Losing Control: New Hollywood, the Crisis of the Self and the Cultural Logic of Expressivity (Dissertation Project)
Dissertation in Culture
First supervisor: Prof. Dr. Frank Kelleter
Second supervisor: Prof. Dr. Martin Lüthe
Third supervisor: Prof. Dr. Olaf Stieglitz
The cinema of New Hollywood still is praised as a rare creative period of filmmaking, engendered by an economic crisis of the film industry in the late 1960s and terminated by this industry’s restructuring in the mid-1970s. Rather than to reproduce the image of New Hollywood as an idiosyncratic interval with an impressive output of singular works of art, this dissertation project ties its emergence to discourses that problematized both the nature of subjectivity and the state of art in cinema. Postwar discourses from psychotherapy to the counterculture and their translation to New Hollywood helped to form what I term a “cultural logic of expressivity” as an aesthetic answer to questions of (im)mobility, (in)authenticity and (ir)rationality. During the 1960s, the discourse and aesthetics of expressivity merged with a political imaginary that constructed a ‘countercultural self’ beleaguered by ‘social forces’, an ideologically polymorphous construct onto which changing notions of race, class and gender were distributed according to changing discursive contexts and conflicting political goals. New Hollywood glued this political imaginary to an aesthetics and a reception discourse increasingly circled around affect, emotions and authentic art.
To bind these different assemblages together, the project traces three distinct social fantasies from their emergence in the postwar period through the initial period of the New Hollywood to the mid-1970s and its prevalent rhetoric of a nation in crisis: fantasies of constant motion, of an authentic core and of irrational forces––that, in different ways, universalized white subjectivity while at the same time reconfiguring it in affective terms. The three respective chapters start by tracing the increasing significance of these fantasies in postwar American culture and end by discussing a 1976 film that embedded the white, expressive, male subject in a social environment populated by non-white and female subjects. Interpreting New Hollywood not as an episode in a separated history of cinema but as part of a broader cultural history of changing notions of subjecthood means not only to historicize a variety of films often analyzed as singular cultural artifacts. It also means coming to terms with the specific whiteness of allegedly universal phenomena such as the therapeutic discourse of a ‘lost self’ and the expressive aesthetics of art cinema.
In focusing on the canonized and often still celebrated films of New Hollywood, the project aims not at reinforcing their already privileged status but rather to interrogate and historicize this status. In engaging not only with the films themselves but also with their production and reception environment, the singular works of art the New Hollywood produced are to be understood as networks of ideas and images that spread out through the whole postwar cultural formation. In tracing these networks, the dissertation seeks to intervene in scholarship on New Hollywood but also to complement the analysis of a political polarization since the 1960s through an emphasis on the common cultural terrain that social actors on different ends of this polarization shared. Its main thesis is that the opposition between a ‘countercultural’ self and multifarious ‘social forces’ and the anti-institutional ethos thus cannot be clearly identified with a left- or right-wing politics. Rather, it functioned and still functions as a structuring force that imposes oppositions between oppressed self and oppressive forces and between the authentic singular and the merely social onto cultural artifacts and subjects. The 21st-century celebration of ‘affect’ over ‘representation’ in film and cultural studies eventually did not challenge this opposition but further reinforced it.