an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Will “Hollywood” Conquer the World?


“Hollywood” is a much more complex and insidious reality than “McDonaldization” or “Coca-Colonization” for Russia – for it more directly affects the mind and culture. McDonald’s is a clean cafeteria, where one can quickly eat a “Big Mac” and drink a Coca-Cola, while possibly discussing important questions of literature, poetry, the meaning to life and death, globalization, and so on. (Or are such topics too contrary to the spirit and atmosphere of McDonald’s?) Nonetheless, if it needs being said: eating in McDonald’s is very far from the cultural achievement so many in Moscow seem to imagine it to be. But “Hollywood” can occupy the mind – often conveying scattered, confusing and disorienting ideas of the world, man, life and reality to susceptible hearts and minds. Since this is a pluralistic, secular time of “freedom” – and not either an established ‘religious age’, nor one ruled by some stern moral and ideological system or governmental power, the struggle with “Hollywood” is often necessarily personal, cultural and spiritual. (Still, the obvious liability of people – in the very many, varied and different cultures and nations of the world – to “Hollywood” and its creations, must be acknowledged. Hollywood does in fact seem to speak to some common element in humanity in our time.)

In the West there is an idea and expression – associated with Roman imperial rule – that if one just gave the plebeians (the common people) “bread and circus” (from Juvenal, Roman poet and satirist (40–125), Satires, Satire 10), they would be pacified and content. If McDonald’s is closer to the “bread”, Hollywood is obviously closer to the “circus”, to entertainment – with the attendant dangers (after the development of television) of becoming a pacifying surrogate to real education and culture. (Around the time of the ending of World War II, there were still only about 10,000 televisions in the entire USA!) Hollywood films are sometimes (intentionally or unintentionally) educational; but it is mostly entertainment – and big profits! If it is recognized and treated as such, well and good. But when one no longer can distinguish those contents which are mere entertainment, from enriching education, one has serious problems (such as are widely acknowledged in the USA today). Consider this summary of American culture, in the twentieth century, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

For most of the 20th century the common quarrel that has absorbed many American artists and thinkers has been one between the values of a mass, democratic popular culture and those of a refined elite culture accessible only to the few–the quarrel between “low” and “high”. In part, this was a problem that science left on the doorstep of the arts: beginning at the turn of the century, the growth of the technology of mass communications – motion pictures, the phonograph, radio and, eventually, television – created a potential audience for stories and music and theatre larger than anyone could previously have imagined. …in the United States the growth and dissemination of the new means of mass communication had a special excitement, for the new machines came not simply as a new or threatening force but also as the fulfillment of an American dream. Mass culture seemed to promise a democratic culture, a cultural life directed not to an aristocracy but to all men and women. It was not that the new machines produced new ideals, but that they made the old dreams seem suddenly a practical possibility….By the mid-20th century, however, many people recoiled in dismay at what had happened to the American arts, high and low. The new technology of mass communications for the most part seemed to have achieved not a generous democratization but a bland homogenization of culture. Many people thought that the control of culture had passed wholly into the hands of advertisers, people who used the means of a common culture just to make money. It was not only that most of the new music and drama that had been made for motion pictures and radio, and later for television, seemed shallow; it was also that the high, or serious, culture that had become available through the means of mass reproduction seemed to have been reduced to a string of popularized hits, which concealed the real complexity of art. Culture, made democratic, had become too easy.

One might describe this as the conflict and confusion of the “circus” and the “classroom” – and certainly not one which shows a clear cosmos of meaning to mankind in America, or elsewhere. And one is reminded of James Truslow Adams: The theory of mass production breaks down when applied to the things of the spirit; the large-scale problem of “cultural illiteracy”; and the crisis of “values” in the USA. (And it must be noted that the post-war influence of America culture on the world came from this time of “dismay” with its “bland homogenization”.)

“Super-Star”: Schwarzenegger? or Dostoyevsky?

“Hollywood” affects the entire world. To this author, it is indeed strange – not forgetting our “time of the masses” – that Hollywood so greatly affects the history, culture and life of humanity throughout the world, joining thereby (as well as surpassing some of) the names of such other places as Athens, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome, Paris, London, Moscow, New York, et al, in human history. Any inwardly-cultivated person who has ever more closely observed (as this author had ample opportunity to do living in California) the actual biographical shallowness of ideas, knowledge (of history, literature, philosophy, etc.), feelings, “culture” and interests of many of Hollywood’s “superstars”, can not but be appalled at the influence they have world-wide. This is a spiritually-lost understanding of a human “star”. Or, as I like to say it – and someone, in Russia at least, should produce a “T-shirt” on which is written: What does Schwarzenegger think of Dostoyevsky?

What does Schwarzenegger think of Dostoyevsky?
What does Schwarzenegger think of Dostoyevsky?

“Hollywood”, though it has a very complicated history, had in fact a very simple beginning, and one quite different to its subsequent influential fame – and its eventual increasing use of its political, social and cosmic “freedom”. Consider this from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Hollywood is a district within the city of Los Angeles, California, U.S., whose name is synonymous with the American motion-picture industry....Since the early 1900s, when movie-making pioneers found in southern California an ideal blend of mild climate, much sunshine, varied terrain, and a large labour market, the image of Hollywood as the fabricator of tinseled cinematic dreams has become worldwide. An adobe was the first house built (1853) on the site near Los Angeles, which was then a small city in the new state of California. Hollywood was laid out as a real-estate subdivision in 1887 by Horace Wilcox, a prohibitionist from Kansas who envisioned a community based on his sober religious principles. His wife, Daeida, named the area after the home of a friend in Chicago.

I recently had an interesting personal experience regarding Hollywood and American television programs – especially as I was a child amongst the first real “TV generation” in all of World History. Examining the history of Hollywood, television and its programs for American Reflections, I found an encyclopedia of American television. Therein I read brief descriptions (of the basic facts and information) related to the television programs, personalities (actors), and so on, which I had experienced as a child (in a now embarrassing, regrettable number of hours “watching TV”). As I have seldom thought on these programs since those early years, looking back on them now (as a historian and scholar of intellectual history), I can see clearly that most of them were culturally-, intellectually- and spiritually-vacuous entertainment. They contributed their part to filling my then-typical head with the “educated” ignorance I (more atypically) recognized in myself around 21 years of age.

As a child, I, of course, did not know that “TV” was a “new means of mass communication” in the world; nor that the programs I was spending so many hours watching were of little substantial content and value – basically just entertainment, and simplistic and shallow at that. Considering those programs’ contents and personalities (actors and their roles) now, decades later, I can see them “from the outside” as it were. And being able to look at those programs in relationship to the greater intellectual, cultural and spiritual story of mankind, I can clearly see how empty, ephemeral and frankly stupid most of them were. (I, unawares, experienced as a child just what the Encyclopedia Britannica’s writer described!) If these programs had any real meaning common to them, it was of man as a rather silly, shallow or purely earthly creature; one would never have guessed from them that there had ever been any deeper spiritual meanings or questions to human existence. They sort of “uncursed” one to questions of world, life and man!

Subsequently many of those programs have gradually been re-broadcast by many other nationalities around the globe – as if these would miss out, and be deprived, if they did not also watch this often, empty, vacuous, meaningless American entertainment! Most of the programs were, and are, a good brew to trivialize and diffuse the mind of children, or thoughtless adults. But again, “Hollywood” and American TV films obviously have some trans-national appeal, the power to fascinate; they also have the capacity to disorient and “shallow” the mind. (In the USA today, a scientific study would need to be done to ‘document this critical interpretation’ – in order to “prove” what any deeper person and mind can so clearly see.)

“Super-Stars” or “Hollow-Stars” in Hollywood’s “Cosmos”

If such programs are now more and more strongly present and increasingly influential here in Russia – as they already have been in many other areas of Europe and the world – they must be consciously and knowledgeably confronted. Simple rejection of them as kitsch will not suffice. Parents, teachers, educators, philosophers, community leaders, et al, should comprehend and surpass in ideas these productions of “Hollywood”. (As to censorship in the “age of freedom” – who would censor; and could the known dangers of censorship be tolerated today?) “Hollywood’s” productions should and must be challenged with clear understanding. For example, film or program’s ideas of the world, life and man should be engaged, understood and “named”. Are there any deeper ideas in them? What are they? What “image” of the person and life do the films convey? And deeper, healthy – truly cultural – contrasting ideas of world, life and man, from the deeper history and culture of Russia, America, and elsewhere, should be presented.

Books, about Hollywood’s films and movie “stars”, that this author has recently seen appear in Russia, are a disappointing typical example of indiscriminate, shallow, passive copying and parroting of mass American and Western patterns and “interests” – as if knowing the “tinseled cinematic dreams” gives a more real and genuine identity to life and man, because they are popular in America, and elsewhere. And as if Russians would not be contemporary humans unless they also were interested in the superficial western images of “Hollow-Stars” in the firmament of “Hollywood”. (Or isn’t mass world-wide interest in Hollywood’s “super-stars”, an indication of the interests of the masses world-wide? And I am wasting my time writing in contrast?)

There will, unfortunately, but unavoidably, often be occasion for American Reflections to return to the problems of the history, anthropology and cosmology, the ethics and influences of “Hollywood” in America, Russia and the world. For the present it will need to suffice to comment that “Hollywood” “lives and breathes and has its being” in the collective American secular, profit-making, ‘smaller, earthly world’ to which – recalling the lost “greater spiritual cosmos”.

First published in the magazine English, #39, October 2000, p. 1-14.