[Did this - somewhat basic - tribute essay for Business Standard Weekend]
Intro: Whether you love its vitality or hate its excesses, cinema wouldn't have been the same without Hollywood
The early years of film history are so heavily shrouded in mist – especially with many key works from the first two or three decades having been lost forever – that one must be cautious about pinning down dates, or suggesting that a particular studio, industry or director was the “first” to achieve something. One thing is beyond dispute though: a hundred years ago, give or take a few months, some very interesting developments were taking place in a small Los Angeles municipality called Hollywood. Studios like Paramount and Warner Bros were setting up camp and calling in trucks full of unwieldy motion-picture cameras. Artists with names like D W Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford were being drawn towards the region, almost as if by some mysterious magnetic force – as if a nascent art form knew that it had found a space from where it could begin showing itself off to the world, and that it need the right sort of people to get it going.
And show off it did. From the ground-breaking silent epics of Griffith to the inventive masterpieces of Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim in the 1920s to an explosion of sound films in a variety of popular genres – Westerns, musicals, screwball comedies, noir – in the 1930s and 1940s, American cinema quickly took the lead in demonstrating the possibilities of the medium. Of course, much pioneering work was happening in other countries at the same time – notably in Russia and Germany – but they couldn’t match the scale on which things were done in Hollywood. So it has remained to this day.
Today, a century after those beginnings, Hollywood is less a tangible place and more a state of mind. Geographical accuracy has never mattered to most people who use the word: growing up in India in the 1980s, for example, it was common to hear any English-language film (even a British one) being referred to as “a Hollywood movie” – even by film magazines, which should have known the difference.
For serious film buffs, “Hollywood” has often been synonymous with a crass, studio-governed style of moviemaking – one that is sometimes seen as the antithesis of art. The very word sometimes elicits knee-jerk negative reactions, partly because popular American movies are considered rude envoys of American cultural imperialism. There’s a stage in the trajectory of most film students when it’s fashionable to be snobbish about Hollywood (even the classics) and learn that the really “worthy cinema”, the cinema of integrity, comes from other countries – Italy, Denmark, Japan, Iran.
This view of things is understandable to an extent, especially when you look at the amount of big-budget cinematic dross that America churns out each year, and consider that many small countries barely have the resources to produce even half a dozen (good or bad) movies annually. But there’s another side to the argument. The fact is, in no other moviemaking industry in the world has commerce and art combined so fortuitously, so often, and with such strong reverberations for the rest of the world, as in Hollywood.
It’s true that for decades the studio regime and the star system led to certain artistic constraints, and there are plenty of stories that testify to this: for example, the rewriting - and compromising - of a script because a character played by a matinee idol couldn’t turn out to be a bad penny (or a "wrong 'un") at the end of a film. But it’s equally true that those same studios, and the talents working under the limitations they imposed, produced a rich and vibrant cinematic legacy that explored the full potential of narrative filmmaking. Directors realised powerful individual visions even while operating under the watchful eyes of their financiers (who, by the way, weren't always philistines; sometimes they were good at reining in artistic temperaments that might otherwise have self-combusted). Star-actors showed tremendous versatility not by submerging themselves in a dizzying variety of characters but by exploring the range of emotions within a certain type of role, dictated by their popular screen persona. And the world responded. When cinema exploded internationally in the 1950s and 1960s with an outpouring of independent, “art”-driven films from countries such as France and Sweden, the debt to the American film was enormous. The new European directors expressed their love and admiration for Hollywood, pointing out the subtle and complex techniques embedded in the best of its movies, and this led to a renewed study of American genre films, many of which had earlier been dismissed (by homegrown critics) as "mere popular entertainments".
American cinema would see a second renaissance in the 1970s, with the flowering of a generation of filmmakers who were students first – deeply knowledgeable about and respectful of movie history – and directors second: Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma among others. And though the decades that followed haven’t been quite as rich, Hollywood, for all its excesses, has always had space for the high-quality “indie” film.
But of course, the ambivalence continues. I remember a discussion with a friend who had just discovered the films of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and was (for reasons that I can’t quite fathom or relate to) smugly proud that this “Asian” filmmaker had been an inspiration to Western directors like Sergio Leone and George Lucas. His face fell when I pointed out that Kurosawa himself had been deeply influenced by the very American films of John Ford. In the 21st century it would be silly to think of “Hollywood” as the be all and end all of filmmaking, but there’s no question that it has been the wellspring for many of the best developments in the seventh art.