The idea that Michael Mann’s films are different from those of Anthony Mann or that Paramount Pictures under Sumner Redstone might share little more than its trademarks and maybe its library with the company controlled by Adolph Zukor inevitably gives rise to the search for social, industrial and/or textual turning points. However, the broader notion of a post-something Hollywood is prey to all the same kinds of problems entailed in the academic project of postmodernism. No sooner are claims of distinctive difference propounded than people begin to chip away at them. Even if you accept claims of distinctiveness, when does this difference begin and how are we to account for the nature of these differences? Should they be seen as extensions of the anterior state of affairs or as decisive breaks? These epochal classifications of large-scale historical change are rarely simple and as the continuities and complexities of explanation multiply, the starting points of the new tend to be pushed further and further back.
Anyone teaching contemporary Hollywood will be familiar with these sorts of issues. For instance, when is the New Hollywood? Barry Langford teaches at Royal Holloway at the University of London and his book reminds me a little of Geoff King’s relatively recent New Hollywood Cinema in that it reads like a textbook for a course on Hollywood Cinema rather than a piece of new research(1). It is extensive in its scope, yet more reliant on reviewing the arguments that already exist in the field, rather than a producing a great deal of primary research or argumentation. The book’s greatest value will be for those searching for a concise and readable text that synthesises social, industrial and textual research, and examines some of the main debates in this area.
If we are in a post-classical phase, as the title of the book asserts, when does classical cinema end? Langford pushes the date back to the earliest possible moment. His turf stretches from the end of the World War II to the present day. In 1985, when David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson left off their account of classical Hollywood at 1960, there was a 25-year period at the end of their normative era(2). Langford designates 1945 as the start of the new period, suggesting that Hollywood has now been post-classical for considerably longer than its era of putative classicism. The much-vaunted classical studio system is starting to look as though it is wagging the dog.
Periodisation is hugely important in these debates, so it is significant to lay out Langford’s division of this 65 year span into distinctively different historical formations. He labels 1945 to 1965 as a transitional phase, 1966 to 1981 as a period of crisis and renaissance, and 1982 to 2006 (which I take to be the present in which the book was written) as the period of the New Hollywood proper. Each of these periods gets three chapters: one on the industrial history, one on the broadly social context, and then one dealing with stylistic considerations.
Of these three areas, it is clear that Langford’s strongest contribution is as an industrial historian. This is the sole topic of his epilogue chapter and he does his best work with the financial and trade press. He makes some useful judgements here, including noting the way that cinema repositions away from being the dominant medium of entertainment to a more marginal role in the postwar period. He also does a fine job of highlighting and assessing the relations between cinema production and television, so that the 1950s might be read as a disaster from close up, but with the benefit of a little distance emerges as the decade in which the film industry expanded the range of its production and the variety of ways in which it could reach audiences.
If there is a single unifying theme that runs through this history, it is a decentring of Hollywood away from the studio system geared to manufacturing cinematic texts for consumption in cinemas. 1982 is the transition point for his final phase in which Hollywood companies are fully integrated into larger corporate bodies and in which the autonomy of the individual text projected on cinema screens dissolves. The present day Hollywood industry is part of larger corporate structures that do not simply (or even mainly) produce films, but rather, orient their activities around bundles of intellectual property that can be licensed across a range of platforms and territories.
Like any good Hollywood blockbuster, Langford tries to be measured in his approach to potentially divisive topics. He is at greater pains to outline both sides of the arguments in theoretical and historical controversies, than he is to come down on either side of the question. However, he does need to get into a few fights in order to justify his place in such a rough-and-tumble barroom as film studies. He picks most of his fights on the terrain of style and narration.
The first, transitional phase is the point of overlap with Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson’s (afterwards B, S and T) book on classical Hollywood and while he pays tribute to B, S and T, they also provide him with his major target. Yet again, we find that the beef is with what he construes as B, S and T’s description of the textual economy of classical Hollywood as emphasising narrative over spectacle or “stylistic excess”. In order to paint B, S and T as bad guys, he sometimes has to resort to caricatures of their position. He seems to assume that they posit an incredibly restrictive notion of classical style with no room for stylistic flourish – as though Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh were the only directors who were classical. Thus, Langford sees Josef von Sternberg Sternberg and Busby Berkeley as violating B, S and T’s norms of classical narration (p. 79). These two are presented as challenges to the hegemony of narrative and continuity editing, although there is no analysis of the way their styles challenge the continuity system or depart from the overarching task of storytelling – even if they do tell stories in a stylish or digressive fashion. At another point, Langford cites film noir lighting as “the most notable deviation from classical style in the immediate postwar period” (p. 81) and later chiaroscuro lighting is seen as a violation of classical norms (p. 143), though I can see no incompatibility between low-key lighting and the organisation of style in the service of narration. All of this assumes a much more restrictive notion of classical style than anyone (certainly B, S and T) would seriously put forward. Hollywood style was a capacious thing and narrative was a bag into which many different things could be put. For a more fine-grained and considered analysis of the pragmatic negotiation of the goals of storytelling and pictorialism, I’d recommend Patrick Keating’s excellent book on Hollywood cinematography(3).
Langford’s chapters on style contain little stylistic analysis of individual films. There are no frame captures or scene analyses. In his role as a summariser of the field he leaves textual analysis to others, preferring to stage debates between theoretical arguments. Colour and widescreen technologies are invoked as an element to be theorised en masse, as drawing attention to the materiality of the medium (p. 90) and consciously evoking a spectator who is explicitly addressed (p. 91) though there is no close analysis to back this up, or to differentiate the widescreen strategies of Vincente Minnelli, for example, from those of Otto Preminger. Clearly, some new technologies will draw attention to themselves in their diffusion period. The introduction of sync sound in the latter part of the 1920s (well within the classical period) is a case in point, yet Hollywood filmmaking proved adept at highlighting it while simultaneously incorporating it into a regime of narration.
This debate over style is carried forward into Langford’s middle, Renaissance period where style can be conceived of either as transgressive (excess that overflows the banks of self-effacing classicism), or in terms of Bordwell’s notion of intensification within a moving and adaptable set of norms. This middle period is two periods really: crisis and response. It might be subtitled the Biskind period, though Langford gives us a more detailed and intricately argued take on Biskind’s thesis about the late 1960s and early 1970s(4). The general shape of this narrative should be familiar by now: Hollywood gets old and puts its eggs in the Julie Andrews basket at the wrong time; the thoughtful younger experimenters (Arthur Penn, Bob Rafelson et al.) rise out of the shambles and strike out in imaginatively new dramatic ways, only to be gazumped by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and the re-infantilisation of Hollywood. Langford thoughtfully demonstrates that there is a more nuanced story to be told here – and thank God for that! Hollywood’s financial crisis at the start of the 1970s is not the fault of Andrews but rather a readjustment in the now-crucial relation between film and television. The result is not simply a trend towards experiments in adult drama but rather a more general move towards exploitation filmmaking, with a variety of effects including the preference for male genres over female ones (pp. 120-121). At other times, however, Langford repeats the Biskind line straight, combining it with Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner’s(5) polemic against the pernicious political effects of the blockbuster: “Jaws ushered in a new blockbuster aesthetics and economics that would shortly close down the room for creative manoeuvre in which the artistically and politically challenging films of the Hollywood Renaissance had briefly flourished.” (p. 154)
As a social historian, Langford makes the useful point at the outset that societies can’t be read in terms of a single, monolithic theme. Social formations are complex, contradictory and fast changing, and popular culture needs to be similarly multifaceted in responding to this social diversity. He goes on to access this diversity through the familiar tactic of linking social context and film genre. The fight against social reductionism is a battle that I’m not sure Langford wins. His first period moves through McCarthyism, the growing challenges to the Production Code, and the sense of the 1950s Lonely Crowd, but by the contemporary period, social analysis has given way almost completely to genre and the only issues on the table are representations of the Vietnam War and the crisis of masculinity as represented through the action film. (Has there ever been a time when masculinity hasn’t been in crisis?)
The key piece of original research undertaken by Langford combines his social and industrial themes. In each of his periods, he investigates the disposition of exhibition venues in Columbus, Ohio, which acts as a representative everytown, in order to examine the changing ways that audiences are interacting with audio-visual media. While there is nothing startling in his record of the variations in the screening venues in Columbus, these interludes are useful indicators of the ways that cinema studies is beginning to see production and consumption phases as intricately bound together. Lines of influence flow both ways between the global of the production sector and the local of exhibition. I look forward to seeing an expanded study using this Columbus data that might establish a sense of social context, not read from films but from real, historical audiences.
Inevitably there are some quibbles to be had with some of the small detail. Langford accuses Hollywood studios of over-production during the classical period, though I’m not sure he appreciates the demands of exhibitors who showed two or more programs each week. On p.18 we are told that an attempt to ban double bills in Illinois in 1938 was motivated by the poor quality of second features, although double billing had long been a contentious industrial tactic that had little to do with issues of quality. On the following page, Langford claims that “domestic US first-run release” outstripped foreign earnings by a ratio of two to one. This collapses the complete US theatrical box office into first run.
Overall though, people teaching about contemporary Hollywood will find this to be a useful resource. It certainly tackles the early 1970s with a refreshing degree of detail, and its contemporary industrial research is particularly good. If there is one constant in Hollywood history, it is the constancy of change. This means that we can expect the appearance of more books such as this, to update the narrative of that change and to argue over its extent.
Barry Langford, Post-Classical Hollywood: Film Industry, Style and Ideology Since 1945, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010.
- Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, I. B. Tauris, London, 2001.
- David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Routledge, London, 1985.
- Patrick Keating, Hollywood Lighting: From the Silent Era to Film Noir, Columbia University Press, New York, 2010
- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Changed Hollywood, Bloomsbury, London, 1998.
- Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998.