Today I stumbled across this video done by Fox News. They claim that The Muppets (and Hollywood in general) is sneaking their “liberal agenda” into the films we watch. Even kids films! How horrible. I want to say this right away. Claiming The Muppets is anti-capitalist while it makes millions upon millions of dollars in merchandise is ridiculous. The people behind The Muppets love capitalism. After all, it’s making them filthy rich, but I’ll play their little game. Is this true? Is Hollywood sneaking anti-capitalist ideas into their movies? Is Hollywood anti-capitalist? Is it even “liberal”? In this blog post I will discuss the history of film and analyze how the films themselves and the filmmaking techniques perpetuates and rarely critique the American Dream.
American culture has consistently produced images that reflect its capitalistic economic base, and films are definitely part of this dynamic. Benshof and Griffin states, “American popular cinema has always centered on and dramatized the middle and upper classes, mostly as a way of supporting and celebrating capitalism” (161). Film made during early Hollywood used stories based on the Horatio Alger myth. The myth “reworked the American Dream for the turn of the century urban America and helped disseminate the idea that anyone (male) could succeed in America if he simply tried hard enough” (Benshoff and Griffin 165). Films expressing this myth are found through out the history of film and essentially became the basis for classical Hollywood narrative structure. Classic Hollywood films are all about a man overcoming some hardship and gaining success. Success if often defined as getting money and the girl.
Hollywood’s ability to fabricate the Horatio Alger myth extended beyond their films. Audiences began to believe you could go to Hollywood and make it (as a filmmaker or actor). However, from the beginning of the film industry everyone was white and at least middle class. In Black Directors In Hollywood, Melvin Donalson argues, “In the motion picture business, which thrives on closed social networks, family affiliations, and venture capital, Hollywood powerbrokers have easily excluded [minorities and working class individuals] from the inner circles of creative development, financial planning, production, and distribution” (5) Those who found work in Hollywood were routinely exploited by Studio executives. When they tried to form unions they were treated the way workers across the country were. Being part of a union was considered un-American and communist. In fact, “movie moguls centered their industry in southern California because, unlike the East Coast, unions had not yet gained significant strength there. Consequently, the studios could pay day laborers much less money and force them to work under less than stringent workplace regulations” (Benshoff and Griffin 168).
By the end of WWI, American cinema was mainstream entertainment that perpetuated the false notion of the Horatio Alger myth. During this time Charlie Chaplin stood up for working class values with his character “The Little Tramp.” Chaplin’s attention to economic hardship came from his impoverished childhood in Great Britain, where class stratification was more manifest in social consciousness” (Benshoff and Griffin 167). Charlie Chaplin created powerful images of life outside the system and led the way for more mainstream films to questions capitalism, but the critique didn’t last long. Benshoff and Griffin state, “The enforcement of the Hollywood Production code in 1934, after sustained complaints from civil and religious groups, reinstated middle-class morality and more optimistic stories” (172). Films began to once again reinforce the belief the US is a land of opportunity (Benschoff and Griffin). Gangster and social problem films were replaced by screwball comedies that told stories about the wealthy and poor coming together and falling in love.
After WWII Hollywood had a lot of business trouble. A lot of people started watching television in their homes. To save money they exploited workers, and people began to strike and create unions. Hollywood’s response? “You’re a communist!” The red scare was growing in America. At the time the Congressional committee called House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to hold hearings to investigate whether communists were running rampant through the nation’s industries and the film industry took advantage of it. “Certain studio executives, like Walt Disney, used the opportunity to name and defame union organizers who had challenged them” (Benshoff and Griffin 180). In 1947, HUAC made “The Hollywood Ten” testify before them. They asked ten screenwriters and directors about the political affiliations and when answered or refused to answer they were indicted and imprisoned. A blacklist of filmmakers was created that destroyed many peoples career.
The fear of being branded a communist substantially affected the subject matter of film noir and effectively ended the social problem film. Filmmakers too scared to challenge Hollywood. Any film that tried to examine social conditions in the country was considered dangerous, and in the 1950s Hollywood returned to celebrating materialism and the glories of capitalist excess. They made escapist entertainment: historical epics, opulent musicals, and lush comedies. During this time Hollywood consistently shipped their film productions overseas to exploit cheaper labor. This is exactly what the rest of corporate America has done in the United States.
A so-called New American Cinema grew out of Beat filmmaking and new advances in 16 mm film production (Benshoff and Griffin 184). Eventually counterculture turned to documentaries for info and foreign/underground film for entertainment. Hollywood’s huge blockbusters didn’t speak to them and they turned to independent and avant-garde films for enlightened cinema. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (67), for example, sided with young outsiders battling against conformity and the established order of capitalist America. Benshoff and Griffin state, “Both films used stylistic techniques that were experimental by Hollywood standards (such as jump cuts, handheld cameras, and zoom lenses)” (184). Benshoff and Griffin state:
For a brief moment, the films success ushered in some films that examined American culture in serious and/or satirical ways. Films such as Five Easy Pieces (70), Harold Maude (72) and Mean Streets (73), directed by Martin Scorsese… all attempted to show both the emptiness of American Capitalism and the tragic consequences facing lower-class people who still chased after the American Dream of material success. (187)
Unfortunately, “By the mid 1970s, many dreams and aspirations of the counterculture had either been assimilated into a more mainstream, middle-class consciousness, or faded away all together” (Benshoff and Griffin 189). Many people felt like what they wanted to accomplish had been done. The U.S. left Vietnam and race relations were “getting better.” There was a small concern for working class issues, but these concerns evaporated in the 1980s. “The Popular culture of the 80s celebrated personal success measured via wealth” (Benshoff and Griffin 189). Films went from being subtly critical of the dominant ideology to literal celebrations of white patriarchal capitalism. As a result, filmmakers abandoned radical experimentation in subject matter and technique and tried to make commercial hits (Schoff and Griffin 190).
The return to conventional genres and formulas quickly eliminated criticism of capitalism and economic disparity. The Horatio Alger was again front and center in Hollywood. Films like Rocky (1976) used vaguely realist styles to retell stories of the American Dream. “In Rocky, a working class man makes a better life for himself through sheer determination and hard work, with little-to-no discussion of the institutionalized factors that, in the real world, work to inhibit such mobility” (Benschoff and Griffin 191). White, working class people are hardly ever represented in films, and when they are they are obviously “white trash.”
“Hollywood’s new films and many others of the era reflected a shift toward conspicuous materialism in the nations culture, a shift that was also reflected by the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980” (Benshoff and Griffin 192). Reagan promoted the American Dream and if you didn’t agree with what he said you were un-American. His Reaganomics encouraged individuals to indulge in conspicuous consumption. The gap between the rich and poor grew.
There’s a trend in Hollywood to only approach class issues is a safe and comfortable manner. One way they do this is placing these struggles in the past, implying these are things that used to happen, but obviously they don’t in America’s classless society. In 1998, Titanic, directed by James Cameron was released. Until last year (when Avatar was released, also directed by James Cameron), it was the highest grossing film of all time. Cameron places class division safely in the 1910s. In reality, he doesn’t even critique the class division in the film. Instead he “downplays any potential exploration of the topic in favor of epic Hollywood romance and special effect disaster scenes” (Benshoff and Griffin 195).
Today, Corporate Hollywood, whether it be work conditions or actual films and how they’re distributed have not changed much. Most people would argue that the most important quality in an art is creativity; this easily applies to being a director. However, as Azam Ravadrad states, “Creativity and genius are preconditions for a person to become an artist, but are not themselves sufficient. It also depends on a person’s social condition. If the social conditions are also supportive, then a creative individual may be able to do artistic activities” (788). Reputation really is huge in Hollywood. Just as important as reputation is network ties (Zafirau 102). Knowing the right people or coming from the right place can get you where you want to be. Graduating with a degree in film from a school like NYU or USC will open a door to a lot of opportunities.
When minorities or members of the working class make into the film industry it’s incredibly hard to work their way up. The lower jobs in the film industry are temporary organizations; it’s usually freelance work because studios purposely find nonunionized workers. For example, while Titanic vaguely deals with class issues, the climatic sinking of the ship was shot in waters off the coast of Mexico, where local extras were forced to stay in the water for hours in the middle of the night, and a number were injured. As Beth Bechly states, these temporary organizations rely “more heavily on social mechanisms such as reciprocity, socialization, and reputation” (3). The biggest problem in this situation is it’s incredibly hard for people to stand up for themselves. According to Muir, “Short-term staff[s] are … less likely to join forces and campaign for their rights for fear they won’t be rehired” (13). These employees realize how important your reputation is in Hollywood. If they stood up for themselves everyone would know. Stephen Zafirau states, “Hollywood is ‘a small, incestuous world,’ one in which ‘everyone knows everyone.’ Maintaining a favorable reputation therefore becomes not only an object of necessity, but a fundamental piece of the day to day work [in] Hollywood” (102). Because these employees can’t stand up for themselves they get stuck at the bottom of the film industry, and never get to work their way up.
As Stephen Zafirau states in Reputation Work in Selling Film and Television: Life in the Hollywood Talent Industry, “Commercial cultural production is plagued by deep uncertainties about what products will ‘work’ with audiences” (101). Because of this intense uncertainty Hollywood relies on what they know, escapism. In A Study of the Social Characteristics of Artists Azam Ravadrad states:
If the artist belongs to the ruling class in a society, it is more probable that she or he will work in non-realistic styles and engage more with issues on a macro-sociological level. On the contrary, if the artist belongs to the dominated class, it is more probable that she or he will work in realistic styles and focus in their work on micro-sociological issues (806).
The non-realistic style is more likely to make money. Most people go to the movies to be entertained and escape from reality. There’s definitely an audience for the films about real life, it’s just not as big as the blockbuster. “In 2005, the top five major studio releases alone earned more domestically than all of the 345 independent releases combined” (Christopherson 78).
As great as creative work is in the film industry, it’s very risky and it can be very difficult to get your work shown for up and coming directors. A film festival is a great place for a director to show their work to the world, but as Susan Christopherson states in Beyond the Self-expressive Creative Worker: An Industry Perspective on Entertainment Media, “[Film festivals] have become a money-maker for entrepreneurs who organize them” (81). There’s a fee to submit your film, and that doesn’t even guarantee it will be part of the festival. It means someone will watch your film to see if it should be part of the festival and “if you don’t get their attention in the first two minutes, you’re dead” (Christpherson 81). From the very beginning your creative control is slightly taken away from you. It’s smart to start your film a certain way to increase it’s chances of making a film festival, but it may have never been something you wanted your film to be. Once you get past this first stage, the lack of creative control continues. Only a few firms control the gateways to consumer markets and as Christopherson states:
Six conglomerates remain at the heart of production organization and creative work in US media entertainment. By driving the strategies of producers and directors who need capital to finance their film and television projects and access to ‘eyeballs’, the conglomerates directly and indirectly influence the organization of work and workforce strategies (76).
This is a highly negative consequence for independent directors and producers. It’s very hard to get the film you want to make off the ground, and when you do studios keep taking away creative control. For the suits, everything comes down to money. The film industry has adopted a corporate mentality, and it’s had negative effects on the director and their crew.
It also gave me greater insight into why I look certain kinds of films over others. I’ve hated blockbusters for a while. Now that I easily see they perpetuate the Horatio Alger myth I know why. My two favorite directors actively critique the American Dream. Films by Darren Aronofsky follow characters doing something for some personal, sometimes selfish need. His films spend part of their running time tricking the audience, making them believe the Alger myth is in effect. In Requiem for a Dream, by Aronofsky, Ellen Burstyn’s character is trying to lose weight for a Television show while her son his sell drugs for the thrill of it and to make a lot of money, and for a little while both are happening and they are going very well. But then the rug is pulled out from under them and they’re dragged deeper and deeper into the truth of capitalism until their tragic ending. This was a very independent film that was hardly released in theaters. The MPAA gave it a NC-17 rating, essentially censoring it from the public. His films can be depressing, but it’s better then perpetuating the ridiculous myth that with hard work you can get whatever you want. Alfonso Cuaron’s film, Children of Men, actively critiques aspects of government and society. The film takes place in a world where a child hasn’t been born for 27 years and everything’s gone to hell. Britain’s Immigration policy is insane and there’s a huge gap between the rich and the poor. When an illegal immigrant gets pregnant she can’t go to the hospital because they know the government would never acknowledge the first human birth in 27 years by a racial minority.
What does this all mean for me? It’s frustrating. I see a film like Avatar. It cost $400 to $500 million dollars to make. With that much money you could make one hundred $5 million dollar films. That creates a lot of new jobs because it takes a lot of people to make film. When there are more films being made it also creates a more stable occupation. Being on a film crew would become less freelance because there’d be more available work. This also allows one hundred new directors to start building their reputation. Avatar may be the biggest film in box office history but these films wouldn’t even have to make $10 million each to make as much as Avatar made. Filmmakers could start taking chances again and critique our world. Our world needs to be critiqued and art is a great way to do so. Unfortunately, I don’t think Hollywood will do this anytime soon. I felt the effects in film school.
Social standing was a big boundary to be a filmmaker at Ithaca College. Even though we get equipment for free, buying and processing film is incredibly expensive. Some people spend a couple thousand dollars making their films the first two years. There are special awards and grants to help make the film but they’re very limited. I know this because I was a filmmaker at Ithaca College. I got lucky when it came to the amount of money I had to spend on films. At first I was in big groups that were able to split up the costs, but it came at the expense of working on films I wasn’t invested in, actually I hated them. I was stuck working on a misogynistic horror film (which I’ve seen way too many of at IC). At that moment I said never again. The social class issue is an important and practically invisible issue within the filmmaking community at Ithaca College. If you are a filmmaker at IC it’s a “fact” you have money. If you go to a teacher and say, “I don’t have $1000 to spend on a film” they’ll say, “Yes you do. Stop complaining and just do it.” The wording may be nicer but that’s the implication. Professors need to know what kind of situations these students came from. They can’t come into a class with preconceived ideas. It’s not fair to students.
In conclusion, the vast majority of movies produced by the film industry perpetuate the American Dream and hardly ever critique capitalism. Studios shoot films in foreign countries to exploit cheap labor, and consistently use non union/freelance employees to save money. Nothing is more important than the bottom line. Studios willingly release bad products so they can make as much money as possible. These are all ways other industries take advantage of capitalism to maximize their profit. Hollywood does not hate capitalism. They use it to make as much money as possible. Hollywood isn’t even liberal. “If Hollywood was liberal, then the amount of race and ethnic based stereotypes that are perpetuated in the these hollywood movies wouldn’t exist” (Joyti Jian). Fox News talks a lot about liberal media and class warfare while they consistently villianize anyone who isn’t a white upper class male. Is it hypocrisy… or calculated brainwashing?
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Donalson, M. (2003). Black Directors In Hollywood. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
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Zafirau, S. (2008, June). Reputation Work in Selling Film and Television: Life in the Hollywood Talent Industry. Qualitative Sociology, 31(2), 99-127.