26 août 2010

American Isolationism 1 (Rosenbaum)

Movie Wars. How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See, Jonathan Rosenbaum, 2000

excerpt Chapt. 7 : Isolationism as a Control System

"This chapter and the next explore complementary and mutually alienating attitudes: the desire to keep out foreign influences in order to preserve American "purity," and the fact that what we consider American "purity" is often composed of foreign influences. [..]
Precisely for this reason, even bad or mediocre foreign movies have important things to teach us. Consider them cultural CARE packages, precious news bulletins, breaths of air (fresh or stale) from diverse corners of the globe; however you look at them, they're proof positive that Americans aren't the only human beings and that the decisions we make about how to live our lives aren't the only options available - at least not yet. [..]"
Critics forgot that there is more than prescription in "film criticism", that to determine whether a given weekly-batch movie (approved by the distribution system) is worth spending the admission fee for a pleasant night-out is NOT the end-all argument of the conversation.
When the specialized press wastes time and space dismissing festivals and "foreign cinema" just because they allegedly repeat "mannerism" (while these incriminated films are precisely the MOST POTENT VISIONS in our current film landscape!!!), I really question the motive of their bitter boredom... The fact is that they only know how to ride the coattail of popular (or rather populist) "blockbusters". Yeah, everyone has something to say about Avatar or Inception! But give them ART and they yawn, begging for mercy, skipping to the next "big sensation".
I thought Cinema had achieved a true cultural binding in the world, because it is mainly based on visual language. Translation in local idioms doesn't suffer as much as in Literature or Poetry (and if it does, it's more a script than a film!)
I thought that, at least amongst cinéphiles, we could talk about films regardless for their language and country of origin, that every filmmaker was accepted on equal footing, as long as his/her mise en scène had something significant to say... But the cultural barrier is high and thick.
When non-domestic films are rejected on other ground than for being subtitled, critics find fancy ways to paint them in negative light... They won't say that they prefer Entertainment (cause it's not politically correct amongst cinéphiles) They say the competition for Hollywood is "déjà-vu", that they aren't on par with the slick (and dull) professionalism of studio movies, they believe a slow pace is a misunderstanding of the Hollywood sense of timing, they purport that going for a plan sequence is a proof they can't cut... How far are they willing to go to tarnish the appeal of creation, over the "comfort food" of Customary patterns, Classic screenwriting, Traditional narrative, Standardized timing, Conventional blocking, Pre-formated editing : everything that defines AMERICAN moving pictures... 80 years ago!
Some people will never learn from overseas...

[David Denby said "One of the extraordinary advantages of growing up French is that you can be absurd without ever quite knowing it"]
Rosenbaum replies : "If a French critic made the same statement about growing up American, I wager that most of us would find the remark stupid. But too many Americans feel licensed to define the rest of the world, cheerfully and without shame, in terms of their own limitations. [..]"

"That a good many Americans are interesed in seeing foreign movies, including some that exist only overseas, isn't really a matter of dispute. [..] But people can only be interested in films that they know about, and given the lack of interest in the mass media in anything that isn't already omnipresent, the range of what people are likely to know about is shrinking rapidly. That's why the themes of innocence and ignorance strike a chord in young audiences despite the supposed cynicism that the press keeps attributing to them. On some level Americans are aware of their own isolation from the rest of the world as well as their crippling lack of information [..]"
Well that one is a bit far-fetched... I wouldn't have dared to make that connection. Aware of insularity on a conscious level? Probably not. Americans wouldn't even conceive the idea that neglecting non-American culture could be considered as a negative. The world needs Hollywood, sure, but America doesn't need to care for underlings of their commercial imperialism. That's more what the overwhelming majority of Americans are thinking. And the American intelligentsia who knows better, isn't vocal enough to change this mentality. Thus fatalism. Thus Isolationism.

"Another reason might be the industry truism that in order for a film or series to be commercially successful, it has to have the status of an "event" - meaning, I suppose, that a retrospective with new prints qualifies as an event and that the prior commercial release of a single Bresson masterpiece (say, Au Hasard Balthazar) apparently doesn't. [..]"
I believe even Rosenbaum himself revised his support for the big screen (DVDs A New Form of Collective Cinephilia). Nowadays he'd rather boost the DVD economy and forget about the ever-shrinking peau de chagrin of artfilm screenings in his homeland. But who cares for the original format films were meant for, if the floors are sticky in movie theatres? I guess not being invited to free screenings since he retired can change a man's belief system...

"Given our extreme isolationism - arguably even greater today than it was half a century ago - it's logical that we should think of foreigners in stereotypical terms because we have so little informations and experience to draw upon; similarily, we often think of non-Americans as wannabe Americans. So, out of necessity, we wind up thinking about much of the rest of the world in shorthand: Communists are nonreligious, the French worship Jerry Lewis, Iranians are subject to heavy censorship in the arts, the Chinese produce fortune cookies. That there are plenty of religious Communists, that most contemporary French viewers prefer Woody Allen to Jerry Lewis, that Iranians tend to revere artists more than we do, and that Chinese fortune cookies are strictly for export are lesser-known facts because they interfere with our ready-made formulas. At most such data offers fleeting clues about what usually escapes our radar, and unless we can combine them with additional information, they're likely to be helpful only as counter-stereotypes, not as understandings of these foreign cultures. [..]
The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: "I don't like the world, take it away" In other words, the virtual-reality thriller seems to solve the puzzle of how to address an audience assumed to be interested only in escaping without reminding them of what they're supposed to be escaping from. [..]"
see also National stereotypes and Expatriates (2008) (which Rosenbaum published in Spain instead of preaching his own parish!)

* * *

Where are the anti-isolationism activists in the American specialized film press? People who DO NOT believe that foreign festivals are the latest hype target to bash. Where are the bloggers who care for a nationwide distribution of films they indulge with ease in the elitist quarters of NYC? Where are the critics who disagree that "foreign" artfilm auteurs had a free ride (too many screenings? too much BO money? too many DVD sales? too much air time on TV?) for too long? Where are the Jonathan Rosenbaums of 2010? Where are the readers of this book who thought it was OK to move on and stop worrying about it?

When Isolationism reaches the breaking point, the moral responsibility of film critics is to fight it with words EVERY SINGLE WEEK until it improves, or else there is no point continuing to mindlessly promote the market-approved releases of the industrial system! There is no film commentary possible under these circumstances.
How could cultural intellectuals be consumed by an apathetic fatalism? It makes no sense. But it explains the abysmal level of approximate film discourse, confused priorities and questionable responsibilities in what we read these days...

Apparently in some places, culture can do without any sense of collective responsibility... but could we still call that "culture"?


8 commentaires:

Jonathan Rosenbaum a dit…

If I post one of my own columns for the Spanish Cahiers du Cinema on my web site, which isn't based in Spain, how does this qualify as not preaching to my own parish?

HarryTuttle a dit…

Welcome Mr Rosenbaum, what an exceptional honor.

This is a minor point (tongue-in-cheeky) that you elect to nitpick in the overall argument. But I could explain if you don't see a difference between criticizing American culture from Spain (the original release to the world of the article) and criticizing American Culture within the USA (a posteriori). It's like if Truffaut had bashed "La Tradition de Qualité" in Film Comment instead of a French publication. Not quite the same impact.

Incidentally, in that (Spanish) article you tell us everything that the American press wouldn't let you say in the USA (in a previous American-based article)! Maybe the irony of the system is not as obvious to you today, as it was when you wrote that article?

It's very good to make your archive accessible in English online for the American public (a while after the publication in Spain though, even if your blog post is dated 2008 for archival purpose). But don't you think that if such articles were allowed in the American press it would be more helpful, not to mention a proof of successful contamination of the institutional status quo. Rosenbaum 2000 who wrote "Movie Wars" would have agreed to that...

Anyway, you're the star of my post, you're the good guy in the American system.

Since you are here, may I ask you a firsthand testimony to avoid any provocative assumptions on my part?
What did your book change to the American system, ten years later, on a micro or macro scale?

In my opinion, you did your job of whistle blower (today is seriously lacking whistle blowers!), the blame lays on those who did not take action after your book.

Hollywood will always remain a commercial industry (and American culture, isolationist). This is not the problem. But they can choose to use their success to improve culture (even slightly) or to crush the competition (foreign culture) to make their products make a fraction of 1% more profitable. It's the ungrateful aspect of the Hollywood hegemony that is particularly intolerable (neglecting the cultural debt they owe to foreign films, and imported actors and directors!). And that's what you brilliantly highlighted in this chapter.

Jonathan Rosenbaum a dit…

That's a big question (how did my book MOVIE WARS make a difference?) that I wouldn't know how to answer --except to say that MOVIE WARS is by far the most successful of my books, in terms of both sales and reception. (I don't remember how many copies were sold, but I do recall that the book received well over a hundred reviews, most of them favorable, despite the fact that it had no advertising budget and a very incompetent publicist whom I never even met.) Which persuades me that it hit a nerve and perhaps, as a consequence, it influenced some people's perceptions and understandings.

One major factor that's changed the overall configuration of film culture in terms of possibilities and potentialities is the growth and spread of DVD culture, and yes, I do find many aspects of this encouraging, even if other aspects are not. Otherwise, I can't say that I disagree with much in the book today or have any different political position, apart from the fact that I no longer work for a weekly publication (which gives me more freedom than I had before, especially because no one edits my website whereas both MOVIE WARS and my Reader pieces were substantially edited). I also rarely go to art houses these days, for a variety of reasons, hence I have less reason to write about them.

I think your view of "the American press" as a coherent entity is a considerable oversimplification. The fact that I was censored in the Chicago Reader and wrote about it later for a Spanish publication doesn't mean that no American publication would or could print the same facts. (After all, my main source of information for my claims about Iranian multiculturism is the C.I.A.'s web site!) I've also spoken about this censorship many times in public in the U.S., even in Chicago. But in many ways, I'm also grateful to the Reader for giving me freedoms I've had nowhere else (such as unlimited length for most of the 20 years I wrote for them--whereas the Spanish Cahiers gives me just one page in the magazine), so my desire to criticize their censorship, even if it continues to irk me some, is inflected and complicated by my gratitude.

HarryTuttle a dit…

If you could have published this article in an American publication and yet you prefered to give it to Cahiers España, then it's not the fault of the American press self-censorship, it was your responsibility. You even admit that if the press gives you a little liberty, you will ignore the other liberties taken away from you. That's exactly the attitudes of the American people under the Patriot Act...

You're not as pessimistic as me about the American press? Well, if there is a "Movie War"... where are the warriors? where is the Resistance?

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well that's as much of a conversation we'll have with the former Mister "Movie Wars"... He's too busy building a shrine to his old glory on his website, since nobody else does it for him.
"Movie Wars" being the only of his books not listed on his webiste! Oh well it's like Iraq... just complain a bit at first (for good measure) and then let it go.

We shouldn't expect an anti-Hollywood counter-culture coming from within the USA anytime soon. Tough luck on you third world!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Why you say that? Cause he's just updated his "about" page on that webiste on Sept 17th (well now once again on Sept 21st)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Hollywood is often characterised as a stronghold of left-liberal ideals. In Reel Power, Matthew Alford shows that it is in fact deeply complicit in serving the interests of the most regressive US corporate and political forces.Films like Transformers, Terminator: Salvation and Black Hawk Down are constructed with Defence Department assistance as explicit cheerleaders for the US military, but Matthew Alford also emphasises how so-called 'radical' films like Three Kings, Hotel Rwanda and Avatar present watered-down alternative visions of American politics that serve a similar function.Reel Power is the first book to examine the internal workings of contemporary Hollywood as a politicised industry as well as scores of films across all genres. No matter what the progressive impulses of some celebrities and artists, Alford shows how they are part of a system that is hard-wired to encourage American global supremacy and frequently the use of state violence."

blurb for the book : Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy, 2010, by Matthew Alford.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Jonathan Rosenbaum : "There are a few illustrative lessons here about some of the recurring conflicts between film history and marketing protocol. Annual 10-best lists invariably oblige reviewers to limit their contenders because they won't have time to watch the screeners until during the holidays anyway; and for those reviewers who live outside New York and Los Angeles, they won't have had earlier occasions to see a good many of these films otherwise. [..] Experimental filmmakers, out of necessity and/or temperament, tend to live in geological time when it comes to premieres and releases. [..] And former reviewers like myself who step off the train of regular reviewing are apt to be even further removed from the arbitrary release dates assigned to a good many films. In the "old days," it was easier to sustain the illusion that those release dates were sufficiently shared on a national basis to make 10-best lists meaningful. But of course this was only because, then as now, commercial releases served as the gold standard by which all of cinema is catalogued and measured. Practically speaking, many of the edgier and more precious independent efforts can't be said to "belong" to any particular year—which is one more reason why they're apt to get lost."

Moving Images Source (2 Dec 2011)