"Hollywood as 'Dream Factory' just Nightmare to Femme Anthropologist"-so runs the headline over the Variety review of this book. The Variety reviewer, Herb Golden, goes on to call it a "dull and tedious tome," remarks that it gets "downright silly" at times, and says that 11 Most of it could have been put together by any hep Hollywood correspondent in two weeks." He dismisses the author as naive and the book as a gimmick. Mr. Golden, no dope, has hit the nail squarely on the head.
The gimmick, of course, is anthropology and the anthropological method. The notion, for some time suspect, that previous investigation of a primitive tribe uniquely qualifies a person to study a sophisticated society, or any part of it, is now revealed to be absurd. The anthropological method here consists of little more than a series of inane analogies.
Item: The Stone Age Melanesians of the Southwest Pacific have a taboo on sex relations before a fishing expedition. For the same reason Hollywood has a taboo on indicating in a movie that a marriage has been consummated. Observance of the taboo insures against hostile forces interfering with the "catch."
Item: Power has its perquisites. The aboriginal Australian has his choice of women and food. The Hollywood executive gets money.
Item: It is impossible to discover the net profit on a picture because this figure is a closely-guarded Hollywood secret. The Melanesians also have their secrets.
Item: South Sea island chiefs are sometimes chosen for reasons other than their ability. So are Hollywood executives.
Item: Nepotism occurs fairly frequently in the film industry. Among, the Maori, too, kinship is important.
Item: The relationship between producer and writer in Hollywood is like that of man and wife. In parts of Africa, however, "where the bride price, or lobolo, is customary, the bride has far more freedom and rights than the average Hollywood writer."
Item: In Hollywood actors are portrayed as "passive creatures" and "spiritless zombies" who rarely register an emotion. This is an inversion of primitive animism.
Item: Actors give autographed photographs to their fans. Among the primitives "hair combings and fingernail parings have an even deeper symbolic quality."
Item: Primitives divine the future by examining the entrails of chickens or the gall bladders of pigs. In Hollywood polls are used for this purpose.
All these, and more, the author reels off in dead-pan. Miss Powdermaker never refers to herself as "the writer," but always as "the anthropologist." It is "the anthropologist" who "sees any segment of society as part of a whole." It is "the anthropologist" who knows that in no society is there ever a complete break with the past. And it is "the anthropologist" who can predict that there will be new technological developments in film-making.
It is the anthropologist too who twice tries to use sociological concepts (symbiosis and in-group) and who twice comes a cropper with them. And it is the anthropologist who commits more solecisms than a college professor should. Miss Powdermaker never decides whether "data" is singular or plural-she is, in fact, quite impartial on this issue-and it would be impolite to count the number of times a singular subject is followed by a plural predicate. If the anthropologist has her fetishes, literary style does not seem to be among them. Many of the sentences are awkward ("The character actor could be described as a brassiere for the star, literally holding him or her up.") and some of them ("Advertising both uses and abuses man's basic need for love to sell its ware.") could use the services of a grammarian.
When Miss Powdermaker stops pretending that she is an anthropologist and begins to express her personal opinions, her remarks assume some cogency. She sees, for example, that Hollywood represents an uneasy and unsuccessful compromise between business and art, she considers the Production Code to be more than a little ridiculous both in its inception and in its operation, and she believes that the movies are not nearly as good as they ought to be in view
of the array of talent available in the film community. But these opinions are shared by all literate adults, including those who have never studied the Melanesians.
Miss Powdermaker is morally outraged by the power structure of Hollywood. Creative artists, especially the actors and writers, are held in virtual slavery by "ignorant" executives who have no idea how to make a good movie and who lack the "Planning ability, acumen, and common sense of executives of other industries." jockeying for position in this system is also much too vicious for the author's taste. To regard it, as she does, as something which occurs only in the film industry, however, shows an unusual innocence of the facts of life. Has Miss Powdermaker never worked in a business office, a bank, a factory-or a university? We are told, finally, that Hollywood is a totalitarian community and has a totalitarian view of man. This proposition, if true, requires explanation. Shrill indictment is no substitute for measured analysis.
If we ask whether Miss Powdermaker, on her one-year "expedition to Hollywood"-her expression, not ours-has managed to dredge up any new information we must again, and somewhat monotonously now, answer in the negative. Aside from some truncated case histories, which add interest if little significance to her enterprise, most of her information comes from the pages of Variety and the New York Times. These are her principal, and almost exclusive, sources.
Whatever may be the merits of this book as journalism or as criticism, its publication is a disservice to American social science, and especially to anthropology. It will increase the suspicion of those who view anthropology as more of a cult than a science. And it will strengthen the, skepticism of those who view anthropologists themselves as people who use more magic than do the primitives they purport to study.
University of Illinois
from the American Sociological Review,
vol. 17. 1951