America In The Movies; or Santa Maria, It Had Slipped My Mind, and: Film: The Democratic Art, and: Movie-Made America: A Social History of American Movies, and: The Historian and Film (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 7, Number 1, February 1977
- pp. 11-14
- Additional Information
heavy Italian accents and never develop a sense of compelling drama. The film is not without redeeming features. Both the geographic settings and the costumes are fine. Visually well illustrated is the caste nature of society through scenes that contrast crude llaneros with elegant creóles. There is a performance of the joropo or national dance, and folk music is included in the score. These aspects serve mainly to whet the viewer's appetite and to inspire the hope that someday, some other producer will see the possibilities for an epic film about the man who changed the direction of the history of Latin America and perhaps the world. BOOK REVIEW BY PETER C. ROLLINS, OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY America In The Movies; or Santa Maria, It Had Slipped Mv Mind. By Michael Wood. New York: Basic Books, 1975. $10.00/$3.45. Film: The Democratic Art. By Garth Jowett. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976. $19.95. Movie-Made America: A Social History of American Movies. By Robert Sklar. New York: Random House, 1975. $12.55/$5.95. The Historian and Film. Ed. Paul Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. $13.95. Using an intensely subjective approach to his materials, Michael Wood constructs a fascinating portrait of America in the Movies. These collected essays on fiction films reflect a familiarity with major literary studies (Lawrence. Smith, Fiedler), with psycho-social investigations (Adorno, Alloway, Reisman), and with historical speculations (Hartz, Boorstin). Wood draws upon these sources for suggestive themes, which he then traces in feature films from 1930-1963. Separate essays explore our ambivalent attitudes toward individualism, women, the dream of success, the threat of a closed society. One essay attempts to relate the film noir movement to the Cold War hysteria of the 1950's. The subjective approach to film has recently come under attack because it has been misused so often to support a host of unfounded generalizations. In the search of a more objective method for film analysis, some scholars have appropriated models from linguistics (semiotics) and anthropology (structuralism). In defense of Wood, it should be noted that he is unlike most subjective students of film in that he has a convincing rationale for his work. While he believes that "There are no escapes, even in the most escapist pictures," he is not guilty of the literal misapplication ofthat principle for which Siegfried Kracauser's From Caligari to Hitler (1947) has become infamous. Wood claims that contemporary issues emerge accidentally and indirectly: "The mythological function ofmovies is to examine them without seeming to look at them at all. Movies assuage the discomforts of blurred minds; but they also maintain the blur." As a result, the student in search of "America in the Movies" must look for unintended messages, snatches of relevance latent in popular films, "affecting us especially when we didn't give them a second thought." My own work in Hollywood feature films of the Thirties leads me to agree with Wood that "The story is not what happens in a movie, but where the movie's weight lies, the movie's strongest 11 implication." In contrast with documentary films where ideology is up front, fiction films often convey their social messages through indirect cinematic means such as setting, costume, music, lighting. Translating such encoded messages requires both imaginative involvement and familiarity with film language. Wood is occasionally guilty of using the subjective method to excess. His detailed report on what Rita Hayworth meant as a film image makes fascinating reading as do his clever distinctions between the images of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but in both cases the reader is impressed more by the genius of the writer than the authority of his arguments. While subject to occasional excess. Wood's imaginative involvement with the medium leads him to a number of original insights. Especially convincing are his discussions of female iconography in American films and his correlations between social moods and the evolution of the musical film as a genre. His ingenious readings of such "blockbuster" epics as Quo Vadis? ( 1 95 1 ) and The Robe ( 1 953) are original, valid, and demonstrate the unexpected results which the subjective approach can yield from...