TCS Daily

Art in a Free Society

By Jon Haber - August 23, 2004 12:00 AM

With the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz reaching the "retirement age" of 65 this year, it is worth remembering how that film not only continues to delight (and frighten) generation after generation of children around the world, but how it also served to drive Europe's totalitarian dictators nuts.

Hitler and his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels loathed the fact that Hollywood (and "Jewish" Hollywood at that) seemed able to manipulate audience emotions in ways the German propaganda ministry never could, even with the resources of the total state at their disposal. Stalin, a fanatic of American film, decried how the Soviet film industry could not entertain the masses as successfully as did the decadent capitalists of California.

The Nazi answer to Oz and other Hollywood spectacles was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1943), a lavish picture depicting one of Germany's most beloved folk heroes which Goebbels insisted receive the lion's share of new Agfacolor film stock (German's answer to the glistening Technicolor of Oz), even as war diverted other resources across a ravaged continent.

For his part, Stalin decided to compete with the West by dramatically limiting the number of films the Soviet Union would produce each year to ensure that each one would have the resources required to be a masterpiece (reviewed, of course, by the party leader himself). The Soviet Union's capture of most of Germany's remaining postwar color film stock allowed fantasy directors like Aleskandr Ptushko to fill those few slots with fantasy pictures based on Eastern European folk mythology such as Sadko and Ilya Muromets.

The results of art by government decree were predictable. The Nazi Munchausen, while memorable, was a grim affair, and the number of Soviet pictures which successfully made it past the party's watchful eye declined from 20 in 1946 to just 5 in 1952.

What Europe's dictators failed to understand was how the major motion picture -- whether a spectacle like Oz or a blockbuster like Star Wars -- could only be created in the free-wheeling, uncontrolled society and economy which statists both Left and Right so loathed.

The popularity of opera in Europe emerged from recognition that this entertainment was the synthesis of all contemporary art forms, including music, dance, literature, and in the creation of fantastic sets, painting, and sculpture. In the same, a review of ending credits reveals major films as integration all of the elements of modern creativity and commerce including art (writing, design, acting and music), industry (from scientific and technological innovation to catering) and business (management, marketing, sales and distribution).

As with most modern enterprises, the major motion picture is created because hundreds or thousands of individuals, working separately and together, each perform their own tasks which end up part of an integrated whole, usually in ways the supposed "owner" of the process (notably producers and directors) can never predict.

As a microcosm of the modern enterprise, many major films go off the rails (see Ishtar and Heaven's Gate -- or better yet, don't), suffering familiar business pathologies such as "Big Mo(mentum)" (i.e., the inability to pull the plug on a clear money-losing endeavor). But when successful, blockbuster pictures like Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings transcend the work of all of their creators, with the whole ending up significantly more than the sum of many, many parts.

Today's tyrants, particularly in today's globalized economy, take a similar schizophrenic line on Hollywood, despising its decadent output, yet envious of its seductive power. Teaming masses across the globe, representing every class and race, streaming in to be delighted by Spiderman 2 demonstrate just who truly has his hand on the pulse of the masses.

The tale of Ptushko's fantasy epics is instructive in this regard. While his films were hailed in Europe, they eventually faded from view, living on today only because exploitation film king Roger Corman purchased the rights to the pictures, turning Sadko into The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, Sampo into The Day the Earth Froze and Ilya Muromets into Sword of the Dragon (under the editing direction on a young Francis Ford Coppela), complete with dubbing and credits that masked their Soviet origin (turning Estonian starlet Eve Kivi, for example, into Nina Andersen, allegedly a Finnish-American beauty queen and collector of rare stamps). While Stalin, with the power of empire at his disposal, was unable to capture the world's attention with his party-sanctioned masterpieces, Corman (representing the film industry at its most exploitative and crass) helped the work of a great Russian film maker finally reach an American (matinee) audience.

Jon Haber has worked as a film writer for the Boston Globe and movie reviewer at WBUR in Boston. He now runs SkillCheck, Inc., a software publisher in Burlington, Massachusetts, and occasionally finds time to write about the intersection of politics, film and culture. He recently wrote for TCS about the return of the exploitation flick.


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