Monday, October 17, 2005
Peter Biskind - Seeing is Believing (*)
The basic premise of Biskind's trawl through the strange world of 1950s Hollywood films is that at the heart of American society there was a consensus. He argues that this consensus was between the liberal and the conservatives - against the extremists (both right and left). There must be some truth in this - the years after World War two were ones of unprecedented boom for the US economy, as Biskind says early on
"the decade [1950s] in which it seemed that the United States had solved most of the basic problems of modern industrial society. The miracle of the economy, the seemingly endless flow of consumer goods, the constant technological innovation, ironically promised to realize Marx's dream of a harmonious classless society"
In this context any threat to the status-quo was something that had to be resisted, and Biskind's book describes in detail how this battle took place in the realm of Hollywood.
If, like me you haven't seen all the films here, much of it will have to be taken on trust. The films I have seen and know well, such as "12 Angry Men", are examined with a particular shrewdness and with an eye for detail that seems unexpected. For instance, I'd often thought of "12 Angry Men" as a left-wing film (albeit a flawed one that promotes the idea of justice at the heart of the jury system). Biskind shows how it actually has elements much more right-wing, where the centre, represented by Henry Fonda's character, does everything it can to cancel out the effect of the extremists in the ranks. Criticism of the system is acceptable, but only in limited ways that don't damage the consensus at the heart of things.
If you like films and politics, know a bit about fifties America and perhaps marvelled at Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet or rode with "The Searchers", thrilled at "the Day the Earth Stood Still" or laughed at "I was a teenage werewolf" - or even know of these films, you'll probably get something out of this book. But like me, you might not agree with everything he says, particularly if one of the movies is a favourite!
(*) Full title: "Seeing is Believing or how Hollywood taught us to stop worrying and love the 50s"