I would like to begin my paper by posing a rhetorical question. If, unaware of anything, you had just routinely flicked on your television on the afternoon of 11 September 2001, how many of you would have automatically assumed to have unwittingly tuned into a Hollywood movie? The answer is, unfortunately, that this would probably have been the case for most. In other words, there must be some conditioning of expectation in existence not dissimilar to that we experience when aurally exposed to a piece of music, the stylistic era of which we are then able to identify even if not the actual composition or composer. I would argue, by virtue of striking similarities in reactions I have heard from diverse parts of the world, that it must indeed render plausible the pursuit to attempt to pinpoint such an otherwise elusive phenomenon as Hollywood aesthetics. In fact the description above was the one which emanated from the 93-year-old Alistair Cooke in his weekly radio broadcast Letter from America immediately following the disaster.
The term Hollywood can be used in different ways. Sometimes it is used to refer to the entertainment industry as a whole, ultimately including virtual reality video games and at other times only to refer to the film industry or those films produced in Hollywood studios. Almost certainly all of contemporary entertainment possibilities can be regarded as stepchildren of Hollywood. In this paper both meanings will be implied, but that referring to the film industry will predominate. Whether or not the use of the term “aesthetics” is also appropriate in juxtaposition to Hollywood could raise some problematic issues. The use of the word aesthetics presupposes an art form and film hasn’t always been regarded as such by the leading theorists. Andre Bazin, an influential film theorist of the 1930s categorized film as pure mimesis of reality. The Russian film makers of the 1920s such as Eisenstein and Vertov argued that by the use of montage, the editing and altering of the time sequence, it was no longer purely a replica of reality and had to be regarded as art. This view has prevailed and at the beginning of the 21st century it is fair to say that it was not only unique to the past century, but also could quite plausibly contend for the position of the leading art form of that period.
The next question which arises is the effect of film on the spectator. André Malraux, in Le premier art mondial (1959), the very title of which alludes to the elevated role of film in the past century, refers to film as a dream factory, whose primary characteristic is the ability to elicit tears or laughter on a universal scale. However, he also warned of its inherent danger in facilitating regression and loss of humanity. Michelle Henning has updated this idea to assume relevance for the present technological era with the following powerful statement:
“It has often been claimed that the new digital imaging technologies will precipitate radical changes in perception, in consciousness, and ultimately in society. Not only will we never see the world in the same way again, it will never be the same again. Commentary on digital technology appears dominated by utopian and dystopian prophecy.”
We must almost all have experienced at some stage of our life the sensation of identification with a character in a film, together with the subsequent vicarious experience of whatever he or she happens to encounter. This may have been either in impressionable youth or, even more likely, in early childhood, where fantasy is not easily distinguished from reality, and cannot necessarily be considered negative so long as the return to reality is assured. We simply relinquish our own person temporarily in favour of another, but we are spared the necessity of experiencing bodily pain, suffering or even the joy our temporarily assumed identity would be experiencing under the conditions dictated by the film. In some instances, we become more than we really are, even superhuman. The degree of intensity can be quite considerable. The effect has not gone unnoticed by political leaders, or even artists, who have employed it in different periods of history in the dissemination of ideology. Even modern marketing utilizes this principle, by paying actors to drive a Mercedes-Benz, for example. The technological medium is new, but the principle of its utility in the hands of the chosen few goes back to the Ancient Greeks and has basically oscillated ever since between art which has to teach or art for art’s sake.
For the purposes of this discussion, a short glance at the history of Hollywood will be divided into three eras. The first of these will be from its infancy in the late nineteenth century until the 1920s, the second from the 1930s until the 1950s, and the third from the 1960s to the end of the twentieth century. Only the last two of these periods are relevant to this discussion. Michael Medved, an American film critic, argues that from the 1930s to the fifties, Hollywood films reflected the values of what is commonly referred to as “Middle America”. Fredric Jameson calls this the pre-political era of Hollywood. What is meant by Middle America? I would argue that it is that to which Marxist thinkers refer as the bourgeoisie. During these years, films basically dealt with wholesome themes; happy outcomes were almost always demanded, and the unspoiled, fresh and somewhat naive, but very courageous, American was the stereotype of hero people expected for the price of their tickets. Bourgeois values were reaffirmed in the form of a type of varnished reality. During the Depression, Hollywood was one of the few industries which never experienced hard times, as people were only too willing to spend money for temporary distraction from their economic woes.
As part of the war effort during the Second World War, the government recognized as well as utilized the potential of the film industry as a propaganda tool, as did both Hitler and Stalin. Although the 1950s was the time of the so-called McCarthy witch hunts, films still reflected Middle American values, which were enshrined in a set of self-imposed guidelines by which Hollywood had always abided, regarding the level of foul language, violence and sex acceptable in their films. These could almost be referred to as the Apollinian elements, or Kant’s discipline of good taste, that was tacitly demanded by Middle America.
Exactly when this changed is difficult to say. Some see the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 as the point at which America was rattled out of its naivety. Others point to the coming of age of the post-war generation of “baby-boomers”, who had been over—indulged by their Depression-era parents, determined that they were not to suffer the deprivations they had had to. These were raised in an anti-authoritarian mode, with psychological counselling replacing parental guidance. In fact many different factors probably contributed, but this Woodstock generation started rebelling, in anti-Vietnam war protests and in drug-taking among other things. Hollywood eliminated self-imposed rules of conduct, and with this came the gradual infiltration of Dionysian abandonment. In all fairness to Hollywood, the ever—increasing competition from television was forcing it to find increasingly effective forms of titillation in order to entice people into the cinemas. Thus Middle America changed its lifestyle, in which the cinema had formed an integral part, by slowly but surely parting company with Hollywood. I would argue that it was from this point onwards that the aesthetics of Hollywood films started to move towards those of Socialist Realism, particularly in one respect.
Kirill Razlogov in his introduction to the 23rd Moscow Film Festival, with the theme “Socialist Realism Yesterday and Today”, made the following statement:
“Socialist Realism is being referred to as the forerunner if not the first phenomenon of the post-modernism, the father if not the grandfather of social cinema, that experiences a true renaissance at the turn of the millennium. The very different but truly notable films of recent years — Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich and Lars Von Treir’s Dancing in the Dark — are without a doubt the children of Socialist Realism.”
A very good definition of what is meant by the postmodern influence of Socialist Realism can be found in the following citations. The first of these comes from the Czech film director, Milos Forman, in a CNN interview relating to his experience behind the Iron Curtain, in which he stated: “You know, the censorship itself — that’s not the worst evil. The worst evil and that’s the product of censorship — is the self-censorship, because that twists minds. That destroys my character, because I have to think something else and say something else. I have to always control myself. I stop being honest. I become a hypocrite. And that’s what they wanted. They wanted everybody to feel guilty.”
William Harkins, in the Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics, says the following:
“ln linking literary (and artistic) quality to a political base, Socialist Realism may be viewed as one (though not of course the only) source for the present widespread notion of the ‘politically correct’.”
Both statements are essentially saying the same, but are referring to different political systems. In the West, a similar form of being made to feel guilty at an individual level has crept into almost everything, but particularly into the humanities and creative art forms, with films an all too obvious venue of its manifestation.
At the collective level, other phenomena are discernible, primarily in the academic disciplines in the form of theories, the end effect of which is similar to that of a Socialist Realist litmus test. One may contend that theories are reactive rather than prescriptive and are therefore irrelevant, but those responsible for such theories have a not to be underestimated influence at a very impressionable age on those for whose education they are responsible, who in turn may go on to become film directors, script-writers and authors. Some light can be shed on this aspect by a closer look at the fluctuating nature of the understanding of the term aesthetics since it was originally coined by Alexander Baumgarten at the end of the eighteenth century. Baumgarten saw it as the sensory perception of beauty. For Kant it was “disinterested interest”, with no necessity to teach. The Empiricists regarded it as being part of the world, not as an autonomous entity, but this amounted to a materialist aesthetics, with an added obligation to teach. The Romantic reaction to the scientific revolution was to reinstate a metaphysical aspect with some elements of social criticism added.
A most poignant and compelling assessment of the path of philosophy and therefore of aesthetics in the nineteenth century in general can be found in Oswald Spengler’s much maligned Decline of the West:
“Strict metaphysics had exhausted its possibilities […] With a certain degree of accuracy one refers from now on to the b r a i n instead of the s o u 1 [emphasis mine] […] The intensity of observation with which the Stoics regarded their own bodies was now devoted by Western thinkers to the body of society […] Once philosophy came to mean the same as ethics, […] it formed the basis of world thought.”
Hence aesthetics, freed from the shackles of metaphysics and epistemology, became a free agent to be wielded as a measuring stick, not for the abstract nature of the beauty of an object (as with Baumgarten), but rather to assess quality by pure subjectivity, or, as in Socialist Realism, by the degree of correlation of the object to a particular ideology.
With this in mind l would like to look at some of the theories which have dominated the past thirty years. In the 1970s the most important theory was that of semiotics, adapted from linguistics. Basically this amounted to a structuralist materialism based on linguistics, which becomes part of signs and language. Indeed critical semiology has even been described as “the understanding of film as demystifying those signs that maintained capitalist economic relations.”
The most influential of these theorists for film theory were Julia Kristeva and the film semiologist, Christian Metz. The aim was to endow humanities with a quasi-scientific veneer. The 1980s saw some collapsing of further disciplinary boundaries by the introduction of some psychoanalytical aspects to the humanities. Leading the charge here was Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst, with his “apparatus theory”. The concern for the film theorist was the changing nature of the spectator, the position of which swung from that of a conscious observer, well aware of his status as a spectator, and that of one completely absorbed in the action. Later Feminism appeared on the scene, also with Kristeva a strong advocate. Adorno and the Frankfurt school never had much impact on the American scene, except in the general Marxist sense of being critical of the capitalist system. His thought is probably too rooted in a subject and object dichotomy unpalatable for Americans, and is also very difficult to read. Following these trends came theories of deconstructionism and postmodernism, which are basically modifications of semiotics and structuralism to provide a measuring stick for information extractable from the work of art. These have governed virtually all theory relating to humanities for the past thirty years.
Recently a challenge to the reign of these theorists was delivered and it remains to be seen as to how much (or if any at all) wind has been taken out of their sails. Two resourceful scientists, Alar1 Sokal and Jean Bricmont, wrote an article intended as a hoax for the American cultural studies journal Social Text. The title of the article alone suggests the nature of the experiment: Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It was actually a parody of postmodernist, semiotic poststructuralism, using nonsensical highfaluting terminology derived from physics and mathematics along with, to the dismay of the authors, genuine quotations from intellectuals, including the above-mentioned Kristeva and Jacques Lacan both of whom use such terminology prolifically.
To their surprise it was accepted for publication, not only in the normal but in a special issue devoted to the rebuttal of criticisms of such theories. Later they explained the background to their hoax, understandably causing consternation in various quarters, in a book in which they demonstrated with the aid of physics and mathematics how erroneous the usage of such terminology had been and in most cases they were even able to show a complete lack of understanding of the scientific principles involved on the part of the users.
By way of practical demonstration I would now like to talk about some concrete examples of films from the time period just discussed. The first film is one from the year 1970, an adaptation of Eric Segal’s Love Story. It is the story of a young law student at Harvard, from a rich family, who falls in love with a poor Italian-American girl, a student at Radcliffe. The wealthy father is portrayed as being of a horrible disposition in contrast to the girl from the poorer family. The film was made at a time when restraint was still perceivable, but there was a clear sociopolitical message if one were to look for it. By the 1980s, by contrast, most of the old restraints had been removed and Dionysian elements of abandonment were beginning to reign supreme, although this is not to suggest that all films of this time are to be described in this way. One very interesting Hollywood film Of the 80s was Peter Weir’s Dead Poets’ Society. It is the story of an exclusive boys’ private church school, in the old English tradition but situated in the USA. Here there were no elements of abandonment of traditional behaviour as such, but the well-to-do were unsympathetic characters, and the hero of the film, an English teacher, had all the virtues to which one should aspire. This is not to suggest that the scenario is impossible — the story was indeed very plausible, but would still pass the sociopolitical measuring stick test if that were applied. Peter Weir’s films all have a political message, even his most famous film, Gallipoli, with Mel Gibson, but they are wonderful films in which classical music always plays a prominent role.
With the advent of the eighties, the demonization of traditional values by Hollywood had become firmly entrenched. This aspect does not correspond to the Socialist Realist films of Soviet Russia, but, as has already been pointed out, Hollywood films of the 1930s did not follow this pattern either. By the 1990s Hollywood was showing huge losses, and was kept afloat only by a few blockbusters and success in foreign countries. In spite of this they kept turning out more of the same which led the film critic Michael Medved to reach the conclusion that the whole of Hollywood was agenda-driven.
However another possible explanation may be found in the fact that without the constraints of what the Middle American bourgeoisie regarded as good taste, as Roger Scruton has put it, no doubt very controversially, aesthetics became an essentially democratic and thus culture-less mass aesthetics.
In the mid-nineties Hollywood spent 200 million dollars on a re-filming of Titanic. For this film the yardsticks can again be applied without difficulty. The well-to-do, travelling first class, are featured as cold, calculating people, in direct contrast to those in steerage. The arch-villain has an upper-class English accent and the mores have more relevance to the 90s than to 1911. Fortunately for Hollywood they made money with this film.
In 1996 there was released an obscure film which cost only three million dollars to make, lacked any substantial advertising campaign, but had an enormous success on the American market. It was Shine, the true story of a Western Australian pianist, David Helfgott, pushed by an over-ambitious father until he suffered a nervous breakdown while studying the piano in England. He returned to Australia a broken man, but was taken in by church people and rehabilitated sufficiently to be able to appear in a nightclub in Perth and perform classical music there. This alone provided an exotic departure from the usual setting in a concert hall for such performances. His disability became his forte and local fame was assured. Ultimately the idea was conceived to make a film about him, but no money could be raised. In approaching Hollywood studios for money, one studio agreed to provide the necessary finances on condition that Tom Cruise play the main role. This was unacceptable to the director Scott Hicks as he had already envisaged the actor he deemed ideal for the part — Geoffrey Rush, an unknown Australian actor. Eventually Time Warner produced the money, and the film project was realized. But an advertising onslaught in the style of Hollywood was not conceivable on a shoestring budget, so the film had to be taken from film festival to film festival, slowly but surely making its mark. Finally it reached the American cinemas, and word-of-mouth recommendation brought alienated Middle America flocking back into the cinemas, some having not seen the inside of a cinema for as long as twenty years. The Classical music soundtrack of this film held the top position on the American pop charts for ten consecutive weeks. The film played to packed cinemas of all age groups for weeks on end. Not one of the measuring sticks discussed above can be applied to this film. Even though there were scenes in the film of meetings of the Communist Party of Australia of which his father had been a member, it was neutrally presented. There were no sex scenes, no foul language and no bloodthirsty violence. Likewise there was no arch-villain with an upperclass English accent, and no portrayal of the well-to-do as evil bourgeoisie: none of the Socialist Realist topoi are discernible. It could be argued that this film harks back to a pre-political era as characterized by both Jameson and Michael Medved. A film such as this would however have been deplored by Theodor Adorno not only because he would have considered it to be “Amiisierbetrieb” (amusement industry) but because the music as performed on film cannot be rated at the concert level. Apart from the questionable performance capability of David Helfgott himself, it represents only snippets of compositions, thereby eliminating the possibility of the comprehension of any formal development. In fact some of the works are even depicted as arrangements, an example being Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, arranged by David Hirschfelder.
This is anathema to the traditional veneration of the written score as the unequivocal intention of the composer to be followed at all costs. Arrangements are more relevant to jazz or the Baroque era than to classical music in this day and age. But it raises several significant issues. is it possible that the technological age has blurred the boundaries we conventionally recognize, and that this has made possible the blending of high culture with popular culture in a new genre? Is the concert as we know it no longer relevant in the computer age? Also is it not better for the youth, whose definition of reality has been shaped in part by Hollywood that they come into contact with Classical music in this form rather than not at all?
I submit that this low budget Australian film which ended up as a blockbuster with seven Oscar nominations, defied Hollywood and succeeded.
Having said that I would now venture to add that absolutely nothing, no David and Goliath film, no deconstructionist deconstructionism, could have defied Hollywood more comprehensively than the cataclysmic events of 11 September 2001 in New York, and that in all of the previously discussed ways. Following the events, one BBC announcer in reference to a statement President Bush had made wanting to have Bin Laden, dead or alive said:
“That sounds like something out of a Hollywood film, but since 11 September, reality seems to be imitating Hollywood more and more.”
To just mention some of the reactions which have been coming from the entertainment industry as a whole and Hollywood in particular: actors have begun soul searching, cinemas are reporting even larger losses than usual and an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, due for release, in which he is seen climbing the Twin Towers, was withdrawn from circulation. The film director Robert Altman was blamed directly for having trained the perpetrators for their deed. As yet it is difficult to predict what lasting effects the events will have, but when fantasy world becomes reality, reality has to reinvent itself.
This could signal the end of the sophistic era in which we find ourselves and thus the demise of Socialist Realist elements in Hollywood films. A new philosophical dawn may be imminent for all art forms, including music. Wynton Marsalis, the jazz trumpeter, once observed in a radio interview that the reason that Bach and Mozart were so great was that they were praising God with their music. In non-Habermasian terms, this means none other than the strict separation of the signifier and the signified.
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