"A unique trait of modern life is the manipulation of people through mass communication." (Hortense Powdermaker)
We picked up a book in a used book store a little while ago. Inside the front cover the bookseller had written '$10 - RARE - my only copy in 12 3/4 years'. The book was anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker's classic 1950 book 'Hollywood: The Dream Factory', which is from a study she did of Hollywood in 1948 and 1949.
Following publication of the book, aspects of it were much maligned and Powdermaker admitted that certain of her own prejudices were introduced into the book. However, this book is historically and culturally important in a number of ways: it was, at that time, the first anthropological study ever done of the Hollywood movie machine; it was written by a woman (and a well educated, well respected one at that), not a common thing back then; and, it has stood the test of time - the book is still used in university film and media studies classes today, simply because much of what was observed and reported by Powdermaker remains true, in spite of what critics at the time claimed.
In the introduction, Powdermaker states that her "hypothesis was that the social system in which they (movies) are made significantly influences their content and meaning." She said that her
'questions were concerned with what aspects of the system of production and which individuals most influenced movies. The answers were found in a study of the locus of power and its exercise, in the taboos which circumscribe all production, in the values as represented in goals, in historical and economic factors, and in the introduction of new technology and new ideas with resulting conflicts between new and old.'
Powdermaker was already an established and experienced anthropologist by the time she undertook this study, having spent time studying cultures in both Mississippi and on an island in the South Pacific. She discusses her choice of Hollywood and contrasts the Hollywood movie industry to that existing in other major cities in the Western world. She states that
'Obviously, no anthropologist could study Hollywood as an isolated phenomenon. It is part of the United States. But Hollywood is no mirror like reflection of our society, which is characterized by a large number of conflicting patterns of behavior and values. Hollywood has emphasized some, to the exclusion of others. It is the particular elaboration and underplay which is important for this study.'
Where Powdermaker ran into problems was in how the 'front office' was portrayed. She states in the introduction that, "The level of frustration was high, and frustrated people love to talk." She conceded later that some of the information she gained from these sources was probably exaggerated. Likewise, the chapter on taboos has not stood the test of time, as the following are no longer considered 'taboo' in our more permissive new millennial society: the portrayal of sex (especially outside of marriage) or childbirth; a realistic portrayal of pregnancy; vulgarity (burping, swearing, interjections); and the mention of toilets, homosexuality, adultery, or bigamy.
However, many other points Powdermaker makes are still extremely valid today. For instance, consider these quotes:
"Movies meet, wisely or unwisely, man's need for escape from his anxieties; they help assuage his loneliness, they give him vicarious experiences beyond his own activities; they portray solutions to problems; they provide models for human relationships, a set of values and new folk heroes."
"Hollywood is engaged in the mass production of prefabricated daydreams."
"It is part of man's nature to try and find answers to his problems and, in Hollywood as in any society, the answers are conditioned by the culture."
"The really important people in the development and growth of the movies, as a popular art form and as a profitable industry, are the small group of artists who continue to struggle to function as such, and the occasional executive who appreciates their goals because they are partly or wholly his own."
"But more important than other changes is the loss of homogeneity in the movie audience. ... Hollywood has been slow to catch on to this new audience, which asks for something more than movement and excitement."
"In Hollywood the concept of a business civilization has been carried to an extreme. Property is far more important than man and human values have to struggle hard to exist at all. But, while the heroes in Hollywood are those with the most money, in the movies we find the opposite extreme."
"The way in which Hollywood has mechanized creativity and taken away most of its human characteristics again exaggerates the prevailing culture pattern, which gives little prestige to creativity not technological."
"Hollywood represents totalitarianism."
And finally, she finishes the book with these thoughts:
"Hollywood has the elaborated totalitarian elements we have described: the concept of people as property and as objects to be manipulated, highly concentrated and personalized power for power's sake, an amorality, and an atmosphere of breaks, continuous anxiety and crises."
The book's final sentence is as follows:
"The real difficult question to answer is, Can Hollywood change its ways of thinking and its values, so that the democratic concept of man becomes more important than a totalitarian one?"
I would have to say no; no because little about the Hollywood movie machine has changed in the last fifty years, obviously. The system of stars being contracted to studios is gone (that's a positive). The culture of societal taboos has changed - we've just exchanged old taboos for new ones. But really, little else has changed.
I will leave you with this final quote (keep in mind it was written 55 years ago, and other than the names of the wars, is absolutely true for today):
"The present generation has known two world wars and is worried about the possibility of a third, even more devastating. We won the last war and are probably the strongest nation, and yet we are insecure in our relations with former enemies and allies. Our country is prosperous and we have demonstrated an enormous capacity for production, but we are worried about a possible recession and unemployment. We live in a fast changing world but have lost faith in our belief that change is always for the better, and that progress is inevitable. We are not so sure of the happy ending."