Monday, February 27, 2006

urban fervor: the hollywood novel

Last week, I began posting excerpts from my dissertation every Monday. This second installation is from a chapter that takes a look at the role of alternative religion in the Hollywood novel.

Because dreams are considered dead in noir and the focus on material reality that much more predominant, there is not much room for the occurrence, much less exploration, of the kind of religious aspiration or symbolism we find in other Los Angeles fiction. Mike Davis explains that “1940s noir was more typically concerned with gangster underclasses and official corruption than with the pathology of the middle class” (City of Quartz, 41). However, David Ulin does see the noir genre and the Hollywood novel as “cousins” united in their “fatalistic cynicism” (xviii). He also credits Queer People with pioneering the Hollywood novel genre. In the beginning of this novel, the Graham brothers provide a twist on the imagination disclaimer usually found in the front matter of a novel.

The authors desire to assure the readers that all the characters (except for the liberties jocosely taken with prominent personages who are named) and events in this book are entirely imaginary. If resemblances to well-known figures in Hollywood life occur in certain passages, it is only because America’s fifth greatest industry has become so completely standardized that everybody resembles everybody else.

On the one hand, this proviso is a comically convenient way to bash the conformity of Hollywood and the studio system, but perhaps unintentionally, it is a comment on the genre of the Hollywood novel itself. Just like the Victorian novel often features governesses and repressed desire and the contemporary police drama often features mismatched buddies and charismatic crime lords, so does the genre of the Hollywood novel have its formula. Of course, a Hollywood novel would not be complete without the stars and starlets required to enact its dramas, either serving in principal roles or acting as a foil to characters of substance. Everyone must drink a lot and engage in one or more inebriated scenes, this as much a comment on Prohibition in the early years of the genre as its setting. People will describe hangovers in exaggerated noir language, such as “I have a taste in my mouth like a bag on a vacuum cleaner” or “the vague notion came to him that a complete printing press had been installed inside his skull while he slept” (Grahams, 23, 25). There must be characters transplanted from the Midwest who serve as a fresh eye on the locale. People will make sarcastic remarks about the sunshine. Everyone will have an impressive car, unless forced to walk everywhere like Arturo Bandini in John Fante’s novels or Ambrose Deacon in Carl Van Vechten's Spider Boy, in which case such pedestrian ways will inevitably lead to trouble.

There is often a requisite scene taking place on Hollywood Boulevard, either within or outside of an elaborate movie theater. Male characters will often take refuge at some point in a local brothel, and female characters will often find employment there. Studio executives will welcome people to their homes in architecturally schizophrenic neighborhoods, and the guests will be greeted by an Asian servant. Of course, the studio executive or those working close with him will be Jewish, and the novels themselves, if not written by Jewish authors, will often reflect the anti-Semitism prevalent in Hollywood at the time.

There is one more element these novels have in common: an underlying sense that there is some kind of spiritual enchantment occurring as films are distributed nationwide, and then worldwide. Sometimes this takes the form of a satirical deification of the studio head, sometimes this takes the form of a critique of the intelligence of the average moviegoer, and sometimes this takes the form of a true conviction in the power of Hollywood production. Eccentric young poet and evangelist Vachel Lindsay came to Los Angeles in 1912, where he witnessed the early days of the burgeoning film industry and found an outlet for his spiritual beliefs that mankind could be redeemed through art. David Ulin refers to him as “the proponent of a visionary populism of near-messianic proportions” (Writing Los Angeles, 47). Lindsay is thought to have pioneered film criticism with the 1915 publication of The Art of the Moving Picture, a work that explores changing human perceptions and envisions movies as a new language. “And the great weapon of the art museums of all the land should be the hieroglyphic of the future, the truly artistic photoplay” (17). Lindsay argues that the photoplay of Hollywood is about to rise to the same prominence as the literature of Boston, yet with more vitality because in California, the artistic and the spiritual traditions are developing in tandem. “Edison is the new Gutenberg. He has invented the new printing. The state that realizes this may lead the soul of America, day after tomorrow” (149). Aside from some strict admonishments that photoplaywrights and producers need to follow a higher path than they might be apt to choose, Lindsay saw much promise in delivering religion “through the eye” (177):

Scenario writers, producers, photoplay actors, endowers of exquisite films, sects using special motion pictures for a predetermined end, all you who are taking the work as a sacred trust, I bid you God-speed. Let us resolve that whatever America’s tomorrow may be, she shall have a day that is beautiful and not crass, spiritual, not material. Let us resolve that she shall dream dreams deeper than the sea and higher than the clouds of heaven, that she shall come forth crowned and transfigured with her statesman and wizards and saints and sages about her, with magic behind her and miracle before her (186).

Lindsay was not alone in seeing film as a medium to unite the world in a heretofore unseen higher plane. D.W. Griffith, perhaps the first famous director and creator of Ku Klux Klan propaganda film The Birth of a Nation, was so impressed by Lindsay’s insights that he invited the poet to be a special guest at the premiere of his film Intolerance. The director himself believed that film was the Universal Language that could “restore mankind to its prelapsarian state.”

Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School

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