In America, a tremendous commercial culture has developed as a kind of substitute for a genuinely popular, a genuinely democratic culture, which would re-create and thus communicate how the mass of the people live, how they feel about work־ ing, loving, enjoying, suffering, and dying. This culture has become a big business. It is capitalized at hundreds of millions of dollars; it returns many millions in annual profits, rent, and interest; and it employs thousands of men and women to whom it pays additional millions as wages and salaries. At times, the apologists and propagandists for these cultural industries proudly boast of the “culturar’ achievements of these industries: on other occasions, however, they assert that these industries produce entertainment, not culture. Let us not quibble over words. The products of these industries (motion pictures, songs, radio plays and soap operas, cartoons, and so on) re-create images of life: they communicate feelings, no matter how banal these may be; they externalize reveries; they fix ideals; they embody and illustrate moral attitudes; they stimulate tastes which in turn create attitudes—in brief, directly and by example, suggestion, innuendo, fable, story, they tell huge masses of people how and what to believe. If the performance of such functions be described as something other than cultural, then the plain meaning of words is being inexcusably debased.
Usually, the debates concerning these industries—and espedaily the motion picture industry—are concerned with the problem of commercial versus artistic values. Critics of the motion picture industry generally claim that pictures are not artistic enough; their adversaries then reply that pictures are as artistic as they can be made, considering the fact that they must be produced for a profit. The claim that the function of pictures is to produce entertainment serves as a justification of the simple and admitted fact that the fundamental purpose of the motion picture studios is to make money. Not only in motion picture studios, but also in the offices of publishers and theatrical producers, a very common reason for the rejection of many books and scripts is that these do not promise to return a profit. The role of cash value in contemporary American culture is continuously acknowledged on many sides.
All this is common knowledge. It is clear that business considerations play a decisive role in all these fields. And art that we call good, art that we call bad, art that we call counterfeit—all are sold on the commodity market. But today, owing to basic economic causes, something of the most profound significance has happened in American culture: it has been invaded by finance capital. American commercial culture is owned and operated by finance capital.
The motion picture industry clearly illustrates what has happened. Back in 1931 the late Mr. Benjamin Boles Hampton’s book, A History of The Movies was published; it revealed, as of that date, the change in the economic character of the motion picture industry. As is well known, and as Mr. Hampton clearly described, motion pictures were fathered in peep shows and nickelodeons by a motley crowd of carnival workers, hustling immigrants, and others. This novelty quickly interested the public—and it attracted a lot of nickels. In particular, men with a gambling temperament rushed into this new field in order to exploit it before the novelty wore off. However, it quickly became clear that motion pictures were more than a mere and transient carnivalistic attraction. A golden flood of silver began pouring in. And it was this, and not the cultural possibilities of the medium, that made it so attractive. The stage of novelty did not last long. A period of intense competition followed, punctuated by litigation over patents. The stage of competition led to the formation of a Trust, which would standardize trade, control production, eliminate independent producers, and (as Mr. Hampton indicated) mulct the exhibitors.
A bitter struggle ensued between the Trust and independents like Zukor and Laemmle. As is usual in the development of a new form of business under capitalism, this struggle was not carried on merely according to laws of competition and in accordance with the due processes of law provided by the courts. There were instances of violence: sluggers were hired, and they smashed cameras, studio, and other tangible assets of more than one independent. In general, the history of the rise of the motion picture industry parallels that of the rise of many other American industries.
The Trust was eventually defeated. It was more or less left to die its own death, a process that was related to its conservatism. One of the independents, Mr. Zukor, then rose until he became, perhaps, the most powerful figure in the new industry. This industry expanded rapidly. Movies became increasingly popular. Expenses, salaries, income, all sky-rocketed. This process continued toward the period of the talkies. The money spent, when one reads of it, seems like an orgy. It was paralleled with the boom time and the expenditures of the parvenu stars of that period. Stories and anecdotes of this are common gossip and parlor talk. One director is supposed to have had two stunning and sensational automobiles of a very expensive make and to have gone about Hollywood riding in one and being serenaded from the other by a hired jazz band.
But this period reveals something very important. The socalled normal and natural processes of capitalist competition become one of the fetters on production and expansion if we look at these from the point of view of society. Much waste, duplication and unnecessary costs of production, which are merely a result of the needs of competition, become inevitable. The uneven and continuing process of growth—that is, expansion—leads to more intense and persistent efforts to eliminate the smaller and more economically weak groups or individual entrepreneurs. In this period Mr. Zukor became so powerful in the industry that the federal government even investigated his power. At the same time, each new person, each new group that expanded, that attained power and an important place in the industry, quickly became conservative. Mr. Hampton pointed out that, generally, new capital, and, with it, new figures were needed for each innovation, such as three-reel films, five-reelers and so on. This is a very important fact in the history of the motion picture industry. It suggests how uneven its expansion has been—uneven in the tempo of the development of pictures as an industry, on the one hand, and as an art form, a mass cultural medium, on the other. From the very beginning, its attraction was that of the money it promised for those investing in it. At first this money was what many Hollywood persons would now refer to as peanuts, as coffee and doughnuts money. Then it was marked by gambling, speculation, the taking of risks. At this time there was manipulation, competition, maneuvering, struggles for control, This led, further, to the rise of new personalities, the entry of new capital, and to an intensification and extension of the struggle for control, which, in turn, was a struggle for a larger share of profits. This struggle, and the kind of economic expansion it predicated, continuously hampered the technical and artistic development of the motion picture. The feverish irregularity that characterized capitalism as a whole was revealed in the expansion of the motion picture industry. And there is nothing peculiar in the fact that at each innovation those who were powerful would resist change, arguing that innovations would not be good box office. In other words, the public was getting what it wanted, liked what it was getting, and introducing innovations was too risky. But changes were inevitable. The powerfulness of the medium, its potentialities which today are still far from being realized, made innovations inevitable on the technical side; the need for capital to expand made them inevitable on the economic side. By and large, the majority of those who rose in the evolution of the motion picture industry, some of them rising only to fall, were not personages who were seriously interested in culture, experienced in it, anxious to develop a new and great artistic medium. They were speculators, businessmen, gamblers, risk-takers. And the risk-taker of one year soon became the conservative of the next year. In this way, feverishly, irregularly, unevenly, competitively, the motion picture industry expanded until it became a miracle of this century. It grew so big that it could no longer be financed from within. One by one the movie kings went to the bankers. The industry, rising to the billion-dollar stage and becoming one of the “most heavily capitalized of American industries, was soon based on huge blocs and coagulations of capital: it reached the stage where it was to become dominated by finance capital, where it was to be a virtual monopoly. Economic control passed from the hands of individuals; it resided in the hands of a very few individuals in association with the banks. Entrepreneurs of yesterday were forced out, or else they became managers instead of owners, that is, in the sense in which once they had been owners. This occurred not as a result of dastardly conspiracies but rather as a kind of logical result of the possibilities of this industry and the nature of capitalistic enterprise. The volume of business increased enormously, as we know. The investment in capital kept pace with this increase. The task of financing the industry became such that it was no longer possible for individuals to undertake it. There was nothing to do but call in the banks.
A number of years ago, the French writer, Léon Moussinac, began his book, Panoramique du Cinema [Paris, 1929], by juxtaposing quotations: one from the merchant stating that the film is not merchandise; another from the writer declaring that the film is not art. To the film-maker, it is better to believe, or pretend to believe, that the film be seen as art, to hope that it is art, to gain all the good will he can from prestige that thereby is cast upon films—the glow, the dignity, the respect that is granted to art and culture. To the writer, the character of the work he does, the way he is employed, the continuous manner in which he is blocked from creating as an artist make it indubitably clear to him that the film is merchandise. But the fact is that the film is both merchandise and art. It is merchandise—a commodity—and it is also an artistic production. It may be good, or bad, or it may be a fake and a counterfeit, but it is, nevertheless, an artistic, a cultural production. The contradictions between the film as merchandise and the film as art are central in the American motion picture. These contradictions are not general, formal, abstract. They appear as contradictions concretely, individually, in the making of films; in the give-and-take; in the conflicts among producers, directors, and writers that often occur when a film is being made:1 in general, the results constitute some form of compromise generally weighted on the side of merchandise. Often this contradiction is concealed by various apologetic arguments. For instance, Leo C. Rosten, in his book, Hollywood: The Movie Colony and the Movie Makers [New York, 1941], argues that motion pictures are a young industry, an artistic infant, and that, in consequence, one needs to judge them artistically with a certain, and at least relative, leniency. Further, he defends motion pictures by a formal comparison of the film with the printed word and points out how much rubbish, how much bad art, how much utter verbal junk is written, printed, and sold. He argues that if you make such a comparison, the motion picture industry is not alone to be criticized for its “bad” films, and especially not when it is further understood that it is an infant art, a child of this century. Such arguments, such apologetics teach us nothing; accept them and not only do we understand nothing, but, worse, we misunderstand everything. The reason so much junk is produced on a mass scale is because this is so profitable. The contradiction between the film as art and the film as merchandise has existed, and has been revealed at every stage of the development of the motion picture industry. Today, because of the size of the industry, and because of the fact that it is now socially organized under a monopolistic aegis, this contradiction can be more clearly, more sharply revealed. With this, the predominating, the almighty, role of the market is nakedly exposed. It is generally admitted that pictures have to make money. They have to make a lot of money. They have to keep making millions of dollars.
At the same time, the motion picture industry has become involved in the whole life of America in innumerable and complicated ways. It touches indirectly on the business life of the nation in a manner that needs to be understood, because this is one of the important specific factors that further focuses and widens this same contradiction. The element of competition in American economy has been heightened, generalized. It is now competition between huge combinations of capital that manufacture and sell different types of commodities. Each of these combinations must jealously guard its product, its good will, prestige, reputation. Indirectly, the motion picture plays an enormous role in causing the sale of various kinds of commodities. It influences styles in dress, in furniture, in the trade and art of the beautician; styles relating to many aspects of the leisure life of, and consumption of goods by, millions of Americans. Trade-marks, business reputations—all these are involved. If a film directly or indirectly endangers a trade-mark, a business reputation, etc., a studio can easily become involved in difficulties—even in expensive litigation—with the producers of the commodity so affected. Not only is the industry owned by the same class that owns all the major means of production of America, but, in addition, it occupies a special place whereby it indirectly affects the increase or decrease of sales of any number of commodities. More broadly, its films touch on the whole religious, political, and social life of America, And as a result of this fact, it is always in danger of becoming involved in difficulties and ՝conflicts. The results of this situation, insofar as they relate to the contradiction between the film as merchandise and the film as art, are incalculable.
The motion picture industry is dominated by a few huge studios; the same is the case in radio. The success of Reader’s Digest and of the Luce publications reveals the same tendency triumphing in journalism. Some of the consequences of this fact must be noted. It is seemingly paradoxical, but true, that the bigger a corporation producing for the consumer market, the more must it depend on good will. The profits of huge concerns are vitally affected by this fact. Good will, considered as an asset, is highly important. The motion picture industry, which has already revealed in practice how it must expand, demands the widest possible audience. It has something of a mass-production character and a mass audience. And thanks to the stakes involved in the industry, the need for profits and expansion (Hollywood is now on the eve of gaining tremendous control over the world film market), this leads to greater caution. On the whole, there is less willingness to take risks. Capitalism involves risks. But in the stage of finance capital, there is a reduction, a relative standardization, of risk. The greater disinclination to take risks is reflected in the economy of the industry. Its cost of circulation is increased, and because of this the calculations concerning cost of production and concerning profits are affected. Preparations for any “new” venture in films are made long in advance, with an expensive barrage of publicity and fanfare. This fact, in itself, offers eloquent testimony concerning the growing disinclination to take risks.
The star system is also a related and a rather peculiar feature of the social organization of Hollywood. The stars are now virtually walking possibilities of profit. Each major star represents a great asset. As such, he or she must be protected. The protection of stars further demands the reduction of risk. It is financially dangerous to put a star in a role in which he or she may seem unpopular to a considerable section of the audience. This fact has no necessary relationship to the abilities of the stars to play such roles: it is a matter of cold calculation. The element of prestige comes in. In every film in which a star appears, the film must be made according to that star’s importance. A star must have expensive directors, expensive writers, and a story that usually is expensive. A star must appear in a film that costs a lot of money. The other actors must not take a film away from the star. This is of vital interest to the star in person; often it is important to the studio. Nowadays, stars, to a certain extent, are “made” by studios. They are trained, coached, treated by beauticians and cosmeticians, nursed and babied along, all at great cost and with the idea in mind that here is an investment that will realize much more than what it costs.
Factors such as these all play their respective roles (a) in the making of profits, (b) in the accumulation of capital and expansion of the market, and, as a consequence of this, (c) in creating the need for so much good will, spread over such a wide human area. Here we see a major reason why the Holly־ wood studio cannot permit as much freedom in the treatment of a subject as the Broadway producer can, who, in turn, can allow less freedom than the book publisher can. The bigger our cultural industries become, the greater are the restrictions they must impose on the choice and the handling of subject matter. These factors should explain why economic necessities dominate all other considerations. The aims and tastes of the men controlling the industries must be compatible with the economics. One producer may be more sincere, more artistic than another. But all must adjust themselves; all must work within this system.
There can be no doubt that individual taste plays its role in the making of films. What is notable concerning taste is that it is secondary, not decisive. The economic factors more or less map out the boundaries within which individual taste must function, and therefore the role of taste is often reduced to mere detail. Daring, experimentation, have a correspondingly similar role. One act of daring experiment and bold honesty may cost a million dollars. Similar risks taken by book publishers can be sustained more easily because the risks are not so great.2 In addition, those who control the big studios are large-scale capitalists themselves, or they are managers for huge capitalist enterprises. And we have already mentioned, in a direct or indirect way, films touch on all the major economic, political, social, and religious aspects of American life and that the industry needs good will. By representing life on the screen the movies affect every vital material and spiritual interest in American life. There are both objective and subjective interests for doing this. The men in control of the industry have the same class interests as do American capitalists as a whole. They tend to think and act according to their class interests. This is not a matter of dire conspiratorial ideas; it is an inevitable social phenomenon. It is folly to expect them wilfully to produce, and even to lose money on, art that will endanger their basic class interests. Honest art often threatens these interests. This means there is a double restriction imposed on the char־ acter of what is produced in motion pictures. Besides promising a profit, a picture must not seriously threaten the class interests of the owners.
Genuine works of art have something new and individual to convey. They reveal new aspects of life, of human feeling. They make us conscious of what hitherto has been hidden, concealed, not clearly grasped in our own consciousness. To assimilate true works of art is often painful, disturbing, difficult; we must make an effort; we must expand our boundaries of feeling and thinking. Growth and assimilation are almost always painful, disturbing, demanding. For we are then forced to change—to alter the force of habit. It is a truism that in a shoddy culture shoddy art generally gains quicker acceptance than does genuine art. The time required for the assimilation of new, more honest, more revealing pictures would be too long, and large losses would have to be sustained during that period. Again we see the role of the element of risk.
Now and then it may happen that a good picture is produced. This is exceptional, often accidental. Usually, bad pictures are produced, and the explanation is as follows: The aim of the studios is to gain a return on investment, to gain profits, rent, and interest. If returns on investment permit the studios to produce great art, then, and then only, will they do so; other־ wise the artistic values—the truth values embodied in pictures—are, and will remain, merely secondary. In order to be a businessman in this system you must do what business requires; in order to be an artist you must meet the demands and responsibilities required by art. An artist must be sincere, honest, clear, and he must draw on his own inner life and inner tensions for his work. A businessman must stay in business. Q.E.D.!
My analysis can be extended to encompass the economic rela־ tionships that play an important role in other fields of culture as well as in the motion picture industry. I use the latter merely as an illustration. Hollywood is not a cause; it is an effect. But the relative purity with which it reveals tendencies now at work in American culture makes it a most illuminating illustration of what I want to convey. The rise of Hollywood to the realm of culture is a phenomenon somewhat analogous to that of the triumph of machine production during the industrial revolution. In the studios many separate crafts and arts are all linked together, mainly under one roof in one serial process. And this requires a large capital investment. This means that we have social methods of artistic creation and of film production carried on for private profits. But those who contribute artistically to this production—with rare exceptions—do not control it. They lose their independence as artists and craftsmen and become employees. Their economic relationship is thereby changed. Most writers, for instance, become wage-working writers. It is true that their wages are generally fantastically higher than those of factory workers, but that is not the decisive factor here. In the economic sense, most writers have a relationship to their employers similar to that of the factory worker to his boss. Just as the worker sells his labor power, so does the writer sell his skill and talent. What he then receives is a wage. All control over the means of his production resides in the employer. Thus, the writer suffers from the same kind of alienation as does the factory worker. He is alienated from control over his means of production, and over what he produces.
And there is a singular character to the alienation of the writer. His real means of production consists of his skill, his feelings, the needs that feed his work, his way of seeing life; in other words, his real means of production is his soul. This is what he sells. As a result of his economic relationships the writer may write what he feels and wants to write only if his employer allows him to do so. But the artist does not determine whether he will or will not do this.
Culture, art, is the most powerful means invented by mankind for preserving the consciousness of civilized man. It externalizes and communicates that which is most important in human life—man’s inner life. But in Hollywood the writer who plays the role of the artist, who is ostensibly the creator, sells as a commodity his very ability to create. There is a clearcut difference between freely creating out of inner need and then selling the creation, and selling the very faculty of creating instead of the results of that creation. The writer may thus write out of his inner self only when his own needs, feelings, and attitudes coincide with the demands of his employer. The nature of these demands has already been uncovered in this analysis. Under such conditions free creation is not a conscious act of will; it is merely accidental, coincidental. Such being the case, it is not accidental, however, that so many Hollywood writers, once they become inured to their work, reveal a retrogression in consciousness. When they write they cannot draw fully on their needs and emotions. Much of their writing is reduced to the level of literary carpentering. They are fettered. And the fettered consciousness must retrogress. This is the real situation. Here we see the mechanism that takes those who should be artists and turn them into mere purveyors of entertainment. Let each make what he can of this situation in accordance with his values, his moral outlook, and with what he wants in life for himself and for his fellow man.
It has already been noted, in passing, that there is a huge capital investment in the distribution end of motion pictures. America—the world, in fact—is almost glutted with motion picture theaters, each of which also must return its profit, its rent, its interest. In many instances these are also organized into chains. Taken together, they constitute a huge and voracious mouth forever crying for commodities to be consumed. And they must be fed. They must stay open; they must have customers continually streaming to the box office. The studios must supply them. Halt this flow of commodities, and bankruptcies will follow. This need, more than any other, conditions the production schedules of the studios. Gigantic blocs of capital are involved in the total structure of the industry. Consequently it must find the widest possible market. This means that the largest possible audience is a necessity. Such an audience can be only a most heterogeneous one, encompassing all age, emotional, and mental levels, and it is only such an audience that will permit this industry to continue. There is no time for costly experiments for educating the tastes of this audience. Staple commodities, based on the lowest common denominator of the mentality and the emotional life of the audience, must be pro־ duced. Staple commodities in art, produced in this way, and in order to meet such requirements must mean, in the main, counterfeit art. This is a decisive prerequisite why the masses of the American people really “need” so much Hollywood “entertainment.”
Actually, the motion picture industry needs the money of the American masses as much as they need the industry’s entertainment. Thus we get an endless barrage of Hollywood publicity and of Hollywood advertising that almost batters the intelligence of the nation into insensibility. Hollywood must do this in order to give the public what Hollywood wants it to want. The audience cannot choose directly. It is not given proper alternatives. Usually it may choose one of various absurd pictures, or none of them at all. When choice is so restricted, it is meaningless to argue that the public really gets what it wants. Also, the contradictions we have observed in the motion picture industry are apparent in American society as a whole. The conditions of American life create alienated and truncated personalities, a fact that has already engaged the attention of more than one generation of sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, judges, social workers, and others. The condi־ tions of earning one’s bread in this society create the lonely modern man.
Such conditions help explain the need, sometimes feverish, for an entertainment that so repetitively presents the same reveries, the same daydreams, the same childish fables of suecess and happiness. So much of the inner life of men is dried up that they tend to become filled with yearnings and to need the consolation of these reveries about people who are happy, healthy, and always successful. Tastes are thus conditioned. Increasingly deprived of proper alternatives from which to choose, the American masses have also become habituated to this taste for the movies. The movies have thereby become a social habit. The kind of culture for profit which we now have would in any case have produced conditions which would aid in the creation of the necessary audience. The two have developed more or less harmoniously. Hence, parallel to the retrogression of consciousness in, say, the Hollywood writer, there is a more widespread and also more pernicious retrogression of consciousness in the motion-picture audience. Social and economic conditions have established the basis for this; the motion picture further enforces it. But such a process cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually a limit must and will be reached. Eventually, there will be a profound revulsion of popular taste. But this will depend not only on the audience being saturated with what it is given; but, more than this, it will depend on fundamental changes that are economic, political, and social in character.
Most motion pictures enervate rather than energize. They distract the masses of the people from becoming more clearly aware of their real needs, their moral, esthetic, and spiritual needs; in other words, the motion pictures of today distract people from the real and most important problems of life. As such, they offer what William James aptly characterized as “a moral holiday.” Moral holidays can be refreshing, but when a nation spends so much time on moral holidays, it presents a social problem that must be defined. The gap between the realities of life in our time and the way these are represented on the screen is a wide one. However, the masses of the people do not lose their real needs merely because these are not fulfilled in motion pictures.
It should now be clear that this commercial culture is a safety valve. Here, I offer—in opposition to the conceptions, the apologetics, the theorizations, of such a culture—a different idea of what a culture should do. It should help to create those states of consciousness, of awareness of oneself, of others, and of the world, which aid in making people better, and in prepar־ ing them to make the world better. Hollywood films usually have precisely the opposite effect; most of them make people less aware, or else falsely aware. This, to me, is the sense in which Hollywood films fail to fulfill the real cultural needs of the masses of the people. For really to try to satisfy that need, they must not merely envision the masses of the people as they were in the past and as they are now; one must also envision them as they might be; one must establish as a premise their great potentiality. In other words, one must think in terms of the future as well as of the past and of the present. Such a premise is essential if one ideal is a culture that is truly human, a culture that is truly free. Here, in essence, is the great ideal of a free, a human, a socialist, culture which was expressed by Friedrich Engels when he spoke of the possibility of mankind’s escaping from the kingdom of necessity and entering the kingdom of freedom.
The content of motion pictures is so familiar to us that it need not be analyzed here in great detail. The values generally emphasized are those of rugged individualism. The lessons inculcated are those implying that the world in which we live, and have lived, is the best of all possible worlds. The dominant characteristics embodied in most motion picture heroes are those of the pioneer, plus those characteristics of the present either consistent with the practices, standards, and the mores of bourgeois America, or else in no vital contradiction to them. The past is re-created in accents of weak nostalgia; the present glorifled. The future is promised as no different. All history is, in fact, gradually being revised on the screen until it begins to seem like some glamorous fable. Furthermore, pictures often embody within their very context a kind of visual and illustrative argument indicating that the function of the motion picture is entertainment; thus, the reliance placed on entertainment within the picture, which is itself an entertainment. And although heroes and heroines, on occasion, are given roles, for example, of social workers, which tend to suggest an improvement in the content of motion pictures, the change is merely superficial, and the heroes and heroines remain as absurd as before. Besides, the introduction of social workers as heroes is one indication of how Hollywood really meets social problems. It creates the impression that these problems are soluble by the exercise of individual good will, by babying and nursing the poor, and by eliminating struggle and effort on the part of the poor themselves. Social change is thus treated as purely individualistic. Often, and especially in films dealing with juvenile delinquency, the entire social problem treated is depicted as one caused by pure accident. The absurdity of the heroes and heroines in such films is therefore not the major point on which they should be criticized: the major criticism is that they give totally false impressions of the nature of social problems.
What characterizes almost all Hollywood pictures is their inner emptiness. This is compensated for by an outer impressiveness. Such impressiveness usually takes the form of a truly grandiose Belasco realism. Nothing is spared to make the setting, the costumes, and all of the surface details correct. These efforts help to mask the essential emptiness of the characterizations and the absurdities and trivialities of the plots. The houses look like houses; the streets look like streets; the people look and talk as people do; but they are empty of humanity, credibility, and motivation. Needless to say, the disgraceful censorship code is an important factor in predetermining the content of these pictures. But the code does not disturb the profits, nor does it disturb the entertainment value of the films; it merely helps to prevent them from being credible. The code isn4 too heavy a burden for the industry to bear. In addition to the impressiveness of the settings, there is a use of the camera which at times seems magical. But of what human import is all this skill, all this effort, all this energy in the production of effects, when the story, the representation of life, is hollow, stupid, banal, childish? Because masses of people see these films, they are called democratic. In addition, there is often a formal democratic character embodied in the pictures. Common speech is often introduced; an ambassador acts like a regular guy named Joe; poor working girls are heroines, and, now and then, they continue to marry rich men; speeches are introduced propagandistically, in which the common man is praised, democracy is cheered, and the masses are flattered with verbiage. The introduction of such democratic emphases is an additional way of masking the real content of the picture; these emphases are pressed into the service merely to glorify the status quo.
Let us grant that, now and then, an unusual picture is produced—one different from those which I have characterized. Let us not forget that The Informer* was produced.3 But can one, or could even ten such films, justify a preponderance of the vastly inferior pictures? One might ask a theologian: if a man steals money, and uses some of it to have masses said for the suffering souls in Purgatory, will he thereby redeem his guilt for theft? To argue that because once in a while we get a picture like The Informer, Hollywood is justified, is just about the same as to argue that you should be forgiven for theft because you have used some stolen money for the remission of punishment, due to sin, of souls in Purgatory. I leave those who argue in this manner to the theologians, who can explain what is wrong with this kind of argument. And, similarly, the argument that bad pictures are necessary to make money which will permit the use of profits for good pictures is a fallacious one. The reason this happens, when it does, is because of the social organization of the industry, and I have already indicated the structure of that.
Hollywood has not created all this counterfeit culture. It borrowed most of what it has given us from tendencies that antedate the appearance of the motion picture on the cultural scene. In fact, other than in the technical realm, Hollywood has invented very little. It has used the powerful inventions of the cinema to repeat most of the cheap stories, the cheap plots, the counterfeits, which have long been printed as stories in commercial magazines. Many of its jokes were familiar even to our fathers, and perhaps our grandparents. Therefore Hollywood is significant mainly because it is a clear-cut example of the development of commercial culture in the period of finance capital. Owing to its size, its wealth, its ability to reach such a mass audience, Hollywood has a penetrating influence in the whole field of culture, one which far exceeds that exerted in the commercial culture it inherited.
Its penetrating influence has long been observed in the drama and in the novel. Hollywood simplifications are introduced more and more into the characterizations of current novels, and this is but one example of the penetrating influences of the motion picture. At present, novels are sold for pictures even before they are written. One can guess what most such books will be like; or, if one wishes to know without trusting to a guess, one can read Louis Bromfield. Another penetrating influence of Hollywood on the novel is the stimulation it has given to a kind of hard-boiled realism that imitates all the manners of serious realistic writing but contains none of the inner meaning, the inner protest against evils, the revelation of the social mechanisms and social structures found in serious realism. This tendency is illustrated by such books as [James M. Cain’s novel] The Postman Always Rings Twice.4 The influence of the film industry is to be observed, also, in an incalculable way. For instance, there is the diversion of talent, the fettering of talent, in brief, the retrogression in consciousness about which I have already commented. A large proportion of the literary talent of America is now diverted to Hollywood and to radio writing. In many instances there is a certain inevitability in this. For, with the rise of these industries, the writer situation is such that, on the whole, the book market (except in periods of war prosperity) can support relatively fewer of them. By and large, talent flows toward the highest bidder. A writer represents more than an individual talent; he represents so much social labor that had to be performed in order that he may have developed his talent. This social labor has been expended for the de־ velopment of literary talent in America. Such talent, instead of returning honest work for the social labor that made its development possible, is used up, burned out, in scenario writing. This is a positive and incalculable social loss. And there can be little doubt of the fact that a correlation exists between the success of this commercial culture and the loss of esthetic and moral vigor in so much contemporary writing. This must be the result when talent is fettered and sold as a commodity, when audiences are doped, and when tastes are confused, and even depraved.
The culture of a society ought not to be viewed as a mere ornament, a pastime, a form of entertainment. It is the life, the consciousness, the conscience of that society. When it fails to serve as such, then it moves farther and farther away from the real roots of life. Such is precisely and unmistakably the situation in America, where we have this tremendous commercial culture spreading itself like an octopus. And consider how many lives, how much labor power, how much talent, how much of social goods is poured not only into Hollywood but into American commercial culture as a whole. The social cost is fabulous. We are familiar with the news telling us of the financiai costs of pictures. A million dollars. More than that. And then we go once again and see what has been produced at such cost. Once again we see a picture so silly that it insults our intelligence. Once again the same old stupid and inept story of boy meets girl, framed, mounted, and glorified until it becomes a monumental absurdity. And so inured are most people to this that they do not even see anything wrong in it.
This entire structure can be metaphorically described as a grandiose Luna Park of capitalism. And if the serious artist enters it, he well may quote these words from Dante: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
This is a culture that does not serve men; on the contrary, it makes men its servants. Its highest measure of worth is revealed in little numerals, written in black and red ink on sheets of paper that record profits and losses. Let those who favor this masquerade try to justify it. Far better is it to see it for what it is, and to renounce all the ideals and aims embodied by it. But the writer who does this places himself in that category described by one motion picture executive as “the irresponsible literati.” Correct! Irresponsible to this system; responsible to an ideal of trying to show men what life is like now, of seeking to do what one can in the necessary effort of creating in men a consciousness of their problems, their needs, and their future that will help to produce a better society.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Vanguard Press, from The League of Frightened Philistines by James T. Farrell. Copyright, 1945, by The Vanguard Press.
*[The Informer (1935) directed by John Ford, starring Victor McLaglen; based on the novel by Liam O’Flaherty.]
1.At the present time I am reading a recent book, Hollywood Hallucination, by Parker Tyler (published by The Creative Age Press, New York, 1944). It is too late for me to discuss Mr. Tylers volume in this book, but he has some illuminating observations to offer on competitiveness as it revealed in the context of films. He points out that, because of a lack of unity of artistic conceptions, films reveal an inner competitiveness between those involved in the making of the movies—actors, camera men, costumers, and so on. His observation is just. And he provides many other stimulating insights on the role of the camera, the character of love in films, and other aspects of the motion picture in America. I should urge everyone interested in the problems of the motion picture in this country to read Mr. Tyler’s book, for I am confident that it will—despite difficulties in its style—reward him with fresh and suggestive perceptions.
2.It must be noted that the book industry is becoming big business and that a stage of combinations has now been reached.
3.I cite The Informer rather than a later film for a reason that should be obvious: my overwhelming admiration for this film. It also is an instance, in my opinion, of something more than rare; here, for once, the film was far superior to the novel on which it was based.
4.An instance that can be cited here is the filming of James M. Cain’s book, Double Indemnity, where the realism is utterly pointless and unilluminating. To have a suggestion of extra-marital sexual relationships, to have a husband murdered, to have the hero die at the end, and to present this story with touches of vernacular dialogue does not produce meaningful realism.