martes, 26 de abril de 2011

What makes European cinema so unique?

This question was recently posted in an online forum, and indicates a true desire to learn more about the current state of cinema in the world today. But perhaps the question is framed incorrectly, and that framing shows a certain ethno- or culture-centricity on the part of the questioner.

Certainly each culture’s films are unique, and in the US, people tend to view US films as the standard – and all other films produced in the varied cultures of the world as ‘everything else.’

This perspective is a good place to start, and the reason so many people ‘position’ their arguments with relation to ‘American’ (read: made in USA) films is that the factory that is Hollywood churns them out and markets them, and so many ‘smaller’ cultures take in these (from their perspective) ‘foreign’ films, accepting them too as some kind of attainable or at least desirable ‘normal’ and then growing up with the Americanisation of their native culture as a fact of life.

No one is saying “why are European films so much better than Nigerian films” because the answer is quite obvious (if you’ve seen many Nigerian films – and I don’t mean to pick on them, it’s just that almost all of them are a bit behind the curve on filmic techniques, or were when last I checked; but the Nigerian film story is a fascinating story of its own).

Over the last four decades, it is quite true that European films and US films have grown much more alike, and there are several reasons for this. One is the marketplace itself: as Europeans saw that they actually could get films shown in the US, they started looking at what ‘Americans’ watched and then kind of mimicked some of what they saw (La Femme Nikita, et al).

And on the flip side, American filmmakers (mostly producers, it is true, but some directors too) saw the great European films and bought the rights and remade them by setting them in the US, in the process altering the stories as needed to make them work in US cities with US characters. I mention producers and directors – the directors chose largely to tell their own stories (Soderberg & Traffic, for instance) while the producers were much more happy to just remake a ‘successful’ or interesting film (The Toy, My Father the Hero, Three Men & a Baby, Three Fugitives, Fathers Day, etc etc) for the money that such a film might make in the US.

It seems that people look for facile answers, and often to facile questions, which is no way to educate oneself. To say that ‘Americans’ (meaning US) will lose their jobs if the films fail is no argument of worth, since there are plenty of ‘Americans’ (meaning US) who turn out drek and lose their jobs, who turn out good films and still lose their jobs, and who turn out drek and keep their jobs.

Films are made for a variety of reasons, some of which are:  just to spend a little money keeping someone busy, to pay back a favor, to balance the terms of a contract (“Gee, Steven Soderberg, make Oceans 12 and we’ll give you the budget to make your art film”), to keep someone from being able to be available for a rival studios big film, etc etc.

And the fact that Hollywood is a very small town, a factory town, should not be lost in the shuffle. The market drives American films. The market. That is why they play it safe, that is why they remake drek, that is why they take old crap from the TV vault and make into the next hoped-for summer blockbuster, that is why they look at something and say, “Well, the original was a hit, so this will be a hit.” Many of my friends and I agree that if they were serious filmmakers, they would take a failed film from the 40s or 50s or 60s and remake it – and make it better. That is to say, they would take something that ‘could have been a contender’ and made it hit the mark.

Hollywood has always dealt in remakes – from the very first handful of movies, they were copying each other (and themselves), remaking things that were popular. One of the first films was a camera tied to the front of a train and sent down a mountain (France? Switzerland?). Then it was done in the US. Then somewhere else. One historical document is a film made from the front of a streetcar heading down Market Street just days before the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. Streams of cowboy movies, the war movies (when the film industry was used as a propaganda arm of the US government during WWI and WWII), then gangster movies, then more war movies.

In Hollywood in the first 20 years of the 1900s, they would remake the same film two or three times in a five-year period. Later, they remade the ‘Maltese Falcon’ story TWICE before they made The Maltese Falcon (what a relief that Walter Huston finally got it right). And the market is what is driving that impulse to remake movies. When you are trying to satisfy an audience, it is an extremely fine line between giving them something they are comfortable with (that is the first part of attraction – and a reason that stars are type-cast) and giving them novelty (if it’s stale or a cliché, they’ll stay away, right?). And the bean-counters are always fiscally conservative.

But be clear on one thing. No one, not in Hollywood or Bollywood or China or Europe or South America, ever goes to a moneyman and says, “I want to make a piece of crap.” And yet that kind of movie keeps getting made, doesn’t it?

No one in US says, “Those silly French, making art – let’s make drek and make a killing.”

No – what they say is this: “The major US demographic sector watching movies is 14 - 24 year old males, and those people want to see breasts, cars, exploding things, and preferably all together. If we make that and show it to them, they will buy lots and lots of popcorn and we will make our money back, and perhaps some extra money to cover that piece of crap that what’s-his-name made, trying to do art, the loony bastard.”

I think that this perspective is aptly called “a race to the bottom.”

In Europe and elsewhere, they say, “Kids will watch whatever they will watch, but we are actually educated and think real thoughts that make real sense (unlike in the US where they are told that they are thinking when they are actually repeating something they’ve heard or read in a magazine). And we have an audience to please that includes a lot of adults and women too, so let’s make this movie from the great script that Francois wrote. The kids can always watch that merde from the USA, non?”

I may be wrong, but that’s the way I’ve seen it play out...

© 2011 Hakim - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: use without profit allowed only with author’s express written permission. Please don't wake up my attorney. Please.

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