It’s more or less agreed upon that the period between the advent of sound (early 30s) until the advent of television (1950s in America, later in other countries) was a “Golden Age” for cinema.  That isn’t to say that every film produced in that period was of outstanding quality or that any product of another time period is not of high quality.  But it was during this time that filmmakers around the world really hit their stride.  Not surprisingly, the character of the Golden Age was felt differently in different parts of the world.   Nevertheless, in all the world’s Golden Ages, there was a shared coming together of commercialism and art.  The films that gave the age its name were golden in both senses of the word–they were of high quality and also made a lot of money.

Perhaps our chief pitfalls to avoid in this tidbit are the tendency to say that “everything was better in the good old days” and the knee-jerk opposite tendency to say that “everything is the same always and at all times–now that we’ve settled that I’d like to continue to post malicious comments on YouTube and 4chan.”  Indeed, the second pitfall seems to be more prevalent here in our home town of the blogosphere.  But I think that if we consider a number of simple factors we should be able to get a fairly clear picture of what characterized the Golden Age.

Truffaut, though often cast as a defender of commercial (or at least popular) movies, described the difference between the Golden Age and what came after it in the introductory essay to his classic compendium “The Films In My Life” (p.6, part of What Do Critics Dream About? 1975):

André Bazin could not write today that “All films are born free and equal.”  Film production, like book publishing, has become diversified and specialized.  During the war, Clouzot, Carné, Delannoy, Christian-Jaque, Henri Decoin, Cocteau and Bresson addressed the same public.  This is no longer true. Today few films are conceived for the “general” public—people who wander into a movie theater by chance, attracted simply by the stills at the entrance.

Today, in America, people make films that are directed to minorities—blacks, Irish; there are karate films, surfing films, movies for children and for teenagers.  There is one great difference between the productions of today and those of former days: Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck, Lous B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle and Harry Cohn loved the films they produced and took pride in them; today the owners of major companies are often disgusted by the sex-and-violence films they throw into the market so they won’t be left behind by the competition.

Truffaut  eschews any questions of why or how the Golden Age started or ended.  But he points to an interesting symptom: the people who are responsible for bringing the films into existence are not happy with the films that they make.  Rather than attempting to appeal to different temperaments (as has always been common with genre pictures, especially in Japan), the later film producers played an “identity marketing” game with the most vulgar of attractors.

I mentioned the Japanese print once before to help understand film paradigms and I’ll probably do so again in the future.  The combination of shameless commercialism (many of the prints were literally just advertisements for kimono shops, tea houses or the likes) with breathtaking beauty, all imbued with the subtlest of gestures towards the infinite make them a natural companion to the cinema.

Here the most dominant factor that we will consider is technology.  More advanced printing technologies led to the boom that was the late 18th through mid-19th century ukiyo-e.  Even a cursory chronological scan of printmaking in Edo period Japan reveals a complexification of materials and process which culminated in the mid 19th century—just in time to be made obsolete by the advent of photography, lithography and a viciously modernizing political agenda.

It is perhaps inescapable that a medium created by technological progress will ultimately be destroyed by it.  Unlike static media (e.g. literature, painting, sculpture), a technologically induced medium is always changing as its technology changes.  And in the process whole artforms are created and destroyed.  Silent film is an obvious example.  Anyone who’s watched silent films extensively can identify a certain magic that was erased, or at the very least drowned out, by the advent of sound.  Silent film is not just a talkie on mute.  It had its own laws, conventions, strengths and weaknesses.  Ozu was famously resisted switching to sound because he felt he was on the brink of mastering the art of silent film.  It wasn’t the novelty of sound that destroyed silent film.  Unlike technologically static media, silent film had identified itself with a new technology and when that technology advanced it disappeared.

To a great extent,  I think that the relationship between ukiyo-e and photography was similar to the relationship between film and television.  In neither case did one really prove a substitute for the other but the newer and cheaper technology sufficiently crippled the older industry so that it never really came back.  The response to the Japanese prints continued in a radically more “artistic” vein, in the “creative print” movements of the 20th century.  And the film world split: artistic films became more and more austere and even anti-commercial at times while “mainstream” films were commercialized in a soul-extinguishing way that needs no description for readers today.  (Once again, I’m not talking about all films but rather “your average film:” the box office leaders and what have you.)

In Japan, the effects of television were striking.  The watershed event that changed the cultural landscape of Japan was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.  (Of course, for many of us the cinema died on December 12, 1963 but we’ll save that discussion for later.)  In 1958, only 10% of the population had television sets but by 1964, over 80% of the population watched the inaugural ceremony of the Olympics, many on television.  According to Anderson, by the mid-60s 60% of Japanese homes had televisions and by 1970 over 95%.  Though the economy was strong,  the film industry suffered tremendously and attendance fell directly with the adoption of television:  in 1958 annual movie attendance was 1,127 million but by 1975 it was only 170 million–a fall of 85%. (See this interesting article for more on the history of TV in Japan.)

Daiei, which produced Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and other classics, went bankrupt along with many other small companies.  Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho survived thanks to their diversified interests.  Thus the rise of Shochiku bowling alleys and Nikkatsu office buildings.  The justifiable panic which engulfed the studios was translated into a harshly commercialist attitude which alienated all of the great directors and arguably drove away even more viewers.  Until the advent of TV,  the “studio system” reigned.  That means that the directors were retained by a studio and given more or less creative freedom.  As part of the TV panic, they switched to the “producer system” in which the decision of what gets made and how devolves to someone who is selected for their business sense alone.  After 1964, Kurosawa almost stopped making films.  Gosho and Naruse were crushed by the new rules.  Ichikawa had to switch off between masterpieces and plebeian crowdpleasers in order to eat.  Now, in 2009, with Okuribito taking the Best Foreign Film Oscar, there’s talk of a national cinema revival.  I hope it’s true.

The golden age was born when film technology plateaued in the 1930s and kept enough of a lock on the crowd that the studios could comfortably support directors and producers who made what they wanted to, what they believed in.  As that comfort slipped away, the film industry has settled into a much more ruthlessly commercial enterprise.  Television is in many ways a further development of the film medium–cheaper, more convenient–and its rise put the film industry through a trauma from which it has never recovered.

In closing, I’d pose the same question about television.  Namely, we see today a growing irrelevance of TV as a medium because everything can be obtained less painfully on the internet.  What will this mean for the future of TV?  Will anyone care about HDTV when you can stream HD quality video on your fiber optically linked computer?  What will the media companies do in response.  Here’s one prediction.  Have any others?