(Originally published in Thermidor Magazine, from May 2018).
The world is now coming to realize what some keen observers have known all along: that Hollywood as a cultural institution is rotten to the core. As a major part of the culture industry (to borrow Horkheimer and Adorno’s phrase,) Hollywood has eaten away at the moral and spiritual fabric of society while also serving as a major conveyor belt for the absolute worst ideological excesses of the modern world. The cultural legitimacy and influence of deep-pocket creeps like Harvey Weinstein are shocking, to say the least – this is a man who has thrown vast sums at Democratic political campaigns and various Hollywood-championed, ultra-progressive ideological causes. That much is clear, but it is merely a facile and labored point American conservatives like to make when throwing barbs at fallen celebrities and Hollywood moguls.
Alongside certain masterpieces and your standard crass propaganda films (his bankrolling of Michael Moore and post-90s Tarintino pieces to name a few), what is even more insidious are the pieces of vile celluloid Weinstein has produced that are designed to denigrate populations the coastal Hollywood elites find objectionable. Take any Larry Clark / Harmony Korine film like 1995’s Kids, or 1997’s Gummo that the Weinstein brothers had a hand in producing. There you will find a visceral, morally repugnant (and ironically honest) look inside the degeneration of American youth. Behind the layers of faux “thinkpiece” style provocative filmmaking that expose the state of the MTV generation’s youth culture, what one can really extract from the major Hollywood films that deal in such subject matter is a hidden conceit of crass exploitation. These films are a look into the “flyover state” people as envisioned by millionaire Hollywood elois who would gladly spit on them from their connector flights between New York and California, if only they were allowed to open up the windows.
The modern culture industry produces repetitive emptiness and stale trope-laden pabulum, but can also provide valuable insight into the mindset and beliefs of our cultural Brahmin class. Look at any top-of-the-charts movie and you will find a barometer of the direction towards which modern culture heads in our own end of days. The ideals of Tinseltown have become increasingly divorced from any stitch of reality, and deeply run are the veins of Hollywood unreality burrowed into the livid skin of Western civilization. So deep in fact that the ordinary mass-dividual unconsciously views everything, even the most mundane of happenings, through the lens of the archetypal Hollywood film narrative.
Hollywood celebrities (and the villainous malcontents that fund them) have always been hermetically sealed from their consumers. Presently, it seems that there is a wider chasm between those cultural elites and us lowly proletarians than ever before. It is a curious phenomenon that in the age of mass social media, celebrities can proclaim in unison their socially approved opinions, all the while seeming so distant. Perhaps there is a reason – several reasons – for this. The most obvious is the manufactured apparatus of deification, elevating Hollywood celebrities (in this I include top-40 pop stars as well) to the level of godheads among mere mortals in our disenchanted age. Perhaps there is a deeper reason for this self-imposed exile from the rest of humanity, besides Hollywood being a haven for the most sociopathic forms of egoism – take for instance the recent article by actress and writer Sarah Polley. While known for her ultra-progressive political opinions, she has nonetheless written a very fine and intimate piece that delves into the psychology of living as an actress in that strange and seductive land:
“Harvey Weinstein may be the central-casting version of a Hollywood predator, but he was just one festering pustule in a diseased industry. The only thing that shocked most people in the film industry about the Harvey Weinstein story was that suddenly, for some reason, people seemed to care. That knowledge alone allowed a lot of us to breathe for the first time in ages. Here is an unsettling problem that I am left with now: Like so many, I knew about him. And not just from my comparatively tame meeting with him. For years, I heard the horrible stories that are now chilling so many people to their core. Like so many, I didn’t know what to do with all of it. I’ve grown up in this industry, surrounded by predatory behavior, and the idea of making people care about it seemed as distant an ambition as pulling the sun out of the sky”.1
What is immediately apparent is that the soul of Hollywood is a soiled and tattered rag of corruption, abuse, sleazy inhabitation, hedonism, and the most extreme forms of decadence imaginable. No verbiage comes close to describing the damage that Hollywood has caused in the modern world.
But let us take a more spiritual or metaphysical direction. I would argue that the soul and character of Hollywood is a certain way because, in this time of manufactured spectacle, such an institution has always attracted people of a certain disposition. What do actors deal with primarily? Illusions, not in the way a painting is an illusion. Paintings share a broken or interpretive character with reality – an idealized or abstracted reality, whereas acting takes another step towards “realism” or the illusion of realism by mimesis. It is the uses and abuses of mimesis that the ancients were most concerned about when developing their discourses on art and aesthetics.
Let us say the art of acting is illusion, and (as Baudrillard points out2) the art of hyper-reality. Reality is a plaything to modern Hollywood, and an easily manipulated plaything because of the proximity to reality the art of acting is privileged in. It is hard to express emotion in text, hard to render somber feeling in globs of paint, easier to render emotion in music but difficult to capture narrative. The moving image is a phantasmagoria of almost all sensuous elements; even a theater production incorporates emotions, lights, images and narratives on a more polysemous level. The actor of old, the theater thespian as Orson Welles observed3, had to tame a hostile audience. They had the skill of grappling with a crowd, getting them to empathize and emote with the production in real time. The modern Hollywood actor, to varying degrees, no longer deals with an audience in the same way, nor do they have to work to produce (less than) quality content, as we have observed recently with the glut of stale remakes and “safe bet” films like superhero movies and rom-coms.
Welles points to an example of the “voices from the grave” – the ubiquitous sitcom laugh track. The laugh track guides the placid and apathetic audience, feeding them the plot, marking when to laugh on cue at sterile jokes, etc. The culture industry, when it is not concerned with propagandizing you on a more visceral and unconscious level, is vested in its own endless growth by the deadening of the senses. Cheap entertainment affirms nothing, not even the fictitious lives and stories being portrayed. Even modern documentaries are intricate illusions and shadows, designed to trick you into thinking that this interpretation of events is the “real reality”. To quote Horkheimer and Adorno:
“What is significant is not crude ignorance, stupidity or lack of polish. The culture industry has abolished the rubbish of former times by imposing its own perfection, by prohibiting and domesticating dilettantism, while itself incessantly committing the blunders without which the elevated style cannot be conceived. What is new, however, is that the irreconcilable elements of culture, art, and amusement have been subjected equally to the concept of purpose and thus brought under a single false denominator: the totality of the culture industry. Its element is repetition. The fact that its characteristic innovations are in all cases mere improvements to mass production is not extraneous to the system. With good reason the interest of countless consumers is focused on the technology, not on the rigidly repeated, threadbare and half-abandoned content”.4
The Hollywood culture industry is in a sense, a technology of sorts. All events and ideational content of the past are merely fuel for its hyper-consumerist engines, and its existence is predicated upon the mass audience being confined mentally to a narrow form of rationality. There is little wonder as to why most of the masses have let the Hollywood machine place a vice grip upon their hearts and minds. The repetitive nature of the culture industry’s content ensures the mechanism of control is engrained within the consumer. The narratives we witnessed in childhood movies parallel the narratives we consume in adulthood; we then can trace opaque tropes throughout all major Hollywood productions.
It is a stark situation we find ourselves in. The most craven and morally dubious of Hollywood’s cultural oligarchs have, for a very long time now, taken control of the cultural means of production, and serve as Cathedral functionaries of all things media and entertainment. Let us examine a relic of original critique towards the culture industry: the 1982 Cronenberg film “Videodrome”, a film that in its day was stunningly ahead of its time. Like all critiques of the culture industry that use its preferred mediums like film, as Horkheimer and Adorno point out, the original potency and ability to hack away at the roots of culture industry domination are muted and absorbed over time. The culture industry always tests resistances, and therefore, the motifs and original thematic content of a film like Videodrome will be re-worked and utilized in the pantheon of repetitive archetypal tropes found in other works of sanctioned art and entertainment. The very theme of being literally and figuratively sucked into the medium of television has been played out so thoroughly that the criticism of media and entertainment itself is a popular motif of resistance. We can then sit back and passively pour all our impotent frustration into these pieces of media.
Videodrome has this unique piece of prophetic and philosophic insight:
“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television” – Dr. O. Blivion.5
Media studies have (more or less) concluded that this assessment of television’s effect on the human mind is accurate, and this, of course, can now be extrapolated to the deleterious effects of the Internet. On a deeper level, media modifies our experiences and perceptions of the world, especially from an early age. Television, as any pop psychologist will inform you, mimics the effects of any hard street drug in terms of its psychochemical impact on the pleasure centers of the brain. But this is merely the physical aspect of the cathode ray and digital screen.
Suppose there is no difference between the reality of Hollywood and the reality of the everyday. Surely people seem to be fixated on this intangible meta-reality of fiction and malleability; a blurring of reality and fiction, even in terms of how we consume news and interpret political happenings. Let us remember that the media class, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood’s content producers, propagate such terms as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” in the age of Trump. And right on cue, major Hollywood figures, being ostensible masters of hyper-reality, and the dance of Maya we call entertainment, pour on continual scorn at the untruth of “Trump’s America”. Their truth, the truth of the Cathedral-entertainment-industrial complex, is precisely the truth of the “battle for the mind of North America”. An ongoing info-war, one in which our cultural masters schizophrenically sway between panicking over their waning influence in the Internet age, and being triumphalist in their ability to continually subdue the mental landscape of the masses. The issue at hand is the metaphysical disposition of our current hyper-information age and the penumbra cast by Hollywood upon it, and for this, we must highlight a basic artistic inversion present within the modern world.
The social order that places actors and Hollywood celebrities at the top of the social, artistic, cultural and even political strata in society is a relatively recent development. In previous ages, acting was traditionally considered to the art of the traveling highwayman, the vagrant who was not to be trusted in decent society. Actors lived the bohemian low-lifestyle, while painters, poets, and certain types of musicians enjoyed relative social acceptance, so long as they were commissioned by the right types of individuals and institutions. Actors were seen as subversives, mad and morally ill-reputed bohemians who would tear away at the social fabric. The transient actor was a dream merchant who would pervert the values of a given society by affirming an art that presents a unique moral hazard to audiences. From Ancient Rome to Christian Europe, thinkers intuited that the art of illusions would present reality in such a way as to leave insufficient separation between mimetic fiction and agreed-upon reality (according to each given society). Within the last century, acting now stands atop the hierarchy of the arts as the most praised, and the most lucrative for the select few 0.01% who are blessed by the graces of Hollywood. We live in an inverted age, so our most worshiped art is then inverted in character as well. It is with good reason that the ancient Romans and the medieval clergy denounced the art of acting. During the High Roman period theater performances involving females were closely linked with the erotic, and the theater, in general, was taken as a hotbed of unregulated and un-cultivated sensuality6.
Inverted art, contorted images, fallen symbols that are deconstructed and used for nefarious purposes, this we all know too well in the modern world. By the 19th Century, this inversion of art had already taken hold, and thespians were well-reputable figures of culture, enjoying legions of fans. The 20th Century accelerated the position of the actor to be the very definition of mainstream. Let us take an example of opinions from a few ancient scholars on the art of acting; Plato of course famously wrote about the role of the mimetic arts in The Republic, stating that such things have a power over the minds of men in society, for the psyche identifies with the theater piece unfolding in front of them. The viewer is seduced, titillated and thrown into a state of empathy with the characters and production happening at the time. Plato finds the solution to be a style of censorship; actors and playwrights cannot portray characters with illiberal and base characters, that bad taste in the theater perhaps may “lead to being a buffoon at home”. Now, given the sympathies I have for the Straussian interpretation of The Republic (that is, Plato did not mean it as a utopian political blueprint, but rather an elaborate metaphor for the regulation and flourishing of the soul unrelated to ideal political intuitions), I believe Plato was referring to a sense of inner subjectivity. Art proceeds to carry the ages on its back, and thus the people of an episteme/epoch will be carried with it. If our art is debauched, licentious and of an unregulated sensuous character then society, like the individual body affected by disease, will be corroded from within.
Augustine strongly condemned the theater in Confessions, stating how, as a young passionate man, he loved and would frequent the theater. Eventually, Augustine developed a disdain for the seductive aspects of the theater as an institution, stating that it inflames passion and mimetic desires in uncultivated minds and that actors conduct a vulgar artform due to the imitation of truth, rather than being seekers of truth. Notice the language Augustine uses in his passage on the art of theater: “we should not become false by copying and likening to the nature of another”7.
Augustine comments on other visual arts such as sculpting and painting, but reserves this analysis of imitating and ultimately perverting truth for acting and theater alone as a mimetic art. Copying the “nature” of another, especially when such matters strike at the deepest philosophic and theological issues, is a corruption of character which limits inner flourishing. Hence, Augustine does not focus so much on that actual content of the play, but on the mode of representation and mimesis that harbors the potentially dangerous outcomes – those which early Christian scholars feared would pollute the souls of mankind. The vagrant-actor bohemian has very few ties to a people, to a culture or set of metaphysical beliefs, and Augustine furthermore saw them as representing vestiges of a chaotic pagan past8.
Losing Our Senses: The Aura of Culture.
The seduction of the theater/film is its ability to capture what is pejoratively referred to as the “lowest common denominator”, appealing to all social sedimentary stratum; let us move on to phenomenologically contextualize this analysis with our own experience. Any choice of artistic medium will invariably influence the expression of content, now envision if you will the accelerative effect that information technologies have had on entertainment media’s ability to ensnare. Triviality and cheap entertainment rule the day; just as Saint Augustine saw the end-product of the theater in his day, we are now near-constantly assaulted with the info-tech world of mass spectacle.
Triviality trains our senses to seek out immediate gratification and visual stimuli that demand very little by way of the contemplating intellect, or the serious and deeply felt imagination and passions. To quote Postman:
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility”.9
The modern audience does not experience art and culture in the same way as we once did. Of course, this goes into a longer discussion about the role of technology in art and culture, and the supposed promise of utopian participation between audiences and culture industry “artists”. This is true on the most nomadic and microsocial of levels; even the most corporatized of artforms must consider the audience, even if our tastes are being actively manufactured and suggested to us by corporate entertainment monoliths. However, the utopian dream of collapsing the viewer and the creator, the audience with the lives portrayed in the moving image, is largely a fantasy. Postman states that as a result, culture no longer uplifts the human subject but renders the subject compliant. Cultural death via triviality and the reinforcement of repetitive content bleeds this modality of sameness into everything. Consume in the same way we are entertained (through triviality), live in the same way we consume, etc. To become an audience, and to live within a comatose or dying culture is a form of being that defines itself through detachment and passivity. Being-as-audience in its modern connotation robs the subject of any capacity for action, inspiration, or the passionate inner rumination that could provoke or excite profound existential and social change.
This analysis would not be complete without returning to what has been touched upon above. Namely that we simply do not experience popular art, specifically acting and film, the same way anymore. For this, we shall not leave out the original insights of Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Benjamin points to the concept he calls The Aura – the representation or feeling of originality and authenticity in the artistic work. For film, that particular medium of art wholly created by and for the culture industry and with mechanical reproducibility in mind, the sense of the aura is depreciated. There is a process, not an author; no single authority, but a new space of technical and mechanical mass-art. The camera can do what the painting cannot – it can be a revolutionary act of exposure, but can also be totalitarian in its use of technology (and the discourse of instrumental rationality behind it) to impose a singular view or narrative on its subject matter. As art becomes democratic and mass-produced, be it in galleries, prints, the cinema or the Internet, there emerge ever-more lurid and stunning forms of deception that can be perpetrated on the mass-subject.10,11 Benjamin:
“In this new age of mechanical reproduction the contemplation of a screen and the nature of the film itself has changed in such a way that the individual no longer contemplates the film per se; the film contemplates them”.12
Benjamin sees a problem with thinking about subjectivity in the same way in the age of mechanical art. We no longer seek to flourish in the art mediums of our choosing, but we consume cheap escapism. The medium changes our structure of perception, eventually desensitizing us to repetition, to more of the same, and to the increasing blandness of modern film and culture industry commodities. The Aura is gaunt and nearly dead in the modern world of late capitalist consumerism and cultural nihilism.
Benjamin also sees that all culture industry art by definition is not rooted in a time and place the way other pieces of art are created. Surely we can guess when a film is made, and some are very mystical, artistic and philosophic, but it is the way in which it is made which universalizes its production. With the changing of popular art mediums come the changing taste and sensibility of the public as well. There has been no better tool for flattening cultures and unique spaces of discourse and artistic practices then Hollywood filmography. Hollywood as an institution spreads the twin viruses of consumerist globalization and Americanization to every corner of the globe. Localized culture, as well as the sensibilities of diverse peoples, have been razed, picked clean of vitality and hammered into the rude forms of Hollywood narratives. We no longer have the capacity to reflect on ourselves after being inundated since birth by the moving image that has been on the one hand hyper-politicized, and on the other, drained of authenticity. The moving image of film in the culture industry has been weaponized, and as it gains the ability to invade our senses so, in turn, Hollywood constitutes our being into its own.
Hollywood has effectively waged war on mass culture and won, but in today’s world, even this is not enough to countenance the modern sensibility Hollywood imposes on itself. Let me borrow an insight from a prominent Twitter account:
“Hollywood politics and cause-championing is a kind of meta-entertainment, an IRL movie which all the actors and producers are playing parts in, each awards ceremony is a scene in this meta-production. Even the actual movies are increasingly becoming props in this larger drama”.13
The beliefs, attitudes, and very being of Hollywood elites must conform to a mass display of pantomimed modern virtues and ethics, ones that are stripped of any historical significance or intrinsic worth. The “meta-production” is the appearance of Hollywood’s regime of glamorized unreality having a grip upon the fabric of civilization itself. The illusion must be integral and must be supported by the meta-narrative of Hollywood’s own vivacity and cultural influence.
The state of Hollywood’s anti-art suffers from the selfsame vivisection of cultural standards they have helped cast aside. No longer is there a distinction between high art and low art; even mentioning such a concept is now grounds for suspicion. The culture industry found it necessary to rid itself of any artistic hierarchy in the popular sensibility, furthering its reach into representing (and thus commodifying) even more spaces within society. Hollywood has perfected a process of unique and terroristic cultural colonization in celluloid form; by absorbing various subcultures and micro-identities, Hollywood can churn out sterilized and easily accessible transmutations of what was once niche and unique content/narratives.“High art” thus becomes a meaningless distinction, in fact, it is a distinction that must be done away with, for it betrays Hollywood’s cultural machine programming.
The anti-art of Hollywood finds its own deep roots in a rootless and bohemian past, roots that have grown into maladies now symbolized by modern low-brow escapism, and of course the hidden abuses of power and sexual exploitation rampant in the back rooms and hidden parties of the Hollywood elite. As Baudrillard described it:
“The films produced today are merely the visible allegory of the cinematic form that has taken over everything- social and political life, the landscape, war, etc. – the form of life totally scripted for the screen. This is no doubt why cinema is disappearing: because it has passed into reality. Reality is disappearing at the hands of cinema and cinema is disappearing at the hands of reality”.15
- Polley, Sarah. “The Men You Meet Making Movies. The New York Times. (Oct 14, 2017). https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/14/opinion/sunday/harvey-weinstein-sarah-polley.html?ribbon-ad-idx=3&rref=opinion&module=Ribbon&version=origin®ion=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&pgtype=article ↩
- See “Simulacra And Simulation”. (Michigan, New York: University of Michigan Press, 1994). ↩
- Welles, Orson. “Orson Welles On Performers Working And Audience”. (1979). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V421bF698sA. ↩
- Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor. “The Culture Industry, Enlightenment As Mass Deception”, in The Dialectic Of Enlightenment. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972, 2007): 108 https://web.stanford.edu/dept/DLCL/files/pdf/adornocultureindustry.pdf ↩
- Cronenberg, David. Videodrome. (Universal Pictures: Feb, 4, 1983). ↩
- Barish, Jonas. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1981). ↩
- Dox, Donnalee. The Idea Of Theater In Latin Christian Thought, Augustine To The Fourteenth Century. (Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan Press, 2004): 39-41. ↩
- Ibid, 42-45. ↩
- Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves To Death, Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business. (New York, London, Toronto: Penguin Books, 1985, 2005): 155. ↩
- Benjamin, Walter. “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction”. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. H. Arendt. (New York: Schocken, 1936, 1969):217–251. ↩
- Ginal. “Summary: The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction”. Introducing The Frankfurt School, WordPress.com. (Feb, 28, 2008). https://frankfurtschool.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/summary-the-work-of-art-in-the-age-of-mechanical-reproduction/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Kantbot. Twitter Post. Twitter. Com. 5:20 PM – 8 Jan 2018. https://twitter.com/KANTBOT20K/status/950537610132369408 ↩
- Nordine, Michael. “Martin Scorsese Reveals Why He Doesn’t Like To Watch New Movies”. Indiewire. (Dec, 13, 16). http://www.indiewire.com/2016/12/martin-scorsese-doesnt-like-to-watch-new-movies-1201757736/ ↩
- Baudrillard, Jean. The Intelligence Of Evil, On The Lucidity Pact. (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2005): 97. ↩