IT is true, as a third-world filmmaker once told me, that every country has two film cultures: its own and Hollywood.
Visit any large city in the world, and you'll find American films playing in many movie houses. Domestically produced films will also be on view, but the longest lines will form outside theaters showing the same sort of fare that Americans flock to - action yarns, comedies, and emotional dramas with popular stars.
Hollywood has wielded pervasive influence on world cinema since the early days of feature-film production. For a famous example, Soviet filmmakers who developed new editing techniques in the 1920s - the great Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov among them - were deeply influenced by D.W. Griffith's epic "Intolerance," an ambitious plea for peace and goodwill that ironically flopped in its own country by preaching an antiwar message just as World War I was heating up.
Influences have also moved in the opposite direction, however, ebbing and flowing over the years but guaranteeing that American cinema would always be cross-fertilized by other sensibilities.
Movie pioneer Thomas Edison copied some of his early releases from productions by English filmmaker Birt Acres and the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere, who gave the first public motion-picture show in 1895. France's acclaimed Societe Film d'Art, which made silent-movie versions of classic stage plays, spawned countless imitators in the US and elsewhere. Griffith himself drew inspiration from Italian epics like "Cabiria" and "Quo Vadis" as he brought new complexity and expansiveness to American film starting with "Judith of Bethulia" in 1913.
Such interactions kept happening when talkies hit their stride in the late '20s. In a notable instance of silent-movie style influencing sound-film production, the bizarre stories and eerie visual mannerisms of German Expres- sionist cinema - seen in shadow-draped tales like "Nosferatu" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," still popular today - found their way to Hollywood when German filmmakers fled the growing Nazi regime. There they became key characteristics of '30s horror movies ("Dracula," "The Mummy") and the violent "film noir" cycle of the '40s and '50s.
Italian neorealism was highly popular with American audiences in the post-World War II period, and had a complicated effect on Hollywood movies. Meant to bring screen storytelling away from studio artificiality and into the real world, neorealist films like "Rome, Open City" and "The Bicycle Thief" based their dramatic appeal on attention to the smallest, grittiest details of everyday life as lived by ordinary people. Their naturalistic acting, on-location photography, and heartfelt political views struck a chord with US moviegoers - who often bought more tickets than Italians themselves - and with American directors like Henry Hathaway and Robert Siodmak, who were interested in exploring similar terrain.
Neorealism also made a huge impact on France's iconoclastic New Wave movement in the '50s and '60s, enhancing the sense of off-the-cuff spontaneity that such directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut vigorously cultivated. French movies like "Breathless" and "Jules and Jim," full of unpredictable editing and new approaches to space-time continuity, played a crucial role in shaping American pictures like "The Pawnbroker" and "Easy Rider," which brought such innovative devices as jump-cuts and nonlinear plot structures into the mainstream of '60s cinema.
Certain currents in Asian film have influenced Hollywood as much as their European counterparts. This stems largely from the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa, a towering Japanese director who was himself influenced by the study of Western painting. His career provides a fine example of two-way interaction between different cinema cultures.
On one hand, Kurosawa has worked under Shakespeare's spell throughout his life, turning Elizabethan tragedies like "Macbeth" and "King Lear" into samurai epics such as "Throne of Blood" and "Ran," respectively. He has also drawn on Western sources with less highbrow credentials, such as detective novels by Dashiell Hammett and Ed McBain.
On the other hand, Western filmmakers haven't hesitated to borrow ideas right back from him - as when John Sturges remade "The Seven Samurai" as "The Magnificent Seven," with Yul Brynner as leader of a cowboy pack, and Martin Ritt rehashed "Rashomon" as "The Outrage," one of Paul Newman's least memorable outings.
In film today, overseas cinema makes its strongest impact not on Hollywood movies but on American independent productions. Movie theaters devoted to "art house" fare often show a mix of foreign and American independent pictures, and except for language differences, it's often hard to tell which is which.
Jim Jarmusch was born and bred in the US, for instance, but Jarmusch movies like "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Night on Earth" bear the clear impression of Finnish films by Aki Kaurismaki and Japanese works by Yasujiro Ozu, among others. Equally foreign threads run through Hal Hartley movies like "Simple Men" and "Amateur," deeply influenced by Godard and his New Wave cronies. Quentin Tarantino pictures like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" have been accused of not just borrowing but positively stealing from Hong Kong action yarns. And so on.
It's true that American pictures sway European film styles more than the other way around; and American movies are still the most widely seen around the globe. But savvy American filmmakers know there's much to be learned from their cousins in other lands, where movies often have a better chance of dealing in thought, mood, and nuance rather than the swiftly flowing action that is Hollywood's trademark.