Wednesday, August 11, 2010

(Anti) Institutional Investment

The following is the last installment in the first draft of a would-be introduction. The other three installments ("A Raft of Hopes," "Leveraging Ambivalence," and "Acts of Choice") are below, and can be comprehended in whether read in whole or part.  As always, comments welcome. --JC 

Because, in days to come, I will be spending a fair amount of time describing the historical vision of my (cinematic) subjects, I thought it might be useful here to take a little time to describe my own. It's only a sketch, but one informed by the better part of a lifetime's worth of learning. So I consider it arguable, but credible.

My key premise is that entity we know of as the United States of America has had a four-century long ambivalence about the role of institutions -- religious, economic, military and political, among others -- in everyday life. All societies do. But what has always made this one relatively unusual is the degree to which an anti-institutional disposition has in effect been the default setting of our history. Recall that English North America was founded by people who were, to greater or lesser degrees, misfits in the mother country. In religious terms, this was true in the double sense that British North America was Protestant terrain (anti-institutional by definition, at least as first), and in the unusual degree of dynamism and that have always characterized the many varieties American evangelicalism. In economic terms, colonial merchants spent a century routinely flouting laws to channel their economic development -- and got furious when the British government finally got serious about it in the aftermath of the French and Indian War. In military terms, colonial subjects regarded standing armies with great suspicion, even in those cases when they were presumably sent to protect them from imperial enemies, preferring, even during the Revolution, to rely on local militias. And politically speaking, the American Revolution as at least as much a matter of the colonists fighting to prevent losing the existing freedom than in launching a new social experiment. Ever since, Americans have had a noticeably more libertarian cast to their society than other countries, even than that of the mother country from which so much of its (Lockean) heritage derived.

This of course is not the whole story. There is another tradition in American history of moments -- relatively brief, intense, and long remembered -- of institutional innovation and assertion. The years following the adoption of the Constitution, the decades culminating in the Civil War, the Progressive era: these were periods of strong social reform, reform boosted by assertive government as well as non-governmental institutions that sought to limit, control, and regulate social behavior. Whether because of strong resistance, overweening excess, or the real but mysterious underlying rhythms of history, these moments of institutional energy ran their course. But they left behind legacies, ranging from the emancipation of slaves to the creation of a national income tax, that proved durable.

The last such period of institutional vigor occurred in the middle third of the twentieth century, in response to the twin crises economic collapse at home and ideological threat abroad, which fostered the creation of a powerful consensus about the need for a strong institutional presence in everyday life. Some kinds of institutions prospered more than others (the military tended to grow more obviously powerful than religious institutions did), and all these institutions had vocal critics. But the tenor of that criticism was typically self-consciously iconoclastic: those who rejected the value of strong institutions, whether that criticism originated on the left or the right, correctly saw themselves as isolated minorities.

To a great degree, the tenor of the nation's artistic life reflected these sensibilities. Nowhere was this more true than U.S. cinematic culture, dominated as it was by a regime that went by the name of "the studio system." This vertically controlled oligopoly, which crested during World War II, allowed a small group of people with still familiar names like Warner and Fox and Disney to efficiently produce a large number of movies in assembly-line fashion, using skilled workers in crafts that ranged from set construction to publicity to churn out product on a scale that has never been equaled. These studios were cultural institutions par excellence, and, notwithstanding occasional questions they asked, or problems they posed, typically affirmed the efficacy, even necessity, of what was often called "the American Way of Life." To be sure, such a phrase was widely considered synonymous with private enterprise, instinctively contrasted with the overweening institutionalism of Communist societies. But American capitalism of this period was managerial capitalism, managed from within and without, with a social utility that was largely, though never completely, taken for granted.

When I was born in 1962, at the end of the demographic bulge known as the Baby Boom, and at the zenith of American geopolitical power, this institutional regime was, unbeknown to most Americans, nearing its end. Ironically, many of those most inclined to question this regime, like the idealists at the University of Michigan who founded Students for a Democratic Society, were beneficiaries of it. Others, like African Americans of the mainstream Civil Rights movement, sought to realign rather than destroy it. Still others, like financiers and the leaders of the feminist movement, promoted an avowedly libertarian approach that enshrined private power and choice, challenging the efficacy and even legitimacy of longstanding institutions.

In both structure and content, Hollywood reflected these changes. A combination of legal challenges, technological alternatives (notably television) and the growing power of actors and agents precipitated the collapse of the Studio System. Path-breaking movies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) upended powerful social conventions. And a growing unease about a sometimes denied American empire -- and, simultaneously, anxiety about the supremacy of that empire -- increasingly shaped the moviegoing habits of Americans, even those thousands of miles away from Asian or Latin American battlefields.

This is, in the broadest sense, the inheritance of those of us born in the second half of what was once dubbed "the American Century." Like it, hate it, or something in between, the works of art we've reacted to most strongly are those that engage the consequences of this institutional turn and in our collective memory of what preceded it, a collective memory so powerful it continues to shape the consciousness of those born long after it held sway. We sometimes marvel at the unselfconscious confidence of the gunslinger in the old western or the glamor of the mid-century bombshell. But whether in relief or disappointment, we cannot escape the irony, skepticism, and ambivalence of our age. Or, more accurately, our fallible belief that these cultural traits are more common to our time than earlier ones.

For all their differences, differences that justify a set of discrete treatments, the movie stars I intend to examine are all alike in that that capture -- indeed to at last some extent they are stars because they vividly embody -- the sense of historical transition that I'm sketching here. in the process of pursuing manifold personal and professional goals, they reveal, directly or indirectly, what they were taught to believe about the world that preceded them, and they dramatize the consequences of accepting or rejecting those lessons. As such, they have much to teach us, whether we happen to be professional historians or not.

One last thought: As I write, the whole concept of the movie star is in question. The popular media has been featuring stories about the way performers who could be regularly counted upon to "open" a picture -- like Tom Cruise, or Julia Roberts -- have been losing the power to do so. Shrewd actors like George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio have been choosing prestige products, getting involved in other aspects of the business, or both.  So in addition to portraying history, the very idea of movie stardom is itself a historical artifact. I don't assume movie stars are going to disappear. But the leverage they have exercised in recent decades -- leverage that was the product of a specific historical moment that occurred a few decades after modern Hollywood emerged -- appears to be waning. I don't know what that will mean. But trying to understand what it has meant may point towards an answer.

Coming: A set of posts on Clint Eastwood.