I just finished an odd but compelling book called Movieland: Hollywood And the Great American Dream Culture by Jerome Charyn. It was written 20 years ago and lent to me by a friend. I'm not sure if Charyn in a great writer – his rhythm is all over the place – or if Movieland is a great book, but he writes with such fanatical passion about American film that it was hard not to get caught up in the damn thing. The book starts out as a bit of a gushing fanboy ode to the Hollywood palaces of yore – giant movie houses with their own cloud generators, statues and ornate plaster moldings in the manner of ancient and imagined Egypt and China. They built these massive cinema shrines for a period of about 15 years from the mid twenties onward, some having as many as 6000 seats and 250 toilets(!). By the late-thirties they'd come and gone, replaced with more utilitarian and affordable structures. Charyn chronicles his early love of going to the movies, his affection and regard for Garbo, Leo B. Mayer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rita and later Brando and Newman. Through a combination of meticulous research and interviews (he discusses with Paul Newman just how fabulous Paul Newman for example), Charyn manages to shine a bright light into the early days of Tinseltown spinning wonderful tales and interesting tidbits about what made the place tick.
Then an very odd thing happens. The tone of the book changes and the Charyn switches gears into entirely new territory. The innocence and boyhood infatuation with all things Hollywood from the early chapters vanishes in an instant and the book takes a turn into the shadows, becoming deeply critical of the false mythologies projected on American theatre walls throughout the middle post war years. The cherished illusion so carefully assembled in the early passages of the book is shattered and the industry is exposed as a fraud more adept at trickery and delusion than finding a greater truth. These middle passages are written in a way of that conjures up the image of a jilted lover, as though Charyn had caught the movies in the middle of some compromising indiscretion. Strange as all that may seem, the book takes off at this point becoming far more interesting and informative. It's quickly becomes challenging and provocative and I would guess that this thematic shift threw most critics. I'm guessing his intent was to link the broadening awareness one achieves growing up (and the exposure of counted-upon truths to be merely illusions) with the sense of betrayal one feels at the time. It makes for fascinating reading, that's for sure.
Movieland ends on an up-note with a the rise of the independents and new young actors like Pacino, Hackman and De Niro tearing up the screen in the early seventies. Charyn has a knack for connecting the real world America with the dream factory reflection Hollywood offers up in a way few have. He's articulate and engaging and I learned more about American cinematic form in 272 pages than I ever expected. I'll try and track a copy down for the store if anyone's interested.