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Fear and Self-Loathing in Los Angeles

October 28, 2010

Having spilled plenty of digital ink on the topic of Hollywood’s deplorable business practices, how about an irony? Did you ever notice how strange it is that Hollywood tends to vilify big business and the worst effects of capitalism, even though it itself is a big business that causes many of the worst effects of capitalism? From classics like Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life to more recent entries like The Social Network or Wall Street 2, from award winners like Erin Brockovich and Michael Clayton to schlock like Boiler Room, you can find Hollywood wagging its finger at “greedy” capitalism for taking its toll on the humans that populate the silver screen. We care more for the pathetic (in the Aristotelian sense: i.e., subject to sympathy) than we do for the strong and powerful. There’s a simple explanation for this seeming conundrum:

Well, the answer is that Hollywood is really two businesses in one: It’s a profit-obsessed industry but it’s also a dream factory. What the factory manufactures is myths, and, typically, there’s no dissonance between the industry and the product, between (to use today’s parlance) the “core values” of the manufacturer and those inherent in the myths it creates. But the whole issue of capitalism is a huge exception. Capitalism throws a spanner in the factory’s works, for the simple reason that its values are often directly at odds with Hollywood’s dominant myth – the Great American Dream.

Indeed, Hollywood is in the business of selling people content in line with what they already feel, which in many cases is resentment or fear of the powerful. And then of course, there’s the ultimate American moniker of individuality contrasted against the masses. As such, American culture, with notable exceptions, valorizes the heroic individual’s struggle against the grain of much larger forces with interests in that hero’s domination and subservience. Big, mostly anonymous business provides the perfect antagonist to Hollywood’s chosen all-American humanized protagonist.

The nature of that protagonist really depends on the target audience. Since Hollywood is a business, it is trying to maximize profit by appealing to that audience. And as I discussed in my last post, it is probably a profit-maximizing strategy to appeal to the largest audience possible with a relatively low degree of investment, which often requires playing to subjects familiar to the audience and their pre-existing prejudices. It is a relatively smaller section of the population that prefers challenging subject matters on areas that are not immediately within their expertise.

Indeed, this tendency is precisely because Hollywood, as a matter of sheer Aristotelian pathos, attempts to create a voice sympathetic to those Americans who will be purchasing that content. Hollywood has a clear interest–almost a duty–to feed into those extant perceptions or create some new ones of its own to familiarize the audience with a newly comfortable mode of thought.

Perception is everything, definitionally so to an audience. And in catering to that audience, Hollywood creates and manipulates those perceptions by which that audience will understand subsequent references to real-life fact. That sort of echo chamber makes me slightly less comfortable.

Courtesy of Reddit

And while it is often that blond-haired, blue-eyed farmer boy (e.g., Luke Skywalker) that is almost the lowest common denominator of American protagonists, there is some hope in the rise of an alternative mainstream (e.g., Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson with their own trademark audiences they appeal to) that is often savvier or at least more specific in their knowledge and scope of potential identification. These are the director-audience-subject relationships where those deeper, more intelligent or emotional, or simply more self-referential jabs can be pulled off. Just look at Scream, Entourage, or any zombie movie for works that require an audience to do more thinking simply nod in agreement about the obvious villain. Ok, maybe Entourage is a bad example because it’s an infantile and fake version of the American dream already accomplished. But either way, there are plenty of works that are best if they are specifically not made in contemplation of reaching all of America, which just suggests that deeper art with more a nuanced and less Manichean approach to ethics and values can readily emerge if Hollywood is savvy enough in business.

And the studios are delighted to fund any attacks on themselves, albeit with a tiny proviso: They had better make money. That’s because Tinseltown’s objections to capitalism aren’t moral or political, but merely practical. It’s just that Hollywood is an industry that manufactures entertaining myths and, on screen, business must be bad so that, off screen, business can be good.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2010 6:54 pm

    All this is certainly true but there is a rather different and much wider context in which such circumstance can be viewed.

    Qualities such as greed and ruthlessness are generally seen as undesirable aspects of human behavior.

    Nevertheless, they are important components of the capitalistic ventures which are important drivers of technological evolution. In much the same way that hatred helps to fuel warfare, which can be argued to be an even greater spur to technology. So although we suffer the downsides of these “evils” we also benefit from much of the spin-off.

    By bearing in mind that the desiderata for most humans do not necessarily reflect the autonomous evolution of technology within the medium of collective human imagination, we can see that many such paradoxes are resolved.

    The great variation in individual behavior patterns within our species is a facilitator of such developments and a further manifestation of nature’s relentless evolutionary machinery.

    Many others are getting aboard this way of thinking lately. “The Goldilocks Effect” page of my revamped Unusual Perspectives website dicusses further.

    Anyway, another great bit of spin-off from your article is the dozen or so likely movies added to my list for next year.
    We bought a projector a few years back and now spend many winter evenings watching DVDs on the big screen.

    So thanks for that, too.


  2. Daniel permalink
    November 3, 2010 2:48 pm

    Just to be picky (and I realize you did not make that map), Fargo is set in Fargo, ND, not Minnesota. The movie should really be connected to the state somehow. Maybe North Country?

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      November 3, 2010 2:58 pm

      I think the purpose of the map is really to point out the popular perception of each state, right or wrong. In this case, the populous just happens to be (in one cartographer’s opinion) flat-out wrong.

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