Contamination (#52): "New American Cinema" and Genre

by on Jun.16, 2011

In an issue of The Nation from a couple of weeks ago, Heather Hendershot has an article bringing a bit more nuance to the often mythologized “New American Cinema” of the 1970s. It’s definitely worth reading.

The myth of the “New American Cinema” has been frequently told: In the late 60s a group of ragged, counterculture, All-American individuals – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian Depalma, Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper etc – rescued the bloated American studio system of musicals and overproduced spectacles with their auteur brand of cinema: low-budget, character- and script-driven, “realist,” European-art-film-influenced etc. After producing many masterpieces, their era supposedly came to an end when Steven Spielberg produced Jaws, generating the age of the blockbuster, which was all spectacle again, with no time for characters or scripts.

Hendershot adds some nuance to this picture, complicating the myth significantly. For one she points out that women were very strangely secondary in the films of this group (I would say Altman is a big exception) – not only were the New American Directors all men, but their leading characters tended to be men, and the women secondary.

She compares this to the film-making of Roger Corman and his B-movies and Sam Fuller’s genre movies, in which women were given considerably more power and where the movies often focused on women in more complex ways, including addressing issues like abortion etc. What makes the Corman/B-movie comparison particularly interesting in the article is that it turns out a lot of these New American Cinema directors got their start in B-movies, including the working-class Martin Scorsese.

However, in their discussion about film Corman and the B-movie became the antithesis of the New American Cinema. Hendershot quotes Scorsese saying (about the hardships of making Taxi Driver): “I was going to compromise? I might as well have made another genre film for Roger Corman.” As Hendershot notes: “Corman – and the exploitation filmmaking he represented – was the embarrassing (if lovable) poor cousin to the mavericks of the New American Cinema.” In the language of my recent posts on this blog: Corman was the kitsch, the New Americans were High Art.

However, what always struck me about Coppola and Scorsese and (most obviously) Dipalma is how much of their work is based on genre and b-movies. I mean Mean Streets? Taxi Driver? Shutter Island? The Departed? These strike me as incredibly genre-driven movies. The Departed, for which Scorsese won an Oscar, is a remake of a Hong Kong genre movie. Dipalma has repeatedly done remakes of Hitchock’s work as well as that Sci-fi movie from a few years ago. And Coppola’s Conversation seems very much a genre movie, not to mention the Godfathers and his remake of Dracula (which I absolutely love).

And further, a lot of the European film-makers these American auteurs supposedly emulated were of course very much influenced by American genre and b-movies. Most obviously Godard, whose Pierrot Le Fou even features an awesome cameo by Fuller:

“In one word: emotions.” I wonder if the pervasive distinction about the supposedly “character”-driven, high-art auteur movies versus the stereotypical, no-psychology b-movies and genre movies has to do with what kind of “emotion” they invoke. The high art movie creates a sense of interiority, while the b-movie characters don’t have ponderous interiorities, so much as a more general affect (coming from the “battlefield” not the deep psychology or soul). And this is in part why I tend to like the b-movies, and the b-movie aspects of say Godard and Scorsese.

Also, it seems in a lot of discussions about genre, there is kind of a discomfort with “genre” – that it somehow ruins one’s agency, or the agency of the artwork, that it overdetermines it, that it makes stereotypes rather than psychology, depth. This makes me think back to James Pate’s statement a while ago comparing Carver and Bolano:

Or the difference between a Bolano short story and one by Carver…both have an undercurrent of dread/menace, but in Bolano that is because it is the way of Bolano’s world, menace has no cause nor explanation, whereas in Carver there is something in the landscape of the story itself that appears to be causing this unease, we just need the key, the root cause of this dread…

Bolano would here be the genre writer (Gothic tales afterall, very much like Poe, as James pointed out elsewhere), and Carver the Auteur. Though I would say that perhaps Bolano’s dread comes from “the landscape of the story” (or genre?) while in Carver it comes from psychology and interiority.

Actually what made me think about this article again this morning was watched the behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Lars Von Trier’s brilliant “Dancer in the Dark,” which is made in exactly the disparaged, bloated genre of the Hollywood musical, which the New Americans set out to replace, complete with utter sentimentality and music, staged performances and dancing. The documentary shows all these incredible lengths von Trier went through to get all those shots etc. At one point he wanted 1000 film cameras filming continually.

It reminds me of the book I read about the making of Kubrick’s The Shining, in which everything was made in a studio, even the snow, in these huge stages. Exactly the kind of bloated Hollywood stuff, the leaner, meaner, high-art New American Cinema was supposed to replace.

Of course, as Hendershot points out, the NAC auteurs very frequently turned really ego-maniacal and produced hugely expensive flops that bankrupted a lot of folks.

I think also of Werner Herzog whose movies seem frequently to be *about* the making of Art that is so deluded, so impractical and quixotic that it inevitably ends in disaster (Aguirre as the filmmaker). This might also go back to recent discussions about “maximalism” – Art that seems to make a hole in itself thus ruining the “interiority,” its humanity. I wonder if this is why condemnations of such art tends to compare it to mass culture, even though it’s often the opposite.

Anyway, Hendershot ends with an interesting argument: that the ethos and aesthetics of the New American Cinema now lives on in TV shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad etc:

f the ethos of the New American CInema has endured, it is not on the big screen but the little one, TV, where today’s multichannel, niche audience environment allos for long-term character development, genre innovation and aesthetic risk-taking.

But of course even here: Genre is present (“genre innovation”). I’m thinking about a show I’ve been watching the past few weeks: The Killing, which not only references the general genre of dead prom queens and murder investigations, but also very specifically David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Though the difference between the two seems to be one of interiority: The Killing has characters with emotional “complexity,” while there was very little “interiority” in Lynch’s characters, more like a “landscape” of affect (in fact psychology is replaced by demon possession, ART).

4 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    About interiority…I recently watched The Holy Mountain and one of the unnerving yet exciting aspects of the movie is how interiority is wholly absent, even though on the narrative level it’s supposed to be about a spiritual journey/awakening…but there are only bodies and spectacles here. Like Artaud, Jodorowsky sees the spiritual in materialist and even carnal terms…

  2. Philip Hopkins

    Genre is the drug, and art is the drugtaker. Overdoses are bad, but enough thrill or romance or revenge or whatever to wake you/kill pain is good. We’re all characters in genre fiction struggling to achieve some resolution, maybe transcendence.

  3. Steve Owen

    Love this piece, Johannes. I think you’re absolutely right that the key difference–the traditional distinction–between art and genre is depth of interiority. But I would argue that nothing escapes genre (form), and even Carver is a kind of genre fiction. We can teach a class on Carver, identify the forms that make his stories, and then reproduce them in MFA programs. People call his work “realist,” but realism (in literature), as far as I can see, tends to mean emotionally-buffered, character-driven dramas about family and relationship (typically marital) problems. Add a little soaring music here and there and we see how this is only the austere sibling of melodrama–after all, what is more melodramatic than plots of divorce, drinking, and cheating?

  4. Johannes

    Oh I think you’re totally right. And when you start reading it as a set of genre conventions, I think it’s better than about psychological depth etc.

    Johannes