Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.

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