America’s cultural colonizing is scored in a French-Canadian documentary you’ll probably never see
Imagine if you walked into your local Starbucks and could only order caramel lattes. No cappuccinos, no macchiatos, not even a simple cup of French roast. Only a caramel latte.
As ludicrous as it might seem, that is the situation Hollywood has nearly wrought for cinema aficionados (and filmmakers) all over the world as it determines the kinds of movies people will see, not only in the United States but wherever there are theatres – from Uganda to the Ukraine. Even Arthur Penn, esteemed American director of such films as The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde, can’t get financing in the U.S. anymore to make films that do not follow Hollywood’s formula. This is not to say that independent filmmaking does not exist (though there is debate as to just what independent filmmaking is). There is a whole world of cinema artists outside of Hollywood, indeed in spite of Hollywood, who are making intelligent, creative, edgy films. The U.S. itself has a vibrant film community that actively rejects the hackneyed storylines of movies like You’ve Got Mail that the big studios insist upon developing and promoting. And though on the surface it might have looked like the year 2000 was devoid of any worthwhile films, they could be found. They just weren’t being seen.
You had to go out of your way to find even relatively mainstream films like Jesus’ Son, Alison Maclean’s story about a young man who trades in his drug addiction and petty crime for a more compassionate life, or James Toback’s Black and White, a provocative treatment of white teenagers’ obsession with the black world of hip-hop. Even Spike Lee’s latest, Bamboozled, dropped out of sight as quickly as Al Gore. (Where is Al Gore?) And that’s not even taking into account foreign films. The United States acts as though nothing exists beyond its own borders. So what’s going on?
There is an important film recently produced by the National Film Board of Canada that does an excellent job of answering that question but will, most likely, never be seen in the United States. In The Shadow of Hollywood, written and directed by Québec filmmaker, Sylvie Groulx, traces the history of the American film industry through the use of film clips, newsreels, and interviews with filmmakers, historians, and critics from around the world – such luminaries as Milos Forman, Agnieska Holland, Arthur Penn, Alain Tanner, Bertrand Tavernier, Margarethe von Trotta, Andrzej Wajda, Irwin Winkler, to name just a few. All of them speak intelligently, passionately, and indisputably of the difficulty creating film in a world that is more and more run by Hollywood.
The main thrust of the film details how U.S. politicians have worked with the Motion Picture Association of America to “control the TV and film industry, commodify filmmaking, and export American culture.” While those are just so many more words in a barrage of words foisted on us about the evils of free trade and the imperialistic attitudes of America, In The Shadow of Hollywood breaks it down in a way that is logical, accessible, and at times, downright disheartening. It is not the content, though, that will ensure American audiences never see In The Shadow of Hollywood. The film makes extensive use of American film clips. According to Ms. Groulx, royalty fees for distribution rights in the United States represent half the costs of total worldwide distribution, a fee so high that they had no choice but to exclude the U.S. from their distribution. Even in the rest of the world, including Québec where the film was made, In The Shadow can only be shown on television, in festivals, or in schools. Commercial theatres and video clubs are excluded worldwide.
Just the price of doing business? Perhaps. But if interviewee Luciana Castellina, in charge of external economic relations in the European Parliament, is correct, it is no accident that cultures around the world are all starting to look alike. The Blum-Burns accord, enacted right after the second World War and still intact today, assured unrestricted circulation of American films in Europe by requiring that theatres show at least 85 percent American films. It’s simple math to see that the rest of the world’s plurality is reduced to 15 percent. And as far back as 1897, treaties such as the Dingley Bill disallowed French films from being shown in the U.S. at all. This “McDonaldization of culture” as Castellina calls it, “has led to a genocide of images and a loss of cultural identity in order to appeal to masses everywhere.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See, places much of the blame on the press, film critics in particular, and the dumbing down of movies for an audience that is essentially not credited with any intelligence. The press in the United States, according to Rosenbaum, is basically lazy, more than happy to use Hollywood’s own blurbs to fill their papers rather than do the job they were all supposedly hired to do – analyze and critique films rather than rehash press releases for an audience assumed to be as lazy as they are. He is particularly harsh on some of the critics working for the biggest papers in the U.S., Janet Maslin of the New York Times, for example, and David Denby writing for the New Yorker.
While I happen to agree with many of Rosenbaum’s complaints about the U.S. media (my objections are not limited to their reporting on the arts, either) and I definitely appreciate his avid knowledge of film, as the author of Movie Wars, he is guilty of the same offences he lodges against his colleagues. He spends pages criticizing other critics, especially Maslin, for writing fluff pieces about movies they have never even seen. He then goes into great detail criticizing the Sundance and Telluride film festivals for being nothing but “industry-run affairs.” Fine. Except, wait, he’s never bothered to attend either one of them, bemoaning the fact that he’s never been “invited”. Read what you will into that; last I heard, Utah and Colorado borders were open.
And an even more serious breach: he chastises Hollywood and the press for their apparent belief that American audiences are too impatient to deal with subtitles or films more complex than the latest Hollywood blockbuster, who insist, after all, that Hollywood produces what the audience wants. Rosenbaum claims that American audiences are smarter than that if given a choice. But isn’t he also assuming a certain lack of intelligence in an audience whom he seems to think has to rely on the press to tell them what is worth seeing and what is not?
And unfortunately, Rosenbaum never really addresses the bigger issue of the American government’s involvement in determining what films are seen. The 1993 GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) negotiations were all about cinema. The American representative sitting at the table hashing out cultural exceptions was a Hollywood lawyer. The government’s goal was to eliminate any national funding for the arts (read film) in European countries that might contradict “free” market, which in the eyes of the Americans means their ability to dominate without interference from nasty nationalists.
While the Blum-Burns accords had originally been agreed upon in part because of the gratefulness Europe felt toward the U.S. for their help in winning the Second World War, that gratitude was quickly wearing thin as Europeans realized the implications on the development of their own artists and culture. French citizens took to the streets to protest the accords and while they did win minor concessions, it was not enough to have any real impact on the distribution of American product.
And there we see one of the major cultural differences between Europe and the United States: Europe regards film as art and, therefore, protected by freedom of expression and the author’s rights. The United States sees film as product, the author considered to be whoever owns the rights to the film at any given moment, which at one time, for example, would have been Gulf & Western, the mega corporation that owned Paramount. And though France did win cultural exceptions in the GATT negotiations, they acknowledge that it will be an endless battle with the United States, a nation that really doesn’t seem to understand all the fuss being made about free cultural expression and film as art. The U.S. continues to push for 100 percent of global production, believing that everybody should want the same thing since Hollywood makes money on their movies while everybody else loses money.
In fact, it was after Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws, that the real separation between “movies” and “film” became apparent with the sudden dollar-sign realization that movies could draw masses of people, two to three times that of films. With the release of Star Wars in 1977, the blockbuster movie, with its associated licensing agreements and marketing paraphernalia (toys, dolls, clothing), was assured its place in American movie making.
We need only look to the top-grossing films to see the influence of the almighty dollar on the creation of blockbuster hits that all basically follow the same Hollywood formula. In the year 2000, for example, the top-grossing movies in the U.S. were: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Mission: Impossible II, Gladiator, The Perfect Storm, Meet the Parents, X-Men, Scary Movie, What Lies Beneath, Dinosaur, and Erin Brockovich. Not one of these films appeared in any of the critics’ Top Ten lists that I saw, though Erin Brockovich came close. If none of these movies is deemed noteworthy by the people who purport to know, then what propels them to the top of the American viewer’s list?
Undoubtedly, a great deal of it is marketing and promotion. Take 1998’s Titanic, a heavily hyped movie, with millions of dollars invested in it, which subsequently (surprise) shattered all previous box-office records. Was it a good movie? No, of course not. It makes The Poseidon Adventure look like Shakespeare. James Cameron – writer, director, narcissistic loudmouth who yelled “I am king of the world!” after winning the Academy Award for best director and best picture – must have been laughing all the way to the bank. Somehow, and this is the puzzler, the marketing machine had convinced Americans that Titanic was one of the best movies of all time. While money is certainly thrown at projects to promote particular beliefs and Rosenbaum may be correct when he laments that film criticism is becoming nothing more than a mouthpiece for Hollywood, it is ultimately the apathy of the American public and their constant search for escapist activities that allows second-rate Hollywood movies to rule cinemas at home and abroad. Wouldn’t an audience, after all, that demanded more get more?
Martin Seligman, head of the American Psychological Association, believes that the United States is in the throes of an “epidemic” of clinical depression. I have heard estimates placed as high as 80 percent for the total number of Americans in a medically defined funk. No wonder we approach movies as a means of distraction. We are purposefully trying not to think, and the powers that be are happy to see to it that the trend continue.
So what would it take to wake up Americans to Hollywood’s whitewashing of cultures around the world, to “just say no” to the mindless consumption of product? Certainly there are complicating factors, the biggest one being a conservative government that doesn’t support the arts and a film industry that pours billions of dollars into recycled, safe junk, but it still remains that important films are not being seen because the “people” are not supporting them. Simplistic yes, but the truth often is.
France remains a culture of cinema despite being handcuffed to treaties with the United States because the people of France regularly protest the takeover of their culture and the government of France was smart enough to tax all movies (85 percent of which are American) and funnel that money back into French filmmaking. Korean cinema is currently going through a small explosion in reaction to the U.S. attempting to strong-arm them into rescinding its restrictions on how many local films must play on movie screens.
Arthur Penn, in his final interview with Groulx, was still optimistic in his belief that Hollywood would change, that it was up to the young filmmakers now. He didn’t say who he had in mind, but certainly Alison MacLean, Miguel Arteta, Darren Aronofsky, and Kasi Lemmons (prior to The Caveman’s Valentine at least) are just a few of the young directors who have delivered intelligent films outside of the simplistic white is right, boy gets girl, good vs. evil script writing recipes endorsed by Hollywood. And if he was referring to the 38-year-old Steven Soderbergh, who just won the coveted best director award this year for Traffic, maybe he’s right. Truth be told, I don’t hold much hope. It’s a long hard road ahead for anyone trying to make films (as opposed to movies) in a country where audiences lazily, hypnotically dole out big bucks to see the same thing over and over again.
But then, I listen to French film director Alain Tanner, one of the most vocal opponents of the Americanization of Europe, in his interview with Sylvie Groulx. He believes that there is a global conspiracy against culture, that we are swimming, in fact, in “an ocean of idiocy.” Yet he still seems to see a glimmering light ahead. “What we must do in this black tide,” he says, “is swim. We can still do it. People everywhere are making films. People still write, still make music…we must find the means of resisting. We’re like the final hold-outs in enemy occupied territory.”
And with that, I brew myself a low-foam, high-octane, double cappuccino, in tribute to Tanner’s exhortation to fight the tide of mediocrity.