Hollywood Dominates Style and Substance of Movies Worldwide
NEW YORK — `EVERY country in the world has two national cinemas: its own, and Hollywood.'' Carlos Diegues, a leader of Brazil's innovative Cinema Novo movement, told me this several years ago. Many observers agree that it remains true today - and that Hollywood's wide-ranging influence cramps the growth not only of world cinema, but of American films that are influenced in turn by Hollywood-ized movies made abroad.
``It's too one-sided to say that Hollywood has complete dominance over the film world,'' says Robert Stam, a New York University film professor who has written extensively on third-world cinema. Hollywood itself, he points out, uses genres that are international and even predate the existence of cinema - such as vaudeville, melodrama, and crime stories.
Yet it is ``an economic fact'' that Hollywood styles and methods exert a powerful influence on filmmakers and audiences around the world, Mr. Stam acknowledges, caused by American control of distribution and other factors. ``People in different countries are politically and economically conditioned to enjoy Hollywood films,'' Stam says. People ``get used to the big-budget spectacular where every shot has a Steven Spielberg amusement-park look.''
Back in the US, meanwhile, the occasional filmmaker who wants to put a non-American atmosphere into a movie finds little inspiration in American-influenced pictures from overseas. Foreign influence on American movies is found ``mainly on the superficial level of exotic settings,'' says Stam, ``so you get films like `Blame It on Rio' and the lambada-dance movies. You also get a travestied view of the third world in films like `Moon Over Parador,' which put Latins in demeaning roles and treat their cultur es very inaccurately. One reason why Americans aren't interested in culturally diverse films may be that they expect inaccurate and foolish versions of foreign cultures.''
Filmmakers in other countries are sometimes more clever, finding ways to put Hollywood popularity at the service of their own national film industries. In a recent book called ``Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film,'' which deals with international film from several perspectives, Stam analyzes Brazilian parodies of American hits - such as a ``Jaws'' parody starring a fake fish and called ``Bacalhau,'' the Portuguese word for codfish. He does not think such a maneuver points to a c ure for the Americanization of movies, however. ``It's powerful as an idea,'' he says, ``but not necessarily as a way of winning independence from Hollywood.''
Richard Pena, program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, agrees that ``American film is `the movies' to many people'' worldwide. ``The style of American film has become the international style,'' he says, ``and other national cinemas have to prove what's different about them to establish their own identities.''
It cannot be healthy, Mr. Pena says, ``to have such domination by another country's vision. What if Americans woke up tomorrow and their radios were filled with almost nothing but Portuguese music? Portuguese theaters are filled with American movies - and this seems less odd to the Portuguese than I think perhaps it should.''
Recalling the 1950s and '60s, when many Americans respected the maturity of foreign films and felt a little ``embarrassed'' at Hollywood's lack of sophistication, Pena feels the pendulum of American-film domination may swing again toward a more balanced position. He also notes that some of today's American filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, openly acknowledge their debt to non-American directors.
But change won't happen soon, he warns, because ``cinema doesn't move independently of other cultural forces. And today there's less sense in the US of the value of being knowledgeable about the rest of the world. Awareness has diminished.''
Exchange between cultures is more ``fluid and reciprocal'' in documentary and avant-garde film than in commercial moviemaking, says Dierdre Boyle, a Manhattan-based writer, teacher, and curator. The international sameness of commercial films is obvious, she notes, from a look at Academy Award winners for best-foreign-language picture - which usually conform to the ``style and substance'' of Hollywood film - and from studying the work of an internationally popular director like Pedro Almod'ovar, who ``pl ays with American genres, especially comedy'' in most of his films. Commercial pressures, she says, drive directors around the world to create a homogenized ``mass popular-culture cinema'' while appearing to be searching for diversity and authenticity.
By contrast, Ms. Boyle says, American documentary film has ``gone through enormous upheaval in the past 10 years, and people involved with it are reaching out more - trying to redefine the `other' in culture and film, and where power resides in the image.''
So far this is mainly an East Coast phenomenon, Boyle adds, since filmmakers there ``see more foreign cinema than people in the rest of the country.'' But overseas influences may grow on American film if the ``reaching out'' trend spreads from documentarians and avant-gardists to storytellers in Hollywood and other American film centers - which can happen only if American filmmakers overcome a ``cultural arrogance'' that often limits their openness to change.