The Invisible Meaning of Film

Feb. 15, 2013
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Paul A. Cantor brings an explicitly political perspective to The Invisible Hand in American Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV (University Press of Kentucky). And it’s a perspective that carries him far from departmental meetings at the University of Virginia, where he teaches English, and into the heart of debates over America’s past, present and future. Cantor investigates how a perennial American theme, the tension between the pursuit of liberty and the necessity of order, is manifested in film and television from 1934 (The Black Cat) through 2011 (“South Park”).

He ties this undying question at the heart of what exceptionalists call the “American experiment”—although “human condition” better encompasses the scope of the issue—to the struggle “between elites and the common people in America.” For Cantor, the 1950s TV western “Have Gun Will Travel” exemplifies “the peculiar tendency of Hollywood elites to express their sense of superiority to ordinary Americans” by dispatching heroes in their own image to “set aright the injustices that supposedly occur routinely in small town America.”

Are we starting to hear Sarah Palin as culture critic? Cantor steps deeper into the fray by invoking free market economist Friedrich Hayek, asserting that “Deadwood” offers a vision of order emerging “spontaneously out of the unregulated interaction of individuals.” Oh, those damn regulations that might prevent the job creators of Deadwood from outsourcing the blacksmith shop to China!

To Cantor’s point about elites, one could begin by answering that Hollywood has also shown the opposite tendency by sentimentalizing small town America. “Mayberry RFD” was hardly a scathing critique of rural ethos. And one might add that small towns are not always shining villages on the hill—beacons to the world—but swamps of unreflecting prejudice and incubators for lynch mobs and crank addiction. Even Huck Finn had to get away from those “ordinary Americans” in Hannibal.

And now, to happier observations: The Invisible Hand includes some fascinating analysis of particular works of popular culture: motion picture division. With a deep knowledge of literature and philosophy as well as film and TV, Cantor brings scholarship together with entertainment. He’s fun to read, and you can learn a few things, too.

Cantor skips romantic comedy but looks at such other prevalent genres as horror, science fiction, film noir and—of course—that most American of cultural categories, the western. His parallel reading of John Ford’s vengeance quest, The Searchers, and Aeschylus’ Oresteia, comes to a conclusion that stops short of militant libertarianism. Over a distance of millennia, Oresteia and The Searchers both conclude that civilization must tame vendettas in favor of civic justice. Neither work is naïve about the human capacity for evil, nor do they dismiss the emotional satisfaction of evening the score. In the end, Aeschylus and Ford are saying that we must learn to rise above the instinct of payback, even if the social institutions of justice will always be fallible.

Every motion picture is encoded with at least some significance, and popular culture has largely pushed aside the older “fine arts” in the contemporary search for meaning and reflection. Nobody but the most pretentious art critic pretends to find much in Damien Hirsh’s stuffed sharks, aside from the proclivity of the rich to waste their money on status symbols. For the meaning of reality, most of us will go to “The X-Files” or “Star Trek” instead. It’s never “only a movie.”


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