REVIEWS

For minorities only: Where the movies are going—and why

JOHN HOFSESS February 1 1971
REVIEWS

For minorities only: Where the movies are going—and why

JOHN HOFSESS February 1 1971

For minorities only: Where the movies are going—and why

FILMS

JOHN HOFSESS

AN INFREQUENT moviegoer who sees a new film such as Joe, Five Easy Pieces or Where’s Poppa? is likely to have two reactions: a slight shock — a considerable shock if he or she hasn’t seen a film for several years — upon realizing that no word is too “blue” for today’s movies; followed by dismay upon discovering that movies rarely address themselves to a general audience any more. Nowadays they pointedly exclude whole classes of people and openly insult those people they wish to exclude. It isn’t simply the “family picture” that is disappearing* it is the balanced picture that has virtually vanished.

Easy Rider, for example, is a deliberately imbalanced film. To those inside the youth subculture, it is ingratiatingly uncritical; to those outside, it is stridently contemptuous. In Boys In The Band everyone has been, is, or is about to be a homosexual, and anyone who doubts the imbalance of its views is greeted with a sneer. Five Easy Pieces provides a mandate for irresponsibility and, like Easy Rider, bristles with hostility for anyone who questions its drifting antihero’s way of life. To really enjoy yourself at such movies, you have to belong to a private club, a minority that wants to see only flattering portraits of itself. Not since the war movies of the 1940s

have so many films presented such narrow, propagandistic viewpoints.

The more sophisticated film producers speak of our living today in a “fragmented society” in which the “middle ground” is gone, having been “polarized’ by hawks and doves, young and old, voluptuaries and puritans. Unable to create a single, unifying movie on the subject of war, for instance, Twentieth Century-Fox produced an antiwar comedy, M*A*S*H, for doves and a war-glorifying epic, Tora! Tora! Tora!, for hawks. That keeps the studios going, but it doesn’t come to grips with the problem: one reaction to a fragmented society is to retreat to a myopic and subjective world of values, but another — and better—reaction is to make films that mold a new consensus.

The transformation of movies today corresponds to the way in which the novel was revolutionized at the turn of the century. Whenever a medium has passed its heyday as a mass medium serving a large, homogenous audience, it becomes a minority medium catering to the specialized interests of many small and different groups. The English novel reached the peak of its popularity in the 19th-century “family entertainments” of Charles Dickens. But by the 1920s, when radio and movies were growing more popu-

lar as mass entertainment, the novel had become a specialized art form. And just as the novel passed on to movies the function of providing mass-audience entertainment, movies now have relayed that function to television.

One of the first signs that a medium is changing from a mass medium to a minority medium is an increase in sexual explicitness. But sexual protest is only the beginning. Every convention — moral, aesthetic, political, religious — is questioned in such a period. Instead of presenting “exemplary” heroes who triumph over every obstacle and oversimplify moral issues in a rigid system of “right” and “wrong,” we begin to get complex, ambiguous anti-heroes.

Just as Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic Of Cancer were declarations of independence for the novel (for the first time major writers created books that weren’t meant to be read by “everybody”) films like Vilgot Sjoman’s 1 Am Curious (Yellow) and Alex de Renzy’s Censorship In Denmark: A New Approach herald the freedom of movies. I Am Curious (Yellow) — a thoroughly boring film; but its artistic merits are irrelevant in this discussion — doesn’t want to become an NBC Tuesday Night At The Movies selection. Its function is political: it wants to establish through obscenity trials new legal rights for the medium.

At the turn of the century there was no such thing as the Jewish novel, homosexual novel or black novel, but ever since the novel ceased to serve a mass audience its main practitioners have been drawn from minority groups. Today movies have begun to present the specialized interests of ethnic and social minorities: instead of presenting a WASP vision of life in which a member of a minority group plays a token role — usually, a scapegoat — films today recreate the milieu of blacks (Up Tight, Cotton Comes To Harlem, The Great White Hope), homosexuals (Boys In The

Band, The Gay Deceivers) and Jews (Good-by, Columbus, The Fixer, the forthcoming Portnoy’s Complaint) and tell stories from the minority’s point of view.

By the time James Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake he had altered the novel beyond recognition: there was no

plot and practically no characters, simply a linguistic tour de force. To the joy of some and the despair of others, movies have now reached the threshold of that final and most fascinating stage in the transformation of a medium: innovation in style and technique. Even after repeated viewings no one can say with assurance what the “meaning” of Fellini Satyricon or 2001: A Space Odyssey may be (in Stanley Kubrick’s view it is sufficient that 2001 inspires awe and stimulates thought).

Practically every English novelist in the 19th century pleased readers to some extent — Jane Austen, George Eliot, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens. But by 1935 the major writers — James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust — had developed such an individualistic approach that critics were divided into warring factions and readers of the new “art novel,” though greatly reduced in number, were embroiled in heated controversies and exhaustive analysis over practically every turn of phrase. And so it is with the new movies. Many people find them esoteric and unsatisfactory; for a minority they are better than ever.

The best of the new films will cut across the lines of class, race and age and help to build a new and unifying consciousness. The second best will impart to us honest insights about minority life. The third best — and unfortunately they will be the most common — will simply be corrupt propaganda, capitalizing upon the divisions in society, reinforcing us in our existing prejudices, our social isolation, and the inflammatory madnesses of our minorities. □