“Through the movies, a Frenchman remarked, the United States has effected the `cultural colonization’ of the world.” Leo Rosten
The US motion picture industry like other entertainment businesses — works with government to make profit and culturally colonize the rest of the world. “In the mid-1960s,” according to Tyler Cohen, in the April 28, 2003 Forbes.com, “American films accounted for 35% of box office revenues in Continental Europe; today the figure is between 80% and 90%.” Why?
Cohen concludes that “Hollywood films are technically advanced (e.g., special effects) and heavily advertised and publicized in the mass media. The typical European film has about 1% of the audience of the typical Hollywood film, and this differential has been growing. American movies have become increasingly popular in international markets, while European movies have become less so.”
European films, slower in pace, appear to hyperactive US audiences as unbearably heavy tomes filled with ideas, philosophical comments and nuanced relationships. And, as Cohen points out, “the training of cinematic talent in the U.S. and Europe reflects these differences. American film schools are like business schools in many regards.”
Compare the best US film schools (UCLA, NYU or USC as examples) with the cinema program at the University of Krakow in the 1950s that turned out directors like Roman Polanski and Andres Wajda. Instead of training for a job in the industry, the Polish curriculum emphasized liberal arts and humanities. Actual training for lighting, camera operation, acoustics, etc., took place in the last year of a five year program. US film schools “train” rather than “educate” from the beginning. They hold out promises that right after graduation, their trainees can become assistant editors or associate producers, defined by Fred Allen as “the only person who would associate with a producer.”
By the early 20th Century, business grammar captured American cinema. Entrepreneurs devised formulas to transform a new “art form” into commodities that would attract large, poorly educated audiences likely to return next week for more captivating celluloid mind fodder. Over the decades, technological perfection came to substitute for the innovative dynamic of artistic creation. Indeed, the industry built its worldwide reputation on Hollywood craftsmen’s ability to simulate reality. It challenged all foreign rivals and independents to match it. Hollywood elevated the perfection of animation and special effects technology for examples into the criteria on which mass media critics should pass their first judgment on films. Anything less than its standard of technical excellence would be the equivalent of offering a new car with a scratch on the paint job. Trace the industry from the silent, racist epic “Birth of a Nation” to the 21st Century musicals “Moulin Rouge” or “Chicago.” Technology as art wins audiences.
Aesthetic judgments aside, each Hollywood movie required, first and foremost, a business plan. To pass on a film idea, studio executives fashioned a profit-making blueprint: “give us scripts,” they ordered the writers, “that will lure audiences to theaters and keep them coming back.” This success formula spun off candy, popcorn and soft drink profits as well as Hollywood itself as a special culture from which countless other industries developed. Naturally, for the first six decades of the industry, the producing studios also owned the movie theaters.
Hollywood studios helped create audience by offering what Irwin Shaw called “the American dream made visible,” which included cultivating the star system. Behind the powerless but rich glamour pusses and dashing heroes of the Silent Screen, sat the multi-millionaire studio moguls who manipulated “the talent.”
Using simplistic recipes produced by the writers, defined by studio boss Jack Warner as “schmucks with Underwoods,” and the technology of the giant screen, movies conditioned excitement-starved audiences to expect magical Saturday afternoons and evenings.
By the 21st Century, technology had rescued once challenged filmmakers from actually finding locations and figure out how to actually render them credible through the camera and editing process. Soft ware and digital technology now “render” the drama of a precipitous gorge or lush jungle. Technology has enhanced the industry’s possibilities for commercially designing and manufacturing cinema magic. It has not improved the idea quality. Indeed, few expect such “high brow” offerings.
Buying a ticket means that one leaves credibility at the box office along with the price of admission. The lights fade and impossibly beautiful people appear. They don’t die in high-speed chases or falls from insufferable heights.
In addition, publicity and the 24/7 nature of contemporary TV and the web has extended Hollywood’s trivia to cognitive proportions. On TV and in supermarket tabloids, actors’ personal lives take on vicarious energy. They substitute for excitement in one’s own life. The untold numbers of shows, articles and web shorts deal exclusively with the dalliances of the stars. The people we stare at sympathetically in films, who shoot with amazing accuracy, make perfect love every time (to romantic music of course) and rarely deal with children, poverty or the banality of everyday routine, show off their wardrobes, cleavages, houses, furniture and pools — and their attention deficit disorders for all things except attention.
We “escape” to the movies to watch emaciated models with baby smooth skin do and wear things we don’t or can’t. Then we learn “the shocking truth.” Kim Basinger, who I drooled over as the beautiful hooker in “LA Confidential,” is really shy. Her steady relationship with Alec Baldwin dissolved because she abhorred life in Long Island, where he felt at home. Gossip unfurls, inter-cut with film clips of Kim, now in her late 40s and looking 30. The narrator pauses over a Hollywood mug shot; another episode in the fictionalized lives of truncated people far from the monotony of our jobs, boring school or tedious house and child care.
Behind the glitter, the film industry produces for two reasons: profit and reproduction. The motion picture industry resembles the automobile industry: big and shiny looking products on the outside. But don’t look under the hood or on the cutting room floor.
Both industries rely on beauty and spectacular landscape to sell products. You’ve seen commercials that offer you power, sex appeal, prestige and status by owning a new SUV. In addition, you and your car as company share a pristine landscape a Dodge Destroyer against an Alaskan panorama.
The commercial world lures the public into the virtual setting, the theater where the available light shines on the screen, where a face (after hours in the make up room and years spent with “beauty experts”) appeals to you to love it, sympathize with it, fear for it. “An emotional Detroit,” actress Lillian Gish called Hollywood.
The perfect look usually disguises artistic emptiness. Hollywood malapropist Sam Goldwyn opined that “you’ll get along fine in this business as long as you don’t bite the hand that lays the golden egg.” Oscar Levant underlined mogul Goldwyn’s point. “People don’t understand Hollywood,” he said. “They don’t look beneath the superficial layer of tinsel. Underneath lies the real tinsel.”
Hollywood’s marketing success begins with the assumption that youth and undernourishment constitute universal aesthetics. My teenager takes these criteria seriously and thus refuses to accompany us to the movies. She doesn’t want to be seen in public with us, and we find her tastes at the local outlets less than appetizing. In July 2003, we have sequels to “Charley’s Angels” “Matrix,” “Legally Blond 2” and “Terminator.” In these films actors run “the gamut of emotions from A to B,” as the late Dorothy Parker put it.
“Why,” I ask my daughter, “do gossip shows about movie stars or pop singers excite you?”
“Get real!” she responds.
I deduce that since I’m no longer young enough to know everything, I should recall how teenagers went nuts over skinny Frank Sinatra in the ’40s, before the skinny crooner turned into a national idol another product of the star system.
“Romantic hoopla,” as Leo Rosten calls “Hollywood’s amorous acrobatics,” became highly profitable on the one hand and diversionary on the other. It can market anything. For example, take the rare film personality who fights for justice. Hollywood presents millionaire Julia Roberts (in Erin Brokavich vs. the polluting gas and electric company) as the woman with whom the oppressed can identify. Occasionally, a producer sneaks through a socially relevant film that eschews the shoot ’em up, beat ’em up or screw ’em up formula. These films can indeed inspire some people to emulate the fictional characters. Compare them in number to films that teach audiences to identify with their oppressors good cops, wise bankers, trustworthy governors.
Such exceptional films prove the rule. Hollywood is a world-wide business whose product includes “American values,” from the John Wayne pseudo-macho notion of obeying patriotic orders to the notion that no amount of clothes suffice, as Reese Witherspoon goes through endless costuming in her Legally Blond roles.
Beneath thin plot and story lines, embellished by skilled photography, special effects, set design, costuming, make up, mood music scoring and the variety of photography tricks employed, one finds a world designed to divert — entertain at the lowest common denominator.
The Hollywood sales manager instructs his team to “take this crap and sell it to the world as the greatest art and entertainment ever made.” God Bless America especially the one that Hollywood invented!
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, will be published in September by Pluto Books.