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Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film.

Over the past two decades scholars have utilized the study of popular culture and film as a focal point for answering questions that have puzzled students using more traditional evidence to understand the nature of twentieth century culture and politics. Though this impulse has much in common with the efforts of a generation of social historians to tell the story of ordinary people from the "bottom up," it is significant that most film scholarship has not been rooted in the discipline of history, but in recent humanist concern for textual analysis informed by literary and cultural theory. Miriam Hansen's study of the Hollywood film making from 1900 to 1929, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film attempts to fill that gap.

Drawing on the research of current film as well as social historians, Hansen argues that because integrated corporations control film production, producers and directors developed a unique story-telling and visual style that imposed upon the spectator the perceptions and beliefs at one with consumer capitalism and patriarchy. Yet the film theatre also created what she calls an "alternative civic sphere" that provided a challenge to the world view advanced in the "classic American cinema." In response to an audience that broke down the older divisions between the classes and sexes, artists such as D. W Griffith and Rudolph Valentino generated narratives and images that subverted the status quo, generating experiments in film making and sexual values that resisted the dominant discourse of class and gender.

By placing the study of film within the tradition of the public sphere, Hansen has advanced our thinking about the relation of popular art to politics. But the way in which she interprets her evidence is severely limited. Throughout, Hansen buttresses her argument with endless theorizing, complete with whole pages that are incomprehensible to all but those schooled in the language of structuralist and post-modern theories. At times that lens does provide stimulating insights. When she emphasizes how producers and moralists envisaged the silent film as the means to create a universal language that repressed the dialects and views of immigrant audiences, when she explains that early film titles and stories were aimed to assimilate a diverse and polyglot audience into the values promoted by the educated, and when she points out that popular art derived from the lower classes was being legitimized in terms of standards derived from high culture, she provides us with persuasive evidence that will inform all future discussion of the industry. Similarly, when she describes Rudolph Valentino as a star who expressed the desire of his female fans to transgress sexual prohibition, when she takes note of the camera work in Valentino's films and the newspaper debate that surrounded the appeal of an Italian immigrant to women, she accurately reveals the way in which a struggle over gender and cultural values pervaded the rise of the urban mass culture.

At the same time, the central limitation of this work is that her interpretive frame blinds her to the way in which the movies interacted with a reshaping of the larger society from 1910 to 1929. Drawing on Frankfurt School theories that claim that a false consciousness pervades mass produced images, Hansen tells us that the "myth" of mobility and success idealized in Hollywood films did not exist. Yet she advances this statement without considering evidence presented by historians like Stephan Thernstrom that mobility in the United States was never rags to riches for ordinary people. But the corporate order did provide upward mobility for white working men to move from their father's manual trades into higher paying white-collar occupations. Along similar lines, Hansen tells us that the consumer dream appearing in films is another myth, but ignores census data which reveal that tangible increases in free time, mass produced cars and consumer goods did occur in the twenties. And although Hansen assumes that the desires of audiences affected film making, she does not provide us with an understanding of the market mechanism which would allow patrons' wishes to inform Hollywood production.

Similarly, her static discussion of the public sphere ignores the major transformations occurring in American politics occurring from 1900 to 1929. As articulated by Jurgen Habermas, the public sphere - that democratic arena existing between the state and private life - provided a free space where politicians and artists competed to influence public opinion and state policy. But in keeping with her Frankfurt School theory that a pervasive capitalist hegemony informs the United States, she argues that a competitive civic sphere was largely nonexistent as early as 1830. To make this staggering assertion work, Hansen overlooks a generation of scholars who have shown that throughout the 19th and early 20th century mass movements to emancipate immigrant workers, women and African Americans were framed in a republican language hostile to monopoly capital. Likewise, in explaining that women were confined to the private sphere before the advent of mass culture, she avoids the work of scholars such as Sara Evans and Katherine Sklar who have found that the long engagement of women in the abolitionist, prohibition and suffrage crusades was what was distinctive about American public life well into the modern era.

Further because she ignores the nature of American politics, she presents a long, convoluted and unconvincing analysis of D. W Griffith's major film, Intolerance. As Hansen presents the case in four central chapters, the first great film maker was the creator of the "classic American cinema," a master text that imposed the standardized value of capitalism on the spectator. Uncritically accepting the proposition of recent film scholars that the rise of a classic film style is the way to understand early production, Hansen simultaneously wants to demonstrate that the excessive experiments in time and plot narrative that gave Intolerance its unique quality were due to Griffith's engagement with an alternative civic sphere. This discussion does correctly alert us to the fact that Griffith was deeply concerned with the new woman, but Hansen's analysis of how this engagement effected his work is ultimately flawed. For one thing, if Intolerance had tapped the desires of the new female audience, presumably it would have been a box office success. But it was a failure. Secondly, the heroines in the film were not a deviation from the norm, but consistent with Griffith's Victorian world view. But most importantly, Hansen's presupposition that a monolithic commitment to capitalist values informed the public sphere leads her to ignore the way in which Griffith used Intolerance to promote Woodrow Wilson's efforts to curtail corporate capitalism and a consumerism rooted in moral experimentation.

Further, since Hansen does not see that a new order arose in the wake of reformers' failure to roll back the corporations in the twenties, her labelling of the female fan cult surrounding the Latin lover Rudolph Valentino as an "alternative public sphere" is equally misleading. A public sphere would seem to imply some concern with the intersection of personality and larger social issues. But in contrast to the work of D. W Griffith, film makers in the twenties promoted the idea that democracy and self-fulfillment would be in the private realm of leisure and consumption. Though romantic heroes like Rudolph Valentino did become the object of female desires that had the potential to disrupt traditional gender roles, it was also not accidental that Valentino and his imitators were stylized as foreign aristocratic lovers. Not only did exoticism serve to identify Valentino with the standards of high culture and art removed from public life, but directors like Cecil B. DeMille became enormously successful by making these romantic desires the basis for a fundamental reshaping of mainstream values. In his hands, the formerly forbidden impulse for cross cultural mixing and risque sexuality did not remain isolated to an alternative civic sphere, but provided the means for creating the modern ideal of the privatized home centered on the romantic couple, leisure and play.

The reason that Hansen ignores this evidence lies in the a-historical and dualistic mode of inquiry that informs her study. Drawing on Frankfurt School and structuralist theories, Hansen utilizes, on the one hand, the universal Marxist law that the economic base determines the ideas and images informing the superstructure, and, on the other hand, she draws on post-modern theories to demonstrate that artistic excesses, gaps and fissures within the classic American cinema reveals the way artists and audiences were resisting traditional values. Given this eternal dialogue between the center and the margins, competition or change within the public sphere is impossible. In other words, Hansen presents us with a counter culture of eternal resistance that is never able to affect the political arena or what she calls the "dominate discourse." Unfortunately that dichotomy distorts as much as it reveals, with the result that those looking for explanations of how the film industry functions within the public sphere will have to look beyond Babel and Babylon.
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Author:May, Lary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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