Film Mavericks in Action

New Hollywood, New Rhetoric, and Kenneth Burke

by Alan Taylor (Author)
©2017 Monographs 334 Pages


The book’s ambition is to uniquely yoke familiar histories of New Hollywood with aspects of critical theory that, since the 1950s, have embraced advances in the New Rhetoric as pioneered by literary theorist, philosopher, social analyst and educator Kenneth Burke (1897–1993). The study tracks the career arcs of Hollywood film directors Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola whose productions are regarded as Burkean perspectives by incongruity. This analysis is contextualized within an overview that, from the 1920s to the present, considers Hollywood as a "languaged industry" that is grounded in Burkean principles of Order, identification, hierarchy, courtship and ambiguities of substance. The project is designed to serve the interests of colleagues and students in Rhetorical Theory, Film Education, Creative Writing, American Studies, Production Studies, and Film and Media Studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction: Burke and New Hollywood
  • 2. Hollywood’s Bureaucratization of the Imaginative
  • 3. Peter Bogdanovich and Identification
  • 4. Martin Scorsese and the Backward Looking of the Prophets
  • 5. Michael Cimino and Frontier Ambiguities of Substance
  • 6. Francis Coppola and the Persistence of Preoccupations
  • 7. Shipwrecked Auteurs of the 1980s
  • 8. Hollywood’s Postmodern Barnyard
  • 9. Scorsese, Coppola, and Burke: A Parlor Discussion
  • 10. Final Alembication: Film Education
  • Filmography
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Given the pre–ponderence of references to Kenneth Burke’s books, articles and manuscripts, a coded reference system of abbreviations across the text is thought useful.

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1. Introduction: Burke and New Hollywood

“I think that when everyone’s story is told then that makes for better art. It makes for better entertainment, it makes everybody feel part of one American family, so I think as a whole the industry should do what every other industry should do which is to look for talent, provide opportunity to everybody. And I think the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?” (U.S. President Obama in Child, 28/1/2016).

“Action” by all means. But in a complex world, there are many kind of action. Action requires programs – programs require vocabulary. To act wisely, in concert, we must use many words (KB, ATH, p. 4).

President Barack Obama’s response to the 2016 debate over the lack of diversity in Hollywood touches not just on the standard operating procedures of the ‘industry’ but has implications also for those responsible for the training that leads towards that industry. Like any Order rooted in the drama of human relations, that industry is grounded first and foremost in symbolic action and is enriched by a persuasive mystique that goads individuals into extended courtships (film schools, mentorships) that through personal identifications and formal associations over time achieve the “fair shot” that hopefully brings consubstantiation between self and others, filmmakers and their audiences. However, as Kenneth Burke reminds us, such action “…requires programs – programs require vocabulary. To act wisely, we must use many words” (KB, ATH, p. 4). The many words of our present work Film Mavericks in Action are intended to support just such a program.

Etching out a better future, however, requires a reflective and critical account of the past. Popular and academic perspectives of New Hollywood tend to understandably focus on those box office breakout titles that gave early financial and critical credibility to, for example, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Marin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1974), through Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Their work is seen in the context of what was rhetorically labeled as ‘New Hollywood’. That era is evoked here in relation to an industry Order that had emerged in the 1920s and is related then in later chapters to the present day.

However, these star–directors undertook film projects in the late 1970s which, thirty years later, still stand out as multi–million dollar misadventures. These films – At Long Last Love (1974), New York, New York (1977), One from the Heart (1982), and Heaven’s Gate (1980) – provide the case study spine of this project. What makes this account different, therefore, is its focus on those box office and ← 17 | 18 → critical failures that in their genre–busting stylistic challenges attempted what Burke (1964) might call a “perspective by incongruity”.

More significantly, this familiar history of New Hollywood is enriched, we think, by a critical frame that draws extensively on the work of Burke – and those who have similarly drawn from him across so many disciplinary fields in, for example, Communication Studies, Rhetorical Studies and literary theory. While readers may be more than familiar with our chosen directors, it is perhaps wise to focus more specifically at this early stage on Burke himself and determine how best his work in New Rhetoric can have a bearing on our later analysis of New Hollywood. Our initial emphasis, therefore is on language as action.

Language as Action

Yoking Kenneth Burke, forerunner of 1950s and 1960s New Rhetoric, with New Hollywood stirrings of the 1960s and 1970s evokes a meeting of kindred maverick minds. In his obituary for the New York Times two days following Burke’s death at the age of 96, Richard E. Lyons reminded readers, for example, of Burke’s hybrid personae. As “New Criticism Founder” Burke was a “…prominent intellectual in Eastern literary circles…a poet, essayist, reviewer, novelist, translator, social commentator and writer of short stories. His works were collected in more than 15 books.” Lyons’ obituary was enhanced by an extended quote from long–standing Burke champion William H. Rueckert who described Burke, 1981 recipient of the National Medal for Literature, as

“Action” is our weighted cue, our linguistic bridging device, that connects Kenneth Burke with the symbolic operations of Hollywood. Time, then, to reflect on his life and work.

Kenneth Burke’s Courtships

Burke’s maverick hybridity was already familiar amongst scholars and academics since he walked from his undergraduate studies at New York’s Columbia University back in January 1918. By that time Nicholas Murray Butler had been Columbia president for sixteen years and his regime, so ridiculed in Upton Sinclair’s The Goose Step (1922), was fully in place. Sinclair’s “interlocking president” (p. 50) was a “…first–class brain, a driving, executive worker, capable of anything he puts his mind to, but utterly overpowered by the presence of great wealth” (p. 30). By the time of Sinclair’s investigation, Butler was “sneering at the progressives” (p. 32), ruling “the university as an absolute autocrat” (p. 40) and operating as “a drunken motorist in a crowded street” (p. 44). So what “…you have at Columbia is a host of inferior men, dwelling, as one phrased it to me, in “a twilight zone of mediocrity”; dull pedants, raking over the dust heaps of learning and occupying their minds with petty problems of administration” (p. 50). Butler was later recipient of the 1931 Nobel peace and, from 1928 to 1941, was president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Around this time a disillusioned Burke explained to friend, confidant and poet Malcolm Cowley how

Rather than subject himself, then, to Butler’s regime of “mediocrity” Burke committed himself to the heady cultural and political swirl of Greenwich Village, setting himself into the first of nine residencies that served between 1918 and 1931 (Selzer, 1996, pp. 12–13). This was “the Village” of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photography Studio, the John Reed Clubs, the Liberal Club, Mabel Dodge’s Literary Salon, the Washington Square Bookshop, and The Hell Hole Bar – Eugene O’ Neill’s local at the Golden Swan Saloon. For cineasts, the “…major scene for the enactment of modernist dialogue” (p. 9) is vividly represented in Warren Beatty’s spirited Reds (1981). As thoroughly documented by Selzer (1996), Burke strategized his way both passionately and carefully as first poet, author of modernist fiction and then leading critic and respected reviewer. His early poems were presented by ← 19 | 20 → his friend Malcolm Cowley at a Harvard literary society in 1916; his first 1918 residence in the Village was shared with members of the Provincetown Players; a 1919 move to Bank Street with his first wife Lily Mary Batterham coincided with the publication of A Man of Forethought in Smart Set; and in 1920 four other stories and a review were accepted by the Dial. In 1921 alone Burke’s reviews appeared in The Literary Review, The New York Tribune, Contact, the Arts, and, again, the Dial (Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and The Voyage Out). Early prominence came with Cowley’s provocative article in the 1921 October issue of The Literary Review that listed Burke amongst “the youngest generation” of writers such as Dos Passos and E. E Cummings and whose work respected “…form, simplification, strangeness, respect for literature as an art with traditions, abstractness…” (Selzer, 1996, p. 42). As a manifesto, Cowley’s article was a riposte to the genteel traditional, a “…sort of declaration of independence from the literary nationalists associated with Bourne, Brooks and Mencken” (p. 42). In the early 1920s, then, Burke extended his working relationships across a range of publications – The Little Review, Succession, Broom and, importantly, the Dial at 125 West, 13th Street which included senior staff was Gilbert Vivian Seldes.

Not including himself amongst the Paris expatriates, Burke at 24 was appointed as the Dial’s assistant editor when it “…was arguably the most influential modernist journal of the 1920s in the United States” (Gorman, 1996, p. 72). Effusing to Cowley on his May 5th 1922 birthday, Burke exclaimed ““Christ, what a chance! I should get thirty–five dollars…I shall get a second–hand Ford to ride to the station, and commute from Andover”” (KB in Jay, 1990, p. 119). Burke’s eclectic reading and knowledge is manifest in his 1922 reviews for the Dial (Zweig, Flaubert, Gide), his translations of Hofmannsthal and Thomas Mann (Tristan) and his preparation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for its first publication. By 1923 Burke’s short stories were appearing in Succession and Broom while his work at the Dial has him translating Mann’s monthly letters for the magazine while also rejecting “…some Pound “Cantos” and a contribution from Freud” (Selzer, 1996, p. 194). A flavor of Burke’s 1927 duties is provided by Selzer (1996) who lists how Burke spent that

Given the scope and depth of his literary functions it is little wonder that “…as a critic and artist Burke was certainly one of the more knowing and important ← 20 | 21 → voices in the New York City circle of modernists” (p. 7). His pivotal position under Marianne Moore and James Sibley Watson at the Dial from 1921 to 1929 allowed Burke a commanding overview of Modernist trends across literature and the arts and their alliances against orthodox aesthetic and moral clarities. Not only was Burke fully informed of the radical aesthetics of Pound, Joyce, Woolf, and T. S. Eliot (the Dial’s London correspondent) but became the Dial’s resident champion of Thorstein Veblen’s planned incongruity. Furthermore, Burke’s critical perspective aligned with a publication that “…explicitly rejected the nationalism of the Seven Arts and the search for indigenous art forms for America in favor of a cosmopolitan approach to expressive culture” (Gorman, 1996, p. 73). In its favorable treatment of the popular arts – W. C. Fields and prizefights there was “…a distinct air of the subversive in the Dial’s statements of its philosophy” (p. 75). By 1929 the Dial had published Burke’s translation of Mann’s Death in Venice (1924), his own Psychology and Form (1925), his review of Spengler’s Decline of the West (1926), began Burke’s monthly music column (1928) and awarded him its prestigious Dial Award ($2,000). Burke’s years on the Dial had put into action his earlier 1922 observation to Cowley that do “…you know, Malcolm, criticism is a subdivision, not of dialectics, but of rhetoric? By which I mean that we all must vituperate and deify, and the one with the cleverest tricks wins” (KB in Jay, 1990, p. 112).

During this time on his Andover farm outside the hectic city Burke had built a garage for a new car, a dam, and began a family. And these were, of course, Prohibition times and Burke was in many respects a man of his time. In terms that he would later regret he described to Cowley how when going into

As a writer of fiction in his own right, Burke had focused first on poetry then a series of the short stories which were first published in 1924 and again as The Complete White Oxen in 1968. Writing as if in conversation with Freud, Marx, Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, and de Gourmand, Burke’s fictional experiments undertook an assault on the realist tradition by adopting and at times anticipating the narrative and perspectival dislocations of the Symbolists, the Dadaists and Surrealists. These were a young Burke’s response to a modernism that he both confronted and relished while inhabiting the artistic ferments of a Greenwich ← 21 | 22 → Village where “…artists challenged the genteel notion that art should reflect the world, civilize the masses, and promote Christian virtue and civic order” (Selzer, 1996, p. 9) – Columbia, we note, had awarded its 1918 poetry prize to Sara Teasdale. Burke’s fables confront, for example, how a young man’s modernist sensibility clash with the settled proprieties and codes of a mid–Western University (Mrs Maecenas); ironizes the tendentious relationship between literature and its critical reception (Portrait of an Arrived Critic) and immerse the reader in a fragmented New York urban experience where the protagonist of After Hours “…swerved around the room with the subconscious realization of many things….Everyone was frankly in his own orbit; they called out to each other from a distance an in haste, as though they were going in opposite directions on railway trains” (KB, TCWO, p. 130). In their relentless self–reflexive tendencies these “… stories typically interrogate the conflict between the bohemian and bourgeois ethos that Burke was feeling personally in Greenwich Village and that he observed in the fiction of Thomas Mann” (Selzer, 1996, p. 90). Thus Burke was working out from “…under the shadows of Flaubert and Mann…out of the modernist conviction that inherited forms are worn out, in need of re–invigoration and replacement” (p. 100). Typical of Burke’s narrative radicalism is A Progression that charts the surreal journey of a Mr. Dougherty the “…head of a bookkeeping department”, from his well–coded office empire to the city street and where objects “… moved. Things passed irregularly, some slick and shiny, some looming up and approaching like a broadside. Some wheezing. Others crossed, went down, went up, bunched, shot ahead…he moved himself among shapes, sizes and directions” (KB, TCWO, p. 176). While Dougherty proceeds and bears heavily upon one of the most deplorable paradoxes in all the length and breadth of modern society” (p. 179), the narrator spins thoughts on the “Higher Idea of Progress”, ghosts, education, God and the Devil, the “round tonguers” and then makes a subtle genre shift meanwhile into a fairy land where an Argubot becomes King, lives and dies. The story ends with no further mention of Mr. Dougherty who is last seen being lassoed from his train by Indians swarming the city in buzzing airplanes. They then disappeared “…to one of the deserted islands in the South Seas, in fact, where they killed Mr. Dougherty and ate him, which recalls the similar case of Ellery Smith” (p. 179). Altogether “…this collage of events, this “progression” from realist setting through fabulous action…adds up to a modernist attack on the conventional notions of predictability, rationality, and…progress itself” (Selzer, 1996, p. 104). The short story echoes Burke’s 1921 thoughts to Schofield Thayer of the Dial that dismissed conventional plot and its “mere illusion of development” in favor of “…the elements of a prose that would ← 22 | 23 → be juxtaposed like the colors on a canvas” (p. 99). Such was his conscious radical narrative plan for Death of Tragedy where, despite the regime of the plot there are


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
Rhetorical Studies Media Scorsese Coppola Filmmaking Institutional Analysis
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 334 pp.

Biographical notes

Alan Taylor (Author)

Alan Taylor is an Alumnus of the University of Mainz, Keele University, the IOE London and the London Film School. Since graduating also from the Department of Education, University of Oxford, he has managed Film and Media courses in the U.K. and lectured at Universities in Europe and South Africa where he has served as both Professor of Film and as External Verifier of Film and Media courses for that country's Council of Higher Education Quality Committee.


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336 pages