Marketing US Films Abroad

A LOT of us have worried about the movies America's making these days - how violent they are, and what they may say about us as a people.

It's bad enough that the daily news is so often filled with violence from our streets. When we look at our movie screens, so many of the most prominent films are dominated by explosions and chases and the strewing of the landscape with corpses. Are these images, many of us ask worriedly, a mirror of us?

Recently, analysts of the movie world have offered another explanation of the upsurge of on-screen violence: a change in the movie market. The domestic market used to account for the great majority of money an American movie would make. Revenues from international screenings were comparatively trivial. But now, the money from audiences in places like Caracas, Venezuela; Munich, Germany; and Bangkok, is a significant portion of many American films' total earnings. The global audience drives moviemakers to communicate in a "universal language." That, say the movie mavens, is why the violence has exploded.

The dialogue of a movie can be dubbed, of course, but much is lost in translation. To be a global blockbuster, a movie needs images that leap over the language barrier, that communicate in terms everyone can relate to. Blood works. The rock 'em-sock 'em, chase 'em-shoot 'em of the action movie plays as well in Tokyo as in Tallahassee. According to this analysis, Hollywood speaks in the universal language of violence because of the new economics of the global market, not because of twisted cultural forces.

That explanation might provide comfort of a sort. But how much does it really explain? Even if we grant that movies are made in order to generate profits, and that money is increasingly to be made by avoiding the nuances of spoken language and instead using images that speak universally to humanity, does it follow that violence should loom so large in what the American imagination is offering the world?

I remember the first time I encountered the idea of a "universal language." It was the 1950s, when I was a kid watching a TV story about Danny Kaye, the American actor acting as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. He was in an African village surrounded by kids who were laughing and playing with him. "Laughter, the universal language," the report intoned.

Sure, the universal language will include violence. It will include all those aspects of life that go beyond words. Laughter, music, love, dance - the list is long, and not just with guns, fists, and bombs. The language by which Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" captured the world's imagination generations ago was as universal as that of "Die Hard."

Our movies are mirroring something more disturbing, after all. It could be the perversity of Hollywood, or a spirit of barbarism welling up from American society generally, or a lust for blood infecting humankind around the globe as the 20th century comes to a close. The carnage on the screen cannot be explained in purely economic terms.

A universal language? I think of that Pioneer rocket the United States sent off into space some years ago, to travel beyond our solar system. In case extraterrestrial life came upon it, we placed into the capsule some artifacts to let those aliens know something about who and what we are. There was a gold-colored plaque, I recall, with a picture of a man, woman, and child standing without clothes, the man's hand open in greeting without threat. We also sent the universal language of a Bach's Brandenburg Concerto. Do you suppose we'd have done better to send them "Natural Born Killers"?

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