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Wednesday, July 30, 2003


It’s Not Only A Movie

It was Hermann Göring who supposedly said that whenever he heard the word culture, he went for his Browning (although if he did, he stole the line from Hans Johst’s play, Schlageter). In any case, Göring was obviously a barbarian. The New World Order bases its cultural policies on those of older world orders from Alexander the Great to Queen Victoria, namely, that culture follows the gun (or the spear, or the Tomahawk missile, as the case may be). I am currently living in a village near Karystos, in Evia. Every few days, whenever I happen to be in Karystos, I check out what’s playing in the town’s one therino sinema (open-air cinema), since, besides reading and watching the BBC and Deutsche Welle’s English-language programming, there’s not much of a social life in the village in which my wife and I live (neither of us are drinkers). Invariably, the movie playing, usually only for a night, is American — which actually means seven American movies seven days a week. In Karystos. In southern Evia. In the middle, more or less, of nowhere.

Last year, in France — that alleged core of cultural anti-Americanism and mother of l’exception culturelle — 52.4 percent of box office went to American movies, while French movies got only 34.2 percent (according to the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie). In 2000, American movies constituted over 62 percent of French box office, while French movies couldn’t even reach 29 percent. It’s possible that French disgust for Dubya’s foreign policy might have led to a drop in money spent for American movies last year, but, somehow, I doubt it. The French take their culture seriously — and, as paradoxical as this might sound, American movies are an innate part of modern French culture.

Indeed, that’s the point. One cannot be a cinephile and not have a huge part of one’s heart reserved for the American cinema. In fact, in my almost 40 years of seeing, studying, teaching, and writing about movies, I have never, ever, met anybody, anywhere in the world — even the most Hollywood-hating, studio-bashing, anti-“narrative” avant-gardist — who does not at least have a love-hate relationship with American film. It’s impossible. It’s tantamount to being a lover of art and denying any interest — even if only historical — in French painting, or being a devoted theatergoer and not caring about Greek drama. It’s an absurdity. To love movies is to love American movies. The problem, however, is that the reverse is equally true: to love American movies is to love movies. For many of us who will always venerate American movies, however, America stopped making them a while ago, and, in fact, the only people still steeped in the tradition of the classical (and, if I may use the term, post-classical) American cinema are Europeans and Asians and Africans and Americans south of the Rio Grande. Which finally means that thousands upon thousands (millions upon millions?) of people throughout the world who believe deeply (desperately, actually) in the cultural challenge and social tenacity of the cinema find themselves in an increasingly bitter struggle to save the movies from the contemporary American film industry.

Recently, I came across an article in Kathimerini by Maria Katsounaki on Greek filmmaking; it reported that in a nine-month period since last fall, a total of 24 Greek films (20 features and four documentaries) had sold only 200,000 tickets. Furthermore, Katsounaki cited a Greek Film Center survey from 2001 in which 40 percent of the respondents declared that they never went to a Greek movie. Greece, of course, is unusual for a European country since it is, according to the EU, particularly cinema-unfriendly (average annual moviegoing of 1.3 times in 2001). Nonetheless, even if we take the worst recent year for film distribution in Greece (2001-2002), in which only a total of 800,000 tickets were sold (by contrast, 2.3 million tickets were sold a couple of years earlier), if Greek filmmakers were somehow assured of 50 percent of the market, bad year or good — either through direct subsidy or, preferably, through an imaginative program of support linked to a variety of factors, including a movie’s own popularity — that would translate into 400,000 to 1.15 million tickets per annum.

I can already hear Jack Valenti, and his Motion Picture Association of America, and US trade representative Robert Zoellick screaming: Restraint of trade! Censorship! Culture by fiat! Keeping people from what they want to see! Besides (this is sly, old, former LBJ aide Valenti now), have I ever seen a Greek movie? Who the hell would pay good money — drachmas, euros, or Cypriot pounds — for that pseudo-intellectual or (reverse side of the same coin) inane, made-for-Greek-TV dreck? Good question.

I’ve actually seen a lot of Greek movies over the last 30 years — and it’s absolutely true that most of them are as forgettable now as they were unwatchable when they were first made. Except that that’s irrelevant. Put another way, stupidity in art is almost as important as wisdom. Put yet another way, 100 flowers need to bloom before beauty can become a concept. Put in the simplest way possible, for every Ford or Lubitsch or Hitchcock, the American studio system spit forth a hundred Allan Dwans. So, yes, most Greek movies are insipid and even an offense to the eye, ear, and mind, but, no, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Or rather, it does matter, because in art, as in so much else in life, it is quantity — trial and error, back and forth, ignorance multiplied by ego — that leads, in the end, to a quality that is manifest and, for that reason, permanent.

More to the point, culture is not trade, and films are not ball bearings — or, at least, shouldn’t be. In the event, to decry subsidies to national film sectors (the word “industry” is deliberately disorienting and does not apply here) as “restraint of trade” is purposely, and strategically, to restrain the cultural autonomy and development of the national cinemas under attack from that enormous, globalizing, culturopoliticoindustrial monster that is the spawn of Washington and Hollywood and seeks to dominate the world with its “product.”

And lest I seem hopelessly hysterical, let us leave the blue Aegean for a moment and travel east, not simply to another country but to a thoroughly different culture. “As a person whose job is making movies, I have enjoyed films ever since I was a child…,” South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho wrote recently in the JoongAng Ilbo, “but the movies that I adored the most in my childhood were made in Hollywood. I do not think I felt a bigger thrill than when watching The Great Escape and Papillon — I was a big fan of Steve McQueen — and the Alfred Hitchcock movies that were aired every summer.”

Nevertheless, Bong is a Korean admirer of American cinema and, as such, cannot believe what he calls (with tongue firmly in cheek) the “amazing professional spirit of these Americans!” What he is referring to is the fact that the US wants South Korea to “open up” its film sector and abolish its screening quotas for Korean films. The Americans “will not rest,” Bong writes, “until they can swallow up small markets like ours in every small corner of this world.” He says that their irrational predation “is analogous to Bill Gates appearing in a PC bang [a Korean hideaway for playing video games or watching movies] somewhere on the outskirts of Seoul to rake in coins from children.” In a plea that has been repeated in country after country, and on continent after continent, Bong says that screening quotas do not block free cultural and intellectual competition. Rather, “[t]hey are the minimum measures to ensure the survival of our movie[s].” Indeed, he writes, it is “American movies…that threaten free competition, with their domination over the entire world.” Bong concludes: “…I love American movies. I just would not like to see them monopolize the entire movie-going population on earth.”

As someone who also loved Steve McQueen when I was a kid (or an adult, for that matter), I also do not want to see today’s American movies monopolize the earth. Because, yeah, when I was a kid, I loved Steve McQueen, but I was also fortunate enough to live in a time in the States when my parents could take me to the Tivoli, a moviehouse on Eighth Avenue (owned by the legendary Mrs. Wilson, from Salonika no less), where I was introduced to Mimis Fotopoulos and Georgia Vasiliadou and Dinos Iliopoulos, and the extraordinary era of classical Greek film comedy (or classical Greek film drama, as in O drakos). When I grew older, and started going to see foreign films, I discovered Jean Gabin and Michel Simon and the ineffable Machiko Kyo and the slightly more effable Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud and Catherine Deneuve and Liv Ullman and the utterly life-changing Marcello Mastroianni and…well, you get the idea. They’ve always been more than movies, and they’ve never been exclusively American.

This is not the time or place to enter into a detailed discussion of the assault on the global cinema by the forces of US corporate cultural repression (if you don’t mind my calling a spade a spade). This is also not the place to enter into the related discussion of the decline and fall of the extraordinary American cinema, and who’s responsible for that immense cultural tragedy. Finally, it is hardly the place to enter into a discussion of the (multiple) ills of Greek cinema, or what can be done to (help) cure them. I’d like to attempt all these analyses someday for this Website, but, under the circumstances, the point to this brief commentary was to remind the reader that culture and guns are indeed two fundamental, and intimately bound, elements of every imperial project.

The devastation of Iraq’s national museum — and of its regional museums and libraries and archives — is part and parcel of a larger, deeper, and more dominant intention, in which are entwined issues such as “defense of copyright,” the “free flow of ideas,” and, most cynical of all, the US’s grotesque drive to make the World Trade Organization the final arbiter of the world’s culture(s). Several months ago, France and, not at all coincidentally, Canada (which understands better than most countries what cultural imperialism is all about) joined together to launch a campaign for a global UNESCO convention on cultural diversity, as a way to remove culture from the WTO’s authority. Today, the United States accounts, on average, for 85 percent of all movie screentime in the world! There is obviously more to war than war. And since I mentioned copyright — which has now, in the hands of the US, become an attack on cultural diversity and the creative process instead of their protection — I’ll end this article with the opening of another article, written by Yuval Dror and published last month in Haaretz:

An hour and 20 minutes into a session of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the audience was stunned into silence. Destroying hackers’ computers “may be the only way you can teach somebody about copyrights,” thundered the committee chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. The participants at the hearing fell mute.

No, they weren’t dreaming. Hatch proposed a law that would allow music, movie and software companies to use remote software to destroy user computers on which illegal files such as MP3s are found. There was no excuse for copyright violations, he said.

“He was probably speaking metaphorically,” said a spokesman for the music companies’ association, who didn’t believe that someone could be more radical than the association itself….

But Hatch was completely serious….

Did I say that there’s more to war than war? I take it back. This is war. And we are all Iraqis in this particular campaign of “liberation.”

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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