Film and Individualism

citizenkaneThrough an examination of film’s within a country, or a moment in time, one can truly come to understand what the public values in terms of a certain ideology. In the United States, popular entertainment has long been a method of romanticizing the stories of so-called self-made men. It has been seen as the most effective way to portray the American Dream, individualism, and the unique past of the United States for audiences living within modern society. These stories are often quite heroic, and show the value of hard work in a distinctly “American” tone. Although individualism itself as a tenant can be quite harmful, when it is used as a theme in entertainment, it can be effective in creating sentiment, and pride. So, individualism has contributed significantly to this history of American entertainment, and has been crucial in creating a vast sentimentality for a past where hard work was shown to be the greatest virtue.

The history of film in America is far too rich, and far too expansive to fully look towards every film with themes of individualism. So, two films (Citizen Kane, and Giant) have been selected to discuss. The famed writer, director, and actor Orson Welles created his first film “Citizen Kane” in 1941. Citizen Kane directly displayed the ability of an American man to take control of his own destiny, and create and empire. Kane is an incredible work of American art, but its general popularity also displays how the American public reacts to (and embraces) stories such as the one presented in the film. At the time it was released, the country was on the tail end of the Great Depression, and Citizen Kane presented them with a great (and flawed) character that was meant to inspire. The touch of individualism can be seen as one of the defining features of the film, and one that makes it distinctly American. Kane must be mentioned in this conversation due to the fact that it is one of the most well regarded films in the history of American cinema. It possesses dominant themes regarding what it is seen to “be an American,” and the attitude/determination of the character Charles Foster Kane is still treasured 75 years later.

Giant,” which was released 15 years after Citizen Kane, featured a much different set of characters, and a much different setting. The setting of the film is crucial, as it took place in Texas, because it adds a greater sentiment for the American virtue of individualism. It displays true grit among many characters in order to persevere in the harsh climate of Texas. While the plot is not explicitly regarding individualism (and, really, followed many issues regarding race), it is frequently cited as one of the most prominent films depicting the rugged individualism of the western United States, and shows the prominence of the American Dream. This type of film truly shows the importance of individualism and the American Dream in Hollywood during the 20th century. The film possessed a mighty budget, gigantic stars (including James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor), and incredible reception from the American public (and the Academy). The ways audiences react to film is a great indicator as to what the dominant sentiment is among them. It shows through why they love stories regarding the western frontier, and latch on to certain characters within those stories. It is because of this ideal that has been so distinctly taught to generations of Americans, and truly is a facet of everyday life.

All in all, there are many examples throughout the history of American film that display the importance of individualism upon the popular entertainment of the United States (I would love to hear any other examples you can think of). But, Citizen Kane and Giant, more so than others, captured the true unique value of individualism in the United States (in two very distinct regions).

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9 Responses to Film and Individualism

  1. nshah210 says:

    So I haven’t seen either of the movies that you have talked about, but they sound incredible from they way you describe them. I just wanted to know more about how these movies promote individualism. Could you provide more examples from the movies and explain how individualism is a prominent aspect in the movies?

    • jtoombs51 says:

      Yes! The films themselves don’t explicitly claim “individualism is the key to a prosperous life,” because they have many other themes involved regarding race, equality, and many other aspects of American life. What they do show, with regards to individualism, is primary characters having a high moral standard (implied through their desire to do difficult work). This, the desire to work hard for personal success, is shown as what makes the characters so uniquely great, and American. Without this inner, individualistic, drive, they could not be great, and they could not lead innovation, or force America forward.
      I hope this clarifies some of what I said, and truly, I highly recommend viewing the films. They are two hallmarks in the American film industry!

  2. nicmccaleb says:

    I really like your post. I think that it is very interesting to examine how individualism has evolved since the creation of the United States. During the creation of the country, individualism was a very prominent concept that sparked much of the federalist/antifederalist debates. In that time, individualism was focused mostly on politics. People wanted their rights, liberties and freedoms to be guaranteed to each individual. As the times have changed and these aspects of individualism have come to be expected, individualism has changed to a more personal concept. People now strive for individualism in very personal aspects of their lives. An example is the alteration in gender roles that we currently experience. The role of the man and women in a relationship have been blurred.

  3. mike65965 says:

    I think that movies are a reflection of what people admire at a certain point in history. This however hakes me curious as to what the most popular movies today suggest in this regard. Say for instance Star Wars, Super hero movies, Wolf of Wallstreet. These are just the first movies that come to mind as very popular. I wonder what it suggests when the most popular movies today often suggest that the future will be so different and we dream of how we might be in that future time, or the idea that super powers are an amazingly admirable trait, or that someone who cheats the system to gain riches is a lucky guy. I am sure there are examples from each era that are not the best examples of what peoples character or dreams might be, but I worry sometimes that what entertains us might tell us more than we want to know about our character.

  4. ethanmolinar says:

    For an example of a modern movie which portrays the American values on individualism the movie “There Will Be Blood” describes the rise of an American prospector into an oil magnate. [youtube]AHz-zZoBnbc[/youtube] I really enjoyed this film for its portrayal of the price we pay for our desire for extreme wealth. The main character played by Daniel Day-Lewis sacrifices everything including interpersonal relationships in his insatiable quest for money. I would highly recommend watching this movie if you have the time although it is even longer than Citizen Kane. I really enjoyed the movie Citizen Kane although I don’t think I understood it when I watched it. It is truly an epic tale and helped me to learn to question how those who are in positions of power came to accumulate such power. The combination of art and politics is always an informative experience.

  5. trose91 says:

    Wow. This was an awesome post. I haven’t seen the movies that you mentioned. But I will be sure to place them on my “things to watch list”. I thought it was very cleaver and nice how you were able to combine what we have been learning in class to movies. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed your post.

    -Taundra Rose

  6. malloysells says:

    I have not seen either of these movies as well, but they seem to tie in splendidly to our class material, I will definitely have to Netflix them! The movie that came to my mind was Casablanca. At the heart of this film John Wayne is face to face with the basic dilemma of individualism and commitment. I’m definitely going to go find those films you were talking about, thanks!

  7. jcpartida says:

    The fact that Citizen Cane is still regarded as one of, if not the best film really captures what American individualism claims. The film and the individualism it portrays and the power you can take from it really convey a sense of destiny and the way destiny can be good or bad. The power dynamics are truly something to watch out for when individualism is in play.

  8. Alan M. Peter says:

    A student in my American Film Workshop told me about a paper that they were writing a paper comparing individualism portrayed in American cinema vs. Chinese cinema. I thought that this is a fascinating question and that I’d get back to her with some suggestions. “Citizen Kane” and “Giant” are two excellent examples which I forgot about. I also think that the objectivism philosophy of Ann Rand that features individualism is portrayed in her epic novel, “Fountainhead” and in the film of the same name is another excellent example.

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