‘Nobody knows everything’: post-classical historiographies and consolidated entertainment

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As a classical metanarrative, the history of classical Hollywood cinema lacks only one element: a happy ending. Its resolution is problematic, untidy and uncertain. Among its chroniclers, there is no consensus as to when (if ever) classical Hollywood ended. But whenever its final scenes are set, they are seen to act out a prolonged decline. The metaphors of evolution that brought Hollywood from primitivism to maturity are replaced by notions of decadence and decay. The last three decades of Hollywood's history are most often presented as a story of failed promise: the promises made to, or at least believed by, that generation of critics who espoused cinema as 'the most important art of the twentieth century,' and constructed its study as an academic discipline. 1 In his historical survey of American cinema, John Belton entitles the section on contemporary Hollywood 'The failure of the new', and invokes Fredric Jameson in support of his account of contemporary Hollywood as 'stylistically youthful and inventive but politically conservative', constrained by 'the inability to say anything that has not already been said.... The authentic expression of ideas that took place in the past is today replaced by quotation and allusion to that authentic expression.'2 By the 1980s, he concludes, the continuity of the Hollywood tradition had begun to fall apart: Each new film existed in an aesthetic vacuum, though it continued to compete with the box-office statistics of its predecessors. Audiences who expected little were enthralled by the little they got. And they had even less with which to compare. If you have never seen Intolerance, Sunrise, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, or VertiBo, you can't expect more than Batman Returns. 3 Even more despairingly, James Bernardoni has analysed the 'New Hollywood' as the product of four aesthetic fallacies misinterpreting the virtues of classical cinema and resulting in the collapse of significance and the violation of film's obligation to convey a sense of credible reality. 4 In this story of failed romance, a self-confessed nostalgia colours the account of the traison des auteur-comptables who deserted the radical political and aesthetic possibilities of the 'New Hollywood', which Joseph Gelmis conceived in 1970 as being no less than 'a technical and aesthetic revolution in movies which will inevitably restructure human consciousness and understanding'. 5 In the passage from the Old to the New Hollywood, argues Bernardoni, 'something real and important has been lost': the complex 'common language' of classical Hollywood, which reached 'a peak of aesthetic consolidation in the American cinema of the late forties and fifties', as an art form that 'seemed permanently embedded in the American culture'.6

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationContemporary Hollywood Cinema
EditorsSteve Neale, Murray Smith
Place of PublicationOxon, UK
PublisherRoutledge, Taylor & Francis
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781135108762
ISBN (Print)9780415170093, 978041517010
Publication statusPublished - 1998


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