by Hazell Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
‘Death to Hollywood’ – J.M. Keynes
This is how John Trumpbour’s book, Selling Hollywood to the World, begins, and so it is how I will begin. I should really preface by saying that I am not against Hollywood, and indeed that there is much in Hollywood that I celebrate, admire, and enjoy – this is not an anti-American essay, nor is it an essay that implies other filmmaking countries as innocent players in the issues it addresses – but I this is an essay that will argue that Hollywood’s exponential expansion has resulted in the oppression and quashing of the film industry throughout its short but rich history, which, for many countries during the early to mid-20th century, was just beginning to make steps – sometimes small, sometimes colossal – of its own. In this essay, I shall speak of how Hollywood managed to colonise the world using the medium of film.
I will start by speaking of Hollywood as a positive, or at least progressive, hallmark for cinema. Hollywood, as Trumpbour propounds, was at the time of its inception (1911) ‘the sole hegemonic institution in US society to be under non-WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) control,’ which in itself ‘created a potential for dangerously volatile ideological interventions’ (p. 3, Selling Hollywood to the World). Hollywood was formed predominantly by Jewish migrants, who were vehemently opposed by swathes of their own countrymen due to their lack of demonstrative patriotism for America within their films. Coupled with this, filmmakers and leaders of other countries expressed distaste for Hollywood’s ‘trumpeting [of] the superiority of American civilization’ (p. 3).
Hollywood, as we know it now, was born of the merging of several fiery independent cinematic studios – these include Fox, Paramount, and MGM, all of which were studios created, in a sort of strange way, to be direct competitors AGAINST Hollywood, or the ‘Trust’ (a patent system by American and European producers with the aim of destroying competition in the film industry). The film formula and modes of distribution of certain of the studios above led to such success that ‘these former independents succeeded at what the well-financed members of the Trust had failed to accomplish – control of the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies. From this massive base they moved to dominate the world’ (Douglas Gomery, p. 45, The Oxford History of Cinema).
As will become evident during the course of this essay, Hollywood’s overarching goal was US dominance of the world film industry. After the end of WWII, while this aim remained the same, tactics shifted; rather than the US State Department bringing film into negotiations with leaders of other countries’ regimes, the film industry would stand separately from politics, enabling it greater freedom of circulation and greater capacity for influencing the world of cinema and culture internationally.
Despite this initial discussion of Hollywood as a lone wolf, it would be good to mention foreign collaborations between Hollywood and the rest of the world; American and European film have been profoundly intertwined for much of their collective history, producing joint works of great artistic merit. Consider Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece Blow-Up, his first entirely English-language film and made as an American-Italian-English collaboration. Less prominent, however, are historical collaborations between American film and non-European film, such as Southeast Asian film, African film, and Middle Eastern film.
Perhaps it would be good to note the tones of racism that might be associated with American film’s decision to collaborate, or not to collaborate, with certain cinematic cultures. Japan, for example, had a blooming film industry in the early 1920s to the early 1930s, and was in fact responsible for producing more features during this time period than any other country. Domestic interest in Japan’s movie business trumpeted interest in foreign exports tenfold. So why, with such a successful film industry, did Hollywood not choose to collaborate (at least not until the 1960s, and even then, not always with success, as in the sad case of Kurosawa) with such esteemed filmmakers as Kenji Mizoguchi, prolific director of feminist cinema; or Yasujirō Shimazu, pioneer of Japanese realism film (Shōshimin-eiga (小市民 映画)); or avant-garde actor/director Kinugasa Teinosuke; or greatly influential filmmaker and painter, Akira Kurosawa?
Hollywood, I believe, had little interest in collaborating with non-white cultures, perhaps because it considered these cultures to not be of interest to its predominantly white audience, and it needed their interest in order to make more money. Instead, Hollywood preferred to use racist caricatures and stereotypes played by white actors in its films, oftentimes with the purpose of indoctrinating its domestic population on subjects it considered to be dangerous or threatening to its own supreme power, such as communism, native and indigenous populations, the far-east, black and other peoples of colour, and sometimes even European superpowers.
‘Trade follows the film.’ (Uttered by industry association president Will Hays, 1927, as a repurposing of the imperialist catchphrase ‘trade follows the flag’)
I shall summarise the history of cinema in as few words as I can. We begin with shadowgraphy in the Far East (1500s), a most popular entertainment medium using shadows projected onto screens which later developed to become a multimedia practice. During the Age of Enlightenment, Europe also began to employ such techniques. From here, we jump to the advent of chronophotography during the mid to late 1800s, a practice capable of producing an impressive representation of reality on film. In America (1870-1890) Eadweard Muybridge was commissioned to produce a live photograph of horses as they were galloping, which resulted in the infamous The Horse in Motion cabinet cards (1878). All of these developments were moving towards quicker screen capture in photography, which enables a moving picture to form.
The first projected films were animated stories presented in Paris by Émile Reynaud from 1892 to 1900. In 1895, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière created the Cinématographe, a device instrumental to the advancement of the motion picture as it allowed filmmakers to record film outside of a contained space. During this period, both in the US and in Europe, experimentation in narrative and camera revealed the birth of film as art. Art Film, as described by Peter Lev in his book The Euro-American Cinema, is born of ‘the desire to make films for artistic appreciation, and not solely for profit’ (p. 3).
Progress in filmmaking capacities, particularly during the mid-1890s, was happening almost concurrently in the US (The Edison Manufacturing Company), France (Star Film Company and Pathé-Frères), and Germany, and even further afield in Australia (Limelight Pictures, 1989). During this period, George Méliès, the illusionist behind the Star Film Company, notably produced the first horror film, Le Manoir du Diable (1896), and the absurdist science fiction film (which you may likely have come across) Le Voyage Dans La Lune, released in 1902.
By 1912, full feature films had been made in Japan, Norway, Poland, Romania, Austria, Denmark, France, Hungary, Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia, Russia, Sweden, and the US (Ruth Vasy, The Oxford History of Cinema). In 1914, Italy’s Giovanni Pastrone directed the longest film to date, epic historic film Cabiria (150 minutes, longer than the previous full feature film, which was The Story of Kelly Gang (Australia, 1906)).
During the 1920s, Germany became the sole European nation whose own film production exceeded its imports. This was, in part, due to the isolation of Germany from other nations, who wanted nothing to do with Germany after its loss in WWI; this encouraged a great flourishing of independent filmmaking and gave rise to the ‘golden era’ of German filmmaking (especially in the Weimar Period of 1918-1933) during which we saw the boom of German Expressionist Film.
And, onwards, to Hollywood.
‘The American drive to obliterate every vestige of a native British film industry is succeeding admirably. Cynics are comparing the situation with the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, and there are indeed certain resemblances. The Americans, with their impressive supply of Hollywood pictures, have the necessary tank power to put native exhibitors at their mercy. They are using it remorselessly’ (p. 2, John Trumpbour).
The aforementioned industry president Will Hays managed, in 1927, to convince Congress to bring the film industry into its own Department of Commerce with the purpose of using film as a mechanism with which to sell American goods throughout the world. Hollywood used multiple techniques to consolidate its rule over the film world. From the 1920s onwards, we saw so-called ‘poaching’ of European stars, like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Charles Laughton, as well as particular cameramen, directors, and other technical film workers (p. 61, Selling Hollywood).
Additionally, Hollywood made the decision to focus almost all of its promotion on the ‘stars’ of its films – certain actors were offered extraordinary salaries in order to keep them exclusive to contracts and companies who wanted to use them as bait for consumers. United Artists, perhaps the first ‘agency’ of sorts for actors, was created to ‘distribute star-produced features so their makers could extract the riches their star power had generated’ (p. 46, Selling Hollywood).
Later, in order to speed up and cheapen film production, Hollywood filmmakers discovered that non-linear shooting was favourable, and, eventually, it had condensed every part of the film process to enable greater profit through quicker turnarounds. Sets were reused, and makeup was streamlined so that all starlets seemed to have the same ‘look’ about them. This was the birth of the Hollywood Factory.
Hollywood’s penetration of the world’s cultural landscape led to foreign filmmakers attempting to battle the Hollywood formula by trying to outdo Hollywood at its own game, rather than focusing on their own aspirations in filmmaking. But the money in Hollywood was too great, and anything trying to ‘be’ Hollywood came up short. Hollywood’s cultural imperialism was rife; selling American dreams, American ways of speaking, dressing, dancing, American music, American food, American pastimes – suddenly, almost the whole of the world knew of these things and aspired to achieve the same dreams as Americans themselves. World cinema was tarnished, stained by the Hollywood trail. In 1995, when TV was brought to the island of Fiji, it suddenly found itself in the midst of the wave of eating disorders. Anne Becker, then anthropologist at Harvard, called television ‘another pathogen exporting Western images and values’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/347637.stm). Western standards of beauty, and Western methods of achieving such beauty – through dieting and exercise manipulation – were being distributed around the globe, streamlining the idea of beauty into one white, slender mould, perpetuated by the Hollywood starlets that flashed across the screens and billboards and magazines of every town and city.
‘If I could control the medium of the American motion picture, I would need nothing else to convert the entire world to Communism’ (Joseph Stalin, p. 2, Selling Hollywood).
But…we, growing up in this world of images, are somehow well aware that our extant film history is NOT entirely made of Hollywood. Facing backwards, and looking over all of cinema, we see great swathes of brilliant film, from everywhere, from every time. So…who were the filmmakers who did not try to ‘do’ Hollywood, who tried instead to do something wholly separate from the films of the infamous ‘Hollywood Factory’? How is it that we still find ourselves watching and appreciating the films of Hollywood outsiders, if Hollywood did indeed have a monopoly over the film industry?
As stated by A. I. Rees (The Oxford History of Cinema), modern art and silent cinema were born almost simultaneously – from 1895 to about 1912. The movements of expressionism, cubism, the abstract, and the postmodern erupted around and after this time period. Ventures into non-narrative-led features, over the narrative-led cinema of Hollywood, were beginning to take shape, characterised by recent developments in the art world. The Spanish-French-Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel was hailed as an icon of the avant-garde/surrealist film from the end of the 1920s onwards; his first film, Un Chien Andalou (released in 1929, when Buñuel was 29 years old) was a collaboration with surrealist artist Salvador Dali (whom he met at the University of Madrid). Reception for the film was overwhelmingly positive in France, and it still holds cult status today.
In Germany, director Georg Willhelm Pabst released his silent drama Die Büchse der Pandora (1929) which, though a flop at the time, is now most praised amongst critics for its themes of queerness and sexual repression – Quentin Tarantino even listed it as one of his favourite films of all time. In the same year (during the sound era), MGM released the first major musical film, The Broadway Melody, which is described as a ‘showbiz melodrama’. Comedy musical The Love Parade was also released in the US in 1929. We see here a great disparity between the progression of Hollywood cinema (generally speaking) compared to the rest of the world. Soviet drama The General Line, directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, a montage-style film tracing the trajectory from 19th century agrarian practices to mechanised farmwork, was also released in 1929, as well as the British silent flashback film, A Cottage on Dartmoor, the last silent film by director Anthony Asquith, a film which directly references the advent of the ‘talkies’ (talking films) and mourns the fate of an art that had become so ‘elegantly and assuredly expressive’ (Dave Kehr, The New York Times, 2007).
Already, we see conflicting themes and foci in Hollywood and world cinema; in Europe and beyond, filmmakers were turning to introspection in the face of cultural and societal change, presenting subjects that were taboo at the time, and using cinema as art rather than pure entertainment. Hollywood was generally focused on producing pure entertainment that enabled its audience to forget about the pain of life, just for an hour or two. Not that such a tendency is ignoble – escapism is, after all, a great joy. But ‘there is a difference between entertaining a man by making him drink, and entertaining a man by making him drunk. The American film has doped the world with rotten juices. By a strength of purpose which is staggering and its one superb virtue, it has flung at us, year by year, in unending deluge, its parcel of borrowed stories and flashy little moralities,’ (British Critic Ernest Betts).
In the decades from the 1920s onwards, we saw magnificent developments in art film throughout the world. Fritz Lang, Austrian director, screenwriter, and producer, continues to be celebrated as a revolutionary filmmaker through his work with the German Expressionist film movement, which culminated in a plethora of dark and haunting works that addressed social taboos, the onset of the mechanical/technological age, and capitalism, including the marvellous 1927 allegorical sci-fi Metropolis and the child-killer thriller M (1931). In 1920, Germany saw the release of expressionist silent horror Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari by director Robert Wiene, quintessential to the Expressionist genre through its use of visual distortion, twisted forms, and odd perspectives. Dadaism in film also made a brief appearance through the work of American artist Man Ray, who spent most of his career in Paris, where he produced his experimental Dada titles Le Retour à la Raison (1923) and L’Étoile de mer (1928), which focused on textures, dismemberment of its actors through camerawork, and experiments in visual focus.
Over on the African continent, domestic production of cinema was inevitably tainted for some time by racist Western pictures, especially during the colonial era, where films such as Voodoo Vengeance (1913) depicted black Africans as savages and submissives and often fetishized them physically and spiritually. The first film to be entirely produced on the African continent was a South African feature by R. C. E. Nissen, The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery (1911). Various anti-colonialist films were produced prior to the independence of several African colonies by European artists such as Alain Resnais, but the damage had been done; Hollywood’s continued perpetuation of harmful racist stereotypes in its films created an image of the African people that had become difficult to shake. Most challenges to these stereotypes came from white filmmakers during the early to mid-20th Century (due to their access to greater technology, wealth, and industry support), such as by anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch with his films Moi, un noir (1958), and Jaguar (1955). However, in reality, filmmaking had to be reclaimed by (and I hope you will permit me to respectfully address the continent as a whole of its distinctly different parts) Africa itself, by its own native filmmakers. With limited to no support from foreign production companies and filmmakers, this would prove a challenging task.
The beginning of the fightback to reclaim the African cinematic voice occurred in 1966 with the release of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de…, which depicts the life of a young Senegalese woman, Diouana, who takes a role as a nanny for a white couple and is abused and treated as a servant upon her arrival. Though the movie was initially received pretty badly in the West, with particular anger arising (unsurprisingly) from the depiction of the rich white couple who employ Diouana, the film has more recently received ample admiration from critics worldwide. But Africa remains vastly underrepresented in the film world. This is in part due to the diminishing of African cinematic history to ‘African cinema’ as a general all-encompassing term; Mamadou Dia, director of 2021 film Nafi’s Father, explains that ‘All the major festivals of the world, most of the time, they pick one movie from Africa and they say “That’s it, we have enough.” That’s bullshit. Africa is 54 different states and countries and more than 2,000 different languages. You cannot just put us in a box.’
In addition to this dismissal of Africa’s inherent diversity and vast cultural landscape, barriers to film circulation, particularly with regard to American awards ceremonies (such as the Oscars) prevent African filmmakers from sharing their work with the rest of the world. And, as with the case of Academy Award winner Tsotsi (dir. Gavin Hood) in 2005, University of California professor Moradewun Adejunmobi attributes the success of the film to it being a ‘feel good movie about race’ because it catered to what ‘certain segments of the American audience want to hear’. Hollywood still dictates what we see and do not see, and it is certainly interesting that what it does want us to see is that which it considers to be ‘palatable’ to our Western tastes (note that Tsotsi director Gavin Hood is a white South African man). The African continent has been making brilliant films for decades, and yet only every now and then do we see African film promoted, most commonly by more niche or artistic festivals.
And onwards film goes, and onwards it travels, and onwards goes the great ocean trawler of Hollywood, raking the sea floor dry of money, of creatives, of life. But cinema does indeed go on. We have seen, in the last few years, the resurgence of a cinema-going population since the tragedy of Covid-19 – people want to leave the house and live through film together, live through the experience of it, the experience of the sheer theatre of film. Online streaming platforms, such as MUBI and BFI Online, who are rivalling the hegemony of Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and NowTV, are popping up, promising archive films, films previously unseen, cult classics, new independent gems, and more – and people are INTERESTED! People are excited to turn back time, to see all that they missed when Hollywood was the barrier behind which a plethora of beauteous world film existed! People are EXCITED to see film from the African continent, from Russia, from Scandinavia, from Asia, from South America, from Europe – people are excited to see film that makes them think a little differently, appreciate things a little more, see the world in a new light, and they are excited to see faces they do not know, the faces of actors who never strayed further than the borders of their homelands, the faces of actors untainted by the glint of diamonds at the top of the red carpet. And, look – I still kind of love Hollywood. In Hollywood I find many cherished films, many cherished faces and directors, and I can readily admit that I still dream to be a cog in its whirring machine. But that does not mean that I do not seek change; WE, together, seek change, and, while Hollywood will continue on its ravaging path, we can begin to fight back against its devouring of the world through film. Support your local cinemas, support small filmmakers, support struggling actors, support screenwriters and animators and small festivals and all the rest, for film is a joy that belongs to us.
The Carl Kruse Blog homepage is at https://www.carlkruse.com.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include: A Quick Peek At London, A Look At Spiritual Capitalism, and Film Scenes I Wish I Had Never Seen.
Carl Kruse maintains another blog at https://carlkruse.org