By Gunga Din
The Anglosphere, in particular the United States, has for years lagged behind their European counterparts in art and culture. Besides several exceptions, including the works of Shakespeare and the artist William Hogarth, England fell behind several centuries of Continental operas, artwork, and paintings, otherwise known as high culture. In the 1920s, however, the United States began to dominate the film industry with Hollywood. Although the U.S. did not successfully enter European Continental high culture, it had a great influence on popular culture. Aimed at the mass-market, American films of “Classical Hollywood” emulated theater and literature. They were entertaining enough for the common man, yet intelligent enough to convey ideas and morality. This reached a high point in 1939, in which a record number of popular films, such as Wuthering Heights and The Wizard of Oz, were released. Like a Shakespearean play, these types of films are timeless enough to have a substantial following today. On the other hand, there are many unsuccessful and poorly made older films, but while the notion of “Classical Hollywood” may be a result of survivor bias, the point remains that modern films rarely combine the popularity and respectability of their predecessors. Although there are many factors contributing to the decline of Hollywood, this article will focus on two main reasons: culture and creativity. Note that in this article, ‘Hollywood’ will include some aspects of the TV industry and English language films in general, as the distinction between the industries has become blurred.
Many readers will be aware of the trend of Hollywood having a progressive culture disconnected from the general public. During an interview with William F. Buckley, the actor Charlton Heston gave two reasons for why this is the case. First, acting is an insecure profession, and actors are likely to be greatly affected by injury. As a result, actors are more sentimental and care about the welfare of others. Second, actors need to use their imagination and emotions in their careers. They are more inclined to make judgments based on emotion rather than reason. These two observations can be expanded to the rest of the cast, including writers and directors, leading to a progressive culture in Hollywood. Films produced under this paradigm could be successful, such as the anti-war films produced after the Vietnam War. In recent years however, Hollywood has gone over the top in exhibiting its progressivism. Moviegoers may be familiar with enforced “diversity” in historical productions, social justice, and sexual values. Films matter in that they are highly influential on cultural norms and public knowledge. This is well illustrated by the film Hotel Rwanda, in which the protagonist Paul Rusesabagina is depicted as a selfless hero saving dozens of lives in the Rwandan Genocide. In actuality, he was a corrupt opportunist who was recently incarcerated for participating in the genocide. Hollywood was able to take a little-known man, set him in a tragedy, and dress him as a hero, all the while taking pot-shots at western civilization. In this case, emotion proved stronger than reason, proving Heston’s observations.
The near absence of creativity in contemporary films is a major factor in the decline of the arts. This phenomenon can be explained through the overabundance of remakes, sensationalism and special effects. Art is formed through cultural archetypes and follows artistic precedents to gain inspiration. When art becomes completely self-referential, its quality begins to deteriorate. Film remakes often use nostalgia to appeal to emotion, expecting a conditioned response based on the success of their predecessors. Plots become predictable, and films turn into self-caricatures. The Star Wars franchise, superhero films, the Jurassic Park films, and remakes of decades-old films such as West Side Story are good examples. Remakes live on the fumes of past successes and are done out of laziness rather than having to face the arduous task of creating quality content. Similarly, sensationalism has become a prerequisite in filmmaking. This trend started with the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, which took advantage of the slackening of morality codes in the 1950s. Hitchcock served as a transitional figure in modern film as he worked in the era between 1940-60, and his films had the influence of “Classical Hollywood.” Subsequent filmmakers expanded on the success of Hitchcock’s thrillers and led to the overuse of scenes that cater to pituitary functions. Explicit gore and sex are commonly used to shock and awe audiences and grab their attention. Sensationalism has consolidated into its final form with the use of CGI, allowing for unprecedented action scenes.
Hollywood has been an integral part of American culture since its onset with the first silent pictures. It has represented American soft power and is still consumed by millions of citizens, though due to an increasingly progressive agenda and stagnant creativity, Hollywood has lost its prestige and popularity. Whether consumers will be conditioned to the new culture, or whether Hollywood will respond to market forces, remains to be seen.