Hollywood Means Business

Theater owners are in three different businesses: showing movies; showing advertisements–previews, which must be shown as part of their contract, don’t generate any revenue–and selling popcorn and soft drinks. The only business that makes a profit for them is the third, so it makes sense to cater to teenage males, who gobble the most popcorn and slurp the most soda. This demographic is reputed not to give a hoot if the picture is fuzzy and dim, as long as they can see the explosions.

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It’s hard to imagine even Wal-Mart imposing the kind of rules that made the Hays Office ridiculous, such as requiring married couples to be depicted sleeping in twin beds. But does freedom always improve art? Or to put it more provocatively, does censorship always hurt it? What is the proper place of public morality in popular art? Is it different from the place of morality in elite art? What is the appropriate standard by which to judge Hollywood movies?

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But like the new censorship, the new technology raises the quality question. The advent of the DVD has paralleled that of the CD. Not only has it influenced the packaging of new material, it has stimulated the re-packaging of old. We may regard with mixed feelings the prospect of buying our favorite childhood TV shows in immaculate-looking boxed sets, but that is only the tip of the marketing iceberg. The DVD is making whole libraries of movies as available and accessible as the paperback made whole libraries of books. Will this help to educate the public about the history of film, thereby developing its taste and improving quality overall? Or will it degrade taste by reducing the experience of watching a movie to something you can do any time, anywhere, on your ever-miniaturizing laptop? (Lawrence of Arabia . . . Coming soon to a video phone near you!)

Granted, it is probably too soon to assess the aesthetic impact of the DVD–not to mention the whole “digital revolution” of which the DVD is but the leading edge. But Epstein’s reluctance to address the quality issue also hobbles his attempts to come to grips with the enormous change that stands at the heart of his study: the one that occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the power in Hollywood shifted away from the moguls who founded the studios and toward the top stars, the top directors, and the agents who perfected that power in the new “art of the deal.”

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Speaking of the theater, it might be worth taking a moment to consider how Epstein’s mode of analysis would illuminate that realm. The theater industry, if you’ll pardon the expression, is a lot older than the movie industry. But think of all the regime changes it has gone through. In ancient Greece, it was part of a religious festival sponsored by aristocratic citizens who competed fiercely for performance spots and prizes. In Rome, it was the plaything of plutocrats, who cared more about the lavish special effects than about the drama (sound familiar?). In ninth-century Europe, plays were performed in church by priests. In Renaissance Italy, there was the elegant proscenium of Aleotti and the funky commedia dell’arte of the streets. In Elizabethan England, the Globe Theater was run as a profit-making venture by entrepreneurial actors and other investors. The French bourgeoisie plunked down good francs to see realistic drama. And in spite of themselves, the Communists gave the world Bertolt Brecht and the post-Revolution Moscow Art Theater. What is the point? To quote one of those entrepreneurial actors, “The play’s the thing.” Under all of these regimes, the theater has been dominated by a lot of junk. (Even the Globe Theater featured bear-baiting on off nights.) But in most eras, the junk has been punctuated by a few great works, which is why we bother to pay attention at all. —Martha Bayles reviews Edward Jay Epstein’s The New Logic of Money and Power in HollywoodHollywood Means Business  (The Weekly Standard)

There’s even a passage in this review that defends Patrick Stewart as an accomplished stage actor. Bayles knows her stuff.