Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Postmodernism, Hyperreality and the Hegemony of Spectacle in New Hollywood Essay

After the screening of The Matrix on its first release, a dear cousin of mine, film connoisseur and avid fan of classical movies, spontaneously made the following comment: â€Å"This is an entirely new cinema to me! † If anything, The Matrix is a clear marker of cultural change. A film with state-of-the-art production values like this is bound to elicit in us the belated realization of how slow our response has been to the cultural products of an entirely transformed film industry, that of New Hollywood. My cousin’s casual and unwitting remark reflects the embarrassment felt by both professional critic and layman alike in coping with contemporary movies, especially when we still tend to approach New Hollywood products with the standards of the Old Hollywood cinema. Because of our adherence to tradition, we still tend to look for those classical values of â€Å"development†, â€Å"coherence† and â€Å"unity† in narratives only to find with disappointment that narrative plots become thinner, that characters are reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes and that action is carried through by loosely-linked sequences, built around spectacular stunts, dazzling stars and special effects. Narrative complexity is sacrificed on the altar of spectacle† (Buckland 166) as today’s blockbusters turn out to be nothing but calculated exercises in profit-making, all high-concept, high-gloss and pure show. Similar cries of warning about the loss of narrative integrity to cinematic spectacle have been voiced at different periods, usually at times of crisis or change in the history of the American cinema. One could cite, for example, Bazin’s disdain at the â€Å"displacement of classicism† by the baroque style, marking the end of the pure phase of classical cinema. His coined term, â€Å"superwestern, †designates the â€Å"emergence of a new kind of western† (Kramer 290), that, according to Bazin, â€Å"would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence—an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political, or erotic interest† (150-1). Similarly, in 1957 Manny Farber, taking his cue from Bazin’s superwestern, laments the â€Å"disappearance of this [classical] roduction system and the closing of action-oriented neighborhood theaters in the 1950s†. He claims that directors like Howard Hawks â€Å"who had flourished in ‘a factory of unpretentious picture-making’ were pushed towards artistic self-consciousness, thematic seriousness, and big-budget spectacle â€Å"(Kramer 293, emphasis added). A decade later, Pauline Kael too expresses her fears at the disintegration of filmic narrative which she attributes to the abrasion of traditional film production in general. She laments not only the emphasis on â€Å"technique† â€Å"purely visual content,† and â€Å"open-ended, elaborate interpretations† of the experimental and innovative art film of the New American Cinema, but as Kramer puts it, she was equally critical of the experiences facilitated by Hollywood’s mainstream releases. The lack of concern for coherent storytelling on the part of producers and directors in charge of the volatile and overblown process of filmmaking was matched by the audience’s enthusiastic response to spectacular attractions and shock effects, irrespective of their degree of narrative motivation. 296) Voices of dissatisfaction were heard at another major turn in the history of Hollywood, that is in the late 1970s, when the â€Å"unprecedented box-office success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), signaled Hollywood’s aesthetic, cultural and industrial re-orientation towards movies with more emphasis on special effects and cin ematic spectacle† (Kramer 301). Unlike the classical movies produced on the assembly line under the studio regime (films that respected narrative integrity and refined story ideas into the classical three-act of exposition, complication and resolution), the products of New Hollywood, says critic Richard Schickel, seem â€Å"to have lost or abandoned the art of narrative†¦. [Filmmakers] are generally not refining stories at all, they are spicing up ‘concepts’ (as they like to call them), refining gimmicks, making sure there are no complexities to fur our tongue when it comes time to spread the word of mouth†(3). Contemporary cinema has come to depend so much on shrewd marketing and advertising strategies that its pictures, as Mark Crispin Miller points out, â€Å"like TV ads, †¦ aspire to a total ‘look’ and seem more designed than directed† (49). The difficulty that critics nowadays face with films like The Matrix and the new situation in Hollywood, is not only unlike the layman’s inability to assess â€Å"any recent Hollywood film as a discreet textual artifact that is either ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the artifact produced under the studio regime,† Cook and Bernink note (99). It has also to do with regarding â€Å"the textual form of recent Hollywood as expressive of changed production circumstances that lead to a different kind of textual artifact†(ibid. ). In other words, as we move on in our globalized, high-tech age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to regard any single movie as a self-contained, autonomous text. On the contrary, as Eileen Meehan contends, it has become imperative to look upon any New Hollywood mainstream release â€Å"always and simultaneously as text and commodity, intertext and product line† (31). In order to revise our critical standards and respond effectively to the new status of the contemporary Hollywood movie, we need to grasp the dramatic changes that the American film industry has undergone in the post-classical period, which started right after World War II and culminated to a point of radical transformation in the post-1975 period, which has eventually come to best warrant the term New Hollywood. These changes have been lucidly described in a number of historiographic studies (Ray 1985, Balio 1985, 1990, Schatz 1983, 1993, Gomery 1986, Bernardoni 1991, Corrigan 1991, Hillier 1992, Wasko 1994, Kramer 1998, Neale and Smith 1998, Cook and Bernink 1999) which collectively shed ample light on the completely new situation defining New Hollywood. What has drastically changed is both the ways movies are made and the ways in which Hollywood has been doing business. After the government’s dismantling of the â€Å"vertically-integrated† studio system, the industry turned to producing and selling motion pictures on a film-by-film basis, resulting in the shift of power from studio heads to deal-makers (agents), in the rise of independent producers/directors, and in a more competitive and fragmented movie marketplace (Schatz 9). To the rise of TV and the emergence of other competing media technologies (VCRs, Cable and Satellite TV) Hollywood responded with a re-orientation towards blockbuster movies, â€Å"these high-cost, high-tech, high-stakes, multi-purpose entertainment machines that breed music videos and soundtrack albums, TV series and videocassettes, video games and theme park rides, novelizations and comic books† (Schatz 9). Despite the â€Å"increasingly fragmented but ever more expanding entertainment industry – with its demographics and target audiences, its diversified multimedia conglomerates, its global(ized) markets and new delivery systems†, the calculated blockbuster, as New Hollywood’s feature film, remains the driving force of the industry (ibid. ). This is testified by the monumental success of the blockbuster at the box-office. Schatz cites Variety’s commissioned study of the industry’s all-time commercial hits, in which only 2 movies of the classical period appear to have reached the top, whereas â€Å"90 of the top 100 hits have been produced since 1970, and all of the top 20 since Jaws in 1975†(9). The big-budget, all-star, spectacular hits of the late fifties and early sixties (such as The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Cleopatra, or Dr. Zhivago) have some sizable profits to show for (all in the vicinity of $25-to $50 million). By the standards of their age, they were considered colossal box-office successes; however, by today’s standards they seem quite puny contestants to the post-75 era of super-blockbusters which generate record-setting grosses, well beyond the $100 million barrier (always in constant dollars). And such a figure applies only to theatrical rentals, which accounts just for a percentage of the total revenue of a movie which also finds outlets in ancillary markets. he industry’s spectacular growth and expansion (its horizontal integration) is to a great extent owing to the take-over of the majors (Paramount, Fox, Columbia, MCA/Universal) by huge media empires (Warner/Time Communications, Murdoch’s News Corporations, Sony, Matsushita, respectively) forming multimedia conglomerates with diverse interests in the domestic and the global market, with holdings in movies, TV production, cable, records, book and magazine publications, video games, theme parks, consumer electron ics (both software and hardware). These huge corporations provide financial muscle for the multi-million production budgets of the blockbusters (since the production costs have themselves sky-rocketed), but also market muscle for promotion. Marketing and advertising strategies have been the key to the unprecedented success of the New Hollywood movie since Jaws: through pre-selling, usually cashing in on the popularity of a novel published prior to production, a movie becomes a media â€Å"event† by heavy advertising on prime-time TV and the press, as well as by the massive simultaneous release in thousands of mall-based multiplex theaters. Calculated blockbuster productions are carefully designed to ensure the greatest potential profit not only through extended theatrical rental (sequels, re-issues, remakes, director’s cut), but also though capitalization in ancillary markets: soon the movie will come out on videocassette, audio-cassette, novel, computer game, and the increasingly popular since the mid-nineties, DVD, let alone an extended market career through by-products ranging from the CD movie soundtrack to T-shirts and toys, which contribute to the impressive surge in profits. It becomes obvious thus why contemporary movies cannot be conceived of as individual entities and cannot be separately examined from their economic intertext that renders them part (or rather the driving belt) of a larger entertainment machine and advertising campaign. Expensive blockbusters, which in the early days of the post-classical period were the exception and now, as Schatz states, have become the rule, â€Å"are the central output of modern Hollywood. But what, aside from costs, are their dominant characteristics? How are they able to attract, engage and entertain millions of people? asks Warren Buckland (166). The blockbuster syndrome has also changed the movies’ mode of address. Designed around a main idea, what is called â€Å"high concept†, a blockbuster becomes increasingly plot-driven, increasingly visceral, kinetic, fast-paced, increasingly reliant on special effects, increasingly â€Å"fantastic† (and thus apolitical), and increasingly targeted at younger audiences. And significantly enough, the lack of complex characters or plot [as for example] in Star Wars opens the film to other possibilities, notably its amalgamation of genre conventions and its elaborate play of cinematic references. But while these movies enjoy a great popularity among younger audiences, as their huge box-office success indicates, the loss of narrative integrity to spectacle, and the sense of escapism and triviality usually associated with high-gloss, star glamour and dumb show, has driven most academics or old-cinema cinephiles to summarily shun or dismiss blockbusters as merely calculated exercises in shameless profiteering. Warren Buckland thinks that these arguments about the loss of narrative potential in the contemporary feature film are overstated and attempts to reverse the â€Å"unhelpful and hostile evaluative stance† (167) of the critics towards the blockbuster. Focusing on a typical action-adventure blockbuster, Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Arc heproposes adopting an analytical and descriptive approach to these films, an approach dubbed by Bordwell and Thompson â€Å"historical oetics. † Part of the argument he makes is that â€Å"historical poetics† can account for the popularity of movies with such a broad appeal (and allows us to take them seriously as aesthetic, cultural objects) â€Å"especially because movies are examined in terms of their individuality, including their response to their historical moment, in which style and composition respond to the historical questions posed in the culture in which the film is made† (168-169). In other words, the issue is not so much about the so-called death of narrative—because narrative is still alive and well—but the emergence of a new kind of narrative, whose meaning is conveyed not through traditional narration but by emphasis on spectacle and the visual impact of the pictures which provide additional narrative pleasure and have changed the patterns of viewer response. Thus Buckland’s concluding remark that â€Å"it is perhaps time to stop condemning the New Hollywood blockbuster and to start, instead, to understand it,† carries more merit than we have been ready to admit. My intention in this essay is to extend the argument about the narrative/ spectacle issue in the direction suggested by Buckland, but within a wider, cultural perspective. The supremacy of the visual and the spectacular over traditional narration in the textual form of contemporary movies is not only expressive of the changed production values and the text’s signifying practices; it is also reflective of the changed cultural patterns and lifestyle habits in postmodernity. Classical cinema favored traditional storytelling because it provided a univocal interpretation of life and reflected a uniformity in entertainment habits: cinema was the predominant form of entertainment, as â€Å"the movies attracted 83 cents of every U. S. dollar spent on recreation† (Ray 26). Its nineties counterpart, with its emphasis on the sensational and the spectacular, on episodic action and generic diversification, is a postmodern cinema entertaining the possibility of multiple signification and the hyperreality of the visual, subject to an increasing commodified experience. As Anne Friedberg puts it, â€Å"today the culture industry takes on different forms: Domestic electronics (fax, modems, cable television) follow the interactive model of dialogic telephone communications. The personal computer turns the home user into a desktop publisher, the microwave turns every cook into an instant gourmet, the Walkman transforms each listener into a radio programmer. Both production and reception have been individualized; the culture industry no longer speaks in a univocal, monolithic voice. 189) This proliferation of entertainment venues offered to the individual points to a general malaise often regarded as the central feature of postmodernism, what Featherstone terms â€Å"the fragmentation and overproduction of culture—the key-feature of consumer culture† (76). As Jameson says, â€Å"in postmodern culture, ‘culture’ itself has become a product in its own right; the market has become a substitute for itself and fully as much a commodity as any of the items it includes within itself† (1991 x). In the â€Å"cultural logics of late capitalism,† Jameson’s code-phrase for postmodernity, what is commodified is not simply the image, which has acquired central role in contemporary culture but lived experience itself. As Guy Debord diagnoses in The Society of the Spectacle, â€Å"everything that was lived directly has moved away into a representation (1983 np). Baudrillard, as Friedberg notes, also talks about â€Å"the same phenomenon—representation of the thing replacing the thing—and extends it into a mise-en- abime of the ‘hyperreal,’ where signs refer only to signs. Hyperreality is not just an inverted relation of sign and signifier, but one of receding reference, a deterrence operation in the signifying chain†(178). A part in this process of the commodification of the sign and the derealization of the real has been played by media technologies, especially electronics, as Vivian Sobchack points out: The postmodern and electronic â€Å"instant† †¦ constitutes a form of absolute presence (one abstracted from the continuity that gives meaning to the system past/present/future) and changes the nature of the space it occupies. Without the temporal emphases of historical consciousness and personal history, space becomes abstract, ungrounded, flat—a site for play and display rather than an invested situation in which action â€Å"counts† rather than computes. Such a superficial space can no longer hold the spectator/ user’s interest, but has to stimulate it constantly in the same way a video game does. Its flatness—a function of its lack of temporal thickness and bodily investment—has to attract spectator interest at the surface. †¦ In an important sense, electronic space disembodies.

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