Film and the American experience

by Marie Claire Kolbenschlag

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 16-21
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

The recent shift in film criticism from auteur theory to genre analysis signals an important change in critical methodology. The critic has been handed a pickaxe and shovel to replace tweezers and pins. He/ she confronts a massive, undifferentiated mound of cultural experience, of which film is an intrinsic element. He/ she must excavate and sift the structures of the U.S. consciousness and finally extract, define and interpret film artifacts an in expression of that consciousness.

Film cannot be understood apart from its social and generic context, particularly in a culture where film has consistently fulfilled an economic function, where it has been a tribal expression and, intoed, something of a ritual. To this collective significance can he added the fact of its persistence. U.S. film is almost three-quarters of a century old now. It has survived end multiplied long enough to acquire historical as well as formal definition and distinction. If it has been clichéd and redundant, this incremental quality is perhaps the best evidence of its roots in the native imagination.

In the analysis of a cultural artifact, the study of cultural mythology is a necessary premise. The film, for instance, is more then a mirror-image of an age. It not only contains the myths of a generation or a people, it is produced by them and shapes reality in turn. Thus, the relation between the artifact and the informing mythology is causal as well as typical.

In his Sociologie de la littérature (Paris, 1960) Robert Escarpit has suggested that the work of art exists is a three-dimensional context. It participates simultaneously in a relation to its author, to its audience, and to itself as art. Escarpit’s ‘trois modalities’ are a representation of a cluster of temporal structures which cohere as an entity because they interrelate. This coherence is in itself a cultural system, a microcosm of the real and imaginative cosmos in which we exist. Each of these dimensions can be explored separately by the critic. But ultimately it is their coherence as a cultural system which claims his/her attention,

Thus the film is more than an artifact. It is a microcosm suspended in the enveloping cosmos of the U.S. consciousness, the imaginative articulation of U.S. experience and ambience. It is above all an event. When the film critic sets out to explore this phenomenon, he/she is, in fact, engaged in a kind of visual cosmology or anthropology. The critic would do well not to neglect the trail markings left by the Americanists—scientists and scholars—who have preceded him or her. In the ensuing paragraphs I will describe some of these markings and suggest points of relevance.


John Kouweshoven’s study, The Arts in Modern American Civilization (first published in 1941 under the title Made in America, should be a kind of primer for the critic of U.S. film. It is one of the best and earliest contemporary works which delineates in a total cultural context the native, “vernacular” style in U.S. art. Kouwenhoven attributes certain indigenous qualities to the “vernacular” arts, as distinguished from the “cultivated” or learned tradition.

“In their least diluted form these patterns comprise the folk arts of the first people in history who, disinherited of a great cultural tradition, found themselves living under democratic institutions in an expanding machine economy.”(13)

The vernacular arts, then, are preeminently simple, democratic, technological end pragmatic, marked by imaginative ingenuity but ornamental constraint. The style is evident in a variety of U.S. artifacts—in metalwork and furniture, in architecture, painting and sculpture, in literature, theater and dance, in music and film, and even in machinery. Americans have always been a people in love with things, especially things that move. (The archetypal sequences that were the genesis of the modern film were those of things in motion: Lumière’s TRAIN ARRIVING AT THE STATION, Marey’s sequences of animals and humans in motion.)

The machine incarnates the archetypal myths of motion and of making. It has mesmerized U.S. consciousness from our beginnings. Kouwenhoven describes better than anyone else this symbiotic relationship between the U.S. psyche and the machines that have commanded our landscape as well as our imagination. These include the locomotive and the rifle, the wagon and the axe, the whaling ship and the riser boat, the plow and the tractor, the truck and the automobile, the flying machine and the sewing machine. The mythic resonance that many of these native fabrications have in the U.S. arts—particularly in film—should not go unassessed. Just as Zen consciousness and the haiku experience have influenced the art of Japanese film, our romance with the machine has saturated U.S. films. Technology and psychology merge in the filmmaker’s skill as well as in his/ her vision. If nothing else, our films are the attics of a collective spirit that has created a society chiefly through its relation with tools, stuffed with broken and obsolete motors—the true props and costumes of our national character. Part of the fascination of the current nostalgia trend in film is our universal fascination with the films of a bygone era—with the objects and accoutrements, the vessels and the vehicles of the past.

The distinction between the “vernacular” and “cultivated” styles is not without implications for the student of film. Moreover, the distinction is at the heart of contemporary discussions on popular culture. “Literature and Covert Culture,” the germinal essay by Bernard Bowron, Leo Marx, and Arnold Rose of 1957, Dwight McDonald’s “Theory of Mass Culture” of 1953, and perhaps half a dozen earlier journal discussions laid the groundwork for the current interest in the popular arts. The introduction of this distinction between an elite, learned cultural context and a popular one has given the contemporary critic a new tool—one that permits excursions into cultural anthropology as well as aesthetics. Film critics have been among the last to exploit this tool, particularly as it relates to the total semiotic context of individual film events.


As a popular art, U.S. film is unique in many respects. In the development of the country’s architecture, the basic forms were inherited for the most part from the older “cultivated” civilization and later modified by such “vernacular” influences as the balloon-frame construction. Kouwenhoven notes, by comparison, that in the case of film’s development, the process was reversed. The movies emerged first as a popular art, a vernacular form that was devoid of the private, cultivated aesthetic impulse to satisfy an exclusive audience. The Nickelodeon and Biograph era was marked by the transfer of native U.S. fictional and theatrical style to the cinema. Melodramatic, climactic, spectacular, scenic, pantomimic folk realism characterized the early films of the twentieth century as it characterized the late nineteenth century dime novel and stage. The content as well as the style was cut to the common person’s taste: THE LIFE OF Au AMERICAN FIREMAN; THE EVICTION; BERTHA,THE SEWING MACHINE GIRL, NELLIE,TEIE BEAUTIFUL CLOAK MODELS, RAFFLES, THE AMATEUR CRACKSMAN. The early titles display an antagonism for the affluent as well as a democratic preoccupation with some social problems: THE CROOKED BANKER, THE MISER'S FATE, THE DRAFTERS, SIGHT-SEEING THROUGH WHISKEY, AUTOMOBILE THIEVES, GAIETIES OF DIVORCE, WHEN WOMEN VOTE. Subjects received comic or tragic treatment depending on the current popular disposition. Kouwenhoven’s contention that “the men and women who made the early films were in the business of providing mass entertainment in a medium which had been created by machines and science” (213) is strengthened by the fact that the early film studios were called factories.

As the nickelodeons faded into the movie palaces, the lure of gentility began to erode the popular tradition. Movie makers became self-conscious and sensitive to critics, who began to analyze films as new art forms. Actors and directors who had been trained in the sophisticated arts began to make movies. Imported influences and the attraction of bourgeois respectability ware evident in many of the new directors: von Sternberg’s heavy pictorialism, Lang’s stylization, Tourneur’s affinity with interiors. Murnau’s subjective atmosphere and angle, de Mille’s manners and morality scenarios, Zukor’s attempts to add class to cinema. With the coming of the talkies and the continuing clamor for longer features, the motion picture increasingly came to resemble a photographed play. When cinema had first robbed the stage of its content, technique and audience, the theater abdicated from its flamboyant popular style and retreated to a verbal and plot-centered dramaturgy. Arthur McClure, in his The Movies: An American Idiom, observes:

“The stage, driven back from that contact with the larger public, had taken refuge in the service of sophisticated metropolitan minorities.” (50-51)

The ironic turnabout later by which movies were driven to imitation of the art they had initially imitated was another contributing factor in the gradual depopularization of film.

Some, like Griffith, continued to project the historical and popular mythology of the masses through sophisticated technique. Others began to ransack the classics and the fantasies of the cultural aristocrats for new subjects. Chaplin went on mocking the genteel virtues of the bourgeois classes. The humor, vulgarity, and classless condition of his film roles remained essentially popular in content.

The twenties were, indeed, a period of confluence of styles in U.S. film. Kouwenhoven’s distinction between the “vernacular” and the “cultivated” variations is a useful spectograph, especially when it includes the concept of popular or mass culture. A comparison of a film like John Ford’s IRON HORSE of 1924 and THE GREAT GATSBY of 1974 illuminates certain obvious differences. Ford’s picture is based on a well-known pop fiction motif, reiterated in countless dime novels: the familiar Union Pacific trail story. It is basically a formula film, dependent upon improvisation for its success. Jack Clayton’s GATSBY, on the other hand, is slavishly derived from an artifact of “elite” culture—a slick, carefully crafted novel. Point of view in the original work, as in the movie, is focused and subjective. There is no Nick Carraway in THE IRON HORSE. There, point of view is general and cosmic—or omniscient, as the novelist would say. This basic orientation to the subjective is reflected in the camera techniques of GATSBY, which tend to inflate Mia Farrow and Robert Redford rather than develop the content of the characters they represent. In THE IRON HORSE it is the myth itself that is the subject of the film—the individual against the heroic backdrop of the enterprise. GATSBY is decedent in its subject matter as well as in its treatment. In GATSBY environment is seen as a projection of ego, as indeed language was in the original novel of Scott Fitzgerald. Both films are “rearview” mirrors of the past; both are saturated with the accoutrements of an era. GATSBY is stuffed with things consciously displayed; THE IRON HORSE with things discovered, revealed, half-hidden yet in the context of time. Myth is artificially introduced into GATSBY, even more obviously than in the novel, when the narrator explicitly reminds us of the New World success fantasy. In THE IRON HORSE, myth is unconsciously present in the structure of the story itself. Thus the popular film has an epic quality, and the elite film is the tragedy of a romantic egotist. But the effect of the latter is not ironic recognition. Rather, it elicits a sort of maudlin sympathy for Gatsby, whose veneer of innocence is a function of the audience’s desire to participate in the genteel affluence of the world he represents.

In his essay, “The Movies Are Now High Art,” Richard Schickel has commented on the narrowing strata of film audiences in the contemporary United States. Three-fourths of filmgoers are under 40 years of age, and the regulars tend to be college students (or college-bound) and college graduates.

“Movies aren't movies any more. They are the playthings of the New Class, those who are custodians (or, perhaps, prisoners) of the technostructure.” (131)

Movies are no longer a vernacular, popular art. Those who consume them most are those trained in the perception of a literate tradition. Thus the highly conventionalized syntax of literacy has been transformed into cinematic language that demands a more specific audience. The phenomenon of the American Film Theatre is perhaps the most recent evidence of this shift in sensibility.

The critics, who are the custodians of the New Litarates par excellence, are often mystified when—in spite of their glowing reviews—a film flops at the box office, or when—in spite of their diatribes—a ‘B’ film is a sell-out. Witness the case of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or McCABE AND MRS. MILLER. In regard to the latter, the director has admitted that he set out to demythologize the Western, thus depopularizing what the audience night have expected to be a formula film. The recent TV run of MIDNIGHT COWBOY (sans 27 minutes of the original) received dismal ratings—probably because the mass audience expected a familiar formula and could not perceive one. In fact, the reason so many critics have such poor antennae is perhaps the same reason that many people who frequented the movies in the 40s and 50s would prefer to watch TV shows today. The films that please the mass U.S. audience have always been popular—formula art, not elite art or super-art or anti-art.

It is the very persistence of the formula in popular art that heightens the significance of variations introduced into the pattern, revealed in the diachronic nuances of successive works. Compare, for example, the proto-Western THE VIRGINIAN (starring Gary Cooper in 1929) and the popular Western of 1952, HIGH NOON (also starring Gary Cooper). In the conventional denouement of the Western, as in THE VIRGINIAN, the code hero becomes a principle of reconciliation (often via the showdown) between the outlaw forces and the forces of civilization The maverick hero turns to public service, relinquishes his life of absolute freedom, marries the schoolmarm, and settles down as the town marshal. HIGH NOON follows the formula for the most part, but at the end there is a significant variation. The tough, gutsy, independent marshal rides off into the sunset with his new bride—after he has thrown away his badge in a gesture of cynicism. It is precisely such variations that highlight affective transformations or changes in audience expectations and emotional associations. And at the same time, these variations reveal the persistence of formulaic values in the midst of social change.

U.S. film history offers a rich mine of these recurring popular formulae. We have had at least three versions of the Bonnie and Clyde story, several variants of the Mafia saga from UNDERWORLD of 1927 to the more recent THE BROTHERHOOD and THE GODFATHER, hundreds of variations on THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and THE VIRGINIAN, and assorted versions of the Southern lynch mob story. Popular films like ON THE WATERFRONT, COOL HAND LUKE, and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? all had their prototypes in earlier decades. What appeals to popular taste is bound to be repeated and imitated. It acquires cultural significance in the chronological mutations that the formula undergoes. Film formulae are reservoirs of our collective mythic experience. They are time capsules that tell us not how things were, but how we imagined ourselves to be.


One of the first Americanists to give us a comprehensive view of the U.S. self-image and a genealogy of the reality it has begotten was Henry Nash Smith. His intuitive and brilliant study, Virgin Land: The American West in Symbol and Myth (1950) explores what he concludes is the dominant symbology and mythology of the U.S. psyche—frontier consciousness. He begins by tracing the historical roots of the Westward pilgrimage’s dream in search of a northwest passage and ultimately for a garden in the wilderness. Lest we forget the avalanche of rhetoric that swelled the manifest destiny theme of the Westward movement, his study recalls the names, voices, and words of the great exodus. Whether it is the trapper, pioneer, homesteader, cavalryman, gold hunter, railroader, politician or business tycoon, their idiom is the same. The “mission of the North American people” is always described in the accents and metaphors that were used for Columbus in 1492.

Daniel Boone and Leatherstocking were the popular types who best exemplified the U.S. romance with the wilderness. One of the by-products of the exodus mentality was the emergence of an intuitive ethical code, a primitive, naked power of will and energy that came to be associated with frontier heroes. As the conditions of his testing grew more savage, the popular hero became even more of an anarchist. Thus, what Smith calls the “second generation” of popular types—the fur trapper and the mountain man—were much more uncivilized than Daniel Boone had been. The crescendo of blood and guts in the popular imagination is reflected in the development of the dime novel. The moral ambiguity of later heroes like Deadwood Dick and Jesse James, the sheer proliferation of homicides and sadism, the evolution of the cowboy from a herdsman into a gunslinger in popular fiction, these all suggest that there is a kind of Gresham’s Law operating in the cultural consciousness.

Seth Jones and Deadwood Dick eventually spawn Nick Carter and most of his pulp descendants in the twentieth century. The emergence of the cops-and-robbers variant from the Western narrative near the end of the nineteenth century is further evidence of the subliminal obsession with violence in the popular imagination. And this obsession is transformed into even more pejorative structures with the passing of time.

This gradual acceleration of violence which Virgin Land suggests has am obvious relevance for the film critic who wishes to explore the deep structures of consciousness that lie beneath U.S. film. Richard Slotkin has more recently provided us with a monumental documentation of the same subject in his Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Slotkin’s work is a more precise and definitive exposition of the violence motif. It goes much farther in the implications it draws. In establishing the link between Puritan piety and the frontier ethic, Slotkin identifies as the transitional element, the popular mythology of the Indian Wars. The Indian Wars and the threat of Indian captivity proved to be, in rhetoric as well as in reality, the most acceptable metaphor for the U.S. experience. Used so religiously for their salutary effect on the soul in New England sermons, these captivity narratives presented an exaggerated and emotionally heightened illustration of the moral and psychological situation of the primitive colonial and national community. Indium War psychology seemed to postulate only two avenues of response: passive submission or violent retribution. The third alternative of accommodation was conspicuously absent in the popular imagination.

Slotkin’s identification of four basic mythological structures in our native heritage night serve as a complete index of almost every film made in the Unites States. He describes the four as follows:

(1) Conversion: the soul encounters the transcendent, experiences affliction of spirit and salvation.
(2) Sacred Marriage: the protagonist is united with female or ‘other’ who is the embodiment of nature as well as his own anima.
(3) Exorcism: the protagonist is in conflict with the others. Those same beings—components of psychology, races, or powers—conceived as anima in the sacred marriage are treated as if they were representations of the id.
(4) Regeneration Through Violence: the anima/ id conflict is embodied (not resolved) in a confrontation of male avatars in the wilderness.

At the risk of some oversimplification, it is fair to conclude that these mythic structures—which Slotkin views as fundamental structures of the U.S. consciousness—strongly parallel our culture’s most persistent fiction and film genres. The typical Gothic tale is a combination of the Conversion-Exorcism motif, a parable of violated innocence, repressed guilt and initiation into evil. In this sense, films as disparate as IN COLD BLOOD, DELIVERANCE, THE EXORCIST, and THE GRADUATE participate significantly in these categories of imaginative experience. The Sacred Marriage motif would encompass the entire spectrum of romance from LOVE STORY to GONE WITH THE WIND, and perhaps include such variants as SCARECROW and MIDNIGHT COWBOY.

The Regeneration Through Violence myth is the principal focus of Slotkin’s study. While all four are essentially myths of initiation into the New World, this is preeminently the myth of the U.S. experience. At the most fundamental level the Western and the gangster film exploit this myth. Many films, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, for example, are laden with all four myths. But the implications of the violence myth go far beyond the mere exploration of narrative or filmic structures. It springs from the archetypal hunger myth, rooted especially in the figure of Daniel Boone, a mediating figure between civilization and the wilderness. He is consecrated to the destruction of savagery. But in the execution of that mission he comes to resemble his foe, the Indian. To survive he must adopt the tactics, the vision, and even the ethics of the Indian. The hunter-woodsman, even in the very act of extermination, acquires a sympathy and affinity for the Indian’s way of life. In the act of subjugation, he participates in and absorbs the wilderness’ creative power. The inherent paradox of the U.S. experience in mastering the new World contains a latent irony and a self-perpetuating moral flaw:

“Believing in the myth of regeneration through the violence of the hunt, the American hunters eventually destroyed the natural conditions that had made possible their economic and social freedom, their democracy of social mobility. Yet the mythology and the value system it supported remained even after the objective conditions that had justified it had vanished. We have, I think, continued to associate democracy and progress with perpetual social mobility (both horizontal and vertical) and with the continual expansion of our power into new fields or new levels of exploitation. Under the aspect of this myth, our economic, social, and spiritual life is taken to be a series of initiations, of stages in a movement outward and upward toward some transcendent goal. We have traditionally associated this form of aspiring initiation with the self-transcendence achieved by hunters through acts of predation. The forces of the environment and the hidden or dark sources of our personal and collective past—factors which limit our power to aspire and transcend—become the things which, as hunters, we triumph over, control, and transcend. They become, under the aspect of the myth, enemies and opponents, who captivate and victimize us and against whom we must be revenged.” (Slotkin, 557)

We harbor in our bones, if not in our conscious memory, an implicit faith in the ultimate holiness of deeds of violence performed in the interests of some high moral purpose. We are inclined to expect that peace is earned at the expense of bloodshed, and Eden flourishes only after a conflict.

The film critic would find much grist his/ her mill, indeed, in examining the films of a director like San Peckinpah in the light of the Slotkin thesis. The explicit statements of Peckinpah the auteur concerning his intended critique of violence in our culture might be contrasted with the actual effect of his films. As Slotkin suggests, myth’s essence is that it survives on the unconscious level. Lévi-Strauss makes a pertinent distinction between the logical mode of consciousness and the mythopoeic mode which Slotkin invokes to demonstrate the intrinsic power that mythology has over human behavior,

“reducing centuries of experience into a constellation of compelling metaphors.”

Myth describes a process by which knowledge is transformed into power, more or less unconsciously. An analysis of the Peckinpah films on the mythopoaic level might perhaps conclude that the director’s instinct as an artist is working in a different mode than his conscious intent. In spite of his verbal affirmations of an intended critique of violence, the films themselves reveal iconic patterns that tend to heroicize violence and implicitly seduce the audience into accepting the presented violence as a means to some higher purification, whether it be social regeneration or simply aesthetic catharsis.

Two recent films which demonstrate this perpetuation of the myth—in spite of explicit content which censures violence—are THE KLANSMAN and DEATH WISH. THE KLANSMAN, which exploits violence throughout, ends in a bloodbath which only the embryonic guerrillas survive. The film leaves the audience with the sinister implication that only cataclysmic violence can ultimately effect social change. DEATH WISH narrates the translation of the frontier justice myth to the urban jungle—a self-deputized vigilante cleanses society with a six-gun. Both of these films, while appearing to be exorcisms of evil forces, are in fact celebrations of violence as a means of social regeneration.


The second half of Smith’s Virgin Land focuses on the pastoral fulfillment of the myth of violence in the agrarian ideal of the garden in the wilderness—the country’s dream in its initial conception of a “romance of the land.” Smith notes that the idyllic image of a Western utopia and of the yeoman farmer replaced the figure of the wild horseman of the desert plains in the masses’ imagination after the Civil War. A landscape and a climate that had little to offer were suddenly endowed with great fructifying properties and infinite promise. Impacted poverty in the East and economic depression cast a sudden glow upon the West’s unsettled land. The hand that struck the Indian a mortal blow now seized the lend in a passionate grip. While the freeholder’s utopia was eventually aborted by the land speculator and the railroad monopolist, the dream as well as the caricature of the West survived. The idea of rural felicity is so persistent in U.S. consciousness that it has influenced our national foreign policy as well as our domestic farm policy, and it is subtly present in our most unconscious popular arts.

Leo Marx examines the sane myth in his book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Like the frontier, the machine has been a compelling metaphor in U.S. consciousness, evoking both fascination and horror. When it intrudes into the garden in the wilderness—as it does so graphically in Inness’ archetypal landscape “Lackawanna Valley” or in Emerson’s early philosophy—it is often naturalized, absorbed into the naive pastoralism of the dominant myth. Marx delineates the rhetoric of the technological sublime. In its reconciliation of the machine with people, it unites art and nature as the railroad joins the city and country. If the vernacular mind saw no paradox in this reconciliation, the cultivated intelligence did. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Adams, and Twain especially perceived the contradiction. Their works are saturated with exorcisms of the dream of mechanistic progress—and with evident ambivalence for the city which is its proper locus

U.S. film came into existence at that crucial point in time when the frontier had recently vanished, when the reality had receded into the past but the afterimage remained more vivid in the rearview mirror of popular imagination. It is to be expected, then, that early films would reflect the myth rather than the immediate reality. Cultural historians have noted that the country boy myth celebrating the sanctity of rural origins and society reached a crescendo in the popular mind at precisely that moment in time when the exodus to the cities reached its zenith. In an era when the audience consisted almost exclusively of city dwellers, the new popular genre of film seized upon the Western pastoral as its indispensable vehicle. The migration of movie production companies to the West Coast by 1910 accelerated the rise of the epic-panoramic Western in which outdoor scenes predominated and in which they played an important dramatic function. The early two-reel films flirted briefly with urban realism. HERALD SQUARE, SKYSCRAPERS, CENTRAL PARK, THE GHETTO, 10-CENT LODGING HOUSE, and DANCING ON THE BOWERY fascinated early movie audiences. But during the twenties, the growing aspiration for the trappings of gentility and elite culture soon reduced the dimensions of the city film to “teacup drama” in which environment played no significant part, or to comedy which tended to deromanticize the environment.

Significantly, as the panoramic, technicolor tradition emerges out of the Western pastoral, so the return in the modern era to the stark black-and-white film is connected with the reappearance of the city and the urban environment in films. John Ford and Howard Hawks inhabit a Western pastoral-sublime mindscape, whereas a Wiseman or Scorcese emerges from the density and anguish of the modern city.


The rise of the film in the United States recapitulates a pattern evident in the development of the daguerreotype. Richard Rudisill’s illuminating study, Mirror Image: The Influence of the Daguerreotype on American Society, is very useful as background for film criticism. Rudisill notes that the primary function of the daguerreotype image in U.S. society was symbolic rather than purely documentary. In its tendency to emphasize the immediate moment, the direct activity and the particular person, it developed a self-conscious iconography of U.S. visual forms. These images, primarily idealizations of landscape, work and character, persist in subsequent graphic history. They predate the appearance of a more purely expository art. The daguerreotypist was a mythmaker celebrating the democratic ideal as it was represented in the physiognomy of the country and in the occupations of the common man. When the daguerreotypist accompanied Perry and Freemont across the continent his landscapes heroicized the prospect of frontier expansion and reinforced the spirit of manifest destiny.

The history of the film suggests many parallels, and Rudisill’s work offers several avenues of exploration. The tendency to heroicize common individuals, which is characteristic of U.S. popular literature as well as of the daguerreotypist’s art, is also a special characteristic of the film industry itself. Thus the highlighted expressiveness of the daguerreotypist’s portraiture was imitated later by the close up in film, a phenomenon which is intimately and chronologically related to the rise of the star system in Hollywood.

Even when the daguerreotype was displaced by its successors—the tintype, paper print, and modern photo—the influence of documentary innovators like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine was delayed because of the symbolic-mythic function which the photographic image had acquired in our society. (One notes parenthetically that contemporary cinema verite originated in a foreign culture and is an imported rather than indigenous influence in U.S. film.) The fundamentally mythic function of film in our society is perhaps most obvious in the appearance of the romantic musical in Depression era movies. These parables of romantic fantasy and dreamlike opulence were an escape hatch for the audiences of the 30s who preferred the movie palaces to the grim scenes being recorded by the EPA documentarians.

William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America is in many respects a complementary volume to Rudisill’s study of the daguerreotype. Stott underscores the mythic, even polemic and didactic function of the documentary impulse in the communicative arts and especially in the photography of the 30s. While ostensibly artifacts of objective realism, nevertheless the photographs from the Farm Security Administration project, under Roy Stryker, tend to ennoble and sentimentalize common subjects, at times nationalize them (e.g. Bourke-White’s You Have Sees Their Faces). This tendency toward covert moralism and exploitation that Stott finds in the decade’s reportage has a certain resonance is the cinema of the period. Yet, there is a quality discernible in the beat work of Walker Evans and James Agee that foreshadows the visual empathy of a film like Bogdanovich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Stott’s well-documented study is a rich mine of information on a style that has been given a special nuance by national consciousness, a work that is exceptionally relevant to the critique of the visual arts.


If the myth of regeneration through violence was the earliest articulation of the American dream, then the myth of transcendence through accumulation of wealth—the success myth—was a late nineteenth century transformation of the same value. Like the frontier, success has been a compelling metaphor in the national psyche. Most often it has bean translated into the pursuit of money, into undisguised greed. The success ethic had its origins, however, in the self improvement doctrines of the Puritans and the early libertarians. Emerson translated it into self reliance. Horatio Alger converted it into social and economic mobility. Andrew Carnegie interpreted it as the Gospel of Wealth. and Norman Vincent Peale called it The Power of Positive Thinking. John G. Cawelti has traced the metamorphosis of the success myth in his excellent study of popular culture, Apostles of the Self-Made Man. While his work focuses on the nineteenth century, Lawrence Chenoweth’s The American Dream of Success carries the same inquiry into the twentieth century.

The researcher interested in assessing this aspect of the national character will discover an abundant supply of probing studies, most of which are indebted directly or indirectly to Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. What should be of great significance to the film critic is this myth’s intensity and saturation in our society and its obvious effects on the social construction of reality. At the subliminal level, the dream has been a nightmare. This is evident in the treatment of the success theme in our best writers and in our most serious films. If contemporary Hollywood film assumes an ambience of affluence, it is gratuitously posited. The upward mobility theme which it supports it often a dubious and precarious achievement. Whether it is some kind of law of gravity (what goes up must come down), or a kind of tribal murder motivated by the envy of the masses, the hubris of superfluous success is usually punished in films (CITIZEN KANE, ALL THE KINGS MEN, THE ARRANGEMENT). THE GODFATHER, like hundreds of films in the same genre, is a paradigm of Robert Warshow’s theory in The Immediate Experience that the gangster—the shadow-self of the common man—is the guilt projection of the masses who have bought the success ethic. The taint of opportunism, of covert illegality and immorality, clings to the image of the self-made man in the popular arts like some kind of aboriginal curse. Only the underdogs, the have nots—tramps and sharecroppers, hippies and hookers, truck drivers and cops, cowboys and G.I.’s—can be the real heroes of Hollywood film. Their successes (if they are successful) are usually untainted by mosey; they are moral achievements. COOL HAND LUKE is the anti-type of THE GODFATHER.


This strange ambivalence which the U.S. public reveals in its affection for its “great men” is apparent in the fluctuating cycles of the public’s identification with various occupations. Theodore Greene has described this phenomenon in his fascinating work, American Heroes: A Study of the Changing Models of Success in American Magazines. In documenting the various occupations of typical fictional protagonists from 1787 to 1918, a recurring pattern is evident. Namely, there’s a kind of waxing and waning rhythm in the level of audience identification and approval. Thus the heroes of the heroic occupations in one decade are often the villains of the next era. In the early Republic, statesmen and clergymen dominated the public’s reading interest—Greene calls then the “idols of order.” As their popularity declines after 1820 (Greene leaps from 1820 to the 1893s when the magazine revolution was in full swing), these proto-heroes are replaced by the “idols of power”: creative geniuses in the arts, entrepreneurs, tycoons, potentates and dictators—doers. They in turn are succeeded by the “idols of justice”: politicians, muckraking journalists and progressive philanthropists. Later come the “idols of organization,” 1914 to 1918: corporation managers, government bureaucrats, military men. Greene’s study ends with 1918, but in an appendix to his book, Chenoweth provides a similar analysis of the twentieth century.

The patterns traced by Greene and Chenoweth seem to parallel the structural paradigm examined by Northrop Frye in his study of popular myth in literature. The evolution of the typical protagonist of the Western genre seems to trace a diachronic curve from epic hero to antihero. The genre’s later stages function as a kind of parody or exorcism of the prototype’svromantic excesses (witness the ironic relation of LITTLE BIG MAN and MIDNIGHT COWBOY to the typical Western).

If the Western film celebrated the horizontal nobility of the hero, another large segment of U.S. films celebrates vertical mobility—the “occupational” types classified in Greene and Chenouweth. Like most of their variants in popular culture, these heroes are ephemeral idols. They suffer the same pejoration as the epic figures of old, and as we have suggested, from the very beginning of their appearance in film. The war films are perhaps the classic example of this antipodal movement of mythic character. In the early war films documentary realism is an artificial accretion, mere newsreel sequences spliced into heroicized treatment of men and battles. Most war films end with a propagandistic, patriotic apotheosis. After the war, the documentary influence is more honest and certainly a more integral part of the filmic method. The war films acquire a less romantic and a more mimetic quality. With THE VICTORS, the genre turns ironic. It reaches a kind of zenith in CATCH-22, where the documentary impulse exploits naturalistic detail in order to heighten the sense of the grotesque and absurd.

The critic, in approaching an assessment of U.S. film, is confronted not only with three dimensions related to the art, as Escarpit suggests, but also with a social context which is itself multi-dimensional. National society—like the filmaker, the script writer, the cinematographer—operates on several different wave lengths at the same time. Thus, thinking, feeling and doing are going on simultaneously, but these operations are often moving in opposite directions. If ideas impel us in one direction, motion may compel our concentration in another—and the act of doing itself may diminish or qualify the intensity of both. A film, like any cultural expression or gesture, is a bundle of these complex energies intersecting at a given point in time. It is an event, rather then an art object, and as such commands a systematic and comprehensive critique.


U.S. scholarship is rich in the range—if not in the depth—of its scrutiny of the national character and consciousness. The following list is a random selection from among the works I have found to be the most provocative. By no means is it intended to be a comprehensive list.


Baritz, Loren. CITY ON A HILL: A History of Ideas and Myths in America (1964)

Barker, Charles. AMERICAN CONVICTIONS: Cycles of Public Thought, 1500-1850 (1970)

Cash, W.J.. THE MIND OF THE SOUTH (1941)

Commager, Henry S.. THE AMERICAN MIND (1950)



Henry, Jules. CULTURE AGAINST MAN (1963)

Kammen, Michael. PEOPLE OF PARADOX: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972)

Marx, Leo. THE MACHINE IN THE GARDEN: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1954)




Slater, Philip. THE PURSUIT OF LONELINESS (1970)

Slotkin, Richard. REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1974)

Smith, Henry Nash. VIRGIN LAND: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950)



Doty, Robert. PHOTOGRAPHY IN AMERICA, 1850-1965 (1974)

Fielding, Raymond. THE AMERICAN NEWSREEL (1972)

Gowans, Alan. IMAGES OF AMERICAN LIVING: Four Centuries of Architecture and Furniture as Cultural Expression (1964)


Rudisill, Richard. MIRROR IMAGE: The Influence of the Daguerreotype on American Society (1971)


Taft, Robert. PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AMERICAN SCENE: A Social History, 1839-1899 (1938)

Tilden, Freeman. FOLLOWING THE FRONTIER WITH F.J. HAYES: Pioneer Photographer of the Old West (1964)


Greens, Theodore. AMERICAN HEROES: A Study of the Changing Models of Success in American Magazines (1970)

Cawelti, John B. THE SIX-GUN MYSTIQUE (1970)

Hart, James D. THE POPULAR BOOK: A History of America’s Literary Taste (1950)

Nye, Russel. THE UNEMBARRASSED MUSE: The Popular Arts in America (1970)

Warshow, Robert. THE IMMEDIATE EXPERIENCE: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (1962)



Chenoweth, Lawrence. THE AMERICAN DREAM OF SUCCESS (1974)

Lynn, Kenneth. THE DREAM OF SUCCESS: A Study of the Modern American Imagination (1955)


Wyllie, Irvin. THE SELF-MADE MAN IN AMERICA (1954)



Heimert, Alan. RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN MIND: Fro. the Great Awakening to the Revolution (1966)




Walzer, Michael. REVOLUTION OF THE SAINTS: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (1966)



Anderson, Quentin THE IMPERIAL SELF: Am Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (1971)

Bewley, Marius. ECCENTRIC DESIGN: Form in the Classic American Novel (1959)


Fiedler, Leslie. LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL (1966, rev.)

Kaul, A.M. THE AMERICAN VISION: Actual and Ideal Society in Nineteenth Century Fiction (1963)



Williams, William Carlos. IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN: Essays (1956)

Lewis, R.W.B. THE AMERICAN ADAM: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century


Bosaron, Bernard; Marx, Leo; Rose, Arnold. “Literature and Covert Culture” in Studies in American Culture: Dominant Ideas and Images (Minneapolis: University of MN Press, 1960).

McDonald, Dwight. “A Theory of Mass Culture” in Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David White (Glencoe, Ill. Free Press, 1960).

Schickel, Richard. “The Movies Are Now High Art” in Film: Readings in the Mass Media, ed Allen and Linda Kirschner (New York: Odyssey Press, 1971).