Cultural Depression

Seabiscuit and Dogville give differing views of 1930s America.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Culture

One symptom of the present flux and uncertainty in American life can be found at the box office.

After 9/11, it was widely predicted that Hollywood was in for a new round of seriousness and reflection. Whereas the release of action-packed dreck like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage was postponed, movies like In the Bedroom and Lantana excited the critics, if not always the box office. It seemed that the events of 9/11 had enabled more thoughtful and truly adult pictures to be green-lighted in future.

Commercially, this mood didn’t last long, as recent hits like the remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre would suggest. Tarantino’s Kill Bill even shows its protagonist The Bride (Uma Thurman) taking a samurai sword on to a passenger aircraft, presumably after having her nail clippers confiscated at the departure lounge (1).

Some of the movies doing well at the box office serve as indicators of the national mood. Consider Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit (2). Shamelessly manipulative, this handsome movie tells its audience exactly how to emote over and respond to a string of triumphs over adversity.

For those who haven’t seen the film, it concerns the eponymous (and unlikely) champion racehorse that becomes something of a celebrity in the 1930s, standing up for California’s relatively impoverished racetracks against the snooty East-Coast equestrian establishment. When Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) boasts of having a horse that’s too small, a jockey too tall, a trainer too old and an owner – himself – too dumb to realise it, he’s making a case for the little guy against big vested interests.

Although Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction book, from which the movie is adapted, shows Buick millionaire Howard and thoroughbred Seabiscuit to be somewhat closer to that establishment, this has been airbrushed from the film. It is better as entertainment than as history, giving an insight into the ferociously hard lives of US jockeys through regular exhilarating race scenes.

Given that prospective audiences would be facing over two hours of worthy equine exploits in order to discover just how well-shot and well-acted Seabiscuit is, its hit status is somewhat surprising. A glance at the political scene helps to explain some of these developments. Many commentators have suggested that Seabiscuit is popular because it provides an example of people pulling together amid the adversity of the Great Depression – and the underlying subtext seems to be, ‘If only it was more like that now’.

Trust, community and mutual understanding are the core values that seem absent in real life; their on-screen celebration – in reel life, if you like – compensates for their perceived lack elsewhere. Taking the long view, this nostalgia for America’s slump years is pretty remarkable.

For many years, discussing the 1930s was off-limits. Postwar conservatives blamed then President Franklin D Roosevelt’s policies, notably those which expanded state expenditure and ‘big government’, for contemporary problems. FDR’s record of wartime leadership kept a lid on such criticisms, as did the discomfort involved discussing the near collapse of the US economy.

In cultural terms, many leading figures in the critical establishment cut their teeth in the 1930s and spent the rest of their careers accounting for that decade in terms of literary controversy – specifically ‘proletarian literature’ and communist infiltration of the arts. Typical of such figures was the late William Phillips of Partisan Review (3). As this generation of intellectuals fade away, so do the constraints on using ‘the Thirties’ as a theme in contemporary debates. Now it seems that we can’t get enough of the Depression years.

Of course, one strand of this argument has been around for years – embodied in the idea that we were poor back then, but we could leave our backdoors unlocked. My grandfather’s recently published war diaries start with a long march to the North East, where impoverished miners’ families shared their meagre rations with the arriving conscripts (4). The celebration of the ability of 1930s folks to face down hardship has long played a part in the politics of the left, and also in conservative complaints about crime and disorder. But in general, such talk was an unwelcome reminder of legitimacy crises past.

When 1990s communitarians like Amitai Etzioni championed ‘the community’ at the expense of the individual, the 1950s was the preferred model. But to many this smacked of Cold War intolerance and compulsion. As a moral guide, it seemed, the Fifties were even more unhelpful than the 1930s; when Bill Clinton and Bob Dole clashed over which of them was most like President Harry Truman, ridicule ensued.

All of these reflections on the past were bound to impact on Hollywood cinema. Even when played without irony, the 1950s look pretty unattractive today, from Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential (1997) to Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002). In contrast, the rehabilitation of the 1930s proceeds apace, albeit characterised by the projection of contemporary longings and preoccupations on to a decade that was previously considered off-limits. As the promised sense of community failed to emerge from the ‘shared national experience’ of 9/11, a wistful nostalgia and longing took its place.

This helps to explain US critical hostility to Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003). Combining a glitzy cast and minimal set, this striking production starts out by portraying a close-knit community facing Depression-era hardship and doing all the simple things the modern world has supposedly forgotten. Yet the arrival of fugitive Grace (Nicole Kidman) throws this out of kilter. The community temporarily accepts her, before exploiting her with a grinding savagery that would not be out of place in one of the proletarian novels briefly fashionable in 1930s America.

Dogville is unrelentingly literary, organised into chapters with a ponderous narrator (John Hurt) of the type favoured by the older generation of authors whose careers were drawing to a close during the Depression era. Ernest Hemingway and other successors to this old guard made a point of ridiculing such practices, and Von Trier is doing the same here.

The film provoked fury. Von Trier spent the recent round of film festivals being accused of both anti-Americanism and of virtually dancing on the graves of 9/11’s victims. Just as the 1930s is being rehabilitated as a time of nobility and community, along comes a cynic to rain on the parade.

In many respects, all he’s done is ratcheted up the well-established homegrown satire of the ‘booboisie’ and mocking Main Street, USA (or Elm Street as it appears in the movie). But with both Hollywood and America floundering around in the search of a new set of shared values, this time-honoured practice has become unacceptable. Somewhere on the map between Seabiscuit and Dogville, between the 1930s and the present, is a society ill at ease with itself.

Graham Barnfield is a lecturer at the University of East London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) From one extreme to another, by Graham Barnfield

(2) Seabiscuit review on Culture Wars

(3) A Tribute to William Phillips, Parisian Review

(4) Soldier’s Story, A: A Short Resume of an Unwanted Journey, by Herbert Stanley Allton. Buy this book from
Amazon UK

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Topics Culture


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