Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Do "American movies" exist?

Freed from its stuffy European antecedents, American film reaches new heights - in Europe.

I wandered over to Bill Marx's website this evening, to see if there was any reaction there to my dissection of his critical career - only to find praise for my analysis of Pauline Kael's effect on American film! Oh dear . . . I wonder if he'll admire my style quite so much when he's on its receiving end? Somehow I don't think so (but it should be a fun catfight)!

Still, Marx raises a good point in his response to my post (maybe he's taking my advice already):

Kael largely ignored the beneficial foreign influences because her goal was to agitate for an American cinematic revolution whose roots were in homegrown pop culture. To that end, disguised by the hypnotic zest of her prose, she never wavered from celebrating a narrow, no-merit-without-entertainment aesthetic. Moral seriousness and formal complexity marked the highbrow taste of Old World farts.

This is true - and it's something I left out about Pauline; she was mad to pull the mantle of High Cinema onto American shoulders (a hat trick Clement Greenberg had managed to do the decade before in the visual arts with his promotion of "American-type painting," i.e., Abstract Expressionism). Indeed, for years - probably until the end of her career - Kael would proclaim this or that moment in a movie was "American" as if that were the highest praise.

But what does "American film" mean anymore? I'd argue that the "American movie" doesn't really exist. People always look startled when I say that, but what, precisely, is "American" about Rush Hour 3 or The Bourne Ultimatum - or Pirates of the Caribbean or Ocean's Thirteen? The casts are (largely) American, true - and they're financed by Hollywood; but the vast majority of "American" films are designed to play as well in Hong Kong and Dubai as they do in Peoria - better, actually. And why? Because the economics of entertainment - Kael's highest value - have meant that Hollywood films' audiences must be global.

You could argue, I suppose, that something of the dregs of Americana still clings to the vulgar sides of Knocked Up, say, or maybe The Simpsons Movie - but then remember that at least The Simpsons has seen its biggest box office returns overseas.

Oh, well! I guess there's just no stopping globalization - which is a good thing, because it's so super-wonderful in every way. Still, it does seem like other nationalities have clung to a bit more of what you might call a cinematic identity. Somehow the phrase "French cinema" still makes sense - if only because French movies don't play all that well in Hong Kong. Maybe what we need is a little office in Paris to save American film too . . .

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