Levy Book: Small-Town America in Film, The Fall and Decline of Community

Small-Town America in Film: The Fall and Decline of Community

Unlike former books that I have written, one thing was clear from the very beginning about this book: Its title and subtitle.
It had to be called Small-Town America. What other title could capture the essence of that distinctly American lifestyle, subculture, or vision.
My Book

I had failed to realize at the time that, along with my other books (And the Winner Is: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (1986) and John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life (1988), I was dealing with three of the most uniquely American symbols: the Oscar Award, John Wayne, and Small-Town America.


My Oscar Book:

To me, the three aforementioned publications form some kind of logical trilogy, a thematic unit, representing a decade of research and teaching courses on the American cinema.

I began collecting data about small-town films, not realizing the scope of the genre, the huge number of such features.

I subsequently decided to limit myself to the sound era and begin with that landmark of a film, King Vidor’s The Crowd, a work that set forever the visual imagery of the Big City in the American cinema.

During the research process, the scope of the study expanded and films about the Big City and Suburbia were added. The comparisons among the three ideological constructs (and lifestyles) help to highlight the distinctive thematic and stylistic elements of small-town life (and films).

The book reported here is a chronological account, decade by decade, of the portraiture of Small-Town America in films made over six decades, between 1927 and 1989.

My Book:

This book owes an intellectual debt to one major critic, Andrew Sarris, who has influenced my way of thinking about films in general. One of the first film books I have read, back in 1969, was Sarris’s The American Cinema (1968), the “Bible” of auteurism and a book that changed the direction of film criticism in the U.S. Films were no longer evaluated in terms of their stories or ideas, but as aesthetic works; form and style became just as important as their contents.

Whether or not they qualify as auteurs, the book encompasses great films by major American directors, such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, George Stevens, King Vidor, George Cukor, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Joseph Loosey, Douglas Sirk, and others. And it scrutinizes the work of a younger generation of brilliant directors like Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch.

I do believe that one could teach the history and sociology of the American cinema by just focusing on small-town films.

Great Performances in Small-Town Movies

I am also proud that the book pays tribute to some of the finest performances ever given in American films: Katharine Hepburn (Little Women, Alice Adams), Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), Jimmy Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life), Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Spencer Tracy (Bad Day at Black Rock), Julie Harris (The Member of the Wedding), James Dean (East of Eden), Diane Varsi (Peyton Place), Geraldine Page (Sweet Bird of Youth), Paul Newman (Hud), Sally Field (Norma Rae), and so on and so on.

Over the past decade or so, I have offered numerous courses dealing with film and society, ideology and politics in the American cinema, auteurism, and film genres. These courses have invariably included movies about small town life. The best small-town films can be used in a variety of courses.

For example, The Magnificent Ambersons or Shadow of a Doubt were chosen for courses dealing with classics of the American cinema, Orson Welles and Hitchcock as auteurs, expressionism in film, film noir, etc. I would like to thank my students at Columbia University, Wellesley College, and the New School for Social Research who have contributed to this book by challenging my ideas about films.

In each and every decade, different film genres explored the imagery of small-town life, imagery that was more complex than given credit to:

Table of Contents: Decade Approach

In the 1930s, comedy was a prevalent genre;
In the 1940s, serious dramas and war films;
In the 1950s, melodramas and the “women’s film”;
In the 1960s, melodramas but also innovative (non-genre) films;
In the 1970s, horror films;
In the 1980s, comedy dominated again the production of small-town films.

Within the generally favorable attitude of American film (and dominant culture) toward small towns, there was variability in concept and diversity in images.

Each of the six decades presented and represented different symbols and meanings of Small-Town America. The political, and ideological conditioning of small-town products becomes evident when a group of typical films, made in the same decade, are compared and contrasted. As Barbara Deming noted, a social pattern emerges, “a plight more general, sensed by the public, a condition that transcends the literal situation dramatized by any single film.”

The claim that every film is unique, or sui generis, and should be examined in its own right, is countered by the sociological approach, which analyzes a large group of films in terms of their recurrent narrative structures, thematic concerns, and stylistic devices.

During the Depression, one of the solutions to the nation’s social and economic problems was “the return to the soil.” Most films praised uncritically the virtues of small towns and country life (“State Fair”), though only few (“Our Daily Bread”) proposed the establishment of agricultural communes. Indeed, within the context of dominant ideology, King Vidor’s critical views of urbanization and industrialization made him and his film suspect of propagating Communist ideas.

By contrast, Capra’s populist films (“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) were more commercially successful and more characteristic of the decade. They drew sharp contrasts between the values of the small-town and the Big City, condemning the corruption, greed, and impersonality that prevailed in the Big City.

A darker, more ambiguous portraiture of small towns marked the films of the 1940s, despite the fact that the country was at War. The stylistics of film noir was used to convey a bleaker vision of small towns. Even Capra’s upbeat and sentimental “It’s a Wonderful Life” contains a darker sequence: Life in Bedford Falls without George Bailey. This nightmarish imagery was often subconscious, operating beneath the films’ surfaces, but it was there for viewers who wanted to see.

The heroes of some 1940s films (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) are products of deep crisis of faith, each mourning a vision of happiness which eludes him. But, in the final account, Capra’s optimistic belief in the community and its values is unmistakable and unshaken. Continuing the tradition of the Depression, Capra envisions a rather integrated community, composed of individuals who sacrifice for one another and for the town as a whole.

In the 1950s, the ideological attitude toward small towns began to change and movies became more critical in their portrayal. Ordinary life in small towns was depicted as emotionally stifling (“All That Heaven Allows”), intellectually suffocating (“Peyton Place”), and sexually repressive (“Picnic”). But despite such strains, narrative texts of the decade still propagated the centrality of patriarchal ideology, described by Robin Wood as: “The organization of sexual difference within the patriarchal order, a project whose ultimate objective must be the subordination of female desire to male desire.” At the same time, most of these movies could not conceal their ideological strains and their neat resolutions in the form of forced happy endings were not always entirely convincing.

Still, up to the late 1950s, Main Street was more than a row of offices and stores. Small towns boasted communal pride and concern for moral virtues. They had a clear moral center and a strong and visible collective conscience. This was often demonstrated in lengthy trial sequences and speeches (“Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Peyton Place,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”). Order and stability in small-town films were typically and satisfactorily represented by policemen, politicians, doctors, and other service professionals. With the possible exception of “Kings Row” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” up until the late l950s, classic narratives embodied strong, almost irrational, belief in the possibility of healing and the restorative power of doctors and psychiatrists.

In the 1960s, however, as a result of the political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the social protest movements (the women, the black, the students), dominant culture, which had always been defined by white, middle-class men, was challenged. Questions were raised about the validity of the bourgeoisie as the only sanctioned lifestyle. Some critics, such as Noam Chomsky (“American Power and the Mandarins”) and Philip Slater (“The Pursuit of Loneliness”), believed that some of the country’s problems stemmed from its strong, unrealistic belief in technological progress and scientific knowledge.

In films of the past three decades, there is no communal life, no attempt to integrate individuals into the town as a whole. Individuals are more likely to be on their own, and Main Street exists as an abstract set of vague values. Individuals in such films (“Crimes of the Heart”) insist on–and succeed in–separating themselves from the town’s mores. The town, and, by implication, American society at large, no longer possesses the moral authority to demand unqualified sacrifice from its people.

The gradual decline and disintegration of community life in America were expressed in “The Chase,” “Alice’s Restaurant,” “Easy Rider.” These films dealt with imminent or actual breakdown of morality, showing that the old patriarchal order and capitalistic system do not function effectively anymore. Forms of disintegration appeared on each and every level, from the most micro level of the individual to the most macro level of society as a unit. The motifs of disintegration were expressed in “loss of control” over both individual and collective lives. Protagonists of small-town films gradually lost their sense of identity and self-worth, lacking any sense of direction.

The dominant myths of nostalgia, paranoia, and revenge appeared in small-town films of the 1970s. All three themes expressed elements of collective consciousness and national psyche, particularly the increasing alienation from the central political and legal institutions. Political authority in such films was depicted as corrupt and ineffectual in solving society’s problems.

There was a new preoccupation, or even obsession, with achieving celebrity status in every type of film made: small-town (“Crimes of the Heart”), rural (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Sugarland Express”), and urban (Scorsese’s two great films, “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”). These movies showed the cynical but true facts that criminality and outlawry can get their practitioners instant fame. In “Taxi Driver, Travis’s craziness is interpreted as heroism by the press, and in “King of Comedy,” even though Rupert is jailed, his crime (kidnapping a popular talk show host) turns him into a desirable hero.

In the 1980s, with the resurgence of a neo-conservative and patriotic mood, epitomized by the Reagan and Bush’s administrations, many small town films was marked by nostalgia and reaffirmation of virtues associated with small towns, such as commitment to the land and strong family life (“Country,” “The River”). The decade saw films that resorted to the simpler old times (“Places in the Heart”, “Field of Dreams”) and traditional values (“Hoosiers”) as consoling and reassuring myths. However, films of the 1980s were also characterized by contradictory trends: A strange combination of cynicism, irony, and nostalgia. These contradictions in values resulted in the production of compromising (“Resurrection,” “Baby Boom”) and incoherent (“Raggedy Man,” “Racing with the Moon”) texts.

If you want to know more about this subject, please read my book:

Small-Town America in Film: The Fall and decline of Community.

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