In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How It Shaped Us, by Francine Stock
Chatto £18.99/ebook £19.81 pp344
As a guide to 100 years of cinema, Francine Stock certainly has the credentials. The presenter of Radio 4’s The Film Programme remembers being mesmerised by the flowers in her first film, My Fair Lady (1964); being consumed by adolescent thrills during Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969); and having her enjoyment of Chinatown (1974) ruined by an IRA bomb.
Divided up into decades, her cinematic survey covers film’s main developments from carnival sideshow to 3-D multiplex monster — DeMille to De Niro, Thomas Edison to Toy Story. As a straight film history it’s an informative, easy read, stronger on the earlier years as Hollywood finds its feet. But, mindful that such studies are two a penny, Stock wants to address a bigger question. Might cinema have induced “particular effects on our behaviour, both public and private?” she asks. “Ways in which we had become indoctrinated by this most seductive medium?” Right from the start, she argues, movies had an impact. DW Griffith’s civil war epic, The Birth of a Nation, with its crude, racist depiction of Southern negroes and ennoblement of the Ku Klux Klan, helped that sinister organisation, near extinction prior to the film’s release in 1915, to swell its membership to 5m.
As the new medium took hold, cinema was quickly seen to be endangering public morality. In the early 1930s, a study by the sociologist Herbert Blumer suggested that up to a third of American teenagers had embraced the “art of necking” as demonstrated by Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. (The Hays Code, adopted in 1930, with its proscriptions against “excessive or lustful kissing or mixed-race relationships” on screen, aimed to put paid to that.) And it wasn’t just sex that film stars could influence. When Clark Gable undertook the simple act of eschewing his undershirt in the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night (1934), the vest market reportedly crashed.
Politicians were all too aware of film’s potential. Joseph Goebbels banned Jean Renoir’s peacenik picture La Grande Illusion (1937), and German cinema during the Nazi era became an instrument of state policy, whether in the Aryan romanticism of Leni Reifenstahl or the Jew-baiting of the film Jud Süss. As war drums thundered, film became a handy conscript, yielding British propaganda pieces such as In Which We Serve (1942), or an American imitation of a British propaganda piece in Mrs Miniver (1942). Even in peacetime, cinema has been a forger of national myth. The American West is probably cinema’s most enduring concoction, Stock says, a fantasy that was instrumental in weaning the United States away from Europe and towards the new frontier.
It is all engagingly told, and one can forgive that some of the evidence might be entirely circumstantial — did sales of Merlot, for example, really fall by 2% in Britain as a result of a put-down in the 2004 comedy, Sideways?
A more serious problem, though, is the author’s decision to pin each decade on three films, resulting in a book that champions Basic Instinct, Natural Born Killers and Three Colours: Blue/White/Red as the significant films of the 1990s, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Avatar and the Thai film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, as the hat-trick of selections from the Noughties.
To be fair, she declares that the book is “an impressionistic map” and that “the reason for taking this idiosyncratic journey is precisely to provoke argument”. But, given that Stock merely uses her choices as jumping-off points (enabling us to breeze from, say, a discussion of Gold Diggers of 1933 and The Dark Knight to Iron Man) it seems a redundant gimmick.
It is, of course, obvious to suggest that cinema has been a cultural game-changer. As far back as 1924 the director of the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation at the League of Nations was proclaiming that “only the Bible and the Koran have an indisputably larger circulation than that of the latest film from Los Angeles”. What Stock’s distillation seems to confirm is that, as a cumbersome industrial process, lacking the immediacy of music or television, film-making is generally reflective rather than causal — one that more often apes trends than influences them.
Nor should we ignore the medium’s habit of feeding off itself. Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989) is one of many classics offered up for dissection in the book, but this seems largely because of its influence on other romcoms including Jerry Maguire and 500 Days of Summer. As much as Stock claims that film has shaped us, one is left with the impression that one of its greatest achievements has been in shaping other filmmakers.