Vamping on Work and Class (was: History....)

Paul Henry Rosenberg rad at
Wed Feb 3 21:28:30 PST 1999

d-m-c at wrote:

> >But you missed the really apropos angle for our ongoing discussions: the
> >news that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are developing a dramatic
> >presentation of "A People's History Of The United States" for FOX-TV.
> Oh, this actually sounds thrilling. What a teaching tool! I'm thrilled!!
> Oh but my, in the meantime I'd like to see (eventually) some discussion of
> Good Will Hunting and Titanic and the representations of class and class
> warfare therein. Now, there's a thread.

Well here's a bead on that thread, and an extra bauble to add to that.

The bead: a saavy take on 'Titanic' by the author of "Working Class Hollywood".

The bauble: my review of "Working Class Hollywood".

========================================== Sunday, January 4, 1998

Get Me Rewrite: Class Warfare on 'Titanic'


For all its money and modern technological wizardry, "Titanic" is an extremely old-fashioned movie that reinforces conservative ideas about the inevitability of class hierarchies and class injustice in America. Its approach to class relations, in fact, is remarkably similar to the seemingly liberal but ultimately reactionary cross-class fantasy films that accompanied the rise of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

In 1912, when the real Titanic went down, movies were far more concerned with portraying the genuine hardships of working-class life than at any subsequent time in cinema history. Immigrants and blue-collar workers--ostensibly the heroic figures of "Titanic"--comprised the bulk of the nation's movie audiences; and filmmakers appealed to them by turning out hundreds of liberal and radical movies that showed workers, unionists and socialists defeating employers, solving the problems of the day and achieving justice for all Americans. These movies made workers the heroes and heroines of their own entertainment.

Far from auguring a new era of liberalism, the rise of Hollywood pushed American films in increasingly conservative directions. As studios attempted to attract greater numbers of prosperous middle-class viewers, movies about conflict between the classes were superseded by cross-class fantasy films--telling stories of poor boys marrying rich girls, or rich boys marrying poor girls, and emphasizing love and harmony among the classes. Presenting a point of view that fit well into the conservative Republican politics of the day, cross-class fantasies of the '20s stressed acceptance rather than change, and suggested that love--not political action--was all one needed to achieve happiness. By so doing, these films helped legitimize the class inequalities that dominated American life.

Focusing on romantic involvements between upper-class and working-class men and women, these fantasies offered audiences voyeuristic glimpses of the extravagant life styles of the American aristocracy, while also revealing their deeply flawed nature. These films frequently spouted a populist rhetoric that fed into public hostility toward the idle classes. Films such as "The Idle Rich" (1921), "Fools and Riches" (1923), and Cecil B. DeMille's "The Triumph" (1924) worked viewers into a feverish pitch of vengeful glee as they saw wealthy protagonists get their comeuppance.

DeMille and his modern-day counterpart, James Cameron, portray working people as salt-of-the-earth types who frequently best their so-called "betters." This is evident in "Titanic," where scenes show working-class artist Jack Dawson triumphing over wealthy Cal Hockley in dinner conversation and in winning Rose DeWitt Bukater's love. The genuine fun had by the poor but happy immigrants in steerage leave us with a sense of the moral superiority of the working class. Rose would be a dope to choose Cal over Jack.

Yet, beneath the liberal veneer of "Titanic" and cross-class fantasies of the 1920s are highly conservative attitudes toward class relations. Cameron concedes a sense of moral superiority to his blue-collar protagonists--but in the end it is the rich who triumph, while the poor return to their "proper" place. Unfortunately, in "Titanic," that place is at the bottom of the ocean: Most of the working-class passengers perish while the rich survive. What sort of triumph is that?

There is a fatalism at work in "Titanic" that suggests this is the way it was and always will be; there is nothing anyone can do to remedy the situation in which the so-called superior class is constantly oppressed by the inferior class. It is this sense of class despair and defeat that makes "Titanic" politically conservative.

Could "Titanic" have been any different? Sure. If working-class people are the betters in the film, then let the rich die and poor survive.

But this still would not change the film's basic class pessimism. To do that, Cameron and his peers would have to learn from earlier labor-capital film-makers who told audiences that nothing was inevitable and offered them visions of how things could be different. Rather than simply acknowledge the inequalities of wealth and power in society, their movies offered viewers blueprints for change. They made films that depicted a unified working class using strikes, unions and third parties to transform a nation. In a era of growing poverty and corporate downsizing, these are messages worth telling again and again.

- - - Steven J. Ross, a History Professor at the University of Southern California, Is Author of "Working-class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America," Due Out Next Month

========================================== *Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America*

by Steven J. Ross

Princeton University Press

367 pages; $29.95

Reviewed by

Paul Rosenberg

(Version Submitted To Christian Science Monitor. Published Version May Vary Slightly.)

Surprisingly, last year brought us three big films with working-class elements--*The Full Monty*, *Good Will Hunting*, and , of course, *Titanic*--an unusual concentration nowadays, but not always. When the Titanic sailed, movies were a working-class, largely immigrant form of entertainment, shown in tiny neighborhood theaters; their content commonly reflected their audience, telling their stories and connecting them almost magically across barriers of language, occupation and location. In *Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America*, Steven J. Ross provides a fascinating look back at the movies of this era framed in their social significance. Equally telling is the view through those films and their milieu into the history that followed, up our own time.

Ross identifies three kinds of working-class films: First, those with working-class protagonists in otherwise non-specific comedies, dramas or melodramas; second, a smaller category of social-problem films that “depicted the general hardships of working-class life;” third, a still-smaller group of labor-capital films “focused on the often violent confrontations between employers and employees.” Far from being homogenous, these movies formed five distinct groups. Conservative films were sympathetic to individual workers--who were, after all the audience--while demonizing unions and blaming all labor problems on outside agitators. Radical films displayed a systematically critical view of capitalism--not just particular capitalists--and “focused on the brutal working conditions and oppressive exploitation that forced wage earners into action.” Liberal films “criticized irresponsible capitalists” and “called for cooperation between employers and employees,.” advocating reform, but not necessarily collective action to achieve it. Populists films preserved a 19th-century outlook that divided the world differently, opposing producers--including factory and mine owners--against non-producers--monopolists and finance capitalists. Anti-authoritarian films “mocked the authority of those who often gave workers the hardest time: foremen, judges, police, and employers.” Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops are classic examples of this group.

This film diversity reflected the diversity of moviemakers, distributors and theaters which virtually vanished in the wake of World War I. Radical and liberal movies were particularly impacted by the combination of war-time propaganda and the post-war anti-immigrant, anti-union Red Scare. But movies themselves were losing their working-class identification, as the building of glamorous movie palaces played a vital role in attracting affluent audiences. Along with the complex interaction of off-screen forces, Ross discusses the emergence of a new form: the cross-class fantasy which displaces class struggle with romantic struggle, as in Titanic. Examining several variants, Ross shows how films which apparently laud the working class actually solidify class differences, discouraging critical attitudes. If the working class is inherently more noble, why not be content?

As the industry centralized, there were several attempts to form union-aligned production companies. Despite notable successful releases no company survived to compete with the monopolistic studios. Yet, Ross shows, there was nothing inevitable to this failure--the odds were long, but not impossible. Just as the flux and diversity of films about class relations before W.W.I. gave way to a more monolithic view, characterized either by disregard or cross-class fantasies, class relations themselves came to be seen as fixed. This echoed what conservative films had been saying all along: harmony came from accepting the natural order.

We don’t generally espouse such passivity anymore (notwithstanding *The Bell Curve*) but Ross reminds us how profoundly our movies keep repeating the same old story. Part of *Titanic’s* tremendous appeal lies in helping us forget--not remember--the vastly different world of possibilities in that era. *Working-Class Hollywood* does the opposite. A less popular task, no doubt, but as the waters before us grow more uncertain, a timely reminder indeed.


> And, the cherry on top: gorgeous
> hunks o man and womanhood to inspire us, to boot. Speaking of which, can
> anyone explain to me why Steve Dorff has been recently considered the hunk
> o the moment. I watched Blade the other night and I can sort of see why,
> but he hasn't been in anything else has he? NOw Paul, ya gotta see the
> dark and dismal Blade and my son's fave hero Wesley Snipes very
> self-ironically hip and cool version of the Vampire Slayer.

Yeah, the ads looked good. But I'm not really into the vampire thing. Read one Anne Rice. One too many. Buffy's an exception, natch.

> I wanna see some comparative analysis to Buffy. Oh and that
> reminds me, one of my side little projects to keep my spirits
> cheered is working with a pal on a critical theoretical
> examination of the political economy and work in the
> Vampire Genre. Any thoughts Paul? Esp w/ regard to Buffy

It's all primitive pre-capitalist accumulation, no?

-- Paul Rosenberg Reason and Democracy rad at

"Let's put the information BACK into the information age!"

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