Friday, August 7, 2009

The Culture Industry

Going back and re-reading some of the film criticism from the 1920s and 30s is always an interesting experiment. If anything, it’s fascinating to see how prescient guys like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin were with regard to the possible directions film could take. From the very beginning, cultural critics (many of them Marxists) were arguing about the problematic nature of film as a cultural tool. Especially troubling to some of these critics was the cinema’s propensity to be used as some kind of mass marketing device that would homogenize culture and encourage complacency and conformism. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’re still having this debate today, perhaps more with regards to television than film, but these critics were writing before the television was even invented. The similarities are still there, though. Ask anyone who doesn’t own a television why and they’re likely to cite a very similar argument.

It is pretty compelling, though, to see that from the very start of sound film people were worried about its cultural placement as a product. Because of financing and other monetary constraints involved in getting a movie made, critics were concerned that film would never be able to be as “difficult” a medium as literature. Here, they weren’t able to anticipate that digital technology eventually would make it easy for anyone with a credit card to start making art films in their garage, but this is another issue that’s still alive and well in contemporary film culture. Every film snob in the world (myself included) has at some point lamented the way movies have become so mass-produced and easy to swallow, and they often point back to the golden age of cinema as a better, simpler time. If reading the criticism of the early 30s (or taking one look at the old studio system) proves anything, it’s that this belief is completely misguided, because before narrative film had even come into its own, people were already complaining about the lack of real artistry and the tendency to avoid taking risks. These critics, in particular a group known as “The Frankfurt School,” even had a name for it: The Culture Industry. This applied to all pop culture in general, but it seems to fit film and television the best. In short, it means a constructed culture full of mass-produced and palatable copies of the real, spontaneous art that springs from “average” people (again, most of these guys were Marxists). Take what you will from it, but to imagine that people were making these kinds of claims in a world before Transformers 2 and “Must-See TV” is pretty amazing, and you can only wonder what they’d be saying if they were still around today.

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