Sunday, October 11, 2009

Golden Land

For the past several semesters, I’ve been teaching a course on Hollywood fiction and the Hollywood movie (films about Hollywood). The course requires students to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about movies as a form of mass culture. Because movies are culturally ambiguous—they blur distinctions between art, entertainment, and mass communication (propaganda)—much of the writing about Hollywood has been critical of Hollywood’s detrimental impact on American life and values, often perceived both as a source of collective fantasy and as an apparatus of mass deception. According to John Parris Springer, in his fine book Hollywood Fictions: The Dream Factory in American Literature (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), Hollywood fiction is highly critical of the influence of Hollywood and of Hollywood movies on American life and values. According to Springer, the “central cultural paradox disclosed by Hollywood fiction” is the fundamental ambivalence of Americans toward their own popular culture, their delight in, and suspicion of, the formulas of mass entertainment and their attraction to, yet distance from, the organizing ideologies and styles of mass culture. Hollywood fictions articulate deep-seated anxieties and concerns about the influence of Hollywood movies on traditional social and cultural values. Fiction critical of Hollywood emerged during the early Modernist period, which was all about self-expression (individualism). Literature shifted its focus from the social system to the individual, with society portrayed as the enemy. Hollywood fiction generally substitutes the studio system for the social system, and hence focuses on the individual’s moral battle vis-à-vis the corrupt system, Hollywood as a degrading social system that requires moral compromise in order to succeed. The features that distinguish “Hollywood fictions” from other kinds of narrative fiction are as follows:

  • It has a psychological appeal: it is a literary narrative that merges 1) fascination with Hollywood as a singular and exciting “way of life” with 2) suspicion toward its moral and social influence
  • Setting is transformed into character, loaded with metaphorical significance
  • Hollywood is a “reference point” for certain social and cultural issues, a passe-partout or “pass key” to a full understanding of the values and experiences that shape America
  • It is explicitly concerned with Hollywood’s moral values, the values of those who reside in the specific socio-geographical space of “Hollywood” and their influence on others.
A typical Hollywood fiction is William Faulkner’s short story “Golden Land,” published in 1935. In Faulkner’s story, Hollywood—the “Golden Land” of the title—functions as an “excessive signifier,” meaning that the location itself, the actual geographical space, has a corrosive, detrimental effect on an individual’s moral and ethical behavior. (The “excessive signifier” in a horror film is any space believed to be blighted or cursed, such as the stereotypical “haunted house.”) “Golden Land” is typically interpreted as expressing Faulkner’s disgust and dissatisfaction with Hollywood values—and by extension, consumer culture in general. The central character, Ira Ewing, is an alcoholic, the husband of a wife who has grown to hate him and the father of “Voyd,” apparently a transvestite. His daughter, April, an aspiring actress, is shockingly promiscuous. Ira’s professional success has come at the expense of his moral failure, with his ruined family used by Faulkner to symbolize the depravity and lack of traditional values found in Hollywood.

Hollywood fiction dates to the mid Teens (Springer identifies a story first serialized in Photoplay in 1916, titled “The Glory Road,” as the first Hollywood fiction, that is, a story that uses Hollywood as a means of cultural complaint). There are many famous moves about Hollywood; a few such examples include Ella Cinders (1926), What Price Hollywood? (1932), A Star Is Born (1937), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and In A Lonely Place (1950). But given that fiction critical or satirical of Hollywood emerged so early in its history, popular songs critical of Hollywood, historically considered, came rather late. I’ve listed a few of these songs below; some of them, such as the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” are rather famous. There are many other good songs not listed here, of course, but all of the songs rest upon a tradition decades old before the songs themselves were ever recorded.

Songs Of The Golden Land:
Buckcherry – For The Movies
The Clovers – Love Potion No. 9
The Doors – L. A. Woman
The Eagles – Hotel California
Guns N’ Roses – Welcome to the Jungle
The Kinks – Celluloid Heroes
The Misfits – Hollywood Babylon
Phil Ochs – The World Began in Eden But Ended in Los Angeles
Poison – Hollyweird
Stan Ridgway – Beloved Movie Star
Boz Scaggs – Hollywood
Bob Seger – Hollywood Nights
Elliott Smith – Angeles
Supertramp – Gone Hollywood

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