Bits of a Puzzle - Part II
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Hollywood. In your imagination, what is it? What happens there? The making of television? Movies? Video games? Music? Who walks its streets? Strivers from all over coming to make a name? Or is it just a mass of smog tinted boulevards crowded with passing cars but few people?
It's hard to say. But through much of the 20th century, the phrase "Hollywood" projected an over-riding image. It was "the dream factory." A place producing cinematic stories devoured by all the modern world.
Those stories had their own specific arenas. The movie theater.
Initially, the experience of moving pictures on a huge screen in a dark room was so powerful that shots of a moving train could lead audience members to faint. By the time "the talkies" emerged, mass swooning over "going to the show" made film entertainment America's fourth largest industry.
A related thought.
For the last 100 years, Hollywood delivered seamless fictions for the plebians and elites, alike. Heroes, heroines, and bit players whose cinematic journeys and antics provided coda to live by. Navigation for living happier or better or more meaningful lives.
If what they delivered was seamless and fiction, the emergence of the industry was more like a series of real world bumps and turns. Hollywood, previously a rural landscape populated by retirees and apricot farmers, became a haven for movie making only because of crews escaping the vigilant eyes of an East Coast monopoly looking to control the price of film.
Today's film studios are outraged by bootleggers of DVDs. The early movie titans only created the industry by using bootleg film stock. In the beginning, it was an awfully shaky business.
Until the industry exploded in the 1920s, Hollywood actors were confined to boarding house and midnight curfews, watched over by owners intent on keeping the sleepy Hollywood Hills... sleepy. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1917 almost killed this nascent business, people terrified of public gatherings.
Some background on the culture which would embrace the movies and spread it far beyond our shores.
Since the Civil War, America had seen cycles of boom and bust. Around the railroads and expansion westward. Around waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Europe. Around industrialization, which drew other waves of migration from the nation's rural heartland to the cities. In the process generating economic vitality and all that goes with growth... dislocation, medical problems, and crime. In the background, the United States was a center for the emergence of science (including Darwin's theory of evolution) creating tensions with prevailing notions of religion and its proper social role.
Note: Some social scientists point to American ideals of romance as a 19th century creation. Their take - Protestant evangelists saw marriage as
an institution that could address rips in the social fabric of our once-agricultural nation. Rituals around courtship, leading up to "living happily ever after," became part of a conscious process to counteract the chaos that seemed to be erupting all around.
Particularly threatened by what Old World European tribalism, this influential (and in their own way, progressive) sector of Christian America viewed finding God as connected to finding a single idealized partner. The end result: procreation, family... becoming part of the larger community and, by extension, nation. A country where perpetual change has always been part of its intrinsic character, in ways that were both charmed and cursed.
The movie business was not in the hands of such Christians, but it was driven by its own evangelists. A core group of urban-oriented immigrants who, more than making money, seemed inspired by the chance to create an alternative cosmology to the ragged Jewish ghettos from
which they'd come. Not to mention, create a universe divorced of any overt connections to the ethnicity and religion of their roots.
Take the story of a man like Samuel Goldwyn, someone half the bulk of my last post's hero, Tony Soprano, only with three times his ferocity. Legend has it Goldwyn walked from the slums of Warsaw to the ports of London to catch a cross-Atlantic ship. Then, wary of immigration laws in the United States, he jumped off the boat in Newfoundland, walking the rest of the way to New York.
A penniless but energetic immigrant, he didn't get into the movies because they were an easy business. Before Goldwyn, there was no movie "biz." He was a relentless force in the creation of the industry, itself. He was a man obsessed.
If you got in his way, you'd find a fight. And he found a lot of people to fight with. According to his own daughter, he was a cold hearted brute. But he was enormously passionate in his search for creating worlds of fictional human beings who would deliver audiences emotional and moral fireworks.
Goldwyn epitomized Hollywood's Jewish moguls, out to produce a set of fundamental narratives around a mythic American identity. An identity most everyone - believers in religion, atheism, or even communists, would come to adore. Mythic in proportion and also because this identity was less accurate of anything in existance than the yearnings of anyone seek transcendence.
The DNA of many of these myths tended to be a powerful patriarchical figure, someone who prized the sanctity of family and community, but if their individuality was ever threatened, would end up riding off in to the sunset alone. Of course, not before saving others from the bad guys.
In between, there were also women of fiery independence and communities of colorful characters who acted as a chorus or comic foils.
Hollywood's stories were kinetic poetry as well as tall tales. They offered a magic and a grittiness. They delivered the sacred and the profane. The industry that produced them, with its own characters, techniques, and technology, pollinated collective rituals around courtship, aging, and death.
And where religion (or even politics) were often centered on singular authorities leading tight-knit congregations, film moved the collective to the neutral space of a movie house. The movies were fiction. But their stories tapped into something that struck audiences as basic to modern life, namely the spirit of independence for which so many people longed.
Not that the movies were free of a belief system. Belief in "a system" is what myths provide. It's that the system Hollywood offered was so seamless and engaging. Partly because of the spectacle of technology. But also because these spectacular stories were, at heart, open to interpretation.
On visceral as well as intellectual levels, 20th century film embodied the radical notion of two of democracy's core values: individual choice and individual responsibility. As a whole, the stories identified ideals of authority within figures who stood up for maintaining free will.
Equally important, the theater itself provided a regular place to get those stories. It wasn't just cinematic spectacle for individuals. Hollywood gave individuals the delight of enjoying their stories as members of a crowd.
Movie houses were owned privately. But they were also totally public, as in the end, it was the audience who commanded their seats. You could say that it was a tabernacle 30 years in the making, its congregants the urban swarm who had been steadily been growing the cities through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The movie theaters became palaces. They promised eternal truths and air conditioning. Sometimes double features for a pittance. A private/public sphere where friends and strangers could gather. In the anonymity of the dark, the mass would collectively share a story and, to some extent, a similar perspective.
Whether the end result was laughter, crying, or just awe. Authority was liberated from the clear sight lines of a lecturing religious or political figure. Rather they seemed to rest in democratic polis of the story and the audience and the theater.
For my interest here, what is most significant is the way the movie house became a place to create a sense of authority and public order. An arena that gave anyone in the audience a sense of access to the power of the sum total of all the parts within our messy world.
The theater was a self-contained interface, offering a package that was seamless. A place where people didn't "have to" suspend disbelief. Rather, it was a sacred space where suspending disbelief was an element of pleasure. More on that in later posts.
Right now, let's just say the artifice was part and parcel of the show. Along with the popcorn, part of the ritual. You "bought the story," literally and figuratively. Everyone knew it was “just actors.” They knew such stories took millions of dollars to produce. And the public made aristocrats of their stars, knowing that all of them were "just like us" but also just like Martians.
For all the artifice, when the right balance of effective plot, dialog, and sound tracks echoed in the darkened theater, people were profoundly moved. In turn, a "bad movie" was not so much about showing artifice but seeming phony. “Hard to believe.” A good movie was “honest” or “truthful.”
Within the movie screen, we saw reflections of our own lives, completed by the promise of either comic or tragic ends.
In the last few years Las Vegas may have replaced Hollywood as an American totem. Granted, to some extent the comparison is "apples and oranges." Hollywood's infrastructure was built to produce movies. Las Vegas was built to produce tourism. Or something between "suckers" and happy families out for a good time. Regardless, both Hollywood and Las Vegas have a role in the global imagination. Iconic places that represent this nation's own essence as geography for escape and transformation.
Hollywood's image is fractured. It's hard to know its composition. Who gives it resonance... where is the magic of celebrity: among the lawyers and MBAs who now run studios, or Paris Hilton and reality television stars?
By the late 1990s, movie revenues had been eclipsed by games. Las Vegas may not ever hold the magic as Hollywood once did, but it's created an aura. And a definition: a place where you don't just watch the action but are the action.
It's late. My brain is working slower than I can type. Or maybe vice versa. Let me get to the point. For the next few years, I doubt movies will deliver the same power as games. Movies are a relic of a more stable, industrial world. It's not that they were perfect, or we have lost our innocence.
Rather it's something else. Around the descendence of collective myths, and the ascendance of games over narrative in commanding mass attention. Identifying patterns amid chaos rather than enjoying stories that make sense of chaos for us.
It's all part of a larger social instinct around dealing with less stable infrastructure. Which changes not just entertainment but how we live and produce. As well as how we market what we produce. More to come.
by Jonathan Field