Jump to content
 
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

Sacred and Profane: Hollywood's schizophrenic attitude to the arts.


slaytonf
 Share

Recommended Posts

Anyone who watches movies of the studio era, and especially musicals, can't help but notice an inconsistent, and ambivalent approach to the depiction of the arts in movies.  This manifests in two different ways.

 

One is in the opposition of popular and refined culture.  This is the same that is a characteristic of Western culture; a symbiotic/parasitic relationship that has existed from the earliest times.  The elites, the nobility have always used the popular, the vernacular as a source of inspiration, and to a lesser extent, refined art has found its way to the masses.  In movies, popular culture is usually more valued.  It is presented as honest, sincere, unpretentious.  Rarely, popular, or street-level, culture is presented as cheap, or shoddy.  The fine arts, (opera, ballet, literature, painting, etc.), and its practitioners, as often as not can be stuffy, pretentious, ridiculous.

 

The greatest ambivalence in movies relates to the fine arts themselves.  As noted above, they can either be held up for ridicule with regard to popular culture, or almost as ridiculous in comparison, slavishly adored.  Again, the best place to observe this is in musicals.  Many times there will be both ballet dancers, and tap dancers in a musical number.  Or a party scene will languish under staid 'classical' music or waltzes (ironically, the popular music of their time), and only come to life when the starring performer (instrumentalist, or singer), takes the stand with a swinging version.  Contrarily, a prominent figure in the arts (Stokowski, Jose Iturbi) will serve as the cultural lodestone of the movie.  What comes in for almost universal ridicule is abstract painting and sculpture.  An actor is never allowed to pass an example without a quizzical, or uncertain reaction, or a joke about wether the picture is hanging correctly.  

 

My guess is the ambivalence stems from the directors of the movie studios themselves.  Without getting too pop-psychological, it's easy to see how their origins would lead to the portrayal of the arts in movies.  Subject to the worst effects of prejudices stemming from poverty, religion, ethnic, and national heritage; fueled by a ravening desire for success, and to simultaneously gain the approval of, and dominate the culture that had the most vicious contempt for them, they sought the cachet the fine arts would bring them, though never becoming, or desiring to become refined themselves (I have always thought it the most complete irony the greatest propagandists for the white, Christian, mainstream American way of life were a bunch of East European Jews).  All the while retaining a latent resentment for them as representative of the the culture and elites that viewed them as alien, dangerous, despicable.  The conflict in the studio leaders played out in the movies they made.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

IMHO it was more of a simple populism vs elitism thing. Movies were a mass art form, so naturally they would side with the masses. 

 

A related dynamic was the "Misunderstood Rebel" template, used anywhere from Lust For Life to Blood and Sand (Bullfighter Tyrone Power vs snobby critic Laird Cregar).

 

I can see your point about symbolism in westerns though: lynching scenes don't only represent mob killings of blacks or even the murder of the Jewish Leo Frank, but also Eastern European pogroms (most obvious in the peasants with burning torches scenes of horror films)

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

In movies, popular culture is usually more valued.  It is presented as honest, sincere, unpretentious.

The fine arts, (opera, ballet, literature, painting, etc.), and its practitioners, as often as not can be stuffy, pretentious, ridiculous.

 

Soooo....what's yer question?

Like Rich says, it's more the populist joke that nobody can understand art, and since stage ballet/opera/orchestra/gallery-art were more established in the city, only the upper class could afford the pretenses of being experts on it.

Opera with projected supertitles in the theater weren't invented until the 80's, let alone opera on VHS/disk/Fathom-screening with subtitles, so in the 40's and 50's, going to the opera was the most conspicuously consumptive way to show your highbrow tastes, even if you had no idea what was going on in French, German or Italian.

 

In movie/TV cliche', all opera is usually popularly depicted as the proverbial Fat Lady singing Brunhilde in some generically Viking-ish version of Wagner (and, presumably, the punishing four-hour experience of sitting through that), and all ballet is depicted as Swan Lake without any actual story.  Which was about all people knew of it at the time.  We rarely saw any actual opera or ballet in full unexcerpted context, just isolated Big Moments occasionally turning up on Ed Sullivan.

Sam Goldwyn always tried to put original "ballets" in his musicals to give them highbrow credibility, and every studio wanted to hire its own operatic knockoff of Deana Durbin or Kathryn Grayson, but few people ever put popular time or investment in enough to be able to tell one distinct ballet or opera from another.  Unless it was MGM putting La Traviata's "Brindisi" into Ziegfeld Follies without any translation or explanation, simply Because Classy.

(Basically the same Because Classy that had a popular name-classic musician like Iturbi or Stokowski show up to "bless" the movie with the Spectacle of Approved Culture.)

 

As for art, nobody could "understand" it from the beginning (even today, we have the cliche' of people making deep interpretations of Mondrian color-swaths), just in time for the 50's avant-garde and 60's beat rebellion to make a big pretentious show of rebelling against that.  The Art movement tends to be popularly ridiculed for the artist, not the art.

 

It's easier to ridicule what you don't know, and boy, we sure didn't, back then.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sure.  For years the character in "golden era" movies that was supposed to be the "intellectual" was often the only one who BOTHERED to listen to classical music, know all about the different wines and had an appreciation for "high art".  You may have noticed also, that they often projected their character with an air of arrogance and pretention, looking down their noses at everyone and invariably spoke in a clipped "bengal lancer" accent, standing straight of back and often "swirling" some sort of obscure liqueur in a tiny glass at parties in which he often looks as if he's bored to the bottom of his bowels.

 

And they're also often portrayed in a way that their sexual orientation might be questionable.

 

Quite often in movies, all the way up into the '70's, homosexual characters were often denoted by their having classical music playing on their radios or phonographs.

 

 

Sepiatone

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

 

Soooo....what's yer question?

 

 

 

I had no question, just observations, with I hope some useful insight.

 

 

 

 

Sam Goldwyn always tried to put original "ballets" in his musicals to give them highbrow credibility, and every studio wanted to hire its own operatic knockoff of Deana Durbin or Kathryn Grayson, but few people ever put popular time or investment in enough to be able to tell one distinct ballet or opera from another.  Unless it was MGM putting La Boheme's "Brindisi" into Ziegfeld Follies without any translation or explanation, simply Because Classy.

(Basically the same Because Classy that had a popular name-classic musician like Iturbi or Stokowski show up to "bless" the movie with the Spectacle of Approved Culture.)

 

As for art, nobody could "understand" it from the beginning (even today, we have the cliche' of people making deep interpretations of Mondrian color-swaths), just in time for the 50's avant-garde and 60's beat rebellion to make a big pretentious show of rebelling against that.  The Art movement tends to be popularly ridiculed for the artist, not the art.

 

All the major studios employed-exploited if you want--high culture to lend prestige to their productions.  Most often, I think, from music--opera and orchestral works.  You make an apt observation about the limited availability of such culture to the general public.  I think another motivation was the desire on the part of the studio chiefs to bring it to the public through the medium of the movies (sometimes to me there is almost a paternalistic quality to it).  Not only do we get various performances of arias--with some actual recruited opera singers--and classical compositions, but some adaptations of Shakespeare, Eugene O'Neill, and others.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sure.  For years the character in "golden era" movies that was supposed to be the "intellectual" was often the only one who BOTHERED to listen to classical music, know all about the different wines and had an appreciation for "high art".  You may have noticed also, that they often projected their character with an air of arrogance and pretention, looking down their noses at everyone and invariably spoke in a clipped "bengal lancer" accent, standing straight of back and often "swirling" some sort of obscure liqueur in a tiny glass at parties in which he often looks as if he's bored to the bottom of his bowels.

 

And they're also often portrayed in a way that their sexual orientation might be questionable.

Quite often in movies, all the way up into the '70's, homosexual characters were often denoted by their having classical music playing on their radios or phonographs.

 

Have to remember, back in the 40's and 50's, most big-city movie critics were the theater critics who moonlighted reviewing the big Roadshow-engagement movies--

There was a difference between the make-or-break high-industry snobbery of the Broadway or opera/ballet culture critic and the populist movie critic who believed they had to boost the studios, and the former tended to go for the high road of sneering on popular Hollywood culture as "watered down for the masses".  The masses naturally objected.

(Before Siskel & Ebert turned movie-buffdom into a guys-talking-movies thing, the best known big-city critics were the crossover theater critics like Rex Reed, who personally set and sealed the "Sniffy-gay movie-critic snob" cliche' stereotype for a generation, especially with disgruntled movie producers who wanted to shoot the messenger.)

 

Although movies of an earlier generation couldn't really come flat out and SAY that most core fandom of Broadway, opera, and old-movie culture (the kind back in the days when you had to go to the "temple" of an obscure revival theater to watch Busby Berkeley or Bette Davis, or be devoted to knock yourself out watching at 2am) tended to be a "gay" niche interest.  Like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, the cliche' character wasn't just playing "classical music" on his record player, he was probably playing his favorite opera-queen aria.

When Bravo's cable-network CEO made a big deal as "the first publicly Outed cable CEO", and we watched what was once a premium culture-and-Criterion-foreign-film channel now show "Project Runway" and "Real Housewives", death-of-cable cynics joked, "Well, so much for the old cliche' about their 'liking old films and opera'...."

 

As for the idea of Culture vs. Populism, that's pretty much the entire central satirical metaphor of The Band Wagon:

Movie-history conventional wisdom pretty much pins the in-joke about director-genius Jeffrey Cordova "having four shows running and acting in one of them" as aimed more at Jose Ferrer than Orson Welles, but it's still a rich Comden & Green satire on the growing rift between the Bold Acclaimed Broadway of Ferrer's and Welles' forties, and the populism of old-school Show-theater that really was Entertainment.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sure.  For years the character in "golden era" movies that was supposed to be the "intellectual" was often the only one who BOTHERED to listen to classical music, know all about the different wines and had an appreciation for "high art".  You may have noticed also, that they often projected their character with an air of arrogance and pretention, looking down their noses at everyone and invariably spoke in a clipped "bengal lancer" accent, standing straight of back and often "swirling" some sort of obscure liqueur in a tiny glass at parties in which he often looks as if he's bored to the bottom of his bowels.

 

And they're also often portrayed in a way that their sexual orientation might be questionable.

 

Quite often in movies, all the way up into the '70's, homosexual characters were often denoted by their having classical music playing on their radios or phonographs.

 

 

Sepiatone

 

tumblr_mwiq92HsZF1r12t5ko1_400.png

 

Laura, I do believe that man is talking about me.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

© 2023 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
×
×
  • Create New...