Modes of interpretation (“readings”) can make any film mean just about what any critic wants it to mean. By this [End Page 140] light, Hollywood cinema is less a window on the past than a screen reflecting the preoccupations of the beholder, a canvas for interpretive dexterity and polemical praxis. The well-travelled Paris-to-London lines of postmodernist criticism run to mind games, conceptual implosions, italicized neologisms, “scare quotes,” and parenthetical puns. A web of simulacra and pastiche, signs and meanings, cinema becomes a system of codes to be broken, not a vision to be interpreted or an art to be experienced.
Except for this incredibly naive attempt to huff and puff all of postmodernist criticism away, Thomas Doherty, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University, has written a nice little social history. His research is impressive. His interpretations (“readings”) show dexterity and a witty sense of the mind games and scare tactics that hundreds of World War II Hollywood movies indulged in. His conceptualization of World War II Hollywood as a better-late-than-never morale builder and propaganda factory following the brilliant example of Hitler’s Germany and the nationalist cinema of Leni Riefenstahl is solid and methodically argued to the point that its clear truth is acceptable to even the most misguided postmodernist.
But beyond his social and historical conceptualizations of Hollywood during World War II as Wonderland or Oz gone throbbingly patriotic, Doherty’s book offers the added attraction of a consistent string of detailed interpretive “readings” of important individual films in which he indulges in identifying their pastiche properties and breaking their complex codes. Some of the films that he reads perceptively are Triumph of the Will (1935), the Why We Fight films (1942–45), All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), To Be or Not To Be (1942), They Were Expendable (1945), Destination Tokyo (1943), Mrs. Miniver (1942), and, of course, Casablanca (1943). Also, one can learn a great deal in this book about John Ford, Howard Hawks, the Warner brothers, Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Betty Grable, and a host of other important Hollywood figures during the war years.
With all of this prime material and fine writing, why did Doherty feel that he had to launch his whole discourse with a whining diatribe against postmodernism when in fact he, at times, employs many of its strategies as modes of interpretation himself? It just wasn’t necessary! [End Page 141]
Ironically, his own sociohistorical critiques come very close to employing postmodernist strategies that are deconstructive, feminist, and even strategies of cursed “polemical praxis.” For example, after quoting film critic Robin Wood, who describes classical Hollywood cinema as “inherently riddled with hopeless contradictions and unresolvable tensions,” Doherty affirms that Hollywood narratives “send out contrary messages that allow critics interpretive sweep and audiences the luxury of having it both ways.” This admission sounds suspiciously as if he is saying that deconstructive theory might be quite useful in interpreting Hollywood films. Doherty also has full chapters on wartime films about women and films that deal with racism.
With all the potential for combining traditional sociohistorical criticism with postmodernist critical strategies that Doherty’s Forties material seems to offer, why did he feel so eager to reject postmodernist theory outright at the very beginning of his discourse? And what does he see as his own critical theoretical strategy for dealing with this rich material? He writes: “Under this critical mass, the commonsense distinctions between art and experience, film and culture, collapse into a black hole of linguistic opacity.” Hurrah! He subscribes to “commonsense” criticism. Perhaps he wants to guarantee that his excellent book about the Forties adheres to the critical language of the Forties.