Interviewed February 9, 2010
I’d like to discuss some interrelated issues concerning the legacy of the blacklisting period. They can be grouped into the categories of the industrial-economic legacy, the political legacy and the artistic-aesthetic legacy. You have commented that teaching American film history requires a full stop at the blacklist, as it does with discussions of the coming of sound or the formation of the PCA [Production Code Administration]. The medium changed suddenly and significantly after 1947 when the Hollywood 10 were hauled in to testify before the HUAC. Can you begin by expanding on that comment?
Well, it happens I’m teaching an American film history class right now, and we just did High Noon and it’s the moment when I stop and I talk about the blacklist. I try to set up this moment as this sort of line between the old Hollywood and the necessary beginning of the New Hollywood because the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), which is now so powerful, becomes powerful in the blacklist. It was nothing before then. So, the industrial structure of Hollywood changes fundamentally right at this moment of the blacklist because it’s the MPAA that enforces the blacklist. Not the government. There is not really any government pressure to do it. They just do it. For me, the question is then, Why did they do it? And I think it was to deal with the changing nature of labour issues in Hollywood. So, in an industrial way it’s a full stop.
But it’s also intellectually a full stop because it’s the moment at which the PCA begins to lose control, and there are doubts whether that form of censorship is good for the industry. Pretty much at that moment you have this new form of censorship which comes in as part of the blacklist where people are afraid to be connected with any suggestions of liberalism, any support of civil rights, let alone communism, for fear of getting tossed out of the industry. I think it’s this historic moment where the rules change, like with sound.
If I can switch briefly to New Hollywood, you have traced the practices of the New Hollywood after the auteurist stage and the development into the so-called corporate era to two major events, that original moment, the 1948 Paramount decision and the HUAC investigations.
Well, the unions get emasculated after 1947 but, really, for me the key moment is the ten days between the time Eric Johnston, who was head of the MPAA, announced that he was going to protect Hollywood from the witch hunt, from the blacklist, and then ten days later when he said, ‘Never are we going to support these people.’ I don’t have the exact quotes at hand but there were two very famous comments. The first one comes right when the hearings are over and Johnston basically comes out in support of the Hollywood 10 and also in support of keeping the industry the way it is. Then ten days later he changes his mind completely and acts as if he had never said the other thing. We’ll never know what happened in those ten days. We don’t know who he talked to, we don’t know who told him what, but it seems like it was a practical reconsideration because what, I think, they came to realise – they being the people who owned rather than ran the studios – was, ‘We’ve got this union problem, and there’s an implicit connection between belonging to the Screen Writers Guild and belonging to the Communist Party.’ This gave the MPAA an avenue into managing the unions, which had become worrisome. On a certain level this sets up the New Hollywood, in which the unions are, frankly, completely powerless.
Things get complicated here by the Paramount decision. It was designed to break up the industry trusts, but it ended up making the trusts bigger because what it did was force the studios to sell their theatres. The theatres were their collateral for getting short-term loans to finance movies, so when they sold their theatres they got all this cash, and they became cash-rich and debt-free companies. In other words, very inviting for a takeover and so all these bigger companies came in and took them over. The big, conglomerate Hollywood we have today was a by-product of forcing the studios to sell off their theatres, because then they became attractive for takeover. Now that we have News Corporation and Sony and Disney and Viacom owning film companies. Well, that was the logical nightmare conclusion to divestiture in 1948.
In relation to these issues of divestiture, or the economic side of conglomeratisation, in relation to horizontal and vertical integration, are you saying that this can be traced to the legacy of the blacklist?
I think that the blacklist relates to union and labour issues in ways that create a kind of modern Hollywood where we move from the contract era and formally break with the notion of studio styles. Where Warner Brothers made a certain kind of movie, but they made a certain kind of movie because they had a certain group of actors working there, they had certain cinematographers working there, and the studio style emerged out of a kind of consistent use of the same talent. Of course that gets eliminated after World War II, but I think it formally gets eliminated with the blacklist because the blacklist shows that there is no loyalty to anybody. The studios start reneging on contracts, they never paid Dalton Trumbo for one of the scripts he wrote, that’s like $60,000, and Ring Lardner gets fired in the middle of a contract, and they never paid that contract off either. So when that happens, when the studios are no longer obliged to pay on their option contracts, well then the option contracts don’t mean anything.
Then you have this sort of independent contractor situation in Hollywood where everybody basically works for themselves and, weirdly enough, that transition happens because the blacklist shows that the contracts don’t mean anything. In the 1930s, they meant a lot, but the irony of all of this is, as with totalitarianism, ‘the trains run on time’ and at least you know what you’re dealing with. During the contract era, even though costs were managed by hiring on talent for six-year option contracts, there were very few complaints from the labour force. Labour complaints were managed through what was called the academy system. If you look at the 1930s, there were very few film workers filing complaints against the studios, certainly very few for non-payment, very few of the kinds of things you now see routinely in Hollywood. So, weirdly enough, when you had a kind of exploitative system that was tipped in a lot of ways very much in favour of the studios, labour was pretty happy. It wasn’t until these contracts started to mean nothing that the contract system completely fell apart, and they started to mean nothing during the blacklist when it was clear the studios could use some sort of trumped up issue to renege on contracts – you were at a meeting standing next to a guy who knew a guy and then suddenly you were not working.
But what do you see as the root causes of these profound changes?
I think there were a lot of factors in play. Certainly there was a kind of weird tide of anti-Semitism after the war. We had just fought the war and discovered the Holocaust first hand, seen it, and you’d think that this would be an awakening of sorts, that anti-Semitism, like any form of bigotry, is stupid and evil. Yet there was this whole tide of anti-Semitism. There was a famous anti-Semitic speech by John Rankin on the floor of Congress and the vote after his speech was 340 to 17 in favour of indicting the Hollywood 10. This was after his bizarre anti-Semitic screed on the floor of Congress! This tide of anti-Semitism was really curious and, of course, it carried over into assumptions about Jewish Hollywood. I think that was also in play and the blacklist made Hollywood less Jewish, more modern. Because if you look at the number of Jewish people who were blacklisted, as against the proportion of Jews in the American population, which was like three per cent Jewish, about 40 per cent of the people blacklisted were Jewish. That’s a guess, but if I had all the names in front of me here and now I think it would be higher.
That Rankin speech was really bizarre, naming all those names, such as Danny Kay as Kaminsky.
As if it was a revelation! I mean, John Wayne changed his name from a very girly sounding name, Marion Morrison, to John Wayne. That was pretty typical. But Rankin was trying to show that these Jewish people were hiding in Hollywood and they were lying in wait to make us all communists.
So in your opinion this Jewish aspect of the blacklist was a major issue, a major cause for those attacks?
It was. I think what was also at stake was the split between New York and Los Angeles in relation to the running of the studios. In the 1940s the financial offices were still in New York, but creative offices or studio offices and facilities were in Los Angeles. LA was still dominated by Jews and some of them were still the same guys – Alfred Zukor, one of the Mayers, one of the Warners – who had been around since the early 1910s or so in LA and they were the iconic Hollywood Jews. But then in New York you had the investors and, if you look at the boards of directors, they’re not Jewish. I think that there was a real sensitivity to make a step into a more modern Hollywood, which would mean moving away from this impression of a Jewish Hollywood. Even the Jewish moguls felt this pressure because one of the key questions is: Why did they turn, not only on their own workforce, on their fellow Jews? Warner, who was Jewish, was an outspoken supporter of blacklisting and he couldn’t have missed the fact that the targets of the blacklist were people quite like him. But he wanted to appear American first and Jewish second, and so I think this sort of cultural transformation was going on.
You are speaking of a division between the East Coast financial capital of Wall Street and the creative talent in Los Angeles, and that the major fault line in the blacklist era was this struggle between Wall Street and the studio moguls. In a sense, it is no wonder that Warner did turn against his own kind in Hollywood.
But he had his reasons. He was also the target of probably the most successful Hollywood strike at Warner Brothers in 1945. It was a pretty incendiary moment and you can just imagine studio managers thinking, ‘Is this what we’re going to be dealing with from now on?’ This was a horrendous strike and they came out with water hoses and then scabbed out labour and had Pinkertons, these hired detectives, who would come and beat people up. It was a pretty nasty little experience and the feeling was, ‘Is this going to happen every couple of years where one of the guilds is going to go out on strike?’ Or worse, the guilds were going to get together and all of them were going to go out on strike. So the studios were concerned, and so in a lot of ways the blacklist offered a kind of convenient way out.
Warner was protecting his own hide. Which is why, even though he recognised that this was about Jewishness, at this point these guys, professionally, were trying to hide their Jewishness. And then the other thing was that he had a way out by saying, ‘It’s anti-Semitic what’s going on here? But it’s also going to help Warner Brothers because we can’t have strikes like this all the time. It’s bad for publicity, it’s bad for the industry, and it’s impossible to make movies under conditions like this.’
For me, part of the legacy of this period is the futility of the guild movement in Hollywood today. It’s a joke. They go out on strike and there’s a sort of collective shrug on the part of the studios. The studio executives say, ‘We have film libraries, we have other companies, we can make reality shows, we don’t care.’ That whole attitude really shows that the blacklist successfully took all the power away from the unions. In my view if the studios had devised a plan to kill the unions, they couldn’t have done a better job. They didn’t, they just got lucky. This blacklist fell into their lap and it accomplished two goals: it made Hollywood less Jewish, at least perceptibly, and it got rid of the union movement, which was more troubling than many people realised in the 1940s. The blacklist came along and it cleaned things up.
But, I might add, my essay on the blacklist shouldn’t be the first essay anyone reads, because my argument is hardly the typical argument about blacklisting.
That’s why I find your argument so interesting, and unique in the sense that you base your arguments on the material and economic side. You take a global economic view and a historical perspective which yields an analysis of things like issues of Jewishness and the relationship between Warner and his creative talent. Would you say the core issue here was class rather than ethnicity, or would that be taking it too far?
It’s funny, the reason why I said mine shouldn’t be the first essay on the blacklist for anyone to read is that mine is kind of a reaction against or an addendum to a body of literature that on the surface is accurate, which argues that the American left evolves in the 1930s, and it’s Jewish too, and it’s an intellectual movement, and eventually there are ties to or intersections with the American Communist Party that are complicated. There are historians who have done a really good job with that and it has been the line on the blacklist for years and years. So my argument comes as a kind of coda, or an asterisk, in saying, ‘Okay that this is all true and these intellectual crosscurrents are important.’ Gerald Horne makes a pretty good argument for placing the blacklist in a kind of intellectual history of the American Left in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. It’s not that I don’t buy the truth of that. It’s just that I don’t see this as an ideological argument. In Hollywood, I don’t see ideology as all that important. I think it’s very possible that Congress was interested in an ideological battle, or in making an ideological stand on an issue.
Or making political use of it.
Oh yeah, Richard Nixon becomes a major political figure because of his red baiting activity during this era. I can see that as a key intellectual or political argument, but I don’t think Hollywood operates that way. I started to look at this and ask, ‘Why would the MPAA bother? Was it a public relations thing?’ Well, not really because if you look at the newspaper responses in 1947 to the hearings – that is, before the blacklist starts tempering the discourse in the American press – the perception in America is that HUAC was just totally nuts and were bullying people. The New York Times in the fall of 1947 were saying how embarrassing the behaviour of these people was, how J. Parnell Thomas was really rude, how the attorney Stripling kept interrupting everybody, and what a circus it was and not in a good way! And so I’m thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute, so then it wasn’t public opinion that guided this.’ Because really the studios could have said, ‘We’re not even going to pay attention, we’re not even going to cooperate with this, and we’re going to defend the Hollywood 10.’ Then they got those ten days and suddenly they turn it around, and I ask, ‘Well, why did they turn it around?’ I was trying to look at these various factors and say that they changed course because it was in their self-interest to do so, because in my view Hollywood only does what Hollywood needs to do to survive economically.
In other words you are looking more at the economic-material historical causes because it’s a major shift. It is something that really does go against the spirit and the practices of Hollywood, even against the whole cultural tradition, not only of a Jewish intelligentsia, but of the myths of 20th century America and its strongly democratic liberal or even socialist traditions.
Yeah, it’s an anti-progressive argument too. That’s why I don’t dismiss at all arguments from people like Victor Navasky in his Naming Names: The Social Cost of McCarthyism (1980), and Paul Buhle is another guy who writes convincingly on the era. None of them has ever said anything to me personally, maybe they think, ‘What is Lewis talking about? It’s all about the Left.’ I don’t dismiss that at all. It’s absolutely true that the blacklist was very much part of a kind of knee-jerk reaction to Progressivism. Most of the people who were targeted during the blacklist were at one point or another members of the Communist Party and it wasn’t like they got the wrong people. But had the committee and the MPAA really looked closer they would have discovered that most of these people had joined for reasons that were significantly less problematic than they feared. A lot of them were just pro civil rights. We’re looking at an era where you have the Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats, and they were staunchly against integration and so a lot of it comes down to a situation, not unlike today, where you had these liberal Hollywood actors and writers feeling that African Americans should get the vote and stuff like that. There was no political party saying that, but then there was the Communist Party, which seemed so progressive and so a lot of them joined and then, as the more dogmatic aspects of the American Communist Party – which was apparently a nightmare of its own – became apparent, a lot of them drifted out, and maybe they rescinded their membership, maybe not. That’s all part of it, and so I do think it was this sort of knee-jerk reaction to a kind of American progressivism.
I’m not a political historian, but it seems like you could examine almost any era and see this sort of struggle in American politics between a liberal progressive sentiment on the one hand, and a kind of conservative isolationist sentiment on the other hand. In a lot of ways what happens is that the very guys who were making trouble in the late 1930s – that’s why I connect the blacklist to the isolationist propaganda hearings in 1941 – are the same guys going after Reds in Hollywood in 1947. It’s just that they can’t be isolationist any more because we just fought the war, but they can still fear the supposed propagandistic power of Hollywood, and that’s sort of what they do. So, certainly in Washington DC there is something that’s ideological and political, but in Hollywood? I don’t think Hollywood thinks or works that way. They always work to their own financial-economic advantage.
I agree because it was through your study of the blacklist and its legacy that I began to appreciate the origins of the so-called New Hollywood, the movie brats, the initial period of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas. Your approach enabled me to see the connection between those major historical events, the original moment, and the emergence of something new. Can you elaborate on how you place the moment of the New Hollywood in relation to the moment of the blacklist?
Well, the blacklist and the Paramount decision coincide with fundamental demographic changes, like a population shift in the US and fundamental intellectual changes, and Hollywood starts to make less money. One of the problems of studying the blacklist is figuring out whether it caused, which I don’t think, or it coincided with, which is what I think, an economic downturn of a significance that Hollywood had never seen before and probably will never see again. It just kept going and going and going for a generation. For 25 years there was just nothing good happening at the box office and so I think the New Hollywood is in part the emergence of a new American style because it’s the answer to what had become a generational problem that can be connected in a certain fundamental way to those two big post-war events: the Paramount decision and the blacklist. However much the blacklist contributed to an economic downturn in Hollywood is debatable, we do know that the downturn begins in 1947. The Fall of 1947 is the HUAC hearings, the beginning of 1948 is the implementation of the blacklist, and if you look at box office, it literally falls off a cliff from 1946 to 1948 and just stays nowhere until 1972 and The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), which is the film that arguably turns everything around.
If we can turn to some artistic or aesthetic questions and go to New Hollywood, what does the blacklist take from Hollywood aesthetically and politically? What was removed in an aesthetic sense, what was lost or prematurely brought to an end by the ‘witch-hunt’ in terms of themes unexplored or possible cinematic critiques of aspects of American society? Do you also think that a heightened level of realism in American cinema is abandoned after this time?
If you look at 1947, which is the year of the House Committee hearings, two of the five films nominated for best picture are Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (Mervyn LeRoy, 1937), and Gentleman’s Agreement wins. You have two films that are about anti-Semitism and I think the timing was bad because it suggested that this is what Hollywood was going to be, all these pro-Jewish, progressive message movies. Historically, message movies are frowned upon in Hollywood. Samuel Goldwyn supposedly said, ‘If I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union.’ Who knows how true that is, whether he actually said it, but it certainly has been the sentiment in Hollywood that message movies make no money and at that time the feeling was, ‘Wow, all we’re going to get are these message movies, it’s going to be terrible!’ So that dimension gets lost. I think what also gets lost is the kind of serious post-war moment of American cinema, Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) falls into this category, where filmmakers start making big budget Hollywood films that seriously examine social issues. After 1947, it became kind of dangerous to examine social issues and so mainstream movies start to steer clear of this. The irony is that film noir flourishes as a kind of counter-argument and that’s where progressive cinema ends up, in lower budget films and in this cynical, despairing world-view that dominates noir.
I’m hardly the only person who says that noir films are politically progressive! I gather you’ve seen the film that Thom Andersen did with Noël Burch, Red Hollywood (1996) where they show how progressive politics find their way into noir. Then of course the MPAA finds the people writing these movies too, and eventually gets to them, so people like Polonsky in the early 1950s get blacklisted. Polonsky certainly found in the crime film a way of articulating his political argument, that great moment that’s in Red Hollywood, from Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947), where the gangster says something to the effect that everything in life comes down to dollars and cents, all the rest is conversation. Such a great line.
On the question of realism, I think that mode survives, because both Robert Rossen even more so Eli Kazan, are rats, but are also still politically progressive. Kazan remains the most difficult figure of the era because On the Waterfront (1954) is a kind of apology for – not his apology, he never apologised to anybody – or an apologist’s version of ratting as heroism. But its style is quintessentially a kind of poetic urban realism, so it doesn’t get lost and really that becomes in some ways Kazan’s calling card. Weirdly enough that doesn’t get purged, and all the way through to Face in the Crowd (1957) Kazan is still shooting the same kind of very progressive aesthetics.
It’s interesting you should say that realism wasn’t one of the casualties, and also interesting that noir represents a kind of apogee of this kind of aesthetic.
Yeah, noir is weird. I’m right at that point in the class I’m teaching now where we just did Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) and The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953). You look at Big Heat and it’s a highly stylised film, but it’s also a film that’s making a kind of basic argument about the connection between organised crime and organised politics that’s incredibly transgressive. Then there’s an aspect of the procedural quality of it that’s very realist. That doesn’t ever seem to go away, but it finds its way into noir, which is both highly stylised and very realistic, sort of a strange combination.
But given the relatively short life span of post war noir, or what Andersen refers to as film gris, can you envisage any aesthetic or artistic alternatives to that or the social problem film, in relation to the question of what was lost. For example, what would some form of American neo-realism do, would that have been a possible alternative in terms of realism?
Maybe, I don’t know. Neo-realism was so specific to a conflation of Marxism and Catholicism in that one moment in Italy after the war. It seemed like Italy was the one European cinema that hit the ground running immediately after the war and they found a way of articulating the particular time-space politics of the moment. I think that was really specific to Italy. So, no, I don’t think we would have ever gone very much in that direction because everything would still have been Hollywood. Film noir is still Hollywood. Knowing nothing about noir, you could watch the two films I showed, Out of the Past and Big Heat, and see one as a gangster film and one as a kind of cops-and-robbers film, or a mystery. So, I think noir was the obvious place for us to go.
A quintessentially American form.
Yeah, I think neo-realism is too obviously and immediately political, and I don’t think American films work that way. Documentary maybe, but we didn’t really have a big documentary movement after the war. It wasn’t until the late 1950s and direct cinema that we get that. But I do see the connection between noir and neo-realism, and I think that’s an under-explored argument.
Another part of that question concerns what would have happened if directors like Polonsky, Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin, and Rossen, were allowed to develop their art, their cinema in the way they began after World War II.
Where would that have gone? I think it would have just run its course. We’ve made a lot out of noir, talking now, but if you look at the top twenty box-office films for the years we’re talking about, how many noirs would be on that list? When anybody teaches this era historically, the 1940s and 1950s, of course you show noir. And which noirs do you show? Well, I show Out of the Past. I don’t think I’m alone in that, I think a lot of people do. Maybe The Big Heat is a little unusual, but still it’s like a lot of other films that come out. But none of these films were huge, none had a huge impact box-office wise or even Academy Award wise. In the way in which Hollywood measures success, neither film was successful, so I think in a way noir was a minor note industrially but hugely important now, in retrospect, intellectually. Out of the Past came and went, it was probably seen as a Robert Mitchum film, and now you’ve got people waxing lyrical saying it is a masterwork, which I think it is, but it certainly wasn’t thought of that way in its day. I think academics tend to mistake importance for influence. I think Out of the Past is very influential, but was it important in its day? Probably not. It’s important to us, because I think it corresponds to a kind of cynical worldview that was very typical of the post-war moment, but it wasn’t important in the ways in which Hollywood measures importance.
I see your point. It was relegated to that B part of a double bill. But now, after all the dust has settled, after the HUAC hearings, after Hollywood experiences a huge period of adjustment, struggling to adjust to the new climate, in the lead up to New Hollywood, the Hollywood renaissance, I’d like to turn to that period again, and ask about how you compare Coppola and Spielberg as two independent auteurs, with different kinds of auteurism. What do you mean when you say Coppola tried to fight the system whereas Spielberg found a way to adapt to the system and still retain some auteurist independence?
I think part of it is that their personalities and their sensibilities are different. Even though generationally they are only separated by maybe five years, or even less than that because Jaws is 1975 and The Godfather is 1972, and that was when they both became major figures. But I think they had different ambitions. Coppola, especially with the Zoetrope studios project, which began in 1979 and collapsed in 1984, was where he tried to create an alternative to Hollywood. That shows he really believed in the whole auteurist argument that he learned at UCLA. He was a true believer, and believed that you could transform the industry to the point where it would become an artists’ industry. He actually seemed to believe that, and he may still believe it, which is why he can’t seem to function any more. He hasn’t made a real Hollywood movie since the mid 1990s, so I think he believes in the impossible fiction of an alternative Hollywood.
Spielberg was always just working. He worked for TV and then he had his own little company, which was a subsidiary of Universal, and he certainly believed in the kind of entertainment that he built his career around, and that independence could be achieved by making E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Jaws. Once he made those movies, then he could make Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997) and films like that. But I don’t think he has any less invested in this idea of independence. I think Lucas is even more obviously this way, which is ironic, because with Spielberg we’re really talking about a major filmmaker. No matter what you think of E.T. and Raiders, there’s just such a huge body of work that Spielberg is connected to. Lucas had as much antipathy for studio Hollywood as Coppola did, but he also went about his career in a more practical way. He just decided that the way to maintain control over films was via post-production, so he just sets up his post-production houses with Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic and he controls the product that way. Lucas has created a kind of independence. I don’t think he has been a major filmmaker since 1980 or so, but he’s certainly a major figure, and he has also very invested in independence. But independence is the Holy Grail. It’s what everybody wants, they want control over their films and it’s the hardest thing to get.
Yes, struggle over creative control is…
Is the story of Hollywood.
Yes, and speaking of Spielberg, can I just quote Robert Kolker’s criticism of Spielberg’s politics in film, in which he argues that Spielberg’s films “provide narrative closure without having to reach any definitive conclusions. It totally evades politics and history, it gives man an excuse for their behaviour, and most obviously entails the redeemed character without the audience having to act on anything but their ability to look at the screen.”
That’s the line on Spielberg and I don’t think it’s completely fair. I think it is by and large fair for the 1980s. The problem with getting an accurate line on Spielberg is that he just keeps making movies and now he’s aware finally of this notion of legacy. When he was a young filmmaker he really didn’t care. If you read interviews with Spielberg in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he’s basically happy that he’s making popcorn movies. He’s proud of it. That famous remark about movie ideas that you can hold in your hand, that you can explain in 25 words, and so on. Then you have these sort of overt critiques of the Spielberg moment, Andrew Britton talking about the “bliss” of “Reaganite entertainment.” It’s all kind of true, and Spielberg seemed blissfully unaware that that was a problem. But then he sort of revealed that maybe there was a master plan here, maybe ET and Raiders constituted a necessary first step towards making The Color Purple(1985), which at least showed that he had ambitions beyond making only popcorn movies. Then with Schindler’s List, I think at that point it’s sort of like hating Manchester United, like they’re the best team for years and years and so let’s hate them. He’s the most successful director. But you’re looking for trouble if you try to fault him for something as sincere and as well crafted as Schindler’s List. Okay, it’s Jews saved by a Christian, that’s what it is. But, first of all, that’s not the point of the film, and second of all, in a country where people either don’t believe in or don’t get the Holocaust, here’s America’s most popular filmmaker saying, “It really happened, it’s really horrific.” The commandant in that film, played by Ralph Fiennes, is the most terrifying character, he’s totally crazy, massively neurotic. He’s a really fascinating and deep character, the very thing that Spielberg is accused of not creating.
The context of Kolker’s remarks is that he feels that in his second edition of Cinema of Loneliness (1980), which I gather is where [that quote] from, he has to include Spielberg and so he dumps Coppola and he sort of feels bad about it. But his argument is that Coppola in the 1990s just isn’t a major filmmaker any more, whereas obviously Spielberg is and so you’ve got to talk about Spielberg. But he doesn’t really want to because Spielberg doesn’t fit the auteurist mode that Kolker argues for in relation to these fiercely independent artists, like Scorsese and Coppola, the original group, so he’s sort of hedging his bet on that.
But I think it’s very true of Lucas who, in my view, is a squandered major talent, whereas Spielberg is an amazing technician and has brought his ability to craft movies to some interesting conflicts. He has tried to balance his Jurassic Parks with his Schindler’s Lists.
Munich is another one. I was reluctant to see Munich (2005) because I was afraid he was going to botch it. I’m old enough to remember watching the actual event on live television, watching what in the US was called Wide World of Sports, which was covering the Olympics. I hope I’m remembering it right, it has been a long time, but it was the sports commentator Jim McKay, who was used to a bland and boring presentation of sports, and suddenly there is this major political moment and he’s the one who got the big story. I thought Munich was really very well done. And boy, if Jews are still complaining that Spielberg’s trying to hide his Jewishness, you’ve got Schindler’s List and Munich. I don’t think he’s trying to hide his Jewishness.
Well, his work speaks for him.
Yeah it does. E.T. has nothing to do with Jews and Jaws has nothing to do with Jews, but Schindler’s List and Munich do. This is a long way around to saying that argument about Spielberg may be a little narrow and he really is an independent filmmaker, in the sense that he’s able to push through any project he wants and has cleverly in his later career balanced making the movies that Hollywood needs him to make with making films that he thinks he should make. He has a sense of legacy now, which is the key to being an auteur.
He certainly has a substantial body of work. The reason I am referring to Spielberg and New Hollywood again is because I’d like to get your opinion on whether an alternative was possible to this transition from the auteurist Hollywood moment to the blockbuster moment of contemporary Hollywood. Was this the only way to advance?
Well, the obvious argument is that Hollywood finally figured out how to make money without having to give auteurs all this power. Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate are seen as transitional movies in the shift from auteur Hollywood into a more corporate Hollywood. It’s a little more complicated than that, but I do think it’s a reasonable argument to see auteurism as a transition between a kind of futility from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, to a reconfiguration of industrial Hollywood and a rediscovery or a reclaiming of the American filmgoer, especially the young filmgoer.
I’d like to ask you about Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009), a recent film. Do you see it as something that’s pointing to a way forward or even back to that radical era we discussed earlier?
It’s a good movie and I think it’s politically timely, and I understand that those little interviews are with real people who have really lost their jobs, so there’s a kind of power to that. But no, it’s a charming George Clooney movie, a bit like Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007), an offbeat movie with a little message to it. But the main attraction is its movie star. Now, as a movie star Clooney can make another one of these, but I don’t see Hollywood investing in this as a trend at all.
There’s an interesting moment in that film when he decides to change his ways and he goes to her house, and he gets to the door, and lots of stuff can happen at that point. She can welcome him in and they become a domestic couple, that’s one possibility. They can have another liaison, but then one or the other of them decides that it’s not for them and they still need to be on the road. Then there’s the third one, which is the one we get, she’s already got a family and he’s actually been a convenient escape from her humdrum everyday world. I think that’s really more what the movie is about, his relationship with her. If you look at pivotal moments in the movie, it’s not like all these people getting fired are somehow helped. They’re left dangling in the movie. People are still getting fired. What the film is really about is the relationship between Clooney and Vera Farmiga.
Is that a problem in your view, this decision to focus on the personal rather than the social aspect of the story?
No, because I don’t think that a film focussed only on people getting fired would be very interesting. Hollywood tends to look at social problems in conventional narrative forms, and this is a little bit offbeat but it’s really a romantic comedy. That scene where the two of them are in the airport and they’re comparing their cards in their wallets in the super club of American Airlines or wherever, is like straight out of His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) or something, we’ve seen this sort of one-upmanship with a kind of wink in romantic comedy since the 1930s. I see this as what Hollywood does well, they take serious political issues, and I don’t think they shy away from it, but it’s pretty clear if you look at the structure of the film that it’s about Clooney and Vera Farmiga, the woman he meets. And also about how Clooney learns something and maybe changes, because he has that sort of nasty young sidekick who doesn’t realize what getting fired means, and then she gets dumped by her boyfriend and then totally rethinks what it means to dump people out of their jobs. But really the film pivots on that moment at the door, it’s impossible to miss that and I think that’s what Hollywood does well. Here’s a film that is about what’s going on in the US today and it’s a problem that we need to address. But Hollywood doesn’t address it head on. It addresses it in a romantic comedy.
But the point I wanted to make was that if you contrast this film to late 1940s noir, in those years filmmakers could use their stars as vehicles, and the atmosphere and the setting of the film could have a profound impact on the characters. Think of Joe and Leo in Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948).
But that’s a really minor film too, whereas Up in the Air was up for an Academy Award and made lots of money. It’s also got major stars. We now look at Garfield as a kind of interesting figure, but I don’t think we’d call him a major star. He was not the George Clooney of his era, and Force of Evil was completely obtuse. I watched it with a friend and he said, “It’s like people are talking in blank verse.” It really is true, no-one talks like the characters in that movie. Basically, everybody is giving a speech over and over and over again. Even the guy who squeals on everybody gets to deliver a speech before he gets gunned down. I think it’s a wonderful film, but it’s not the same thing as Up in the Air.
When you say that the larger political legacy of the blacklist can be found first in the so-called silent majority of the Nixon era, and then again in the steady move to the right during the Reagan and Bush years, do you see that legacy persisting into the Obama years, if you can call it that?
The most popular news service in the US is that crazy Fox News. I can’t even watch it even while I’m flipping channels. It’s just horrible. Do you guys get Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in Australia? That’s how I watch Fox News. I see all his clips of how absurd Fox News is. I guess we can blame Australia for Fox News, because it’s Rupert Murdoch, right? So yes, that [legacy] still persists because there’s this sort of lunatic right, lunatic conglomeration of a strange conservatism, libertarianism, fundamentalist Christianity all rolled up in ways that are kind of unique to us.
I think that the ideology of the blacklist is certainly connected to that. It’s no accident that the two dominant figures of the 1970s and 1980s, Nixon in the ’70s and Reagan in the ’80s, are both explicitly connected to this blacklist moment. Nixon as he rides the success of HUAC, and Reagan, although in a more measured way, becomes a figure doing similar things. In fact, the amazing thing about Reagan is that he was both a friendly witness, he did think that Communism was a bad thing in Hollywood, but he also said he didn’t think anybody should be fired for it. Nobody remembers that because Reagan is magical, nothing sticks to him, so his way of riding out the blacklist was to cling to the Cold War ideology behind it, which he then played out internationally as President. His international politics – he’s credited with bringing down the wall, and taking a hard line against the evil empire, the Russians, the Soviets – that all comes out of the blacklist.
What do you see as some of the mistaken conceptions about the anti-communist witch-hunt? For example, was that period an aberration in American history, something totally out of character?
I would say it was totally in character. As I was saying, that’s one of the misconceptions, those who see it as aberrant, whereas I see it as totally in character.
Within the character of American democracy and the Roosevelt Democrats and that tradition.
It’s weird how much of the blacklist was about undoing Roosevelt’s New Deal. If you look at it – and this goes back to the more traditional argument about the blacklist, which says that it’s connected somehow to this emerging new American Left in the 1930s – all these organisations that during the Roosevelt era were seen as consistent with his kind of progressive politics, became the very organisations that, if you belonged to, could get you in trouble with HUAC or you could get in trouble later with the McCarthy State Department witch-hunts. It’s funny because it’s all about joining and being guilty by association, which was how the blacklist worked. For example, the Anti-Nazi League was actually seen as a communist front organisation by the MPAA when they were implementing the blacklist.
Again, Gerald Horne makes a larger argument about this, which I think is pretty persuasive, that the blacklist is really about undoing the liberalism of Roosevelt. It made that liberalism kind of dangerous, and that form of liberalism has been largely unsuccessful in the post-war period. You have momentary aberrations like Kennedy, but Kennedy was pretty conservative if you look at his actual politics, and certainly in terms of the Cold War. He was a Cold War warrior. Jimmy Carter was a kind of blip and Bill Clinton also. Clinton was a centrist anyway. Now look at what’s happening to Obama, so yes, I think it’s very consistent.
I think the biggest misconception about the blacklist is that it had something to do with McCarthy, which it didn’t. My students always want to talk about McCarthyism, and I say, “Well, HUAC was like McCarthyism, but he comes later and was not really all that interested in Hollywood.” He was interested in the State Department, he was interested in the military, he was interested in himself.
Is this period we’re living, what we’re going through now, in any way comparable to the late 1940s original moment.
No, I don’t think so.
I mean in terms of the gathering economic crisis, the GFC, GEC moment, and also with the liberals, Democrats, under pressure as in the Roosevelt era, and filmmakers trying to respond artistically to certain issues.
Maybe. Hollywood is still liberal, they can purge it all they want but in some ways celebrities are more powerful now than they were in the 1940s. If you look at Humphrey Bogart, he’s the most famous example, and perhaps it’s a little unfair to paint him this way, but Warner Brothers basically told him to shut up and he did. He wasn’t a communist, nobody was going to be able to make that argument, but Warner Brothers basically said, “Okay, you’ve gone to Washington and showed solidarity with the Hollywood 10.” But then when Bogart wanted to take a more public stand defending the 10, Warner Brothers said, “Don’t do it,” and then Bogart took out the very famous ad in Variety saying, ‘I am not a communist.’ That era is gone, you don’t have to do that, and there’s no studio that’s going to make George Clooney or Sean Penn not be political in a very public way. I don’t see them being reined in. That could happen in the 1940s but it can’t happen now.
But the main point is that liberalism still hasn’t been purged or destroyed.
Oh no, Hollywood as an artistic community is all the things that a certain part of American despises. It’s pro-gay, it’s anti-war and it’s liberal in all these sort of social ways that trouble a lot of conservative Americans. I don’t see that changing. Today a film as obviously political as Up in the Air doesn’t actually seem to be all that strange, especially as it’s very consistent with what we assume to be Clooney’s politics.