categories perpetuated by the movies themselves.  Indeed, these perceptual categories had become a kind of “knowledge,” communally reinforced by the shared examples Hollywood provided.  In Althusser’s terms, therefore, what the movies reflected was “ideology,” “a system of mass representation” (“images, myths, ideas or concepts”) internalized unconsciously by the American audience…The postwar period, therefore, reconfirmed two basic facts about the American Cinema: first, the movies responded less to historical events than to the audience’s culturally mediated perceptions of such events; second, Hollywood’s adopted mythology had proved extraordinarily adaptable.  In specific terms, the thematic and formal paradigms were remarkably durable and the audience remarkably attached to them…Inevitably, both the industry and its audience clung to the established conventions, which had managed to transform every American crisis—the Depression, class divisiveness, wide-spread crime, World War II, the Cold War—into new occasions for the reconciliatory pattern that avoided final choices” (248-49).

The closing of the Frontier, growing self-consciousness, and new waves in America of the late 1960s and 1970s

Historian Eric Goldman agreed, calling the sixties “a watershed as important as the American Revolution or the Civil War in causing changes in the U.S.”

[the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Birmingham race riots (1963), the Kennedy assassination (1963), U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (roughly the early 1960s to 1973), student/counterculture dissent (peaking at Columbia in 1968), the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Ruther King (1968), the Altamont rock festival deaths (1969), the Cambodian invasion (1970), etc.] (250).

To the Left’s vision of geographic and figurative closure, the Right responded with the insistence that new frontiers could still be found.  Economic growth, as always, remained the stock metaphorical frontier…[Confused reactions to the Kennedy assassination].  For the Left, the assassination signaled that the old assumptions had failed, that there was something deeply wrong with American institutions and culture.  The Right, on the other hand, regarded the assassination as an individual act of evil whose source could be located and eliminated.  Frequently, the two positions merged.  Thus, while President Johnson saw the assassination as symptomatic of deep-rooted problems, his response (“We have to do something about that”) came in terms of the direct, simple solutions favored by the Right (254).

The Left’s self-contradiction: In fact, the counterculture’s strident pronouncements of the old America’s death barely concealed the obvious: at the heart of their vision lay yet another metaphorical frontier, an image of new possibilities derived from drugs, sexual freedom, and a vague spirituality.  The counterculture’s style betrayed its members’ obsession with the West.  Clothes (jeans, boots, buckskins) and hairstyles (long and unkempt, moustaches) derived from daguerreotypes of nineteenth-century gunfighters; and pop music returned repeatedly to frontier images…Above all, drugs stood for the new uncharted territory, as dangerous as the real frontier and, for the adventurous, equally tempting (255-56).

The Left and Right’s shared preoccupation with the frontier account of American history indicates that the potentially convulsive events of 1963-1974 did not cause a complete “break” in the traditional American mythology…[However], major perceptual shifts can only occur after a preliminary period during which the existing way of experiencing the world has been subjected to intense scrutiny.  To the extent that such scrutiny first reveals itself in a culture’s growing self-consciousness about its own mythology, the 1960s represented the beginnings of the transition period.  For while the traditional stories, heroes, and genres persisted, the movies subjected these thematic conventions to increasingly heavy dose of irony, parody, and camp…Between 1966 and 1980, an enormous number of films depended on their audiences’ ability to recognize them as overt parodies, “corrected” genre pictures, or exaggerated camp versions of Hollywood’s traditional mythology (256-57).

The rise of new directors

Of Andrew Sarris’s “Pantheon” of American directors (Chaplin, Flaherty, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Keaton, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophuls, Renoir, von Sternberg, and Welles), only Hawks, Hitchcock, and Welles made films after 1967—and none was major.  At Sarris’s second rank (that included Aldrich, Capra, De Mille, Losey, Mann, McCarey, Minnelli, Preminger, Ray, Stevens, Sturges, Vidor, and Walsh), only Robert Aldrich and Joseph Rosey remained active…When added to the death or retirement of the old guard, the breakup of the studios (effected by television and antitrust rulings) made possible not only the rise of new young filmmakers, but their relative independence as well…These new directors had varying backgrounds: film criticism (Bodganovich, Schrader), photojournalism (Kubrick), theater (Nichols), film schools (Forman, Coppola, Lucas, Polanski, Malick, Scorsese, Milius), television (Altman, Penn, Spielberg, Mazursky, Peckinpah) and acting (Beatty, Hopper)…The new directors’ iconoclasm, however, clashed with the industry’s inherent conservatism, intensified by the last sixties’ conglomeratization of Hollywood…The resulting internal conflicts both determined and reproduced the period’s simultaneous impulses toward irony and nostalgia.  What came out of this split was the period’s representative form, the “corrected” genre movie (e.g., Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Smokey and the Bandit) that satisfied both the new directors and their new bosses, and that could be taken as either a traditional action picture or a spoof, depending on a viewer’s predisposition…[A prominent figure in this trend is] Robert Altman (266-67).

The period’s growing self-consciousness about the received American myths also promoted a new kind of star…Elliot Gould, Walter Matthau, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Woody Allen, Gene Wilder, Gene Hackman, Mel Brooks, Jack Nicolson, Jane Fonda, Gold Hawn and Jill Clayburgh were all essentially character actors whose self-reflexive, self-doubting personae contrasted sharply with the confident, natural imperturbability of Cooper, Grant, Gable, and Wayne…Their model for this iconoclasm was clearly Marlon Brando, whose desire to avoid typecasting had frequently led him to adopt a mannered, campy style as a defense against overly conventional material (260).

A Hard Day’s Night under the influence of the French New Wave

By demonstrating that at least one aspect of the contemporary sensibility could be portrayed in a widely popular movie, A Hard Day’s Night helped to break the cinematic impasse of the 1950s: here at last was a film where intent and effect merged.  By convulsing the British “kitchen sink realist” tradition with Mélièsian tricks, Lester also showed Hollywood a way of spoofing established modes.  Most importantly, A Hard Day’s Night finally made available to the American audience the stylistic innovation of the French New Wave [it worked out a perfect commercial synthesis of all new formal elements in recent European films such as cinéma-vérité, jump cutting, hand-held cameras, delirious tracking shots, rapid kaleidoscopic editing, etc.] (272).

In all of these films, Godard thematically and formally repudiated Classic Hollywood’s concealment of choice.  The implication of this attack, however, went unassimilated by the American Cinema.  Indeed throughout the early 1960s, Hollywood had persisted in regarding the New Wave in general as too radical a break with American’s traditional commercial forms.  But A Hard Day’s Night’s simultaneous commercial success and obvious reliance on French influences (particularly Louis Malle’s 1960 Zazie dans le Métro) sponsored the movement as a new possibility for the flagging American Cinema.  The new American directors, however, adopted only the New Wave’s superficial stylistic exuberance, leaving Classic Hollywood’s paradigms fundamentally untouched (287).

For a brief period, perhaps lasting only a few months, the New Wave style seemed to have radicalized the American Cinema and effected at last a genuine ‘break’ in Hollywood’s paradigms.  Close inspection, however, would have revealed that Hollywood’s procedures remained intact.  First, the new movies’ explicit sex and violence and odd, off-key endings were still contained within formally closed narratives.  Thus, most of these films could be appreciated as genre pictures…Nor had Hollywood disowned the use of stars.  The new movies did everything possible to exploit the personalities of [new stars such as Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, William Holden, Jack Nicholson and even the low-budget, drive-in-persona of Peter Fonda]…In the less media-fluent postwar period, It’s a Wonderful Life’s freeze frame had amounted to a significant deconstruction.  By the date of Bonnie and Clyde, however, even in the commercial cinema, slow motion and photographs-as-credits were already three years old…In effect, the critics who proclaimed the New American movie (and who avoided TV) overestimated the impact of formal departures that the television viewer had largely digested.  Not surprisingly, the same critics underestimated the television-spawned irony which that viewer not brought to Hollywood’s products (294-95).

The Right-Left Polarization and Corrected Genre Films




  The Graduate (1967)  

  Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

  Cool Hand Luke (1967)

  2001: Space Odyssey (1968)

  Midnight Cowboy (1969)

  Easy Rider (1969)

  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

  The Wild Bunch (1969)

  Little Big Man (1970)

  McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

  Billy Jack (1972)

  A Clockwork Orange (1972)

  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)



  Bullitt (1968)  

  Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

  Patton (1970)

  Dirty Harry (1971)

  The French Connection (1971)

  Walking Tall (1973)

  Death Wish (1974)



  Note: Heavily corrected genre pictures  

  Badlands (a Bonnie and Clyde variant)

  New York, New York (musical)

  The Conversation (private eye)

  Mean Streets (gangster)

  Payday (musical bio)

  The King of Marvin Gardens (noir   romance)

  Nashville (musical)


Polarized postures toward the closing of the frontier

  • The Right’s denial vs. the Left’s acceptance of the reality and search for a new possibility of individual freedom.
  • “The Left cycle used its villains’ anonymity as a metaphor for the complexity of modern society’s problem [a sense of lateness, settings that dramatically emphasizes confinement and anonymous but overwhelming destructive forces]…In the Right films, [on the other hand,] problems had sources in particular individuals with names and faces, who could be located, tacked down, and eliminated so that society could return to normal.  In the Right’s view, difficulties required only an individual hero strong enough to stand up to the villain for the sake of ineffective communities” (307).

Blurred distinction between Right and Left

“Far from being polarized opposites…the heroes of the Left and Right both reincarnated the same mythic hero—the westerner.  Underlying both cycles of films lay a deep-rooted distrust of institutions that translated into a preference for individual solutions.  Although the new, complex problems increasingly called for elaborate, permanent, cooperative reform, Hollywood…had always been uneasy with a situation that cannot be solved by personal virtue.  Hence both Left and Right films clung to the individual hero as the means by which the spoilers of the American Dream would be outfought.  Like the traditional westerner, these heroes relied only on their own intuition” (317).

Perfect corrected genre pictures that completed both the Left and the Right cycle

* The Godfather (1972, 1974) completed the Left cycle.

* Taxi Driver (1976) completed the Right cycle.

This entry was posted in Film History, Film Noir, Film Theory, N. American Cinema, The Western, Thriller, Violence and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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