Paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, motion pictures are the Art of the people, by the people and for the people. Stated more directly, the motion picture art grows out of the people, is created by them and serves a great proportion of their cultural needs.
Such close relationships between the broad mass of the people and an art form is not accidental but is a logical development in the overall growth of our modern, industrial, democratic society. I use the term "democratic society" because it is the ideal for which we are striving. Even so, I am well aware of the fact that, at the present moment it is essentially a stratified class-society and, therefore, not completely democratic in an economic sense. Before the industrial revolution, art was the privilege of the wealthy who alone had the money to buy art and the time to enjoy it. Feudalism was succeeded by the absolutism of the 17th Century. The typical form of production then was the shop, with strict division of labor, but without machinery. Machine production took over from there, and the changes in methods of production changed the nature and needs of the class which produced.
Social productivity of labor, and with it, individual productivity, was so greatly increasing that it was feasible to reduce working hours, yet to produce all the necessities and even more luxuries for living. It also seemed logical to assume that a man who produced more should earn more. Of course, these improvements were not automatic. The people struggled for them and won them, along with other rights such as those embodied in the American Bill of Rights. The result of this struggle was a working class which was literate, which had leisure time and money to spend - a class which saw for the first time the possibility of sharing in the good things of life.
The hunger of this mass of the people for knowledge, beauty, entertainment and relaxation could not be satisfied by existing art forms alone. They were all too costly, and since they had been the exclusive property of the rich for so may centuries, they were too esoteric for the working people. But the hunger was there - the cultural needs were present, and since "nature abhors a vacuum" - ways and means of satisfying the needs began to evolve. The times were indeed ripe for a mass art.. . . a peoples' art.
Through a combination of accident and conscious effort by thinking people . . . motion pictures became that art.
It is undebatable that motion pictures would have been impossible in a society where the conditions just outlined didn't prevail. Social and economic change was the direct cause of this flexible and comprehensive art form which, like the airplane, links and strengthens our interrelated civilization.
When I stated that the motion picture art is of the people, that it grows out of the people - I was not merely spinning a high-sounding phrase. Motion pictures were born in nickelodeons and side-shows in the honky-tonk atmosphere of the Coney Islands of every country. The men who watched over this lusty infant in those early days, who guided its first brash but tottering steps were fly-by-night operators, shoe-string producers, men who knew and shared the needs, desires, and pipe drams of the people. Motion pictures have remained, even to this day, largely in their rough but vital care. I know their presence in the industry is more often bewailed than applauded, but with all their drawbacks, these men have been nevertheless partially responsible for the living ties that exist between motion pictures and the people.
In still another and more important way, motion pictures are of the people. A constant interchange takes place between the people and the film creator, whether he is conscious of it or not. The people are his collaborators - at the same time his raw material and the consumer of his finished product. To fully succeed in his art, the film creator must absorb the realities of life as the people know them, and return these realities to the people in a form which they can readily absorb. This does not mean that the film creator would cater slavishly to what he believes are the "wishes" of the people. "Wishes" and "needs" are not one and the same thing. The people may seem to wish for "sugar," but they need "sustenance," and they will not in the long run thank the man who sickens them with lollipops and then excuses himself by saying, "It's what you wanted."
The art of motion pictures is by the people in the sense that it is a collective art, even more fully so than the theatre. The theatre has contributed to it, together with all the other arts - painting, dancing, music, poetry. Film has also made use of nearly every branch of science. And in the long and painful process of creating a film, the talents and skills of hundreds of people is needed and used to the fullest. No single person has ever turned out a motion picture in the same way that a poet writes a poem. A constant flow of new talent must be maintained to supply the needs of motion pictures in all departments, both creative and technical.
As for motion pictures as the art for the people - our complex, stratified society has many mediums for communication, understanding, and relaxation. We have newspapers, magazines, comic strips, radio, books and motion pictures. Each of these mediums reaches a certain number of people, a large number in the case of comic strips . . . a smaller number in the case of an Existentialist novel. But motion pictures can reach the broadest audience . . . can interest, inform, and entertain at the same time, both the Dick Tracy fan and the reader of Henry James. This is due to several qualities in film. The motion picture, which can make use of everything visible and audible, is primarily a visual art. Tests have proven that the human mind absorbs most readily and retains longest that which comes to it through the eye. This has been dramatically demonstrated by the Army and Navy in their use of training films by which they were able to teach quite complicated ideas and techniques to a broad mass audience of men from widely differing backgrounds.
But the most important attribute of the motion picture is that I refer to as its new language. Anyone who has attempted to communicate anything by means of words, knows that an enormous number of words have become, as it were, worn out . . . burdened by a load of associations and connotations which make the words mean too much and therefore mean nothing. These tired words, used formally, logically, as they must be used in ordinary discourse, actually prevent the mind from meeting reality. But the infinitely varied, visual images used in film - which make up the language of motion pictures, are still new and fresh. There may come a time when this language will also become threadbare. We who work with film are unhappily conscious of the increasing number of tired, visual clichés. But relatively speaking, we have only scratched the surface of what can be said in motion pictures, said freshly, and well. There are not only millions of new images yet to be used, but they can be used associatively, in more combinations than can ever be calculated. And when visual images are not enough, words are added to pictures in new and experimental ways, enhancing both the words and the pictures, creating, as it were, still another language different from the two which combine to make it.
All I have said about motion pictures as the people's art should not minimize the fact that there has developed in the industry during the past twenty years a seemingly powerful trend against the people's cultural interests. The steadily increasing cost of film production has increased the size of the organizations engaged in production. These huge organizations by their very nature are unable to keep close contact with the people. It is clear that sometimes private interests exclude, partly subconsciously, anything which is, or may be, detrimental to the profit system as such. When it regards the masses as a source of profit only, their real needs are neglected and a cheap and untruthful surrogate of culture supplied instead.
The recent rise of independent film production units signifies a healthy trend which seeks to return the control of film making to the film creator who as a craftsman, as and artist, and as a businessman, cannot afford to lose touch with the people.
The roots of all aspects of our life, especially our cultural life, are in the past. The motion picture of today rests firmly on the foundations created by the motion pictures of yesterday. The modern motion picture did not spring full-grown from the brain of any current genius. Only with complete understanding of what has been can the sincere student of motion pictures hope to understand what is and what can be. And since it is regrettably true that some of the great motion pictures of the past are no longer available for viewing, we are fortunate to have this book as a guide and source book. The great value of this book lies in the opportunity it affords the reader to understand the beginning of the art of motion pictures as a living process and as the art of our century.
Universal City, California
Copyright 2008 by H.A.V. Bulleid. All rights reserved.
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