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National film industries and homogenization

Cherry Potter wrote an interesting article about the homogenization of the world cinema business.

Surely the “art-house” audience has always been more sophisticated, eclectic, international? Well, according to the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 all-time classics voted by regular users of the independent film listings site, a mere 36 are foreign language films. Apart from Sergio Leone’s dubbed spaghetti westerns, only four foreign films appear in the top 50: Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (8), the French rom-com Am?lie (20), the German U-boat film Das Boot (40) and Spirited Away (44), again. In other words, the influence of Hollywood is so pernicious that even non-American cinema classics are being relegated to the margins.

Ok, and another:

What happened to the time when film promised to be the definitive cultural medium of the modern world? Until as little as 20 years ago, one of the most exciting (and educational) experiences for each new generation was the discovery, often at university film societies, of the diversity of the world’s cinema cultures. The Japanese, haunted by feudal warlords and ancestral ghosts. The Italians, preoccupied with fascism, communism and huge family meals. The Spanish, grappling with catholicism, beggars and a taste for the surreal. The repressed, puritanical, Swedes. The French, who adored infidelity, bourgeois dinner parties and murders in provincial towns. The British, engaged in an interminable class struggle. The Russians, the Poles and the Czechs, evading the communist censors with sophisticated comedies and metaphorical allegories. And, of course, the Americans and their obsession with rugged individualism, the wild frontier and the “American dream”.

The article goes on to say that the Hollywoodization/commercialization of the movie business is partly responsible for this homogenization. I am more sanguine. Many international film luminaries eventually settle in some Hollywood niche, so if we limit ourselves to English-only Hollywood made films, we’re not talking just about America. Second, the wealthiest economies can support the most far-reaching marketing machines. When China’s economy overtakes ours in the 2020’s, you can bet that dubbed versions of great Chinese films will show on people’s lists Also, the ability to switch on alternate language tracks on a DVD makes it much easier to watch foreign films (although admittedly Americans are watching no more Bollywood than they used to).

While it is true that that IMDB’s top lists are parochial and limited to English-only audiences, they allow critics from different countries to come together and discuss films. This cultivates an international eclectic sensibility towards criticism and film expression. Perhaps what Ms. Potter is bemoaning is the decline of national film industries. That may not be bad. The nationality cliches she mentions may simply be a result of filmmakers needing to play up the “nationalist idea” angle when trying to get funding from their film board. Ok, maybe film boards and grant commissions are more open-minded than that. But it’s certainly easier to get funding if the film has something positive to say about a country’s culture than something negative.

And by the way, I’m a big fan of Titanic, a classic Hollywood picture. People in East Europe loved it, and so did the Chinese, perhaps because it touched on universal themes and the class division themes so common in red films. The Chinese elite had been reported to have loved the film, with the Chinese premier calling it a classic struggle of class struggle and bourgeois values. Ironically, that reading was not far off the mark, although only a capitalistic country could finance such an extravagant denunciation.

Finally, given the borderless nature of the Net and decreasing production costs of noncommercial cinema, it’s quite possible that 10 or 20 years from now the proportion of big budget films to small budget films will have tilted considerably.

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