Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference

"American Cinema at the Crossroads of American Studies" by Zsófia Anna Tóth

Zsófia Anna Tóth is currently teaching at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Szeged, Hungary and she is working on her PhD dissertation, the subject of which is the representation of female aggression and violence in American literature and film. E-mail: tothzsof@lit.u-szeged.hu

“What is American about American film study?” asks William Rothman in the title of the 29th Chapter of The “I” of the Camera, Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics. He claims that America’s film experience is unique especially for those outside the United States because the impact of the film is always connected to the specter of Americanization which, within the country, it is commonly seen as American (Rothman 1). I would like to start my discussion with some reflections on the national and international situation of American Studies today and later proceed onto the issue of American Cinema, and its American features or Americanness.

In 2002, Stephen H. Sumida started his presidential address to the American Studies Association (ASA) by asking his colleagues about the international dimensions of American Studies (333). He considered essential to have information about the international aspect of American Studies and aimed to discuss it in detail since previously this aspect of the discipline had not been regarded as important or relevant to focus on within the larger field of study. Instead of concentrating on the discussion of Americanness and American Studies from a national point of view, Sumida targeted the question with an outlook on its more universal impact on the international arena. After citing the opinion of several scholars of American Studies outside of the United States, Sumida states that these “international colleagues” (334), show uncertainties about “what the name of the field means any more, when it seems that in the United States we concern ourselves mainly with a ‘discussion of identity politics variously represented as universalism, multiculturalism, nationalism, postnationalism, American Studies, New American Studies, globalism, localism.’ ” (334-5). He goes on quoting “a leader of a national association for American Studies outside the United States” (335) who says that given national association had more direct concerns about the “economy, security, politics […] the identity question” (Sumida 335) concerning Americanness. A combination of these concerns is necessary also in the construction of American Studies course syllabi. He furthers the ideas expressed by Linda Kerber, who asks whether “the term ‘American studies’ is becoming once again an invitation for political scientists, economists, as well as scholars of other social sciences and of literature, history, cultural studies, religion, and the arts to participate” (qtd. in Sumida 337). Kerber questions whether there has been a change concerning American Studies again since the 1990s when Cultural Studies dominated the field. She claims that “the term ‘now would encompass some of the more capacious international studies that come under the heading of the ‘internationalization of American Studies’ ” (ibid.). Sumida assumes that this change eventually took place and the study of American Studies outside the US does include all various fields listed by Kerber above (ibid.). American Studies also involves Film Studies, more specifically the study of American Cinema in and outside the United States, which obviously belongs to the field mentioned by Kerber as “the arts.”

In the presidential address given to the American Studies Association in 2004, Shelley Fisher Fishkin followed Sumida’s train of thought when she emphasized the international aspect of American Studies. In her paper entitled “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies,” she declares that

[T]he goal of American studies scholarship in not exporting and championing an arrogant, pro-American nationalism but understanding the multiple meanings of America and American culture in all their complexity. Today American studies scholars increasingly recognize that that understanding requires looking beyond the nation’s borders, and understanding how the nation is seen from vantage points beyond its borders. (Fishkin 20)

In the 21st century, American Studies scholars and the leaders of ASA in the US started to lay more and more emphasis on the international arena of America Studies and on the ways in which Americanness is defined and examined outside the United States. The combination of various views is considered more and more important together with the integration of non-US based American Studies into the work of ASA. The current view is that the study of America and the definition(s) of Americaness should be made in a transnational-international arena, and not only within United States’ national borders. Fishkin adds that

[I]t is up to us, as scholars of American studies, to provide the nuance, complexity, and historical context to correct reductive visions of America. Whenever people with power act on visions of America that rests on oversimplification, myth, and a blind faith that America is always right – or, for that matter, always wrong – that is a call to us as American studies scholars to do our work. (20)

Fishkin also states that the field of American Studies itself went through a dramatic transformation during the last four decades when the previous “exceptionalist visions” were replaced by the voices of women and minorities, which were (re)discovered and recovered by scholars (20). Fishkin elaborates on Amy Kaplan’s observations by saying that the world in the 1990s was still perceived in terms of “us” and “them,” of “domestic” and “foreign,” of “national” and “international” (Fishkin 21). However, she observes that this world-view has changed and given the vast complexity of American Studies, the field has to be examined in further detail, as America has always been in the process of blurring the boundaries between inside and outside as well as between national and international. In her own words:

[T]he complexity of our field of study as we understand it today, however, requires that we pay as much attention to the ways in which ideas, people, culture, and capital have circulated and continue to circulate physically, and virtually, throughout the world, both in ways we might expect, and unpredictably; it requires that we view America, as David Palumbo-Liu put it, as a place ‘always in process itself.’ It requires that we see the inside and outside, domestic and foreign, national and international, as interpenetrating. (Fishkin 21)

Fishkin concludes that not everybody should do transnational work because there is still a lot to do within American Studies that is non-transnational, yet, “the transnational becomes more central to American studies” (22). Fishkin considers that, this way, it will be recognized that the United States and American culture have long been transnational crossroads of cultures: “[I]n the twenty-first century, American studies is increasingly doing justice to the transnational crossroads that we are and, indeed, that we always have been.” (Fishkin 43)

However, before this international and transnational turn in American studies there have already been American Studies scholars outside the United States addressing issues that are recognized and integrated into the international and transnational concept of American Studies by ASA today. Following Gertrude Stein’s definition of the 20th century as the American Century, Rob Kroes observed in 1991 that Europeans – as well as other nations across the globe – stand at the “receiving end of American Cultural Imperialism” (Kroes 3) because Americanness has been spread all over the world through political, economic and cultural imperialism.

One of the most general ways of spreading Americanness is through films but also through various channels of mass production and distribution like television, sound recordings, the press, photography, etc. (Kroes 10). Kroes claims that while people watch the American films outside the United States they internalize the messages about American identity, about its values and concepts, and within their culture(s), American culture becomes re-contextualized and re-semanticized outside its own cultural frame (3-4). It seems that the cultural crossroads have long been part of American Studies, especially outside the United States, before the new direction singled out by Sumida at the ASA inside the United States. Films have a central role in the distribution of American values, diverse cultural phenomena and identity patterns; and via its mechanisms new symbolic messages of images can be rearranged and rendered (8).

The United States gained leading status among the film-producing nations by 1916 and maintained its position even today (Gronemeyer 50). Andrea Gronemeyer claims that Europeans primarily intended to use cinema for political purposes but for Americans films were first and foremost consumer products (51). Since films are indeed consumer products, the allegorical repertoire of the American Dream seems appropriate to be linked with the issue of films through the possibility of their commerce and commercial exploitation (Kroes 8; Gronemeyer 51).

As Rob Kroes writes: “America’s national symbols and myths have been translated into an international iconographic language, a visual lingua franca. They have been turned into free-floating signifiers, internationally understood, free for everyone to use” (8) in this international and transnational commerce of Americanness through the tools of visual culture. Kroes also adds that “[m]odern media of mass reproduction, like film, photography, the press, radio, television, sound recordings, have filled the semiotic space of people everywhere with messages made in America” (10). American films, as technological-artistic conveyors of American culture carried obvious American values into the everyday realities of people outside the United States by sometimes altering and modifying their own vision of diverse cultural concepts. However, the people outside the United States do not only receive these ideological messages but change and modify these by contextualizing them within their own interpretational realm. In a reverse manner, they reconceptualize and reconstruct a mediated American culture and its products, a process that results sometimes in having a reverse effect on American culture and the United States, an effect gradually recognized and internalized by international-transnational American Studies today. Let me quote Kroes, who makes it

clear that European commercials made for European products may draw on semiotic repertoires initially developed in and transmitted from America. Yet, in a creolizing freedom not unlike America’s modularizing cast of mind, Europeans in their turn now freely re-arrange and recombine the bits and pieces of American culture. (13)

He concludes here – as an authentic voice understanding American culture and American visual culture from the outside – that before any new direction in American Studies within the United States took an international turn, many people already used visual lingua francas transmitted from the United States.

For indeed, as European examples, from the political and the economic market place, serve to illustrate, the logic of a choice of freedom knows no bounds, once set free from controlling American standards of taste and decency. As a lingua franca’s wont, it moves in a realm of free creolization, where the controlling authority of a mother culture no longer holds. Americanization then should be the story of an American cultural language traveling and of other people acquiring that language. What they actually say in it, is a different story altogether. (Kroes 16)

Now, I would like to return to Rothman’s question on the American features of the American cinema (Rothman 359). Despite the international turns in the field of American Studies in the third millennium, he still sees the question from a national perspective but fortunately leaves a door open for alternatives and changes, while trying to approach the problem or the question from various points of view. Rothman offers an answer by paraphrasing Stanley Cavell, who states that the Americanness of American Cinema is closely linked to the American tradition of philosophical thought.

[T]he American-ness of American cinema cannot be separated from the ways American movie genres have taken up and revised, made their own, the American tradition of philosophy founded by Emerson and Thoreau, an American way of thinking that it has also been an American tradition to repress (qtd. in Rothman 359).

Rothman goes on by saying that it was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s “when the case for the academic study of film was originally made to American university administrations and faculties, film study predominantly envisioned itself as a new field of criticism” (364). The works to be studied were the products of the “classical” period of American Cinema but it turned out that other achievements of cinema should also be included into the research and study of films. Hence, issues of class, gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity gained more and more attention, and also those related to multicultural approaches. It seemed “appropriate to ask in a more intense way critical, philosophical and historical questions about the notion of multi-culturalism in relation to the tradition areas of research in film … studies” (Rothman 365).

Rothman observed, in 2004 (sic!), that “the field of film study in America has never definitively won its struggle to secure its intellectual identity” (366). So, it seems that the study of American films in the Academy was subject to slow change. Rothman also adds that American Cinema Studies adopted an alien “Theory,” seen as an entity that encompassed a mass of different non-American academic writings, which emphasized the repressive ideology of classical cinema (368) in contrast with the ideas of Thoreau and Emerson, strongly advocated by him. But, when film study in America could finally claim a voice of its own and could ensure its capacity to think for itself, “by bowing down to Theory, film study in America betrayed its capacity to think for itself and submitted to the suppression of its own voice” – says Rothman citing Cavell (qtd. in Rothman 368). Rothman further laments over the loss of American uniqueness of American Film Studies and maybe even the films themselves due to Theory by stating that:

[I]t was in quest of denying the necessity of thinking about itself, and the necessity of thinking for itself, I take it, that American film study embraced the still-dominant myth about its own origin – the myth that envisions the field as born, or born again, through its transfiguring faith in Theory. […] This myth is the disavowal of America’s own experience, a denial that the American experience was and is formative for film study in America. (369)

Paradoxically, Rothman – even in the 21st century – is against any transnational and international connections and intermingling of ideas, concepts, approaches and trends within films and film studies. He considers a tragic aspect the fact that European ideological trends and thoughts enter the academic thinking concerning American films, which, for him, infiltrated and ‘polluted’ American Film Studies. Rothman starts his book by saying that “America’s experience of film is virtually unique in that in almost every other country, the impact of film cannot be separated from the process or at least the specter of Americanization. In America, film in no sense represents something external; it is simply American” (1). In his argument, while acknowledging the impact of non-American intellectual trends, ideologies, and people contributing to American Cinema in various ways, Rothman is concentrating on defining and finding the true, specific and unique features seen as the Americanness of American Cinema and Film Studies. He somehow fails to recognize that cinema has always been transnational by definition.

Mel van Elteren joins Kroes, Fishkin and Sumida – and opposes Rothman – in discussing the international and transnational study and discussion of Americanness by stating that spreading of American values through various means is not a hegemonic, unilateral process but a negotiation between cultures, with the receiving nations or cultures assimilating, transforming and modifying what they get from American cultural products. There is a certain transculturation going on. Americanness is, accordingly, the reception of a cultural language and a set of symbols that anyone can use, play with or ironically employ through their interpretations of this cultural repertoire. The receiving cultures usually decide and choose what they want from American culture (van Elteren 345-47). Van Elteren warns us that the reception of American products goes on especially on the level of the individual because of the sociopsychological dimensions of any cultural product:

[s]ociopsychological dimensions cannot be simply deduced or derived from discourses as reconstructed through analyses of the contents of manufactured artifacts such as magazines, films and television programs, books, and other ‘texts’ or cultural outputs. The wider tendency in cultural studies (or American studies of a similar kind) to ‘read off’ psychology from cultural products instead of locating psychological feelings and thoughts with individuals, entails discourse determinism. (352)

He claims that “Americanization is usually not solely a cultural, but a more comprehensive, multivariegated process” (355).

In 2006, Jonathan Auerbach started his discussion of the relationship between American Studies and Film Studies by saying that somehow only a handful people dealt with this relationship in particular and with the question of what the attitude of the discipline is towards film. Auerbach also states that American Studies does not seem to include films among its objects of study (Auerbach 31). He suggests that “[T]he most obvious reason for the lack is that US intellectuals throughout the twentieth century ignored and/or dismissed virtually all forms of popular culture, giving such cultural forms ‘no respect’ ” (33). Auerbach claims that although there was a strict separation of highbrow elitist and lowbrow popular culture right from the beginning of the twentieth century, only several scholars and US intellectuals inside and outside the university took the study of films seriously (33). He concludes that

[A]mid the current calls for change in the academy, the return of the public intellectual or a reinvigorated interdisciplinarity, this early lost intersection between film and American studies merits close consideration, suggesting how those of us concerned with the futures of American studies would do well to carefully attend to its pasts. (47)

Auerbach is right in his assumption about the relationship of American Studies and Film Studies, however, we must not forget that films have always been part of the cultural heritage of the United States and the discussion over these have long fueled the intellectual debates in and outside the arena of American Studies. Yet one thing seems certain: in the 21st century American Cinema is more broadly discussed within the realm of international and transnational American Studies.

Works Cited

  • Auerbach, Jonathan. “American Studies and Film, Blindness and Insight.” American Quarterly 58.1 (2006): 31-50.
  • Fisher Fishkin, Shelley. “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies – Presidential Address to the American Studies Association.” American Quarterly. 57.1 (2005): 17-57.
  • Gronemeyer, Andrea. Film. A Concise History. London: Laurence King Publishing, 1999.
  • Kroes, Rob. “American Empire and Cultural Imperialism. A View From the Receiving End.” Conference Papers on the Web. The American Impact on Western Europe:Americanization and Westernization in Transatlantic Perspective. Conference at the German Historical Institute. Washington, D.C., March 25-27, 1999. Available: www.ghi-dc.org/conpotweb/westernpapers/kroes.pdf. Access: 12 May 2006.
  • Rothman, William. The “I” of the Camera, Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
  • Sumida, Stephen H. “Where in the World Is American Studies? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association.” American Quarterly. 55.3 (2003): 333-52.
  • Van Elteren, Mel. “Rethinking Americanization Abroad: Toward a Critical Alternative to Prevailing Paradigms.” The Journal of American Culture. 29.3 (2006): 345-67.