All for Nothing: Nihilism in Cinema
by EDWARD CLINE
January 15, 2013
It is common knowledge that, as Washington is now the citadel of the Left, Hollywood has been a fiefdom of the Left for a very long time. The Left picks the projects, the scripts, the actors, and the directors, and then foists its films on a hapless American movie-going public, saying it's only entertainment and not to be taken seriously, adding, "We don't mean nothin' by it." The Left calls nearly all the shots in Hollywood. Anyone who doesn't toe the Left's Party line is left unemployed, unnoticed, shunned, and ostracized, regardless of talent or experience. In short, blacklisted. They may be invited to fill seats on Oscar night, but that is the limit of their visibility.
But how did the Left take over Hollywood? What made it possible? Without rehashing a history of Hollywood's political struggles, its flirtation with self-censorship (the Hays and Breen Offices), and subsequent abandonment of self-censorship in favor of "ratings" (the MPAA), the Communist infiltration of the studios and various unions, the McCarthy Era, the HUAC hearings, and the Hollywood Ten, the subject here will be what I perceive to be one of the means by which the Left effected its conquest. That method is psycho-epistemological in nature, and it is insidious.
What is epistemology? Novelist/Philosopher Ayn Rand defined it as "a science devoted to the discovery of the proper methods of acquiring and validating knowledge." Psycho-epistemology, she went on to explain, is "is the study of man's cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious."
Briefly, epistemology can tell us existence exists and why we know it. Psycho-epistemology tells us the method of our awareness of existence. Epistemology can validate that you are reading these words and that they are real. Psycho-epistemology, for example, will prove that reality is not some kind of super piñata to be approached blind-folded with a stick in hopes of thwacking some meaning from it.
In her brilliant essay on the effects of modern education on children, "The Comprachicos," Rand noted that:
"This skill [the process of forming, integrating, and using concepts] does not pertain to the particular content of a man's knowledge at any given age, but to the method by which he acquires and organizes knowledge - the method by which his mind deals with its content. The method programs his subconscious computer, determining how efficiently, lamely or disastrously his cognitive processes will function. The programming of a man's subconscious consists of the kind of cognitive habits he acquires: these habits constitute his psycho-epistemology."*
But who or what left the door open to the Left? It was nihilism. The Left needed help in establishing squatters' rights. Its penchant for censorship and propagandizing was too well known. Let us pick an arbitrary time for when the nihilism began to creep into film, say, the late 1950's and early 1960's, before the Left and the beatniks-cum-hippies completed their takeover of Hollywood. Very likely it began long before, but some prominent movies ought to demonstrate the method and the rot.
And what is the method? The films I mention here lead the viewer to believe that the story they are about to see is going somewhere, that there is a purpose to the sequence of events, no matter how muddled or tightly drawn the sequence. Viewers are in the mental habit of expecting a conclusion and a climax that make sense, no matter how banal or dramatic or contrived.
And these are not amateur films produced by film school wannabe directors shooting from a sophomoric script and starring no-talent casts and shot on make-shift sets. They are professionally made films made by big name directors on million dollar budgets with all-star, often international casts.
The films simply end. There are no concluding, satisfying denouements, no logical resolutions, no happy or even tragic endings. They simply end and everything that precedes the ending evaporates into irrelevancy. Life is meaningless, as well as all the struggles, thoughts, efforts, conflicts and purposes - all meaningless. All for nothing. Dissolved into nothingness. Phttt! Roll the credits.
Don't believe me? Try these synopses.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger, director): Jimmy Stewart plays a small town lawyer who agrees to represent a soldier accused of murdering his wife's rapist. By the end of the story, after Stewart has got the soldier off the hook on an insanity plea, the soldier and his wife skip town without paying him. This act of dishonesty casts doubt on the evidence and testimony of the solider and his wife. Was she actually raped, and did her husband, a drunken lout, kill her alleged attacker during a bout of "insanity"? Stewart shrugs it off and goes fishing. Mentally, the viewer is expected to do the same.
They Came to Cordura (1959, Robert Rossen, director): During the Mexican Incursion campaign of 1916, Gary Cooper plays an officer charged with taking several candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honor to a Texas town, Cordura, so they can live to receive the medal and serve as role models for Americans when the U.S. enters World War I. During a grueling trek on foot across desert (having had to surrender their horses to Mexican bandits), the soldiers nearly murder Cooper, attempt to rape Rita Hayworth, and initiate a string of harrowing conflicts and betrayals, in which the candidates reveal they are not heroic after all. Finally, Cordura is spotted and, forgetting everything that went on before, everyone rushes to reach it. Well, what a relief! But, what was all the dramatics about that led up to it? Will Cooper still recommend the brutes for the Congressional Medal of Honor? We are left guessing.
Advice and Consent (1962, Otto Preminger, director): A Senate committee is convened to investigate the possible left-wing allegiances of the president's nominee for Secretary of State, appropriately named "Leffingwell" (played, appropriately, by Henry Fonda). By the end of the film, the president dies and Leffingwell's name is automatically withdrawn because the new president will have his own nominee for the post. All the entanglements, intrigues, back-stabbings, and even a suicide, were for naught. Never mind. They'll just start all over again.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962, David Miller, director; screenplay, Dalton Trumbo): Kirk Douglas plays an independent man and cowboy who gets himself arrested and put into a local prison so he can stop his best friend there from being sent to a penitentiary by making an escape. His friend refuses to escape and wants to serve his time. So, Douglas escapes, and, with his horse, leads the authorities on a wild chase over a nearly impassable mountain. His pursuer is a local sheriff played by Walter Matthau.
After training his horse to cross highways safely, when they have reached sanctuary during a rain storm, he and his horse make it to the other side of the mountain, only to be struck by a truck, driven by Carroll O'Connor, hauling a load of commodes. Matthau is at the scene and he may or may not identify Douglas as the man he had conducted the search for. We are not sure of his motive, or even that he recognizes Douglas. Douglas is last seen gazing up with bewilderment at all the faces staring down at him.
Play Dirty (1969, André De Toth, director): Michael Caine plays a British officer drafted into a scheme to blow up Nazi fuel dumps in North Africa. He is put in charge of a group of grungy ex-cons who are also experts in sabotage. In the course of the story, Caine displays leadership, solves an insurmountable problem, but is forced to watch the Germans ambush and wipe out a British patrol because his group is anti-British. The fuel dump they are sent to destroy turns out to be a booby-trapped decoy. The group picks another fuel dump, but is ordered not to destroy it. They are betrayed to the Germans by the men who sent them on the mission. They manage to set the fuel dump ablaze. By the end of this picture, Caine and his second lieutenant, disguised in Italian Army uniforms, are the only survivors of the mission. They are accidently shot dead by a British soldier who didn't see Caine's white flag. Oh, well....
Ronin (1998, John Frankenheimer, director): Former American spy Robert De Niro is contacted by a woman to secure a briefcase that contains something that other spies and mercenaries want. After nonstop action and gun play and car chases, the briefcase may or may not have been secured because it has been switched with a duplicate. We never learn what was in it. By mayhem's end, the main characters settle back in a café to have their drinks and reminisce and speculate.
And as the credits roll and the audience leaves the theater, what is the audience to think? Well, they're not supposed to think about it at all. Just accept the nihilism as the norm. Causo-connections, however solid or shaky, that would allow full or partial comprehension, are forbidden.
It's interesting to note that Otto Preminger was not an avowed communist, and was famous for Laura (1944), Forever Amber (1947), and many other films that do have conclusions. If he was anything, he was apolitical. Robert Rossen was a communist, but a penitent one who "ratted" on his fellow communists to HUAC. The politics of André De Toth, a Hungarian immigrant, are not known.
However, Dalton Trumbo, who received credit for the screenplay of Lonely, and who was one of the unrepentant Hollywood Ten, was a communist, although he tried to distance himself from the others by "ratting" on his fellow travelers, too. John Frankenheimer's most famous films, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The Train (1965), all of which have finely honed conclusions, conflict violently with the senseless carnage of Ronin.
These films do not overtly reflect their makers' political leanings. Every one of them introduces an element of nihilism - or the destruction of values for destruction's sake - that helped to pave the way for the Hollywood Left to attack all American values, and values as such.
Why? I do not think the introduction of nihilism was deliberate or conscious. I think the directors were simply absorbing the psycho-epistemology of the time, by way of osmosis, one made possible by an overall retreat of reason in the culture. Making a film without the capstone of a conclusion was a novelty that contrasts sharply with each director's overall oeuvre. Their casts can be held blameless; actors are rarely good judges of the philosophical import of the scripts they choose to accept, although that is not the rule today. Ask Sean Penn, or Brad Pitt, or Danny Glover.
Some critics, in passing, or in amusement, called these and similar films "cynical." But nihilism is worse than mere cynicism. They are not the same thing. Cynicism alleges that there are certain ideals or standards that men can imagine but cannot live up to for one reason or another, usually because of their "base," deterministic nature. Nihilism says there are no ideals or standards - or even minds - that can't be suborned, corrupted, gutted, and destroyed.
Nihilism is by no means the sole method with which the Left inveigled its way into becoming the dominant political force in Hollywood. But, these and other films helped to make nihilism respectable, and the norm. Once that was done, the Left was free to fill the void. They prepared the viewer for an onslaught of films that are little more than gussied up propaganda. They inured viewers to watching the construction of a tower, and before it can be topped off, seeing it dynamited and collapsed into a cloud of rubble and dust.
Nihilism - even little bits of it snuck into scenes in the course of other films - habituates viewers to the notion that everything is nothing and nothing is everything, and that all is meaningless, so there's no good reason to claim that one's values are superior or special or sacrosanct, and can't be replaced with "higher" values. It attempts, case by case, instance by instance, from film to film, to scrub the viewer's epistemology clean of important causo-connections between reality, his values, and his own cognitive powers.
Nature does not tolerate a vacuum, neither in reality, nor in men's minds. As the "comprachicos" in modern education - from Progressive nursery schools up through the universities - have been busy "remolding" men's minds to create compliant servants of the Left and the all-encompassing state, nihilist films have sought to complete that education in the theater.
The solution in education is to get the government out of education. Once that is accomplished, that will, in time, solve the problem of evicting the Left from Hollywood.
*p. 158. The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: Signet/New American Library, 1971.
Edward Cline is the author of the Sparrowhawk novels set in England and Virginia in the pre-Revolutionary period, of several detective and suspense novels, and three collections of his commentaries and columns, all available on Amazon Books. His essays, book reviews, and other articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Journal of Information Ethics and other publications. He is a frequent contributor to Rule of Reason, Family Security Matters, Capitalism Magazine and other Web publications.