Volume 14, Number 1 (May 2017)
Author: Aaron Sultanik
What’s in a word? The letters, or the conjoined words in a newly coined term.
Cinemulacrum is a conflated or hybrid word; cinema-the art of film, and simulacrum-a reality counterfeit. Cinemulacrum: a hegemony of the “classical” Hollywood film throughout a copy-making media culture. The word movie denotes the popularity of the 20th century entertainment medium of motion pictures-the prosaic resonances of movie-going, ironically evoked by Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies. Complementing the influences of movie-going in the lives of children and young adults, in that of the family and in a nation’s social history, film alludes the material chemistry in the recording of images, a transubstantiation of physical reality, whether though the light-sensitive properties of the film stock or digital film/video’s electronic grid. Cinema seems, then, the most inclusive of these terms; it entwines the dialectic of movie-going and filmmaking into a collective cultural authority.
Simulacra/crum is a simpler term to describe. A copy or likeness of reality, the power of images to be mistaken for or supplant the original has been debated throughout the history of philosophy; Plato’s admonition about the arts as “thrice-removed from reality” remains a lingering concern in critiques of the hyper-reality of television, computer and smart phone screens and the fantasy domains of movie franchises and video games.
Science fiction retains a pre-eminent position in the conceptualization of simulacra. While the ‘monster’ in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein anticipated the science fiction personae of androids, cyborgs and other man-made Godlike creations, science fiction’s postwar flourishing impressed simulacra with a fearsome contemporaneity: the liberty loving robot of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; the existential dread of Philip K. Dick’s sentient android in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; the scarred superheroes of Samuel F. Delaney’s radical fiction, and other future visions of post-holocaust, transgender warriors.
Jean Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra” remains a formidable construct in postmodern lexicography. Baudrillard foresaw the copy, not the original, as the archetype of digital media; his ‘precession’ is a post-Marxist, post-existential metaphor of capitalism’s technological primacy and the eradication of originality, whether in art, culture, or in individual self-identity. For Baudrillard, Disneyland, which had opened in 1955 and featured the animatronics of American presidents, represented an incipient technocratic ideal. The “magic kingdom,” originally a family fantasy resort, then a real world paradigm of sunny suburbia, and finally in Baudrillard’s dark vision, a supreme historical reality-and apt metaphor of postwar, post-industrial, postmodern dystopia. “The simulacrum is that which never conceals the truth. It is the truth that conceals none. The simulacrum is the true.”
Cinemulacra, however, are not simulacra. The cinema prefix, the engendering agent of cinemulacra, coalesces the outstanding attributes of the Hollywood film: its popularity in America’s mass culture of the 1930s and 1940s, when, testifying to Garth Jowett’s characterization of motion pictures as a “democratic art,” some 70 million people attended a weekly double bill entertainment of A star/prestige productions and a B film mix of news, cartoon and comedy shorts, western and crime serials.
Arguing the superiority of American film of the1930s and 1940s, Andre Bazin inspired the “politique des auteurs,” the transcending art of film personified by the film director. Movies had entered the pantheon and Hollywood mythmaking became a mainstream ideology for television’s postwar mass medium.
But do the conjoined meanings of cinema and simulacrum in cinemulacrum repudiate the still forceful connotation of simulacrum as an innately illusory, malevolent reality?
The ultimate meaning of cinemulacrum lies with television’s “re-confabulation” of classical Hollywood, a transformation of the popular culture of movie-going in the 1930s and 1940s into television’s daily compendium of entertainment, news, and advertising. By the last decades of the 20th century, the commercial priority of television’s movie tropes-an immersion in “classical” Hollywood highlighted in postwar American culture by the unrivalled popularity of westerns on prime time television-led a generation of filmmakers to utilize state-of-the-art special effects in reviving Hollywood genre mythology and the franchise entertainment: the B film sf serial of Flash Gordon remade as a big-budget A blockbuster in The Empire Strikes Back.
Copy-making remains the economic imperative of contemporary media culture: Variety noted that 2010 marked the first year in which the top 10 box-office hits were all franchise films; similarly, television both abroad and in the United States, has become what Silvio Walsbord characterized in “Understanding the Global Popularity of Format TV” as “wall-to-wall format.”
Yet the fateful condition of Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra” is not inexorable.
The mediation of technology’s utopian/dystopian divide involves a consideration of television’s founding triad of entertainment, news and advertising. And if the ‘genius’ of Hollywood was the variety of A and B film entertainment, the evolution of network and cable television-the expansion of news, sports, and movie programming on CNN, ESPN and HBO, the disparate audiences of BET, MTV, Cartoon and Adult Swim, Lifetime, Comedy and Syfy-has reinvigorated the Hollywood system with an undeniable demographic authority.
It is, however, the innate virtue of video technology and the television industry-the immediacy of live broadcasts-that provides compelling evidence of television fulfilling the promises of a mass culture of the Hollywood film: the groundbreaking election-turnabout Kennedy-Nixon debates; the “up-close and personal” coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate Hearings; and the 24/7 news forums of CNN, reflecting a public witnessing and historical reckoning that acknowledge the inestimable power-and vagaries-of public opinion.
The pervasiveness of advertising’s unbending consumerism, the third and least visible aspect of television’s tripartite reality screen, however, threatens video’s interpersonal rhetoric. The permeating influence of advertising’s lifestyle advertising, not only in commercial intervals but also in the product placement of primetime programming-and throughout Hollywood’s cross merchandizing franchise industry-proffers, to post-Marxist, post colonial, post-structuralist critics, telltale evidence of the onerous commodification of western culture.
Television is a popular medium of entertainment, information and advertising that is also inherently populist due to the audience metrics that shape its programming and advertising iconography. Like the Hollywood film industry, television has adopted the gospel of the happy ending and censorious voice of the Production Code through its family-friendly ratings.
A series of studies of media activity among young and teenage Americans begun in 1998 and continuing through 2010 (“Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 year olds,” Kaiser Family Foundation, 2012) documents 40 plus hours of media consumption. A close reading of the media habits of tweens and young teens, even with the inclusion of entertainment and communication platforms like videos games and social media, underscores television’s continuing pre-eminence, derived from its original inclusion in postwar American society, the enduring popularity of television’s niche programming, and an entrenched, segmented audience: a daily habit of Hollywood entertainment among America’s diversified public.
The ubiquity of video technology and the television industry constitutes a paradigm-shift from the mass culture of America’s weekly movie-going in the first half of the 20th century to that of television’s everyday media culture of news, entertainment and advertising. The absorption of television in the daily lives of Americans has led to the reign of a young adult demographic inured to television’s immersive, composite entertainment and to the unbound communication and information resources of smart phones and personal computers.
Cinemulacra represent a change in kind, not degree, from simulacra; the ’romance’ of “classical” Hollywood has been perpetuated throughout media culture’s fantasy franchises and ‘wall-to-wall’ format programming, yet the socially transformative nature of digital media’s interpersonal immediacy and open source information portend the counterbalancing force-and imagination-of a multigenerational, multihued young adult audience.
I introduced the neologism “cinemulacrum” in Cinemulcrum: A Secret History of Film/Video, 1960-2010 (University Press of America, 2012) to designate a new media culture that arose with the advent of video and television and that led to a reinvention, or more precisely, a Hollywood “re-confabulation”: a transformation of the classical Hollywood film by the “New Hollywood” of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and state-of-the-art electronic fx cinema.
Two major periods are demarcated in the ‘secret history’ of cinemulcrum: a pre-cinemulacrum era (1960-1980) that marked the decline of classical Hollywood and the rise of television’s revolutionary media triad of entertainment-news-advertising; and an Age of Cinemulacrum (1980 to the present day) that has witnessed the emergence of a film/video digital dyad reflecting the hegemony of television, its exemplary spinoff or franchise production model, and young adult audience.
“Cinemulacrum” is not another postmodern construct. It is a Hollywood fantasy re-confabulated as our omnipresent digital screen.
About the Author
Aaron Sultanik is a teacher and writer in English and Film/Video. He is the author of four works in film and literary history and theory: Film A Modern Art (Cornwall Press,1986; Camera-Cut-Composition: A Learning Model, Cornwall Press, 1995; Inventing Orders: An Essay and Critique in 20th Century American Literature, 1950-200, University Press of America, 2003); Cinemulacrum: A Secret History of FIlm/Video, 1960-2010, 2012, University Press of America.