Communists and creative capitals

Dave Wagner responds to a review of his book "Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies," and readers weigh in on whether the "creative class" saves cities.

By Salon Staff
Published June 7, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

[Read the review of "Radical Hollywood."]

Thanks for Michelle Goldberg's review of Paul Buhle's and my "Radical Hollywood." While I disagree with her conclusions, it was refreshing to see a critic pursue the book's argument rather than its authors (the latter a nasty habit in the reviewing world these days).

There is one point, though, that deserves comment. Goldberg writes, "The authors actually use red-baiting FBI reports and congressional statements to back up some of their assertions, revealing the weird intellectual netherworld where academic wishful thinking meets right-wing hysteria." Although reading the archival record is often silent and gloomy work done in basements, it is hardly a "weird intellectual netherworld." It's called research.

The FBI's investigation of Hollywood resulted in many thousands of pages that were made public just a few years ago. They show a stumbling operation organized in the early 1940s that investigated movies solely because of their titles (they worried that John Ford's "The Informer" contained anti-FBI messages, for example). After the war, the operation evolved into something much more sophisticated. By 1947, agents with backgrounds in literature and drama were writing perceptive analyses of screenplays leaked to them by informants in the studios. The head of the Los Angeles FBI provided this material to J. Edgar Hoover in the hope that the authorities could acquire some formal control over content in Hollywood films. Hoover was smart enough to see that was a losing proposition, however, and the blacklist was carried out along lines that had nothing to do with, say, publicly identifying the comparison of Wall Street to the numbers racket in Abraham Polonsky's "Force of Evil" (1948).

What is truly "weird" is the assertion that, because the FBI understood what Polonsky intended (helped more than a little by the critical aid of tapping his telephone), we are somehow in league with the purposes of the FBI in the 1940s.

-- Dave Wagner

Ms. Goldberg's article on how academic social theorists mistreat important subjects is a gem. As Stalin -- a monster, but not a dumb one -- pointed out, "The writer is architect of the soul," and she seems to sense this. Given her intelligence and writing abilities, it would be a pleasure to read an article by her on this.

In line with that, I would like to suggest that she explore further her comment about the "control" of the producers and directors and bean-counters in Hollywood over filmmaking, and compare this to, say, Stalin's control over filmmaking in Soviet Russia. Thanks to Kant, we take it more or less for granted that "real" art is essentially subversive, but writers have to make a living too. Kant didn't; he was an academic.

-- Richard Carter

Michelle Goldberg half-succeeded. She makes "Radical Hollywood" sound sufficiently dreary and pedantic to ensure I'll give it a pass.

Where she flops is in hiding her own biases, most of them The Usual Ones: WWII good/noble, Cold War evil/rotten; C.P.U.S.A wanted only to improve life for the downtrodden, not remake/remodel the government; Joe McCarthy is the Devil incarnate -- at least on the days Hitler has off, etc, etc. Speaking of the Tailgunner, she takes that same tired misinformation shortcut everyone else does: that McCarthy hounded movie people out of the industry. Ye Gods, for the last time, McCarthy -- whatever his sins -- had next to nothing to do with the Hollywood HUAC hearings. What is the problem here? Typing out the name "J. Parnell Thomas" too difficult? Or is McCarthy just too tempting a piñata NOT to whack? Oh, wait, I get it; he "symbolizes" all that was rotten and vile about the witch hunts. Therefore, even if he was never specifically on the premises, Goldberg sees his chubby handprints everywhere regardless.

Oh, and Dalton Trumbo notwithstanding, the films of '53 were as good or better than the crop of '43. Unless you think heavy-handed propaganda is somehow inspired. For one thing, very few films were made in 1943 (it was one of Hollywood's leanest years in terms of overall releases), whereas '53 -- coming as it did after the double-whammy of television and the anti-trust ruling forcing the studios into divestiture -- forced Hollywood into producing more adult, intelligent and thoughtful films than had been their norm (and the pure-popcorn movies, with their giant bugs and Martian invasions, were certainly a cut above '43's juvenilia). Maybe what Trumbo meant was that his life was a lot better in '43 than '53. But then, a lot of useful idiots and fellow travelers were singin' that same tune in 1953.

-- Lou Manzato

[Read "Be Creative -- or Die."]

Why do I get the feeling that Richard Florida and Chris Dreher's "creative class" consists more of TV writers, fashion designers and computer programmers -- in other words, highly paid media professionals -- than it does of painters, poets or musicians? Maybe it's because most of the painters, poets and musicians that I know are too broke to live in places like the Mission District in San Francisco, Chicago's Wicker Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the East Village. And the few who are left in those neighborhoods are rapidly being forced out, often by those very same media professionals, as rents climb ever higher and more and more buildings are converted to condos.

I am a musician and writer who is currently paying $900 a month to live in a rent-stabilized studio apartment in a decidedly unhip neighborhood in Queens. My day job doesn't pay enough for me to live anywhere else, and if I worked any more hours I'd have to forget about writing or playing music.

If cities really wanted to make themselves more attractive to "creative" people, they might worry less about providing expensive playpens for bored yuppies and instead start doing something about the shortage of affordable housing. But that would mean we would have to start paying attention to the lives of people who are neither rich nor fashionable, and God forbid we as a country should waste our time on such losers.

-- Erik Richmond

While I generally agree with Professor Florida that districts fostering creativity are good for cities, I disagree -- based on our experience here in Austin -- with the notion that the tech industry and the arts make good neighbors or that both represent the same kind of "creativity."

Over the past few years, Austin (No. 2 on the "creative" list) has deliberately destroyed much of its downtown music district to please the massively in-migrating technical class, who much prefer streets cleansed of noise and nonconformity so they may be undisturbed in their hypnotic focus on video games as entertainment. (I was one of the first to spot this trend, now greatly accelerated: see my article.) Those techies who still have jobs do form much of the clientele at the city's thriving strip joints, and perhaps they even head out for the occasional steak, but I don't see them at the music clubs, except when they are demanding that they be razed. You see, funny hair and styles of dress, Green politics, loud music and nonconformity in general are bad for property values in the new luxury condo towers they can't seem to fill with tenants. Austin must be unique among state capitals in having deliberately turned its downtown into an empty industrial park, complete with a half-finished edifice abandoned by Intel after the city's quarter-billion dollars in handouts proved insufficient. (Meanwhile, the Austin Music Channel is choking for lack of a few tens of thousands in money the city just can't afford.)

The city has found it congenial to host a district of gay bars -- which notably do not have live music -- but these are generally conservative in theme and demeanor, such as the Rainbow Cattle Co. (a cowboy-themed gay bar). Hookers are allowed to populate South Congress Avenue and several other streetwalker districts, especially when the Legislature is in town. But the scruffy hippies once tolerated, within Texas, only in Austin are now ghettoized in a small neighborhood in South Austin. The incident that drove the last of the nonfrat crowd away from downtown was the 2001 Mardi Gras riots, over nothing at all. Sixth Street today is mostly a nonmusic street of bars and restaurants unloved by nonstudents.

So, Professor Florida, please tell your graduating seniors that Austin's music and art scene is next to dead, there are no jobs for them, and we who actually make our living in the arts have failed to thrive under tech moguls' heavy-handed subversion of a formerly liberal government. A recent study showed some 60,000 musicians have left Austin during the tech boom, driven out by soaring rents, neighbors who call the cops on rehearsals and the disappearance (often city-mandated) of most of the major venues. If Stevie Ray showed up in Austin in 2002, no one would rent him a flat. Austin's right wing must be dern proud to have made the city a near art-free zone, a fitting capital for the corrupt, culturally vapid, intellectually deprived and environmentally rancid oil sheikdom that is Texas. Unfortunately, high-tech "creativity" has left us only with a ruined city plan (horrendous traffic and visible air pollution) and a static economy that seems on the cusp of going bust altogether. Perhaps your students would find Dallas more congenial. Yeah, send 'em to Dallas.

-- Lindsey Eck

I recently read the interview with Richard Florida titled "Be Creative -- or Die" By Christopher Dreher. I live in Detroit and have felt this way for years. Detroit has an amazing technical base, and not just old-economy manufacturing. The problem is that it never tried to keep any of its creative-bohemian people. So it can be a very uninteresting place. When that happens, it becomes a slippery slope. More and more creative people want to leave.

So Detroit tries all kinds of tactics to "keep" people: new stadiums, big company headquarters, "entertainment districts," etc. None of this helps if a person cannot find one downtown restaurant that is open on a Sunday afternoon. Who wants to live there?

But the interesting part is that Detroiters make a lot of money. With the unions and the large corporations, housing/living expenses are driven higher compared to other cities. So it is "pay more, to get less."

It's sad and depressing. I was raised here. My family, friends and career are great. But I've always wanted to leave. Now I know why.

-- Joe Labataille

Thanks to Richard Florida for VALIDATION! I've lived in Boston for almost 12 years, and have seen the negative effects of a growing creative class take hold of our city. The more people want "the life," the higher rents climb, the more creative/bohemian people have to move out of the city. Boston is currently losing chunks of its artist population as the loft buildings that house their lower-rent studios and galleries are sold and repurposed as (mostly unoccupied) commercial space. I've always believed that it's in the interest of city officials to ensure affordable housing and to resist total gentrification -- thus feeding the diversity and vitality that are crucial to maintain a world-class city.

But there is a ray of hope -- our Mayor Menino has had the foresight to push a cultural agenda here in town that includes money earmarked for youth arts programs, artist housing and musician rehearsal spaces. It's a good start to ensuring that "the Hub" stays worthy of its moniker.

-- Ivelisse Estrada

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