Our study focuses on the relationship between Hollywood film and American society from 1967 to the mid-eighties, a period characterized by a major swing in dominant social movements from Left to Right. We began writing this book in 1980 because we were disturbed by the changes in dominant cultural representations which that large political tidal shift seemed to bring with it. We noticed particularly that Hollywood film, which seemed to us to be gaining in importance as a mobilizer of public energies, was actively promoting the new conservative movements on several fronts, from the family to the military to economic policy. Our initial impulse, therefore, was critical and negative, a leftist response to a rightward turn that worried us. While we retain a great deal of concern over the conservative, frequently neofascist ideals and images that came to populate the American cultural scene, we have also, as we pursued our research into the relation between film culture and society, come to sense that the system of domination and inequality which those cultural representations help to hold in place is not as stable or well grounded as some of its self-idealizations make it appear. Indeed, as we pursued our project we came to realize that the very ferocity of those conservative representations, the very thing that inspired our initial concern, was itself a testament to other forces, other movements and changes which were quite progressive in character or which bore the potential of becoming progressive. We became convinced that it is in the very nature of conservative reaction to be indicative of the power of forces which threaten conservative values and institutions.
Moreover, we have come to understand that the flow of forces in social history is such that social movements, like the hegemonic conservatism of the eighties, are usually responses to threats posed by other social movements. In examining the conservatism of the eighties, we were forced to return to the radicalism of the sixties, which made tremendous inroads into the old world of traditional family, patriotic, economic, and religious values that conservatives seek to defend. Feminism, the civil rights movement, economic democracy, the sexual revolution, antimilitarism, and environmentalism blossomed in the sixties and seventies, and although they met with fierce resistance from the Right in the eighties, they have also permanently transformed American social consciousness, so much so that conservatives found themselves in an irreducible quandary in the late eighties: although they possessed political power, they were incapable of instituting the conservative social agenda. Americans were not willing to follow the Right into war in places like Central America, to buy into born-again calls to abolish abortion, or to accept the destruction of the government’s role as provider of social security. During the sixties and seventies, American social consciousness was liberalized to a remarkable degree, and although conservative counterattacks against the forces of liberalization have been quite successful at seizing power and using it, we suggest that this change in consciousness bodes well for progressives interested in changing American society in a radical direction. Our book, then, is as much about cultural history and social change as it is about film. Our purpose has been to use film to gain an understanding of American political life which we hope would ultimately be of use to those interested in changing it.
Many people aided the composition of this book. Our students and colleagues over the years contributed insights and observations which were far too numerous to cite in each case. The following friends and colleagues aided our research, suggested ideas or changes, or provided criticism of various drafts of the text: Carolyn Appleton, Peter Biskind, Louis Black, Stephen Bronner, Jackie Byars, Harry Cleaver, Jim Fleming, Gerry Forshey, Bill Gibson, Bob Goldman, Lisa Gornick, Margaret Homans, Fredric Jameson, Lewanne Jones, Chuck Kleinhans, John Lawrence, Flo Leibowitz, Richard Lichtman, Bill Nichols, Elayne Rapping, Tony Safford, Tom Schatz, Kay Sloan, Paul Smith, Clay Steinman, and John Stockwell. And we are especially grateful to Judith Burton and Julie Rivkin for their thorough, thoughtful, and painstaking critical readings of the book. Many changes and improvements were a result of their suggestions and insights.
We also wish to thank Emily Seager, Barbara Humphreys, and all those others at the Library of Congress Film Division who helped us get access to films now out of circulation. The audio-visual services at the University of Virginia, Miami University, Northeastern University, and the University of Texas (Austin) also helped enormously with time, labor, and equipment. Ellen McWhirter, the director of the English Department film series at the University of Virginia, was especially helpful, as were Eric Eubank, Juvenal Mendez, Kevin West, and John Mechaley of the language lab at Texas. We thank the English Department of Miami University, and especially the Executive Secretary, Susan Deckhart, for all of its assistance during the writing of this book, and the English Department of Northeastern University, especially Eileen Smith, for assistance during the final preparation of the manuscript. Both Jerry Schrader of Northeastern and Alicia Montoya of Texas provided invaluable help with the illustrations. In addition, we are grateful to Alan Trachtenberg for arranging a Visiting Fellow appointment for Michael Ryan in the American Studies Program at Yale University which gave us access to otherwise unavailable research materials at the Sterling Library, and to the University of Texas Faculty Research Institute for providing a grant which enabled Douglas Kellner to work on the book.
Our research into audience responses to Hollywood movies was greatly helped by the advice of Pat Golden of the Sociology Department at Northeastern. Tommie Lott of African American Studies, Herman Gray of Sociology, and Carol Owen of Anthropology at Northeastern also provided invaluable counseling and help. Marisa Belmonte helped type in the data, and Wu Yue provided needed assistance with the research program.
Finally, we thank all of those friends who accompanied us to movie theaters over the years, putting up with what must have appeared to be rather bizarre preferences in film.
The composition of the book entailed a long process of consultation, draft writing, and mutual criticism. We initially divided the chapters between us. Doug Kellner did the first drafts of the chapters on horror, disaster, and conspiracy films. Michael Ryan did the drafts on war, working class, and women’s films. Other chapters were put together from both our work. The drafts were exchanged, criticized, and rewritten a number of times. We also discussed the book often over the phone, developing ideas and debating differences, and we had occasion to meet on a regular basis over the years at conferences as well as at each other’s institutions to work together. Several different versions of the manuscript were written in this way. The final version for the press was written by Michael Ryan. We think of this book as a genuinely collaborative project. Neither of us alone could have written it. We encourage readers to participate in that process of collaboration by writing to us with comments or criticisms.