The Celluloid Weapon: Social Comment in the American Film (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 3, Number 2, May 1973
- pp. 27-32
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEW David Manning White & Richard Averson, The Celluloid Weapon: Social Comment in the American Film. Beacon Press; Boston, 1972; illustrated; index; bibliography; 271 pp., $14.95. by Jack Shadoian The Celluloid Weapon falls short of doing justice to its subject. The American "message" film is a meaty, fascinating topic, of great range and significance, and can be approached and formulated in a variety of intriguing, productive, and critically compatible ways. Of all the possibilities, the authors have chosen the most inert and valueless. They claim to present ..."an overview of the origins and development of social comment in the American film..., describing the range of problems and issues explored, by identifying those filmmakers whose careers reveal a continuing concern for using film as a celluloid weapon, and by noting any relevant sociological ' climate f that may have influenced the content of certain message films." This makes the book sound more promising than it is. Implicit within this statement is the potential, which in fact is fulfilled, for a deadly lapse into unimaginative superficiality, though one anticipates that an active, passionate mind will avoid this. Together, White and Averson have managed to reduce all investigative import to zero. The book is a dud, about as bad a book, in this day and age of film scholarship, as one could imagine the subject inspiring. The Celluloid Weapon is a decade-by-decade selection of films characterized by a didactic approach to issue-oriented subject matter. The authors provide some flimsy and generalized contextual apparatus and, in a sentence or brief paragraph, indicate the content of each film by way of the story line. Eventually they run out of decades, and stop. They protest that this straggly parade of film titles, each labeled with its tidy message, amounts to a legitimate narrowing of the field; it is more like illegitimate abuse to gather these facts and ignore all their implications. They might well have been left where they were found. I suspect the authors' method--reshuffling data into minimal and limited contexts with occasional editorial boosters for momentum—dilutes rather than strengthens the impact of original source material (fuller synopses, lists of credits, contemporary opinion and 27 description). There is also a spastic, spluttering introduction by producer Dore Schary which is the most interesting part of the book, though it is perhaps too blunt, too fulminating and egocentrically forceful to function as a gentlemanly endorsement of what follows. The book's only virtue is that it gathers some information into one convenient, if overpriced, source. As such, it can be a moderately useful tool for historians, critics, social theorists, and film teachers of various academic persuasions. It should partially disabuse those who persist in thinking of Hollywood, past or present, as a meretricious purveyor of mindless fantasies. (I say partially, because one gets the impression throughout that the existence of so many socially conscious films attests primarily to Hollywood's commercial cunning in exploiting topicality. The authors, much as they would like us to believe otherwise, argue little that would indicate tne films were outgrowths of very much else besides.) The authors snow the enormous range of contemporary problems handled by the commercial feature film throughout each decade. This is a needful reminder, but in most other respects, the book is unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory even in presenting its body of material as a whole that is worthy of attention. If the reader isn't already aware that there is a long tradition of American message films, he is told this in the preface: "How these 'social dreams' have been expressed in a long and consistently vigorous tradition of the message film is essentially what this book is about." ("How" should be changed to "that" in the interests of accuracy.) All that is left for us is to nod in assent as the authors point out that such-and-such film has such-and-such message because of such-and-such contemporary issue, neither an edifying or challenging activity at either end. And for those familiar with the subject, The Celluloid Weapon has little educational value, since it feeds off its bibliography and adds little that is new. I doubt it will...