If Herbert Marcuse and Senator Joseph McCarthy had gone to a movie together in the late 1950s--and that could only happen in a movie--they would have walked out, probably not together, and demanded their money back. The left-wing Frankfurt School intellectuals and the red-hunting McCarthyites shared a passion: They deeply mistrusted the Hollywood "dream factory."
Their different notions of exactly what that dream was amount to a kind of cosmic disjunction. Figures like Adorno and Marcuse saw in Hollywood's mass appeal a subtle and insidious imposition of capitalist conformity. For them, it was like a totalitarianism from within. Hollywood's happy endings filled them with repelled foreboding. For that matter, Hollywood's toothless social criticism filled them with repelled foreboding. The blacklisting members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, on the other hand, overlooked the sunny finales. They saw only the Communist affiliations or left-leaning sympathies of some screenwriters, and they considered Hollywood's soppy, sentimental defenses of the hard-pressed little guy against the plutocratic big guys coded insinuations of austere revolutionary goals. For the red-baiters, American movies represented a totalitarianism creeping in from without.
I'm not suggesting a moral equivalence between the Frankfurt School and HUAC, only observing that in America, one person's simple entertainment is another person's impending moral and intellectual crisis. Movies have long been a magnet for scrutiny, hysteria or moral panics, though obviously television now draws much of that dubious attention. Still, nothing can get commentators and even politicians going like a Hollywood movie. Consider Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, made mostly with Gibson's money but also with funds from investors, and released by a large theatrical distributor--thus, like many so-called "indies," a Hollywood movie in all but name. The Passion of the Christ represents a strange historical irony, because it was precisely the type of Catholic conservatism animating Gibson's controversial blockbuster that inspired McCarthy's tirades against Hollywood movies. And was there a connection, orchestrated or not, between this movie's appearing just before the launch of a Republican presidential campaign that emphasized, in the appropriate venues, the kind of fundamentalist Christian values the film espoused?
The question of film's influence on psyche and society is about as old as the movies themselves, and David Thomson is one of the handful of critics gifted enough to address it. Unaccountably, though, those looking for that kind of scrutiny in Thomson's unstructured, seemingly barely edited mess of a book aren't going to find it, unless they look very hard indeed. Strictly speaking, The Whole Equation isn't so much a history of Hollywood as a very impressionistic response to Hollywood's unique confluence of art and money, a marriage arranged by the men who ran the studios. And Thomson tells Hollywood's story by following the money, from Louis B. Mayer's nickelodeon empire to his purchase of the distribution rights to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which inspired Mayer to go into the movie business whole hog. From there Thomson swings through the rise of the big studios in the 1920s and '30s, to their decline due to television in the 1950s, followed by a brief uptick in quality in the 1960s and '70s, and up to our own time. Today, he argues, we are in a moribund period for film, a moment when the stories of Hollywood's golden age, from the 1930s to the early 1950s, have been replaced by special effects and vapid characters.
I can't think of a major film critic over the past twenty-five years--the late Pauline Kael, or Andrew Sarris, or J. Hoberman--who would argue with Thomson, but he seems more weary of contemporary movies than anyone else. And The Whole Equation is marred by its weariness. Like Kael, Thomson cherishes the popular aspect of movies; however, Thomson--an Englishman who has spent much of his adult life in San Francisco--has much too cool a sensibility to share Kael's visceral responses. His description of his friend the screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) is an accurate characterization of Thomson's own noir-gloomy, macho-aesthete style, which he has cultivated the way an American actor cultivates a singular persona: Towne "has a way of being that is casual but intimate, like the best sort of naturalistic acting.... Its ease and attractiveness, and its worldliness are deep at the heart of his book's subject." Unlike Kael, too, Thomson is very much the auteurist, though, in keeping with his sang-froid, more skeptical about the director's authority than is Sarris, the auteur theory's best-known American exponent. Thomson's true auteur, in fact, seems to be the studio executive, or the studio executives of yore, anyway. One of the representative figures in The Whole Equation is Monroe Stahr, the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald modeled Stahr on Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s. The phrase "the whole equation" is from Fitzgerald's novel--"not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads." For Thomson, such a person was embodied by moguls like Thalberg and Lew Wasserman, and by Charlie Chaplin, who controlled every aspect, aesthetic and financial, of his films.