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July 2000, Week 3


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Peter Rollins <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 15 Jul 2000 17:06:33 EDT
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This review is copyrighted (c) 2000 by H-Net and the
       Popular Culture and the American Culture Associations.
       It may be reproduced electronically for educational or
       scholarly use.  The Associations reserve print rights
       and permissions. (Contact: P.C.Rollins at the following
       electronic address: [log in to unmask])

David Cochran, _American Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the
Postwar Era_.  Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
$27.95 cloth.
ISBN 1560988134

    David Cochran's _America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the
Postwar Era_ analyzes the role played by popular writers and filmmakers in
the two decades following the Second World War.  He argues that "the
underground culture would play a crucial role in the development of a
counter-hegemonic culture in the sixties and, in the longer run, the growth
of postmodernism" (15).  The extensive introduction surveys the "wide range
of options, both political and cultural" that were available to Americans as
immediate consequence of the war (2).  Abroad, one now had the Soviets to
deal with and domestically, a "wave of wildcat strikes and labor militancy"
occurred (2).   A bewildering paradox began to form between the hard line
taken against the threat of Marxism and Trotskyism and the labor unrest that
now marked American capitalism.  At the same time, the array of film-noirs
available for public consumption at the box office marked the nation's
"fundamental moral chaos" (3).  A doubt had crept into America's vision of
itself just as communists seemed to be tiptoeing across her borders.
    One of the most fascinating moments in Cochran's study occurs when he
documents the tide of pamphlets and orders that descended on Hollywood to
counter the menace of uncertainty.  He quotes Ayn Rand: "Don't give your
character-as a sign of villainy, as a damning characteristic-a desire to make
money…. It is the moral duty of every decent man in the motion picture
industry to throw into the ash can, where it belongs every story that smears
industrialists" (4).  Politically, liberal intellectuals sneered at
McCarthyism. But, covertly they cleaned up what they saw as culturally
harmful popular trash.  The result, according to Cochran, was an "the
creation of a broad cultural consensus with a right and a left wing" (6).
The consensus, in turn, reinforced and sanitized American culture through a
unified vision.  Cochran points out that this was the climate that spawned
both studies on the American mind and American Studies as an academic
    Cochran argues that the post-war proliferation of popular culture, kitsch
and commodities posed a threat to the unification of the American Mind.
Historically, periods of mass publishing and distribution have always brought
out critics who defend the crypt and see the increased availability of texts
as an indisputable sign of the apocalypse.  Again, Cochran's strength is his
well-presented research.  Through copious examples, he delineates and
strengthens his own position against the post-war tendency to read popular
culture as a threat to the unified American mind.  Cochran uses Frederick
Wertham as an example of this tendency.   Wertham wrote a study on the
negative connections between comic books and juvenile delinquency which in
turn was used to all but shut down the comic book industry.  Cochran sees
similar occurrences throughout Middle America.  All popular culture that
depicted an opposing picture to the unified vision of the American dream was
driven underground.   Cochran argues "Culturally, the purpose of this policy
of censorship was to repress the darker aspects of American social
thought-the strong sense of doubt and contingency, the fears born of World
War II, the atomic bomb, the cold War-and replace them with a much more
affirmative vision" (13).  Of the newly cleaned landscape, James Gilbert,
whom Cochran quotes, says "The radical dreamers of the 1930s awakened to the
dystopia of suburbia" (13).
    Cochran's book claims that the vision of "violence, chaos, moral
ambiguity, and alienation that marked such disparate popular-culture forms as
film-noir and comic books, did not disappear" (13-14).  Instead, as studies
of both Freud and the gothic will teach us, they resurfaced in other venues
signaling a return of the repressed.  What is buried does not stay hidden for
long.  Cochran states that these other forms "took the very basis of cold-war
consensus-that American society fundamentally worked-and challenged it on
every level…" (14).  As an additional point, Cochran sees the challenge that
Modernism makes to the status quo as once again reappearing in American
culture through these texts.  He finds the grotesque features and characters
of Modernism, particularly in Faulkner and Anderson coming back to life in
these "underground" texts.  Strangely enough, Cochran gazes at the lowbrow
culture of the 1950s and finds the tenets of highbrow Modernism.
    Cochran concentrates on eight different writers, from Charles Willeford
and Chester Himes to Patricia Highsmith and Ray Bradbury.  In addition he
provides a chapter "Little Shop of Horrors; Independent Filmmakers" to add to
his case about the film industry.  His chosen method of close-reading, each
chapter is written around a single author or filmmaker, works well for this
kind of study because he shows the way each individual text provides a
challenge to the dominate forces of unification.  He notices that "Artists in
the underground culture played off dominant cultural ideas and images but
frequently provided them with and ironic twists" (216).  For example, he
makes the case that Highsmith discusses homosexuality through her character
Thomas Ripley in order to dispute 1950s ideas about masculinity.   These
underground visions, then, are fraught with complexity.  They do not merely
transmit the ideas of Modernist culture, but consider them, question them,
and sometimes throw them out entirely.
    At times, Cochran relies too heavily on the opposing forces of the
underground and dominant culture.  His explanation of the birth of a post-war
dominant and unified culture is excellent, but he seems to lean on the
concept too heavily.  Even as he demonstrates the contrary: that the culture
is not monolithic he seems to need it to be to simplify the task of cultural
criticism.   The concept of the underground is useful, even though it is also
a term laden with unifying implications.  Ultimately, Cochran seems to repeat
the mistakes most often ascribed to the post-modern theorists that he claims
the underground texts of the 1950s anticipate.  In the same moment he fights
against the unification and brightness of the dominant vision, he casts his
own study in these same terms.  It seems the study draws a battle plan in
which the forces of the dark, dominant empire will be abolished by the
scrappy underdog texts of Chester Himes and Jim Thompson.  The study
inadvertently repeats the dominant cultural mythology that it argues so
fearlessly against.
_America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era_ is a
well-researched, innovative study that offers a fresh view in what has become
a monotonous field.  The book offers well-documented insights into a range of
texts and will be of great use to scholars and students of popular culture.

SUNY at Binghamton  Michelle E. Moore [log in to unmask]

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