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MA2066 Post-Classical Hollywood

Tutor: Barry Langford

Teaching: 10 hours lecture, 10hours seminar

Value: ½ unit

Availability: Autumn or Spring

This course offers students the opportunity to study the American commercial film industry since 1945, with an emphasis on the changes to the Hollywood mode of production in Hollywood’s “post-classical” period – i.e., the decades since the collapse of the studio system in the 1950s. Individual films and filmmakers will be considered in principal relation to the institutional, economic and stylistic changes occurring at that point on Hollywood’s historical evolution. Where appropriate, reference will also be made to relevant historical context during this period of enormous social and political upheaval and momentous cultural change in the United States. Topics to be discussed include the decline of the studio system (including the

Paramount Decree, the HUAC hearings, the impact of television and the demise of the Production Code), the emergence of the New Hollywood, the rise and decline of Hollywood auteurism, genre revisionismand its meanings, the shifting forms of corporate organisation in Hollywood since the 1950s and their practical and aesthetic consequences, and the impact of contemporary media technologies.

Course Aims

  • to introduce students to the institutional, technological, stylistic, and ideological evolutions of Hollywood filmmaking since World War II
  • to situate these changes and tendencies in their relevant social, historical and cultural contexts
  • to develop further students’ analytical and written presentation skills

Learning Outcomes

Students who successfully complete the course will 

  • be familiar with, and able to employ critically, the categories of “classical” and “post-classical” Hollywood
  • identify key filmmakers and genres in Hollywood films since World War II
  • understand the relationship between studio and “independent” American filmmaking
  • be aware of, and able to discuss the relevance of, categories of race, gender, class and sexuality in relation to popular media texts
  • have further developed their written and oral analytical skills in interpreting film texts

Course outline

Section I: Hollywood 1945-1965

1. The Decline of the Studio System

The Best Years of Our Lives  (William Wyler, 1946)

* Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell,Film History: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York:: McGraw-Hill, 2003), pp. 323-352

[* not in course pack]

This lecture summarises the structures, practices and economics of the successful and seemingly stable and secure Hollywood system at the end of World War II, the challenges the system confronted in the following decade, and the ensuing transformation of the American film industry by the early 1960s. Key topics include the 1948 Paramount decision; the rise of independent production; the HUAC hearings; the sharp decline in audience numbers from the late 1940s; and Hollywood’s response to the rise of television.

2. Modernising Hollywood

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)

Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 153-159.

This lecture outlines Hollywood’s investment in new production technologies during the 1950s in its efforts to consolidate its shrinking audience and considers the impact of these new techniques – including the rollout of colour photography, widescreen, 3-D, stereo and multitrack sound – on film style. It will be emphasised that changes in technologies of film production and exhibition can and should be understood as simultaneously technical, economic and aesthetic issues

3. The Culture of Conformity? 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1955)

Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1947) 

  • Katrina Mann, “‘You’re Next!’: Postwar Hegemony Besieged in Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, Cinema Journal 44.1 (Fall 2004), pp. 49-68;
  • Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (London: Arnold, 2001), pp. 27-44.

This class discusses the emergence of two of the most significant “post-classical” Hollywood genres, science fiction and film noir, in light of the political and ideological landscape of postwar America.  Both genres appear to articulate the deep unease that clearly co-existed with the prosperity and consensus of the Truman and Eisenhower eras. Older genres whose popularity burgeoned in this period – notably the Western and the musical – will also be critically interrogated.

Section II: Hollywood 1966-1981

4. Crisis and Recovery

 Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)

Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (London: I. B. Tauris, 2001), pp. 49-84.

This lecture focuses on the transformation of Hollywood’s longstanding corporate structures by the wave of mergers and buyouts beginning in the mid-1960s; Hollywood’s financial crisis of the early 1970s; the implications of the growing importance of the youth market in this context of instability and change; and the emergence by the late 1970s of new industrial practices centred on the blockbuster.

5. New Wave Hollywood

Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)

David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson,The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Routledge, 1985), pp. 367-378.

Hollywood’s decade of economic uncertainty also saw challenges – in some cases radical ones – to the “classical Hollywood style”. In recent years, the notion that the decade from 1967 to 1977 (or from Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars) constitutes a, or even the, peak period of Hollywood’s artistic achievement has become popularised. This lecture looks in detail at the stylistic attributes of this “Hollywood Renaissance” possible, noting the impact of auteurism and the European New Waves of the 1960s on a new generation of filmmakers as well as the comparative limits of stylistic experimentation in the context of the American commercial cinema.

6. Dissenting Perspectives

McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)

Barry Langford, “American Graffiti”, in Mandy Merck, ed., America First: Naming the Nation in US Film (London: Routledge, 2007 forthcoming), n.p.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw arguably the greatest social and political upheavals in modern American history – a crisis which at the time seemed to some to betoken societal collapse, civil war, or revolution. This class examines the ways in which New Hollywood cinema sought to reflect, address or even participate in this febrile political environment, focusing on the practice of critical genre revisionism by New Hollywood directors and the parodic deployment and exposure of “Old Hollywood” tropes as a (mild) form of ideological critique.  It will be argued that Hollywood cinema in this period can be seen as a self-consciously “national cinema” in ways unique in Hollywood history. At the same time, many of the decade’s most popular films adopted a very different and decidedly more conservative perspective – something that would have profound consequences for latterday Hollywood.

Section III: Hollywood 1982-2006

7. The Corporate Era

Batman (Tim Burton, 1989) 

  • Prince, Stephen, A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1990 (Berkeley: U of California P, 2000), pp. 40-89;
  • Balio, Tino, “‘A Major Presence in All the World’s Important Markets’: The Globalisation of Hollywood in the 1990s”, in Steve Neale and Murray Smith (ed.), Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 58-73.

This lecture focuses on the transformed economic fortunes of the Hollywood film industry since the crisis of the 1970s, the associated changes in studio ownership and organisation and business practices, the industry’s radically revised understandings and expectations of its audience(s), and Hollywood’s evolution into a paradigmatic and spectacularly successful modern business enterprise. Issues discussed will include marketing, hype, and exploitation; the rise of blockbuster production in the multiplex era; the impact of home video; globalisation; and the rise of the multimedia conglomerate.

8. Post-Classical Style?

JurassicPark (Steven Spielberg, 1993) 

  • Warren Buckland, “A Close Encounter with Raiders of the Lost Ark: Notes on Narrative Aspects of the New Hollywood Blockbuster”, in Neale and Smith, Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, pp. 166-177;
  • David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (Berkeley: U of California P, 2006), pp. 117-157.

A key debate amongst film scholars today is to what extent the “classical Hollywood style” (as influentially posited by Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson) has been modified or even displaced in New Hollywood cinema. We will look at the ways in which diverse stylistic influences from the French New Wave to music video, advertising and avant-garde film, alongside a variety of new production technologies, have been appropriated and absorbed by contemporary Hollywood filmmakers. A central focus will be the vexed relationship between narrative and spectacle and the question of a postmodern “cinema of attractions”. 

9. Hollywood and Hegemony

Trading Places (John Landis, 1984)

Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998)

Alan Nadel, Flatlining on the Field of Dreams: Cultural Narratives in the Films of President Reagan’s America(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997), pp. 12-48.

Compared to the generally liberal politics of the “Hollywood Renaissance”, Hollywood movies since the 1980s have generally been held to reflect the neo-conservative orthodoxies that have dominated US politics since Reagan. This lecture argues rather that Hollywood films in this period have become highly visible participants in America’s “culture wars” around race, gender and sexuality. The most successful stars and genres of this period – like the action blockbuster and the male stars synonymous with it – often quite literally embody  highly charged positions on the family, sexual identity, and so on. 

10. “Hollywood” Now

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Alfonso Cuaron, 2005)

Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurrin, Richard Maxwell, and Ting Wang, Global Hollywood  2 London: BFI, 2005), pp. 259-332.

This lecture takes a “snapshot” of early 21st century Hollywood. It will be argued that the sophisticated but essentially one-dimensional film industry of 1945 has been transformed into a fundamentally different business centred not on film production but on the global marketing, distribution, and exploitation of multimedia entertainment products. Notwithstanding the self-sustaining media focus on films and film stars and the superficial continuity of corporate identities (Universal, Warner Bros., etc.) with classical Hollywood, largely different approaches and tools are needed to understand “Hollywood” today.

11. Essay Tutorials


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