Having read Biskind's brilliant slice of American film culture, 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls', I was pleased to see this book reissued by Bloomsbury (the original was in 1983). This has an extra foreword and a complementary cover to 'Easy Riders...'
The book discusses a number of U.S. films of the Fifties- from an ideological (thus cultural, thus political, thus social) perspective. Texts ar given intuitive readings against the backdrop of McCarthyism/Communist Paranoia/the encroachment of Dean-Kerouac pop culture/the atom bomb/the cold war etc. The first chapter looks at Henry Fonda- it would be nice for Mr Biskind to publish another tome between this era and 'Easy Riders...': what would he have made of Fonda's role in 'Once Upon a Time in The West'?...The second chapter takes in war films of the era, the most famous is 'From Here to Eternity'. Chapter Three , entitled 'Us & Them', looks at the Communist paranoia through texts such as 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' (Don Siegel, co-scripted by Sam Peckinpah). The subsequent chapter twists on this theme ('the enemy within')taking in key-texts such as 'On the Waterfront', 'Rebel Without a Cause' & 'The Searchers' (nice to see a book that mentions Sam Fuller lots- I refute Rod Steiger's claim that "he was s**t"; plus 'I was a Teenage werewolf' is a b-movie classic!). The final chapter takes in gender identity of the period (would have liked to have seen a section on Minelli's 'Home from the Hill')- hitting on 'Giant', 'Mildred Pierce' & Sirk's 'All That Heaven Allows'. The Conclusion gives a brilliant overview of the period of 50's shifting to the 60's- mentioning 'Psycho' in relation to identity. Biskind refs texts such as 'Bonnie & Clyde' & 'Dr Strangelove' and the 50's is put into historical context. It would be intriguing to know what Mr Biskind thinks of David Lynch's fascination with the 50's, part. 'Blue Velvet' & 'Mullholland Drive'.
An excellent book that will direct you to seeing and understanding American films of the Fifties.
on 3 July 2013
Biskind's best-known book, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", has received numerous reviews on Amazon, "Seeing..." only one. This is not surprising. "Easy.." is written in the vein of Julia Phillips's repellent book "You'll never eat lunch in this town again" - chatty, salacious and racey. It's a good read, but little more than a collation of gossip that can be found in any number of other similar books.
"Seeing..." is a totally different kettle of fish. Written from a firmly marxist perspective, it analyses the subconscious expression of 1950's American preoccupations and anxieties as expressed through the films of that period. Science Fiction and War films are the principal subject matter of the work, though sex-roles and gender definitions also receive some worthwhile attention. Films such as "Strategic Air Command" (War), "The Thing" (S.F.) and "12 Angry Men" (Social Consensus) are analysed in terms of whether or not they fitted into the world-view, or expressed the anxieties, of factions of American society as Biskind understands them - the Right, the Centre, and the Left. Thus, "12 Angry Men" expresses the Centre's wish to draw all significant portions of American society, as embodied in the all-white-all-male members of the Jury, into a broad consensus by allowing objective facts (as expressed by the cool and level-headed WASP architect, played by Henry Fonda) to overcome the unthinking prejudice of non-consensus elements (as expressed by the uneducated, blue-collar, youth-hating Lee J. Cobb character and the racist persona of Ed Begley), thereby validating the effectiveness of the American judicial system and the essential Rightness of a societal consensus.
I'm not sure I totally buy into Biskind's overall thesis. In his determination to make all the films he analyses fit into his marxian model, I think he loses sight of the probable fact that may of these films simply expressed a wish, not to express anyone's subconscious longings or anxieties, but to simply make a good film that would turn a profit. What he sometimes characterises as an aspect of wish-fulfilment or anxiety (for instance, the words and actions of Klaatu in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"), I will often regard as nothing more than a MacGuffin to move the plot along. The result is that, sometimes, you feel that he throws the baby out with the bathwater, sacrificing objective analysis to the requirements of his overarching thesis; at times like this, the book can (very occasionally) become rather hard-going.
However, I don't want to make you think that you'll be reading a digest of "Das Kapital" if you venture into this book's pages. Far from it - it's a really good, thought-provoking read that makes you re-examine your own views about film in particular and, possibly, society in general. It's also very well written and frequently very funny -
"Johnny Ringo (Gregory Peck, in "The Gunfighter",1950)... is a tired outlaw who wants to...settle down with his wife, Peg, the town schoolteacher who left him years before because she didn't like bullets bouncing off her blackboard".
So, if you want an unusual book about a familiar subject that will make you think out of the box, and not just reinforce what you already know - even if you don't always agree with it - then this is for you. Recommended.