and why it doesn’t matter what language you speak, your cinema is American.
This is not the first time I have considered this thought, it’s not even the first time recently. Any film with Dany Boon usually leaves me thinking of the days when French cinema was held in regard and was something to set your own standards to but it became painfully evident during the 2011 BAFTA ceremony. In an evening of celebrating all that was brilliant about British cinema there was one thing that persisted more than the words “and the BAFTA goes to The King’s Speech”…that thing was how wrong it all is.
The biggest trigger for this realisation was when the award for outstanding contribution to British Cinema was announced and all involved in the making of Harry Potter took to the stage to stand grand and thank everyone for believing not just in them but in British cinema. Yeah it’s kept a lot of British actors in work over the past decade but it wasn’t ‘Outstanding contribution to the Back to Work Scheme’, yeah it has kept a lot of money coming into the country and the economy and, arguably (though I’ll believe it when I see it), has provided up-and-coming authors and film makers the chance to get their work out there. The Harry Potter franchise is no more a series of British films that the Lord of The Rings trilogy is a Kiwi film or Braveheart a Scottish film. The narrative structure is distinctly American, the distributors are American, the money is American and most tellingly if you want to go and see Harry Potter World you don’t jump on a train in London to get there as it’s in Florida.
Richard Harris in This Sporting Life
British cinema’s hayday has passed, it’s been a long time since Blow-Up, Poor Cow and This Sporting Life. What we’re treated to now is either lavish blockbusters shot in the UK for taxation reasons or second rate rom-coms all of which are distinctively American. There’s no call to feel particularly bad about it…it’s happening the world over. German cinema has also been co-opted to conform with the American ideology of cinema and adherance to the triadic structure that audiences have become so addicted to over the past 80 years. German cinema was once great, the Weimar movement was born out of the aftermath of World War 1. Physically and mentally scarred, the German soldier returned home to a nation defeated, an economy in ruins (the money was worth more on the fire than in the bank) to find their women independent and making the best of the bad situation. Yet this is the backdrop that gave us chairoscuro lighting on film, the expressionist architecture and such truly timeless pieces as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu : A Symphony of Horror, Metropolis, The Last Laugh, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. In times of great personal and national suffering there were individuals out there who believed that art would save them and with their cameras they made art. German cinema, though enjoyable, has lost almost all resemblance of the Weimar era instead producing cinematic pieces that belong to the American idea of what cinema is. Films like The Edukators, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Goodbye Lenin all enjoyable film, all German cast and crewed, even German money but thematically and structurally they are American.
Still from Goodbye Lenin
Likewise the Soviet cinematic movement, best known as Soviet Montage, took what was being established as the “rules of cinema” and struck out to break them in order to make something that emotionally represented an ideology, theory, a feeling that couldn’t be fully captured by performance alone. The use of rhythmic editing in the Odessa steps sequence of The Battleship Potemkin is almost orchestral in it’s pacing and more emotive than anything that was happening in the United States at the same time, in fact, it wasn’t until Orson Welles made Citizen Kane that American fully understood how to read and execute the montage…and even then it had a coherent cause and effect structure that was all too often discarded by the like of Eisenstein (see Strike for a good example of this). Now’s a completely different story with What Men Talk About being one of the hits of the year, the nondescript stereotype clad “comedy” regardless of the nationality of the director, leading actors of currency of payment is an American movie. It could star Ashton Kutcher if the childling could speak Russian.
All you have to do is look across the channel and you’ll see the startling truth for yourself. French cinema’s peak, like the Weimar era in Germany, was born out of conflict and the period immediate after their “Algerian issues” gave birth to some of the greatest, lofty cinematic movements ever to grace the screen. Directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer let alone Truffaut not only gave birth to the French New Wave but also a new way of reading cinema, of understanding it’s masters and educate it’s servants. Breathless, The 400 Blows, Le Mempris, Bob le Flambeur all films of particular genres but all, when paired up against American counterparts, subverted the genre and in doing so made both the film and genre greater than the quality of the source material. 50 years later and French cinema is a mess, films about awkward neighbours, competing on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and even animal buddy movies show just how far their national cinema has fallen. How much it has lost and how much has reverted in order to appease the International audience of American movies.
As for Asian cinema, well, all you have to do is look at the number of films that have been remade in the past decade with little differences between both films to see that they are speaking America's cinematic language. It simply wouldn't work if the case was different...have you seen a remake of Dolls, no it's "too Japanese" but a cop versus con film like Infernal Affairs, that's a different matter. It's remake won Scorsese the Oscar he's been waiting most of his career for.
Even American cinema has lost itself to this “notion” of American cinema. During the second World War money and resources were stretched but it was during this era that American cinema was at it’s strongest as it looked to the outside and embraced the best on offer. Over the years American cinema adopted directors like F.W. Murnau (German), Fritz Lang (German), Alfred Hitchcock (English) and their techniques. Film noir relied heavily on the techniques developed in Germany some twenty years earlier as sets were lit with charioscuro lighting to mask the fact that it had been used in several scenes and several other productions already. The War movie deployed the (Soviet) montage, though a tamed linear version, to depict the passing of time, the increasing number of events and tragedies and all to great affect.
Nowadays American cinema, rather than open armed and welcoming the best available to make itself better, is happy to force the ideals of their cinema upon other nations like a celluloid empire with dreams of world domination and the sad thing is the world is falling. With the exception of a handful of titles this is once again a depressing cinematic year that’s coming to an end and the news doesn’t look any better. One recent article linked on twitter told of how Hollywood executives rule of thumb for target audiences is “the further away you get from your 13th birthday the less you concern us” highlights just had depressing the situation is.
Our last great hope for a national cinema with it’s own identity is Iran. One synopsis for a film in their recent Film Festival reads as a heist film that’s part Memento and part The Time Traveler and it is this blatant disregard for continuity editing, causal logic and narrative structure. Culturally, anthropologically we all have our own forms and methods of story telling. This is seen in all other artforms but this appears to have eroded in our cinema but not Iran and that should be embraced before a McDonald’s is on every street corner in Mashhad and when Iran falls it’s safe to say that we are all American.