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Notes from the Culture Industry

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Daniel Fuchs, The Golden West: Hollywood Stories. Introduction by John Updike. Jaffrey, NH: Black Sparrow, 2005. Pp. xiv + 258. Daniel Fuchs, The Brooklyn Novels: Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, Low Company. Introduction by Jonathan Lethen. Jaffrey, NH: Black Sparrow, 2006. Pp. xiv + 927.

During the mid-1930s, Fuchs (born in 1909) published his three accounts of tenement life in New York; they hold a significant, if not prominent place in the literary history of the Jewish-American novel and have been republished periodically. In the late thirties, Fuchs moved to Hollywood, part of the literary migration into the film industry (he worked once briefly with William Faulkner). He would continue to write fiction, now with a California focus, thematically comparable to West’s Day of the Locust, although in a very different register. Some of this writing would appear in the New Yorker, and several of his stories (and a short novel) are collected in The Golden West, along with some memoir-like documents. In Hollywood, however, his attention had shifted primarily to writing screenplays. While each of these Black Sparrow volumes therefore represents a noteworthy contribution to the historical documentation of two venues of writing, taken together they raise important issues about the transformation of culture in the United States of the mid-twentieth century, the interplay of culture and commerce, and—a central question for Critical Theory—the constitution of the culture industry as well as its standing as a magnet for derisive critique. This latter point was of particular interest to Fuchs. As he put it in a 1962 letter included in The Golden West, “I’ve always been impressed by the sure, brimming conviction of people who attack Hollywood, and this even though they may never have been inside the business and so haven’t had the chance of knowing how really onerous and exacerbating the conditions are” (3). The statement displays a complex position worthy of attention: Fuchs does not provide a simplistic celebration of the industry. On the contrary, he concedes the difficulties of “the conditions,” but at the same time he rejects uninformed denunciations of Hollywood. As much as a Critical Theory tries to hold on to a skeptical stance vis-à-vis industrially produced illusion, at the same time, the hostility toward the culture industry turns out to be equally ideological, betraying an animus toward art, pleasure, and success. Fuchs’s volumes can provide a more complex understanding of this dialectic.

Fuchs left New York, a day-job as a substitute teacher in a public school, and, perhaps more importantly, the world of writing naturalistic accounts of New York life in order to move to Hollywood. His accounts, autobiographical and fictional, have the distinct knack of keeping this choice open and, precisely, not naturalized. In a 1989 reminiscence, he reports “One day I was moving along to the [Beverly Hills] triangle, for what reason I can’t remember—a dental appointment, I imagine. I was approaching the corner of the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel drugstore, which was also a coffee shop . . . . The entrance to the drugstore was on the corner, opening on a slant between the two streets, Wilshire and Rodeo Drive, and as I went barreling around I all but collided with a group of women—there were four or five of them, tourists, visitors—emerging from the drugstore. I stared at them. They were old colleagues of mine, people I had taught school with in Brooklyn. The teachers stared back at me—standing powdered and straight, middle-aged women, with their hats and gloves and the purses hanging over their arms. We didn’t know what to say to each other, chastened by the realization, I think, of the time gone by, of the passing time” (237). Of course, the encounter could easily be subsumed into a return-of-the-repressed story: having escaped his origins, Fuchs faces the uncanny when Williamsburg shows up on Wilshire. That framework, however, narrows the significance to a too simplistic linearity and its reversal. There is more at stake.

Fuchs’s narratives—his own and his fictions—are not only about geographical displacement. Instead he inquires more powerfully and consistently into the interplay of illusion and life: both the intrusion of experience into frozen patterns of thought, but also the capacity of thought, fiction, and art to capture the energy of life and to thrive from its vitality. This is his underlying optimism. In the title story of The Golden West, therefore, a portrait of a an aging star in a personal crisis, the issue is not how films mislead the public—the core of every variant of the many ideology-critical stances that perpetually haunt academia—but the particular way a professional culture of illusion and display, the life of an actress, burdens her own life, and how life, nonetheless, overcomes the illusions through an unstoppable vitality. Fuchs presents a Lebensphilosophie without mysticism: ” . . . those pursuits, dreams, and diversions which occupy us so that we are each of us precious to ourselves and wouldn’t exchange ourselves, the being in us, with any other, those wonderful moments which as they happen go by almost unnoticed but which return again and again in our thoughts to bemuse and warm us, the stir of smoking mountain panoramas, the ache of sweet summer days, of trees in leaf, of being in love, this prize, this treasure, this phantom life” (234).

This appreciative curiosity about lived experience underpins the agenda of the Brooklyn novels: extensive observation, accumulation of detail, consideration for compositional complexity in particular formations, rather than the overarching whole. “You must pick Williamsburg to pieces until you have them all spread out on a table before you, a dictionary of Williamsburg,” as one character outlines a program for writing in The Brooklyn Novels (13). A naturalistic existentialism emerges that displaces the European legacy of a deterministic naturalism, and it is ultimately this emancipated nature that, in Fuchs’s account, goes a long way toward explaining Hollywood. He admires the animal power of the industry leaders, the great producers and directors, especially of the studio era, who managed to marshal forces and produce the great classic films. But Fuchs also attributes a significant component of the Hollywood aura to the sheer attraction of physical nature: the sun, the gardens, the sky. Can we factor in the experience of natural beauty into the discussions of the culture industry? Is the suspicion of “Hollywood films” a function, at least in part, of a hesitation about a landscape of pleasure? To answer the question, one would also have to sort out the extent to which it is nature itself that is at stake here, as opposed to the promotional imagery about Southern California that circulated in the early twentieth century. In any case, for Fuchs, the erstwhile naturalist novelist of urban poverty, film itself can become a force of nature, which in turn implies the suspicion that critics of the film industry, who measure it with misplaced aesthetic standards, are themselves caught in a repressive relationship to nature. As a character in “Triplicate,” a short story in The Golden West that provides a particularly compelling account of the geographical and historical levels inherent in the industry, puts it: “What people don’t understand about this place is that the whole idea is not to make great pictures but to enjoy life in the sun. They keep asking for works of art, but the picture-making from the beginning was secondary, starting with the Fairbanks-Picard days when they entertained visiting royalty and statesmen. That’s why the pictures had their worldwide success. They were made without strain by happy, unneurotic people who were busy having a good time and who worked naturally out of their instincts, and audiences everywhere were intelligent enough to perceive this and treasure it. It’s the climate, the desert. It comes with the locality. You’ll notice the further west you go, the more polite people become, the more relaxed” (95). Fuchs reports this belief, and he is surely not unattracted to it; still it is important to remember that the same story begins with a reflection on the name of one of the main boulevards in Los Angeles, La Cienega, Spanish for swamp: “you felt the marshlike nature of the region especially when you came to Los Angeles by plane, very often, when the plane landed and you filed out on the tarmac, the thick, wet heat rose up off the ground like a miasma and enveloped you” (75). As much as Fuchs tilts toward a defense of the vitality of Hollywood, he is hardly unaware of the shadow sides of the culture industry.

To consider Fuchs on these points, it is useful as well to give some thought to the only film he regarded as a hit for which he had written the screenplay (with Isobel Lennart), Love Me or Leave Me, a 1955 biographical treatment of the singer Ruth Etting, played by Doris Day with James Cagney as her mobster manager and later husband, Moe “the Gimp” the Snyder. It epitomizes the Hollywood treatment of the industry, by tracing Etting’s career from low vaudeville through “high” Ziegfeld and then Hollywood, with an attendant elevation of signs of social class. A critique of commercialization in culture is itself a topic for commercial culture; and the very inquiry into the commercial origins of art is, as Adorno points out in “The Schema of the Culture Industry,” akin to aesthetic autonomy: the work of art is the preferred topic for the work of art, ergo Hollywood films about Hollywood. As much as Fuchs acknowledges that he was far away from the end product and had next to no interaction with the actors, important aspects of Love Me or Leave Me resonate with Fuchs’s accounts elsewhere: not of course the specific career trajectories or the details that were based on the real-world drama of Etting’s divorce from Snyder and his violent assault on her new companion, which eventually ended her career. Still, the persistence of Fuchs’s Brooklyn past echoes through the treatment of Etting’s indebtedness to Snyder/Cagney who never gives up the particularity of his Chicago origins, no matter how he succeeds in moving Etting into ever higher levels of the industry and more elevated and homogenized class surroundings. Cagney is Etting’s past that will not disappear and therefore an increasing burden. Yet he is also the energetic motor of her career and advance. The moralistic message, the so-called “redeeming social value,” of the film, though, emerges in Cagney’s exchange with his rival for Etting’s affection, her pianist, who displays polish and selflessness, although he boasts that he came from the same “streets” as the gangster. The implicit lesson: it is possible to repress the past and (by the end of the film) also get the girl. Goodness is rewarded in this world.

This is where a trenchant critique of the culture industry might begin: not that it is too natural, too low, or too brutish, but, on the contrary, that it pursues an agenda of denaturalization in order to smooth the rough edges of life and, through homogenization, to pursue some social-climbing elevation. Fuchs moves from Jewish Brooklyn to a post-ethnic—or generically white—Hollywood. Cagney’s Moe Snyder has lost all Jewish characteristics except—within the film, incomprehensibly—just as Etting rushes on stage for her debut as a singer, he wishes her a “mazel tov,” so hurried as to be nearly inaudible. Even his sadism, surely a professional requirement for mobsters, is pretty anemic, civilized up to Hollywood levels of tastefulness: he pushes restaurateurs to contract for excessive amounts of linen from his laundry business—how clean can a mobster get! It is true that one client expresses fear for his life, but the film omits brutality: even the bad guys are really good. Contrast this tamed violence with young Fuchs’s vision of the Williamsburg economy: “Once the two of them had happened to see a tired man, bald and sweated, shot to death while he held a glass of soda water in his hand at a candy stand. He was murdered, they later learned, because he employed non-union men at his cap shop. Another time a man and his four sons were taken bloody to the hospital in a small fleet of ambulances. They had been severely cut up in a knife-fight with chicken-market competitors” (Brooklyn, 10). This is the sort of critical point that Horkheimer and Adorno make about film: not that it is too “low” but, in effect, that it is not low enough, that it has filtered out those rough specificities of life that would have had particular appeal to the novelist Fuchs. This filtering mechanism, moreover, maps fairly well onto class distinctions, or at least a neo-Marxist perspective would follow up on these leads.

Yet by the time of “Triplicate,” which first appeared in the collection The Apathetic Bookie Joint (1979), Fuchs provides an ironic inversion of this analysis. The fictional character Rosengarten, modeled extensively on Fuchs’s own biography, is at a Beverly Hills party, accompanied by a literary critic from New York, intrigued by Rosengarten’s decision to move West (as Fuchs had done) but even more so tempted by the aura of success that emanates from the film world: “He had strong academic credentials; his field was American literature, early and modern, but he had a hankering to extend his range to the larger scene and sometimes wrote essays on the movies. That was why he had come to California on this brief visit, to acquaint himself with the studios and see something of the life, but the trip wasn’t turning out as expected. He felt out of place at the party in his heavy eastern clothes, in his heavy, thick-soled, scuffed shoes” (80). But Fuchs does not leave this as an East-West story; there’s more substance to the resentment. The text continues, “It irked him that Rosengarten, with his handful of novels and the stories in the magazines, had been able to wangle himself into the studios, and he saw now with a rush of clarity where he had made his mistake. He should have gone to CCNY, not Columbia. The Pulitzer scholarship he had won at high school took him to the private institution, and there, out of vanity over his achievement and a sophomoric sense of superiority, he had let himself be misguided into putting his faith in the higher life of the mind, in criticism, whereas—had he gone to City—he would have had the brains to know from the outset that the intellect was nothing, that nobody wanted it, and that the big rewards lay in fiction, not in literary criticism.” But this claim of the power of fiction is not about its fictiveness, its unreality, but rather the specific connection, especially but not exclusively in film, with nature, an energetic vitality that elicits suspicion and resentment on the part of the arrogant intellect. Fuchs brings sensitive insight to this interplay and therefore deserves to become a point of reference in the debates on the culture industry.

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