Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Michael Williams's " Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism"

Michael Williams is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Southampton, UK. He is author of Ivor Novello: Screen Idol (BFI, 2003) and co-editor of British Silent Cinema and the Great War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is currently researching the relationship between film stars, audiences, and pasts both ancient and modern.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism: The Rise of Hollywood's Gods, and reported the following:
From page 99:
As Valentino’s prose darkens in sympathy with the moonlight to which he repeatedly refers, he notes the marbles and bronzes that were once broken by the church as ‘Pagan monuments’ and how dangerous the Coliseum had been to visit until the nineteenth century, but that it is still a place for suicide. Valentino ends this entry by expressing a shudder at the stained ground of present and recent past. The star was not alone with this suggestion of the haunted past in the interwar context. As Catherine Edwards observes in her study of the reception of Rome in European culture, the ‘growing sense of cultural crisis’ in this period saw writers of many nations finding ‘parallels with the decline of imperial Rome increasingly suggestive’. At the same time Rome was ‘the eternal city’ and so offered a symbol of imagined certainty. What better image to pose before than the Coliseum, a ruined architecture of dark and bloody spectacle that makes the present noble by contrast, and a still-impressive symbol of ancient engineering against the ravages of time that swallows all onlookers into its history.
On turning to page 99 of Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism you will first discover an illustration of two pages from ‘My Trip Abroad’, a serialised travel diary from 1925 attributed to the pen of Italian-born film star Rudolph Valentino. This romantic account of his tour of Europe finds Valentino standing amid the ancient ruins of Rome. The star presents himself as an idol of the present framed by the most culturally elevating locales of a past he connects himself to by geography and lineage, but also iconography. In posing amid ruins he becomes a gentleman of the Grand Tour, and not the ‘lounge lizard’ seen by critics, and adopts himself the contrapposto pose of the sculptures housed in the museums of the city.

As has often been noted, representations of the past always also turn a mirror upon the present. This chapter’s title, ‘The Flight to Antiquity’, takes its title from British scholar Arthur Weigall’s 1928 book about the contemporary awakening to the ancient past he observes in the post-war period. In my book I argue that in the post-war decade of the 1920s, the air of beauty, wholeness and endurance connoted by antiquity – however illusory and, indeed, its elusive nature was key to its effect – was a valuable commodity for the cinema, that most modern of industries, as it sought to appeal to a generation emerging from the destruction of the war.

The images of Valentino represent well the often playful discourses I discuss in the book, which had a serious purpose for the Hollywood industry in veiling their commercial and artistic endeavours beneath the prestigious aura of the past. Here we find Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford (in a wonderful image I used on the book’s cover) juxtaposed with statuettes of the Venus de Milo, along with Greta Garbo as the ‘Stockholm Venus’, and Ramon Novarro, MGM’s great star of Ben-Hur, described somewhat incredibly as ‘The Greek God from Mexico’. In each case the idols play a strange iconographic and mythic game with their ancient counterparts, a game in which fans were also leading players.
Learn more about  Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue