Civilization: The Movie
The emergence of the movies as the twentieth-century's most influential mass medium coincided with anguish over the fate of civilization on which World War One rhetorically pivoted. More to the point of my proposed paper, the emergence of the movies also coincided with the advent of what we have come to call modernism, the broad intellectual and artistic movement fuelled and agitated by the very anxieties that the war metastasized. With the war discrediting official arbiters of the meanings of civilization (a defeat ratified most notoriously during the postwar decade by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents and by Spengler in The Decline of the West), popular movies came to vie with an eclectic range of twentieth-century "literary" writing in defining what constituted civilization, marking the boundaries of civilization, sometimes defending and sometimes besieging these boundaries. This contestation drew writers and movie-makers such as D.W. Griffith, Vachel Lindsay, Stephen Vincent Benet, Wyndham Lewis, Fitzgerald, Faulkner Hemingway, Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen, Elizabeth Bowen, Orson Welles, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Christopher Isherwood, Robert Altman, Toni Morrison, Gore Vidal, and Philip Roth. The recent arrogation by U.S. President Bush of the role of arch-arbiter and defender of civilization reveals the extent to which these century-old questions remain open and pressing. My paper will track the development of this struggle and weigh some of the more distinctive and compelling claims that participants in the struggle have made.
Keywords: Civilization, Movies, Modernism
Dr James Bloom
Professor of English/Dept. Head and Professor of American Studies, English Dept., Muhlenberg College