relationship between the Hollywood "dream machine" and Europe
is ambiguous: overtly one of rivalry fought out at the box office, and
covertly one of love, pursued in the darkness of the auditorium. What is
the fascination of Hollywood? How does it create the stuff of legend? And
why in the course of this century has its product overwhelmed Europe's
industry like a succession of tidal waves?
From the 1930's to the early post-war years, to the blockbusters of the 1980's: the alternating, almost cyclical pattern of colonization of Europe by American cinema is patently obvious. It is no easy task even to attempt to provide an explanation for the complex ramifications of the phenomenon.
We might restrict ourselves to the observation that the American cinema was best able to speak a universal language and create a reservoir of self-projection and identification for people everywhere. But could we go further and state that Hollywood had a natural ability to capture the desires and the subconscious of an era, offering the modern myths that suited the zeitgeist?
The vehicles of this stock of images were the stars, the individual catalysts of collective gossip, human beings elected to the rank of "demigods", the objects of boundless cult worship, expressed by their fans through explicit ceremonies (E. Morin, Les Stars).
The screen gods were a staple in the culture industry, both because they fuelled it - through the snooping and gossip, photos and interviews that appeared all over the various media, but above all in the press, and because they promoted behaviour and consumer items, fashions and lifestyles with great impact on the general public.
Thus, immediately after the Second World War, the expansion of American cinema (which, moreover, allowed Hollywood to sell off the surplus stock that had piled up during the war years) reinforced in filmgoers' minds the faces, gestures and actions of their favourite characters, causing the stereotypes of the American way of life to spread throughout the mass audiences on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps it was the films seen, seen again and then again until nearly memorized that familiarized European audiences with the consumer society, subverting a more traditionalist culture that practised thrift and abhorred waste. Hollywood exported not only films but the myth of the refrigerator, the fitted kitchen, electronic household appliances, catalysing the dream of owning a car and home with every modern convenience.
Within a decade, however, the innate sense of timing of the U.S. culture industry had captured different social moods and reflected them in star legends that were more disturbing and problematic, ready to stand as victims of the absurdity of a system that ignored the widespread angst in society. James Dean, Marylin Monroe and Marlon Brando were the three icons of a society discovering the limits and contradictions of the way it had portrayed itself; they were the symbols of a society on the brink of collapse. They were the last screen gods, afforded their definitive consecration - except for Brando - by their premature deaths. And after their loss, in Morin's view, the cinema never again recovered the ability to produce universal cult figures, because it had lost its central place in the media system to television. What the cinema did retain, however, we may safely say, was the ability to tell stories and to do so - in the forms that most involve our feelings and our passions - with the lightness of a dream.