Monday, February 13, 2012

American Cinema versus Foreign Cinema

I thought for a while about writing about Marshall McLuhan's writing (#49) because of his views on how advertising stereotypes groups in society (and because I am a student of advertising), but after much deliberation I decided that I'd rather examine the articles written by Harold Innis (#42) and Hortense Powdermaker (#43) and how they apply to cinema and culture since I am a fan of foreign films.

I thought that juxtaposing the two writers' views would help uncover some of the reasons American films differ so greatly from those of other cultures. First, I think it's important to point out how Innis defines "culture": "Indeed this may be the meaning of culture--i.e., something which we have the others have not. It is probably for this reason that writings on culture can be divided into those attempting to weaken other cultures and those attempting to strengthen their own" (p. 276). This, I think, it interesting, given our discussion last week that media likes to present us in our most perfect form. And, as we noticed watching the Grammys last night, there is something super-human about many celebrities because they seem so perfect.

And, I would argue, American film celebrities seem "more perfect" than foreign film stars. Think, for example, about French movies stars like Jean Reno or Gerard Depardieu. Beautiful? Eh. Talented? You betcha.

Innis also posits that "constant changes in technology...increase the difficulties of recognizing balance let alone achieving it" (p. 278). A few paragraphs before, he alludes to the Greek maxim of "nothing in excess." Both of these notions make me think of all of the ways that advances in technology (both film and beauty) have changed the way Americans think of cinema. Innis argues, after all, that these advances in technology affect a culture's ethics, values, and beliefs.

Powdermaker, I think, would agree. On page 285, she writes, "In Hollywood, however, the writer does not express his own fantasies, but those of a producer or front-office executive." What that says to me is that no longer is American cinema an art, as perhaps it was treated in years past, but that is only a reflection of what popular mass American culture wants to see, or at least what the big wigs in that front office think we want to see. What does this do how Americans see our values and ethics? What about how we see ourselves? How do American values as displayed in our movies differ from those displayed in foreign films? What does that say about American cultural values?


  1. Hi Betsey,

    I would say to follow up on your points that American cinema seems more focused on quantity over quality these days. We also seem to value beauty above all else in cinema (hence many made-for-TV movies with good-looking people and horrible story lines). There are still films out there that seem to be more focused on art rather than shallow beauty but they seem to be infrequently sandwiched between action blockbusters, gross-out humor, and the latest and greatest computer animated film. So what does this say about our culture? You raise a really good question with your post. I would also like to relate your post to Horton and Wohl's (#54) article about para-social interactions. Perhaps spectators cannot develop para-social relationships with personas such as Jean Reno or Gerard Depardieu simply because they are too "realistic?" (I'm not sure if that's the exact word I'm grasping for here, but it sounds okay for now.) Like you said, American celebrities often seem more "perfect," and perhaps it is this illusion of perfection that we are conditioned through mass media to want to embody, which in turn drives us back to these Hollywood personas who drive the mainstream cinema. Whereas in some foreign countries they may look to cinema as a different form of entertainment (something other than seeking a para-social relationship with an attractive celebrity).

  2. I'd like to address the caboose questions of your post: How do American values as displayed in our movies differ from those displayed in foreign films? What does that say about American cultural values?

    I suppose we'd need to determine with some consistency how we'd (American vs. foreign) define values. But, assuming a basic consensus. I immediately think of the counter censorships we tend to have in American vs. foreign films.

    For example, in America, sexuality (traditionally) has been strenuously censored. In foreign films, not so much (granted that the foreign film isn't being produced by a major American studio or subsidiary). As a specific example, let's consider the "independent" (loose term) film produced by the Weinstein's: Blue Valentine. Valentine received an NC-17 rating, essentially for sexuality. It was only after a protest to the MPAA that the rating was reduced to R. But the scandal had already set a tone. Granted the film was produced on a very small budget (estimated at 1 million or more with increased marketing), and it didn't negatively effect box office. But, sexuality, even going back to the first NC-17, Henry & June, was an indictment on sexuality to some degree.

    Because I'm not too familiar with foreign rating systems, I am only relying on my experiences with watching an array of foreign films spanning various decades. But, violence in foreign films, depending on the foreign I suppose, seems to be graded on a different scale than American violence. At some level, it's more of a sense based on watching. I realize there are foreign films that can be gruesome, such as the Oldboy trilogy. But I get the sense that, in America, they'd rather see a bullet to the head than a thrust of the pelvis. In foreign films, I get that they don't have a problem with either.

    But, before I digress, I'd just comment that I think that the values on what is appropriate film narrative in America tend to reduce sexuality. I think this indicates that either the MPAA has a 'fear' of sex or that the American value system in and around sex is inconsistent. I don't get the same sense with foreign films valuing sex or violence with the same level of moral confusion that American films do.