- Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American
As a historian of early cinema accustomed to an ephemeral object of study, I am often struck by the sheer accessibility of films (and moving images) for contemporary spectators. Comparing the consumption contexts of "new media" with the exhibition and reception practices during the first three decades of the twentieth century can be a little unsettling. The quite social and public features of filmgoing in previous generations, when cinema attendance approximated that of theatrical performance in terms of restriction to time and location, may seem downright confining to younger viewers. Of course, during the studio era, U.S. film producers relied on this very temporality to predict demand and thus better control the market for their product. New films constantly replaced the old; since the studios invested most of their capital into theaters, they had little incentive to encourage exhibition spaces outside of their commercial venues. And there were other factors: the Mutual v. Ohio decision in 1915 had placed cinema in direct opposition to art, providing the industry with not just a legal justification for censorship but an economic imperative to ensure the production and distribution of formulaic narratives to which the fewest number of audience members might object. How is it, then, that such a corporatized product, apparently devoid of those qualities of permanence and innovation so prized in traditional discourses about aesthetic expression, could come to be considered "art" worthy of collection and study in the museum, archive, or institutions of higher learning?
This is one of the questions explored by Peter Decherney in his wide-ranging study [End Page 138] Hollywood and the Culture Elite. Rather than recapitulating the commonplace view that the relationship between Hollywood and American arts institutions was at best ambivalent, Decherney explores examples of active collaboration and mutual benefit between the major U.S. film producers and museums, universities, and government agencies. In historiographical terms, he offers a valuable "hidden history," presenting not a set of isolated case studies but a longitudinal analysis of an "integral but virtually unexamined aspect" (3) of the classical studio era. He argues that the film industry had myriad financial motivations for the repositioning of cinema as art: encouraging economic stabilization by defining above-the-line workers as "artists" rather than contract labor and thus not subject to unionization initiatives, and extending a film's ordinarily rather short shelf life, since the "producers realized that the value of art, when packaged properly, increases with time" (8). In addition, the transformation of Hollywood into a "civic industry" via associations with cultural and state elites helped legitimize its dominance in popular culture. In turn, such elites gained access to the broad moviegoing audience (particularly the burgeoning middle class) and thus helped maintain their status as cultural custodians with a stake in the expression and preservation of American identity, particularly those serving their nationalist aspirations. Rather than parallel histories, these developments were inextricably intertwined. At issue is the wielding of cultural power (who would lay claim to both the huge audiences commanded by Hollywood cinema since the teens as well as film's singular association with American culture?) and the articulation of cultural nationalism (how could this equivalence be used to further state agendas in the domestic and international spheres?).
Decherney's first chapter details how during cinema's first decades a variety of theorists and filmmakers in the United States and Europe (e.g., D. W. Griffith, Boleslas Matuszewski) conceived of the archive in nationalist terms, "born out of a desire to control rather than facilitate" citizens' knowledge of the world (15). In contrast, Vachel Lindsay proposed a "Universal Film Museum" in The Art of the Moving Picture (1915/1922), a noncommercial model for exhibiting American films in a public forum to encourage democratic debate and participation "in the negotiation of national identity" (36). Lindsay imagined a kind of filmic chautauqua whereby the twentieth-century movie theater supplanted the educative and socializing functions of the nineteenth-century museum and library, as well as Hollywood's commercial venues, in...