Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Quote of the Day (H.L. Mencken, on Film a Century Ago, in Its ‘Wild West’ Stage)

“The movies are still in the Wild West stage of culture. They have yet to produce any authentic artists, or such an artist could not endure the kind of life nearly all movie people have to lead. The great magnates of the movie world would strike him precisely as a Hearst or a Harmsworth strikes a man of letters, or the sales agent of a phonograph company a composer of good music. It may be suggested here that perhaps Wagner was an exception—that he showed certain tastes that recall those of a movie star. But it must be manifest on reflection that there was actually a vast difference between the society of even a crazy king and that of a movie magnate, and an even vaster one between the atmosphere of Triebschen or Bayreuth, even with Cosima in the house, and that of Hollywood.” —American journalist, essayist, and philologist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks (1956)

Reading the notebook entries of H.L. Mencken was something of a letdown for me. The material he poured into his columns and books in his lifetime featured his funniest, most erudite thoughts. The notebooks featured his darkest, most bilious meditations on religion, democracy and racial and ethnic groups he did judged as falling outside the cultural elite.

The passage I am highlighting here differs from his other, more dispiriting private ideas. At the height of Mencken’s influence, in the Roaring Twenties, movies were coming into their own as a mass medium. But, even with his often piercing insight into culture, he couldn’t see that early filmmakers were not only pioneering a new kind of visual medium, but a new kind of storytelling. 

Moreover, he missed parallels to his hero Richard Wagner that went beyond personal taste or loutish lifestyle. Just as the German was pushing the boundaries of musical theater with his operas, so were early Hollywood directors inventing a new kind of vocabulary to depict emotion. And, just as Wagner sought to build new arenas that could incorporate his ideas on musical drama, Hollywood was developing an entire apparatus for its new dream machine—movie theaters, projectors, elaborate backdrops for scenes, and even the coming of sound.

The new vocabulary and forms developed in the Twenties were quickly copied across continents. We saw the culmination of this process on Sunday night, when Parasite became the first foreign-language film to receive the Best Picture Oscar. One wonders what Mencken would have made of all of this.

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