The American film industry developed under a market economy and a mixed economic aesthetic of State-Capitalism and laissez-faire Capitalism which now dominates the global consensus. Structural and stylistic achievements of the Hollywood Studio System are well documented. From early 20th century technological leaps in sound, leading to “talkies”, to the transition from black-and-white to color that ushered in the age of dreamscape productions like Gone with the Wind and The Ten Commandments. Postcard visions of reality perpetuated, to great success, the myth of the lone American Cowboy or the beauty of the Antebellum South or Dorothy’s trip to Oz, a place more real than her home in Kansas.
Shifts in genre are regulated by the overarching hand of the studio system. Film Noir developed out of European immigrants cyniscm and disillusionment after the second World War while maintaining the core principles of film as consumerist entertainment. A calculated censorship marginalized any distinctly political or social implications to the fridges of the work. This ensured box office profit over audience engagement.
What could have been an enduring film movement in the United States began in the early 1960s and continued through the 70s as the studio system collapsed, making way for a true American Avant Garde within and without the boarders of Hollywood. The period of New Hollywood and post-classical Cinema, fueled by emotional reactionism more than theoretical inquiry, was unlike other film movements in Europe and South America. It was rebellious, unapologetic, provocative (ish), and entitled…it was American. But this rare opportunity for cultural evolution was quickly snuffed out as Hollywood studios and capitalist ideology internalized the movement, lobotomizing the potential political and social dialectics, and culminating in the 1980s with New Hollywood with its High Priests of “magical realism” (Spielberg, Lucas, and their subsidiaries) canonizing the form. The political forces of Neo-Liberalism, Consumerism, and the fascistic tone of Regan nationalism were present in these works but sidelined to the edges in the name of profit. It’s no surprise that these films struck a core sentiment with America’s conservative and puritan roots. The potential revolutionary power of the movement would eventually be relegated to a cultural milestone placed alongside other, more authentic, revolutionary movements of the period. We don’t speak of the road movies of New Hollywood the same way as we speak of Italian Neo-Realism, the French New Wave, Dogme95, or Third Cinema. It was not a step forward, but an off-beat step in its cultural implications.
Two decades into the 21st century and it’s accurate to say that American cinema (as a cultural dialectic with revolutionary potential) is dead. Sterilized to water cooler discourse over its superficialities. A litmus test in the name of profit. Unlike the revitalization of the 60s and 70s, or the calculated shift in style and genre birthed from post-war prosperity and cynicism, the effects of neo-liberal economic policy and the consolidation of multinational corporate power has birthed a new stasis in the American cinema unlike anything our country (or the world) has ever seen.
The theorists and thinkers of late post-modernity spoke of a time where the map and the terrane will become indistinguishable, the triumph of the object over the subject. A thin veil making the simulation indistinguishable from the real. Where the aesthetics of capitalist realism consume any authentic conversation, any true social or political discourse, and pancake it to a plastic representation to be consumed by an eager consumerist class. We now have the illusion of discourse, the illusion of reality. Stimulation by Simulation. Contemporary cinema now fits into two categories that serve this system: Commodity Film and Social-Concept Film.
Commodity Film is based on the premise that the subject of a work is the object in the real, and to access the work we ourselves as objects recognize the commodified objects within the narrative event and project onto these objects with propagandized cultural nostalgia. Like the snake eating itself in a never-ending cycle of re-appropriation and consumption. These films are based in pre-existing commodities or replications of prior works, like a house of mirrors that duplicates the object to infinity. This stale re-hash of post-modern literary theory is absorbed by the dominant economic system and sold with bourgeois values as its premise, ensuring consensus appeal and neutrality. Protagonists are merely tour guides in worlds imagined or real but equally fanciful in our ability to determine dream from reality. These are apocalyptic fever dreams birthed from an economic aesthetic that inevitably sucks life out of its viewer while simultaneously dazzling their lower brain functions. All with a smile.
Social-Concept Film works in a similar way. These films acknowledge the deficit in cultural and historical dialectics in cinema, birthing phantasms that appeal to market demographics. Omitting dissonant realties of their Subjects to create partially articulated ideas as “positive” representations. Lions without teeth. Themes of social inequality, justice, race, class, sex, and politics are easily interchangeable in this one-dimensional kaleidoscope. The protagonist in a Social-Concept Film in a cardboard cutout, a screen to be projected upon by consumers. Conceptual Capitalist Realism. A self-aware parody that passively and masochistically winks at its audience winking back at itself. Move left or right just a little and we see the flatness of the whole space with no inner structure. These socially conscious films seek to reveal truths and amplify marginalized voices yet at the same time reinforce the consensus in a willful “otherizing”. The majority of “Faith-Based” and “Social Justice” cinema works off this premise. The outcome of this propaganda is a schizophrenic society where a given group has the illusion of voice and believes it to be heard by the whole, not the target market. Meanwhile the system of power maintains its dominance and societal evolution is stagnated. This is why there can be no revolutionary work that comes from the Social-Concept Film as it is in alliance with, and subservient to, the dominant ideology.
Few exceptions to these modes are to be found. While some exceed the boundaries of these forms, they are inevitably re-absorbed into them and recognized only for the reasons described and no critique or discussion is possible because they are designed to fulfill, not engage. The mechanisms that shape these products have to be re-appropriated and subverted if any significant transformation in American Cinema can occur.