Gordon Arnold wants us to see movies as if for the first time.
“What I’m trying to do is give people a way to look at films, by restoring some of the original context,” said Arnold, who teaches liberal arts at Montserrat College of Art. “We look at films and tend to forget that they are a product of that moment.”
Arnold pursues this understanding in his new book, “Projecting the End of the American Dream: Hollywood’s Visions of U.S. Decline,” which looks at around 100 films from the 1930s to today.
He reminds people, for example, that the film “Wall Street” was made at a time when stockbroker Ivan Boesky was convicted of insider trading and justified his actions in ways that are mirrored by the film’s main character.
“You can enjoy it as a movie,” Arnold said. “But it makes more sense if you look at it in terms of the 1980s.”
While exploring these connections, Arnold also discovers a theme that dominates films in the periods he covers.
“Especially after World War ll, this weird thing happens,” he said. “America was head of the world stage, but there was also an anxious undercurrent from that point forward: a fear of outside threat, but also a fear of moral decay, an inside threat.”
These tensions define “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the science fiction film from the ’50s, which was made during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hearings into communist infiltration.
They also inform “Taxi Driver,” from the 1970s, which reflected the impact of the Vietnam War and a fear of urban decay.
“The ‘Dirty Harry’ films of the ’70s were all about this fear of American cities falling apart and moral ruin,” Arnold said. “That’s really the way they make sense.
“I’m interested in popular films for that reason, because if it’s popular, it means it got a lot of people’s attention, even if they didn’t agree with it.”
Arnold describes how this fear of moral decay centered on Hollywood itself, as politicians worried about the ability of films to influence a mass audience.
That led the industry to regulate its content, first through the production code, then the ratings system, both of which he examines.
“The interesting thing about film is, it reflects the culture,” Arnold said. “But especially in the 20th century, because of mass culture, it helps shape the culture.”