Monday, May 21, 2018

Review: Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the '50s, by Peter Biskind

Today it seems that Peter Biskind is better known as journalist than academic, on the strength of his history of the "New Hollywood" of the '70s, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, and his more recent history of the post-'70s independent film movement, Down and Dirty Pictures. However, Biskind's study of Hollywood film in the '50s, Seeing is Believing, is not a chronicle of tinsel town in that period, but a more conventional piece of film criticism, close-reading a selection of the period's cinematic classic (from The Blackboard Jungle to 12 Angry Men, and from My Darling Clementine to High Noon, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to On the Waterfront), and a sprinkling of less celebrated films (like Hell or High Water, or Underworld U.S.A.).

Biskind's examination of film in this decade (the '50s here are defined as extending between the end of World War II and the flowering of the 1960s as a recognizably different area) is deeply informed by his reading of the ideological balance of that period. Key to understanding his book, it is also one of the most incisive discussions of that topic I have ever run across, which makes it seem doubly worth discussing here at some length.

Central to Biskind's analysis is what he reads as the mainstream, centrist position, which he terms "corporate-liberalism." This was formed by the recognition of the increasingly large scale and complex character of modern life (the liberal recognizing the importance of the national and international above the local, the age of Big Organizations and of atom age, jet age, space age technology); by the dark view of human nature suggested by psychologists like Sigmund Freud, and the theory of totalitarianism propounded by figures like Hannah Arendt; and by the prestige that New Deal reformism and psychoanalysis/ psychotherapy enjoyed then as never before or since. Its response to this mix of influences, experiences and challenges was a view of the country as consisting of an array of diverse interests, all equally valid, and which it thought just had to get along with one another on terms of (to quote Daniel Bell) "pragmatic give-and-take rather than . . . wars to the death." It also held that the problem of doing so had been substantially solved already by the advent of the Affluent Society.

However, making the arrangement work required not amateurs (identifiable with the ignorant, panicky, demagogue-following mob) but technocratic professionals able to understand the complexities of the situation, and devise pragmatic solutions, implementing which required consensus among the group. Consequently, from this "pluralist" view many of the changes so often discussed at the time—the replacement of the rugged individualist by the "organization man," the "inner-directed" by the "outer-directed" personality, the self-interested, combative "Protestant Ethic" William Whyte described by the "Social Ethic," the classic tough guy by the Sensitive Man—were positive changes in keeping with the new reality.

In line with its dark view of human beings and suspicion of the prospects of radical change, the valorization of the status quo as having already largely solved the "social question," and the stress on everyone getting along (which made it at best uneasy with even discussing social class, class conflict, social power, social alternatives; with even fights over principle inclining the participants to "war to the death" rather than "pragmatic give and take"), the corporate-liberal viewed "ideology" as such with suspicion.1 Of course, one might ask how they could take this position when corporate-liberalism, clearly, was very obviously an ideology. The surprisingly simple answer is that they viewed their own position as not an ideology at all but as simply "facing the facts" in a value-free, pragmatic, "realistic" fashion, in contrast with the value-minded, principled "extremist." And corporate-liberalism's approach to building and maintaining that highly valued consensus reflected this "anti-ideological," technocratic outlook.

In line with its affinity for psychology (and its rejection of more radical views) it tended toward the treatment of dysfunction, and even simply disaffection with the status quo, as something akin to mental illness, requiring "therapy" (or, in Biskind's blunter language, manipulation). This entailed bringing others around to its understanding of the world by subtly inculcating its outlook in them, such that it would seem to them their own outlook (an "internalization of social control"), a practice further facilitated through a mobilization of peer pressure. They expected that the delinquent and even the "extremist" could be brought around in this manner, much more often than not. Where the real incorrigible had to be confronted, however, the corporate-liberal recognized that there might be no alternative to that use of force with which they were uncomfortable, tended to view as damaging to the user of force as well as its victim, and regarded as necessarily tragic, but went along with anyway on the presumption of TINA (There Is No Alternative)—reflected in its propensity for militant anti-Communism at home and abroad.

The other lines of thinking can be defined in relation to this (rather conservative) liberalism, with which they tended to compromise to one degree or another.2 Those to the right of center were militantly anti-Communist not because it was ideological or "extremist," but because it was contrary to their own ideals. They favored the rugged (and "Average") individual over the expert, over the Organization and its imperative of consensus, and trusted to laissez-faire-style private interest as not only the essence of freedom, but the surest way of maximizing the benefit of all. This did not mean their altogether dispensing with notions of community, but they preferred the small scale to the large, the small town to the big city, the local to the national (let alone the international). The dysfunctional and the disaffected were not seen as sick and in need of therapy, but as simply bad, and conservatives had far fewer qualms about using force against them. Indeed, the liberal's hesitation to use force was in itself suspect to them, their readiness to try to persuade or negotiate rather than fight faintly traitorous.

Nonetheless, there were profound differences not just with the liberal center, but to its right as well—the more moderate and "sophisticated" conservatives ready to align themselves with the corporate-liberals in the punch, while those to the right of them took the harder line. (Think the college-educated Fortune 500 executive graciously heeding the advice of an academic consultant, cordially negotiating with a union boss and accepting the New Deal as a necessary evil, as compared with a George Babbitt-style small-town small businessman for whom such a thing would be anathema.) Biskind terms the former "conservative," the latter "right-wing."3

Biskind has less occasion to discuss the left, simply because one could not make an overtly left-wing film in the Hollywood of not just the Hays' Code, but McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the blacklist. Still, his clearing up the confusion about just what, exactly, "liberal" meant does much to clarify this as well. The embrace of ideology rather than its denial, the preference for Marx over Freud, the position that there are such things as class and class conflict and power elites, the search for social alternatives at home and reserve or opposition toward anti-Communism abroad, the suspicion of Organization Man and Organization and the therapeutic society on these grounds rather than those of the right, and all with which these things are associated (the ideas of, for example, a Mills), clearly situate a filmmaker or a work on the left—and peering through the cover lent by science fiction trappings and historical periods, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and High Noon give him occasion to analyze a leftist work.

Impressively, Biskind manages to convey this sophisticated analysis in a highly accessible manner, succinct and happily jargon-free. Of course, Biskind's work is, ultimately, a piece of film criticism rather than social history or social science in the narrower sense of these terms, and so his doing even an excellent job with this subject matter would mean only so much within a book that is not only about film, but overwhelmingly devoted to close reading of its collection of films—not only in its conception, but its use of the available space. At least where his selection of films is concerned—by no means small or unrepresentative—his discussion of '50s politics proves an excellent lens for understanding these movies. As he shows, while the hard-driving individualist, the tough guy, remained the darling of the radical right—Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead or The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell—elsewhere they were giving way to the more social, sensitive man better-adapted to the world of organizations than the old tough guys (neurotics or monsters or just out of date), like Montgomery Clift in Red River, heir to a John Wayne who built up his empire under old rules that no longer applied. Likewise Wayne's hard-driving commander in the conservative Flying Leathernecks had a corporate-liberal counterpart in Gregory Peck in Twelve O'Clock High, while that actor later went on to become an icon of the change as the executive who chooses family over career in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

On occasion Biskind may seem to overreach. For example, I am not entirely sure that 12 Angry Men is more interested in consensus than it is in justice. Still, even here I have found his argument hard to dismiss, so that a long time after first reading it I still find myself thinking about it—not only as an exploration of these films, but of the era that produced them. As Biskind makes very clear, that era did not last, could not have lasted, given the contradictions of its characteristic outlook, which by the 1960s could no longer be ignored or papered over the way they had before. Both the right and the left were to make themselves more strongly felt in the years that followed—and the center was no longer able to hold under that pressure, with film quickly reflecting this, not least in Anthony Perkins' career. One of the archetypal Sensitive Man leads in the '50s, the "overmothered" Sensitive Man was shortly presented as really a Psycho behind the Nice Guy facade in a role that quickly blotted out his earlier screen image—while Hollywood followed up Billy Mitchell with Dr. Strangelove. All the same, there has been continuity as well as rupture, enough that Biskind's analysis seems helpful not just in understanding that formative, earlier period, but the present as well, more so than the oceans of drivel we are apt to get about pop culture, politics and the link between the two today.

1. Where C. Wright Mills wrote of "the power elite," denied the existence of any such thing, democracy and the market diffusing power so much that the concept had no salience.
2. In its dark view of human nature, qualified confidence in reason, and aversion to social change, it seems philosophically more conservative than liberal, and rather conservative in many of its objectives as well. Indeed, it can be taken for a conservatism that, in line with the conservative intellectual tradition, was not about freezing change for all time, but making concessions to unavoidable change as life went on its way (one reason why it managed to get along with the modern big business conservatism described here, in contrast with the traditionalist kind).
3. Others have used different terminologies. In Mills' New Men of Power, the first category was dubbed "sophisticated conservative," the second "practical conservative."

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