Regular readers may not be aware of the fact that I'm a big movie buff and an amateur film historian. This interest of mine was nurtured when I took a series of film classes in undergrad. One can learn much about national character and mythology by examining the media of a particular society. It's especially important to contemplate the messages we Americans beam out to the rest of the world. Our media is often full of distortion, exaggeration, and caricature. Unfortunately, these grossly inaccurate images are often the only basis by which others conceive of America and Americans. They do not often understand that the unreality we project for the sake of entertainment is not at all an objective picture of the way life really is on these shores.
It has always been this way, ever since the beginning.
Let me address a belief that many hold dear. Falling prey to white-wash and nostalgia, some of us assert that the past is somehow inherently more pure than today. As I examine the historical record, particularly though film, radio, and literature, I find instead the same old archetypes. Fashions may have changed and so have turns of phrase and social mores, but our national character has not.
American cinema, even since the early days, has been obsessed with physical beauty, celebrity, happy endings, and plot-driven narrative. Thus, it's not difficult to see how the rest of the world thinks that Americans are overly effusive, slightly naive, and unforgivably sentimental. We like to paint the world in absolutes. We prefer happy endings where all loose ends are tied up; we show preference to final-reel miracles in which outstanding crises are resolved astonishingly quickly. Even in the more skeptical, cynical times in which we now live, we want our entertainment to be an escape from the real world.
World cinema, by contrast, shows a much more pessimistic perspective. It is far more likely to shun conventional narrative structure as well as to play with the concept of linear time. This is not to say that film doesn't exist for the sake of entertainment in other countries, but rather that it believes it has a higher duty than to be base entertainment alone.
I was reminded of this when I watched two movies back to back. The first was a typically overwrought American silent film of the late 1920s, full of overacting and hyperbole. Entitled The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg, it utilized a stale plot, expensive theatrics, and grandiose visuals. Very much in line with the star system, it focused most of its attention upon a beautiful woman, a beautiful man, and the interaction between the two. On paper, the film is nothing special, but the manner in which it is presented holds the attention of the audience.
The second was the 1930 German film Westfront 1918. G.W. Pabst's first talkie shuns romanticism for gritty reality. A collection of vignettes with a loose narrative structure, it is no less gorgeously filmed. It does not emphasize any particular standout actor or actress, feeling that the message is more important. Its prevailing viewpoint is that of art for the sake of political statement and social critique.
Should we perceive of the American Mindset as unrefined and immature? Have we not evolved to the extent of other, older societies? Are we a nation of new money pretenders and illusion-dwellers? If others had our same degree of material wealth and excess could they do any better?
Or is it merely all in how one looks at it?