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James T. Farrell

The Language of Hollywood

Mass Culture in Bourgeois Society

(January 1945)

From The New International, Vol. XI No. 1, January 1945, pp. 24–27.
Reprinted by permission from the Saturday Review of Literature.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

In America, a tremendous commercial culture has developed as a kind of substitute for a genuinely popular, a genuinely democratic culture, which would recreate and communicate how the mass of people live, how they feel about working, loving, enjoying, suffering, and dying. This culture has become a big business. It is capitalized at hundreds of millions of dollars, returns many millions in annual profits, rent, and interest, and employs thousands of men and women to whom it pays additional millions more in wages and salaries. At times the apologists and propagandists for the cultural industries proudly boast of the “cultural” 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) recreate 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 create tastes which in turn influence how objects are regarded – in brief, directly and by lesson, 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 most especially 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 the 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.

All this is common knowledge. It is clear, that business considerations play a decisive rôle in all these fields.

The laws of commodity production have governed the production and distribution of cultural objects ever since bourgeois society superseded feudal society. The fall of feudal society, the rise of bourgeois society, established the system of commodity production over that of the patronage system in the field of culture. While it is true that many great works of art of the past were not created to be manufactured and sold as commodities, it is nevertheless true that they were manufactured and sold as such. We see this in literature. Most of the truly great literary artists of recent centuries wrote works with the idea that these would be sold as commodities. Thus, Balzac, Dostoievsky, Tolstoy (until he renounced his copyrights) and many others had their books sold as commodities. The best literature of our own day is also sold as a commodity. Therefore, while it is true that the laws of commodity production and distribution play a governing rôle in the production and distribution of cultural products, the analysis of the way that these laws operate needs to be made in terms of specific times, specific conditions and periods. We will gain little in understanding if we merely protest the harmful effects of capitalism on culture in general, in the abstract. Art which we call good, art which we call bad, art which we call counterfeit – all this is sold on the commodity market. Due 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 Double Restriction on the Motion Picture

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 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 it must depend on good will. The profits of huge concerns are vitally affected by the falling rate of profits: in time the more units of a commodity sold, the lower is the percentage of profit per unit. Inasmuch as the rate of profit falls as the volume of sales increases, there is a driving necessity that the market be expanded. This, in turn, demands the creation and retention of more and ever more good will. Here we see a major reason why the Hollywood studio can permit less freedom in the treatment of subject than the Broadway producer; he, in turn, can allow less freedom than the book publisher. The bigger our cultural industries become, the greater are the restrictions they must impose on the choice and the handling of subject matter. Also, their costs of production are staggering and, to repeat, their rate of profit falls. These economic necessities dominate all else. The aims, the tastes of the men controlling the industries must be harmonized with them. One producer may be more sincere, more artistic than another. But all must adjust themselves; all must work within this system. It allows relatively little real individualism of taste, daring, experiment. One act of daring experiment and bold honesty may cost a million dollars. Similar actions by book publlshers can be more easily sustained because the risks are not as great. Those who really control the studios are big capitalists. They think and act according to their class interests. It is folly to expect them willfully to produce art (and even to lose money on it) that will endanger their class interest. Honest art often threatens that interest. This means that there is a double restriction imposed on the character 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 had been hitherto hidden, concealed, not clearly grasped in our own consciousness: To assimilate them is painful, disturbing, difficult; we must make an effort; we must expand our boundaries of feeling, 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 genuine art does. And, as Karl Marx once remarked acutely, that capitalism lives for the moment. The time required for the assimilation of new, more honest, more revealing pictures would be too long and, during that period, large losses would have to be sustained.

Now and then it may happen that a good picture is produced. This is exception, often accidental. Usually, bad pictures are produced. Here is the explanation of why this is the case. The aim of the studios is to get a return on investment, and to get profits, rent and interest. If returns on investment, profits, rent and interest permit the studios to produce great art, then, and then only, will they do it; otherwise, the artistic values, the truth values embodied in pictures, are and will remain merely secondary. In order to be a business man 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 for his work he must draw on his own inner life and inner tensions. A business man must stay in business. Q.E.D.!

Economic Relationships in Hollywood

My analysis can be extended to encompass the economic relationships which play an important role in other fields of culture, as well as in the motion picture industry. I use the latter as an illustration. Hollywood is not a cause; it is a consequence. And it reveals tendencies now at work in American culture with such relative purity that it serves me as a most illuminating illustration of what I want to convey. The rise of Hollywood to the realm of culture is a phenomenon 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 huge capital investment. In other words, we find the division of labor; this means that we have social methods of production carried on for private profits. But those who contribute to this production do not (with rare exceptions) control it. They lose their independence as artists and craftsmen, and become employees. Their economic relationships thereby change. Most writers, for instance, become the wage-working writer. It is true that their wages are generally fantastically higher than those of factory workers, but this is not the decisive factor here. In the economic sense, most writers have a relationship to their employers similar to that of the factory workers 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 product of his work resides in the employer. Thus the writer suffers from the same kind of alienation, the same kind of self-estrangement, as does the factory worker. He is alienated, self-estranged 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 is his skill, his feelings, his needs which 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 consequence 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 he 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 in human life which is most important – man’s inner life. But here, the writer who plays the role of the artist, who is ostensibly the creator, sells his very ability to create as a commodity. There is a clear-cut 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 have 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 given, it is, however, not accidental that so many Hollywood writers, once they become inured to their work, reveal a retrogression in consciousness. When they write they cannot fully draw 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. Here is the real situation. Here is the essential mechanics concerning how they who would be artists are turned 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.

Just as there is a huge investment capital in the production end of the industry, so is there in its distribution end. 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, they 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 parading continually 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 blocks of capital are involved in the total structure of the industry. Consequently, it must find the widest possible market. This means, the largest possible audience is necessary. Such an audience can be only a most heterogeneous one, encompassing ail age, emotional and mental levels. Such an audience will alone permit this industry to continue. There is no time to waste in educating the tastes of this audience. That would be too costly. Staple commodities based on the lowest common denominator of the mentality and the emotional life of the audience must be produced. Staple commodities in art, produced in this way, and in order to meet such requirements must mean, in the main, counterfeit art. This is the decisive reason 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 much more than they need its entertainment. We get, thus, an endless barrage of Hollywood publicity, of Hollywood advertising which almost batters the intelligence of the nation into insensibility. Hollywood must do this in order to give the public what Hollywood want it to want. The audience cannot directly choose. 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 which 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 which has already engaged the attention of more than one generation of sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, judges, social workers, and others. The conditions of earning one’s bread in this society create the self-estranged modern man.

Motion Pictures as a Social Habit

It is such conditions which explain the need, sometimes feverish, for an entertainment which so repetitively presents the same reveries, the same daydreams, the same childish fables of success 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 who always succeed. 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 profitable commercial culture which we now have would have demanded 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 can continue only so far. 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; more than this, it will depend on fundamental changes which are economic, political, and social in character.

Most motion pictures enervate rather than energize. They distract the masses of the people from more clearly becoming aware of their real moral, esthetic, spiritual needs; in other words, they distract from what are the real and most important problems of life. As such, they offer what William James aptly characterized as “a moral holiday.” Moral holidays are necessary, but when so much time is used up in a nation in having these moral holidays, we have a social problem to define. The gap between the realities, of life in our time and the way that 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 preparing them to make the world better. Hollywood films usually have the precisely opposite effect; most of them make people less aware, or else falsely aware. This is, to me, the sense in which Hollywood films do not fulfill the real cultural needs of the masses of the people. For really to try and achieve that, one must not merely envision them 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 has the ideal of a culture that is truly free. Here, in essence, is the great ideal of a free, a human, a socialist culture expressed by Friedrich Engels when he spoke of the possibility of mankind, escaping from the kingdom of necessity, and entering the kingdom of freedom.

The content of motion pictures is so familiar that it need not be analyzed here in great detail. The values which pictures generally emphasize. are those of rugged individualism. The lessons which they inculcate are those which imply that the world we have, and have had, is the best of all possible worlds. The major qualities embodied in most motion picture heroes are those of the pioneer, plus those of the present which are either consistent with the practices, the standards, the mores of bourgeois America, or else are in no vital contradiction with them. The past is recreated in the accents of weak nostalgia; the present glorified. The future is promised

as no different. All history is, in fact, being gradually revised on the screen until it begins to seem like some glamorous fable. Further, pictures often embody within their very context a kind of visual and illustrative argument that the function of the motion picture is entertainment; thus the reliance which is placed on entertainment within the picture, which is itself an entertainment. Also heroes and heroines are sometimes given new occupations such as social workers; this seems to embody a change in the content of motion pictures. However, it is merely superficial and the heroes and heroines remain as absurd as before.

Outer Impressiveness – Inner Emptiness

But there is no essential change in the pattern, or in the moral, or in their implications. 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, 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 like people; 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 the entertainment value of the films; it merely helps to prevent them from being credible. It isn’t 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 a mass 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 for, and the masses are flattered with verbiage. The introduction of such democratic notes is an additional way of masking the real content of the picture; these merely are pressed into service of glorifying the status quo.

Granted that, now and then, an unusual picture is produced, one different from those which I have characterized. Let us not forget that once we saw a picture called The Informer. But does one, or do even ten such films justify a greater number of their opposites? 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 we once in a while get a picture such as The Informer, Hollywood is, thus, justified, is to argue that you are forgiven for theft because you use some stolen money for the souls in Purgatory. I leave those who argue in this manner to the theologians who can explain what is wrong with their 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 that this happens, when it does, is because of the social organization of the industry, and I have already indicated what that is.

Hollywood has not created all of this counterfeit culture. It borrowed most of what it has given us from tendencies which antedate its appearance on the cultural scene. In fact, other than in the technical realm, it 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 even familiar to our fathers, and perhaps our grandparents. Here Hollywood is significant, mainly because it is a clear-cut example of the development of commercial culture in the period of finance capital. Due to its size, its wealth; its ability to reach such a mass audience, it has a penetrating influence in the whole field of culture, one which far exceeds that which was exerted in the commercial culture of which it is the heir.

Its penetrating influence has long been observed in the drama and the novel. At present, novels are even sold for pictures 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, then one can read Louis Bromfield. Another penetrating influence of Hollywood in the novel is the stimulation which it has given to a kind of hard-boiled realism which imitates all the manners of serious realistic writing, but contains none of the inner meaning, the inner protest against evils, the revelation of social mechanisms and social structures which we perceive in serious realism. This tendency is illustrated by such books as The Postman Always Rings Twice. 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 into Hollywood and radio writing. In many instances, there is a certain inevitability in this. For with the rise of these industries, the situation for writers is such that, on the whole, the book market can support relatively fewer of them. By and large, talent flows towards the highest bidder. A writer represents more than an individual talent; he represents so much social labor which had to be performed in order that he may have developed his talents. This social labor has been expended for the development of literary talent in America. Instead of these talents then returning honest work for this social labor which permitted them to develop, they are used up, burned out in scenario writing. This is a positive 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. Such must be a consequence when talent is fettered and sold as a commodity, when audiences are doped, and when tastes are confused, even depraved.

A Luna Park of Capitalism

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 financial 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 one’s intelligence. Once again, the same old stupid and inept story of boy meets girl, framed, mounted, 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 which 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 which record profits and losses. Let those who favor this masquerade try to justify it. Far better is to see it for what it is, and to renounce all of the ideals and aims which it embodies. For the writer to do this places him in that category which one motion picture executive has described 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 that consciousness of their problems, their needs, and their future which will help to create a better society.

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