Dreams Are as American as Apple Pie

Article excerpt

A poor teenager has become a legal eagle by watching Court TV. He is just the latest proof that, in the US, you can still be anything you want.

Los Angeles. Venice Beach, past its novel best, is still a good place to lounge and experience - a vital word, that, experience - an outgrowth of and commentary on nearby Hollywood. It is sumptuous: in its leisure, in the profusion of cafes, in the omnipresence of the SantaMonica police force, cruising in their shiny cruisers through the ruins of hippie culture by the boardwalks. And when, in disdainful European fashion, you want to write it off as an obese swamp, you are slapped awake by its striving for excellence: in the dedication to the body at the open-air gym on Muscle Beach, in the panting, competitive spirit of miniature tennis and basketball around the gym.

Most of all, as with Hollywood's offerings, you are taken aback by the sheer work that produces the grace of many of the boardwalk artists. One, a mime, does a robotic act built around the reason for his presence: to beg for money, pouting when ignored, switching on a brilliant rictus when rewarded. Another balances his partner, seated on a plastic chair, on his chin.

The Los Angeles experience, at the start of the 21st century, is complete, totalitarian. The city does have other cultures: in particular, a turbulent and inventive labour movement, whose fiercer spirits organised a janitors' strike as well as a unique protest of bus passengers, following which the Superior Court forced the city to add 300 extra buses to the vehicles on its impoverished routes. (The city is now appealing the decision.) Yet none of this comes through in LA's official, sanctioned culture.

Los Angeles is entertainment. Entertainment's most important root is the Latin tenere, "to hold". The Los Angeles you are invited, dragooned, to see is designed to hold, to not let go. Here, the imagination cannot be allowed to work: it must be fed, with helpings as big as the grossest grossout on cheeseburgers, washed down with a strawberry milkshake to stun the senses.

In his book Life: the movie, Neal Gabler tells us that the notion of "fun" did not really exist before the 20th century. By the end of the 19th century, working men and women began to have a little free time - something "of their own" between finishing work and dropping on to their beds. The cinema enfolded them. The sensation was partly in revenge-revenge through figures such as the Keystone Cops and Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, and above all Charlie Chaplin - on the moneyed and cultured elite. Some of it was transformation: living, if only foracouple of hours, in a dream. The way of watching was important, too. The stillness of the bourgeoisie's Verdi or Shakespeare was replaced with popcorn-crunching, Coke-draining, shouting at the screen, aahs of pleasure or tension.

Entertainment is not neutral; it has narratives, and these narratives respond to imperatives set by the political culture, just as they shape it in return. That narrative is now, crucially, about American power.

American power is not just Hollywood. In an essay ("Who's Afraid of Mr Big?") in the current issue of the US journal National Interest, Josef Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, remarks that America is Harvard as well as Hollywood - where Harvard "stands for America's towering intellectual dominance, where the Sorbonne and the University of Gottingen once ruled the roost. Now Europe's best and brightest would rather go to Stanford and the California Institute of Technology than to one of those faceless mass universities that have replaced the Continent's ancient centers of excellence."

In philosophy, literature and the teaching of morality, American authors dominate, leaving spaces for the Europeans (especially the Brits) in fields such as history or sociology or postmodernism.

Hollywood culture cannot be escaped. …