For several weeks now I have agonized over writing about the above topic. It is not that I didn’t know what to say, but how to say it. Then, by chance, I came across a film critic that was unfamiliar to me who happened to say the very things I wanted to say, but far more eloquently. The piece he wrote began by proclaiming that “cinema, as a fine art, in every country of the world, presents a picture of absolute bankruptcy (italics my own).” And as for Europe, their “film industries continue uninterruptedly with their programs of popular drivel and their desperate duplications of Hollywood, the European cinema as a creative force in Western civilization is utterly and hopelessly dead.” However, it was for the American film industry that this critic reserved the most venom. After quoting a colleague who had uttered in disdain that “in the past five years…not a single picture of the highest order of importance had been produced in the United States,” he flatly stated that “no conceivable mental gymnastics can lead one to imagine that a film art worthy of the name exists here today.” Our very perceptive critic unequivocally attributed this sorry state of affairs to “the failure of the American film people to apprehend the real powers, capacities and resources of the cinema, beyond those necessary to a standardized, straightforward narrative technique.” However, he did not hesitate to give “the devil his due,” stating that “Taken for what it is, the American entertainment film stands as the best of its kind in the world….The Hollywood movie is immeasurably superior to its many imitations throughout the world.”
Alright, enough of this charade! You probably have guessed that these observations were not made recently. Perhaps, twenty years ago. Or maybe thirty? Wrong. It was actually written 77 years ago–1936! The name of the critic was Seymour Stern, and the title of his essay was “The Bankruptcy of Cinema as Art”.
Besides being a critic, Seymour Stern had worked closely with D.W. Griffith during the latter’s most productive years. You can certainly understand Stern’s dismay in seeing how, with the advent of sound, with its cumbersome and unwieldy equipment, cinema was being taken back to the Stone Age. And as for the mass importation by Hollywood of actors, playwrights and directors from the Broadway stage, who had no background at all in film, this must have been equally distressing. Remember, Stern worked with Griffith when this celebrated film pioneer was innovating on almost a daily basis. But it is not so much because of Stern’s acerbic assessment on the cinema of his day—which could very well be applied to the cinema of today– that I call your attention to him, but rather for his intriguing proposals for breathing new life into what he saw as a bankrupt institution.
Stern offered a five point program of what he considered to be radical innovations (for 1936, that is). They are as follows:
- Establish in the United States a university of the cinema, “with the emphasis on the formal and aesthetic problems of the motion picture.” This, Stern urged, should be subsidized by the government.
- “A Theater of the Cinema should be established in at least every large city of the United States. Here great films of all countries and of all periods should be projected in constant revivals.”
- The Film-Art movement should be revived. “There should be a resurrection of film societies for purposes of discussion of the nature and destiny of the cinema . . . The chief purpose of these clubs , however, will be to heighten interest in the exhibition of classics and experimental films at the theaters of the cinema.”
- “Independent creative film production should be subsidized by the government as the logical fruition of its support of the film university. The tragic exclusion from the industry of thousands of talented young men and women all over the country in favor of distinctly inferior and even degenerate talent should give the government pause.”
- On this point, Stern urges a nationwide campaign against the censorship of the motion picture. (It should be noted that in 1936, film censorship—whether by government or the industry, itself—was widespread in the United States, as it was throughout the world.)
What is most interesting about Stern’s “radical” proposals is that all of them have been tried or exit today in some form or another not only in the United States, but other countries as well. America has many comprehensive film production and film studies programs at prestigious universities throughout the country; these are in addition to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which is partly government funded. And during the 1960’s and 1970’s most major cities had movie theaters (called “art houses”) that exhibited worthy films from around the world, and usually in the format of retrospectives. Furthermore, film societies have always existed in the United States, but not to the extent they are to be found in other countries. As for government subsidies for independent film production, they have never been substantial in the United States, but they have been extensively used in most other countries—to mixed results. On Stern’s last point, although government censorship has virtually disappeared in the United States, self-censorship still exists, primarily in the obtaining of “ratings” for exhibition purposes (e.g., ”R”; “PG,” etc.). For those of you not familiar with the American motion picture ratings system, these ratings specify who can view certain films, not whether they can be exhibited, similar to what exists in most other countries today.
Utopian as his proposals may have sounded for his time, Stern understood that they in themselves were no panacea; for without people with the extraordinary talent to realize them, they were essentially useless. He cautioned: “One Intolerance (Griffith’s 1916 monumental film) is worth all the “good” films Hollywood has ever made.” For Stern, the only remedy for what ailed the movie industry was a creative remedy. And he concluded by saying, “When this idea [i.e. the creative remedy] is fully understood by those who wish to “revolutionize” the movie in this country, a real revolution will be possible, then, and not before then, will the cinema become the glory, instead of the pointless joke, of American civilization.”