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  • Naturalism, Aesthetics, and the New Hollywood Cinema
  • Steven Frye (bio)

The postwar era in the mid-twentieth century initiated a transformation in world culture that is hard to overestimate. These changes accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s and seemed to touch every aspect of our personal and social lives. In this context the naturalist worldview in all its tense polyvalence not only retained relevance but became central to our public expression. Of course, cinema and television had developed in the previous decades as the major artistic mode that articulated a collective cultural consciousness and an acute anxiety. This twentieth-century form, especially in America, emerged from a myth-making apparatus that absorbed and articulated our sense of national values and the conflicts that disrupted those values. The New Hollywood Cinema, also known as the American New Wave or the Hollywood Renaissance, was a movement in American film history that came to prominence in the mid-1960s and continued into the early 1980s.1 It was a period that emerged from a broader cultural zeitgeist that emphasized freedom of expression and was highly skeptical of optimistic and even nationalistic renderings of war. The movement was circumspect when it came to accepted virtues and social mores. In New Hollywood films, the director rather than the studio took on a key authorial role. There are debatable contours to the era, and the New Hollywood Cinema is often characterized more as a movement than a period. But there are certain consistencies and similarities in the works associated with this “New Wave.”2 Films in this movement are distinct in that their style and their narrative strategies often deviate from classical norms. Technical advances that contributed to both classical and New Hollywood filmmaking, such as Technicolor and CinemaScope, were employed in both traditional and innovative ways, and a generation of young directors brought new values that had been conditioned by a cultural revolution, an increasing [End Page 175] awareness of urban blight, the conflicts inherent in the civil rights movement, and the trauma of the Vietnam War.3

From 1934 to 1968, the Hays Code, named for Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), defined acceptable and unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. Regulations, ranging from the restricted or even prohibited portrayal of profanity, drug use, nudity, and sexuality, confined any filmmaker’s freedom to embody a realist and naturalist aesthetic, even as new formal techniques were making the representation of these subjects more aesthetically viable. But in 1968, the Hays Code was replaced by a version of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings we know today. This system was far less prescriptive and allowed for the “R” rating that marked most films that were a part of the New Hollywood Movement. Almost immediately naturalism became the dominant and defining form of expression, not always in the focused Darwinian sense that we associate with the late nineteenth century, but as an aesthetic mode that emphasized a dark social realism and an emphasis on the “natural” and honest representation of the more unpleasant aspects of the American experience. Directors such as Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Cimino selected content that skirted propriety, emphasizing the corrupted American city, the Depression Era criminal element, and modern war.4 These subjects had been portrayed before but not with the realistic intensity, focus, and grit that modern technologies permitted and new and darker visions imagined. In all this the naturalist worldview is implied but naturalistic forms of artistic expression are dominant. It is this aesthetic, rather than exclusively Darwinian ideas, which influence the cinema in this period.

In considering this naturalist expression, it is worthwhile to remember that aesthetics is formally a branch of philosophy that takes the meaning, definition, and representation of beauty as its primary concern. In that context, Fyodor Dostoevsky provides an interesting and provocative notion of the beautiful. In The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that immediately precedes the naturalist movement in Western Europe and America, Dostoevsky writes, “[t]he terrible thing is that beauty is not only frightening but a mystery as...