Milk Bars, Hollywood and the March of Empires

Scarcely more than a decade after Winston Churchill had assured the British people that the German foe at last lay prostrate at their feet, the invasion against which Britain had been unable to defend itself was portrayed in lurid terms: “The milk-bars indicate at once, in the nastiness of their modernistic knick-knacks, their glaring showiness, an aesthetic breakdown so complete that, in comparison with them, the layout of the living -rooms in some of the poor homes from which the customers come seems to speak of a tradition as balanced and civilized as an 18th-century town house. Girls go to some, but most of the customers are boys aged between 15 and 20, with drape-suits, picture ties, and an American slouch. Compared even with the pub around the corner, this is all a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk. Many of the customers–their clothes, their hair-styles, their facial expressions all indicate–are living to a large extent in a myth-world compounded of a few simple elements which they take to be those of American life.”

By the time Richard Hoggart thus savaged the innocent milk-bar (aka, in America, the soda-fountain) in The Uses of Literacy, published in 1957, the transatlantic contagion had ranged far beyond the milkshakes and ‘mechanical record player’ that stirred him to such fury.

At the politer end of the national culture, Encounter, a politico-cultural monthly, was being covertly financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. And crucially, at the level of mass entertainment, Hollywood, after a fierce struggle, had carried all before it.

Until the French refusal to capitulate entirely to the US entertainment industry threatened to torpedo the GATT Treaty in 1993, most people had been unaware of the enormous importance attached not only by the US film industry but by Washington to unimpeded access of Hollywood product to foreign markets.

It was brought home to me forcibly in 1987 when Hollywood’s top lobbyist of the period, President Ronald Reagan, suddenly departed from a numbing formal oration on the glories of US-Canadian free trade to lecture the Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, in terse and uncharacteristically specific terms about legislation just passed by the Quebecois provincial legislature. The Quebecois bill threatened to prize loose movie distribution in the province from the grip of the American film industry.

That morning in Ottawa, as the press looked on uncomprehendingly, Reagan inquired sharply of Mulroney whether he really agreed with such plans to inconvenience the US president’s former employers. Mulroney swiftly promised that no Canadian restrictive legislation would impede Hollywood’s freedom of action. Reagan beamed with satisfaction.

Today, the number of countries sequestered from American cultural icons and imagery represented by the word Hollywood has dwindled almost to zero, and the hold-outs are looking increasingly frail. It is now only a matter of time before the former Soviet Union arrives at the vassal status of Great Britain or Brazil. (The Hollywood Reporter headlined the 1991 attempted coup by the Gang of Eight ‘Soviet Coup Blow to Piracy Fight’, and called it a ‘potential major setback for the Motion Picture Association of America’.) Even India, home of the largest domestic cinema industry on earth, is beginning to lower obstruction to foreign penetration.

In these days of the New World Order, Washington sets the political and Hollywood the cultural terms of world trade. Entertainment is, after aerospace, the US’s second largest export, and exports are a matter of great import to the movie studios. In 1990, they took in $ 1.8 billion in rental fees inside the US and $ 1.6 billion in rentals from foreign distributors. American films take up more than 90 per cent of all screen time in countries as disparate as Canada, Nigeria and Brazil. Jack Valenti, head of the film industry’s international lobbying arm, the Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA), throws around the figure of a $ 3.5 billion trade surplus for his industry. In 1992 US audio-visual exports to Europe amounted to $ 3.7 billion in value, while equivalent EC exports to the US amounted to only $ 288 million.

But though the march of political and economic empire has been the stuff of headlines ever since the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the commercial victories of Hollywood on foreign soil have been the topic of far more discreet record. This most notable saga has been treated as something beautifully natural, like an Austrian child’s sudden realization that McDonald’s hamburgers and fries simply taste nicer than Knockwurst, Brot and Kartoffelsalat. So set now is Hollywood in the idiom of planetary universalism that it requires a conscious effort of memory to evoke the times, not long gone, when ‘Americanization’ was something that in many countries was denounced and resisted by enemies such as nationalists, ecclesiastics, and local film-makers and entrepreneurs zealous to maintain concessions and patronage. Such were the barricades that Hollywood’s salesmen and lobbyists aimed, from the 1920s onwards, to smash down.

Sometimes the American film industry’s mundane economic interests were clothed in exalted language, as when the head of Paramount told the New York Times in 1946, ‘We, the industry, recognize the need for informing people in foreign lands about the things that have made America a great country, and we think we know how to put across the message of our democracy.’ (Of course those in Hollywood who tried to send out a different message in those crucial postwar years were swiftly red-baited out of the business by such FBI informers as Ron Reagan.) While mythology tells us that ‘the message’ of American democracy was conveyed through the irresistibly combined charms of American stars, stories and production values, it has actually been force-fed to the world through the careful engineering of taste, ruthless commercial clout, arm-twisting by the US Departments of Commerce and State, threats of reverse trade embargoes, and other such heavy artillery. By 1968, Valenti was boasting that ‘the motion picture industry is the only US enterprise that negotiates on its own with foreign governments.’ The moment of political truth which struck Anthony Eden when President Eisenhower told him to call off the Suez adventure in 1956 had struck the British film industry, centered at Pinewood studios, nine years earlier. By the summer of 1947, American film corporations were taking more than $ 60 million out of Britain. This, coupled with Britain’s war debt, helped trigger a severe balance-of-payments problem.

On August 6, 1947, the postwar Labour government, wishing to fortify cultural nationalism and repel invasion by Hollywood, imposed a 75 per cent tax on the box-office earnings of Hollywood films. The tax was to be paid in advance, on the basis of estimated revenues. On August 9, Hollywood, in the form of the MPEA, retaliated with an indefinite suspension of all films to Britain. The co-founder of Pinewood studios, J Arthur Rank, announced that to fill the breach he would undertake the production of 47 films at a vast capital outlay, the largest commitment to film ever made in Britain.

But the Labour government was buckling under fierce pressure from the US. On May 3, 1948, the 75 per cent levy was abandoned and replaced by a ceiling on profits that could be repatriated to Hollywood. The Hollywood films came flooding back, just in time to sink the hastily produced and cheap material being put out by Rank. By the 1950s, all British resistance had collapsed. Across the Channel, the same battles were being fought and won by Hollywood. The US economic package designed to bail out a France bankrupted by war was withheld by US Secretary of State James Byrnes until prime minister Leon Blum agreed to annul the import quota which limited Hollywood to 120 American films a year. Blum told the French movie magnates that he was fully prepared to sacrifice the entire French film industry to get an agreement.

Surrender followed. The French war debt was erased and France given a 30-year, $ 318 million loan along with $ 650 million in credits from the Export-Import Bank. But the collapse on quotas dealt the French film industry a near-fatal blow. Half the studios closed and unemployment in the industry soon reached 75 per cent. The number of workers employed in the French film industry dropped from 2,132 in 1946 to 898 in 1947. Another round of layoffs in 1948 chopped 60 per cent of the remaining workforce.

This defeat duly produced an ironic sort of Vichy regime, in the form of young French cineastes immersing themselves in the American movies now flooding the country, evolving the auteurs and movie pantheon that had enthusiasts of my generation in the early Sixties scuttling from one end of London to the other, Cahiers du Cinema in hand, trying to track down B-pictures by Sam Fuller, Frank Tashlin and other Hollywood favorites of the French crowd.

If my own home in Ireland in the mid-1950s was anything to go by, US cultural imperialism was not meeting with much in the way of stiff resistance. My father toiled away, doing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post. Time magazine arrived each week. At school, under the leadership of Miles Kington, our jazz band (in which I played bass) rehearsed New Orleans blues. The third record I ever bought was a blues ’78 by Leroy Carr. We weren’t alone. At the art schools around London, lads like Keith Richard were working their way through the classics of R&B, from Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and B B King.

What Hoggart, tautly defensive of British working-class culture and traditions, didn’t quite get was that American culture was liberating, whether in the form of blues, jazz, rock, or prose. Here was escape from airless provincialism, BBC good taste and the mandates of the class system, which Raymond Chandler caught so well in his discussion of style: “The tone quality of English speech is usually overlooked. This is infinitely variable. The American voice is flat, toneless and tiresome. The English tone quality makes a thinner vocabulary and a more formalized use of language capable of infinite meanings. Its tones of course are read into written speech by association. This makes good English a class language and that is its fatal defect. The English writer is a gentleman first and a writer second.”

It was the difference between Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie, the Beats against the home crowd.

It’s not hard to pick out the great defeats which signalled the true nature of the ‘special relationship’ and British inferiority in technology and R&B. Politically, Suez summed up the whole situation sharply enough. The Comet–Britain’s effort to build a long-range passenger jet–kept crashing because the designers hadn’t properly figured out the vibration stresses on the windows. In the early 1960s, Defence Minister Dennis Healey cancelled the TSR2, beaten into the ground by General Dynamic’s F-111,itself a disaster, also a pay-off by JFK to the Chicago Mob. The staggering success of the MG and the Triumph sports cars which helped make England, between 1947 and the early 1960s, the leading exporter of automobiles, inexorably wilted under the duress of managerial incompetence and archaic manufacturing processes.

And yet the MG, brought back to the United States by American servicemen after the war, could have been described by some American nativist Hoggart as just the same intimation of invasive cultural imperialism as the milk-bar was to Hoggart himself. Detroit had no response, beyond the baroque glories of the tailfin era, which never answered the design or mechanical challenge of the MG and Triumph directly, but loudly changed the subject. By the mid-Sixties, our American Hoggart was having to deal with the invasion of the Beatles in 1964 and subsequent years of dominance of British bands, whether The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. There were Laura Ashley prints and Crabtree & Evelyn jams mellowing the rude shanties and preserves of the frontiersfolk. There was the British pub. And this was only the beginning.

I should at this point unveil the argument, already emerging in silhouette. We can show with copious illustration how America came to dominate British economic and, to a considerable extent, political and cultural life. It wasn’t long after Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 that political stylists from the Labor Party were studying his techniques with all the rapture of Elvis Look-alikes lip-synching ‘Love Me Tender’. This domination has extended gradually down the years, penetrating publishing, television, music and, on the bottom line, film.

But from the British side have come equally potent invasions. Benignly, the British music invasion saved American blues. When Keith Richard first saw Muddy Waters, the latter was painting the walls of the Chess recording studios because he had no musical work at the time. The Stones, mostly, put the great American blues singers back into the big time.

Malignly, from Albion’s fatal shore came the glorification of the British class idea, at a particularly fraught moment in American political and cultural life, when–in the wake of the Watergate scandal–government and corporate institutions were in disrepute and businessmen actually lower than journalists in public esteem. American Public Broadcasting, theoretically a venue for talent and ideas barred from the commercial TV networks, became a showcase for Masterpiece Theater, oil-company sponsored and devoted to endless episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs and well-mannered British actors togged up in Victorian or Edwardian fancy dress.

By the late Seventies, young American fogeys were aping Evelyn Waugh at his most loutish, with their noses dipped into Oakeshott or, more likely, getting their world history straight from Paul Johnson. Just as stylists from the Labor Party raced to mime the Clinton thing, the Reagan crowd before them had their model in Thatcherism, herald to the Age of Ron, same way Curtis LeMay, in the Pacific theater, held “Bomber” Harris in high esteem as his guide in the arts of killing very large numbers of civilians with high explosive and incendiaries. Masterpiece Theater brought gentrification to the TV screen and the British hacks brought their vulgar arts to the National Enquirer and later, under Rupert Murdoch’s supervision, the New York Post. Study the literature of the paranoid American right and you’ll usually find, at the apex of the conspiracy to sap American freedoms, a ‘British-Zionist’ plot.

In a timbre certainly less drear than the shadow of Margaret Thatcher, the impact of Ian Fleming and of his creation, James Bond, nicely illustrates the British imperial contribution. Fleming wrote the memo that inspired the charter of General Donovan’s Central Office of Intelligence, which later evolved into OSS, and still later into the CIA. In 1960 Fleming was taken to dinner at the home of Senator Jack Kennedy, and held the room riveted with an amusing scheme for the US to drop leaflets over Cuba, with the compliments of the Soviet Union, announcing that, due to American atom bomb tests, the atmosphere over the island had become radioactive; that radioactivity is held longest in beards; and that radioactivity makes men impotent. As a consequence, Cubans would shave off their beards and without beards there could be no Cuban revolution.

The day after, Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, told a friend of Fleming’s that he was sorry he had not been present to hear Fleming’s plan in person. Within two years the Kennedy brothers, along with Dulles, were hiring gangsters to help either in the murder of Castro or in his humiliation, the latter being attempted by proposed application of a dust that would make his beard fall out. In 1961 Hugh Sidey of Time magazine announced that the President had 10 favourite books, of which one of Fleming’s was ninth, just ahead of Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black. (Sidey later admitted that he and Kennedy had made up most of the list, though probably not the Fleming) along with the widely-broadcast fantasy that JFK read at a rate of 1,200 words a minute.

Bond became the embodiment of Western discourse on the Cold War. The ur Reaganites watched Thunderball and conceived the idea that terrorists, probably Libyan, would steal atomic bombs and attack American cities. They watched the lasers in Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, plus the ‘particle beam’ in a Bond sequel novel called For Special Services, and came up with the space-based defence system later known to the world as SDI.

Thus has evolved not so much a cultural imperialism but a mutually reinforcing culture of capital, with all the oft-advertised propensities of capital to degrade, vulgarize, constrict, or, as the argot has it now, ‘tabloidize’. British TV executives justify the plunge into whatever unidimensional crudities they have in mind by pointing to the necessity of pleasing the American co-producers–and, putatively, American audiences–essential to financial survival. But while the transnational capitalist crowd have been happily co-operative in their manipulation and degrading of the cultures, outlaw cultures have made their brave, sometimes prosperous, and mostly brief stands. American blues nurtured the dreams and the fortunes of Lennon and Jagger.

Fifteen years after, the dreams of youth utterly desolate or commodified, British punk gave expression and a fighting spirit (if not much in the way of fortune) to dour and alienated American children previously transfixed by disco. Kurt Cobain, young, rich and dead, inherited and remodelled that tradition. There are lots of wrecks littering both sides of this two-way street.

Fifty years on from VE Day, the big cultural entrepreneurs experience little hindrance in their zeal for the commodification and vulgarising of more or less everything, but there’s always still that space, at the margins, for originality, whose integrity may only survive for the briefest of moments. These are the moments none the less that prevent the cultures both sides of the Atlantic from becoming irrecuperably sterile.

This essay is excerpted from CounterPunch’s forthcoming book Serpents in the Garden: Liaisons with Culture and Sex. (AK Press).



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.