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The Passenger or the search for identity (FW31)

Hollywood’s destabilisation vs World Cinema’s success

A second return of the repressed Hollywood’s destabilisation vs World Cinema’s success. By Gavin Lewis

In this article, I would like to examine a cultural manifestation of what I am suggesting is a cyclical breakdown in identification with conventional authority. In order to do this I will look at similarities between the current destabilisation, perhaps even pending crisis in Hollywood audience numbers and the 1960s collapse in Hollywood spectator attendance. This will also provide an opportunity to explore the role of ‘other’ national cinemas in challenging and diversifying the centralising ideological functions of Hollywood Cinema. In the 1960s this role fell to European art film culture. Arguably, in our own period, this function is being fulfilled by World Cinema. In the 1950s Hollywood dominance of world and global markets had seemed unassailable and in this respect – with some differences of scale- it very much resembled the American corporate dominance of world markets that has occurred over the last 10 years in our own contemporary period. However 1950s market dominance was a lot more fragile than any consumer could possible have been aware of at the time. In order to maintain audiences, budgets were having to be substantially increased. What had once been genres operating on identification with a single star – we’re in the 1950s – being cast with 2 or even 3 star names. Examples can be found in the Western, Gunfight at the OK Coral (1957) had both Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster. Warlock (1959) had Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda & Anthony Quinn. The crime drama Ocean’s 11 (1960) had the entire ‘rat pack’. While the women’s melodrama Barefoot Contessa (1954) had such an extended cast that stars Humphrey Bogart, Edmund O’Brien & Rossano Brazzi were reduced to supporting roles. Such was the drive to maintain audiences that by the end of the 1950s Hollywood was even forced to return to the huge visual epics – such as Ben Hur (1959) – that it had not attempted since its early heyday. But even this could not forestall the crisis in attendance that was to come during the 1960s. Compare this scenario to our own era. Currently budgets are enormous dwarfing those of other national cinemas. Multi-star projects are once again the norm. Ocean’s 11, has been remade twice. Hollywood has even returned to the epic but only with mixed success. The critical praise and audience recognition that Gladiator (2000) had enjoyed has not been repeated by either Troy (2004) or Alexander (2004). Obviously some form of crisis is in the wind. But given the scale of Hollywood production, hype and marketing this crisis – similar to experience of the 50s – may not yet be apparent to the casual spectator. However, anecdotal media reports suggest that currently Hollywood audiences are down by 20%. Some reports too suggest that Hollywood is having to withhold its small scale independent films in order to allow blockbusters more screen time to recoup their substantial budgets. There also appears to be worries amongst cinema exhibitors themselves about sustaining audience numbers. This is tending to be articulated in purely marketing/ demographic terms. At the recent UK Cinema Industry Conference – Mark de Quervain of Vue Entertainment – expressed concerns that the first generation of multiplex cinemagoers – now approaching age 35 – may possibly opt to stay at home (cinema business issue 13 April 2005). But it is evidence of growing apprehension. (For the sceptical reader I suggest the following experiment. Pick the biggest film you can think of – perhaps even a film of equivalent status to a release in one of the major franchises, Star Wars, Batman, Superman, etc – go in the second week – rather than the first week of hype – and check the numbers in the auditorium. You will probably find that few contemporary Hollywood products have the legs for long extended runs or can consistently maintain full auditoriums). In theory the practices of Post-Classical Hollywood are too flexible and responsive to market demands to be experiencing a crisis. But then again in theory Post- Fordist production is designed to cope with whatever diversity is present in the population.1 The reality is that Post-Fordist production processes are in themselves centralising and via computerised consumer till returns, over-orientated around mid-demographic conformity. If then we are seeing the beginning of a collapse in Hollywood audience numbers it must mean that in some manner some of the deep structural process of American genre film are beginning to fail. Arguably the most successful attempt at cataloguing the structural and ideological functions of Hollywood film was attempted by the Screen critics of the 1970s & early 80s. One of the most potent aspects of the analysis of this generation of academics was the suggestion that Hollywood practices were anchored in the service-topower of earlier reproductive forms. Jean-Louis Baudry pointed out that the Hollywood construction of screen space was actually derived from a renaissance painting model. While Colin McCabe argued that the processes of the 19th century novel provided an important template for Hollywood narration. The notion of historical continuity is extremely important because it does suggest that there is something consistent at the structural core of Hollywood narration – its service-to-power – and this can be destabilised during periods of social over-centralisation or even anti-authoritarian identification. However the most significant part of the Screen critics paradigm was its use of Lacanian psychoanalysis to get to grips with the actual pleasure of looking as cinematic process. Of the many critics to grapple with the issue of pleasure in cinema the most widely known is Laura Mulvey for her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Mulvey argued that two manifestations of scopophilia – sexual pleasure via sight – propelled the mainstream spectator through Hollywood narrative. The first was narcissism – we are invited to identify with the central male protagonist as a form of idealised mirror image. If you want to consider the ideological ramifications of this argument ask yourself why, in a film like Black Hawk Down we come to identify with and prioritise the fate of a comparatively small number of Americans against the deaths of hundreds of Somalis in the same engagement. The second scopophilic function was that of sexual objectification of representations of femininity. Significantly even those Film Studies critics that have appeared to be hostile to the political analysis of film have produced data that support Mulvey’s position. David Bordwell has suggested that traditionally Hollywood film has been constructed upon a dual narrative trajectory. For Bordwell, the project of the narrative – work, war, mission or quest – coincides with some form of heterosexual resolution. For overt examples of this think Rocky or Die Hard movies. When Rocky has beaten some representation of the Black Counter-culture it almost immediately coincides with his embracing love-interest Adrian in the ring. Similarly after despatching some caricatured version of foreign political terrorism Die Hard’s John Maclane gets to embrace his partner. This form of identification has frequently been intensified in Hollywood narrative by the use of transgression within a primal scene which then generates a revenge motive. If you think of any of the Death Wish, Dirty Harry, Die Hard or latter Rocky movies the ideological function of this narrative trajectory becomes readily apparent. Some form of initial violation occurs which then provides the rationale for the hero ruthlessly dispatching representations of what are currently society’s most disposable and least liked social groups. Often there is a racist or xenophobic dimension to these forms of representations. Ironically this narrative sleight-of-hand has now been put into use well beyond the relatively contained scale of a Hollywood film. September 11th is now being written up as the beginning or stimulus of American foreign policy rather than the logical outcome of it. Hollywood cinema has long since abandoned Fordist in-house studio production. In its place is now decentred Post-Fordist production that only harnesses resources for specific projects. Early champions of Post-Fordism had suggested that it would be uniquely hospitable to social difference. As in other areas of Post-Fordist production – either in the corporate or public sector – this assertion has proved wrong. Post- Fordist Hollywood production has given us 20 years of highly repetitive formulaic ‘High Concept’ action movies. These films have not been particularly representative of social difference. Yes, sometimes the hero can have a black or gay friend but these representations are not placed within their own social context but narcissistically locked into the logic of traditionally white male heterosexual normality – they are constructed as mirror images of it. Post-Fordism might have allowed Hollywood to divest itself of expensive inhouse resources and certain ongoing continuous labour costs but at the level of identity, diversity of narrative form and accommodating innovation it is over-centralised. As in the previous era of breakdown, the very nature of this over-resourced and over centralised system has afforded World Cinema the opportunity to define itself as different and on occasion adversarially opposed to the Hollywood model. French cinema is significant in that it has been active as a form of counter cinema in both Fordist and Post Fordist eras. This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly there still appears to be an element of radicalism attached to French cultural politics – certainly if judged against the current standards of Anglo-Saxon politics – and that may owe something to the fact that this is a society founded on revolution. Secondly, France still practices some form of cultural interventionist policies. French Cinema has the support of its very own government department and historically this has on occasion allowed certain filmmakers to sacrifice profitability for experimentation. Thirdly, the very nature of interventionist policies allows those involved in the cultural industries the economic space to maintain direct relations with the educational and intellectual spheres. This allows for a form of intellectual filmmaking that sadly – Britain amongst others – is no longer capable of. For example it is not vital to be acquainted with the work of Michel Foucault and/or Julia Kristeva prior to watching Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher but such knowledge will certainly enhance the spectator’s enjoyment. Two French films of recent years have functioned as a structural critique of the processes of identification that have consistently operated within mainstream Hollywood cinema. Irreversible (2003) and Baise Moi (2000) both challenges direct identification with the traditional white male protagonist and the certainty that the world artificially represented can ever be entirely psychologically knowable. This is has ramifications for the ideological certainty afforded the structures of traditional mainstream narratives. The narrative of Irreversible is told backwards. In many examples this can just function as a formalist trick or game-play. However, Irreversible has a marriage of form-and-content that makes critical use of this technique. The actual act of physical vengeance takes place almost immediately in the narrative – without therefore being rationalised by earlier psychological motivation and seeming inevitable causality. It therefore stands revealed in its own right as a horrific act. Irreversible is also significant in that it makes obvious that the mechanism of narcissistic identification with the central protagonists is a form of repressed homoerotic desire. The violence that is directed at the female character in the narrative becomes evidence of this artificial construction of masculinity and the dishonesty at the core of mainstream reproductions of it. In terms of structure Baise Moi attempts to be similarly adventurous. It resembles a sort of counter-cultural Thelma & Louise and seeks to give full articulation to form of feminine identity but one that is rooted in the underclass. This is a very brave attempt at representing femininity – albeit with very debateable success – outside of defining constraints of male narrative pleasure. Sexual pleasure when represented is intended to occur on the terms of the female characters – male sexual pleasure outside of this trajectory is treated as an irrelevance. It also is an attempt to represent femininity in non-generalised and non-generic terms. For example women featured in the narrative have very different reactions to the trauma of rape. In all the film demonstrates a striking irreverence both to the conventions of male sexual pleasure and – in its class politics – to private property. Whatever its successes and failures it is not a status quo film. Both these films demonstrate a continuing trend within French Cinema of resisting the deep structural processes of mainstream narrative film. However in the current cultural climate French cinema is by no means unique. In recent years Spanish film has proved especially significant. It has formed institutional and cultural links with the Spanish speaking countries of South America thereby forming one of the most important markets outside of the English-speaking world. It has also proved to be an especially self-reflexive cinema, which asks questions about narrative, identity and identification in a manner that Hollywood’s ‘catch-themyoung’ lowest common denominator filmmaking, now seems unable to engage in. An early example of this trend is Julio Medem’s Red Squirrel (1993). In this film the central male protagonist stumbles upon an amnesiac young woman whose past he subsequently re-writes so as to create an ideal girlfriend. This is a film that makes overt the mechanisms of conventional cinema – built upon male visual pleasure whose ideological project is linked to the final heterosexual resolution. Admirably, the culture that gave the world the word ‘machismo’ has returned again-andagain to questioning the sexuality and sexual pleasures of narrative. Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes (1997) constructs two worlds; one where the central male protagonist is handsome, rich and can have any women he likes. The other, the same protagonist inhabits as an ugly embittered man who can inspire no personal loyalty. The spectator is then asked to judge, which of the two is the fantasy construct. Julio Medem again returns to the issue of narration and sexual identity in Sex and Lucia (2001). Here the mechanism of male narration is laid bare via the Brechtian-like tactic of having the male writer occupy the diegetic world of the film itself – events then happen as he writes them. Both French and Spanish language cinemas appear to exhibit and unconscious resistance to the deep structural processes of mainstream Hollywood film. Spanish language film also is resistant at the level of content returning to political issues such as Spain’s fascist past in films like Salamina Soldiers (2003). Also consciously challenging American global hegemony by revisiting the anti-democratic US backed coup in Chile in the films Machuca (2004), Pinochet and His Three Generals (2004) and Salvador Allende (2004). For other national cinemas the resistance similarly appears to be occurring at the level of content. German cinema now has had consecutive international hits with films based upon the theme of popular political activism. Good Bye Lenin (Wolfgang Becker 2003) uses the metaphor of nostalgia for the collective social practices of East Germany to re-articulate a desire now rarely to be found in mainstream popular culture – that of Utopianism. The Edukators (2004) is a film about anti-capitalist activists and is also that rare thing – a political comedy romance. However it is also a hymn to the youthful political activism of the 1970s. In a restrained and somewhat cuddly way it can be regarded as a political call to arms. Brazilian cinema has had two international hits with films constructed upon a generic structure now almost abandoned by Hollywood as too political – the social problem/gangster film. This was a genre that was widely produced throughout the period of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Subsequently, with America’s dramatic shift to the right it has never again enjoyed the same high level of production and perhaps because of its innate socially critical function it now largely lies dormant as a Hollywood genre. But in an era where globalisation has seen many of the problems of western capitalism exported to the developing world it has proved very useful as a mechanism for articulating the social ills of Brazil. In City of God (2002) social deprivation is such that a life of crime is an inevitability – as is an early death. City of God is a horrorific depiction of gang activity in the notorious Cidade de Deus housing project of Rio de Janeiro – but given that there is no real economic alternative to the life style of the area – for the spectator the main criticism would be of those who created the conditions in the first place. This unobtrusive critical overview is the political strength of social problem/gangster film and one that is repeated in Carandiru (2003). This film tries to give human faces to the victims of the notorious massacre at San Paulo’s Carindiru Penitentiary. As in City of God, authority figures are largely absent and the victims are themselves allowed to be points-of-identification in their own narratives. Perhaps this is the least structurally challenging narrative formation in world cinema but it is significant in Brazilian cinema that outcasts are the heroes. That is something we have seen very little of in a Hollywood cinema geared around the whims of the consumer classes. Sadly Britain under New Labour has retreated somewhat from cultural interventionist policies and as a result its cinema is in something of the intellectual doldrums. Moreover, as its economy has become more closely linked with America and its administrative structures have become more closely based upon Globalising just-in-time models – there has been less cultural space available for criticism. However even in this context there have been some films of significance. At first glance Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) appears to be nothing more than a simple ‘homage’ to the Hollywood revenge movie. But closer examination reveals a self-reflexive challenge to the genre and in particular to the ideological function of the Hollywood revenge structure. Revenge is represented as a debasing self-ruining act. The spectator is never allowed to regard the villains – who are drug dealers from society’s margins – as devoid of humanity. They have humour, social relationships, hopes, fears and personal loyalty. The simple binary juxtaposition between acceptable centralised social values and unacceptable characteristics from the margins is undermined. My Summer of Love (2004) is a film based upon the theme of youthful feminine non-conformity. Two teenage girls of opposing social backgrounds spend a summer creating a world of imagination, melodrama and role-play. It is not a significant film in macro-political terms but does offer a representation of femininity, which is not measured by its relationship to masculinity. It is also offers a vision of identity that is not in the service of the work, war, mission or quest element of the narrative. The playful exploration of identity is its own pleasure. Both films therefore offer an unconscious resistance to the centralising ideological functions of mainstream Hollywood narrative. To these various World Cinemas we could add the anti-big-budget politics of the dogma tradition, which has created cultural space for different narratives of scale at a time when Hollywood was marketing itself on its size. There is also further political filmmaking continuing to come out of the rest of Scandinavia and Russia. Similarly, Iranian cinema has hit a rich vein of poetic realism. We could also add South-East Asian cinema whose diversity can range from overt political filmmaking – Blind Shaft (2003); to sensuous carnivalesque visual pleasure that minimises narrative components and therefore the ideological directive element of film – Last Life in the Universe (2003) and In the Mood for Love (2000); to the paranoid questioning of authority – Oldboy (2003). In the 1960s Hollywood floundered as European arthouse prospered. Consequently, as Hollywood money could no longer predict where its audiences were to be found the industry was briefly handed over to young auteurs who themselves were inspired by European art-house production. Over this two-decade period the world was given a golden period of fin-de-siecle, counter-cultural, personal and experimental filmmaking. While I am sure that defenders of the New Post- Fordist Hollywood would claim that its new flexibility will enable it to assimilate techniques and personnel from the margins of world cinema at such a rate so as to deny any possible repeat of the 60s scenario. It is however worth noting that so far Hollywood is having very mixed results it its attempts to replicate the strategies of world cinema. Vanilla Sky (2001) its remake of Open Your Eyes (1997) was a critical and commercial failure. It does seem that in the current political and cultural climate that the strategies of Hollywood demographic led narrative and World Cinema are not particularly compatible. However, America’s independent sector is providing a ‘whiff’ of a possible budding trend of more challenging modes of identification. Three films, Broken Flowers (2005), Transamerica (2005) and Don’t Come Knocking (2005) all feature returning father figures whose origins lie in counter-cultural notions of patriarchal authority. This might well be symptomatic of an emerging audience desire to look for heroes beyond the mainstream. The King (2005) similarly challenges mainstream notions of patriarchal authority. In this instance, the film has a young illegitimate mixed raced Chicano man returning to the home of his white Middle- American Pastor father to wreck havoc on the mans life and family – an argument could easily be made that this relationship is symbolic of World Cinema’s current relationship to its parent Hollywood industry. This reaction (sometimes unconscious) by the global margins against the corporate Hollywood core tells us a lot about own eras mirroring of post-1950s over-centralisation. In the 1950s western capitalism and its serving populations had been organised around the globally ubiquitous practices of Fordism. Contradictions in this managerial form of social organisation accompanied a large cyclical crisis in how Western Rationalism had ordered the world. Rigidly exclusively procreational sexual roles, class deference, post-slavery hierarchies and of course colonial power were all challenged. In our own era, we have similarly gone through a period of 1950s like materialism and conformity. The potential for a Post-Fordist crisis is occurring simultaneously to the manifestation of Post-Modern anti-colonial movements. Muslim fundamentalist resistance to western authority might not be pretty but neither for example were earlier rebellions by the Mau Mau in Kenya or by the communist guerrillas in Malaysia. A further similarity between the two eras can be found in the current growing suspicion of global corporate power, which has the potential to eventually mirror the leftist countercultural movements of the earlier period. This potential for instability does suggest that there is a very real possibility of exciting, radical and challenging cultural formations occurring once again. Whether or not they will look exactly like the earlier periods resistance to authority is another matter. But it would seem that we are historically due for a second return of the repressed. And certainly that will make for interesting more complex cinema. Gavin Lewis Notes 1 See Robin Murray’s article on ‘Fordism and Post- Fordism’ and Stuart Hall’s on ‘The Meaning of The New Times’ in Hall & Jaques New Times 1989 BIBLIOGRAPHY Baudry, J-L (1970, translation 1974) ‘The Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’. Cinethique (1970), Film Quarterly Winter 1974-75 Bordwell, D (1985) Narration in the Fiction Film, 1988, 1990, 1993. Routledge; 11 New Fetter Lane, London, (Copyright. University of Wisconsin Press) Hall, S & Jacques, M (1989) New Times. The Changing Face of Politics in The 1990s. Lawrence & Wishart MacCabe, C (1974) Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian theses’ Screen Summer 1974 Vol 15 no.2 Mulvey, L (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Screen Autumn 1975 Vol 16 no.3