Mark Lynn Anderson

 

On his book Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

Cover Interview of August 15, 2011

The wide angle

The book’s larger project is to describe the importance of the Hollywood cinema in founding those disciplinary practices that helped institutionalize contemporary scientific approaches to the study of the individual person.

Such a project is, of course, indebted to Michel Foucault’s work on the history of disciplinary power.  But I seek to account for the richly uneven and contested nature of the deployment of those discourses through which individuals were surveyed, measured, named, classified, and studied by the modern sciences as deviants, delinquents, criminals, and perverts.

Before being relegated to the status of objects for the new sciences, Hollywood and it audiences helped produce the very forms of knowledge about the deviant individual that now constitute so many forms of professional expertise.  In their stories and in their themes, the popular motion pictures of the 1920s reflected, not surprisingly, the emergence of the “new psychology” and other up-to-date thinking about human behavior.  More importantly, the cinema itself also became the terrain upon which the critical question of personality was most fully elaborated and through which new understandings of contemporary identity were forged.

One of the social projects to which the American cinema and the human sciences contributed during the 1920s was the promotion of a new appreciation of each individual as now subject to the terms of a particular narration: the life story of the person as case study.

Early scientific case studies in criminology, in sociology, in psychoanalysis, or in cultural anthropology, sought to demonstrate, through a sustained accounting of an individual’s life, the operation of complex social and environmental factors.  Different from traditional biography or hagiography, the case study told of an individual who was no one in particular—except to the extent that he or she led an exemplary life of crime or, perhaps, pursued the gratification of an unusual perversion.

My interest in the prevalence of the scientific case study in the early twentieth century is intimately related to my interest in the early Hollywood star system, whose almost simultaneous emergence I perceive as another significant iteration of a prevailing case-study episteme.

A portion of the research I present in Twilight of the Idols has to do with attempts by the motion picture industry to contain star scandals by explaining how particular stars had become deviant or diseased.

A common explanation for the perceived excesses of star behaviors in the early 1920s was that the industry had developed too rapidly, leaving some individuals ill-prepared for the sudden wealth of stardom.  According to this perspective, the escalating success of the film industry produced unforeseen conditions for a small amount of its workers, allowing them to pursue self-destructive life-styles.

While Hollywood wished to portray the scandals as a temporary aberration of rational business expansion, the public and the press took a far more sustained interest in the lives of troubled stars as a way of understanding how modern society works.

We get glimpses of this possibility today when a major star scandal occurs.  But the potential for a popular scientific engagement with scandal is always quickly contained by media strategies that were innovated in the 1920s, now aided by an American left, whose unthinking critique of the culture industry continues to make vast sectors of people’s everyday lives virtually meaningless, or at least unusable for political engagement or expression.

One of those strategies is the “privatization” of the star’s life, the enforced partitioning of the known details of a particular scandal from having any lasting or meaningful relevance for the public beyond a questionable entertainment function.  Such a partitioning is maintained by both the media industry and those cultural critics who diminish the importance of celebrity scandals by self-righteously pledging their respect for privacy while they accuse the media of pandering to prurient interests in the name of profits and ideological diversion.

The first chapter of Twilight of the Idols is a sustained analysis of the privatization of matinée idol Wallace Reid’s heroine addiction during 1922 and 1923.

But the industrial containment strategy devised back then can still be seen at work today.  For example, just prior to his death from a fatal combination of sleeping pills and painkillers in early 2008, Heath Ledger’s complaints about fatigue and insomnia suggested that his production schedules were a determining factor in his passing away at twenty-eight years of age.  However, the controversy quickly turned to an investigation of the physicians who had prescribed the medications, and it more or less ended with Ledger’s former girlfriend Michelle Williams mystifying the star’s death by explaining how the actor’s difficulties with sleep were the result of “an underlying sensitivity” that was unknown to the public.

In other words, an understanding of drug abuse as tied to a contemporary mode of living was transformed into an inscrutable, idiosyncratic characteristic of the actor himself; the objects of a popular social investigation have here been reduced to celebrity trivia.