Individualism and Commitment in American Cinema: Part I

Part I: How to Study Individualism and Commitment

This is Part I of a Series of VII Articles

In his seminal volume Democracy in America, one of the first and most influential books I had read as an undergrad student, Alexis de Tocqueville had discussed the intellectual and moral conditions that draw Americans out of their private lives into public service and thus link their self-interest with the collective interest.

Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca

Concerned with the issue of how to make moral sense out of the private domain, Tocqueville described the American version of individualism with both admiration and anxiety.

Does individualism mean selfishness or self-fulfillment?

Individualism: Sacred Value in American Culture

In dominant American culture, the language of individualism has had two varieties: the utilitarian individualism of Benjamin Franklin, based on cost-benefit analysis, and the expressive individualism of Walt Whitman, based on the model of the self-made, self-actualized man.

Individualism is a sacred value, placed at the core of the modern Western belief system. In politics, democracy takes the consent of the governed through individual free choice as its basis of legitimacy. In modern economies, capitalism takes individual choice as the legitimating of production and the market place. Modern religions legitimate individual conscience as the ultimate source of faith and morality.

Individualism has always been a major cultural element of the American Way of Life. Notions of appropriate (and inappropriate) individualism are transmitted not only by the family, peer group, and school, but also by the mass media (film, television).

The cultural media have serve as a major source of information about a variety of roles, including the political role of a citizen. This sociological function has been particularly important for children and adolescents who have always dominated the movie-going public. Younger viewers often gain their first insights into the “real world” through exposure to the mass media.

Commitment: Ideological Construction

This article analyzes from a social-historical perspective the ideological construction of the values of individualism and commitment by the film industry. The American film industry has a dual aspect. As a major economic institution, with a strong industrial and technological base, it creates mass products (standardized and formulaic films) for the consumption of large audiences. But the film industry is also a cultural institution, “a story-telling machine,” which fulfills important ideological functions through its creation and dissemination of symbols. Unlike material products, films are symbolic products, which signify social values and meanings through their narratives, plots, and characters.

Because the typical Hollywood products have been designed to appeal to the largest possible audiences, an examination of popular films about individualism and commitment can serve as an indicator of what filmmakers thought to be acceptable to the American public. The filmmakers’ concepts might have been distorted, but their guiding assumptions shaped the contents and form of the typical Hollywood movie.

American Cinematic Genius

Sergeant_York_posterThe late, great French critic Andre Bazin has observed that “Hollywood’s superiority is only incidentally technical; it lies much more in what one might call the American cinematic genius, something which should be analyzed, then defined, by a sociological approach to its production. The American cinema has been able in an extraordinarily competent way, to show American society just as it wanted to see itself.” Indeed, for Durkheim, a society forms itself by bringing itself to consciousness through collective representations, which it then externalizes and worships. The advantage of analyzing commercially successful films is that they are widely seen by the public, thus serving as potential agents of socialization.

These articles focus on the interplay among screen images, dominant ideology, and social structure, by exploring the following issue: what guidelines, prescriptions and proscriptions, have American films provided concerning the values of individualism and commitment. More specifically, what have been the main attributes of American screen heroism What guidelines have American films prescribed for the performance of the role of American citizens Have there been any changes in the portrayal of commitment over time and how pervasive have these changes been

Myths and Basic Cultural Dilemmas

The narrative structure of Hollywood films discloses basic thematic, ideological, and stylistic conventions. Classic films can be analyzed as cultural myths, narratives arising from society’s underlying issues and dominant structures. Claude Levi-Strauss describes myths as transformations of basic dilemmas or contradictions that in reality cannot be resolved. Concerned with decoding the elementary units in culture, his goal is to reveal, “How the apparently arbitrary mythical representations link up with reality,” in order to “reflect, obscure, or contradict it.” Levi-Strauss seeks the underlying logic of myths, his analysis breaks down the most complex myths into logical categories of dialectical opposition. Based on a formal use of inversion, every category has its opposite. Indeed, despite seeming implausibilities and contradictions, myths tend to be coherent and logical structures.

Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myths has been criticized for being ahistorical, ignoring the specific conditions under which they arise or are activated. But myths endure because they are at once historical (specific) and universal (a-temporal). They provide in popular fictional form (stories) both a version of concrete history and a vision of existence. As collective representations, the function of myths is to preserve and legitimize the social order. Like other forms of storytelling, film narratives derive from strong moral origins, reflect moral conflicts, and offer moral solutions. Consisting of values and hidden meanings, the survival of myths depends on two factors. First, the ability of filmmakers to regenerate similar myths in fresh and topical way. And second, the ability of viewers to forget the weakest and most mutable examples, their willingness to pretend they are seeing the story for the first time.

The durability of specific myths in the American cinema suggests their variability: Their ability to present numerous variations of thematic conventions. At the same time, myths’ influence over viewers increases with the number of incarnations they allow for. The myths associated with individualism and commitment have survived for a long time–despite changes in ideology and social structure. Myths cannot easily be overthrown by contradictory reality, because viewers do not perceive reality directly, but through dominant paradigms, which determine the way they feel about specific events. Some of society’s value contradictions have been acknowledged, while others suppressed by the film industry . It is debatable whether Hollywood, as an ideological system, could create new national myths. However, because of their power, films can disseminate and popularize myths more rapidly than other cultural media (novels, plays). Despite the fact that the origins of cinematic myths are often in literature or the theater, films portray the material of everyday life more effectively than other arts. Films provide an illusion of reality through the use of the “recording” camera. As myths, film narratives are experienced in specific historical circumstances. This is a point of convergence between the sociology and structuralism of film. The “internal” approach of the structuralist (the inner attributes and underlying structures of films as texts) is supplemented with the sociologist’s “external” approach, grounding these attributes in their specific cultural and political settings.

This series of articles analyze the treatment of two interrelated myths, individualism and commitment, in both their generalized and particularized forms. The following films are analyzed structurally in terms of one basic unit-idea: individual versus community. This core myth raises such questions as the desirable relationship between individuals and their community, the individuals’ level of involvement and participation in communal affairs, the basis of individuals’ motivation (self interest or collective interests) and the question of how much sacrifice should the community demand–and get–from its individual members The tension between individuals and community has persisted because each unit is associated with opposing values. The individual is associated with freedom, integrity, and self-interest, whereas the community is associated with restriction, compromise, and social responsibility. This core idea, stated as conceptual opposites (thesis and anti-thesis), has recurred in many films.

Types of Commitment in Hollywood Cinema

The Hollywood war film provides a strategic site for analyzing the myth of commitment, because its narratives deal explicitly with political issues. At the same time, conclusions drawn from examining war movies may be applicable to other genres. A consideration of screen heroism must include the war films made by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart, arguably some of the most durable stars in American films. It is no accident that the aforementioned actors became popular movie stars as a result of playing war heroes.

John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart

If one were to choose the most memorable film of each star it would probably be Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) for John Wayne, Casablanca (1943) for Humphrey Bogart, and Sergeant York (1941) for Gary Cooper.  Note that all three films were made in the 1940s.

At the center of each film is the basic dilemma between individualism and commitment to a larger cause, or self versus collective interests.

The three stars embodied a different mode of commitment, which was consistently reflected in many of their films.

Please Read

Part II: John Wayne

Part III: Humphrey Bogart

Part IV: Gary Cooper

Part V: Changes in Commitment and Individualism

Part VI: Commitment and Gender

Part VII: New Trends