Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tony Judt, film noir, and American movies in Europe

(A Czech edition of Tony Judt's
"Postwar." As suggestive as it is
that the book should have been
translated into Czech, I included
this cover only because the English
edition I was going to use carries
a cover blurb that calls the book
"awesome." Such a word has
no place here.)
Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 offers observations that might interest fans of crime movies and novels. Here are a few from the final chapter of Judt's section on the immediate postwar years, when American cultural influence was at a peak in Europe:
"Only intellectuals were likely to be sufficiently moved by Sergei Eisenstein's depiction of Odessa in the Battleship Potemkin to translate their aesthetic appreciation into political affinity, but everyone--intellectuals included--could appreciate Humphrey Bogart."
I'm not sure how historically valid it is to compare a silent film from 1925 (Potemkin) with a talkie-era star who made his first well-known film only in 1934 (The Petrified Forest) and whose real stardom came in the 1940s. Still, the suggestion that intellectuals could appreciate Bogart provokes thought, if only because its perspective is unusual in discussions of American popular culture.

The very next page offers this, on the industry's business practices after World War II:
"(W)hen European governments after 1949 took to taxing cinema receipts in order to subsidize domestic film producers, American producers began investing directly in, foreign productions, their choice of European Venue for the making of a film or group of films often depending on the level of `domestic' subsidy then available."
Among other things, Judt suggests, American domination of European movie markets meant that U.S. movies of the time can be better guides to European viewers' experience than domestic movies are. In addition, he writes, it was Europeans who were likelier to make escapist movies in this period while American directors and producers were turning out the melodramas the French would later call film noir.  I suspect most of us would say American movies took over the world merely because they were more glamorous or better made  (Judt recognizes the latter possibility). But the idea that American movie makers were better judges of European taste that were European movie makers is a good deal more exciting and opens the door to all sorts of interesting questions.

Your thoughts, please.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger adrian mckinty said...

French intellectuals dug Bogart?

Well Godard & Melville certainly did....

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Peter, the final sentence of this post came as a bit of a relief for me. My problem with the extracts from Judt and your own account of other arguments he makes is that what he writes seems to me hypothetical rather than theoretical. In words, I do rather need some evidence. The concern of the American investors was, of course, to reduce costs and make money. And so, which films did they invest in? Also, I must think that to some extent Americans were less in need of escapism than Europeans after the traumata of invasions and six years of war, but I must still wonder what percentage of American post-war movies were films in the noir mode. And if the European movies Americans invested in were escapist, that might not be so much owing to a better grasp of the European psyche post-war as the fact that might well also have a market in in US. It would have been a disaster if US distributors had tried to flood movie theatres with nowt but noir.

Other questions of this sort occurred to me, but I do wonder about one matter in particular. To what extent did Americans invest in English movies? This heads into something tricky, but this post is inspired by an historian and thus historicity must be taken into account. The trickiness of this re Judt's argument lies in that at that time, Britain and Europe were always distinguished, i.e., Britain was not deemed part of Europe. When I was of tender years in the 50s, and at least through the 60s, Europe was often referred to as "the Continent" (a term long disused, though the thinking behind it isn't on the part of many British people and many Europeans. Likely including the entire French nation.) In the same vein, I refer above to English movies, not British, for there was no significant film industry in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as there is now, and the movies made were very English indeed.

Subsidy of the English film industry was substantial, but did Americans invest in the films of Powell and Pressburger? Scorsese has hardly kept secret that his greatest inspiration came from Michael Powell and the films he directed with Emeric Pressburger as producer. It just makes me wonder how Americans viewed their movies of that period. 'The Red Shoes' and 'Black Narcissus' were hardly noir, but nor am I able to see them as entirely escapist. 'Green for Danger', a great adaptation of a great crime novel, perhaps Christianna Brand's finest, and with Alastair Sim certainly at his finest, is a whodunit, not a thriller (pace Wiki and elsewhere), but Sim's Inspector Cockrill is an ambivalent character, very funny, but sometimes in a very dark way. Escapist? It is for me, but...

If this has helped in any way it must be only in that I've asked questions. Answers much come from those with much greater knowledge of movies than I possess, or the time to do some research, which I'm not sure Judt did and I don't have time to. I am far from being a movie buff, but I should be very interested in those answers.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Postscript. I should have mentioned that Green for Danger was directed by Sidney Gilliat, a fine director indeed, but not Michael Powell. I mull. Actually, I have a notion that Green for Danger, in its ambivalence, might well pass for a Powell movie if one did not know better.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I don't think that section is the strongest in Judt's book. And I have never heard of Bogart being a hot topic in French intellectual circles, either. But yes, would there have been a Belmondo without a Bogart?

You'll remember that the book is thin on footnotes but has fairly large bibliographies arranged both by topic and by chapter. I'd have to check Judt's sources for his statements about American movie producers' practices and whether Sartre and Camus argued about Bogart.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I also suspect that Judt's real interest lay somewhere other than movies. Some generalization is probably necessary in a one-volume work of this size, and I think he generalizes even more in his discussions of popular entertainment than he does elsewhere.

I did find it odd that he included these discussions in what he calls a postscript to his section on the immediate postwar years. He may be indulging in a tendency to accord popular entertainment more importance than it deserves.

I should mention that Judt was English, born in 1948, so he would have had some familiarity with post-war. Indeed, he does make occasional passing references to his own experience. Elsewhere, if not in the discussion of movies, he differentiates clearly between Britain and the continent.

I don't want to extrapolate too much from Judt's brief discussion of the subject, but I don't think he overstates the impact and number of films noirs. Such films, he writes, were "some of the most popular" movies coming out of the U.S. in the 1940s and '50s.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Neither Powell nor Pressburger turns up in the index, but Billy Wilder does.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Hmmm. Powell and Pressburger (though it's Powell that we are really concerned with, just it is he Scorsese rather hero worships)were most surely the most singular phenomenon in English movies in the 40s, so if Judt doesn't mention them, I think he's at least sound re historicity, rightly meaning in writing of that period Europe as the Continent, and Britain apart.

Funny you should say what you do about Tony Judt. I'd already knew that he was English, and then noticed somewhere that he was born in 1948. I popped out in 1949. We went to very similar secondary schools, selective in high degree, with equal, and very great, stress on success both in the academic sphere and on the playing fields. He received his B.A. one year before I got mine, and ditto our doctorates, both in History. Geographically apart, we led rather parallel lives during those years, and from reading others of his works, it seems we emerged with, or in following years developed, very similar views in general.

The 'History' Judt wrote is not in the mainstream of current historical practice. What I'm alluding to here is the invasion of the discipline and practice of historical study by post-modernism. That, at least for me, is a complete horror story. God knows what Jacques Barzun thought of it, or what Michael Oakeshott would have thought. (Have you read the latter's 'On the Activity of Being an Historian'? It's in his renowned/notorious (there's a mighty good and scandalous tale behind my wording) book of essays entitled Rationalism in Politics.

I digress there, but what I wanted to say was I have not infrequently felt in reading Judt that he sometimes veers into writing Political Science or Sociology in works we think of as historical. When I was teaching Historiography and Philosophy of History, courses well-suited to me as an historian of ideas, and subjects no one else wanted to teach, I would have taken exception to that. But now my discipline is being made a nonsense of, likely dooming it, now I have no objection at all to such tangential episodes in what are, that notwithstanding, sound works of History in the vein in which he and I were both taught, though I do myself remain very strict indeed re what constitutes writing within the historical discipline, which the post-modernist 'historians' have left behind them in toto. To expain in brief, I remain in the school of Robin Collingwood, Michael Oakeshott, Jacques Barzun, et al.

Sorry if I ramble, Peter, but I'm very ill again, can't sleep, and by this time of day exhausted. But I do my best.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I have not read Oakeshott, but I recently read some of Marc Bloch's essays in The Historian's Craft, so I have been thinking a bit about what historians do.

One way Judt adheres to an older conception of writing history, I think, is in the very scale of Postwar. History, at least in the books that make it onto the shelves for popular consumption, tends toward micro history, or at least toward a simplification of concept: A given product or a given year was THE cause of the modern world or end of the classical world, or what have you.

I think Postwar shares, at least implicitly, Herodotus' straightforward strategy of taking a given subject as his starting point and then asking: What caused this?

I will caution that I have read what I guess will turn out to be the more event-driven part of the book, the war's immediate aftermath. I expect that danger of sociology will loom larger in coming chapters.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yikes! I hope these discussions at least divert you from your ailments for a while. You should also find some good, hefty, non-sociological history to read.

August 27, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

First, Peter, your words are as greatly appreciated as they are kind. Thank you.

The observations in your last comment are astute, as ever. I think I should prefer to apply the interesting term 'micro-history' to academic history as it has come to be written over the past half-century: the historical matter focused upon becoming smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower, and to thepoint where it is so limited in scope that only historians in that particular little part of the field would find it of interest, or even comprehensible. And thus, just historians writing for other historians.

The word used formally to describe what you term "a simplification of concept" is 'reductionism'. It is a fallacy, one also to be found in the most academic of writings as well as those intended for general readership, and at its worst descending to reductio ad absurdum. That may be found in purely academic works, and perhaps most often in works that seek to encompass the greatest area while explaining everything in it in terms of one cause.

The Turner Thesis re the American frontier is a prime example. On a somewhat smaller scale, the Norman Thesis of the origins of Russia became a reductio when pursued to the point of near-fanaticism, which it was on the part of some, as also its opposite, leading to a legendary academic punch-up in the middle of the last century. Back to the largest scale, I have sometime thought that the many works of Richard A. Pierce, looked at as a whole and with perspective, amount to a sort of Frontier/Turner thesis of Russian history. I agree totally with your observation about Herodotus, though I should rephrase it to read 'What were the causes of this?', just to make clear that he sought causes, not the cause, to iterate your own fine point.

Most popular history is lousy. There are multiple causes of that. The writers now totally lack the ability of such as Trevelyan or Garrett Mattingly to present new historical findings in a manner perfectly satisfactory to academics yet accessible to the general reader. To Trevelyan, this was the natural thing to do. Mattingly wrote later, but was avowedly hell-bent upon doing the same. His classic work on the Spanish Armada is a magnificent example of how it can be done, though I must agree with J.H. Hexter that his attempt to do the same with his Renaissance Diplomacy was necessarily less successful, and unnecessary, as it was not a title likely to be snaffled waiting in line in Safeway.

But I do not like the fad for academic historians to write popular history. Most do not know how, they write down, they over-simplify, they reduce. They now have contracts with advances and publishers' deadlines, and so we have an epidemic of shoddy, hasty writing, errors, and accusations of plagiarism abound. Too much cutting and pasting.

God knows, I would love to see history written for the general reader, but only of the soundest sort, else it is counter-productive. History is no longer in any true sense part of school curricula, and paid little attention in universities. And there is rarely a day when I read my news sources without seeing the results of that ignorance. I could give many an example, but there are two that will suffice: the atrocious mess made of Afghanistan, and the series of catastrophes in the Middle East I thought nigh-on inevitable when Dick Cheney became VP, with the likes of Wolfowitz, Perle, Abrams, Bolton, et al., clinging to his coattails, each clutching his copy of Project for the New American Century. I'd take on a bet that I could pepper that lot for a couple of hours with 100-level questions about the history of anything and anywhere without getting a right answer.

I do have good and hefty history works to read, Peter, including Tom Holland's new translation of Herodotus, strange to say. Now HE knew how to search for causes while telling a bloody good story at the same time. And so to my recliner, to paraphrase Pepys. My thanks for a fine conversation, knowing most happily there is more to come.

August 28, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Are the various all-embracing historical theses the fault of the historians in question, or of their epigones? Did Henri Pirenne speak of a Pirenne thesis?

Just has now taken me and Europe through the oil shocks of the 1970s. I was right that his chapters on the 1960s and '70s contain more sociology than the earlier chapters do. But the takes the piss out of the '60s, at least as experienced in Western Europe, in the most delightful way.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry on Judt calls the scope of Postwar a departure for Judt. I find it reassuring that he was able to adapt to the new, larger scale while remaining entertaining, provocative, and accessible. I'd like more historians to do the same.

August 28, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I am determined to be pithy in answering your question, Peter. I should not be at all unhappy if you turned this into a History blog, but I begin to fear that my somewhat recondite ramblings have driven away your customary commenters.

You ask two questions, the second seeking to clarify with an example, and therein lies the answer. This is not the same as parallel situations in political movements (though the political ramifications of certain historical theses may be great), not the same as what Marx was getting at when he wrote, "I am not a Marxist".

There are great differences among the historical theses we've touched upon, and I think it very important to recall that we started out speaking to the matter of reductionism, a vast area of History, or an immensely complex smaller topic, reduced to one cause. This is at the heart of the Turner Thesis, now more often referred to as the Frontier Thesis, to which, I mentioned, Pierce's 'urge to the borders' in Russia's case might be seen as akin. This has long been largely rejected by historians. It would not have been quite so significant, perhaps, if Turner had got around to writing a book. But rather, a century ago, his teachings were passed onto graduate students, and so to theirs, and so to the point that it became an established paradigm. But then arose a reaction to it, and I don't need to explain what happens when academics of any ilk find their own paradigm being kicked from under them. It got nasty.

The Normanist theory of the origins of Russia was reductionist, but the furore there stemmed from the fact that it involved various nationalities, very dogmatic characters, and Soviet Russia, which didn't at all take to the idea that it owed its existence and empire ultimately to Vikings. Quite rightly, the origins of the Rus continue to be studied and debated, but in much more open manner.

But the Pirenne Thesis! Very different. Henri Pirenne was a very great historian indeed, no reductionist and, by chance, no small influence on Marc Bloch. Pirenne did not reject wholesale current work re the factors that contributed to the development of the Middle Ages; rather he sought to give each its proper weight, and, here the essence of his thesis, other underlying factors not previously considered.

Turner wrote no book, established no school; there was no Turnerism; but rather had, in no small part because of the nature of US academic system, a disproportionate influence that became reified in a paradigm, and one that didn't shift much.

Pirenne wrote a vast amount, the part of which that is the essence of his thesis alone consisting of three volumes, and so the 'Pirenne Thesis' is simply a bit of bibliographical, or historiographical, shorthand. Another major difference is that he began his work in the 19th. century, continued into the 20th., and it is still accepted as a sound basis for study of the Middle Ages today.

All of which leads to the Philip Thesis: that I am incapable of being pithy.

August 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

History on a grand scale deserves copious commentary.

The end of Postwar is in sight, and I am already suffering premature withdrawal systems wondering what I might read next. I've always thought a lively, intelligent history of Catalonia would be worth reading because of the early presence of something like democratic institutions there and because Barcelona's Barri Gòtic is the only medieval quarter I have ever visited where I did not get lost. Why? Because the streets were straight, a fact to which I attached great significance.

August 29, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am open to suggestions of such a book. In re Turner, here’s a post I put up five years ago.

August 29, 2014  

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