Hollywood and the end of innocence abroad

THERE IS ALWAYS A DANGER in trying to recapture the past. On the first trip to Athens in 1990, the Acropolis seemed an almost mystical experience. On that huge slab of rock, rising in the middle of the city, stands the Parthenon, the temple to Athena built in the fifth century B.C.

Now, three years later, would a second visit capture the sense of artistic ghosts, of tradition, of strength that seemed so powerfully embodied there? Reel Life approached the Acropolis — the symbol of Western heritage and culture, of beauty and mystery, of all that is noble about our civilization — with a mixture of respect, anticipation and trepidation.

Within a minute of setting foot on the sacred ground of the Acropolis, you see the Parthenon.

And on it were standing Linda Evans and Yanni, in the middle of a photo shoot.

A little later, in a taverna near the Olympic stadium — the site of the 1896 Olympics, when the modern tradition of holding international athletic meets was revived — music over the loudspeaker featured Tina Turner, followed by Barry Manilow.

Nearby, a shop displayed T-shirts for sale: one with a picture of the Parthenon, one with a drawing of a sailboat, and the third with a photo of Madonna.

Traveling abroad, you realize two things: how much of U.S. culture is taken from Western Europe, and how much pop culture we’ve given them in exchange. Everybody in Hollywood knows this, but you wonder if anybody in Hollywood is aware of it.

Our language, the foundations for our art, our structure of government — even the word “democracy”– all come from foreign countries. In exchange, we’ve given them “Sleepless in Seattle,” Michael Jackson and “Wheel of Fortune.” In France, you turn on the TV and there are “The Golden Girls.””The Bold and the Beautiful” airs in primetime in Amsterdam. In Brazil, “The Fugitive” and “Hot Shots! Part Deux” are the hot box office draws. Mariah Carey’s album is near the top of the charts in Japan.

IT’S SOBERING TO THINK ABOUT, but there’s nothing personal in the specifics cited here. If you’re talking about examples of the decline of Western civilization, Linda Evans and “Wheel of Fortune” are nowhere near the top of the list. (“The KTLA Morning News” springs to mind as the leader, but that’s the subject of another column.)

Entertainment is one of America’s biggest exports. And we know what that means to most people in showbiz: Oh boy, foreign residuals.

But Hollywoodites seem to get so wrapped up in the reaction of colleagues to their work, they forget there are other people out there. Throughout the world, Hollywood images have become part of the collective consciousness. Rhett and Scarlett, King Kong and Norman Bates are symbols as vivid and meaningful as characters in Greek mythology.

Around the world, people define their feelings, their experiences, the events in their lives by comparing them to TV and movie fare. Hollywood enters their dreams, and what does Hollywood give them to dream about? Amazing special effects of exploding heads, sitcoms that are based on other sitcoms, and the reassurance that most minority members are either muggers or drug dealers — no wonder they think America must be a swell place to live.

People here use the terms The Industry, The Business with the casual arrogance that there is only one business worth talking about. At least once a week someone on a talkshow will say “Show business is two words — sometimes people forget it’s a business.” And of course they’re right. But the flip side is that sometimes people forget it’s anything more than a business.

UNLESS YOU’RE A RECENT GRADUATE of film school, you’re embarrassed to talk about considerations of art and of content. Hollywoodites get so wrapped up in the dealmaking, they forget there’s anything more important than gross points, Nielsens and record sales.

Maybe it’s a little naive to talk about art when so many in The Industry will freely admit that their “product” is not art, just software cranked out to meet contractual obligations. But French director Jean-Luc Godard once said that every camera angle is a political statement. That’s probably an exaggeration — it’s hard to think of “Herman’s Head” as making any kind of statement, much less a political one — and when you’re losing the light and you’re three days behind schedule, moral considerations seem insignificant.

As the elementary school teachers used to say to us as we went out to sell World’s Finest Chocolates door to door, “Behave yourselves, because you’re not only representing yourself, you’re representing all of us.”

And when you’re cranking it out, when the most important thing is to impress your pals or the guys at the front office with The Deal, when you’re contemptuous of your job but not of your salary, or when the perks become more important than the work — just think of Hollywood product as that World’s Finest. And remember that the whole world’s watching.

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