Identifying Heroes: the Godfather and Pulp Fiction

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Identifying Heroes: The Godfather and Pulp Fiction

The form of Classical Hollywood films is, first and foremost, invisible. In a Classical Hollywood film, the narrative is foremost, and style serves the narrative. Camera angles, lighting and editing patterns such as the shot/reverse-shot pattern aim to give us the best possible perspective on the unfolding events(1). These events are arranged in a strongly causality-oriented linear narrative, with one event causing the next. This narrative is arranged around a central, active protagonist, whose decisions and actions are the key to the pattern of cause and effect that drives the story(2). This pattern seems so logical, so natural, that the audience of the classical Hollywood film is supposed to feel that they are receiving the material without the mediating intervention of the filmmaker. The link between heroes and the spectator under this model is therefore one of relatively unproblematic identification. Even films that featured anti-social heroes, such as the thirties gangster genre, modified the pattern only through imposing the strongly moral, tragic sequence of rise and fall; the audience's identification remained firmly with the central protagonist(3). Such a situation, under these assumptions, puts the audience in an apparently perverse situation, and it is therefore hardly surprising that the infamous Hays code of the thirties moved to ensure that "the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin(4)."

The assumption of audience identity with the hero was never unproblematic, and of course the classical Hollywood model of filmmaking partially outlined above never existed entirely without challenge. Nevertheless, it is clear that up to the fifties the classical Hollywood model was relatively applicable and that challenges to it were largely ineffective. However, beyond the fifties, the model became increasingly irrelevant. The reasons for the downfall of the classical paradigm are complex, and related to economic changes within the industry (the forced dismantling of the vertically integrated studio system that placed production, distribution and exhibition roles under the one organisation) as well as wider cultural shifts that occurred during the sixties (the widespread social upheaval and increasing prominence of counter-cultural challenges to mainstream ideologies). Perhaps most crucial, however, was the growing media-literacy of the population, with television in most homes and (moving further forward in time) the appearance of a generation that had grown up with television. As old movies began to appear on television, the audience's familiarity with them increased, and, as Robert Ray notes(5), this causes audience recognition of the conventions' artificiality to increase.

Recognition of genre forms was always something to be expected, and was seen by authors such as Thomas Schatz as the driving force behind generic evolution. Yet what occurred in the sixties was profoundly different. Individual genres had reached the point of over-familiarity and died out before (as with screwball comedies), but in this case the rise of television meant the entire body of classical film was being exposed, and the classical Hollywood model itself was therefore vulnerable. The sudden awareness of the artifice that was Hollywood cinema meant that for at least some of the population the old models, if taken completely at face value, could only function as camp or nostalgia. Traditional genre narratives seemed hopelessly naive to an audience increasingly composed of the young, cinematically literate, and (to a lesser extent) politically radical. The search for a solution covered most of the sixties and seventies; it was the eighties before the rise of the blockbuster(5.5) once again gave Hollywood a consistently profitable model to work from. In the meantime, many different strategies were employed to try to deal with the...
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